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Dangan Ronpa, Another IF: Goodbye Despair

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            “Hey… Can you hear me?” As the brunet sluggishly opened his eyes, he saw a white-haired teen in a greenish gray hoodie leaning over him. The boy continued speaking even as the brunet remained silent. “Are you okay? You seem pretty out of it… To be honest, I’m also… No, I’m pretty sure everyone else feels the same, too. Since we suddenly… got put in this weird situation. Hey, are you listening?”

            The brunet frowned as he thought over everything. The whole situation was just so surreal…

            ‘I don’t understand. Why am I… here…? What happened? I should try to remember that first…’ The brunet began to think, disentangling the twisted knots that formed in his mind. He gathered the fragments of scattered memories to piece together what actually happened. ‘That’s right… I… I…’

            ~*~

            That day… wasn’t just a typical day for him. It was a day that felt… truly significant. And when the long-awaited day finally came, he felt proud in a way that he couldn’t really put into words. He felt like… he had just become a part of something greater than himself. Actually, that’s exactly what it was like… He was truly in a dream, as he stood outside the impressive, towering building.

            Hope’s Peak Academy… That place was so much more than a school to him. Kids who love to play baseball will long to join the major leagues… Kids who love to play soccer will long to join the rep team… And ever since he was a kid, he has felt the same way about Hope’s Peak Academy…

            Hope’s Peak Academy is a government-funded school for the privileged elite of society. It recruits top students from every imaginable field to inspire Hope, and in doing so, shape the future. Whenever Hope’s Peak is mentioned, it’s only a matter of time before someone says… “If you come here and manage to graduate, youll be set for life.” And that wasn’t a joke or exaggeration at all. Many of the current leaders of various industries are actually alumni of this school… Well, that’s basically what Hope’s Peak Academy is all about. As they say, it’s truly the Academy of Hope.

            There are two criteria you must meet in order to attend this school… One, you must be a current high school student. Two, you must be the very best at what you do. Unlike other schools, there aren’t any entrance exams at this academy. The only way to get in is if the school scouts you itself… That is how Hope’s Peak Academy operates. Now, because of the talents of those who are chosen…The students of Hope’s Peak are called Ultimates. But even though he was finally going to Hope’s Peak Academy, the school he desired more than anything else… The truth is, his circumstances are a little different from that of his peers.

            “I’m not so special that I have to introduce myself, and formalities are always a little embarrassing… Well, this is what’s expected… I guess that’s how I should think about it. My name is Hajime Hinata. There’s only one reason I came to Hope’s Peak Academy… because I admired Hopes Peak Academy. To me, attending Hope’s Peak Academy is like being a celebrity or a superhero. In fact, instead of calling it admiration, it’s more like… it’s always been a dream of mine. That’s why, to feel like a member of society, to become someone I can be proud of, I always wanted to… For that reason alone, I always wanted to… For that reason alone I always always always always always… ways… until now, I never wanted to admit how painfully ordinary I really am… That’s why… hope… I might have admired talent… individuality… but I have finally… forever…tried my best… finally came true…”

            … Hajime blacked out.

            ~*~

            ‘Huh? What is this?’ Hajime wondered to himself, finding he was in a dark space where he could only see a door in front of him. ‘… It’s a door. There’s a door. … Still, I need to hurry. Because I need to go inside this classroom… Need? What “need”? No… I should hurry.’

            Unsteadily, Hajime made his way over to the door. He slid it open slowly, and a white light blinded him momentarily before his eyes adjusted. He was in a typical classroom… with several others there, already. A blonde girl in a dark, formal dress with white shoulders and a red bow was nearest to him on his left; a wild-looking girl with holes in her socks was against the blackboard in the rear of the room; a fat blond man in a white suit and glasses was near the first girl; a strawberry blonde girl in a backpack and hoodie was seated behind the fat man; a redheaded girl in a traditional skirt and blouse was standing by the strawberry blonde girl, and a purple-haired girl was nervously standing in front of them; there was a pair of boys near the lockers in the back – one had a dark coat and purple scarf, the other was in an obnoxious yellow jumper suit and had pink hair and pointed teeth; a blond teen in a striped black suit stood by the leftmost window, and a brunette, tanned girl was standing closest to the middle window; a white-haired teen leaned against the wall between the middle and right windows; a blonde in an orange kimono sat at a desk in the front with a portly-looking guy in an apron and handkerchief combing his hair eagerly near her; a silver-haired girl in glasses, arms crossed, stood in front of the blonde girl’s desk; and finally, nearest to Hajime’s right was an intimidating-looking man with bulging muscles, wearing a leather jacket and chain, and crossing his arms like the silver-haired girl.

            All of them were pretty unique…

            “Huh…?” Hajime muttered, confused at suddenly being in this classroom, and surrounded by so many new strange characters.

            “Who goes there?” The silver-haired girl spoke up cautiously.

            “Eh?” Hajime still couldn’t find words as he looked around at them all.

            “Um… are you feeling all right? You look quite pale…” The blonde to his left sounded concerned for him.

            “Ah, um…” Hajime continued to stutter.

            The redhead spoke up next.

            “Hey, could you be…? You’re also a freshman at this school, right?”

            Hajime nodded numbly.

            “Ah, then you’re all…”

            The pink-haired boy in the back chipped in.

            “See for yourself. We’re all freshmen, too…”

            ‘These guys… Everyone? The freshmen who were accepted into Hope’s Peak Academy… The Ultimates?’ Hajime couldn’t help thinking to himself in amazement.

            “I assume… freshmen like us have been gathered in this classroom.” The strawberry girl sitting at a desk spoke up casually.

            ‘Freshmen?’ Hajime repeated in his mind.

            “Hey, why don’t you come inside for now?” The fat with glasses told him.

            “Eh? Ah, yes, of course!” Hajime awkwardly complied, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. He thought to himself, ‘Wait, why am I being so polite? I know they’re called the Ultimates, but they’re still high school students like me… That’s right… first impressions are crucial in moments like this! I need to act more confident!’

            To hide his nervousness, and trying to act cool, Hajime stepped into the classroom fully, closed the door behind him, and sat in an open seat in the back of the classroom.

            ‘Anyway… what just happened earlier? I wanted to be here, and then a classroom door appeared right in front of me… As if I was drawn to it… But how did I walk into this classroom? I don’t remember… Something’s… weird…’ Hajime frowned and decided to ask the others about the strangeness of the situation. “Um… excuse me?”

            The fat kid spoke up again.

            “What is it?”

            “Why are we all gathered in this classroom? No one said anything about coming here, so… is there, like, an entrance ceremony or homeroom happening now?” Hajime scratched his head in confusion.

            The fat kid snorted.

            “Actually… we were just about to discuss that matter.”

            “Discuss?” Hajime echoed.

            “Well… Since you are the last student to arrive, let’s start the discussion.” The fat kid inclined his head arrogantly, arms crossed.

            The wild-looking dark-haired girl peered at them curiously.

            “Eh, this is everyone? How do you know?”

            The fat kid chuckled.

            “There are only seventeen desks in this classroom, and this guy is the seventeenth student… It’s obvious if you bother to think about it…!”

            Hajime froze as something about that statement bothered him. Mentally, he counted off the students he’d seen when he first stepped into the room… there were fifteen he’d seen. But the fat kid was right – there were seventeen desks. He could see that now. Where was the sixteenth kid he missed…?

            … Oh.

            Oh.

            That was a little embarrassing. He hadn’t bothered to look over the hulking, bulging muscles guy’s shoulder when he came in. There was a dark-haired girl in a blouse and skirt standing aloofly by the rightmost window. Her expression was perfectly blank, and she wasn’t looking at any particular person or thing – yet somehow, Hajime got the sense that she was listening attentively to everything going on… It wasn’t like she was zoning out, Hajime could tell that much from just a glance.

            “And just what are we gonna talk about?” The boy in an apron and little hat piped up, oblivious to Hajime’s thoughts. “The reason we’re all gathered in this classroom?”

            “First, I need to confirm something…” The fat kid remarked. “Out of everyone here… Is there anyone who actually remembers how they came to this classroom?”

            Everyone looked around at one another, surprise appearing on their faces when no one raised their hands. Even the girl that Hajime had glossed over, she appeared bemused.

            “So before you realized it, you were in this classroom… Then everyone here is in the same predicament…” The fat kid continued. He raised an index finger to his temple in thought. “No matter how you look at it, it’s unnatural. Even you stupid-looking ones would agree, right?”

            The redhead adopted a similar, thoughtful pose.

            “I-It sure is strange. Nobody actually remembers how they came here…” She placed her hands on her hips in exasperation. “… Hey! What do you mean, ‘stupid-looking’?!”

            The fat kid ignored the cry of outrage.

            “The moment you set foot on campus, you felt a strange dizziness, and now you’re here and don’t know why… That is what I experienced before I arrived here. Am I correct in assuming that’s true for all of you?”

            Hajime nodded numbly in agreement.

            “Th-That happened to me too, but…”

            “Eh?! The dizziness wasn’t just me?” The kid with the apron exclaimed in shock. “Everyone felt the same dizziness… that’s weird!”

            The purple-haired girl poked her index fingers together nervously.

            “E-Even if it’s just a coincidence… It feels too good to be true…”

            “So you’re saying it’s not just coincidence, then.” The fat kid smirked. “Meaning… we can only speculate whos responsible for this strange phenomenon.”

            Hajime frowned and thought to himself again.

            ‘The one responsible… What is this? It feels like… this is going to get even stranger…’

            The guy with muscles picked at his ear with his pinky.

            “Hah! I don’t know what you’re so worried about, but that doesn’t sound like a huge deal…”

            “… What do you mean?” The pink-haired kid with a beanie scratched his cheek awkwardly.

            “I mean it’s a minor problem.” The guy with muscles crossed his arms and nodded sagely. “Instead of trying to figure out why we’re here, we should try to figure out why we can’t leave…”

            The brown-haired, tan girl scrunched her face in confusion at that.

            “Huh? Waddaya mean we can’t leave?”

            “E-Eh…? S-Seriously?!” The guy with the apron scurried over to the door and tried, and failed, to get the door to open again. “I-It won’t open! I can’t open it!”

            “Huh? Why?” The redhead’s eyes widened in surprise.

            The guy with muscles clenched a fist and gritted his teeth in frustration.

            “A little while after I got here, I tried to leave to go take a shit… But that door wouldn’t budge at all!”

            “Hey, hey… what’s going on…” The pink-haired guy massaged his head in frustration.

            “Even with all my might, I couldn’t open it! It’d be absolutely impossible for all of you…” The guy with muscles picked his nose casually.

            The blonde girl in a kimono made a cutesy frowny face.

            “Eh? What do you mean you couldn’t open it? Why? That’s not possible!”

            Hajime nodded desperately.

            “Sh-She’s right…! Because… when I went through that door, it opened normally… It wasn’t locked at all…!”

            “Though I don’t understand what forces are at work here… There’s no denying that we’ve been locked inside this classroom…” The silver-haired girl with glasses mused.

            “Wh-What do you… mean…?” Hajime suddenly became aware of how heavy his body felt. An unspeakable dread settled on his shoulders…

            “M-Maybe we’re… getting mixed up… in something dangerous?” The pink-haired kid rubbed the back of his head nervously.

            The white-haired guy in a hoodie rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

            “Or perhaps… doesn’t it make more sense this is the entrance exam?”

            “The entrance exam? You mean, Hope’s Peak Academy’s?” Hajime parroted back, befuddled. The blonde girl in a formal dress tilted her head, voicing Hajime’s thoughts.

            “But… according to Hope’s Peak Academy, no such entrance exam exists.”

            The white-haired boy raised a finger astutely.

            “They may say that publicly, but it’s possible that this is actually a special entrance exam.”

            Before anyone could comment on the boy’s speculation, the door slid open one more time. The next person they all saw was an orange-haired woman, who seemed to be dressed like a maid. And like so many of them before her, she waltzed into the classroom, happy as a clam, sliding the door shut behind her before any of them could even shout for her to stop.

            “Good morning, everyone~!” The woman tilted her head curiously as she counted off the students and desks. “… Is this all of you, then? Hmm. I think Headmaster Kirigiri forgot there were a few more of you… Orrr maybe that was Kizakura-san’s fault. Well, regardless, I’m so stoked to get started~!”

            The blond boy in a striped suit eloquently voiced all their thoughts as they stared at the woman, happily swaying to and fro.

            “Who the hell are you?”

            Instead of being offended at the blunt question, the woman’s eyes sparkled as she beamed merrily.

            “The name’s Chisa Yukizome! I’m your official homeroom teacher this year, starting today!” The woman stopped herself before rubbing the back of her head bashfully. “Or, well, I’m the assistant homeroom teacher… Kizakura-san is supposed to be in charge, but he’s nursing a bit of a bad hangover… Bet he’s barfing as we speak~…”

            … Then again, you wanna talk about blunt, this sorta ditzy-looking teacher didn’t hold back, either. Hajime smiled nervously as he contemplated the new arrival. At least she seemed like she would be a good fit for this bunch of kids… Maybe a bit much for himself personally, but, she’d need that kind of vitality for… the rest of them…

            At least they were marginally relaxed now, with a clear authority figure present and established. Now the situation seemed a little more “normal” and less ominous… The memory stuff was still worrying, but Hajime was sure that’d all be explained in time. After all, as eccentric and unique as Hope’s Peak was, it was still a school, right? They all took their seats, the desks arranged in rows of four with the exception of the last which seated five – some of them reluctantly – and the fat kid spoke up again.

            “And so? What is the itinerary for today?” He looked a little put out for some reason Hajime couldn’t guess at, but the question was reasonable.

            Yukizome hummed in thought.

            “Well… why not start with introductions?! I’m actually a bit fuzzy on who Headmaster Kirigiri did and didn’t mention!” The woman clapped her hands together gleefully. “I already gave you my name – oh, but I guess I’ll throw in that I’m an alumni of Hope’s Peak! I was the Ultimate Housekeeper. Now it’s your turn~!”

            The bubbly teacher gestured for the rightmost student from her perspective in the first row to start. It was the blonde in the orange kimono.

            “I’m Hiyoko Saionji! I’m the Ultimate Traditional Dancer!” Saionji smirked a bit unpleasantly at all of them. “I bet I’m way more interesting than most of you cretins~…”

            … Well, that didn’t sound ominous at all. Hajime made a mental note to watch out for that one, at least until he got to know her better…

            The boy with the apron behind her combed his hair suavely.

            “Hmhmhm… Oh, mademoiselle, we’re just getting started! Teruteru Hanamura, Ultimate Chef at your service!” His grin was… a little lecherous…

            Yukizome beamed, wagging her finger at the portly chef.

            “Now, now, Hanamura, I remember you, at least – you’re the Ultimate Cook.” While it wasn’t that big of a deal, Yukizome preferred setting the record straight.

            Teruteru straightened up, his face carefully blank.

            “P-Please call me Chef…” Hope’s Peak was cruel, giving him such a tasteless title! Cruel… cruel… too cruel~…

            The wild-looking girl behind him burst into giggles as she swayed in her seat without a care in the world.

            “I-Bu-Ki Mi-O-Da! Put it together and waddaya get?! Ibuki Mioda~!” The girl placed on her hips proudly, practically making a troll face with that grin… “Ibuki is the Ultimate Musician! Ibuki’s looking forward to jamming with you guys~!”

            Hajime straightened up as he realized it was his turn. He felt… nervous. And not for the reasons you would think.

            “Ah, um… I-I’m Hajime Hinata…” He timidly waved from his seat in the back. He gulped as his introduction felt… incomplete. It was blatantly obvious.

            Yukizome tilted her head curiously at him.

            “And what is it you do, Hinata-kun?” That earnest curiosity shining in her eyes could not be mistaken for anything else. Hajime smiled weakly in response. He didn’t want to let her down… However…

            “I-I… I actually don’t remember.” The boy confessed, feeling all eyes on him. “I-I’m sorry! I’ll try my best to remember it as soon as I can…!”

            Yukizome merely smiled and compassionately nodded. Like the rest of them, the bubbly teacher assumed it was just first-day jitters. Everyone had those, right?

            Up next was the dark-haired girl Hajime had missed on his first sweep of the room. She had chosen to sit next to Hajime in the back.

            “I’m Mukuro Ikusaba. Ultimate Soldier.” The girl stoically reported, her eyes on the front of the room.

            ‘S-Soldier…?’ Hajime stared at the girl, a bit gobsmacked and quite frankly a little nervous sitting to such a… potentially dangerous individual. Hope’s Peak let in students of all kinds, didn’t it? He couldn’t even begin to imagine the sorts of things Ikusaba must have done to impress Hope’s Peak’s recruiters…

            As if to prove Hajime’s thoughts on Hope’s Peak’s diversity correct, the fat kid in front of Mukuro went next, rather than the white-haired boy sitting to Mukuro’s right.

            “My name’s Byakuya Togami. I was chosen as the Ultimate Scion, remember that!”

            Everyone in the room had heard of the Togami Conglomerate… Byakuya might seem pretentious and arrogant, but he had a right to be prideful. Hajime knew that with Hope’s Peak’s reputation, being classmates with such a bigshot was all but inevitable… But he still marveled at this revelation all the same.

            The redhead in front of Byakuya rolled her eyes, but smiled soon enough since it was her turn.

            “I’m Mahiru Koizumi, the Ultimate Photographer! Nice to meet you all!” Mahiru’s introduction felt about as plain as Hajime felt he was… That felt nice, in its own way. Maybe he wouldn’t be so out-of-place after all…

            The pink-haired kid sitting in front of her, in the front row, grinned as he offered a thumb’s-up.

            “Name’s Kazuichi Souda! I’m the Ultimate Mechanic, y’know!” He seemed nice… though the way he dressed was definitely off-putting. Such bright, garish colors…

            The regal blonde girl sitting to Souda’s left laced her fingers together and elegantly beamed at Yukizome.

            “I am Sonia Nevermind, and I was chosen as the Ultimate Princess! I hail from the European country of Novoselic, and I look forward to studying with you all!”

            ‘Princess can be considered a talent…?’ Hajime wondered to himself, before shaking his head. Like Byakuya, that just meant Sonia had the qualities of a leader – one that would one day lead an entire country. That was definitely Ultimate material right there… he had no doubts Sonia had earned her title.

            The strawberry blonde behind Sonia smiled kindly, hand over her chest.

            “I’m Chiaki Nanami, the Ultimate Gamer! I look forward to getting to know you all, too!”

            Hajime knew these were really just introductions, and his perspective would inevitably change once he got to know these people better, but the longer this went on, the more confident he felt he could handle being in a class with these people…

            The brown-haired girl behind Nanami was picking at her ear like she was bored. When she felt all eyes on her, she grinned toothily before slamming her hands down on her desk with a raw energy Hajime hadn’t seen before.

            “Name’s Akane Owari~! I’m the Ultimate Gymnast, so if you wanna fight, let’s go!!!”

            “Hold on!” The guy with bulging muscles behind her called out, holding up a hand calmly. “We’re not even through introductions yet! Now… how ‘bout you next, kid?”

            The white-haired boy to his left chuckled weakly as the guy with muscles clapped him on the back strongly.

            “Ahaha… Well… I was going to wait until all of you amazing people had gone, but if you insist! I’m Nagito Komaeda… And while it’s not much of a talent, I guess I can admit I was chosen as the Ultimate Lucky Student.”

            The guy with muscles nodded sternly.

            “That’s the spirit! Hope’s Peak chose you, don’t forget that!!!” Lightning seemed to crackle around his eyes as he roared passionately. “Name’s Nekomaru Nidaiiiii! I’m the Ultimate Team Manager, so don’t forget my name, even if you go to Hell~!”

            Hajime briefly considered the three names and talents he’d just heard about… Akane and Nekomaru were definitely some of the livelier ones of the class. Nagito was self-depreciative, though… He was a little curious, if Hajime was honest with himself. Similar to Ultimate Princess, he hadn’t known ‘luck’ could constitute a talent… But he supposed he’d be witnessing that ‘luck’ firsthand soon enough…

            The silver-haired girl to Nekomaru’s right closed her eyes calmly, knowing it was her turn.

            “I am Peko Pekoyama… My title is the Ultimate Swordswoman.”

            ‘A Soldier and a Swordswoman?’ Hajime felt his body shiver a little at this revelation. What would it look like if those two fought…?

            … And why did Ikusaba have to sit next to him again? Not that he minded getting to know her… He just didn’t like imagining such a titanic clash while sitting next to one of the potential participants in question…

            The blond boy in front of Peko smirked as he went next.

            “Name’s Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu! Just so you know, I don’t intend on acting friendly and shit with you guys… I’m the Ultimate Yakuza, assholes!”

            “Language~…” Yukizome sang from the front of the room, still beaming cheerfully. Fuyuhiko arched an eyebrow suspiciously.

            “Hah? What you gonna do about it, bitch?”

            Yukizome’s beaming smile did not change, but the slight drop in the temperature in the room, plus the ominous swaying of her hips did set a few of them on edge. The purple-haired girl in front of Fuyuhiko nervously spoke up to try to defuse the tension.

            “I-I-I’m Mikan Tsumiki! M-My title’s the U-Ultimate Nurse…” Mikan flinched as a few looked over at her. “D-Don’t hate meeeee…!”

            Hajime quirked an eyebrow at the nurse curiously. She was the one who had put herself out there… Then again, he shouldn’t judge when he barely knew the seemingly erratic, nervous wreck of a girl.

            Lastly, the boy with a purple scarf in front of her introduced himself.

            “My name is Gundham Tanaka! And I am the Supreme Ruler of this fallen world~…! Carve that name into your souls so that you may remember it, but do not utter it carelessly! If you must, I will accept tributes for my Four Dark Devas of Destruction~!”

            As the boy cackled eccentrically, Yukizome sweatdropped as everyone gazed at him like he’d grown a second head.

            “Tanaka-kun is the Ultimate Breeder, everyone! Let’s all give him a big welcome!” Yukizome clapped her hands together contentedly. “Well~! That does it for introductions…”

            The burning question of ‘now what’ lingered on more than a few of their tongues. Hajime knew from previous experiences in other schools, orientation and homeroom never had much substance to them. He supposed classroom and school rules would be next on the agenda, at least if he had to hazard a guess.

            Then again, this being Hope’s Peak, anything was fair game. And he was right to assume that… Only, it’s hard to say that anyone in the room could have predicted exactly what happened next.

            “So what now?” Souda ended up casually voicing the question that was on all their minds.

            “Well…” Yukizome opened her mouth, but a new voice cut her off.

            “Now the heart-throbbing school trip can begin~!”

            Everyone stared at the housekeeper strangely.

            “Oi, teach, what’s with the cutesy voice…?” Fuyuhiko asked, eyebrows raised. Yukizome was chirpy, and peppy, but that voice was so sweet-sounding it was saccharine… The yakuza didn’t care for it, not one bit.

            “I-It wasn’t me…” Yukizome confessed, looking around the room with some concern. The voice had come from the front of the room where she was, but there was nobody else present that she or any of them could see.

            Akane cocked her head suspiciously.

            “Huh? Then whose voice was that?”

            “Um, that was actually me!” The voice spoke up again.

            “Who’s there?! Where are you?!” Nekomaru yelled out loudly.

            Chiaki held a hand over her eyes as she peered forward.

            “It sounded like it came from behind the teacher’s desk!”

            ‘Behind the teacher’s desk…?’ Hajime and Chisa both wondered at the same time, the latter looking down at her feet and finding nothing.

            “All right! I see everyone has arrived! Let’s begin!” The voice called out. In the next moment, there was a brightly, sparkly light that flashed in front of Yukizome and spun around on the desk before a stuffed pink and white rabbit came into view, carrying around a magic wand. The rabbit danced around on the desk cheerfully.

            Hajime was the first to… recover from the shock of this sudden and inexplicable occurrence.

            “What… is that…?” Which is to say, he didn’t recover at all. He was still as lost as everyone else.

            “Um… it looks like a stuffed animal…” Mahiru mused.

            “Um, that’s right!” The rabbit confirmed. “I am a squeezably soft stuffed animal. Magical Miracle Girl * Usami! A.K.A. Usami! I may not look like it, but I am your squeezably soft assistant homeroom teacher~! Nice to meet you all!”

            Yukizome frowned lightly at this claim. She moved to the side of the podium to get a better look at the rabbit, as she just had a view of the stuffed animal’s angel wings on her back.

            “Um… Usami, was it…?” At the stuffed animal’s affirmation, Yukizome’s brow furrowed further. “Usami… Headmaster Kirigiri said I was the assistant homeroom teacher… Kizakura-san was the one still in charge…?”

            Usami giggled innocently.

            “Oh, Yukizome-chan, you’re so silly~! Headmaster Kirigiri has given you full authority to be this class’s homeroom teacher – it was a last-minute decision, but it’s the truth! Kizakura-san fully supports it, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t, as well!”

            Yukizome pored over her memories of her interactions with the two older men. Was it really possible to have had a drastic change of mind like that in the few minutes she’d been with the students…? The housekeeper didn’t seem to think it was. She was new to this, even if she was a graduate. This seemed far too suspicious and too good to be true…

            “A-All the same, I think I’d like to check with them, myself…” The housekeeper tittered a little nervously, seeing Usami turn her full attention on her. “Could you… come with me to the Headmaster’s office?”

            As if she was going to leave the rabbit alone with the kids. Yukizome might’ve been known to be a bit clumsy and excitable, but she wasn’t stupid. Stuffed animatronic rabbits don’t just materialize out of thin air and claim to be teachers… Not unless an Ultimate was behind it, somehow. And Yukizome was almost positive that’s what this was, a student up to mischief.

            Yukizome gazed out at the students in concern as they murmured amongst themselves at the bizarre turn of events. Hopefully not one of her kids, though…

            “I’m sorry, Yukizome-chan! We don’t have time for that!” Usami pumped her magic wand into the air excitedly. “We have to be going for the school trip soon~!”

            “School trip…?” Byakuya clenched a fist and gritted his teeth in frustration as he glared at the rabbit. “Hey, what do you mean, school trip…?”

            “I think I’d like to know that, too…” Yukizome felt her trepidation rising.

            Usami clutched her belly, giggling in delight.

            “A large group of students go on a chaperoned trip with a lead teacher! It’s the biggest event of the school year!”

            “W-We’re not looking for such a literal answer…” Hajime frowned suspiciously.

            Usami pumped her paw in the air excitedly.

            “Now let’s depart for the fun school trip!”

            ‘Depart…?’ Hajime was sure he wasn’t the only one echoing that perturbing thought.

            But none of them had time to properly react, not even Yukizome. Usami spun her wand around merrily and created another sparkly, blinding pink light that soon enveloped the room… The ceiling and walls soon cracked open like a box or a stage set, leaving the eighteen of them standing on a picturesque beach – palm trees, sea gulls, cliffs in the distance, the calming sound of ocean waves crashing along the beach…

            Just like that, they were on a tropical island. No lengthy boat or plane ride to reach it… they were just… there. From the bustling heart of Tokyo to a tropical island none of them had seen before…

            The lack of transition was simply too much for Hajime.

            “… Huh?!” He blurted out, looking around in bewilderment. The world just stopped… making sense. Blue sky, white clouds. Blue sea, white waves… “What… the hell is this?!”

            No matter how hard he tried to rationalize it, this was… abnormal. Clearly unreasonable. Utterly crazy. Blatantly wrong…

            “Huh…?” Teruteru was as bewildered as Hajime as. As they all were. “Wh-Wh-Whaaat?!”

            “This is a joke… right?” Souda massaged his forehead, looking around with wide, disbelieving eyes.

            “Wh-Where are we?!” Ibuki cried out.

            “Huh?! What’s going on?!” Mahiru cupped a hand over her mouth in shock.

            Usami pumped her paw in the air again.

            “Everyone, please remain calm! There is no reason to panic! Seeeeee? Look around! Feast your eyes on this beautiful ocean… It’s like your heart is being washed clean, isn’t it…? It washes away everything… even all the bad things…”

            Peko’s mouth became a thin line as she whirled on the rabbit sternly.

            “Hold on, give us the details…! Where in the world are we?”

            Usami hummed thoughtfully.

            “’Where’ are we…? Well, obviously we’re… ‘Out where it’s better! Out where it’s wetter!’ Out by the sea~!”

            Mikan trembled fearfully.

            “I-I understand this is the sea, but… what are we doing here?!”

            “You know… your throat’s going to get hoarse if you keep screaming like that.” Usami mused.

            Sonia’s brow furrowed in concern as she poked her fingers together nervously.

            “But… we were just at school and now we are by the sea… This is impossible…”

            “Please do not worry. The school trip has just started, that’s all!”

            Yukizome placed her hands on her hips, staring down at the rabbit sternly, as it was no longer on a podium. In fact, even all the desks had disappeared by now… As inexplicably as everything else that had miraculously appeared…

            “Usami, school trips don’t just spontaneously happen!” She paused, as if reflecting on a prior experience. “… Not on the first day of school! Now where have you taken us?!”

            Ibuki raised a finger defiantly.

            “She’s right~! You totally skipped alllll the stuff that comes first…!”

            Hajime nodded faintly.

            “We’re supposed to be attending Hope’s Peak Academy…”

            Usami hummed thoughtfully.

            “Hope’s Peak Academy? Hmm… I see, I see~… You don’t say… You guys are feeling unsure about Hope’s Peak Academy. Then, in that case…” Usami threw her paws in the air dramatically. “Please forget about Hope’s Peak Academy! That’s why we’re having a school trip in the first place~!”

            “… Huh?” Hajime muttered.

            Fuyuhiko clenched his fist as he shouted furiously.

            “The hell do you mean we should forget about it?!”

            Byakuya held a similar disposition.

            “Hey… what are you? Just what are you scheming?”

            Usami gasped in shock, paw over her mouth in horror.

            “Wh-Wh-Whaaat?! I’m not scheming anything! I’m doing this for everyone’s sake! I’m praying from the bottom of my heart that Hope will grow within everyone’s hearts! There’s nothing dangerous on this island whatsoever! So please, there’s no need to worry at all!”

            Nagito raised a pointer finger matter-of-factly.

            “Island…? Did you just say ‘island’?”

            “Yup, and it’s certainly beautiful.” Usami giggled again. “It was prepared just for us, an island free from other people and danger.”

            Mukuro tilted her head curiously.

            “Are you saying this island is uninhabited…?”

            Nagito reeled back in horror and… some other emotion that Hajime couldn’t quite decipher.

            “Perhaps… you brought us to this uninhabited island to make us kill each other?!”

            “Ha-wa-wa?! Kill each other?!” Usami didn’t like that suggestion, not one bit. “Nuh-uh, no way! Bloody business, like causing violence or inflicting pain, is a big no-no on this island! Even the word kill… Just saying it horrifies me! Kyaaah! So scary…!”

            “Then… what is this ‘school trip’ you mentioned?” Byakuya demanded. “What do you intend for us to do on this island?”

            Usami became pumped again.

            “All righty! I shall announce it to everyone right now! While you all relax on this island paradise, you must get along and strengthen your bonds with each other! That is the main rule on this heart-throbbing school trip! Spend these peaceful and relaxing days nourishing Hope and lazing about, free from pain, free from suffering… Truly, this lovey-dovey heart-throbbing school trip is… everyone’s homework!”

            Hajime stared at Usami like she was crazy.

            “Wha… What the hell does that even mean…?!” But even so, Usami announced yet again the start of the heart-throbbing school trip… It went without saying, but Hajime had no idea what she was talking about. He couldn’t follow her words at all.

            And then, just like that… Like a curtain slowly lowering… His mind ground to a halt.

            ~*~

            In the present, Hajime remembered everything.

            “Hey… are you sure you’re okay?” Komaeda asked, once Hinata had finally recovered enough to stand on his own two feet. The brown-haired boy stared around at the beach, moodily.

            “… Leave me alone.” Hajime snapped. He didn’t mean to be rude, but waking up to find himself still trapped on this island… Well, let’s just say he would’ve preferred waking up in his old bed, living his average life at his average former high school. It would have sucked that his acceptance to Hope’s Peak was a wild delusion… but at least the world would make sense.

            “Th-There’s no way I can leave someone alone when they look that pale…” Komaeda defended his nosiness as he looked to Hinata in concern.

            Hajime just scowled and drank in the view once more. White sandy beach… Crystal blue ocean… The sun’s rays beaming down on him… The soft, tropical wind brushing against his skin… He still didn’t know what the hell was going on.

            ‘I was supposed to attend Hope’s Peak Academy! Why did this…? Why… am I here at a place like this?!’ Hajime thought to himself in anguish. Out loud, he said, “That rabbit thing said we’re… on a tropical island.”

            Komaeda just nodded indulgently.

            “Yeah, you’re right.”

            Hajime looked around more alertly. Some things that he had missed on first inspection – there was a monitor strapped to a palm tree, and a surveillance camera on a tripod just outside the range of the peaceful rolling ocean waves. When he voiced his panic over possibly being monitored, a third person answered him, making Hajime nearly jump out of his skin at the fact that this was the second time he had overlooked that girl…

            “Well, like Komaeda-kun said, we’re probably just being watched for our safety…” Mukuro muttered from her place by the palm tree.

            Hajime sagged as he looked over at the soldier. Not only because this was becoming a habit where he didn’t notice her presence, but because of her apparent stance on all of this.

            “P-Probably?! No matter how you look at it, this whole situation is clearly suspicious, you know?!” He twitched a little as the soldier just shrugged nonchalantly. Komaeda laughed with a carefree tone.

            “It’s a waste of time to think about it. Best not to worry!” As Hajime looked at him warily, Nagito crossed his arms and smiled. “So, how are you feeling? Are you calmed down now? I understand your confusion after everything that’s happened… Maybe you’ll feel better if we introduce ourselves?”

            Hajime shook his head, staring down at the sand in frustration.

            “We already did that… A-And besides! Don’t you think our first priority should be getting off this island?!”

            Komaeda loosely shrugged his shoulders, keeping arms crossed.

            “Well, it’s not like some of the others aren’t looking into that, exploring the island… Yukizome-sensei was especially alarmed when she found she didn’t have her cell phone. But it’s not like it’s the end of the world, right? Usami said this trip is supposed to help us get along… If anything, our isolation is to keep us focused, no distractions!”

            … Hajime wanted to slug the smug grin off of Nagito’s face when he casually mentioned the lack of cell phones. The luckster didn’t say that specifically, but Hajime didn’t have to check his suspiciously light pockets to know that he was in the same predicament… Even if they were somehow outside the range of towers, it would’ve been nice if that blasted rabbit had allowed them to keep some creature comforts… For what little good that would have done them without phone chargers.

            Hajime took a deep, calming breath and exhaled raggedly.

            “… So to summarize, we’ve been kidnapped, stranded on an uninhabitable island with no communication to the outside world, and have no obvious means of escape? Wonderful. Any other ‘good news’ I should be made aware of?” Maybe the rabbit had gone full on psychotic while he’d been snoozing…

            “You don’t have to put it so pessimistically~…” Nagito tried, and failed, to reassure the brunet. “I might be a pessimist when it comes to myself, but you guys are symbols of Hope! There’s no way you’ll be defeated by something like this… I wouldn’t even call this a trial~!”

            Hajime deadpanned at the luckster. Nagito was pleasant, and Hajime knew his ire was mostly from this messed up situation, but there was such a thing as being too chill about everything!

            “Is… Is he always like this?” Hajime asked, turning to Mukuro with a pleading expression. He wanted her to be as lost as he was, to not have any idea about Nagito’s attitude…

            “Komaeda-kun is used to going with the flow…” Mukuro shrugged nonchalantly again, to the brunet’s dismay. “Hope’s Peak apparently wanted to study his luck, so he must be used to bizarre situations.”

            Komaeda laughed lightly.

            “I don’t know about ‘bizarre’… Maybe for you guys these kinds of things are weird, but for me, anything’s possible~!” The luckster held up his hands peacefully before crossing his arms again and grinning. “I never did think an average, talentless guy like myself would ever get into Hope’s Peak… At first I declined. I didn’t deserve it! But they told me they really wanted me to attend… Apparently, not even the school fully understands my luck. Hope’s Peak truly is amazing if they can keep researching something as vague as ‘luck’, year after year with their annual lottery… But thanks to that, a guy like me was able to attend, so I am grateful! I do feel a little out of place here, though…”

            Hajime stared at the luckster for a while after the more in-depth introduction.

            ‘Komaeda doesn’t seem like the most reliable guy… But I don’t think that makes him a bad person, either. I… guess I should cut him a break. We’re all in this insane situation, and we all have our ways of coping… I wish I could be as calm and collected.’ His eyes panned over to the soldier. ‘Also… Ikusaba’s a soldier. I’m sure being kidnapped has her on high alert – she’s just better at schooling her emotions, I guess. You’d have to be, to survive on the battlefield…’

            As the brunet ruminated on all this, Komaeda dropped his arms but kept up his smile.

            “Now then, it’s your turn. What is your Ultimate talent, Hinata-kun?”

            Blinking, Hajime turned back to the luckster with an owlish glance.

            “Didn’t I say back in the classroom…? I… don’t remember. I still don’t remember why I was recruited by Hope’s Peak.” And that was just another thing thrown onto the pile that concerns him… No matter how hard he tried to pull that information from his memory, it was like opening a book expecting to find words, only to find blank pages instead… It was… vexing.

            “I see… Still don’t remember, huh?” Komaeda hummed thoughtfully. “I’m sure you’ll remember after you’ve settled down… No need to worry. Besides, if memories are missing as you say, you’re in good company!”

            Hajime smiled bitterly at what he perceived as a lame attempt to cheer him up.

            “Thanks… But I think little stuff like forgetting about setting foot inside of Hope’s Peak, or the trip to this island… You guys are luckier than I am. At least you all know why you got accepted in the first place.”

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully.

            “Now, now, that’s not what I meant! Ikusaba’s pretty much in the same boat as you… Isn’t that right?”

            As the brunet looked to her questioningly, Mukuro’s eyes panned to the side as she frowned.

            “I might have told you guys my name and talent… But that’s, like, the extent of what I know about myself.” The soldier explained somberly. “All the practical stuff, my training, all this vague, general stuff… I know that, of course. But anything about me is just… gone. I dunno about my family, my friends, my hobbies, my interests, or even what I was like before coming here… I’m just in the dark as you about some stuff.”

            Hajime winced sympathetically as the soldier bared her heart to him. She was right. Knowing ‘what’ you were but not ‘who’ had to suck just as much. Hajime would rather have the whole package than trade his own memories and identity for a talent he could take pride in… He idolized talent, but there was such a thing as too much sacrifice. After all, to take pride in one’s accomplishments, you had to be somebody… right? To have dreams, feelings, aspirations… to have friends, family, mentors, perhaps even rivals… It’d be lonely and miserable if you lacked all that.

            At least… that’s what he thought he believed… Something about these circumstances rang a very distant bell in his mind. Not enough for him to drop everything and think on it right this moment… But he’d likely reflect on it later. It’s not like he wouldn’t have the time, if they were truly stuck on this island for a little while…

            “Sorry…” Hajime apologized sincerely. “That’s gotta be rough. You really don’t remember anything?”

            Mukuro tilted her head slightly.

            “Well, some stuff seems familiar, just a little different… But it’s still just outta reach. Nothing springs to mind right now.”

            “And… you’ve decided to hang around Komaeda, in the meantime?” Hajime figured the luckster was as good company to have around as anyone else would’ve been… It was just a little strange, since there was more sporty, athletic types around.

            … Then again, it was strange picturing even athletes hanging around a soldier. It had to have been rough finding just about anywhere to fit in… Maybe Nagito wasn’t such a bad place to start, after all.

            “He’s the most familiar of all.” Mukuro elaborated, as if that should have been obvious.

            It’s not like she could rationalize it any better. There was just something about Komaeda that stirred up strange, warm feelings faintly within her. Feelings so unique that no one else on the island made her feel this way… Mukuro couldn’t say that she disliked it. And besides, Komaeda was accommodating of her shadowing him – most of the others were either wary of her, or just hadn’t cared enough to approach her as of yet, so when the luckster graciously accepted and welcomed her company, Mukuro jumped at the first chance.

            Instincts. That’s what it all came down to. Mukuro might have forgotten much, but running on instincts seemed a perfectly natural thing for her to do… So that’s what she did. Hajime stirred up a faint reminiscence as well… Though, with his guardedness and caginess shortly after waking up, she hadn’t developed enough of an opinion on him yet. Perhaps if Komaeda-kun decided to linger around Hinata for a bit longer…

            “I’m honored such a splendid Ultimate would associate with a nobody like me!” Nagito gave a carefree laugh again. “Honestly, I think it’s the first time anyone was ever that kind to me! I mean, everyone here is so amazing… But Ikusaba lowers her standards enough to keep hanging around me! Is this what they call friendship…? I think I almost forgot what it felt like…”

            Hajime gave the luckster a strange look at the wistful tone he took.

            ‘He’s still self-depreciative… But really? What kind of life has this guy had to nearly ‘forget’ what it’s like to have friends? He’s gotta have at least one… right?’ Still, no matter how hard he thought about it, if Komaeda did have at least friend, then he wouldn’t be so down on himself… That’s what Hajime assumed anyway.

            Again… he did not know these people. He could be jumping the gun a lot.

            “Well, I think I’ll need someone to help show me around… Did you wanna do the honors?” Still, no matter what the case, Hajime was going to place his trust in the luckster for now. Maybe they could be friends, given enough time.

            Mukuro’s eyes were on Hajime, coolly analyzing him, while Nagito chuckled cheerfully.

            “It’d be my honor, Hinata-kun!”

            With heartfelt camaraderie and determination, the three of them set out to explore the island…

Chapter Text

            Hajime stared at the cow incredulously as he turned to follow Komaeda and Ikusaba further into the ranch. Usami Corral…

            ‘A magic trick makes sense, I guess, but messing with living things is just not cool…’ The brunet thought to himself with a frown.

            Usami’s ‘attempt to cheer Hajime up’ hadn’t exactly gone according to plan. Seeing a chicken turned into a cow was just too… bizarre. And a truly frightening power if it was real…

            But no, no. That couldn’t have been real! Magic didn’t exist. Not in reality.

            “Careful with this one.” Mukuro muttered within Hajime’s earshot, and he turned his attention to the only other person on the ranch – the blonde girl in the orange kimono.

            “Squish, squish~!” Hiyoko happily cried out, sitting down and pressing her fingers down onto the ground with all her strength. Her appearance and voice made it hard for Hajime to believe she was a high school student.

            “A-Ah… You’re Saionji-san… right?” Hajime asked formally as he approached the blonde, utterly disregarding the soldier’s advice without thinking. Hiyoko looked up with blinking eyes.

            “Hmm…? Oh! You’re the wuss that passed out earlier!” Hiyoko snerked, muffling further giggles. Hajime smiled wryly as he extended his hand to shake hers.

            “Yeah, well, a lot of crazy stuff’s been going on! Can you blame me?” The brunet chuckled in a self-depreciating manner. “Anyway, I’m Hajime Hinata… Nice to meet you.”

            The dancer rolled her eyes before she went back to poking her fingers down on the ground.

            “Yeah, yeah, you’re the bum who couldn’t remember his talent~…” The blond chattered disinterestedly, not acknowledging his extended hand. “You’re probably just blue collar or something reeeally dumb… But if you wanna still hang out with me and squish things, that’s cool~!”

            Hajime stared at the blonde, baffled. He retracted his hand after it became clear she wasn’t going to return the courtesy of a handshake.

            “Saionji’s talent has made her known as the Ultimate Traditional Dancer!” Komaeda explained for the brunet. “As a rookie, the Japanese dance industry expects a lot from her. She’s already performed overseas many times. It seems her performances are popular among young audiences, which is rare in the Japanese dance industry. Well, then again, her fans are mostly men.”

            Hajime frowned thoughtfully at this information.

            ‘It’s probably because she looks so young… Her fans all probably have the same niche or something.’ He mused to himself.

            “Squish, squish~!” Hiyoko cried out gleefully again, snapping the brunet out of his thoughts.

            “Hey, what are you doing…?” He looked down at her. Hiyoko peered up at him with a dry look.

            “I told you, I’m squishing!”

            “Squishing what?” Hajime stressed, trying to get an understanding.

            “Ant-san! I’m squishing lots of Ant-san, duh!” Hiyoko replied with mild exasperation.

            “… Come again?”

            Hiyoko muffled her giggles again.

            “If you squish their tummies just right, it makes this awesome sound! Wanna do it together?!”

            “H-Hell no…!” Hajime firmly rejected the eager offer.

            “Aww, okay…” The dancer scoffed, rolling her eyes again. “Wimp.”

            The brunet stared at Hiyoko incredulously.

            ‘Th-This kid… Her attitude doesn’t match her appearance at all.’ Hajime couldn’t help reflecting to himself. He knew he shouldn’t judge, but… This one seemed like a bully.

            He hoped spending more time with her would change that perception… but he had this sneaking suspicion…

            “I told you.” Mukuro blandly said, a few feet away from him.

            Hajime turned to her and opened his mouth… and then snapped it shut. Yeah. Yeah she had… He walked straight into this one.

            ~*~

            “This island seems like a mishmash of a ton of different stuff…” Hajime muttered as they moved onto their next destination that was directly across from the Usami Corral… a dojo. Like, a really traditional-looking one – with tatami mats and everything.

            Nagito laughed lightly at Hajime’s befuddled expression as the luckster slid the entrance to the dojo open.

            “I think Usami’s just trying to keep us all happy… Remember, we’ve got some spunky ones in our class!”

            Hajime deadpanned as he registered the pair of individuals inside the dojo. How could he forget these two?

            “Spunky… right…” The brunet faintly muttered, watching the two go at it. The “fight” was more than just a little intense… and he had to give the psycho rabbit credit where it was due, she knew how to build a dojo if these gorillas could fight in here without tearing holes in the walls and floor.

            Akane moved in to strike with her knee, but Nidai impressively blocked it with his fist. They parted a couple moments later, and Akane then moved back in Nidai’s personal space, moving to punch at his face which he pulled away from with ease. A moment later, she spun around in the air and tried to close the gap with a twirling kick, but Nidai ducked on instinct and curled his hand into a fist, poised for a devastating strike.

            ‘Wh-What the heck is this…?’ Hajime wondered, absolutely lost as he watched the intense contest go on.

            “MUDADADADADADADADADA!” The gymnast eccentrically cried out.

            Nidai scoffed.

            “Your speed is adequate, but it’s still not enough! Each blow you land is still soft!” The coach continued to lecture her. “You’re not using your muscles properly! Your athletic body is going to waste!”

            Akane groaned loudly.

            “Shut up! All I gotta do is win!”

            “… What was that? You’re gonna win? Against me?” Nidai challenged, before dealing the final blow. “That’s quite… ABSUUUUUUUUUURD!!!”

            “GWAAAAAAAAAAH!” Akane cried out in agony as his punch connected with her gut with a seeming electrical effect to go along with it, prompting her to drop to her hands and knees on the floor. Nidai towered over her, cracking his knuckles.

            “Had enough? Have you learned your lesson?” The coach woefully shook his head. “Akane… at your current power level, you cannot even defeat a mere team manager. The way you use your muscles, your reflexes… it’s all half-assed!”

            Hajime spluttered at the display.

            “F-F-Forget that…! Why are you two fighting?! Isn’t excessive violence against the rules?!” The rabbit had explained the e-handbooks and the few rules she bestowed upon them… Hell, the violence thing was Rule #1 – they were supposed to live “peaceful and relaxing” lives…

            This looked like anything but.

            “What are you talking about?!” Nidai roared passionately. “This isn’t an actual fight, this is training! We both agreed to it when Akane initiated this contest, so we’re not violating any rules at all!!!”

            Hajime opened and closed his mouth in attempts to refute the boisterous man… But he just couldn’t find the words. Not because he couldn’t argue… but because he didn’t even know where to begin. He turned for help from his companions, anything to help this meathead see sense, but he only received a lighthearted, carefree laugh from Komaeda and a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders from Ikusaba.

            … Wonderful.

            “Nidai checked his blows.” The soldier added conversationally. “Akane was never in any danger. Out of her league, but for a half-assed rookie she holds potential.”

            Nidai rubbed the back of his head and belted out a hearty laugh.

            “Couldn’t have put it better, myself! Akane’s got an ominous fighting style to her, even if it’s wild and unfocused… Oh, I’m not letting this one go to waste!”

            Hajime stared incredulously between Mukuro and Nekomaru before craning his head to Nagito, who chuckled so casually…

            “Nidai-kun is the Ultimate Team Manager, Hinata! I think we can trust his expertise in this kinda thing, y’know? Nidai-kun has traveled to numerous towns and played an active role in various sports clubs managing their teams. He even led some high school rugby team full of delinquents to victory in the national play-offs… He also rescued a baseball club on the verge of being shut down, and led them to national victory as well… Rumor has it that he’s been training that famous Japanese pitcher who plays in the American League. If anyone can refine another Ultimate’s athletic prowess, don’t you think the most qualified person for the job would be the Ultimate Team Manager?”

            Hajime rubbed his chin nervously as he frowned.

            “Y-Yeah, I guess so…” If all of that was true, Nidai definitely earned his title. But with a body like that, wasn’t he better off playing on a team rather than managing it?

            Akane stood up, groaning.

            “Ugh! I thought I could blow off some of my pent-up energy with a smackdown, but who knew this Old Man would be so tough? If I’ve got strong opponents like him here, I’m never gonna be bored!” The dark-skinned girl stretched her back to get some kinks out of it before grinning like a loon. “So who’s next?! You up for a round, Ikusaba? Or how ‘bout you dudes?”

            Hajime stared at the gymnast like she’d grown a second head, while Nagito held up his hands peacefully and chuckled weakly.

            “Now, now, compared to Nidai-kun, I’d be a waste of a sparring partner! Ikusaba-san would be a much better fit for you… Or maybe Hinata-kun would be willing…?”

            Hajime’s head snapped to the luckster. Oh, hell no!

            “I don’t really see the point.” Mukuro tilted her head at the gymnast’s scrappy nature. “You are not in prime condition, and I got to observe the way you fight. Your loss would be a foregone conclusion.”

            Akane roared in determination, pumping her chest out and arms in the air.

            “You sayin’ I would lose ‘cause of all that?! All ya need to win is guts, and I got plenty of ‘em!!!  Don’t get cocky just ‘cause you’ve been to war! I’ll give ya a war you won’t soon forget!”

            Mukuro’s head remained tilted as she was unaffected by the passionate ramblings. Nidai crossed his arms and nodded sagely.

            “Akane, you take five… I’ve wanted to see what Ikusaba is made of from the moment I heard about her talent!”

            Mukuro blinked slowly.

            “… There’s no point in fighting you, either, though.” Mukuro shot down his challenge, too.

            Nidai growled lowly in determination.

            “Hmm…?! Are you saying I couldn’t handle you?! That is… ABSUUUUURD!”

            Mukuro shook her head.

            “No. In a straight-up fight, I can tell you would win.” The soldier flatly gave her assessment. It would be a mostly even spar – she’d do better than Akane did – but Nidai had this overwhelming brute strength, and he was nimble on his feet, too. As the Ultimate Soldier, Mukuro was well aware that there were opponents out there who could overpower her in a fair fight… That’s why it was also in her skillset to find ways to work around such conditions.

            Mukuro already had some ideas – none of them would please these battle junkies, but they’d be ways for Mukuro to incapacitate Nekomaru if she ever needed to…

            “Are you saying that only victory or success can bring happiness in life?!” Nidai roared passionately.

            The soldier could only tilt her head again at the man’s words. Of course victory was important. Victory meant life or death on a mission or in a battle. If you couldn’t kill or incapacitate the enemy, they were more likely to be unmerciful and end your life unless you were somehow inconsequential to the main objective… Which, again, most of the time was not the case, because whoever you didn’t kill would most certainly come back to kill you, so it was far safer to just cut down your enemies and be done with them…

            That was the way of war. Defeat served no higher purpose. Mukuro explained as such to Nekomaru, who airily sighed at her philosophy.

            “Ikusaba, you are a gifted soldier, but sometimes you need to take a step back and view the bigger picture!” The Ultimate Team Manager philosophized right back at her. “You don’t just naturally go into those missions of yours and succeed, do you?! NO! You train hard for them, build those muscles and master those reflexes! And in training, failure can be a great teacher! After all, in training you can learn how to overcome those weaknesses! Something you can’t do out on the battlefield!”

            Mukuro tilted her head to the other side as she considered that argument. The reasoning was sound, but…

            “I’m not training to beat you, though.” The soldier deadpanned. She didn’t need to. Mukuro had workarounds for the stronger opponents; she didn’t have to be the strongest or the fastest. Again, a spar would have no purpose for her.

            “BUT THERE IS PURPOSE FOR MEEE!” Nidai bellowed at the top of his lungs. “As the Ultimate Team Manager, I want to see everything you got! Don’t even think about holding back!!!”

            Mukuro could see her rejections to the challenges were having no effect… Well, if all he wanted was a sparring match, the soldier didn’t have a real reason to deny him except to keep her own style a secret… But, it’s not like they were enemies in the truest sense, so she stood to lose little by exposing herself.

            Hajime and Nagito took this time to vacate the dojo, as they could tell it was about to get even more intense in there…

            ~*~

            Just up the road from the ranch and dojo, there was a hotel complex. Hotel Mirai… The way that it was arranged was that there was the main facility, an older looking building beside it, and eighteen small cottages lined up towards the front of the complex. The cottages were divided into a section for the boys, and a section for the girls; meaning it was a little lopsided since there were ten girls and eight boys. Yukizome-sensei’s was positioned toward the far end of the girls’ cottages, facing Hajime as he looked towards it with a raised eyebrow – it appeared no different from the rest of theirs, despite her being the teacher. The other girls’ cottages were in rows of four and five, while the boys’ cottages were just in rows of four. Speaking of his own cottage, Hajime’s was immediately to his left, facing away from Hotel Mirai’s main building.

            “Wow! Pretty nice hotel!” Hajime, once again, had to give the rabbit credit where it was due. The cottages had little trenches of water around them, and there was also an impressive pool between the main facility and the cottages, with beach chairs and umbrellas and tables situated around the pool.

            Nagito hummed thoughtfully as he rubbed his chin.

            “The Hotel Mirai, huh? It looks like it’s named for the Japanese word for ‘future’. When we were told to live on this island, I was worried we’d have to pitch a tent or something… If we can live in a grand hotel like this, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about being comfortable.”

            Hajime frowned at that attitude.

            “Comfort isn’t an option here… We don’t even know why we’re being forced to live on this island… How can you just accept this?! You’re way too excited about living here!”

            Nagito crossed his arms and smiled calmly.

            “Well, it seems obvious this area would make a good base, so why don’t we look around for a bit?”

            Hajime sighed again and looked down with clenched fists.

            ‘Why is this guy so… calm? It’s like he doesn’t think this situation is a big deal at all… Has he been through a lot of trauma or something?’ The brunet shook his head and proceeded deeper into the hotel site. He could see two people outside the hotel – the short blond boy in the pinstripe suit, and the redheaded girl. If he recalled correctly, they were the Ultimate Yakuza and the Ultimate Photographer, respectively. They weren’t standing together – the yakuza was moodily glaring down at the pool, while the photographer was over by the old looking building.

            … Obviously, he approached Mahiru first. Maybe she wouldn’t bite his head off.

            “Hey, aren’t you the guy who was squatting on the beach earlier and burying your face in your arms?” Then again…

            “Uh, y-yeah…” Hajime could only smile wryly as the girl placed her hands on her hips and scowled.

            “Hey… You gotta keep it together, you know? At times like this, it’s the boys’ job to keep the girls safe.”

            “Y-Yeah, you’re right…” The brunet couldn’t shake off the meekness. Mahiru definitely had an attitude to her…

            “Did you want me to introduce myself? We didn’t get much, beyond names…” The photographer mused thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, you didn’t even mention your talent…”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment.

            “Y-Yeah… I… still can’t remember what that is. B-But I remember you’re the Ultimate Photographer, so I’m sure you take some amazing shots!” The brunet breathed a little easier as Mahiru smiled kindly at the praise. Maybe he could get along with her, after all.

            “Of course!” Nagito butted into the conversation, giving that carefree grin of his as he raised a hand. “Koizumi is an Ultimate! She has a promising future as a photojournalist… I’m not an expert on photography but I hear she’s a young photographer who has won numerous awards. On that note… she’s known for her skill at taking pictures of people.”

            ‘Well, I don’t doubt her ability…’ Hajime mused to himself. ‘I just hope I can stay on her good side.’

            “Honestly, I’m a little relieved. You guys seem decent enough…” Mahiru confessed as she looked off to the side.

            “Hm? Decent?” Hajime tilted his head curiously. The photographer giggled.

            “Well, there’s a lot of weirdos here. I can’t tell if they’re really Ultimates or, like, just insane… I’m eager to get along with everyone so we can get off this island, but I was worried things wouldn’t go well.”

            Hajime blinked at the phrasing, but then he remembered.

            “Get off this island…? Oh. You’re referring to that second rule…” Mahiru had basically reiterated what that rule entailed, just, there were supposed ‘Hope Fragments’ involved… Whatever those were.

            Well, his e-handbook had been going off when he interacted with the students here… It was probably something to do with that.

            Mahiru nodded happily.

            “Right! Once we’ve collected all the Hope Fragments, we’re done! This joke of a school trip will be over, and we can all leave this island together.”

            “I dunno… it just seems so… weird.” Hajime crossed his arms and stared down at the ground, deep in thought. “Why even kidnap us if that’s all they wanted to make us do? What’s the point…?”

            Mahiru huffed exasperatedly, hands on her hips.

            “Jeez! You don’t have to be so skeptical… Usami seems decent enough, and even Yukizome-sensei stopped fighting her!” Well, that wasn’t the complete truth – their teacher was clearly still wary of the rabbit, but right now she was busying herself looking over the island for anything dangerous and overall making sure the students weren’t getting into trouble.

            Nagito crossed his arms, too, smiling at Hajime.

            “I might not know why we’re here, but like Koizumi said, if that’s all we have to do to go home, then that’s all there is to it. Overall, I’m glad. I mean, it’s not really that big of a deal.”

            Hajime sent the luckster another withering look. Really? Being whisked away to this uninhabited island and then told to forget about Hope’s Peak, nothing about that seemed suspicious to this guy?!

            “So what about you?” Mahiru asked the brunet, startling him.

            “E-Eh?”

            “Don’t ‘eh’ me!” Mahiru sternly told him. “I’ve been waiting, like, forever, you know! How about sharing a little bit about yourself?!”

            Hajime wilted at the tone and words, feebly nodding in acceptance.

            “W-Well, there’s not really a whole lot to tell. I’m a pretty average guy. I’m not… all too certain what it is that Hope’s Peak found interesting about me, but… If I had to say anything that sticks out, I definitely admire Hope’s Peak more than most people, I guess. It’s… It’s not just a school to me, y’know? Ultimates are really amazing people… You guys definitely have reason to be proud about the stuff you can do! I… I’ve always wanted to have that kind of confidence in myself, too. To be really good at something…”

            Mahiru hummed thoughtfully.

            “Personally, I think you might be overhyping it a bit… I mean, I take pictures of just… whatever. Compared to some of these other guys, I’m nothing special. I can understand feeling like a plain Jane around here… You’re not the only one who feels like that.”

            Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly.

            “Even something ‘simple’ like taking pictures… There’s meaning in that, y’know? You’re not just doing some pointless thing – you’re capturing memories on film. Film might fade away after enough time, but it still prolongs the life of those precious memories, even decades after their time. And if you store them digitally, that’s another long term way to prolong the life of those memories! Don’t you think that’s incredible? And Hope’s Peak said you’re the best at this!”

            Mahiru stared at Hajime a while after he declared that, hand over her mouth frozen in surprise. Nagito chuckled warmly at the earnest, heartfelt compliment.

            “Ultimates really are worthy of praise! It’s no use being modest, Koizumi! Hope’s Peak did choose you, so you were born with an amazing talent that was destined to be acknowledged!”

            But the photographer didn’t pay attention to Nagito; her eyes were still on Hajime, and on his words. To her, Hajime’s compliment was more personal, more thought out – she didn’t believe in stuff like ‘destiny’ or whatever. Slowly, she shook her head to clear it. She clasped her hands behind her back and shy stared at the brunet, faintly blushing.

             “Well, I still dunno about all that… B-But it’s a nice thought… Thank you.”

            Hajime himself blushed a little as he reflected on his own words and how they sounded out loud. Perhaps he’d been a little too direct or gung-ho… Still, they were his honest feelings. He really felt Ultimates were amazing – that included the Ultimate Photographer, even when he hadn’t seen her photos yet…

            “Name’s Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu… Just so we’re clear, I don’t plan to act friendly and shit with you guys.”

            … The next interaction popped the warm and fuzzies in Hajime’s chest, but to be fair… he was expecting that. He couldn’t put off meeting the rest of his classmates forever.

            “Kuzuryu-kun is a high school student and heir the Kuzuryu Clan…” Komaeda supplied helpfully as Hajime mused about the best way to approach a discussion with this kid. He had a babyface, but he was pretty rude… “I’m sure you’ve at least heard of them, right? The Kuzuryu Clan is the largest crime syndicate in the nation, with membership surpassing 30,000. Which means… he’s the Ultimate Yakuza.”

            ‘In addition to being an heir to a yakuza clan… It’s the Kuzuryu Clan, no less?’ Hajime thought to himself, well and truly intimidated.

            “By the way, mentioning his babyface around him is expressly forbidden, so you better be careful~…” Nagito grinned so casually. “… You’ll run out of fingers before he’s done with you.”

            ‘Th-That was close… I nearly lost all my fingers…’ Hajime thought to himself nervously. “Komaeda, you’re like, my savior or something.”

            Nagito chuckled sheepishly, holding up his hands.

            “Haha, you’re just exaggerating… uh, guess not.”

            Fuyuhiko scoffed, arms crossed and looking away from them moodily.

            “Hey, bastards… If we’re all done here, how ‘bout you dumbasses make like a tree and fuck off?”

            … Well, guess they were done! Hajime was quick to make himself scarce.

            ~*~

            Hajime looked around the lobby of the main building, impressed by the small arcade they had in there. Not just game tables, there were also various arcade machines, pinball machines, and pool tables in the back. It was almost like a gamer’s paradise. And the carpet, sofas, and beanbag chairs looked pretty nice, too… They were really living in luxury here…

            And that still had Hajime antsy about why they were here…

            “Yeah… Even the inside of this place looks grand, too…” Nagito laughed lightly as Hajime kept gazing around the lobby.

            “If this was really a normal school trip, I’d be smiling by now…” Hajime muttered. “But… why are we the only ones here?”

            “It’s an uninhabited island, it can’t be helped.” Nagito raised his hands peacefully.

            ‘For an uninhabited island, this place looks pretty well kept, and it seems electricity won’ be an issue… What in the world is going on with this island?’ Seeing that there was two others in the lobby besides Nagito and himself, Hajime decided to approach one of the girls. The swordswoman, if he recalled correctly.

            “… State your business.” Peko tersely commanded, staring at the brunet warily.

            Hajime rubbed the back of his head nervously.

            “I… just wanted to stop and introduce myself? Is that okay?”

            Peko closed her eyes calmly.

            “An introduction…? I see, understood.”

            The brunet nodded.

            “Well, I’m Hajime Hinata… And, I remember you said your name was Pekoyama. It’s nice to meet you.”

            Peko nodded in response.

            “Indeed. I hope we will be able to cooperate together.”

            “It’s hard to believe someone with a cute name like Peko Pekoyama could be so skilled with a blade.” Nagito piped up, smiling easily. “I’ve heard she’s a kendo master and that most adult men don’t even stand a chance against her.”

            ‘Well, there’s definitely something up with her… Her eyes are really intense.’ Hajime thought to himself, feeling intimidated by the Ultimate Swordswoman.

            “If what that rabbit said is true, we will be expected to live on this island together…” Peko mused.

            “Yeah, basically…” Hajime agreed.

            “It is necessary for men and women who live together to respect each other… Don’t try anything inappropriate. I would prefer not to kill anyone…” Peko casually spoke this, but there was an underlying level of steel to her tone.

            “Kill…?” Hajime blinked in astonishment. “Isn’t that sword on your back made of bamboo?”

            Peko nodded in confirmation.

            “Though it may seem impossible to kill someone with this, a misaimed blow can be fatal. Well, an aimed blow can be fatal, too…” She mused speculatively. Hajime shivered and nodded nervously.

            ‘… I’ll keep that in mind.’

            Hajime quickly moved onto the other girl in the lobby, to escape Peko’s hawkish gaze. The Ultimate Gamer was pretty engrossed in the table she was playing at, and didn’t notice Hajime’s approach. Nagito came up from behind him.

            “Hey, Hajime, you haven’t talked to her yet, either, right?”

            “Y-Yeah… you’re right…” Hajime agreed. He turned to the rather focused girl. “Hey, um… I haven’t introduced myself to you yet, but…”

            When she didn’t respond, the luckster called out to her.

            “Hey, Chiaki?”

            The gamer jumped a little before turning to them fully.

            “Oh, sorry… I must’ve been… a little too focused on my game…”

            “A little…? Are you sure about that?” Nagito laughed lightly.

            Hajime rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

            “I don’t blame you… I know you’re the Ultimate Gamer, so these obviously mean a lot to you, right?”

            Chiaki nodded faintly.

            “Video games are my hobby, and I’m a fan of all genres. Nice to meet you.”

            “Nice to meet you, too.” Hajime agreed as the girl spaced out again, looking back to her game.

            “… Yeah, totally.”

            ‘This conversation is going a little slow…’ Hajime thought to himself.

            “Well, she is gaming right now…” Nagito remarked, like he could read Hajime’s thoughts.

            “It’s more like… I’m the kind of person who has to gather my thoughts before I start talking… Like, I can’t talk that well unless I’ve already prepared everything I want to say in my head. Especially when I’m meeting new people… Well, if I get used to them, I can usually talk a little faster.”

            ‘She may be the Ultimate Gamer, but how can she be focused on games at a time like this…?’ Hajime shook his head and decided to leave the girl to it. She yawned as he made his way up the stairs.

            ~*~

            Upstairs was a restaurant filled with tables and chairs, along with buffet tables toward the back and a doorway that led to a kitchen.

            “It’s enormous.” Nagito mused, right beside Hajime. “We can easily hold a banquet here. It kind of has this tropical, open country feeling.”

            “Open? Even though we’re stuck on this island?” The brunet asked skeptically.

            “Are we really stuck here…?” Nagito wondered, rubbing his chin.

            “What else could it be…?” Hajime played the devil’s advocate.

            “Well, let’s go introduce ourselves for now. Look, there’s two people over there.” Nagito deflected, pointing over at Sonia and Teruteru.

            “That’s right… I’m having a hard time because it’s full of poison. It really sucks.” Teruteru chortled, eyeing the princess in a perverted manner. … He had a nosebleed, for crying out loud. “Speaking of which, it’d be great if you could use your mouth to suck it out…”

            “Poison…? I see…” Sonia murmured, not seeming like she was all ‘there’ at the moment.

            “H-Hey… Do you guys have a moment…?” Hajime butted into the conversation, having a bad feeling about it.

            “Whoa… denied…” Teruteru combed his hair suavely, grinning nervously.

            “Hello, it is nice to meet you.” Sonia greeted formally.

            “Hey, I’m Hajime Hinata. It’s nice to meet you, too.” Hajime greeted back in kind.

            “Hey, you must be the new guy.” Teruteru mused, still combing his hair.

            “You’re the Ultimate Cook, right?” Hajime asked before turning to Sonia, too. “And you’re the Ultimate Princess.”

            “Could you call me the Ultimate Chef instead? It has more of a… big city flavor to it, ya know? Mmhmhmhm… I hope we get along well…” The chef chuckled suggestively.

            Sonia beamed pleasantly at Hajime.

            “I am a foreign exchange student from a small European kingdom called Novoselic… I may cause trouble here and there, but I hope we can get along well.”

            “Same here… I hope we can get along, too.” Hajime agreed to both of their intros. He gazed at Sonia, feeling drawn in. ‘White porcelain skin… Sparkling blue eyes… And her hair glitters like fields of wheat… It’s like… she has this mysterious charm that I want to gaze at forever…’

            “Are you enchanted?” Nagito teased. “Well, that probably can’t be helped. She’s the Ultimate Princess, you know.”

            ‘True…’ Hajime acknowledged in his head. ‘It’s not just her beauty, she’s just so graceful… I’m completely at ease even though she’s a real princess.’

            “Um, this may be rude of me to say, but… Truthfully, I feel happy.” Sonia said with a pleasant grin.

            Hajime tilted his head curiously.

            “Happy…? About what?”

            Sonia looked off to the side calmly.

            “In my home country, I… did not even have a single friend my age whose standing in society matched my own. So, to be able to do something like this with everyone is a new experience for me… I shall extol your virtues!” The princess suddenly took a righteous stance.

            “Th-Thanks…” Hajime grinned nervously. ‘What the…? I suddenly feel the urge to drop to one knee and bow…’

            “H-Hey, you three, am I being left off the menu or something?” Teruteru cut in, looking a little put out.

            Nagito chuckled lightly.

            “Oh Teruteru, it’s so like you to check out the restaurant first! As the Ultimate Chef, do you like it?”

            Teruteru chuckled suggestively.

            “Mmhmhmhm… I would be lying if I said I wasn’t interested. And since I do not want to be a liar, then truthfully… Yeah, I like it. Though I like the big city flavor of my hometown, a country atmosphere like this is also splendid. Mmhmhmhm…!”

            “Hey, are you…?” Hajime asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “Refined? Cultured? Guilty as charged!” Teruteru combed his hair once again. Hajime shook his head.

            “No, not that… You just don’t seem very worried, huh?”

            “Worried? What’s there to be worried about? Actually, I’m really happy.” The chef remarked proudly.

            “Happy…? Why is that?” The brunet asked curiously.

            “If I can get serious real quick… I have a sneaking suspicion Pekoyama-san is actually a bit of a freak, if you catch my meaning~! What do you think?” Teruteru was having a nosebleed again…

            “Uh…” Hajime trailed off, not really sure how to respond.

            “She’s probably wearing a black thong, too! What are your thoughts on that? Now then, shall we discuss this somewhere privately…?” Teruteru wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. Hajime took a step back warily. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!”

            “… No thanks.” Hajime flatly rejected the perverted chef.

            Teruteru rubbed his chin speculatively.

            “Well, putting that aside for now… This also might seem unexpected to you, but… I feel like Nevermind-san over there has a good chance of putting out. You see, everybody knows princesses are groomed to lack common sense, right? For example, I could tell her my ‘loins’ are full of poison and ask her to suck it out…”

            Hajime blinked owlishly.

            ‘Is that why he was talking about poison earlier…?’

            “Pardon me, what are you talking about?” Sonia asked with a tilt of her head.

            Teruteru grinned mischievously.

            “We’ll discuss this later!”

            “… I’d better not see you try that again.” Nagito told the chef sternly. Teruteru just combed his hair casually.

            “Anyway, when I fantasize like that, I can’t help looking forward to living on this island. When it comes to cooking and love, passion is the most important ingredient! Mmhmhmhm!”

            ‘This guy seems… dangerous, but for a completely different reason.’ Hajime decided sagely, warily keeping an eye on the chef and how close they were standing to each other.

            ~*~

            If one half of the island was diverse with a ranch, dojo, and hotel, then the other half of the island was just as diverse. From what Hajime could see as he and Nagito kept travelling the road between destinations, there was a small zoo, a supermarket, a service shop, and… an airport.

            They stopped by the supermarket first. Rocketpunch Market was its name.

            “So this is the supermarket… It’s pretty big.” Hajime muttered as they walked into it. ‘If we’re on a tropical island, does that mean we’re in international waters?’

            Nagito grinned as he looked around the store lazily.

            “Thanks to this place, we don’t need to worry about food and other necessities for a while.”

            “For a while?” Hajime deadpanned, to which Nagito held up his hands peacefully.

            “It’s just a figure of speech!”

            Hajime shook his head, looking around suspiciously.

            “There’s no guarantee anything here is edible. What if all this stuff is poisoned?”

            “Hmm… You certainly are the skeptical type.” Nagito frowned thoughtfully. Hajime exploded at that, a little.

            “Of course I am! Even this supermarket is strange. Look around! We’re in this gigantic supermarket and there’s nobody else here except us!”

            Nagito crossed his arms and smiled calmly.

            “Well, that can’t be helped. Didn’t Usami say this island is uninhabited?”

            “Th-That’s exactly my point…” Hajime breathed a weary sigh as it became clear they were going to disagree on this, yet again. “Ugh!”

            “What happened?” Nagito asked in concern.

            “It’s nothing…” Hajime grumbled sourly. He then noticed he was being stared at by the purple-haired girl a few feet away from where he was standing… The nurse, if he recalled correctly. ‘She’s staring at me funny…!’

            “Ah, uhh, um… Um… You know…” Mikan nervously tittered before bowing her head in shame. “U-Um… I-I’m sorry…!”

            ‘Wh-Why is she crying?!’ As the nurse began doing that suddenly.

            “Bullying a girl… Not cool, Hinata.” Nagito lectured him, a knowing smile on his face. Hajime deadpanned at the luckster.

            “I didn’t even do anything…!”

            Mikan nodded slowly, poking her fingers together.

            “A-Ah, so your name is Hinata… If it’s okay with you, may I please remember your name?”

            Hajime stared at the nurse strangely.

            “O-Of course… You can remember it, but…” He trailed off uncertainly as Mikan went straight into her introduction.

            “M-My name is Mikan Tsumiki… Um… From the bottom of my heart, I hope we can get along…” She anxiously smiled and blushed at the brunet, who was still unsure about the awkwardness between them.

             “Right, I remember you’re the Ultimate Nurse… I… hope we can get along, too.” Hajime tried to sound as reassuring as possible, because he did want to befriend this girl – she just seemed very nervous, and he wasn’t sure what was up with that yet.

            “Um… Um… Um, um, um, um, um… Uhhh…” The girl kept stuttering, tripping over her words. “My mind is drawing a blank from nervousness…! And… I went through the trouble of preparing 5,000 different topics to discuss after introductions!”

            ‘That seems excessive…’ Hajime couldn’t help thinking to himself.

            “It’s okay if you take your time and remember slowly. We’ll wait as long as it takes!” Nagito said, smiling casually as ever. “We’ll wait for you forever if that’s what it takes!”

            “Huh… Aaah!” The nurse cried out, caught off-guard by the luckster’s reply. Hajime just stared incredulously at them.

            ‘Isn’t he… just piling more pressure on her?’ He shook his head before turning to Nagito specifically. “Well, I guess I’ll just ask you since I won’t get anywhere asking her, so… What’s her deal?”

            “Ah, Tsumiki is the Ultimate Nurse! If you ever get injured, you’ll need her help, so it’s best if you get along with her now. If you get wounded and don’t treat it, there’s a good possibility you’ll get an infection and die.” Nagito said, again, with an ever-present grin.

            “Don’t say something so morbid so naturally…” Hajime grumbled. He looked to the nurse when she started giggling.

            “Ah! I-I’m sorry for laughing so suddenly!” The nurse clasped her hands, begging forgiveness. “I-It’s just… I can’t help it. I’m just so happy. I can’t remember the last time I made any friends… Ah, not that you actually want to be friends with me! I’m sooo sorry I said something so… presumptuous! I’ll do anything you say… Just… Please don’t hate me…!”

            … So insecure…

            “Bullying a girl… Not cool, Hinata.”

            Hajime deadpanned at the luckster again.

            ‘Seriously, why does this keep happening?’

            “I’m sorry… I’m so, so, so sorry…!”

            Hajime needed to politely excuse himself from all the awkwardness… He felt bad for Mikan, who he left crying, but with how that discussion was going, he might make things worse without meaning to… He’d definitely make it up to her when he got to know her later.

            The next girl he encountered a few aisles over was the musician, from what he remembered… And after she repeated the same intro she had given in class, Ibuki went straight onto… other topics.

            “All right, introductions are finished! Now check out this bombtastic supermarket! They’ve got hamburger, ramen noodles, chili beans, bratwurst, pasta… Oooh, melons!” Ibuki placed her hands on her hips and made that troll-like grin. “Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, Germans, Italians… and even people from Yubari would shop here! Man, I’m getting hellaaa stoooked! I’m thirty one flavors of stoked for all of this deliciousness~! And when I’m excited, I get hungry-mungry! I-I don’t understand it myself… Why do I get hungry when I’m excited? Why do I get excited when I’m hungry? Kyahaha, the human body sure is a mystery!”

            … This wasn’t any less awkward, damnit! Mikan was a bundle of nerves, and Hajime felt bad for her, but this was the total opposite of what he ran away from… Ibuki was just all over the place with that high energy.

            “Ah, this energetic young lady is the Ultimate Musician…” Nagito formally introduced her, not that he needed to, as he finally caught up to Hajime. “She used to play guitar in an all-girl band that was super popular with other high school girls. Apparently, their hit single, ‘After School Poyoyon Hour’, sold over a million copies.”

            ‘A super popular, all-girl, high school band… That sounds familiar…’ Hajime mused to himself as he tried to place the familiarity. He might’ve heard about her before…

            Nagito continued on, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

            “Due to creative differences, she left the band to pursue a solo career.”

            “… Creative differences?” Hajime parroted, not sure what to make of that.

            “Are you interested?!” Ibuki preened.

            Hajime took a step back in shock.

            “Wah! You could hear me?!”

            “Duh! Ibuki is a musician, after all!” The girl giggled. “Like Schubert, Bach, Edison, Van Gogh, Perez, and Senna… I, too, am an awesome musician!”

            Hajime frowned thoughtfully at that.

            “Oh, so you’re saying that you have good hearing… Wait, most of those people you mentioned weren’t musicians at all!”

            “Don’t sweat the details~!” Ibuki grinned cheekily. Hajime deadpanned at her.

            … This girl. This girl…

            ~*~

            “… A service shop?” Hajime found himself asking, scratching his head as he looked around the modestly-sized facility. There happened to be a couple lines of scooters positioned toward the front of the shop, all shiny and seemingly well-maintained… All in various colors and sizes, too. There was also tools and other equipment and objects sprawled across the shop, Hajime didn’t even know what half this stuff did or was for, but he could guess ‘who’ this facility was most likely prepared for…

            “Usami did say this island was for all of us to get along!” Hajime’s travel companion remarked with that carefree grin of his. “As you can imagine, Souda was pretty excited when he found this place… He said this equipment was a bit ‘average’ for his liking, but he could make do with the supplies and make some incredible modifications when he got around to them~! I honestly thought we wouldn’t be able to tear him away from this place for quite some time…”

            Hajime looked around the empty shop, confused.

            “… So where is Souda?” It did seem like the place he’d be hanging out in. Nagito chuckled sheepishly.

            “I imagine Yukizome-sensei tore him away for something important… After all, no one else would have been able to pry his ‘cold, dead fingers’ from this shop… to use his own words.” The luckster supplied, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Still, don’t you think it’s rather amazing? Usami really has thought of everything. She explained the islands were rather enormous, so she even provided scooters for us to get around on, if we so chose…”

            Hajime deadpanned at the luckster.

            “I know we’re high schoolers, but how many of us actually have licenses to ride these…? And besides, I know Nidai, Akane, and maybe Ikusaba won’t care about them… But there’s still eighteen scooters here.” He gestured at the lines of scooters.

            Nagito chuckled again, making Hajime twitch.

            “Well, I won’t tell if you don’t~… And really, are you going to turn down the chance to get around faster when you find out how big this place is? This isn’t the only island, you know~…”

            … Hajime hated when the luckster actually made sense for once… Wait.

            “You said that before… A-Are you saying we’re on a chain of islands, and not just one…?”

            Nagito crossed his arms and grinned.

            “You’ll be seeing for yourself soon enough, but yeah. In addition to this one and the center island, there’s four other islands we don’t have access to yet… But Usami promises we’ll get to see them.”

            Hajime absorbed this information and stored it away to reflect on later. His eyes panned over to the scooters speculatively.

            … He might need one of these after all.

            ~*~

            The next place they stopped by was the airport. And just like all the facilities they’d been in up until this point, it looked cleaned and well-maintained. There was even a baggage claim belt cycling around with random suitcases and other items on it.

            “An airport, huh… So those must be…” Hajime looked out the main window in the back, where planes could be seen, parked on the runway. “Couldn’t we use those to escape this island…?”

            Kazuichi came up to Hajime and Nagito, looking off to the side with a grin, his tongue hanging out a little.

            “Nah, that’s impossible. If they were damaged, I could fix ‘em, but it looks like these planes are just for show…”

            “Just for show…?” Hajime asked, flabbergasted.

            Souda scratched his cheek and frowned thoughtfully.

            “The engines have been completely removed. Nothing I can do about that.”

            ‘Completely removed?!’ Hajime thought to himself in frustration. ‘Whoever brought us to this island must have done that… right? The same person who’s controlling that stuffed animal, Usami. But… who is doing this? And why did they bring us to this island in the first place? And… how did they do it? The more I think about it… the less sense it makes.’

            “Oh yeah, you and me haven’t been introduced yet, right?” The mechanic shook Hajime’s hand with a strong grip. “Name’s Kazuichi Souda!”

            Hajime ran a hand through his hair and smiled.

            “Yeah, I remember from the intros earlier… You’re the Ultimate Mechanic, right?”

            “The one and only!” Souda gave a toothy grin and a thumbs-up.

            “As expected from someone called the Ultimate Mechanic, Souda is a savant when it comes to fixing machines.” Nagito piped up cheerily. “If he says it’s impossible to fix this plane, it’s truly beyond repair.”

            Souda scowled as he scratched his cheek again, bitterly.

            “Even so… to actually remove the engine, whoever’s keeping us here must’ve planned this to a T.”

            “You think so, too, huh? Doesn’t that seem pretty strange to you?” Hajime asked with a frown. Souda just rubbed the back of his head nervously.

            “Yeah, it’s pretty strange, but I think it’s an acceptable level of strange, y’know?”

            “… Huh?” Hajime blinked owlishly.

            “Well, think about it… It’s not like we’re being forced to do something dangerous or anything… That was mentioned in the safety precautions for this school trip.” Kazuichi explained, citing the first rule again, but also the other rules – where they were supposed to get along with each other, with nature, and the teacher was not allowed to interfere with the students unless they broke the rules. Those were the simple rules established for them. “It looks like we’re being kept safe, so why wouldn’t this be like any other school trip?”

            Nagito nodded slowly, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

            “There’s nothing dangerous on this island… Spend these peaceful and relaxing days nourishing hope… Just as Usami said earlier. It seems these rules are in place to help us do that…”

            Hajime stared incredulously at the luckster again.

            “Are you saying you believe what that thing told us?! She forced us to come here, you know!”

            “Don’t be such a pessimist… You should look at this situation with a bit more hope, you know? Optimism is essential for people to live satisfied lives.”

            Kazuichi nodded before flashing another thumbs-up.

            “Well, I guess it’s okay if we just enjoy our vacation and see how this whole thing plays out, right?” He rested both arms behind his head casually, grinning. “Hehe! If you stare closely at that strange-lookin’ bunny girl, she might start lookin’ pretty cute!”

            ‘… I’m actually jealous of how carefree he’s being right now.’

            Nagito rubbed his chin again thoughtfully.

            “Hey, Souda? Where’s Yukizome-sensei? I thought she’d be with you since you obviously got dragged out of the service shop…”

            The mechanic pulled his beanie hat over his head nervously.

            “That chick’s scary as hell! She literally dragged me, y’know?!” Kazuichi sighed miserably. “You just missed her, actually. She was disappointed about the missing engines, so she was gonna go check out the central island since she hadn’t yet… Glad she’s gone. Now I can go back to tinkering in peace!”

            Nagito chuckled at the mechanic’s expense. Hajime just stared at him pitifully.

            ~*~

            The only other place Hajime hadn’t yet seen on the first island was the zoo… But as soon as he and Nagito set foot past the gate, they were accosted by the Ultimate Breeder.

            “Stop right there. If you value your life, do not come any closer.”

            “H-Huh…?” Hajime stared at the breeder incredulously. The scarfed teen simply crossed his arms and scowled lightly.

            “Hmph, I said stay back! Oh, very well… I shall accept that courage of yours.”

            ‘What is this guy talking about…?’ Hajime thought to himself nervously.

            “Kehehe, would you like to know my name? Others may see your courage as recklessness… However, I welcome it.” The scarfed teen cackled, raising a bandaged arm eccentrically. “In honor of your courage, I shall reveal to you my name. May you never forget it as long as you live!”

            Hajime had to stop him there.

            “N-No, no… I-I know who you are. You introduced yourself already in class, remember? You’re… Gundham Tanaka. The Ultimate Breeder”

            Tanaka reeled back a little, showing evident shock.

            “To speak my name so casually… Me, who shall one day rule over this world… Are you a deity in the guise of a mere human?!”

            ‘R-Rule this world… He’s kidding, right? If he’s actually serious, that’s pretty out there!’ Hajime shook his head with a very lost expression. “N-No, no… I’m human, just like you…”

            “And so presumptuous, too…” Tanaka scoffed, crossing his arms before looking off the side and burying the lower half of his face in his scarf. “Let me ask you a question. Whose master are you?”

            “Eh…?” Hajime muttered.

            “Which tribe did you make your pact with? Answer me!” Tanaka barked out authoritatively.

            “Uh… What do you mean by ‘pact’…?” Hajime was still very lost.

            “Answer me now!” Tanaka demanded heatedly, gripping his scarf a little to pull it down so his mouth was visible. “Though I shall cast you into a watery grave once you do!”

            “Then it’s best if I don’t answer!” Hajime was quickly becoming more and more panicked.

            “I think he’s asking if you used to have a pet…” Nagito sheepishly chuckled, raising his hands again peacefully.

            Hajime stared at the luckster, utterly mystified.

            “… A pet? No… The only animal I’ve taken care of was a hermit crab we used to pass around in elementary school…”

            Tanaka gazed at the brunet, totally floored once more.

            “So, a mere insect?! Your Magic Essence caps at a lowly five! Trash!”

            “T-Trash? Really…?” Hajime couldn’t say he enjoyed where this discussion was heading.

            “Hmph! Is it wrong to call trash ‘trash’? Trash like you should not dare to speak to one so grand as me!” As he spoke, four hamsters emerged from his uniform, looking pretty happy. “Who do you think I am? I am the great and powerful Gundham Tanaka, Supreme Overlord of Ice!”

            Hajime pointed a finger incredulously.

            “H-Hold on…! Something strange just came out of your scarf!”

            Tanaka crossed his arms as his hamsters rested on his shoulders and on his elbow.

            “Taming evil by using myself as a bed… Truly, this is the secret art of the Tanaka Empire!”

            Despite how weirded out Hajime was, Nagito laughed anyway.

            “It’s like something you might see on a nature show. I guess he totally fits the bill of Ultimate Breeder.”

            Tanaka chuckled darkly to himself.

            “One of my Four Dark Devas of Destruction, Mirage Golden Hawk Jum-P, has this to say! ‘We’re not used to going easy on our enemies… so don’t make us angry. You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.’ Fuhahahahahahaha!”

            Hajime just stared. He stared, and stared, and stared some more. Ibuki was weird, but at least she was easily understood – she was just very hyper, low attention span. Gundham, on the other hand… was another kettle of fish entirely.

            “Um, yeah… I know he seems a bit odd, but apparently he did splendidly as a member of the Breeding Club.” Nagito supplied more info for Hajime. “I’ve heard he can tame any animal and even managed to succeed at proliferating an endangered species. Rumor has it he can speak to animals… Well, that’s probably just a joke.”

            ‘Speak with animals…? Well, he’s certainly eccentric enough in that regard.’ Hajime thought to himself, still trying to come to grips with the man’s eccentricities. ‘I mean, no normal person would attempt to raise hamsters inside their own scarf…’

            “So, uh… Can we check out the zoo, Tanaka?” Hajime asked out loud. He suspected he knew the answer already, but…

            “Hah! Trash like you wishes to gaze upon great and terrible beasts that would sooner tear you asunder or rip you limb from limb?! You are a foolhardy soul indeed, Hajime Hinata… Kehehe… Alas, I must forbid you entry… for now. If I were to allow you to get any closer without first cataloguing the denizens of Tartarus, why, the very fabric of this reality would collapse from your naïve, yet brave endeavors! Restrain that curiosity, for I shall attend to it all in due time!”

            … Worth a shot.

            ~*~

            The last place to check for the time being was the central island. Like Komaeda had said, the other islands were closed off by thick iron gates, but the rest of central island was accessible. Not that there was much on it… Just some rocky formations, trees, and a park in the middle of it with a bronze statue.

            Mukuro had finally caught up to them, and surprisingly, she looked no worse for the wear. Hajime just had to ask…

            “Were… Were you fighting with Nidai this whole time?” Even though the brunet suspected he knew the answer, he tried to reassure himself that there was other possible explanations.

            After all… Mukuro wasn’t scarred, bruised, or winded at all.

            “Yes.” Mukuro answered without hesitation. Hajime sweatdropped.

            “You, uh… Did you take a bit to catch your breath, maybe…?” Did she win after all???

            Mukuro tilted her head at the brunet.

            “No, not really… I hurried to catch up to you guys after Nidai let me go. We sparred the whole time, and he won, like I thought he would… Said he didn’t have much to critique, either. Owari tried to challenge me next, but I ran…” The soldier obliviously gave her report, unaware to the panic and dawning horror arising in Hajime, the more she spoke.

            ‘… Is… Is the dojo still in one piece?’ Hajime dared not ask that question out loud. Instead, he said, “D-Did Nidai check his blows…?”

            “He didn’t hold back that much against me. I didn’t give him much choice, since he told me to go all-out.” Mukuro flatly intoned.

            Hajime stared at the soldier, feeling well and truly frightened to be near her. Nekomaru was huge! And the way he fought was crazy! How did someone fight that and look so pristine and unconcerned?!

            He turned to Nagito, who just chuckled warmly at the soldier’s account of what she’d been up to.

            “Wonderful~! Truly splendid! As expected of the Ultimate Soldier… Shall we proceed to the park…?”

            Hajime opened and closed his mouth like a fish on dry land. Mukuro just fell into line behind Nagito without missing a beat.

            “Did your luck act up at all…?” Mukuro asked the luckster, her face etched with what appeared to be light concern.

            Nagito chuckled, raising his hands in a ‘what can you do?’ gesture.

            “Not yet, so I’m sure something really unlucky is on its way~… That’s just how it goes, you know? But once it happens, we can look forward to the blessings that come after~!”

            Hajime stared at their backs as he followed the nonchalant duo, Mukuro nodding like Nagito hadn’t said anything suspicious at all. What did he get himself into?! Out of everyone he met so far today, these two probably worried him the most!

            And that was saying something.

Chapter Text

            “A park surrounded by the ocean… Hmm, it feels so nice!” Nagito sighed contentedly as the three of them arrived at the park.

            ‘Such a laidback attitude…’ Hajime thought to himself, still not understanding the carefree attitude. ‘But… if we weren’t in a situation like this, I’d probably be enjoying some lazy sunbathing myself… ‘If’ being the key word.’

            Looking around the park, aside from its nice view, there wasn’t really that much to see. The bronze statue of five animals together seemed… strange, but there was also two other people in the park. Yukizome-sensei and the only remaining student Hajime had yet to meet. They seemed to be in a bit of a hushed conversation as Hajime approached them. One that seemed to stop immediately once Hajime was close enough.

            “… What do you want?” Byakuya asked, arms folded as he looked to the side disinterestedly.

            ‘Th-This guy’s presence is overwhelming. He doesn’t seem very approachable…’ Hajime thought, feeling pretty small and unimportant. ‘Even his body is overwhelming…’

            “Hey, Togami.” Mukuro greeted a little ways away from Hajime as she stood over by Nagito. “You have time for one more intro?”

            Taking that as his cue, Hajime waved lamely and smiled nervously at the scion’s piercing stare.

            “H-Hey… My name’s Hajime Hinata. Nice to meet you!”

            “Byakuya Togami…” The heir returned the courtesy before turning his nose up at the brunet. “… I’m done. That’s it, right? Back off.”

            ‘I-I can tell… this guy’s thumbing his nose at me…’ Hajime inwardly sighed.

            “Well, I suppose that’s Togami for you…” Komaeda rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That guy is particularly special, even by Ultimate standards… He’s next in line to inherit his family’s massive financial conglomerate. He’s already begun managing the business operations, and his net worth is, well, enormous. It’s completely natural to call him the Ultimate Scion. He’s the epitome of ‘exceptional’!”

            ‘That’s like… a manga origin story…’ Hajime couldn’t help thinking.

            The heir turned his attention back to the brunet.

            “You there, Hinata was it…?”

            “Eh?” Hajime cocked his head in slight concern.

            “Tell me… why did Hope’s Peak Academy choose you…? What is your Ultimate talent?” Togami asked, raising his chin a little.

            Hajime deflated as he was asked that again.

            “I-I still can’t remember… I’m sorry. I wish I knew that, myself.”

            Togami scoffed.

            “Hmph, how foolish.” He looked to the side arrogantly again. “We’re done talking. How much longer do you intend to stand there? Move along! That’s the only thing you skinny types are good at, it seems.”

            ‘His build and that overwhelming aura of refinement just pushes people away…’ Hajime couldn’t stop himself from thinking. ‘Is that what it means to be the Ultimate Scion…?’

            “Now, now, Togami-kun~… Don’t you think that’s a little rude?” Yukizome asked, tucking that notepad she’d been writing on away with a closed-eyed grin. “Just because Hinata-kun doesn’t have the answers you want yet, doesn’t mean spending time with him is wasteful!”

            “I have better things to do with my time…” The heir huffed. “Don’t you find yourself in that same predicament? You’ve been searching for a means of escape or communication since we were brought here, harder than the rest of these plebeians.”

            Chisa swayed back and forth merrily.

            “Even if that’s true, that’s no reason for the cold shoulder! You’re classmates!” The teacher clapped her hands together and her eyes sparkled before she placed those hands on Hajime’s shoulders, looking him over for any injuries. “Now, how are you feeling? That was a pretty rough fall you had when you collapsed. I’m glad you’re up and about, but you shouldn’t strain yourself! I was all too happy to check on you, if you needed anything.”

            And she had been checking up on him. Despite exploring the islands like the rest of her students, she had made occasional trips to the beach to make sure no one was picking on Hajime while he was unconscious… Other teachers might have moved him to his cabin, but Yukizome was under the belief that he’d be fine! There was a charm to having the same starting point as the rest of them, you know? Hajime was just a little dazed from all the sudden and… slightly alarming… goings-on, and who could blame him?

            Being cut off from Kyosuke-kun had certainly made her more stressed than she had felt in years… She’d panicked for well over fifteen minutes, trying to find any way to reach him… She liked to think she had acclimatized to this… very unwelcome… turn of events.

            They did have a plan to reform Hope’s Peak, and this random trip put a serious damper on her investigation. She hoped Juzo-kun was having better luck… because she was dead in the water ‘til she got access to a phone.

            And a boat home…

            Hajime chuckled self depreciatingly as he waved off the teacher’s concern.

            “I’m fine! If I left everything to you guys, I’d feel like dead weight. Besides, I was gonna meet everyone at some point, right? Might as well get to that sooner than later. Wh-What about yourself…? You seem a bit… frantic.” He couldn’t help noting. It wasn’t anything wrong – he knew exactly how suspicious this all was – just… painfully obvious, the more he looked at her chirpy expression, those eyes darting about aimlessly.

            Chisa patted her cheeks eccentrically and gave another closed-eyed grin.

            “Oh, I’m fine~… Nothing for you kids to worry yourselves over! We’re on a nice, tropical island…” Trapped… No communication… “We’re spoiled with a grand hotel, a zoo, supermarket, dojo…” All of them suspiciously well-stocked, equipped, and tidy despite this being an uninhabited island… “And the purpose is for everyone to get along! Absolutely nothing to worry over~!”

            … And once she could contact Kyosuke-kun, she might actually believe those words herself. Usami probably did mean well… But as things stood, Chisa had to assume the worst, that the Steering Committee or Headmaster Kirigiri had caught onto her role and Kyosuke-kun’s plans, and sent her out here to hide anything they didn’t want her to dig up… She couldn’t afford to relax like the kids.

            But that didn’t mean they should panic and stress like her… After all, Usami was genuine with that caring attitude and earnest desire to strengthen the students’ bonds with each other. There was nothing dangerous about any of the facilities they’d witnessed thus far, the kids weren’t targets in this madness, they couldn’t be. Yukizome could empathize all too well – camaraderie was what high school was all about.

            … She just wished she could shake the feeling Hope’s Peak was isolating her because of Kyosuke-kun’s plans. It couldn’t just be paranoia on her part.

            “Ding dong, bing bong!” A bell chime rang out throughout the park, and the five of them turned their attention to the sole monitor, which flickered on. Usami was displayed on the screen, appearing pleased. “Congratulations, everyone! It appears everyone has finished collecting the Hope Fragments! I'm..’ *sniff*… I’m so happy… Sooo… I’ve prepared a present for everyone that’ll make you all veeery happy! I apologize for the trouble, but please gather at the beach! Teeheehee! May shining hope be with you all!”

            The screen flickered off. Obviously, Hajime felt as uneasy and suspicious of the rabbit’s intentions as ever. But… it’s not like they had a choice in going.

            Yukizome-sensei could be very persuasive… Souda wasn’t kidding about the whole ‘dragging’ comment. Hajime found that out firsthand.

            ~*~

            Once they were all gathered together, it was Togami who started talking, rather than Yukizome-sensei.

            “With that rabbit thing not here yet, I’d like to hear your initial impressions of this island.”

            Peko was the first to answer him.

            “I happened to notice numerous blocked off bridges on the central island.”

            Ibuki raised her hand enthusiastically.

            “Oh! Those are there so everybody doesn’t get lost! I tried to cross one of them and that rabbit showed up and told me, so I’m telling the truth!”

            “So that we don’t get lost…?” Peko echoed uncertainly. “Is this island really so big?”

            Souda’s arms rested behind his head again as he flashed a toothy grin and chuckled.

            “But if you look at it in-depth, it’s just a normal island, right? It’s got a resort and everything! Well, not that I’ve ever been to a resort before, but…”

            “Also, there’s a biiig ranch!” Saionji butted in, tapping her chin.

            Nidai bellowed with excitement.

            “There is also a… DOOOJOOO!!!!!”

            Akane grinned, hand on her hip.

            “Man, that thing can take a walloping… I’m definitely gonna be in there all day, every day~…”

            Mikan’s fingers poked together nervously.

            “Um… There’s also a large supermarket, too… It looks like it stocks everything from food to living amenities.”

            “The hotel was really nice, too. It’d be great if we can stay there.” Mahiru smiled fondly.

            “The restaurant inside the hotel was also very nice. It seemed to cater to a more plebeian taste.”

            “Can you guys listen to what I want to say, too?” Teruteru piped up, quivering with excitement. “I… found something very important on this island. Girls! Very, very cute girls! Aha! All over the place~!”

            Ibuki grimaced eccentrically.

            “GROOOSS! I’m getting goosebumps!”

            Souda grinned excitedly and seemed to vibrate as his fists were pumped.

            “There’s a service shop~! All you guys are gonna have some seriously kickass rides when I’m through with upgrading them! Those babies are gonna reach, like, 575 mph at least!”

            Yukizome swayed back and forth whimsically.

            “Now, Souda-kun… Do you remember what we talked about ‘safety’…?” The beaming smile was kind, but Hajime could detect something ominous lurking behind it as she hummed happily.

            The words did the trick, though, as Kazuichi tugged his beanie over his eyes in terror.

            “I-I-I got it, Sensei…!” He moaned pitifully.

            This didn’t seem to satisfy the orange-haired teacher.

            “So how fast will those scooters go…?”

            “… No faster than 30 mph…” The mechanic grumbled, beanie still over his eyes.

            “And the other enhancements~…?” Yukizome prompted further.

            “No weapons or anything dangerous…” He moaned.

            The teacher clapped her hands gleefully.

            “Much better~!”

            … Hajime was going to just leave those two alone for a while…

            Tanaka cackled gleefully, arms crossed.

            “A portal to Hell exists on this plane of existence! I have discovered many fearsome members of Tartarus lurk there, and have awaited my arrival! Soon, we shall rule over this world~…!”

            Saionji groaned loudly.

            “You’re so weird! You won’t let anyone into that zoo!” She grumbled. Tanaka studiously ignored her, as she was not the first to voice such a complaint.

            Togami huffed in exasperation.

            “All of you are fools… I can’t believe nobody has mentioned the most serious truth.”

            “… The most serious truth?” Chiaki tilted her head curiously.

            “If no one here noticed it, you’re all bigger fools than I thought.” Togami scoffed.

            Fuyuhiko clenched a fist furiously as he gritted his teeth.

            “What’d you say, you fat bastard? Don’t be talkin’ all big and shit!”

            “Small dogs shouldn’t bark so loud…” Togami snapped back condescendingly.

            Hajime frowned as he pressed the heir for more information.

            “Hey, what’s this most serious truth? Did… did you find out something about this island…?”

            Togami crossed his arms and looked off to the side.

            “Have you all gone to the park that’s across the bridge?”

            “The park with that bronze statue of all the creepy animals on it, right?” Hajime asked for clarification.

            Togami raised a pointer finger astutely.

            “When I saw it, I remembered a story I’d heard before. There’s an island in the Pacific Ocean, a beautiful island paradise where summer never ends… It consists of a central island surrounded by five different islands… It’s also said that five holy animals symbolize each of those surrounding islands. That island’s name is… Jabberwock Island.”

            Nagito’s eyes widened in realization.

            “Could this island be…?”

            “Jabberwock Island? Could that be the name of this island?” Hajime also wondered. Togami merely shrugged.

            “Still, there is something on my mind. In fact, according to what I’ve heard, Jabberwock Island is already…” The heir trailed off before crossing his arms with a huff. “… Never mind.”

            “Hold it right there! That’s a rather incomplete story you’ve told us.” Nidai spoke for everyone, hands on his hips sternly.

            “No need to shout. I’ll let you know once I obtain more information.” Togami snorted derisively.

            Akane picked at her ear in disinterest.

            “Meh, I don’t care what this island’s called. Nikoniko Island or Papua Island or whatever… Doesn’t change the fact we’ve all gotta live here, right?”

            Ibuki pranced around giddily.

            “Living together on this tropical island sure is exciiiting! I’m super looking forward to it~!”

            “Right on! This ain’t a bad school at all!” Souda agreed wholeheartedly, flashing a thumb’s-up and a toothy grin.

            “H-Hey…? You guys?” Hajime looked around, not liking where this was going with the overall attitudes.

            “Hmm, I like this island, too!” Hiyoko agreed with a bright grin. “… Can’t say the same about the rest of you cretins.”

            “Huh? Did I hear something?” Teruteru combed his hair nervously.

            “I’m still worried, but I don’t feel as worried as I did earlier…” Mahiru confessed. She grinned easily. “Yeah, since there’s no danger or inconvenience, I feel like this won’t be a problem!”

            Hajime gestured frantically.

            “Hey, listen to what you guys are saying! We need to stay calm and think about this…! We’re all here to attend Hope’s Peak Academy, right? But we’re living on an island like this instead… No matter what, it’s completely weird!”

            Tanaka crossed his arms, scowling.

            “Why don’t you stop talking for a while? Go cool your head off or something.”

            “E-Eh…?” Hajime reeled back in shock.

            “P-Plus, even if we wanted to leave, there’s no way we can…” Teruteru pointed out.

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

            “There’s no ship, and the planes are just for show…”

            “From what I’ve discovered, there’s no way to contact the outside world, either…” Peko murmured. “In conclusion… It would be impossible to call for help.”

            “Then, why don’t we just swim home?” Akane suggested not too brightly.

            “There’s no way we can swim that far…!” Mikan wailed.

            “SHOW SOME SPIRIT!!!” Nidai roared passionately. Mahiru huffed and placed her hands on her hips, scowling.

            “I’m telling you, that’s impossible!”

            “Th-Then… what if we cut down some trees and made a raft…?” Hajime suggested.

            … And that’s when the bunny popped up again.

            “Nuh-uh! You can’t do that! That’s the biggest of the no-no’s! Please recall the guidelines of this school trip! ‘Littering is not allowed. Let us coexist with this island’s beautiful nature in mutual prosperity.’ Got it? I want everyone to get along and live peacefully on this beautiful tropical island.”

            “Wh-What’s with these rules? Who cares about that…!” Hajime cried out.

            “Stop.” Togami barked, shooting the brunet a stern glare. “This rabbit seems to be rather finicky about these so-called rules… Based on that, what if your actions place everyone here in danger?”

            Usami waved her paws in the air frightfully.

            “Th-The word ‘danger’ is a bit much! I wouldn’t do something like that!”

            “Hinata… I understand how you feel, but you need to calm down a little, okay?” Nagito tried placating the brunet.

            “F-For now… as long as we don’t do anything weird, it seems there is no danger…” Mikan nervously agreed.

            “And as long as we gather the Hope Fragments, we’ll be able to get off this island soon.” Chiaki piped up.

            “Y-You’re all just gonna believe that…?” Hajime balked.

            “There’s no other choice but to believe… for now.” Mukuro pointed out. “Until we have evidence to the contrary, you probably don’t have anything to worry about…”

            “P-Probably…?” Hajime shakily echoed, to which the soldier shrugged.

            “There’s always a degree of uncertainty. It’s good to be aware and responsive… But if you walk anywhere all tense and jumping at every shadow, you won’t be able to detect the real threats.”

            Hajime deflated as she brought that up… She… She had a point… But still…!

            “Anyway, Usami~!” Ibuki moved on. “What’s this present you mentioned in your announcement earlier?”

            Usami threw her paws up in surprise again.

            “Ah, that’s right! Well, of course I didn’t forget… Love, love~ This is it!” Usami presented a miniature version of herself to all of them, little squeezable dolls that came with automated phrases. “Don’t be upset! I’ve prepared one for you all, so don’t worry~!”

            Nagito stared at the ‘present’.

            “… What is this?”

            “Pfft, teehee~! It’s an Usami Strap! If you squeeze the tummy, it talks! Isn’t it cute? Love, love~!”

            Togami huffed in impatience.

            “… What a waste of time.”

            Ibuki rubbed the back of her head disappointedly.

            “Man, and I got my hopes up, too…”

            “I’m ashamed I even had my hopes up!” Teruteru wailed.

            Chiaki tilted her head.

            “Really? I think it’s pretty cute. Especially how the ears look like a rabbit’s…”

            “Well, Usami does mean ‘rabbit’, you know!” Usami explained. Regardless, a number of Usami Straps ended up on the beach anyway… After everyone received their strap, they tossed them on the beach. “Hey! You can’t taint nature with trash!”

            “See? Even you think they’re trash!” Ibuki accused.

            Usami miserably picked up the straps and looked at them all with a lonely expression.

            “Ugh… And I even prepared one more present, too, but now I don’t wanna give it to you bad kids…”

            “Hm? You have something else?” Peko asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “Well, compared to the Usami Strap, it’s not that big of a deal…” Usami explained before presenting the next gift. “Basically, I’ve prepared a motive for everyone.”

            “A motive…?” Hajime echoed, still having a bad feeling about all this.

            Usami giggled spreading out her arms warmly.

            “That’s right. A motive for everyone to get along. We’ve come all this way to a tropical island, so I thought that it’d be great to do something island themed…”

            Akane grinned, hand on her hip.

            “Like what? Are you thinkin’ of throwin’ a big party or somethin’?”

            “Cooorrect!” Usami confirmed, throwing her paws up excitedly.

            “Is it a festival? Or maybe a miniature shrine? How wonderful!” Sonia gushed.

            Teruteru grinned lecherously.

            “Excuse me, Miss Sonia… My loins are still full of poison, and I would appreciate it if you could suck it out with your mouth…”

            “Knock it off, Teruteru!” Nagito reproached the perverted chef.

            “Oh, your tenderloins? You betcha!” Sonia pumped her arm excitedly, which had Nagito trying to hold her back more.

            “Just ignore him, Sonia!”

            “If we’re talking about fun parties on a tropical island, maybe it should be a barbeque or something?” Ibuki suggested brightly.

            “Ah, a campfire sounds fun, too.” Mahiru agreed sagely.

            “Let’s find a hoop snake and kill it~!” Hiyoko cheered boisterously.

            “Is looking for one not enough for you?!” Kazuichi cried out in panic.

            “It seems everyone has different ideas, but if we’re gonna be at the ocean, then first…” Usami brought out the next gift, small blue and red bags. “Tadaaa! This is what it’s all about~!”

            “A swimming bag?” Nagito asked with a tilt of the head.

            “Cooorrect! Love, love~!” Usami confirmed happily.

            “Whoooaaa! Then that means…!” Kazuichi cried out excitedly.

            “That’s right. I have swimsuits for everyone. Well, school swimsuits, actually. I hope that’s okay.” Usami helpfully explained.

            Hajime stared at the rabbit, feeling nervous.

            “A-Are you telling us to go swimming? In a situation like this…?”

            “It’s not like I’m ordering you guys to swim or anything.” Usami shuffled her feet bashfully. “It’s just, if you wanna go swimming, you can…”

            “Th-There’s no way I’m going swimming!” Hajime yelled. “There’s no way anyone would be so thoughtless to go swimming in a situation like this…”

            “YAAAHOOOOOO!” Ibuki cheered, already running off with her swimming bag.

            “E-Eh…?” Hajime trailed off uncertainly. Kazuichi rested his arms behind his head, grinning toothily in a relaxed manner.

            “Aw, yeah! That’s what I’m talking about! With weather this nice, there’s no way I’m gonna pass up on swimming!”

            Teruteru chuckled suggestively.

            “I agree~! Even my loins agree! You see?”

            “Your tenderloins? I understand!” Sonia pumped her arm excitedly again. Nagito held up his hands yet again.

            “S-Seriously, don’t try to understand!”

            “How long has it been since I last swam in the sea…?” Mahiru wondered to herself.

            “ALLLLLL RIIIIIIGHT! LET’S GO CHANGE!!!!!” Nidai roared passionately, cracking his knuckles.

            Those who were excited to go swimming hurried to grab swimming bags from Usami, and then rushed off to the hotel to go change. Nagito approached Hajime, clutching a swimming bag of his own – and Mukuro was a step behind him, also with a swimming bag in hand.

            “What are you going to do, Hinata? I understand how you feel, and I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do… But if you feel up for it, I’d be happy if you came along, too.”

            Hajime just stared as the luckster and soldier ran off to the hotel together, the latter seeming more like an escort or like a doting older sister. The brunet’s shoulders sagged as it set in that he was being left behind, even though it was something he was wary about doing.

            ‘There is no danger…’ Hajime thought to himself, feeling hollow on th inside. ‘There is nothing tragic waiting to happen on this island… Is that really true? If so… Am I… actually wrong?’

            “Hmph…” Togami snorted, crossing his arms.

            Hajime saw a few of them were remaining on the beach like him. He turned to Saionji curiously.

            “You’re not going to swim?”

            “Nah, it’s more fun to step on the crabs walking on the beach!” The blonde answered with a little too much glee. Hajime shivered.

            “I-I see…” The brunet edged away from the sadistic dancer and moved over to the heir. “You’re not gonna swim, Togami?”

            “Of course not.” Togami sneered. “However, don’t think that makes us friends or anything. Our reasons couldn’t be more different.”

            “Different reasons?” Hajime cocked his head in confusion.

            Togami smirked.

            “You cannot accept our situation because you’re nothing but a coward, right?”

            “C-Coward…?!” Hajime balked in outrage.

            “That Usami thing is not lying to us…” Togami spoke with such certainty. “You’re starting to realize that, aren’t you?”

            “Th-Then… why aren’t you going to go swim?” The brunet asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “I simply don’t like ocean water. It’s too salty.” The heir derisively snorted.

            ‘That’s not something to boast about… Little kids say the same thing when they don’t want to swim.’ Hajime deadpanned in his head. He turned to the gamer next, who was blearily rubbing at her eyes. “You’re not gonna swim?”

            “Mm, I’m like really, really sleepy right now…” Chiaki replied tiredly.

            “I-I see… It’d be a problem if you fell asleep while you were swimming.” Hajime agreed, smiling sympathetically at the gamer.

            “I’d probably drown…” She mused.

            “More like definitely drown…” He shook his head with a wry smile. ‘But to be sleepy in a situation like this… She’s sure got some bold nerves…’

            Aside from Hiyoko, Byakuya, and Chiaki, there were a couple of others still around – Fuyuhiko and Chisa. Hajime didn’t need to approach the yakuza heir to know he wasn’t going to join in on the fun and games, because that would mean getting buddy-buddy with everyone… Which was the opposite of what Fuyuhiko wanted.

            Yukizome-sensei, however…

            “You’re not joining in, Sensei?” Hajime asked with a raised eyebrow. The orange-haired woman simply clasped her hands behind her back and beamed sunnily.

            “A teacher has an obligation to watch over her students~…” The woman hummed happily. “I’m not leaving any rotten oranges on the beach alone… No one should be alone, not even you, Hinata-kun!”

            “R-Rotten oranges…?” Hajime stammered, not really sure what to make of that comment. At that point Usami spoke up again.

            “Ah! Speaking of which, everyone has returned!”

            Hearing that, Hajime turned around, and he saw a bunch of people in swimsuits jumping in the ocean and shouting in joy. Girls like Mahiru, Sonia, Peko, Ibuki, and Mukuro fit into their swimsuits just fine – girls like Mikan and Akane, though… Well. *coughs* Hajime couldn’t help noticing how… shapely… they were…

            … Why did Mikan’s swimsuit bunch up in the back like that?

            Nidai had a similar problem with his big, muscular body. The other guys – Kazuichi, Gundham, Nagito, and Teruteru fit into their swimsuits better.

            The ones who opted to swim further out in the ocean were Ibuki, Peko, Akane, and Kazuichi. Sonia was overjoyed simply dipping her toes in the salty water. Mahiru, Mikan, and Nagito were content to swim closer to the beach, while Mukuro, Teruteru, and Nekomaru watched. Gundham stayed on the beach, building a sandcastle.

            “YAAAHOOOOOO!” Kazuichi crowed out in delight.

            “Yaaay, the sea!” Mikan cheered.

            “Aaah, the water is so cool. It feels great!” Sonia gushed.

            “Wah! Too salty! This water’s too salty! It’s not going easy on me!” Ibuki whined, but continued swimming anyway.

            “Heeey~!” Teruteru called out suggestively, wiggling his eyebrows. “I’ve got some suntan lotion from the supermarket! Would anyone like a rubdown…?”

            Nidai’s eyebrows rose in intrigue as he nodded sagely.

            “Oh! You’re quite considerate! Now then, will you apply it right away?”

            Teruteru blinked owlishly.

            “Eh? Rubbing lotion on a muscular man…? All right, no problem! My tastes are pretty open, y’know!”

            “You seem a little too open…” Mahiru chastised the perverted chef. “Like you’re covering too many bases by yourself!”

            “Mmhmhmhm…” Teruteru giggled perversely. “I’ll make sure to slather you with lots and lots of oil~…”

            “Wh-What is this feeling of intense bloodlust?!” Nidai exclaimed.

            Though she didn’t say anything, Mukuro was keeping an eye on Nagito as he swam. Hajime felt compelled to ask what made her so… protective of the luckster, but he didn’t want to seem rude or intrusive. It just seemed a little weird…

            ‘It feels like a resort… There’s no other way to describe it…’ Hajime thought to himself, feeling a bit numb seeing everyone have so much fun out there. ‘Seeing the other students having all this fun… I… I…’

            Usami giggled happily.

            “Yep, yep~! I’m very happy… Everyone seems to be getting along with each other, so I’m very happy! I thought this would be hard until everyone got used to this, but they’re all acting like Ultimates! Let’s keep up the pace and all do our best to peacefully enjoy this heart-throbbing school trip!” Usami pumped her paw in the air with determination.

            Hajime just continued staring at everyone out there.

            ‘… What’s this feeling of alienation? I can’t really put it into words… Am I really… wrong about all this?’ He took a deep, patient breath. “… Fine. I just gotta do it, right? Then… I’ll do it! That’s right, I’ll do it!”

            “Hinata-kun…?” Chisa tilted her head curiously, though a small grin was tugging at her lips.

            “Did something happen?” Usami asked with slight concern, but Hajime brushed that aside.

            “Hey, hand me one of those swimsuits!” Inwardly, Hajime couldn’t help but laugh at himself. ‘Jeez! I can’t believe I was the only one worrying! I feel like an idiot! I don’t care anymore! I’m gonna go for it! I’m gonna seriously enjoy myself and have fun!’

            “Heeey, you guys! Don’t forget about me! Hey, hey! Wait for me! Let me join in on the fun!” Hajime was about to rush off and go change… but that was when something ominous occurred. The sky darkened, becoming overcast with gray clouds, and the ocean waves became just a little more rough… “… Huh? What’s happening…? These strange clouds… This doesn’t seem natural at all…!’          

            “Eh? Huh…?” Usami seemed just as perturbed as the rest of them. Hajime whirled on her suspiciously.

            “Hey, what’s going on? What did you do?! This is obviously not right! It was sunny just a few minutes ago!”

            “Wha… Wha-wha-wha… Wh-What is this?!” Usami cried out in distress.

            “… Huh?” Hajime was caught off-guard. Was this… really not her fault…?

            “I didn’t do anything!” Usami confirmed the brunet’s doubts. “What is all this…? There’s no way! Something like this shouldn’t be happening!”

            And at that exact moment… Just when it seemed like this couldn’t get any more confusing, it suddenly happened. The screen on the palm tree flickered on, and a hazy, static-filled image of… what seemed like a teddy bear of some sort… appeared.

            “Ahh! Mic check, mic check! Ah… Can you hear me, can you hear me?” The voice was so laidback and gleeful that it seemed out of place… But it was different from Usami’s. It was as if a storm of malice was raging behind that laidback tone. That voice caused a great many of them to shudder in dread. “Upupu… Surprised? You were totally surprised~! Riiight~? Now then, sorry to keep you all waiting for so long. Let’s leave all this worthless entertainment behind us… It’s time for the main attraction! You guys better hustle over to Jabberwock Park!”

            The screen flickered off, leaving the students very numb and fearful. Chisa frowned in concern, eyes falling over her students, aching to hold each of them close so nothing would happen to them…

            “Th-This voice… Could it be…?” Usami whispered in dread. “I-If this is… Oh, this is very bad. I gotta do something…! It’s all up to me!”

            The rabbit then took off, eager to ward off the threat that had so suddenly appeared on the island…

            “It seems… that was an unusual occurrence…” Togami astutely raised a finger to his temple in thought.

            “It’s best… if we go, too…” Chiaki murmured softly. “Jabberwock Park, was it? Let’s hurry.”

            As the gamer departed, Akane raced to chase after her.

            “H-Hey, wait up…!”

            “Kids…! Don’t run off!” Chisa cried out, and went after them.

            “B-But what about everyone who was swimming…?” Hajime couldn’t help asking. Togami scowled.

            “There’s no time to wait for them to change. I have a bad feeling about this… I’ll head over first.” With that, the heir stalked off with a grave expression. Fuyuhiko clicked his tongue.

            “Shit, just what the hell is going on…? I’ll be really pissed if this is something fucking stupid!” The yakuza grumbled as he stormed off, as well. Everyone who was swimming returned to the hotel to change.

            ‘What is this…? What the hell is going on?’ Hajime thought to himself gravely. “O-Okay… Jabberwock Park, right?”

            “Boooo! There’s just too many Crabs-san!” The dancer pouted, being one of the last to leave. “Fiiine, I’ll just step on them later!”

            ‘You crabs better run while you still can…’ Hajime deadpanned in his mind.

            ~*~

            As the last of them arrived in Jabberwock Park, Usami’s shouting voice could be heard ringing throughout the park.

            “Where are you?! Where are you hiding?!”

            “H-Hiding…? Who are you talking to?” Hajime asked with a perturbed expression.

            “Upupu~!” An obnoxious laugh could be heard coming from somewhere nearby, none of them could place where.

            “Hey, hey! Where are you? Show yourself!” Usami demanded heatedly.

            “Ahhh-hahahahahaha!”  The laughter just kept coming… And then, a stuffed bear appeared, sitting on the pedestal next to the bronze statue. It had a white half and a black half; a kind smile on one side and a devious grin on the other; a normal black eye and an ominous, edgy-looking red eye that almost seemed to glow with a dark delight. “Why, hello there! Thank you all for waiting! Long time, no see guys! I am Monokuma! I’m the Headmaster of this Academy~!”

            The bear then stood up and hopped down into the main plaza of the park. He traced a lazy circle as he got a good look at all of them.

            “Ahem, now that I have made my dashing appearance, the first thing I need to say is… This is so friggin’ lame! Lame, I say! Lamer than the lamest lame sauce!” He raised his paws in outrage before lowering them and emitting steam as he seemed to drool. “Oh, wait. Lamesauce?! Is that tasty?”

            Usami stomped up to the bear with authority.

            “Just as I thought… It was you! But… how…? Why is Monokuma here?!”

            ‘Monokuma…?’ Hajime latched onto that name, not knowing who he was.

            “SHAAADDUP!” Monokuma yelled, paws up in outrage again. “I’m livid, you know… And I’m about ready to barf thanks to your lukewarm attitude! Just what’s with this ‘heart-throbbing school trip’ crap anyway?! I’m bored! So hopelessly bored! This just ain’t fun at all! You better knock off this farce right now! You’ve gotta make this, you know… meet the demands of the world. Nobody wants to see high school students living calm and peaceful lives. What everyone wants to see is… Other people’s misery… and Despair…”

            Fuyuhiko’s hands twitched angrily as he snarled.

            “Wh-What the hell is with this stuffed animal…? Nothing he’s saying is making any damn sense…!”

            Togami chewed at his nails nervously.

            “What… What is going on? What is that thing?”

            Usami stepped forward protectively, wielding her magic stick.

            “Be careful, everyone! Stay back and leave this to me! I don’t know why Monokuma is here, but as long as I have this magic stick…!”

            Monokuma abruptly charged the rabbit, tackling her.

            “Yah! Opening~!”

            It was like something straight out of Looney Tunes. Monokuma boorishly rushed Usami, and a cloud of dust was kicked up from the result of their struggle. The comical sounds of Monokuma’s savage beatdown could be heard coming from it as well, as he and Usami would occasionally poke their heads and other appendages outside the cloud of dust.

            “Hiiiyah…! Hiiiyah…!” The bear cried out gleefully as he chopped, punched, and kicked Usami.

            The bunny quivered in both pain and outrage.

            “S… Stop it…!”

            “Chi-yah! Chi-yah!” Monokuma kept up his beatdown.

            “Kyaaaaaaah…!” Usami screamed, as she suddenly got the boot and the cloud dissipated. She was on the ground, crawling toward Monokuma and her magic stick, which was right next to his foot.

            “And now, for the coup de grace…!” Monokuma lifted up his foot to snap the magic stick in half… and to everyone’s confusion, he froze mid-motion. He stayed like that for several prolonged, awkward seconds. And then he giggled… “Oho… Ohohoho… That’s clever. You aaalmost had me, ya bastards… I’ll be taking this~!”

            With that said, Monokuma swiped up the stick in his paw… and made a dash for it. Usami bounced to her feet and trembled furiously, steam blowing out of her ears.

            “Hey…! G-Give that back…!” The rabbit ran after Monokuma, who just kept giving her the runaround.

            “You can’t catch me, you can’t catch meee~!” Monokuma called out mockingly as he kept running around the park with Usami in hot pursuit. He’d occasionally leap atop the statue, and then hop off a random corner to speed off in that direction.

            It was… it was a really pitiful sight. Watching Usami hopelessly chase after Monokuma like that. The chase couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes, but it did eventually come to an end. Usami seemed to pick up on the patterns of Monokuma’s paths, and she eventually managed to tackle him, swiping the stick back from him…

            “Y-You hateful bear…! If you won’t, then I-I’ll just break it for you!” That said, Usami snapped her magic stick in half, looking triumphant with her paws on her hips. “Th-There! What do you think about that?!”

            Monokuma, on the ground, just giggled at the turn of events.

            “Nice, nice~! You did exactly what I wanted you to! And by the way, you broke Rule #05, so I’ll be taking that outta your hide! But first, I’ll revel in my flawless victory~…” The bear mused to himself… and began making ‘snow angels’ on the ground with that permanent grin etched on his face.

            Usami froze, and began to sweat bullets.

            “R-R-Rule #05…? There’s not a…?” She looked over at the students and Yukizome, who all had their e-handbooks out for some reason. “O-Oh no…! What did you do?!”

            Monokuma hopped to his feet giddily, paws patting his tummy contentedly.

            “That stick was the Rule Maker, riiight~? You were gonna trick me into breaking it before I usurped control! You probably could have even destroyed me if I’d just smashed my foot down onto that stick~! Alas~… I smelled that totally obvious trap from a mile away! Thanks for being my patsy, though. With your attention diverted, their attention was diverted, and that meant I could implement the new rules toot-sweet~!” Monokuma sighed contentedly. “And now that you’ve broken the Rule Maker, it’s gonna be hard to add future rules… That’s fine~! I got in eeeverything I needed. And those hacks are gonna take their sweet ass time trying to regain control, so in the meantime, Anarchy’s the name of the game~!”

            Usami trembled furiously once again.

            “Y-You…! You wanted this! You knew we wouldn’t let you have complete control, so you wanted to slow us down, too…!”

            Monokuma tilted his head at her curiously.

            “Well, duh! It’s reeeally annoying when your enemy’s got the home field advantage, so I had to fix that! How else does one manufacture a Killing Game~?” Monokuma raised a paw as he showed off his dark grinning side. “I don’t need absolute power anyway~… If those guys had bothered to learn anything, it’s that I don’t hold a gun to people’s heads and make ‘em do as I please! All I do is give helpful little nudges… Sooo~… Just having my foot in the door is enough for me~!”

            As Usami fumed and moaned about dirty trick, Hajime butted in with an ashen expression.

            “Wh-Wh-What the hell is all this?!” He held up his e-handbook, panicked. “K-Killing?! The hell?!”

            Monokuma tilted his head again, as if people were questioning something that was totally normal.

            “Hmm…? Do you not like your Headmaster’s amendments to the rules? I’m sorry, but we needed to cure this lovey-dovey puke fest… I told you, we need to meet the demands of the world~!” Monokuma cackled gleefully. “Ah, but before I fully get into that… I really do need to take care of ooone more thing that’s bugging me. Basically… Usami, you’re too plain~! White rabbits are faaar too plain~! Sooo, I’m gonna make you in my image! Aaah-hahaha~!”

            With that said… Monokuma tackled Usami again, kicking up that cloud of dust again as they struggled intensely.

            “This is what happens when you defy me… I’ll crunch ya! I’ll bite ya! I’ll rip you apart~!”

            “Kyaaaaaaah! Stoooooop it…!” Usami cried out in distress. Monokuma just huffed in exasperation as he kept up his merciless assault.

            “Hey, hold still! This wooden stick… isn’t gonna shove itself in, y’know!”

            Usami gasped.

            “Noooooo! That’s a no-no! That’s a big no-no!!!!!”

            But, much to the rabbit’s dismay… When the dust cloud cleared, Monokuma was standing off to the side, smirking proudly with his arms crossed as he gazed over her new look. Her body was half white and half pink, which mimicked him, but she was also wearing a diaper now…

            “Taaa-daaa! ALL DONE!” Monokuma giggled.

            “Wh-What is this?!” Usami demanded, looking over her own body. “I’m not supposed to look weird like this! Change me back to normal!”

            Monokuma tilted his head mockingly.

            “My, my~… Defying your nii-san’s fashion sense. Is Monomi a little troublemaker~?”

            “N-Nii-san…? Monomi?” The rabbit asked, troubled.

            “Your current position is too wishy-washy, so I’m setting you to be my imouto, Monomi~! Though it’s only an external setting, after all~…” The bear giggled, paws over his mouth mischievously.

            Monomi raised her paws in outrage.

            “Wh-Why do I have to be your imouto?!”

            “Nee-san, then…?” Monokuma hummed, clearly not liking the idea. “You wanna be the neesan that got separated at birth…? Hmm… That doesn’t really feel right. Yep, you’re definitely imouto-chan! Sooo, that’s how it’s gonna be… Monomi! From now on, if you ever disobey me, I will never forgive you!”

            Unbeknownst to the squabbling plushies, Mukuro was watching this unfold with bizarre, unidentifiable feelings rolling around in her gut. This… This seemed familiar. The words, the interactions… Even those words, “nee-san”, “imouto”, they churned up such… volatile emotions within her.

            But she didn’t have a sister… Did she…? Mukuro was well aware that her memories were missing, but she would think that she would remember having any remaining family. And if she did have a sister… Why? Why did watching this make her so…?

            “H-How…? Even the display changed to Monomi!” Monomi cried out in anguish. “H-Hey! I won’t let you make up your own settings!”

            The rabbit cried out in pain as Monokuma punched her viciously.

            “Stupid fool! Do you think you can win against me?!” The bear huffed.

            “Owww! It hurts a lot when you punch me!” Monomi whined.

            Monokuma cackled after pulling away.

            “How about that?! Now you’ve learned your lesson!”

            Hajime, like everyone else in the plaza, just watched this unfold with a completely lost expression. What… was this…? Living stuffed animals fighting each other… That was, like, completely insane…! And that bear still hadn’t explained those damn rules…!

            “Hey… What’s with this stupid performance…?” Fuyuhiko repeated the question on all their minds.

            “Wh-Who friggin’ knows?!” Akane exclaimed, slack-jawed.

            “But… It’s obvious something bad is happening.” Chiaki pointed out reasonably.

            “Whaaa…? Wh-What is this? What’s going on?!” Teruteru demanded.

            Monomi sobbed loudly.

            “Huh…? Now she’s all weird-looking!” Mahiru muttered.

            Monokuma hung his head in depression.

            “Weird-looking…? She matches me now, y’know! How insensitive…”

            Ibuki held the sides of her head in panic as she looked between Monokuma and Monomi.

            “There’s more of ‘em?!”

            “Wh-What does this mean? What is that black-and-white tanuki…?” Peko wondered aloud.

            “I’m not a tanuki, I’m a bear! I’m Monokuma!” The bear roared furiously, paws up in the air angrily.

            “I-I don’t understand it myself, but… a new stuffed animal appeared?” Souda rubbed his head, feeling a migraine coming on. “I mean… why is that stuffed animal even talking?”

            “Seriously, I’m not a stuffed animal, I’m Monokuma! The Headmaster of Hope’s Peak Academy!” Monokuma roared in outrage.

            “Monokuma?!” Nagito exclaimed, the name not ringing a bell with him.

            “Did you say… Headmaster?!” Nidai scowled, arms crossed.

            Yukizome took a tentative step forward.

            “If you say you’re the Headmaster… Then what’s your real name?!” She knew deep down Monokuma wasn’t associated with Jin Kirigiri. The stern-faced man wouldn’t pull a stunt like this… So she had to know who this new threat was to her students.

            Monokuma grumbled moodily.

            “Jeez, you guys do not listen! I am Monokuma!” The bear shook his head exasperatedly. “Regardless… it appears everyone has gathered. Now then, as the Headmaster, I shall make a formal declaration! From this point forward, the Killing School Trip will now commence! A school trip where everyone gets along has no stimulation at all! And it’s so damn boring~! Nobody wants to play a game like that! You guys agree with me, right?! Sooo, let’s begin our Killing School Trip! Naturally, you guys are the contestants!”

            Teruteru backed up fearfully.

            “Killing… contestants…?” He echoed, the words not seeming to make sense to him.

            Monomi raised her paws in outrage.

            “Wh-What are you saying?! I will absolutely, positively not allow such bloody events!” She cried out in agony as Monokuma viciously kicked her this time. “Owww! It hurts a lot when you kick me, too…!”

            Monokuma huffed again.

            “Jeez… Your brain sure is tiny, Monomi. How many times do I have to tell you? Pay attention this time. Except in manga, imouto is never smarter than her nii-san! Now then, we got off-topic for a while, so let’s go back to the explanation of the Killing School Trip.”

            Mikan trembled fearfully.

            “Wh-What do you mean, ‘Killing School Trip’…?”

            Monokuma tilted his head curiously.

            “Well, isn’t that obvious? You guys are going to kill each other!”

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head nervously as he chuckled.

            “Kill each other…? I-I see…” He recoiled in shock and dread. “K-Kill each other?!”

            “Wh-What are you saying?! That’s impossible!” Teruteru insisted, trembling.

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “Well, don’t you think it’s kinda lame and boring that you can’t leave this island unless you all get along? So I’m changing the rules~! If you want off this island, please kill one of your friends without getting caught~!”

            Mukuro frowned at that. That was in the new rules for the trip… But…

            ‘Rule #05: Violence against Headmaster Monokuma is strictly prohibited, as is destruction of surveillance cameras and monitors. Rule #06: Anyone who kills a fellow student and becomes ‘Blackened’ will graduate, unless they are discovered. Rule #07: Monokuma dictates the terms of ‘discovery’ of the Blackened, we’ll talk about this later. Rule #08: The Body Discovery Announcement will play as soon as three or more people discover a body for the first time. Rule #09:  You are free to investigate this island at your own discretion. Your actions in this regard are not limited. Rule #10: The blackened may only kill a maximum of two people during any single ‘killing game’.’

            “You say ‘without being discovered’… What does that mean?” The soldier demanded, glaring at the bear.

            “It means, secretly kill someone without your classmates finding out! Or you’re gonna get punished~!” Monokuma deflected the question, cackling. “Y’see, it’s plain and simple. Aren’t you glad it’s sooo easy~?”

            Byakuya scoffed with his arms crossed.

            “Hardly. You’re still not going into any detail… Rule #07 says you dictate the terms of ‘discovery’, but isn’t it unfair to make people play a game without knowing all the rules…?”

            Monokuma giggled uncontrollably.

            “Like I said, we’ll go over that later! I’m a loophole connoisseur! Ain’t I a stinker~?” He teased bashfully.

            Kazuichi grumbled, rubbing his forehead again.

            “F-Forget that! What’s punishment supposed to mean, anyway?! At least tell us that!”

            “Basically… it’s an execution!” Monokuma revealed passionately.

            “E-Execution?!” Sonia recoiled.

            Monokuma giggled uncontrollably.

            “The heart-stopping punishment that follows a killer’s imminent success or failure~! This is definitely one of the perks of the Killing School Trip~! What sort of spine-tingling punishments will we see? I can’t help it, I’m already getting excited~! There may even be some unique punishments, like impaling you through the head with a Thingamajig claw…! Ahem, any method of killing is fine. Popular ones like bludgeoning, stabbing, strangling, and poisoning… To shooting, beating running over, burning, bombing, slashing, drowning, electrocution, crushing, cursing… Please, choose whichever killing method you prefer. No time limit, so you can kill as you please… It’s an All You Can Murder Buffet~… A theme park of murder… That’s what this Killing School Trip is all about~!”

            Hajime clutched his chest without realizing. With each beat of his heart, a sharp, stabbing pain coursed through his body… He didn’t understand… what was happening to him.

            “D-Don’t fuck with me!” Fuyuhiko snarled, hands twitching furiously at his side. Kazuichi raised a fist angrily, too.

            “Th-That’s right! Who on earth would kill someone?!”

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “It’s like I said earlier~… I’m not ordering anyone to kill. Whether or not you kill someone is entirely up to you! But be careful~! Youth doesn’t last forever! It’ll be too late if you guys wait ‘til you’re in your forties to start killing each other~!”

            Teruteru combed his hair nervously.

            “I-I don’t believe any of this… I don’t believe any of this… I don’t believe any of this…” He chanted desperately.

            “Wh-What if nobody ever gets murdered? Does that mean we’ll never leave this island?” Mahiru demanded with an ashen expression.

            “Who knows?!” Monokuma answered flippantly. “Anyway, I’d like for you all to go through this with Killing School Trip in a healthy and positive manner.”

            “W-Wait just a minute! Why do we have to do this?!” The photographer demanded with more heat.

            Yukizome clapped a hand on Koizumi’s shoulder reassuringly.

            “You don’t have to! I won’t allow it…!” She raised a clenched fist in determination as she glared at both Monokuma and Monomi. “These two are just outsiders, but I…! I’m a real teacher of Hope’s Peak Academy! I won’t allow you to touch a hair on my students!!!”

            Yukizome’s impassioned words seemed to have a pacifying effect on all the students as they calmed down and looked to the orange-haired woman. That was true. Before Monomi and Monokuma had shown up, she had introduced herself as their homeroom teacher… She might have been in the same predicament as them, but she was a certified teacher! You don’t mess with someone like that, especially not when they were a teacher at the greatest learning institution in the world…!

            Monokuma snickered mischievously.

            “Well~… It’s not like I’ll be doing the touching… Your little scamps will be doing all the slaughtering with their own hands~… But go on, give it your best shot, toots~!”

            Nekomaru cracked his knuckles threateningly at the bear.

            “Hold on… You’ve been running your mouth for quite some time now… I don’t want to get violent, but if I do, I have no idea what might happen!”

            Akane raised her hands excitedly as she grinned wolfishly.

            “What, a fight? Do I need to beat the crap outta that black-and-white bear?”

            Peko grabbed for the sword on her back.

            “Who would dare try to kill…? I’ll put a stop to it, with force if necessary.”

            And though she stayed silent, Mukuro’s hand was getting twitchy for the survival knife she carried around at all times. Ibuki raised an index finger pointedly.

            “If you keep saying stupid stuff, the athletes in our group are gonna lose their patience!”

            Monokuma hung his head dejectedly.

            “Ah, is that so…? Well, I guess I expected this reaction…” He snapped his head up, raising a claw threateningly. “If you guys wanna do things by force, then I’ll have to fight back with a little force of my own…”

            “Force? What are you gonna do…?” Monomi whimpered fearfully. Monokuma turned his back on them.

            “Surge… O gods who dwell between light and darkness… In accordance with our contract, I summon thee now…” He raised his paws triumphantly. “Come forth, Monobeasts~!”

            In the next moment, the bronze statue of the five animals crumbled… and from within it, five robotic monstrosities emerged, each one towering above all of the humans. Each one unique in shape and size, too. Hajime had seen lots of strange and surprising things since he arrived on this island… But still. The phenomenon taking place right in front of him was blatantly out of this world.

            “H-Huh…? Huh…?” Sonia stuttered, frozen in horror.

            “Wh-Why… did the statue move…?” Mahiru gasped in shock.

            Monokuma cackled gleefully.

            “That’s no statue! They’re Monobeasts~!”

            “M-M-M-Monsters!!!!” Kazuichi screeched helplessly.

            “No, I just said they’re Monobeasts!” Monokuma reproached the mechanic.

            The strange thing about genuine surprise is when it happens, your voice won’t let you express it. That’s how Hajime felt. That’s what… Hajime was forced to accept. The sudden appearance of a monster might be normal in anime and video games… And that’s precisely why… he couldn’t grasp the reality of this situation… He couldn’t even feel fear. All he could do was stand there, aghast.

            “N-No… this can’t be… This is just… too weird…!” Mikan trembled, arms shakily shielding her head in fear.

            “Am I… having a nightmare or something…?” Fuyuhiko stood there, slack-jawed.

            Hiyoko laughed snidely.

            “Kyahaha~! A nightmare, he says! He just admitted his brain is a total flower patch~!”

            Monokuma raised a claw threateningly.

            “Jeez… You guys sure are a skeptical bunch…” He growled impatiently. “If something doesn’t fit in your narrow notions of common sense, you just deny it outright… How stupid. Ignorant cavemen are better than you all! Classifying events according to their genre is a disease of the modern age.”

            Monomi puffed up emotionally and stepped forward.

            “E-Everyone! Please stay back! I-I will protect everyone! Even at the cost of my own life… I will protect everyone!”

            Monokuma retched.

            “Huh? What’s this? Blegh… Ugh… Ah, I know! This is nausea! Your sickly sweet sense of justice makes me wanna puke!” The bear shook his head rapidly to clear it. “It was already decided, but now I’m not gonna wait anymore! You’ll be my example to everyone!”

            Having said that, Monokuma hopped up on the robot that looked like a giant pterodactyl as it proceeded to take flight. A Gatling gun emerged from its body, took aim at Monomi as it loomed overhead… and fired like a maniac. Monokuma gesticulated wildly, highly entertained as Monomi was punctured and perforated like Swiss cheese.

            A stray bullet made it past Monomi and cut Hajime’s cheek. He glanced down at the cut, highly disturbed. Monomi’s body eventually collapsed, dead, and her tattered, hole-filled bow fluttered to the ground.

            “Wah… Waaah…” Teruteru held his head as he shrieked in terror. “WAAAAAHHHHH?!”

            “Wh-What is that?!” Kazuichi screamed, feeling just as frightened.

            Ibuki foamed at the mouth, eyes rolling into the back of her head.

            “A-blub-blub-blub-blub… It’s only the first stage… and Monomi is already dead…!”

            Tanaka quaked in fear as he held his hamsters close, protectively.

            “I-Is that a demon…?! Or perhaps… It’s a weapon from the future…?!”

            Monokuma cackled gleefully.

            “Monobeasts are dreadful weapons of destruction~!”

            Even though a monster suddenly appeared, not a single one of them tried to run away. It’s not that they didn’t realize it was a monster… They were just… vastly out of their element. They had never experienced anything like this before, and had no idea how to deal with it. That reality was very lethal in this particular moment.

            “Upupu… That’s right, this is what I wanted~! This feeling of Despair~! Giving an example was totally the right call! Ah-hahahahahahaha~!”

            Unlike the exuberantly cackling Monokuma, they were completely frozen. As though they had forgotten to breathe… They stood there, horrified. They were powerless… No different than ants washed away in a storm.

            “Now then, I believe I’ve made my point…” Monokuma showed his dark grinning half proudly. “Just so we’re clear, you guys can’t defy me. If you don’t want to end up as fish food, you better not disobey me! Just so you know… I don’t feel mercy or sympathy. Cuz I’m a bear, after all~! An excuse like, ‘I got high off the this tropical atmosphere,’ won’t work on me at all! Being ignorant of the rules is no excuse~! Well, that’s true of any society, really. Now then… Enjoy the remainder of this liberating and harsh school trip~!”

            Monokuma belted out one last insane laugh before taking his departure. The Monobeasts vanished with him.

            ‘In truth, I… I’m so horribly tired. Everything’s just so unreasonable… I don’t even care if this is the aftermath.’ Hajime thought to himself, morbidly. He looked around sluggishly. ‘Everyone looks the same… The same tired expressions on pale faces…’

            “Wh-What just… happened…?” Nagito choked out.

            “U-Um… Um…” Teruteru quivered nervously. He poked his fingers together anxiously. “I-I… just won’t believe it… That’s it… That’s all there is to it…”

            Nekomaru clenched a fist and bowed his head in anguish.

            “It’d be one thing if we were up against a human or even an animal…” He clutched both sides of his head in terror and bellowed. “What the hell can we do against a monster like that?!”

            Kazuichi massaged his forehead, trembling like a leaf.

            “I-It’s impossible… Why is something impossible happening…?”

            Byakuya raised an astute finger to his temple.

            “Well, it’s not… really impossible. These Monobeasts or whatever they’re called are machines. Then, Monokuma must also be the same. As long as they’re machines… It means someone made them, and is controlling them.”

            Peko straightened up rigidly at this revelation.

            “Who could be responsible…? Why were we put into this unexplainable situation…?”

            “Hey!! Who is it? Who?!” Mahiru demanded, looking around pointedly at everyone.

            Teruteru laughed nervously, poking his fingers together.

            “Ah… Ahahaha… It could be anyone… It’s not like I believe it, anyway. There’s no way I’d believe something like that.” He combed his hair twitchily. “More importantly, are you guys hungry? Let’s stop thinking about this and just eat!”

            “… You can eat first.” Chiaki mumbled.

            Byakuya clenched a fist furiously.

            “No matter how confused or upset you are, I don’t mind. However, remember this… I don’t know who in the world is orchestrating this, but… We don’t need to be cautious of those machines… or even of whoever’s controlling them… More than anything, we must be cautious of… Ourselves.” The heir crossed his arms and looked around at everyone who was scattered around him in the plaza. “Being brought to a tropical island with complete strangers, and ordered to kill each other to escape… That creates fear in our minds, and the desire to escape that hopeless fear… is our worst enemy.”

            They all looked around at each other warily. Even Yukizome, who had given that courageous, impassioned speech to Monokuma earlier… had gone quiet as she looked at her students in distress and worry. As much as her impulses prodded her to give another gung-ho, rousing sermon, she had a sneaking suspicion that right this moment was not the time. Not when they were being forced to confront the honest truth… that each of them did have that potential to murder. But she wasn’t going to give up. These kids needed her now more than ever, and she was going to make damn sure to keep spirits high! They were only so scared in this moment because they were strangers! She would begin dismantling that fear in the coming days… because a killing was only likely to occur if they stayed strangers, if they never bonded. Their bonds… were their Hope.

            Only a student who kills a classmate can escape this island...

            That’s what many of the students were thinking. If they hoped to escape this situation, they had to sacrifice a person. There was a possibility that a killing would never occur, but…

            ‘Even I’m no different… So can I truly be confident that something like that isn’t gonna happen?’ Hajime thought to himself with a fierce scowl. ‘… No, there’s no way I can know for sure. In this nightmare of a situation, I don’t have the confidence to say that outright. Once you’re suspicious of something, you’ll start to be suspicious of everything… Even of yourself. That’s why it felt so hopeless…’

            Mukuro felt a wave wash over her… She knew this feeling well. Anticipation. This was a feeling she experienced every day, on and off the battlefield… But this time, it was saturated with something else. This was no ordinary anticipation.

            But just like those peculiar dark emotions that surfaced earlier, Mukuro had no way to pin down why she was feelin this… excitement. This glee. Perhaps… she was glad to be thrown back into a familiar environment. A trip where civilians colluded with each other and became friends, where a soldier’s protection was unwanted and unneeded… That might have been the norm, might have been what she should have wanted…

            Yet maybe the life of a civilian wasn’t for her. Perhaps… she lost that luxury of a “normal” life when she ran off to join Fenrir. War has a way of giving you perspective on things, and as Mukuro saw it, she’d been perfectly useless in that pacified environment. If she had stayed like that, with the exception of battling Nekomaru, her skills and knowledge would have gone rusty…

            And if anything had happened to Nagito because she had lost her edge, Mukuro never would have forgiven herself. A dull or broken blade was lethal to the soldier wielding them… This was the same for people, why the concept of ‘human weapons’ was feasible to her.

            This was… for the best. For Nagito. For herself.

            An island where everyone was wary of one another… Mukuro could understand these feelings and emotions much easier. Everyone would be more predictable… And if they were predictable, she could respond with the appropriate amount of force and not be disciplined for it.

            Hope or Despair… None of that mattered to Mukuro Ikusaba. The mission. The target. The VIP. Threat assessment. These were terms and concepts she was more familiar and comfortable with. For now, she knew exactly who each of those was, could assess the biggest threats to her new VIP.

            Well… assuming they hadn’t actually met, and her lost memories weren’t inaccurate. She would think it would be hard to be inaccurate in identifying a person when they were this familiar. Trusting her instincts was the one thing she could do, that she had to do, because it was all she knew how to do…

            … So for once, why did she feel uneasy about completely relying on those instincts…?

            That day became a day unlike any other… A day which held a more significant meaning. It was a special day… A very meaningful day full of Despair

            That was the beginning. The Killing School Trip had begun, and this tropical island was the stage.

Chapter Text

            Hajime blearily opened his bloodshot eyes at the sound of harsh pounding on his cottage door. Last night… had been less than stellar. Probably the worst night of sleep he had ever had in his young life.

            After they had all scattered for the evening, Togami’s words of warning ringing in their ears, Hajime had returned to the hotel and stayed out by the pool for a little bit, admiring the crystal clear sky sprinkled with stars. They really had been beautiful to gaze at… and yet… They were too beautiful. He couldn’t get it out of his head, no matter how hard he tried – someone was going to die, that was the only way any of them was going to get off this island.

            Hajime… wanted out of this place. He could admit it to himself. The mere thought of being here, in a place where his life was at constant risk, where everything was so impossible and unreasonable… Hajime wanted to leave, and he wanted to leave now… Yet the act of killing was different from thinking about it. His desire to escape warred with his conscience, and he had spent much of his night screaming until his voice gave out…

            Now that he was properly awake – he had tried going back to sleep after the morning announcement, to try and fruitlessly wake up from this nightmare once more – he could register the contents of his cottage. There was a wide, flat screen TV across from his bed, covering up one of the windows with blinds in his cottage, a potted plant next to it in the corner, and another one to the right in front of it. To the right of those was a small sofa that sat in front of another window with blinds and next to a small table with another, smaller potted plant on top of it. And to the far right, across from his bed, was a pristine bathroom that was also fitted with a tub and shower.

            … That was everything on the ground level. There was a small set of stairs that led up to a smaller upper area of the cottage that he hadn’t even checked out yet. But if the pounding on his door was reverberating with the pounding in his head like this, he’d kept his early morning visitor waiting long enough… Groggily, he got out of bed and shuffled over to the door, shoulders sagging as he tried fruitlessly to wipe the sleepiness out of his eyes. As he turned the knob, the door seemed to be forced open with a little more force than he was expecting, and he stumbled back and stared at his visitor in both bemusement and annoyance… before he finally registered who that visitor was, that is.

            At that point he adopted a deer caught in headlights look. Oh god. What on earth had he done now to deserve this?

            “Morning, Hinata-kun~!” Chisa chirped with the sunniest, most innocent expression on her face as her eyes sparkled. Yukizome-sensei was clearly a morning person. Which… made a lot of sense, really, but the sheer energy she was radiating… Was she like this all the time?! “We’re all meeting up in the cafeteria, and will be doing so every morning, okay~? That goes for nighttime dinners, too!”

            That sweet smile and disarming tone… She made it seem like this was optional, but Hajime knew from the way that she was inching towards him, fingers twitching, that this was not a choice or something he could turn down… Deciding cooperation was the better part of valor, his hands flew up peacefully and he smiled as reassuringly as he could muster.

            “O-O-Okay, okay…! I p-promise I’ll be there in just a few minutes! At least let me wash my face!”

            At first he thought he was going to get dragged off again, the way she frowned and dissected him with those bright, cheerful eyes… But, it turned out the brunet hadn’t needed to worry. The orange-haired woman closed her eyes and nodded, happy as a clam.

            “I’m glad we understand each other~! You wouldn’t believe the morning I’ve had.” Her disarming grin twitched the tiniest amount.

            ... No, no he probably wouldn’t. And he had no intention of finding out what had her so wound up…

            “Souda-kun, there you are~!” Yukizome cheerfully cried out, turning to the side slightly as she had spotted someone else out of the corner of her eye, outside of Hajime’s cottage. “Let’s get to breakfast, hmm?”

            “Gah…! M-M-M-MONSTER…!” The mechanic gave a shrill scream.

            … If it was any consolation, Kazuichi made a commendable effort in bolting away, Hajime noted as he poked his head outside his cottage. Apparently, however, one needed to have a good running start, because Yukizome-sensei seemed to lack the word ‘restraint’ in her dictionary… at least when applied to herself. She was on top of the mechanic in mere seconds and had a secure hold on his ankles before she turned her head back toward Hajime’s cottage and waved innocently as she began walking off to the hotel’s cafeteria with an unwilling Kazuichi Souda in tow.

            Hajime shuddered. Yup. He was avoiding that fate at all costs. He didn’t want to find out what being hunted down by Yukizome-sensei felt like… His hair would probably go gray from looking over his shoulder every couple seconds of every waking hour.

            … And she’d still get him, in all likelihood. Hajime was not taking chances here. That woman terrified him…

            ~*~

            “You’re late, Hinata.” Togami scoffed as Hajime came waddling into the cafeteria a few minutes later, looking spooked.

            Hajime looked around with bloodshot eyes, not seeing their bubbly Sensei anywhere.

            “… Is she still out there?” He muttered, running a hand through his hair warily. Kazuichi was huddled in the corner, rocking back and forth, after all.

            Ibuki nodded sagely.

            “Yep, yep~! Akane-chan got pumped up when Souda-chan mentioned the monsters guarding the gates to the other islands, and she ran off to challenge them!” The musician crossed her arms and grinned smugly. “Akane-chan doesn’t stand a chance with Yukizome-sensei and Nidai-chan giving chase~! Ha~! She’s totally screwed!”

            … Well, Hajime couldn’t disagree with her there. Yukizome-sensei was overkill enough as it was – Nidai joining in was like a double KO. … For Akane and only Akane, that is.

            “I-I just wanna go home…!” Kazuichi whined, still rocking back and forth. Mahiru huffed, hands on her hips.

            “Hey, at least sit over here with the rest of us! And straighten up! Shouldn’t you be ashamed to be acting like that, despite being a man?”

            “… No.” The mechanic muttered, tears pricking at his eyes as he yanked his beanie over his head in fear and dread.

            Saionji laughed snidely.

            “Where would you even run, anyway?! Even if you didn’t have Sensei breathing down your neck, there’s nowhere to run to, y’know!” The dancer muffled her cruel giggles. “You’re sooo stupid~!”

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously.

            “I dunno about that… You’re dissing the guy that can make scooters go 575 mph.” The brunet paused thoughtfully. “… Or at least that’s what he said. If we could just find a way to make those scooters able to ride across the water…”

            Kazuichi giggled nervously.

            “Yeah, well, I can only work with the parts I’ve got accessible to me! If I had materials for a boat or sub, I would make ‘em, y’know? Ehehe…” He tugged his beanie over his face harder. “As-is, even 575 mph is a bit of a pipe dream right now…”

            Hajime blinked owlishly.

            “You… You lied about that?” The brunet was left feeling a bit disappointed, really. He knew that 575 mph was an outlandish speed, edging into rocket territory… But Kazuichi was the Ultimate Mechanic. Ultimates didn’t boast about something if they couldn’t do that.

            Mahiru rolled her eyes with an impatient huff.

            “Why’d you even buy that in the first place? He was obviously pulling that number out of his ass!”

            Hajime winced in shame. Okay, she had a point about the number being random, but…

            “I wasn’t lying!” Kazuichi protested, shaking a fist in aggravation. “That useless rabbit said some of the other islands had factories and other production places that I’d be over the moon over, so I asked her about what we had available! If she wasn’t lyin’, I could totally make those things go 575 mph, easy! I just… can’t, without those facilities. Damn monsters are barring us entry to the other islands!”

            Mukuro tilted her head curiously.

            “How would you even navigate a vehicle when it approaches such speeds?” A rocket leaving Earth’s atmosphere and landing on the moon was one thing… It was another applying those kinds of speeds to everyday vehicles and transports like scooters.

            Kazuichi studiously sidestepped the question with another nervous chuckle.

            “It would be a most exhilarating ride!” Sonia beamed pleasantly. Near her, Tanaka appeared somewhat pale, just imagining what a deathtrap that would be.

            “A nightmare on wheels.” Byakuya snorted dismissively. “There will be no such modifications – far too hazardous. For the rider… and bystanders.”

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously.

            “S-So, uh… How fast could you make them go, with the parts you have access to right now?” The brunet knew there was questions better left unasked, and that was probably one of them. … But his morbid curiosity compelled him.

            Kazuichi tugged his beanie down hard.

            “I dunno… 230 mph… maybe? I’d hafta run some tests. But I think I can manage that much, at least.” Tears pricked at the mechanic’s eyes again as he bawled. “If only Sensei would just let me…!”

            Everyone stared. Kazuichi… could still make those things faster than some cars. Most seemed impressed, unnerved, or spooked by this…

            “… Pfft!” Saionji burst out giggling, covering her mouth in a poor attempt. “Can’t even make it go half as fast as you said you could! Aren’t you embarrassed, calling yourself an Ultimate?”

            … But there’s always that one person, isn’t there?

            Kazuichi shook a fist at the dancer, enraged.

            “I-I respond better to praise, y’know!”

            ‘… Poor guy.’ Hajime really did pity him, watching Saionji belittle the mechanic in every which way. Guy could probably turn a toaster into a robot, and he was getting roasted by a little kid… Little brat snickering with that twisted, devilish grin… Kind of like… a demon child…

            … Maybe Saionji just hadn’t had her growth spurt yet. Yeah. That would soften the blow to Kazuichi’s pride.

            “… And on top of that, your fashion sucks! Better go back to letting your mom dress you every day!”

            … Then again, the Ultimate Traditional Dancer was pretty relentless, regardless of how old she really was…

            “Y-You don’t have to be so m-mean…!” Mikan wailed, attempting to rise to Kazuichi’s defense. Saionji scoffed loudly.

            “Nobody was talking to you, Pig Barf! Shut your ugly, stuttering face!” The dancer pursed her lips and turned her head away snidely.

            “M-My ugly, st-stuttering face…?” The nurse stared with wide, petrified eyes. Saionji snickered.

            “That’s it, that’s the face right there~!” The dancer sneered. Mikan covered her face defensively with both arms.

            “Wh-Why are you so m-mean…?”

            “Aww, you’re the kind of girl that bullies just looove to torment, aren’t you?” Saionji just kept up the merciless assault. Peko had had enough, however.

            “You should stop now.” The swordswoman’s tone brooked no argument. Saionji grudgingly clammed up.

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously as he looked down at the plate of food he’d amassed.

            “A-Anyway… Who made breakfast? It… smells great.” The brunet knew it was a lame attempt at changing topics, but he had been kinda responsible for Saionji’s mouth going off like that… Plus, he was curious.

            “It is quite exquisite, for a commoner’s touch.” Byakuya concurred, having already scarfed down a couple plates already.

            Mukuro shrugged nonchalantly.

            “I dunno. It was already set out when I got here.” The soldier had been one of the first few up and around in the morning. Sensei had liked and admired that she was standing vigil around the cabins.

            … Not that Mukuro had been doing it for her. Mornings tended to have a lower chance of an attack happening, since anyone could awaken at any time… But the soldier wasn’t taking any chances after last night, when the ‘Killing School Life’ was initiated. Mukuro had resolved herself to learning everyone’s quirks and habits to properly assess the actual threats to Komaeda-kun…

            Needless to say. Sensei would have to be watched. She was a force to be reckoned with, rounding up all the students…

            Ibuki waved her hand in the air excitedly.

            “Ah, I’ve got it~! Teruteru prepared this food, right?”

            Teruteru laughed nervously.

            “Mmhmhmhm… Unfortunately, it wasn’t me.” He took a pompous stance, rubbing his chin. “You see… The food I make doesn’t taste as shitty as this does.”

            Sonia tilted her head curiously.

            “Hmm…? It is delicious, though.”

            Teruteru wagged his index finger arrogantly.

            “Just delicious… right? Compared to the world class dishes I make, a dish that tastes ‘delicious’ would still be considered shit…” He pointed in outrage. “In fact, even comparing them is out of the question! Comparing MY dishes to this lowly peasant food, how rude!”

            Hajime held up his hands peacefully.

            “H-Hey… Don’t take it so personally…”

            Teruteru rubbed his chin as he grinned suggestively.

            “I’m just saying… if you guys ate my food, you wouldn’t be able to control yourself.”

            “What does that mean?” Peko asked with a raised eyebrow.

            “Well, let’s just say your jaw wouldn’t be the only thing that drops~!” Teruteru raised his fists in outrage. “In fact, your panties would drop, too! Like the black thong that Pekoyama-san is wearing, for example!”

            Peko blushed up a storm, despite the skeptical stares he received from most of the class for that remark.

            “You creep! How do you know about that?!” The swordswoman demanded.

            ‘H-He guessed correctly…?’ Hajime couldn’t believe it.

            Sonia frowned, looking down in thought.

            “However, if Teruteru did not prepare this food, then the one who did is…”

            “Could it have been Monokuma?!” Ibuki grumbled sourly.

            “… Is it safe to eat food cooked by something like that?” Hajime wondered.

            Byakuya scoffed, arms crossed.

            “That’s why I’m tasting it for poison, to make sure it’s safe for consumption.”

            ‘You don’t have to eat that much to test for poison…’ Hajime deadpanned at the empty plates over at the heir’s table.

            At that moment, Yukizome came waltzing into the cafeteria with that same sunny disposition that Hajime had seen earlier. Nidai was behind her, hefting a hogtied Akane over his shoulder.

            “We’re baaack~! Has everyone been enjoying breakfast?”

            Hajime gaped at the bound wild girl, and how so easily and nonchalantly Nekomaru carried her.

            “Y-You… You tied her up…?”

            Nekomaru shrugged his big shoulders casually.

            “Eh. She’s a slippery one, what can we say? She really wanted to fight those things.”

            A tick mark appeared over Akane’s forehead as she gritted her teeth.

            “I’m gonna kick your asses so haaard!” She bellowed. The wild girl blinked as she sniffed the air. “… Hang on. I know that smell. Meat! Glorious MEEEAAATTTT!!!”

            Hajime sweatdropped as he watched the gymnast attempt to escape the team manager’s grasp with renewed vigor. Akane was… She seemed kind of ‘simple’. Though, he supposed that was kind of a good thing. The simple ones didn’t stir up too much trouble. Right…?

            … Except when they wanted to go off and fight giant killer robots… but… Hajime would prefer that to her wanting to fight him or something.

            Yukizome gazed around the cafeteria pleasantly and proudly, hands on her hips.

            “Good! You’re all here. Look at you all, sitting in your tidy little tables~!” The teacher beamed proudly.

            Mahiru raised a hesitant hand.

            “H-Hey, Sensei…? Do you know who prepared breakfast?” The photographer asked, sort of hoping it was the orange-haired woman. But she had a sinking feeling…

            “No? Not really.” Yukizome tilted her head curiously. “I thought Teruteru might have gotten an early start.”

            Cue more grumbling from the portly chef. Before they could pursue this topic further, however, a huge ruckus was made as a shrill cry rang out. All eyes homed in on the source almost immediately.

            “Ohhh… no, no, no, no, no…” Mikan wailed, trapped in quite the… compromising position. The lower half of her body was raised up over upper half as she laid on the floor; her ankles were hogtied by… some kind of power cord. As a result of the position, her skirt had been rendered utterly useless, exposing her panty-clad bottom and her bare yet also bandaged legs. What’s more, her shoes and socks had fallen off as a result of the trip…

            But… panties

            Hajime couldn’t stop staring incredulously.

            “I-I-I tripped…!” The poor erotically displayed nurse whimpered.

            “Can you even call that tripping?” Hajime wondered aloud.

            “How in the world did you end up in such a… compromising position after tripping?!” Byakuya was at a loss for words, too.

            “Well, it certainly makes me happy! I’m veeery happy right now~!” Teruteru gushed.

            “Nooooo! I’m so embarrassed! P-Please help me…!” The nurse begged.

            “Awww~! She looks so adorable when she’s embarrassed~!” Ibuki gushed, too, all starry-eyed. “It’s sooo moe! I’m practically snorting with joy~!”

            “W-We should help her up!” Mahiru cried. And like that was a call to arms, she, Yukizome-sensei, Hajime, and Byakuya all helped untangle the nurse’s legs from the cord and helped the poor girl to her feet.

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully as he gazed at the nurse in concern.

            “Ts-Tsumiki… are you okay?”

            Mikan clutched her head woozily.

            “Ugh… My head is throbbing a little, but I’m okay…”

            ‘Your head’s… definitely not okay.’ Hajime couldn’t help thinking to himself.

            “She’s beyond being just a clumsy girl. That fall of hers was like a magic trick or something…” Mahiru muttered with a wry smile.

            Chiaki hummed thoughtfully, tapping her chin.

            “So… why don’t we get started? Sensei wanted to talk with all of us, right?” The gamer rubbed at her eyes blearily. “I’m… getting sleepy…”

            Byakuya nodded in agreement, crossing his arms.

            “Right… I’m not finished eating yet, but we should begin before we get even more off-track…”

            Hajime raised his eyebrows in mild surprise, unaware the teacher had wanted this to be a sort of breakfast meeting… He had assumed she was just trying to make sure they stayed all fed and taken care of.

            “Wh-What did you want to talk about, Sensei?” He couldn’t help but ask the pleasantly beaming woman who clapped her hands gleefully.

            “I promise, this won’t take long! I know you guys wanna just get out there and do your own things… But I figured some ground rules would help keep things stable!”

            “Some ground rules…?” Nagito mused, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Byakuya snorted.

            “That goes without saying. That’s why every morning and evening, we’ll be eating together, right?”

            Yukizome nodded happily.

            “Yep, yep~! I hope we can do some things together beyond just meals, but that’s a decent way to start, don’t you think?” The orange-haired woman clasped her hands behind her back pleasantly. “Monokuma wants you guys to doubt each other. If we just did our own things, eventually someone would break down from the pressure. That’s… what happens when you’re fighting by yourself. But if we’re united, these new rules won’t mean anything! Even if you’re all strangers right now, you can be so much more than that… Think of the growth you can experience, talking to and interacting with people you normally wouldn’t. You’d be surprised who you can be friends with!”

            Fuyuhiko scoffed, arms crossed.

            “Yeah, yeah… All that friendship crap again… But you’re in this shitstorm just like we are, yeah? How do we know you’re not gonna snap, if Monokuma says the right words or some shit?”

            Yukizome’s smile dropped at that, and her arms fell to her sides. Hajime couldn’t help thinking this was the first time she looked so… serious. But she wasn’t glaring at the yakuza for his accusation. Her gaze was too soft and compassionate for that. And she was looking around at all of them, not just the gangster.

            “I don’t expect you guys to immediately just… trust me.” The orange-haired woman took a deep, composed breath. “I know… Everything’s so crazy right now. Brought to this island, no way to escape, and now someone is trying to scare you all into killing… But I meant what I said, last night. I’m a teacher of Hope’s Peak Academy, even if I’m technically just… an assistant. I can assure you… that bear is not related in any way, shape, or form to Headmaster Kirigiri, who brought me onboard. I’m… I’m an alumni of Hope’s Peak, y’know? I’ve associated with the school for years, so I know this has nothing to do with the man. Whoever’s in charge… They mean you guys harm. And I’m going to do everything… everything in my power to protect you!

            Yukizome gave each of them a meaningful look in turn.

            “So whatever Monokuma cooks up… If you feel scared, threatened, unsure… If you ever feel like you can’t trust anyone… I want you guys to come to me… okay? Maybe I can’t provide the answers you want. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to trust me yet. But no one… should have to fight those fears alone. It’s my job to be there to support you. And I swear, whatever you tell me in confidentiality, I won’t tell anyone else without your permission. Even if I ever feel it would be better to approach any of the others, I will help you as best as I can without breaking your trust. That’s a promise.” The teacher gave a fragile, hopeful smile. “We’ll get through this, guys. I know we will. Each of you is amazing with a bright future, and no one has to die. A human’s life… is irreplaceable. It can’t be worth whatever Monokuma might promise you. So just… stay strong. For me?”

            Just like the previous night, Yukizome-sensei’s words seemed to set everyone at ease. Even Fuyuhiko appeared mollified, or at least less inclined to start trouble. Who knew the profound effect an adult’s presence could have, even in a situation like this? It wasn’t just the fact she was an adult and a Sensei. Yukizome-sensei’s words spoke from the heart, were carefully thought out, and carried a significant weight. She was just as confused and lost as they were, but she was standing up to take the reins and reassure them… Something they all sorely needed in these desperate, crazy times.

            Hajime felt slightly embarrassed for freaking out last night, like he had… Though he chose to keep that to himself. He was all better now, after hearing that.

            “So besides morning and evening gatherings, what else?” Nagito wondered, raising an index finger curiously. “That can’t be the only ground rule you had in mind.”

            “Well, that’s kind of what I wanted to ask you guys about.” Yukizome clasped her hands behind her back again. “What would make you guys feel safer? I kinda wanted to open up the floor a bit and hear from all of you, rather than make you think I’m just thrusting a bunch of pointless, useless rules on you.”

            Ibuki waved her hand in the air energetically.

            “Ooh! Ooh! Ibuki proposes tying up Teruteru-chan~!”

            The chef recoiled a little at the suggestion.

            “E-Eh…? Whatever do you mean?”

            “He is kind of a predator…” Mahiru mused, looking off to the side distractedly. “Maybe make the hotel off-limits to boys when the girls are changing into swimsuits…?”

            Nidai nodded sagely.

            “I can stand outside the gate to keep watch, if it helps…”

            Mahiru beamed.

            “That’d be great!”

            Teruteru stood ramrod straight.

            “That’s… that’s too cruel!” He quivered in dismay. “Can we go back to the ‘tying me up’ idea?”

            “We’re not here to get your rocks off!” Nidai denied.

            “Maybe we should just poke his eyes out instead~!” Saionji proposed with a dark look in her eyes. “We can do that to all the perverts!”

            … And if left to her, that could mean all the boys. Hajime shivered in dread.

            “Fuck you, too.” Fuyuhiko growled in annoyance and warily glared at the dancer.

            Mukuro tilted her head, ignoring much of the back-and-forth banter.

            “How about a curfew?” She wasn’t sure why, but the idea just… popped into her head. Like it was an expected thing to do in this situation – well, not quite even that. It was more like… it had to be that way, or it’d be too weird, otherwise.

            Chisa hummed thoughtfully.

            “I did consider that… But I figured some of you might want to vent any nervous energy at night, so…” She tilted her head slightly. “What do the rest of you think?”

            “I’m fine with that.” Souda muttered, laughing a little nervously. “S’not like I got anything better to do than sleep, anyway…”

            Saionji sneered.

            “Aww~! Does baby need to be tucked in, too?”

            The mechanic understandably wilted and went back to his corner, rocking back and forth. Byakuya crossed his arms and frowned.

            “A curfew is reasonable. Too much freedom can lead to… unfortunate circumstances.” He didn’t need to explain what that meant. “Rules exist to serve and protect. Besides, if we’re all running about at 3am, that will lead to erratic sleeping patterns… Which leads to irrational thoughts and decisions…”

            Fuyuhiko curled his hand into a fist at his side and shouted.

            “Screw that noise! You can have your Kumbaya crap, but you’re not gonna tell me what to do! If I feel like goin’ out, you ain’t stopping me!”

            Sonia laughed softly.

            “I must confess, I, too, would like the option of a nighttime stroll if the mood strikes… The stars are quite beautiful.”

            Ibuki nodded eagerly.

            “Ibuki can only count her toes and fingers so many times before Ibuki gets bored and needs to run~!”

            Byakuya stared at the musician flatly before gazing reproachfully at the princess and yakuza.

            “Kuzuryu, I can understand. But you, too, Nevermind?” The heir scowled. “Shouldn’t you prioritize everyone’s safety over your personal preferences? Does that not make the mark of a true leader?”

            Fuyuhiko rolled his eyes and reiterated himself, while Sonia apologized humbly. Mahiru waved her hand dismissively.

            “It’s not like we have to make the curfew at the start of nighttime, yeah? We could make it 11pm, or midnight…”

            Nidai crossed his arms and hummed thoughtfully as he closed his eyes.

            “Or maybe instead of time-based, why not make it so you hafta be with at least one other person to be outside your room after nighttime starts?”

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously.

            “Th-That makes it pretty easy to kill someone, though, if you don’t tell the rest of us…”

            Yukizome smiled as an easy solution came to her.

            “The buddy system is good – but you also have to come and tell me if you’re going to be outside your rooms, and you have to tell me who you’ll be with. Does that seem fair?” At everyone’s apparent acquiescence to this suggestion, even Fuyuhiko’s grumbled response, Yukizome clapped her hands together again. “Okay! This seems like a pretty good start. I don’t want to eat up your guys’ time any more than I already have, so we can save everything else for later, unless you think something’s urgent.”

            For a few moments, no one else seemed to have any concerns. But then Byakuya spoke up again, scowling.

            “Hold on. I have two more items I want to address.” The heir looked around the room pointedly. Yukizome tilted her head curiously at him.

            “What is it, Togami-kun?”

            The heir raised an index finger to his temple thoughtfully.

            “I will not argue Yukizome-sensei holds absolute authority out of everyone here. However, there may be times when she is occupied, and the rest need a stand-in authority figure to watch over them. A stable chain of command should be high up on our priorities.”

            Mukuro hummed, her expression blank as always.

            “True. Even armies have lieutenants and other chains of command…”

            Nidai nodded sagely.

            “Sports teams need captains and assistant coaches, after all…”

            “A Class Rep…?” Yukizome mused. “That’s fair. I was going to have you guys get to that tonight, but if you want to tackle that right now, you can go ahead, Togami-kun.”

            Byakuya nodded sternly.

            “Rejoice. I shall accept the position.” He looked to the side as he frowned thoughtfully. “Now, onto the other matter at hand…”

            “Wait just a second!” Mahiru cut in, scowling in annoyance.

            “… What is it?” The heir narrowed his eyes at her reproachful tone.

            The photographer placed her hands on her hips and huffed.

            “Wh-What did you just say…? I don’t care how you excuse it, you’re being too forceful! Deciding to be the Class Rep all on your own… and why does it have to be you, anyway?!”

            Togami inclined his chin arrogantly.

            “Who is more fit to lead other than me? I am the Ultimate Scion of the Togami household, destined to stand above all others.”

            Mahiru pointed at him angrily.

            “S-Seriously! I’m telling you that attitude of yours is too forceful!”

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully.

            “Koizumi, please wait. It’s true Togami may be a little forceful, but given our current situation… I believe it’s a leader’s duty, under circumstances like this, to be forceful to a certain degree…”

            Mahiru frowned as she held her arms behind her back.

            “That may be true, but… If we just need someone who can lead people, then even Nevermind can…” She trailed off meaningfully.

            “No, perish the thought. I am merely a figurehead.” Sonia beamed pleasantly.

            Fuyuhiko snickered mischievously.

            “If you really want someone else, I’ll do it…”

            “Nobody asked you!” The photographer grumbled sourly, glaring at him.

            Nagito waved a hand casually at the Togami heir.

            “Well… he must have the qualities of a leader if he can accept the role under these circumstances.”

            “If everyone’s okay with it… then I’m okay with it, too…” Mahiru muttered, looking around the room.

            No one else objected, though it’s not like Byakuya gave them much time to do so.

            “Then, I guess we’ve made our decision… Don’t worry, as long as I’m the leader, I won’t let anyone become a victim. I will guide you all! That much, I promise.”

            “Kyaaa~! So reliable!” Ibuki cheered.

            As everyone settled with the idea of Byakuya being the Class Rep, Hajime mused to himself as he gazed at the heir.

            ‘It’s true he’s reliable, but… I’m a little surprised… I didn’t think he was the type of guy who’d say something like that… I expected the Ultimate Scion to look down on us like we’re bugs or something.’

            “Now, let’s move onto the topic at hand for real this time… I have something to show you all.” The heir revealed.

            “Something to show us?” Hajime echoed.

            “It’s at Jabberwock Park at the central island… Come, follow me!” He said so bluntly, turning and leaving the restaurant as he stomped outside.

            “J-Just as I thought… he sure is forceful…” Hajime muttered.

            Mahiru sighed wistfully.

            “Jeez… We may have made a mistake in choosing him as the leader…”

            Everyone seemed to make similar complaints, with the exception of a few, like Mukuro, Peko, Sonia, Nekomaru, and Chiaki. Yukizome-sensei just beamed at all of them with an all-knowing smile.

            … Hajime felt nervous about that smile. She knew something, and hadn’t brought it up with them yet. Was it the thing Togami found? If so, why leave it to that guy to unveil it?

            The brunet supposed there was only one way to find out…

            ~*~

            When the last of them reached Jabberwock Park, it became rather clear what Togami had found so important to drag them all the way out there to talk about it. An ostentatious thing sat on the pedestal where the bronze statue once sat… It looked like a giant bomb, and the digital timer on it displayed that it had 21 days, 3 hours, and 42 seconds before it would… go off…

            Hajime shuddered at the sight of that monstrosity. It had gears spinning around the pole that kept the bomb standing up like that.

            “It looks like a clock, but something seems… off…” Hajime frowned in concern. His eyes widened as he realized what bothered him. “It’s… counting down…!”

            “Was this here last time we came…?” Mahiru wondered aloud.

            “No, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t!” Nidai growled.

            “It wasn’t.” Mukuro confirmed flatly.

            “I found it this morning… when I was exploring the island one more time.” Togami revealed, arms crossed. “It’s unknown… when it was actually placed here.”

            Peko kept a neutral expression, though a bead of sweat ran down the side of her face.

            “Monokuma must have placed this object… What does this countdown even mean?”

            Ibuki hummed dejectedly.

            “I have no clue…”

            Teruteru combed his hair nervously.

            “Mmhmhmhm, once again, something has appeared that I don’t understand… But it’s got nothing to do with me. Because I refuse to believe this is happening.”

            “Could it be…? This better not be a bomb!” Nidai scowled fiercely, arms crossed.

            Kazuichi reeled back in shock and screamed.

            “A b-b-b-b-b-BOOOOOOOOMBBBBBBB?!”

            “If they wanted to blow up this island, they could have done so by now.” Mukuro pointed out. “There’s no need for a countdown.”

            “Th-Then… what are they counting down…?” Mikan wondered anxiously, poking her fingers together.

            “It’s a mystery…” Akane grumbled.

            “A mysterious mystery, isn’t it?!” Monomi exclaimed.

            “Kyah!” Sonia cried out in shock, which prompted Monomi to scream as well.

            “Kyaaah!”

            “Monomi?!” Hajime couldn’t believe the rabbit was still around.

            “Wh-Why are you here…?” Mahiru asked, as shocked as everyone else.

            “I heard everyone talking while I was patrolling, so I came over…” Monomi answered.

            Ibuki poked her fingers together nervously.

            “No, not that… Didn’t Monokuma kill you?”

            Monomi giggled.

            “Ah, so that’s why you were so surprised? Pfft, heeheehee! You don’t have to worry about that! After all, I can never die!”

            Tanaka chuckled with a dark grin on his face.

            “I see… You must be an undead abomination, risen from the foulest depths of the Netherworld by black magic.” The breeder made a theatrical gasp. “Do you want me to make you my thrall?!”

            “Monomi’s a mechanical stuffed animal, right? Doesn’t that mean she can’t die in the first place?” Chiaki mused.

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head and nervously laughed.

            “Now that you mention it… She’d need only, like, a spare or something.”

            Monomi deflated.

            “’A spare’…? What a mean thing to say…”

            Byakuya huffed in impatience.

            “However, you have arrived at a perfect time. There’s something I wanted to ask you. What is the meaning behind this timer and this countdown? Answer me…” The heir demanded heatedly.

            Monomi tilted her head in confusion.

            “Huh? Countdown?” The rabbit recoiled at seeing the monstrosity up on the pedestal. “Ha-wa-wa! What is this?! Um… I’m sorry… I… don’t know what this is…”

            “You really don’t know…?” Peko asked with an arched eyebrow. Toward the back, Yukizome was smiling a little bit too twitchily.

            “I-I’m sorry… I don’t really have a grasp of what Monokuma is up to…” The bunny sincerely apologized.

            “You don’t know? Even though you’re Monokuma’s imouto…?” Saionji asked.

            “I’m not my niisan’s imouto!” Monomi cried out indignantly. Hajime was left wondering if she accepted the role or not, as was everyone else. “A-Anyway! Let’s all do our best! Let’s kick the evil Monokuma off this island!”

            Byakuya scoffed in annoyance.

            “If you don’t know what the countdown is for, you’re useless to us. Get lost.”

            “Um… Let’s… together…” Monomi trailed off morosely.

            “I said get lost…!” The heir demanded more heatedly.

            “Kyaaa! I-I’m sorry!” The rabbit apologized before scampering off.

            … With Yukizome-sensei hot on her heels.

            “You’re not getting away that easily!!!” The teacher yelled after the rabbit, much to the students’ confusion.

            If the rabbit didn’t know anything useful, then what was the point of chasing after her? The students were left wondering about their teacher’s intentions, but decided to leave the woman to it. If anyone could squeeze any possible information out of the rabbit… It would be Yukizome-sensei.

            “Perhaps you are being a little too harsh?” Sonia mused. “I am starting to feel sorry for it…”

            “S-Sonia-san! C-Can I call you that…? No, I insist you let me call you that!” Souda declared forcefully. “Sonia-san! There’s no need to feel sorry for that thing, she’s obviously working with Monokuma.”

            “Who the fuck cares about that stuffed animal…? More importantly, what the hell is that clock?” Fuyuhiko arched an eyebrow.

            “Looks ominous, doesn’t it…?” Byakuya raised an index finger to his temple in thought. “Who put that object here, and how did they do it in just one night?”

            “I can’t imagine…” Hajime muttered.

            “Which means it doesn’t make any sense! Also, it’s deadly!” Teruteru decided with a blissful, innocent smile on his face.

            Togami gritted his teeth and curled his hands into a fist.

            “However, that’s not all that’s unimaginable… This island is full of mysteries we can’t even begin to imagine… For example… how were the eighteen of us brought to this island?”

            Kazuichi massaged his forehead in annoyance.

            “I wasn’t trying to think about that since it was bugging me too, but… He’s right. That is a mystery.”

            “There’s more…” Togami continued. “Why is Jabberwock Island, which was known for being a popular resort destination, now an uninhabited island? There is no sign of tourists or even citizens on this island… Is something like that even possible?”

            Tanaka hummed thoughtfully, arms crossed.

            “All civilizations are destined to collapse… Nothing begets existence… and existence begets nothing…”

            “So it… collapsed?” Mikan stared with wide, petrified eyes.

            “Society is much like fruit. Once it matures, it is inevitable that it will eventually rot.” Sonia mused. “As the economy grows, the private sector stagnates as elders and bureaucrats become more and more powerful… As time passes, this power becomes the status quo, and crushes the seeds of any possible reformation… Such a sad trend.”

            Mahiru flashed a wry smile.

            “Mmm… I don’t really understand all that, but I feel like the situation here is somewhat different…”

            Saionji sneered.

            “Maybe… the Monobeasts killed everyone on this island?”

            “And that’s how it became uninhabited?!”

            Mukuro frowned at the theory.

            “I dunno… Body disposal is way harder than you think. And if beasts like that were attacking people, the buildings and surroundings would have left battle scars of some kind… I haven’t seen anything like that.” Truth be told, the uninhabited nature of Jabberwock Island had perplexed Mukuro for quite some time. The fact it possessed functioning and stocked facilities, this seemed more like a military safehouse kind of deal… At least to her.

            Maybe Jabberwock Island was evacuated and taken over by a military presence?

            “That’s true… We don’t know anything for certain.” Byakuya frowned ,arms crossed. “This mystery remains a mystery, it seems.”

            Ibuki groaned.

            “Grrr…! It’s like everything here is just full of mysteries!”
            “You’re right… It’s just mysteries on top of mysteries… However, since these mysteries are overlapping with one another, I doubt some no name group is behind this…”

            “Wh-What are you trying to say…?” Hajime asked warily.

            “I mean… this situation we’re in is undeniably the work of some enormous organization.” The heir answered.

            “Enormous organization…?” Mikan echoed.

            “Monomi, Monokuma, the Monobeasts… They’re all machines that require major technical skill to operate.” Byakuya continued assessing the situation.

            “Plus, they’d need a ton of funding.” Souda chipped in, scratching his cheek uncertainly. “And there’s no way those things were made just for the hell of it…”

            “That organization might be controlling these machines and monitoring the island with those cameras…” The heir raised a finger to his temple in thought.

            “Could those fiends be hiding on this island?” Peko asked.

            Byakuya shook his head slowly.

            “Not likely. They’re probably running this from somewhere else. Somewhere safe.”

            “Where would that be?” Nidai asked, hands on his hips.

            “I don’t know…” Byakuya muttered. “Anyway, there’s no mistake that an enormous organization is behind all this.”

            Akane crossed her arms and stared down at the ground.

            “I see, a big organization, huh… I can’t imagine what kinda people they could be…”

            “Well, let’s see…” The heir listed off the organizations associated with their class that he knew of. “There’s my Togami Corporation… Sonia’s Novoselic Kingdom… The Kuzuryu Clan… and Ikusaba’s Fenrir mercenary group… It would definitely have to be an organization as powerful as one of those groups, if not moreso.”

            Mukuro stiffened as the heir casually threw that out there.

            “How… do you know about Fenrir…?” The soldier glared heatedly at the heir. While she wasn’t a part of them anymore, she did have her pride in keeping their existence, and her ties to them, top secret. A soldier was loyal to their army to the bitter end.

            “Huh?!” Sonia yelped.

            Fuyuhiko sighed, stretching his back a little and hanging his head while shaking it slowly.

            “I’m used to being mistrusted… do what you will…”

            Souda pointed at Togami in outrage.

            “Hold on! I don’t care about you, Fenrir, or the Kuzuryu Clan, but I won’t allow you to doubt Sonia-san! Sonia-san is a hot blonde princess! There’s a sharp distinction between her and you punks!”

            Saionji poorly muffled her giggles.

            “Yes, yes… Just shut up already, loser…”

            “L-Loser?! Me?!” The mechanic yelped. Saionji adopted a dark look again as she glared at him.

            “It’s obvious from your flashy clothes that you just wanna stand out because you’re actually a loser.” She giggled again. “Hehe… It must be hard to make your living in the Lame Ass Loser Industry…”

            Souda shook a fist at her furiously.

            “Too far, dude! That’s going way too far!”

            Hajime turned back to the heir searchingly.

            “Hey, Togami… Were you serious just now? About this being related to your family and Nevermind’s and such…?”

            “I’m just using them as an example.” Byakuya explained. “I’m not saying they have anything to do with this.”

            “But… You’re certain we’re up against a huge organization, right?” The brunet frowned as he tried thinking of other big name organizations.

            “Even if such an organization exists… Why would they make us go through something like this?” Peko mused.

            Teruteru scoffed.

            “Whatever. How long are we gonna keep talking about this? Why don’t we talk about something more realistic?”

            “Our enemy’s purpose is still unknown… As long as we find out who’s behind this, we’ll learn their purpose.” Byakuya sighed, ignoring the chef. “So what we must do now is find out who our enemy is. If we do that, we’ll make that much closer to a breakthrough. Luckily, according to the e-handbook, we are free to explore this island… There will definitely be a clue about the enemy on this island somewhere. Let’s start looking.”

            Mukuro eyed the heir warily, but nodded slowly.

            “That’s fair… Knowing is half the battle.” She glared at Togami one more time. “But don’t think you can sidestep me. You will tell me how you knew about Fenrir, sooner or later.”

            Once more, Byakuya studiously ignored her.

            “All right! Let’s get this crap done!” Akane hollered. She then grinned innocently. “Uh, what are we looking for?”

            Mahiru sweatdropped and smiled wryly.

            “… Owari, weren’t you even listening? We need to find clues that will tell us who our enemy is.”

            “No problem… No matter how large this organization may be, they will not be able to stand against us…” Tanaka laughed boisterously, his hamsters popping out again. “They are destined to fall and turn to ash at the might of my four Dark Devas of Destruction~!”

            Sonia smiled radiantly at the sight.

            “Wow! Hamsters came out of your scarf!” She giggled. “Teehee~! They are so adorable!”

            “Adorable… you say…?” Tanaka recoiled a little before hiding his blushing face under his scarf. “… Th-Thank you.”

            “You’re pretty happy about that, huh?” Ibuki asked, tilting her head.

            Souda gritted his teeth in aggravation.

            “Look at that guy talking to Sonia-san all casually… I’m definitely gonna beat the crap out of him later.”

            Hajime didn’t quite get it himself. He assumed in this tense situation, they needed to be a lot more cautious… But he was glad everyone was in such high spirits. It was strange, but he felt he could rely on them. This was probably what it meant to have the confidence of an Ultimate

            … Was he confident enough to call himself one of them? Hajime still couldn’t remember his talent…

            “Anyway, let me just say this.” Byakuya announced. “There’s no time think about something as foolish as killing each other. You must do what you have to do. Observe, speculate, recognize, comprehend. Even if it seems impossible… just persevere. But most importantly, follow my lead. I’ll make sure to return you all to your normal lives. This is your leader’s order! Understand?”

            “Uhaha~! That’s, like, TOTALLY awesome~!” Ibuki cheered. Saionji snickered.

            “That right hand of his is sooo plump. I’ve got the perfect nickname for him: Ham Hands!”

            “H-Ham Hands…?” Byakuya blinked at the audacity of the traditional dancer. He then chuckled, bowing his head a little. “Hmph… I never thought I’d see the day when someone called me something like that…”

            Hajime stared at the heir, baffled.

            “Huh…? Why aren’t you getting mad?”

            Byakuya arched an eyebrow at Hajime.

            “Why would I get mad at something as petty as that…? She observed me directly and thought up a nickname. There’s nothing dishonest about a name like that. Perhaps… I’ve always yearned for this. Though it may seem ironic for me to realize that in this particular situation… Don’t worry. I was talking to myself just now.”

            “I-I see…” Hajime muttered, clearly not understanding at all. What he did understand was that Togami wasn’t an overconfident, narcissistic jerk, after all. He was mysteriously calm… He might be reliable, after all.

            Nagito laughed lightly.

            “All right then. We should listen to Togami and not waste our energy thinking about pointless things! It’s true that we’re not in the best situation, but it’s also not the worst. Because we’re not alone. We have friends we can count on to support each other.” He spread out his arms at everybody.

            “Seriously? That sounds so lame!” Saionji whined.

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully. It didn’t escape him how Mukuro edged toward the dancer the tiniest amount.

            “Ahaha, I knew it. I was thinking to myself just how lame I sounded for saying that.” He chuckled nervously. “Ikusaba, you really don’t need to do anything drastic. It’s fine.”

            Mukuro narrowed her eyes at the blonde dancer who just looked away disinterestedly.

            ‘… You will be watched. Next time you step out of line…’

            Hajime scratched his cheek as he mused over this whole day, thus far. It didn’t seem like they had accomplished much of anything, certainly didn’t solve any mysteries, but perhaps this laidback atmosphere was fine, too. Trust wouldn’t come right away, but if it could come little by little, wouldn’t that be great?

            Hajime chuckled wryly to himself as he gazed up at the crystal clear blue sky overhead.

            ‘Maybe I’m making pretty huge progress if I’m already thinking like that… I guess we’ll all be fine with Yukizome-sensei and Togami leading us.’ And Hajime really did believe that, from observing them. Yukizome’s energy unnerved him a little, but it wasn’t awful in the grand scheme of things – there were people he was much warier of, yet wanted to learn more about.

            If only Hajime could predict the events that were to come…

Chapter Text

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously as he watched the luckster survey the cottage with appraising, yet awe-filled eyes. He knew that, out of everyone, Komaeda and Ikusaba were the ones he’d interacted and bonded with first… So it was natural they might gravitate toward him, since they’d spent the most time together so far. And Hajime didn’t even object to that, personally. They were… decent. A little eccentric, though Ikusaba had the excuse of being a soldier, so she was re-learning social norms and customs. And though Komaeda was out there, at least he didn’t seem to mean any harm.

            … But still. Wasn’t barging into his cottage like this a bit too much?!

            “Uh, Komaeda…?” The brunet hesitated when he saw the unabashed admiration in the luckster’s eyes. That innocent, childlike curiosity.

            … Hajime probably should have put his foot down anyway, because he should have been allowed some privacy, right? Still, he stayed his tongue for now. It’s not like Komaeda was touching anything… yet…

            “I’m surprised your cottage is so basic!” Komaeda gave a carefree laugh and a nonchalant wave of the hand. “It’s practically identical to mine! Oh, but that doesn’t mean I think you’re as boring and plain as useless old me! I’m just surprised Monomi didn’t give you some things related to your talent or hobbies. They could’ve been a valuable clue to your identity, you know?”

            Hajime blinked owlishly and furrowed his brow in confusion.

            “Stuff related to my hobbies…? Why would those be in here?” He couldn’t help but ask.

            Mukuro shrugged nonchalantly.

            “Because that’s what the rest of us have. My cottage has military mags, flags, banners, and other memorabilia. Nothing dangerous, though.” Well, that wasn’t a complete truth. There was one thing… But it was hers. And she had it on her since the first meeting in the classroom. She never went anywhere without it – true, other tools might have been more effective in most situations, but that survival knife gave her a profound sense of safety… So it stayed with her, end of story.

            … Komaeda-kun said the others might get nervous if she revealed that, though. And considering Hinata’s heightened paranoia and pessimism, the luckster was probably right. So she’d keep mum about it.

            Nagito stroked his chin.

            “Well, the upper level of my cottage did have a few things. Mostly luck-related trinkets. Board games, horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, even stuff hanging from the ceiling that could fall down on you at any moment.”

            Hajime stiffened at that vague description.

            “Th-Things…? What kind of things?”

            Nagito gave another carefree laugh.

            “Paint balloons, of course! Dangling by precarious threads… Oh, I suppose there were balls of glitter, too. It’d be such terrible luck to get bombarded by those~… There’s even a giant one hanging over my bed!”

            Hajime just stared as the luckster hugged himself with that disturbing smile of his as he looked down at the floor. Why did he have deathtraps like that? More importantly, why did he look happy about it?

            “Hinata-kun’s cottage is probably the same way.” Mukuro pointed out reasonably. At the brunet’s twitchy glance, the soldier shrugged again. “Not the paint and glitter stuff. Upstairs might have things related to your talent. I don’t see why you would be different from the rest of us.”

            Hajime calmed down marginally at that. True. Ground level was mind-numbingly basic – if each cottage was different, custom-designed to suit their hobbies and tastes, upstairs would have to be different. He was a little nervous to go poking around up there, though… If Komaeda had deathtraps in his cottage…

            Well, Hajime wasn’t given much of a choice in the matter. The luckster dragged him up there like a puppy surging with energy, yanking on his leash while out on a walk. Hajime still felt mixed about the luckster’s nosiness, but he supposed he’d let it slide…

            It’s not like he’d be doing anything else today, if he was the only one investigating this impressive study. It was small, yes. But those shelves were packed… And while Hajime wasn’t the overly scholarly type, he’d still peruse everything he could. If it gave him insight into why he was accepted into Hope’s Peak, Hajime would gladly waste the day away in here.

            “Somebody’s got good tastes.” Komaeda chuckled, pointing at a poster hanging on a wall over a desk that had papers, pens, a mug, and a lamp scattered on it.

            Hajime blinked slowly as he registered the poster… It was the very school he’d been obsessing over since he was a little kid. And as he got a better look around the study, much of the contents seemed to be associated with Hope’s Peak in some way. Even the mug on the desk had the school’s emblem on it.

            Mukuro was already over by one of the bookshelves. She picked up a random book and thumbed through it.

            “This is a yearbook.” Her eyes briefly scanned the shelves. “I’d say at least a few of these shelves are. Probably one yearbook for every year of Hope’s Peak Academy since its inception…”

            Nagito hummed thoughtfully, stroking his chin again.

            “Just curious, but is there a yearbook of us?”

            Hajime cocked his head at the bizarre question. Of course there wouldn’t be one of them! They literally just started their school year!

            “Nope. Last yearbook was of Class 76.” Mukuro mumbled, eyeing the shelves shrewdly.

            Hajime rolled his eyes as the luckster laughed off the awkwardness of his question.

            “Makes sense! But tell me, are yearbooks the only books on those shelves?”

            Mukuro shrugged haplessly.

            “There’s more than 76 books here. Most of them have Hope’s Peak insignia, though, so…”

            “In other words, they’re all probably related to Hope’s Peak Academy in some way…” Nagito chuckled again as he glanced at the stunned brunet, grinning. “I told you that you had good tastes. Your adoration and respect for Hope’s Peak must be second to none! I know I place the Academy on a lofty pedestal, but I can’t say I had the dedication to collect all the yearbooks and all this information… You really are something special, Hinata.”

            Hajime floundered a bit as his mouth opened and closed in attempts to speak. This came just as much of a shock to him. He knew he admired Hope’s Peak, but he hadn’t grown this obsessed, had he? He… He had missing memories of his talent, not of anything else… right? He vaguely recalled collecting some of the more recent yearbooks, maybe even the very first one just to learn about the Founder and the Academy’s beginnings, but all of them? And what were the other books even about?

            … He wanted to believe these were all just planted by Monomi and Monokuma. That he wasn’t this far gone… But… Somewhere deep down, he knew that he very probably was this far down the rabbit hole. He wanted with all his heart to be a part of that amazing Academy… Knowing and learning everything about it could have been his way of trying to find a way in there.

            Hajime stared at the bookshelves, at a loss for words.

            But was it worth it? Maybe his research did, eventually, help him acquire a talent. Maybe he did get admitted to Hope’s Peak Academy, after all these years. But seeing all this, he really must have sacrificed his sanity…

            … Among other things…

            “I…” Hajime continued to flounder. He gestured a little frantically. “Even with all this, who’s to say my talent is worth talking about?! I-I’m not… athletic, like Ikusaba. And even you have something quirky like luck, Komaeda…”

            The luckster seemed to take offense to that as he pointed at Hajime in frustration.

            “No way! Someone as passionate and devoted as you must have an amazing talent, Hinata! Hope’s Peak wouldn’t have scouted you, otherwise.” He crossed his arms and frowned thoughtfully. “It really must have been a trick of fate. You researched everything you could about Hope’s Peak, and they saw the Hope that lied dormant within you. A magnetic force was bound to draw you two together… It was destiny.”

            Hajime gave the luckster a strange look.

            ‘That’s sugarcoating it a bit, I think…’ He looked off to the side as he thought it over. ‘But… The way Komaeda doesn’t doubt me at all… I start to believe he’s right. He really does help me in so many ways.’

            Mukuro tilted her head a little as she gazed at the brunet, absorbed in his own thoughts.

            “There is something about you. I can’t quite place it.” And that was weird. Everyone else, she could confidently assert the threats and non-threats from just her preliminary observations. Yukizome-sensei, Nidai, Owari, Kuzuryu, Pekoyama, Saionji… In one way or another, each of them had earned her leery surveillance. Half of them didn’t even mean Komaeda-kun harm, at least not yet… They were just possible threats.

            But Hinata? He was woefully average. And hell, Komaeda-kun had a soft spot for the mysterious brunet. Yet there was something holding her back from completely labelling him a non-threat. That ‘something’ nagged at the back of her mind, and would not leave her alone. Hinata lacked the build and reflexes of an athlete, like he said. And he was of decidedly average intelligence, perhaps a bit more paranoid and pessimistic than most of their classmates… Despite that, he was only mildly annoyed with Komaeda-kun at the worst of times.

            Nothing about that screamed a potential threat, and yet, her instincts refused to budge. Perhaps there was a hidden side to the brunet? It wouldn’t be the first time Mukuro had been fooled. Hinata didn’t even have to be consciously aware he was doing it… That was just the most likely scenario, even if he did claim to have amnesia, like her.

            “See? Another chosen Ultimate recognizes your splendid Hope!” Komaeda raised his hands theatrically.

            “Yeah? Then what could my talent possibly be?” Hajime deadpanned, feeling himself recover a little from the haunting sight of so much obsession over one school…

            “Hmm… Ultimate Researcher, perhaps?” Komaeda crossed his arms and grinned. “No, no! That’s far too simple. Ultimate Serenity, then?”

            Hajime balked a little at the peculiar guess.

            “What part of me did you look at to come up with something like that…? Is that even a useful ability?”

            “I think the ability to bring serenity to others by simply being there is amazing!” Komaeda defended his guess. He hummed. “Let’s see… Ultimate Clumsy Student?”

            Hajime slouched in defeat at that one.

            “Well, considering I suddenly forgot what my talent was, that could be the case…”

            “What about the Ultimate Scatterbrain?” Komaeda considered next, which had Hinata droop even further

            “Don’t go that far… I don’t want an Ultimate Talent like that.”

            Komaeda laughed lightly.

            “Hey, don’t take it so seriously. It was just a little joke! Hmm… Then… How about the Ultimate Ahoge?”

            “That’s not an ability at all…!” Hajime spluttered indignantly, which only earned more carefree laughter from the luckster.

            “It’s going to be fine~! I’m positive that you have a talent just brimming with Hope.” Komaeda’s grin widened. “Maybe if we read through these books enough, you’ll jog your memory a little.”

            Hajime warily eyed the luckster.

            “You really think it would be that easy?”

            Nagito shrugged and gave another carefree laugh, waving his hand.

            “We won’t know until we try! And hey, if worst comes to worst, we’ll still learn about the greatest learning institution in the world. I could think of far worse ways to waste an afternoon.”

            Well… Hajime couldn’t argue with that.

            All the while, Mukuro scrutinized Hajime, trying to pin down just what bugged her.

            … Needless to say, she didn’t find out what it was. Though she did hear the word ‘Hope’ enough times in one afternoon for the word to lose its meaning… And she was pretty sure she and Hajime were in the same boat in that regard.

            … Oh, Komaeda-kun.

            ~*~

            Hiyoko grumbled as she made her selection.

            “Why even have Save Files like this?! If you just hand any newb a game and console like this, that takes, like, 90% of the fun away…!”

            Chiaki tilted her head as the dancer and her opponent proceeded to have a multiplayer battle.

            “’Cause grinding, and especially EV/IV training, can take a really long time… I didn’t want you guys spending days playing alone and getting bored. This is way more fun, don’t you think?” She asked innocently as she and the photographer proceeded with a racing game.

            The dancer only whined louder.

            “But I like murdering all the bugs in Viridian Forest! And all the stupid bats in Mt. Moon!” The version that she and Tsumiki were playing didn’t have those areas ‘cause they were in a different region, but her point still stood!

            Mikan’s eyes widened comically.

            “Y-Y-Y-You mean your team can die?!” The nurse squeaked, and shrank back at the dancer’s heated gaze.

            “It’s a figure of speech, dumbass! Pokemon don’t die, they faint!” Although, that always begged the question of what happened to unattended Wild Pokemon that lay defeated after a battle… Did some wandering Nurse Joy come to heal them up?

            … That might almost explain the endless Caterpies and Zubats.

            “Now, now, be nice, Saionji.” Mahiru gave a wry smile and sweatdropped. “You should thank Nanami for letting you play multiplayer with Tsumiki.”

            Saionji puffed her cheeks.

            “I’m only wasting time ‘til Nanami’s done lapping you, dummy! I wanna take a crack at the ‘Ultimate Gamer’, too!” She couldn’t be that hot. Pokemon and Professor Layton were Saionji’s favorite games. She was the undisputed master!

            Chiaki’s eyes were glazed over as she mindlessly dodged the shell that Mahiru had tried launching at her, to get her off-balance in the race.

            “Mm… I’ll try to avoid using my best teams.” Otherwise the dancer would get mad.

            Saionji spluttered indignantly.

            “No! I want you to throw your worst at me! I want a challenge!”

            “… You haven’t beaten Blissey, though.” And it was true – every time Saionji got it close to red in health, Mikan would heal it up…

            The scary thing about an Ultimate Gamer was that she didn’t just strive for a complete Pokedex like a lot of players did – she simultaneously made sure to give them the very best stats, items, and abilities. And all so methodically and precisely. Chiaki put so many competitive battlers to shame…

            Saionji had the luck of having the Ultimate Gamer’s prized Pokemon. Only problem was, Tsumiki did, too. And she wasn’t exactly going about the right way with trying to beat a Blissey…

            “I-It’s not my f-fault!” Saionji spluttered in both shock and outrage. She growled in frustration. “Stop using Softboiled, damnit!”

            Poor Mikan wasn’t listening, though. Her eyes were still wide as saucer plates as she recovered from the fact her poor Blissey had tanked a critical hit, and very nearly died. She was so distraught she missed the fact she used Softboiled twice, bringing Blissey back up to full health.

            “G-Gotta keep healing…! Gotta keep healing…!”

            Saionji screeched like a banshee at all her hard work being rendered useless.

            “Fatty’s gotta die!” The dancer decided viciously. “Th-There’s gotta be s-something I can do…!”

            … Too bad for Saionji, the next move that came was Thunder, and that was all she wrote for poor Charizard.

            Mikan straightened up and stared at the screen with disbelief.

            “I-I won?” She flinched when Saionji had gone rigid and quiet as a graveyard, also staring listlessly at her screen.

            Mahiru sweatdropped at the development.

            “M-Maybe we should trade partners, Tsumiki…”

            Mikan tittered nervously, looking to Hiyoko anxiously. The blonde remained silent and unresponsive.

            “I-Is Saionji going to be okay…?” And then it dawned on the nurse… she’d just pretty much murdered the fire dragon thing Saionji was using… “Eek! I’m sorryyy, Saionjiiii…!”

            Seeing the look entering the dancer’s eyes, Mahiru edged over to Mikan and massaged her shoulders, helping her over to where Chiaki was still playing.

            “There, there… You didn’t murder anything…”

            “B-But I did…!” Mikan bawled. “Saionji hates me now!”

            “She doesn’t hate you…” Mahiru reassured as best as she could.

            “I am going to fucking murder you!” Came another unholy screech.

            Mahiru sighed wearily and kept massaging Mikan’s shoulders as she settled down to play with Chiaki instead. Somehow, she managed to blot out the dancer’s vengeful tirade for the troubled nurse, though Saionji wasn’t going to be mollified until she took out that… Blissey thing… Mahiru might just have to take a loss for the team here, though she didn’t know anything about Pokemon beyond the very bare basics, and she wasn’t sure how Hiyoko was going to take it if Mahiru just ‘let’ her win…

            This was going to be a long day…

            All the while, Chiaki played obliviously against her new opponent… Though she did have to adjust to Mikan’s more frantic style of racing…

            ~*~

            “This is amazing~!” Sonia gushed as she was among the first to be allowed into “Tanaka’s Domain”.

            It really was a sensational zoo. So many animals that the Ultimate Princess had never dreamed of seeing up close and personal… All of them in cute little habitats and exhibits. And perhaps the most adorable one of all was strutting around so proudly, like he had acquired all of these creatures himself and raised each one with such painstaking care…

            And who knows? Maybe Tanaka-kun had done a marvelous job since coming here. Those hamsters looked so happy when Tanaka-kun rambled on about, well, anything. Sonia herself adored listening to his stories.

            “S-Stay close to me, Miss Sonia… This place looks… kinda crazy…” Kazuichi laughed nervously as he rubbed the back of his head, looking around at all the exhibits. Lions, tigers, gorillas, snakes, birds, giraffes, zebras... Was that an elephant he saw back there?!

            Tanaka scoffed at the mechanic’s leeriness.

            “Still that prattling tongue of yours, mechanical one! There is not a Hell Beast in all the nine realms that would dare harm the Dark Queen! I would never allow it. And if the Overlord of Ice decrees it, so shall it be!”

            The mechanic cast a leery glance at the chuunibyou.

            “You sure about that, ya weirdo? These are all wild animals, y’know!” Souda yelped as he saw Sonia approach one of the tigers so nonchalantly. “M-M-MISS SONIAAA! Don’t pet it!!!”

            Sonia tilted her head as she stroked the tiger’s head affectionately.

            “Hmm? Why not?”

            Souda spluttered, grasping for a way to help her understand, while also a safe way for her to back away and not lose an arm.

            “Y-You… You can’t just pet tigers! They’re not like the cats you have at home, y’know?! They don’t like to be petted!” The mechanic grinded to a halt in his frenzy as he registered Sonia still had all five fingers, and that the tiger was actually bobbing its head up into her hand and… and…

            Was that tiger purring?

            Tanaka sidled up to the Princess and cackled at how utterly lost Souda looked in that moment.

            “Behold my power! In all my many centuries on this earthly realm, I have encountered demons of this variety, so I know full well how to make them roll over and submit to me!” He crossed his arms and boisterously cackled again. “It helps the Dark Queen carries an alluring presence, herself! Alastor cannot help but bask!”

            Souda floundered at the eccentric explanation that he couldn’t make heads or tails of. It… It just didn’t make any kind of dumb sense. Tigers were supposed to be these vicious wild animals, but Miss Sonia and this freak were so… so calm.

            The longer he watched that tiger rub up against Miss Sonia, however, the more he kinda understood… You didn’t mess around with Miss Sonia. He wished he could be that tiger right about now…

            The tour didn’t stop with the tiger, of course. Tanaka, that glorified attention hog, showed Miss Sonia everything. Miss Sonia frolicked with the flamingoes, ran around with the zebras, played with the chattering monkeys (… and those meathead gorillas), wrapped herself up in the biggest snake Souda ever had the misfortune of seeing (of course that troublemaker said it was quite docile, despite how it could probably make Miss Sonia pop like a balloon), fed some crocodiles and hyenas, watched the rhinos and hippos, lounged with the lions… And all the while, Souda heard more demonic names than he ever cared to hear about in his lifetime. Astaroth, Balam, Beelzebub, Gremory, Jinn, Lilith, Mazoku, Sitri… Where did Tanaka even dig up names like that?

            Miss Sonia should have been tuckered out after a long day like that (okay, so they still had half the afternoon)… Of course she still had the energy for the elephant. Baphomet or whatever that freak called him…

            “This is a wonderful zoo, Tanaka-kun!” Sonia giggled as she stroked that big, gray trunk. The elephant made a happy-sounding noise as it lightly tapped her. Tanaka yanked his scarf over his beet red face.

            “Th-These are only their temporary forms… But, the denizens of Purgatory are delighted for your approval, Dark Queen. In truth, I have learned much from observing your interactions! You bring out new sides to these Hell Beasts that I have seldom seen before… You are like a Siren, entrancing them, and even myself!”

            Sonia preened at the praise, and she beamed so radiantly… Tanaka and Souda were both mesmerized by that smile.

            “We do not have zoos in Novoselic, so I am totes excited to be here!” Sonia pumped her arm enthusiastically. “Could we perhaps see Gremory and Balam once more, before we stop for lunch?”

            A bit of steam erupted from Tanaka’s concealed, blushing cheeks.

            “Th-This dominion is as much yours now as it is mine. You have full autonomy, and you need not ask permission to enter at any time, day or night!”

            Sonia’s eyes sparkled and smiled dreamily.

            “You will allow me here, even though my potential has not been fully awakened?”

            Tanaka tugged at his scarf, frazzled.

            “Y-Y-Your potential will hasten to awaken if you meditate and socialize with the denizens here… Do not hold back on my account.”

            Sonia pumped her arm again.

            “Then I will give it all I’ve got! My only condition is that you accompany me! I wish to see you enjoy yourself, too!” The blonde giggled excitedly at the breeder’s increasingly flustered state.

            Kazuichi grunted as he butted into the conversation that was getting a bit too chummy for his tastes.

            “H-H-Hey, Miss Sonia…? Y-You wanted to come by the shop, r-right? To pick out a scooter?”

            Sonia blinked slowly as she remembered that was one of the things she wanted to get around to doing. That was why Souda had accompanied her and Tanaka-kun to the zoo.

            “Oh… right…” That sounded much less enthusiastic than before.

            The mechanic rubbed the back of his head and laughed nervously.

            “You can stop by anytime you like, too! If anything happens, I’ll definitely fix it! I promise!” He flashed a big grin and a thumb’s-up.

            … Not that Sonia seemed to pay him much heed as she returned his grin with a polite smile. Souda deflated when the princess resumed giving the elephant more affection.

            This sucked.

            Kazuichi jumped a few feet in the air as someone cleared his throat behind him. He whipped around, flustered.

            “GAHHH!”

            … Oh. It was Togami. The fat, rich asshole.

            “Souda, I need to have a word with you. There are some things that I wish to commission you to work on.” The heir held a finger to his temple as he frowned.

            Souda scowled and looked away in frustration.

            “Man, can’t you buzz off for one day?! Miss Sonia was gonna pick out a…” The mechanic deflated again as he realized Tanaka and Miss Sonia had wandered off while he’d been distracted. “… Damnit.”

            Byakuya pointed at him authoritatively.

            “Only you can accomplish what I need done! For the wellbeing of our class, we cannot waste even a second, so long as that bear is around!” He crossed his arms stubbornly, eyeing the exhibits shrewdly. “Now. Let’s talk somewhere more privately. This place reeks… even if the specimens are fascinating.”

            … Uh, duh? This whole thing stank! But if Togami stomping off without another word was any indication, Souda knew he wouldn’t have a say in the matter. He cast one last glance around the deathtrap they called a zoo, and then sighed miserably as he departed, too.

            This totally sucked.

            ~*~

            “So what did you wanna talk about?” Kazuichi grumbled as he entered the service shop with the heir hot on his heels.

            Togami looked around the shop with appraising eyes. He didn’t seem to care much about the scooters, which everyone else seemed more into. Hanamura, Mioda, Kuzuryu, Pekoyama, Nanami, Ikusaba, Hinata, and Yukizome-sensei had either expressed interest or already claimed one of the scooters. Souda figured Togami, with his fat figure, would be all over those things…

            “How hard would it be to make loudspeakers at this stage?” The blond started off thoughtfully, eyes never leaving the equipment scattered around the shop.

            Kazuichi blinked slowly as he registered the request.

            “Eh? Well… Depends on how many you want. I might have to borrow some parts from the planes, but I might be able to throw something together…” The pink-haired teen scratched his scalp. “Hope you don’t care if they’re a bit crappy, though. I don’t have everything on my wish list yet for supplies and facilities, y’know.”

            Togami snorted.

            “If you’re building them, I’m certain that even junk would be able to accomplish what we need.” The heir pulled out some blueprints, mainly showing strategic locations around the first and central islands. “The situation is unacceptable as things stand. If we are to respond efficiently in an emergency, we will need these loudspeakers. I do not trust the bear or rabbit to appropriately warn us when the time comes, and we are far too disorganized to reasonably assume that we will unite and have each other’s backs…”

            Souda groaned as he looked down at the blueprints. While there wasn’t an obscene amount, this was still going to be a pain in the ass to throw together… At least one speaker in each of the major facilities – ranch, dojo, hotel, supermarket, service shop, airport, zoo, the beach, and that park… The mechanic also noticed the specs on the speakers – Togami wanted each to be able to be used, not just receive transmissions from the others.

            This was gonna take a long time…

            “Can’t you at least get the guys to collect all the stuff I’d need?!” The mechanic whined. He was sure a lot of it was right here in the shop, but those planes were gonna be scavenged like hell… He had a life, y’know?!

            “Don’t complain. This is for everyone’s sake,” Togami pointed out with a determined frown. “Now. If I commission Nidai, Owari, Tanaka, Pekoyama, Ikusaba, Komaeda, and Hinata to harvest what you need from the planes, how long do you think you think these loudspeakers will take to create?”

            Souda massaged his forehead and scowled.

            “I dunno… At least a couple of days.” At the heir’s piercing glare, the mechanic shook a fist at him. “Gimme a break! You want these things to work, don’t you?! I can’t just throw parts together like Lego’s and be done in five minutes! Even wireless speakers take some time to build!”

            “Fine.” Togami grunted, crossing his arms and eyeing the mechanic shrewdly. “Onto the next project. Those scooters… they have GPS capabilities, don’t they?”

            Souda blinked owlishly at the heir.

            “Y-Yeah…? How’d you know that?” Kazuichi figured Byakuya didn’t give a rat’s ass about the scooters.

            “Would it be easier or harder to reverse engineer that technology to whip up some GPS locators?” The heir pressed, eyes boring into Souda’s.

            Souda rubbed the back of his head and chuckled nervously.

            “W-Well… S-Something like that… I could probably do a little faster.” The pink-headed teen nodded firmly. “Yeah… Yeah! Definitely! It’d be a good half a day, at least, but I can do that!”

            Oddly enough, even though he was being saddled with more work, Souda found himself warming up to the ideas. After all, like Togami said, his talent was for everybody’s benefit…

            … Including Miss Sonia. But he’d just keep that part to himself. The pushy jerk didn’t need to know why he was motivated, right?

            Togami nodded firmly in return.

            “Very well. Focus on those first. I would sleep much safer if we knew everyone’s locations with absolute certainty.” He crossed his arms and looked off to the side. “We can discuss the other projects later, after we have the GPS locators and loudspeakers. There are other measures I would see taken to ensure everyone’s wellbeing.”

            “E-Eh…?” Kazuichi paused. “Wait. Doesn’t the e-handbook kinda have a locator function for us…?”

            Togami snorted indignantly.

            “That technology was gifted to us by Monomi, who we are still uncertain of where she stands with regards to us and Monokuma. She may not mean us harm, for now, but I would feel much safer if we had something more reliable. Something we built, with our own two hands.” He pointed at Kazuichi authoritatively. “As the Ultimate Mechanic, your skill is unparalleled. I know you have the power to do these things, and your labor will certainly be rewarded. A wasted afternoon here and there will doubtlessly weigh on your mind, but remember… Your efforts are for everyone’s sake. Only you can do this.”

            Souda looked down to the floor in deep thought, a light scowl on his face.

            “Only me, huh…” The mechanic muttered. He wished it was Miss Sonia commissioning him for this, but this stuff was for her sake… And hey, who knows? She might notice him if he did this all for her and everyone.

            … Still bummed him out he was gypped out of an afternoon with her, though.

            ~*~

            Nekomaru had to admit, there was probably fewer ways that he could enjoy an afternoon to the utmost. Akane was a goldmine of athletic potential enough as it was, even if she had a bit of an attitude problem that needed fixing. But Mioda’s boundless energy, resonating with Akane’s, had him in a pretty good mood. He loved it when his athletes could challenge him to stay pumped!

            … Because you can bet he didn’t take that challenge lying down.

            “AKANEEEEEE!” The Ultimate Team Manager bellowed as he watched the brunette loop around the island yet again, arms crossed over his chest. “Don’t tell me you’re tuckered out already?! You gonna let Mioda steal the lead just after 219 laps?!”

            Akane growled, feeling a renewed vigor pumping in her veins.

            “Sh… Shut up, Old Man!” The gymnast howled. “I-I’m not beaten yet!!!”

            Nidai grinned at the latest burst of speed. Akane was gonna tire herself out faster by doing that, but this was supposed to be a learning experience for her. As an athlete, Akane was supposed to pace herself in training. You couldn’t push your limits if you didn’t set realistic goals for yourself.

            Ibuki, on the other hand, was not an athlete. Not in the truest, refined definition of the word. The musician was definitely a maelstrom of chaos and hyper energy, which paid off in spades for her right now, keeping up with Akane and threatening to take the lead in their shared training. Or as Ibuki put it, their race. What Nekomaru wouldn’t give to take that raw ability and mold it into something really amazing…

            Yet, he had to give the girl chops. He could totally respect her stubbornness and free spirit; Ibuki was so passionate about remaining the lead of her band, it was little wonder she didn’t want someone “above” her, telling her what to do. Nekomaru knew when to back away and let a talent do their own thing; you can’t coach someone who didn’t want to be coached. If Ibuki needed the guidance, she’d find that special person to help her by her own power. On her terms.

            It really was for the best. If he had his hands full with Akane, adding Ibuki to the workload would really be pushing his own coaching prowess, he could tell. Not that he would mind the challenge… But there were a few others he was interested in, on this island. He couldn’t turn his attention toward them if Ibuki became his responsibility – that girl needed your complete, undivided attention or you’d lose her for sure.

            … Ah, Ibuki finally got a leg up on Akane. And it looked like the musician was aiming to lap the gymnast, much to her frustration. On lap 259. Oh, Akane… Was this her current limit? They’d have to fix that. Nekomaru bellowed out a laugh, lightning crackled from his eyes as he cracked his knuckles.

            “NEW GAME! This ain’t about laps anymore! If I catch you, you’re gonna be doing 5000 pushups and 10,000 jumping jacks!!! And I won’t do It to you until you’re finished with those!!!”

            Akane felt a shiver run down her spine at those foreboding words. She licked her lips carefully.

            “Wh… What’s It…?” The gymnast couldn’t help wondering.

            Ibuki giggled gleefully, winking at the gymnast as she slowed down and kept pace with Akane.

            “Heehee~!  Akane-chan’s gonna find out~!” Ibuki abruptly sped up, shooting off like a race horse. Akane blinked sluggishly, still keeping up a decent clip.

            … But then she just had to take a peek over her shoulder… Needless to say, Akane never even knew what hit her.

            ~*~

            “… I told you, just forget about it! We ain’t anything but classmates on this island, you got that?”

            Teruteru ceased chopping the vegetables as he heard hushed whispers out in the dining hall. He perked up, upon hearing a feminine voice joining her irritated male companion’s.

            “But Young M…”

            “What’d I just say?!” Fuyuhiko hissed sharply. “I don’t give a shit about that freak! He can have his pet soldier all he wants! Long as they don’t pick a fight with you, he can do whatever the hell he wants!”

            Peko’s brow knit tightly together at the Young Master’s stubborn refusal of a tool. She did not understand. The Young Master had to know with this… Monokuma’s appearance, and the eve of what he called a ‘Killing Game’, she would be needed now more than ever. There were far too many threats around, and Ikusaba was most certainly at the top of that list.

            It didn’t help that Komaeda was so… strange. Who knew what went on in his head? He certainly didn’t do anything about that peculiar loyalty of Ikusaba’s. Things would be much easier if he simply dismissed her services… But the luckster welcomed her ‘help’. And the Young Master was going to ignore a clear threat such as this? Why did he have to be so stubborn at the oddest of times?

            “Y… Kuzuryu…” Peko corrected herself swiftly at his hawklike glare. “I cannot approve of this. All it takes is but one word from him, and Ikusaba could go after anyone, including y…”

            “Hey there, friends! What are we all talking about over here, hush-hush?!” Teruteru gushed as he butted in on the secret conversation. The two of them had been close to the stairs leading outside, but Teruteru had been listening with rapt attention and hanging onto every word. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this sounds like you two have an intimate relationship~! How about you gimme all the juicy details, hmm?”

            Peko considered clubbing Hanamura over the head for knowing too much, but she refused to act without the Young Master’s permission. With a resolute gaze, she looked to Fuyuhiko for orders… only to find the yakuza had slipped out while she and Teruteru were busy staring each other down.

            … Well, this certainly filled her with mixed emotions. She didn’t have the faintest idea why she felt the faintest flicker of rage at this turn of events… It was for the best the Young Master had beaten a hasty retreat. This perverted chef was a handful, indeed.

            A handful that she would now have to be dealing with on her own… Ah, she had pinned down the reason for her turbulent emotions. Now, what was the quickest, most efficient method for dealing with this pervert and rendezvousing with the Young Master… That, she did not know, and would have to improvise quick.

            … Hanamura was getting far too close for comfort.

            ~*~

            Yukizome let out a weary sigh as she plopped down on her bed, notepad discarded over on her desk so she wouldn’t obsess over it like she had been for the last few hours… She fell back on the mattress and gazed up at the ceiling listlessly.

            ‘How do I even begin to fix this?’ The assistant homeroom teacher morbidly thought to herself. Monomi hadn’t been willing to talk, giving the same excuse that she couldn’t

            Well, she also said Monokuma would possibly turn anything she said against her, which was a little more believable for Yukizome. If nothing else, Yukizome was glad the bear hadn’t tried to somehow turn the students against her and Hope’s Peak, or they’d really be up a creek without a paddle… She liked to think that a flesh and blood teacher was more believable, credible, and reliable than a stuffed rabbit, but given how on edge everyone was right now, anything could happen.

            Brought to this uninhabited island without warning. Stranded. A hostile takeover that added further stress and anxiety for everyone. Deadly robots of unknown origin. A possible bomb set to go off in three weeks… This all seemed like something out of a science fiction novel. But Yukizome knew it wasn’t, because she remembered enough about some of the profiles of these kids to know Jin Kirigiri had appointed her as their assistant homeroom teacher…

            Heck, she had even met Nidai personally, before the school year had begun. It’s not like he was held back or anything… Nidai-kun was too talented to be a dropout. But Yukizome had a colorful background because of being associated with the passionate Ultimate Student Council President. Meeting and getting to know bright, talented, young people was kind of her job as Kyosuke’s Beloved~…

            … A-Assistant, that is. Beloved Assistant. The Most Beloved~

            *cough*

            Anyway, that’s sort of why she was grateful to have a familiar face here, even if she’d only met Nida a handful of times before all this. It’d just be so much easier if she could just… somehow get back in touch with Kyosuke or Juzo… In the past, she always had their support when she needed it. To be completely cut off from her two best friends… It made her heart ache.

            Chisa lazily peeked over at the framed photo on her desk. One where she was yanking their arms in the midst of cherry blossom trees. Then again, she was also the one doing much of the supporting… Those boys would be completely lost without her.

            Sitting up, Chisa clapped her cheeks eccentrically, in an attempt to get herself pumped up.

            “… Well, I’m not gonna change that now! Damn the torpedoes! Those kids need me, too. I’m not gonna let them down.”

            And she wouldn’t. So she’d best get off her butt and check up on everyone.

Chapter Text

            “Ahem! Hope’s Peak Academy’s School Trip Executive Committee has an announcement to make~! The fun time you’ve all been waiting for is about to begin! I wonder what festivities await you? … Oops, don’t want to ruin the surprise! It was a little ‘meh’ at first, but anyway, please gather at Jabberwock Park!” With the announcement made, every screen on the island flickered off.

            Even though it was the middle of the night, Hajime gritted his teeth and complied. Like everyone else, he didn’t have a choice when it came to that bear and his… rules. He didn’t want to get on the bad side of those giant robots.

            The sight of the small stage in front of the monument with the bomb-like object on it was peculiar, though… What was Monokuma planning now?

            Hajime had goosebumps about the sudden announcement… He knew this was going to be bad. And still, he was berated for dragging his feet.

            “Late again… Did you lose your nerve?” Byakuya humphed. He shook his head in exasperation. “Regardless, everyone’s now here.”

            The brunet sighed internally, hanging his head and hands twitching uncomfortably. Well, the heir wasn’t wrong

            “It’s fine, Hinata-kun.” Chisa reassured her student with a small smile. “In a hostile situation, it’s better to comply with the small demands; don’t just pointlessly resist at every opportunity.”

            Hajime smiled self-depreciatively at the attempt of cheering him up.

            “Th-Thanks, Sensei…” Maybe it was common sense. That didn’t change the fact he was a coward… He came here out of fear, not steely determination like Yukizome-sensei or Togami.

            As the orange-haired woman frowned and tried to think of a way to get her point across better, a derisive snort came from nearby.

            “So you’re saying if Monokuma tells us to murder, it’s better to just roll over?”

            Chisa whipped around in outrage, only to see Fuyuhiko standing there, appearing smug. His hands were in his pockets.

            “I said the small demands, Kuzuryu-kun! Taking another person’s life should never be taken lightly…!”

            The yakuza shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly.

            “Hey. Don’t blame me for the mixed signals, teach. Who decides which demands are ‘small’ and inconsequential, anyhow? Don’t ideals and values vary from person to person?” The blond sneered, raising a hand impishly. “If someone wanted to, I’m sure they could’ve refused to come here tonight. That would’ve been their own damn prerogative.”

            Kazuichi shook a fist at the yakuza in annoyance.

            “But… None of us know what would happen if we ditched?! The hell, dude?!”

            Fuyuhiko sneered again.

            “That’s why I’m saying someone should test it out so the rest of us know what’ll happen. Is that so unreasonable?”

            Mahiru placed her hands on her hips in exasperation, glaring down the yakuza.

            “”Hey, wiseguy, you may talk like you’re tough, but you wouldn’t be here unless you were scared, too!”

            “What?!” The yakuza whirled on the photographer, balling a hand into a fist angrily.

            “I guess even a big, bad yakuza like you must’ve been scared of that monster, huh?” Mahiru retained that challenging gaze, which Fuyuhiko returned heatedly.

            “What the fuck did you just say?!” He snarled, clenching his fist tighter.

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully.

            “Stop it, you two! Fighting amongst friends isn’t good!”

            Fuyuhiko stared at the luckster like he’d grown a second head.

            “What? Did you just say ‘friend’? I’m not your friend, dumbass! When did I ever become friends with you bastards?” At the questioning gazes, the yakuza huffed impatiently, bowing his head as he placed one hand on his hip. “Hmph, let me be perfectly clear… I can do it, y’know.”

            Everyone stared at Fuyuhiko, floored at his aggressive stance.

            “… Huh?” Teruteru voiced everyone’s clear disbelief.

            “Y-You… What did you just say…?” Mahiru demanded sharply.

            The yakuza impishly raised a hand again, sneering.

            “Oh? You didn’t hear me? Then I’ll repeat myself just once for you. I said… I can do it.” Fuyuhiko let the weighty words dangle in the air threateningly.

            Hajime frowned, brow furrowed, and tried to be the voice of reason.

            “Hey, Kuzuryu, why don’t we just calm down…?”

            “Don’t talk to me like we’re friends!” Fuyuhiko barked back. “I live in a completely different world from you bastards. Kill or be killed… that’s the kind of world I live in. Heh, the current rules make more sense to me than the, ‘play nice and get along’ crap.”

            “If you don’t stop it right now… I’m going to get seriously angry!” Mahiru fumed, pointing at the yakuza in outrage.

            “Don’t treat me like a kid, bitch!” Fuyuhiko spat back.

            Peko closed her eyes calmly.

            “Just stop already… This kind of fighting will not get us anywhere.

            “Shut the hell up! There’s no way I’m dealing with this Kumbaya crap!” The yakuza shot her down, as well. “If any of you guys wanna die, step forward… I’ll fuckin’ kill you right now…”

            Akane grinned wolfishly, raising her hands excitedly.

            “Sounds fun… Gimme your best shot!”

            “Wh-What’s gonna happen if you’re this easily provoked?!” Hajime yelped.

            Chisa put her foot down, head bowed gravely, hair overshadowing her eyes.

            “That’s enough! Kuzuryu-kun, I understand your feelings, but you are out of line!”

            “Tch…” Fuyuhiko clicked his tongue and turned his head away from the orange-haired woman. “Why should I care about what any of you bastards think? You’re just as powerless as we are! If Monokuma’s gonna get what he wants no matter what, then I’ll just do whatever the hell I want.”

            A harsh slap echoed throughout the park. The students stared in stupefied shock while the yakuza cradled his now red cheek. Chisa stared him down authoritatively, hands on her hips.

            “I won’t let any of you die! If everything else fails, you can believe in that, Kuzuryu-kun. No matter what anyone tries, how they tempt you… I won’t let any of you throw your lives away! You’re above killing! Every single one of you is. If you have doubts, worries, I will hear you out. Didn’t I tell you that?”

            Fuyuhiko continued cradling his cheek as he stared at the woman in shock.

            “Th-The hell…? Even if you say crap like that, those are just empty promises! You’re just an assistant homeroom teacher! The hell do you think you’re gonna do against these assholes running the school trip?!”

            Yukizome’s arms dropped to her side as her face went from furious to calm, yet determined.

            “I will put down my life for you. That’s how far I’m willing to go.” Chisa said with such conviction that Fuyuhiko clamped right up. “The moment you stop believing in your students, that’s when it’s really the end for a teacher. Even in an awful situation like this… I believe in every one of you. You all have the power to make it through this and return home. If there ever comes a time when your heart wavers… that’s when you come to me. Don’t think I’ll just allow you to throw your life away, Kuzuryu-kun.”

            Fuyuhiko lowered his hand and turned his head away sharply, having nothing further to say in rebuttal. Byakuya crossed his arms, smirking as he closed his eyes.

            “I am in complete support of Yukizome-sensei’s noble mission. In fact, I’ve already started to take steps to improve our situation, even a little… Souda, are those trackers still on schedule?”

            The mechanic rubbed the back of his head, chuckling nervously.

            “Y… Yeah… The devices were easy enough, and people should have ‘em by tomorrow morning. I’m just fine-tuning the main hub, so to speak. Make sure everything’s synced up properly.”

            Byakuya nodded sagely. He then pointed at everyone authoritatively.

            “As your Class Rep, I swear that no one shall become a victim. If you can’t bring yourself to believe in Yukizome-sensei, then take my word on it, as Byakuya Togami!”

            While everyone had been curious about what Kazuichi had been working on, they didn’t have time to probe into it. Monokuma chose that moment to appear… in a snazzy blue suit, white shirt, and red tie.

            “Um… It looked like you guys were arguing… so I wasn’t sure when to actually show up… It looks like I showed up at an awkward time!”

            Everyone stared at the eccentric bear. Chiaki tilted her head.

            “Um… why are you dressed like that?”

            “Oh, didn’t I mention it in the recent broadcast? It’s my costume for the fun time!” The bear happily answered.

            Peko made a small groan.

            “Don’t tell me you are going to…”

            Monokuma nodded sagely.

            “That’s right! Since we’re on a tropical island, I’m here to do my two-man comedy routine!”

            “Wh-Why does it matter that we’re on a tropical island?” Mikan asked with a quivering voice.

            Sonia smiled politely, but you could tell it didn’t go that deep.

            “But can you do a two-man comedy routine all by yourself?”

            “Of course not. That’s why I brought my partner.” Monokuma said by way of explanation, before hauling out Monomi for all to see. The bunny was in her own stage costume.

            “Ha-wa-wa! What is this?!” Monomi demanded.

            Nekomaru picked at his nose in aggravation.

            “Hmm, that figures…” He grunted.

            Monokuma cleared his throat for emphasis.

            “Now then, without further ado, I’m pleased to present, ‘Monokuma’s Side-Splitting Two-Man Comedy Show’!”

            Monomi wilted.

            “Huh? I didn’t hear anything about this! Are you telling me I have to improvise?!”

            “… I’m speechless.” Tanaka deadpanned.

            The stuffed animals hopped on stage. Or… well. Monokuma dragged Monomi with him.

            “Helloooooo, I’m Monokuma!” The bear started them off.

            “Um… I’m Monomi…” The rabbit followed him up.

            “And together, we are The Monokuma’s!” The two of them were in sync, that time.

            “Now, I know it’s sudden, but I guess I should show you my amazing mind-reading abilities~!” Monokuma continued.

            “Eh? You can read minds?” Monomi wasn’t sure what to make of this.

            “As practice, I’ll guess your favorite food. Hmm… Your favorite food is…” The bear trailed off, deep in thought.

            “You can do it! It’s obvious what rabbits like!” Monomi encouraged him.

            “Ca…” He hummed uncertainly.

            “That’s right!” Monomi seemed happy enough with where this was going.

            “…davers!” The bear decided randomly.

            “I’d never eat a dead body!” Monomi refuted the guess.

            Monokuma giggled.

            “Now then… Monomi’s up next! C’mon, do a short skit or something!”

            “Wh-What?! There’s no way I can do that!” Monomi spluttered.

            “No worries, it’s all good. I know a technique to summon the god of Comedy!” Monokuma gushed. “Sooo… which do you think is better? Taking blood while you’re still alive, or after you’re already dead?”

            “Why would you ask such a cruel question?!” Monomi demanded.

            “If I’m gonna summon the Comedeity, then I’ll need a lot of blood.” The bear explained helpfully.

            “So, a god of comedy wants blood…” Monomi deadpanned.

            “Hngh! Pretty please?!” Monokuma begged with a suave tone.

            “No matter how charmingly you ask, there’s no way I’ll let you take my blood!” Monomi refused.

            “You’re always so quick to make a scary face, Monomi. You guys better be careful, too. Ya know, since Monomi’s actually a bad guy. She’s as bad as the first villain the hero fights in a teen manga!” Monokuma warned the students.

            “They’re always the underdog!” The rabbit whined.

            “Believe me, it’s a fact that Monomi’s a villain. I’ll let you all in on a secret of hers… Monomi… went out of her way to erase your memories!” It was clear the comedy routine was derailed by this point. Monokuma had adopted a deathly serious tone.

            “Say what?!” Monomi gasped. “… Wait, huh?”

            “You guys don’t remember how you got to this island, am I right? Well, that’s because Monomi stole your memories!” Monokuma giggled.

            “Wh-What are you saying all of a sudden?!” Monomi demanded.

            “But wait, there’s more! She didn’t just steal your boring memories, like how you guys got to this island. She completely took away your memories of the years you spent at Hope’s Peak Academy! What a shocker!” Monokuma gushed.

            “Ha-wa-wa?!” Monomi was at a loss for what to say.

            Monokuma breathed a sigh of relief.

            “Phew… I feel great now that I’ve shared that with you. Seriously, memory plots are so old hat nowadays… Only a total hack would wait until the end of the story to reveal a clichéd twist like that!”

            “P-Please stop…!” Monomi begged desperately.

            “Upupu~! Wasn’t that a huge surprise? In truth, you guys aren’t freshmen students at all. You guys just thought you were because you’ve lost all your school memories! Quick, someone get a plagiarist because I feel like I’ve heard this story before~!” Monokuma teased.

            “S-Seriously… This is bad in so many ways!” Monomi anxiously tittered about.

            Monokuma savagely punched her in the face.

            “I’m through dealing with you!”

            “GYAAAAAH! His backhand is far too powerful!” Monomi wailed.

            But Chisa and the students were too lost for words to respond to the end of the skit. Hajime licked his lips experimentally, but he could only manage a single syllable.

            “… Huh?”

            “Wh-What did he mean?” Nagito wondered.

            Monokuma was already out of his suit by the time the students had regained their bearings enough to listen again.

            “How was it? Was it funny? Or was the comedy too high brow for you?” Monokuma challenged them.

            Byakuya scowled.

            “Hey… what were you saying just now?”

            “What was I saying just now…?” Monokuma tilted his head cutely. He then muffled his giggles. “Oh, you mean when I said that your school memories were completely stolen?”

            But Monokuma’s words weren’t any more comprehensible. Hajime certainly couldn’t find the words to respond. Ibuki poked her fingers together, laughing nervously.

            “Aha… hahaha… There’s no way… ‘Cause… I just entered Hope’s Peak Academy, and then I was brought to this island… right away…”

            “That’s because that’s how you remember it.” Monokuma explained helpfully. “All thanks to Monomi stealing your school memories…”

            “Wh-What are you saying?! That’s impossible!” Hajime spluttered.

            Monokuma adorably tilted his head again.

            “Man… how many years has it been since you guys first entered Hope’s Peak Academy…? I wonder what happened to your friends and family? They’re probably worried sick about you… Maybe?”

            “Our school memories were stolen?! That’s ridiculous!” Nekomaru declared in a booming voice.

            “That’s right! There’s no way I have memory loss!” Kazuichi pointed furiously at the bear.

            Chisa, meanwhile, had gone ashen. The idea of memory loss seemed so… out there… And yet… And yet… So many things would start making sense. About the abrupt journey here. A school trip right on the “first day”… That even might explain the Steering Committee shipping her off to a remote island like this, if they’d caught on to her at any point… But still. Why send the kids, too?

            Monomi really wasn’t helping her case, either…

            “D-Don’t… don’t listen to what he says…” Monomi cried, paws raised in the air in alarm.

            Ibuki foamed at the mouth.

            “Blub-blub-blub-blub… Limit reached…”

            Teruteru poked his fingers together nervously.

            “I refuse to believe such a thing. Yep, everything’s okay… I don’t believe it…”

            “Y-You’re lying right…? Stealing our memories… that’s a lie, right…?” Mikan asked in such a fragile tone. “You’re just trying to make fools of us, right…?”

            Monokuma sharply denied the pleading ignorance.

            “Nope, it’s not a lie. If it was a lie… then how do you explain this? The moment you arrived at Hope’s Peak Academy, you all experienced a strange dizziness…” At Hajime’s clear disbelief of having that knowledge, Monokuma giggled. “Upupu… Why, that was the cut-off point. Your memories beyond that point have been completely removed.”

            “What the hell?!” Hajime couldn’t speak any more than that. He could only breathe raggedly and heavily.

            Mikan cried out in distress.

            “So… a long time has passed… since then…?” Mikan wailed.

            “I-Impossible… There’s no way!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “On the contrary… Why is it impossible?” Monokuma tilted his head again.

            “Whether or not it’s possible… there’s no way we can believe it.” Nagito rasped, totally at a loss.

            “You just don’t want to believe it, right?” Monokuma accused. He rubbed the back of his head merrily. “But don’t worry… I’m a generous guy! I can give you back your memories~!”

            “Huh?!” Monomi cried out in distress.

            “However… there’s a catch.” Monokuma revealed.

            “Don’t tell me the catch is…” Chiaki trailed off in dread.

            Monokuma giggled uncontrollably.

            “Upupu… figured it out yet? That’s right, you guys have to kill each other! That’s my bargaining point!” Monokuma laughed merrily as Monomi continued panicking. “You guys wanna know, right? You want your school memories returned to you, right? Then you better start killing~! A penny for your thoughts, and a murder for your memories!”

            Akane growled lowly.

            “Hey… Stop runnin’ your mouth.”

            Monokuma tilted his head at her.

            “My, my… why so angry? I’m just providing you all a motive from the bottom of my big, generous heart! Otherwise, you cowards wouldn’t get any killing done! Well, that’s not your fault. Humans are natural born cowards. They even cry after their mom squeezes ‘em out. That’s why I’m giving you a motive. Think of it as an excuse to commit your future crimes.”

            “Stop this at once…!” Byakuya demanded haughtily. “Do you really think your delusional rambling will convince us to commit murder…?”

            “I don’t even believe that memory loss crap in the first place!” Mahiru raged.

            “But more than that, what you guys really don’t believe is each other, right?” Monokuma taunted. “You guys don’t know each other. Which means… None of you realize that a traitor is hiding among you, right?”

            “… Huh?” Hajime was caught off-guard again, as was everyone else.

            “Hey, why are there eighteen of you?” Monokuma asked, breathing another sigh of relief at getting something else off his chest. “If a total of sixteen students and one teacher from Hope’s Peak Academy were arranged to come to this island… That’s right! There’s probably a traitor I don’t even know about hiding among the group! … Just kidding.”

            Fuyuhiko gritted his teeth angrily.

            “Wh-What are you saying… all this shit about traitors doesn’t make any sense!”

            “… It’s obviously nonsense.” Peko agreed.

            “For real, you guys… how can you be so sure?” Monokuma taunted again. “You guys don’t know anything about each other. You don’t know each other’s true natures. That’s why, if one of you is planning to kill someone, it’s impossible for any of you to know. Even so… if there really is a traitor, isn’t that gosh darn awful? Pretending to be your ally and tricking you guys… It makes sense for someone like that to get killed, right? C’mon, make the preemptive strike! It’s first come, first served and the winner takes all! If you want to survive, you gotta find that person before they find you… Aaaaahahaha~!”

            They all stood there silently for what seemed like an eternity, long after Monokuma had departed with boisterous laughter. None of them knew what to believe and not to believe… It was all so outrageous, outlandish, brutal, mad… The mere possibility of it being all true was… It entranced them.

            “Is it true…? Is there really a traitor among us…?” Mikan wondered quietly. She covered up her head with her arms in a panic. “Ah! It’s not me, by the way! I know I may look suspicious but… it’s not me!”

            “Who is it?!” Nekomaru bellowed. “Hurry up and show yourself! You’re only making things worse for you by staying silent!”

            Byakuya huffed exasperatedly.

            “… Just stop. There’s no way there’s a traitor. There’s no way… It’s pointless to even discuss something so foolish.” He crossed his arms, scowling fiercely.

            “That’s right… I don’t believe it…” Teruteru chanted to himself. “Because there’s no way I can believe it… There’s no reason in the first place to believe it…”

            “Monomi… you would know.” Peko homed in on the plushy that remained amongst the group.

            “Huh?!” The rabbit exclaimed in distress.

            “Is what Monokuma said true? About our memory loss… and about the traitor…?” Peko stressed.

            Monomi nervously tittered about.

            “Um… I mean… Everyone needs to look to the future… That’s why… you shouldn’t look back to the past… Keep your eyes fixed upon the future. L-Let’s do our very best!” With that, Monomi beat a hasty retreat.

            Everyone stared after the clearly suspicious rabbit.

            “Aww, she ran away!” Akane groaned.

            “Hmph, how ridiculous…” Fuyuhiko grunted. “Memory loss… a traitor… It’s completely fictional… I can’t deal with this bullshit, dumbass!”

            Hajime found himself agreeing wholeheartedly with that sentiment. It was completely different from the reality that he himself lived in… But as they were all processing this, the nighttime announcement rang out like normal. After it taunted them…

            “H-Hey… what should we do?” Chiaki asked, tilting her head.

            “It’s better if we call it a night here.” Byakuya decided. “We should get some sleep… and try to keep our minds calm.”

            “I guess… you’re right.” Chiaki murmured, pulling her kitty hoodie over her head.

            “Just so you all know… Do not think about unnecessary things. This is your leader’s order. Tomorrow morning… let’s meet at the restaurant after Monokuma’s morning announcement.”

            Sonia rubbed her arm, sighing.

            “How troubling… I think the saying goes, ‘I am frightened so stiff…’”

            “I am pretty stiff right now, too…” Teruteru agreed happily… with a perverted grin…

            “That’s… not how that saying goes…” Kazuichi scratched his cheek sheepishly. “B-But that’s not her fault! She’s a foreigner, after all…”

            No one else bothered correcting the Princess or commenting in general. They just… scattered for the evening. Chisa, who had gone quiet, stiffly moved to return to her own cottage. She was frowning and deep in thought.

            If she had learned anything from this nonsensical chain of events… She would be needing to be more on her game. Kuzuryu-kun demonstrated the kids could get distracted with thoughts of killing, even if they took it lightly and didn’t consider all the ramifications. Monokuma was most definitely going to use that confusion and incite murder.

            Another thing was that Monomi would definitely need closer scrutiny. Well-intentioned or not, Monomi had clearly done something to them to steal away portions of their lives. Whether that was the entirety of their lives at Hope’s Peak, or whether the kids were still on course for graduation… that remained to be seen. But this amnesia thing really did worry her, regardless. How much time had passed? What were Kyosuke and Juzo doing? Were they searching for her? What about Hope’s Peak itself? Were they still on track for improving the academy, or were they compromised and in danger? Why were the kids here with her? Chisa had no problem looking after an entire class, but if this fiasco was related to the Steering Committee in any way, then they should be isolating and punishing her, not the students.

            A cold chill went down Chisa’s spine.

            Did… Did she bring children into her operation of spying on Hope’s Peak? Certainly, they were Ultimates and just a few years younger than her… But that was simply inexcusable. She… She refused to believe that she had ever grown that complacent and misguided. Not only was it dangerous, but it threw away their futures if Kyosuke’s vision was ever compromised. Chisa had no problems dying for the man herself, but asking others to do the same, especially children, crossed the line.

            So… the children’s presence was still a mystery. Setting all that and the memory loss aside, there was still the issue of a… traitor. That actually did line up with her own confusion from earlier about the number of students, because she could have sworn there hadn’t been seventeen names brought up in the meetings with Kirigiri-san and Kizakura-san. But even if that were the case… Should she really get caught up in Monokuma’s pace?

            How about a different possibility? Maybe there really was a ‘traitor’. Planted by Monomi to watch over the students. If nothing else, that made the idea of a traitor easier to swallow. Because before Monokuma showed up, Monomi hadn’t been doing anything wrong; she just wanted everyone to enjoy a blissful, tropical life. Certainly, the memory loss was disturbing – that would need an explanation. But at the very least, it kept Monomi as an enemy of Monokuma, and not a cohort.

            An enemy of your enemy was not necessarily your ally… But they could have different, non-sinister goals in mind. And Chisa… she needed something like that to believe in. A silver lining to this dismal situation.

            Because pressure was building up… And she was feverishly hoping and praying that it wasn’t building up to murder, of all things… Once it started, it was never going to end. And she wanted these kids to live

            ‘… I hope you’re alright, Kyosuke… wherever you are…’

            ~*~

            Mukuro sighed morosely as she returned to her cabin, closing the door behind her and locking it. Nagito had dismissed her for the evening, saying that he would be fine… She wanted to believe that. He had good luck, too – not just bad luck. But the others were not in a sane state of mind right now… any of them could snap from the tension and terror.

            Still… Nagito caught her watching his cabin, and told her off. So… she was dismissed for the night. Now she was forced to deal with… this.

            Mukuro deadpanned at the uninvited guest in her cottage.

            “What are you doing here?” The soldier barked, keeping all of her senses on high alert. Monokuma just kept his back to her, looking around the room so casually.

            “Hmmm… This really is depressing. You’re the Ultimate Soldier, but they didn’t give you bazookas or grenade launchers?!” Monokuma turned around to face her and hung his head, sighing miserably. “Not even a Gatling gun to spice things up! So barbaric~! Do they expect you to just… live off the land, sharpening sticks to use as arrows?! I-I-I’m positively appalled!”

            Mukuro growled impatiently, fingers twitching toward her survival knife.

            “What. Are you. Doing here…?” The soldier grated out.

            Monokuma let out another miserable sigh, stance unchanging.

            “… Nothin’? Geez, tough crowd. I was thinkin’ of you, y’know. When I made that two-man comedy act. I was totally tempted to drag you into it, just like the good old days… But then I remembered, you don’t have a funny bone in your entire body. So. I settled for Monomi.”

            Mukuro arched an eyebrow suspiciously.

            “Me…? Why would I ever associate with you?”

            Monokuma sweated profusely as he poked his paws together ‘nervously’.

            “G-Gasp~! This adorable face doesn’t ring any bells for you? Very distant school bells? Not even a tingle?” At the firm shake of her head, Monokuma stood up straight suddenly. “Oh. Oh, this won’t do. Mm-mm. What did you do to make them bleach your brain that badly? Did you screw up? Again? *siiigh* I’m gonna hafta renew my neurosurgeon license. Doctor Killgood, back in business. This just… This just sucks! I can already tell I’m gonna be workin’ on you for a while.”

            Mukuro gripped the handle of her knife, but didn’t draw it out yet.

            “As if I would ever let you anywhere near my brain…” The soldier growled lowly.

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “A bit late for that, I’m afraid~! But don’t you worry about a thing. I’m gonna take better care of you than she ever did! I’m gonna be your onii-chan~! We’ll go for romantic walks on the beach, play board games, shoot people in the face… It’ll be great~! We’ll even string up that Hope fanboy and shove a depth charge down his fucking Hope~… er… his throat, I mean. Oops. Now which Hope fanboy was that again? I… I kinda forgot. If it was your boytoy, I’m sorrrrrrrryyyyyy~! I just couldn’t help myself~!”

            Monokuma didn’t seem all that surprised when Mukuro had him pinned down on the floor in the next moment. He just stared up at her with that permanently grinning face of his.

            “Are you going to be quiet now?” Mukuro asked, eyes coldly glaring down at the bear as she kept her foot firmly planted on his stomach. “You’d better be. Because I don’t care how many spares you have, or how many robots you have lying in the wings. I won’t stop until every strand of cotton is torn to shreds, if you lay one finger on Komaeda-kun…”

            The bear guffawed at the threat that didn’t sound idle.

            “You really did follow your instincts, didn’t you…? Even though they were way off course, the disturbing, spine-tingling similarities were enough to make ya go, ‘I must protect this Creepazoid at all costs’~!”

            “Don’t call him a creep…!” The soldier hissed darkly, dangerously close to just stabbing the bear in the face and being done with him. “You don’t even know Komaeda-kun!”

            “And you do?” Monokuma challenged her in return, not threatened in the least. “Put your money where your mouth is, short-trooper. Look me in the eye, and tell me you haven’t had alarm bells going off in your head – telling you that there’s more to his nice, chummy interactions than meets the eye!”

            Mukuro remained stubbornly silent at that. The hand holding her knife quivered in a quiet rage, and her heel grinded into the bear in aggravation. Monokuma giggled tauntingly.

            “Something about him isn’t right, and you know it~! You’ve got the right puzzle pieces, but they’re just not clicking because you’re assembling them the wrong way! It’s fine~! I do it all the time when I’m bored with a jigsaw puzzle.” The bear paused thoughtfully. “Though I typically like to use chopped up bodies as ‘jigsaw puzzles’, so…”

            “There is nothing wrong with Komaeda-kun…!” Mukuro hissed, narrowing her eyes.

            Monokuma deadpanned, unimpressed.

            “You and I both know that’s one sick puppy, you’re just lying to yourself to live out your deluded fantasy… And we both know that I wasn’t even talking about Komaeda-kun’s sanity, or lack thereof, when I said something was off. If you look deep in your heart, you’ll realize what’s wrong~…”

            “…” Mukuro glared.

            The bear shrugged lazily, despite still being pinned.

            “Fine, fine, be obstinate. I’ll wait. I’ve got all the time in the world~…” Monokuma tilted his head slightly. “I’m not even here to talk about that nutcase, anyway. How’d you let me go on a tangent like that?! What kinda neechan are you?”

            All the wrath melted out of Mukuro at that single word. Her mouth hung open as she echoed it hollowly.

            “N… nee… chan…”

            … Why did that single word feel so ominous? The soldier couldn’t even decipher the feelings rolling around in her gut. They… didn’t make her feel pleasant at all…

            “That’s right~!” Monokuma chirped. “Monomi went a step further when she took your memories away. You didn’t just forget your school memories… You forgot your precious imouto~! Though, I can’t really blame that stupid rabbit. I’d be jealous, too, if I had an amazing imouto like that~!”

            “I… I have family…?” Mukuro asked faintly, her body running on autopilot as she removed her foot and allowed Monokuma to get up. The bear dusted himself off casually.

            “I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say anything more without incurring the wrath of Spoiler Haters… But yes~! You have family! … Or did. I wonder what that means…?” Monokuma tilted his head curiously, before departing abruptly.

            … It’s not like he had to stick around, though. Mukuro was lost in her own little world…

            ~*~

            Walking into the restaurant the next morning felt miserable… Hajime was the fourth person to arrive, just after Nekomaru, Sonia, and Teruteru. The others were quick to trickle in after him, however. Once they were all present, Byakuya crossed his arms and looked around sternly. To Hajime’s confusion, Chisa just nodded and flashed a thumb’s-up at the heir.

            “… Is everyone here?”

            Chiaki peered around the room.

            “Huh? It seems Kuzuryu-kun is not here yet…”

            Saionji snickered.

            “Hehe, maybe he already got killed…”

            Ibuki covered her face in terror.

            “GYAAAH! Dead bodies already?!”

            Peko sighed patiently.

            “Don’t go killing people off… I saw him outside earlier. However, he told me he would not be joining us this morning.”

            “Why does he have to act like a lone wolf at a time like this…?” Mahiru groaned in annoyance.

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head, laughing nervously.

            “Could he… Is he thinking up a plan to kill someone by himself…?”

            “Souda! You should not doubt your friend!” Sonia berated the mechanic, who scrabbled to defend his position.

            “Well, he’s a yakuza, isn’t he? Do you understand what that means? He’s part of the Japanese mafia!”

            Togami pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.

            “I presume he’s the kind of person who would not come even if we summoned him. I guess it can’t be helped… We should just talk among ourselves. Someone can fill him in later.”

            “Talk…?” Hajime echoed in confusion. “What are we going to talk about?”

            Byakuya chuckled, closing his eyes.

            “Rejoice… I have decided to throw a party tonight.”

            “Huh?” Hajime didn’t understand the decision.

            “A p-party…?” Mikan yelped.

            Byakuya just continued smirking.

            “That’s right. A huge party that will last from sundown to sunrise.” The heir confirmed.

            “Party ‘til the sun comes up?!” Ibuki seemed thrilled by the idea.

            Byakuya pointed authoritatively at everyone.

            “Just so we’re clear, I will not allow any absences. Your attendance at this party is absolutely mandatory.”

            Kazuichi massaged his forehead in aggravation.

            “H-Hey… now’s not the time to talk about stuff… like partying!”

            “On the contrary… there is no better time than this…” Byakuya refuted the mechanic.

            “But still… we shouldn’t really be partying…” Mahiru trailed off dejectedly.

            Nagito rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

            “Um, hold on… I agree with Togami… It doesn’t do us any good to stay bummed out like this…” He raised an index finger astutely. “In fact, because of the situation we’re in, it’s probably best if we all strengthen our friendships with one another. That’s what you thought too, right? That’s why you want to throw a party.”

            Byakuya scoffed.

            “It doesn’t matter why I’m doing it… Anyway… It is of vital importance that we all stay in one place tonight.”

            “… You say that with such significance.” Tanaka mused, crossing his arms and gave the heir a discerning glare. He received one in return.

            “It’s decided! We’re having ourselves a party!” Byakuya ignored any suspicion thrown his way.

            “E-Even so… I’m not sure it needs to last all night…” Mikan nervously tapped her fingers together.

            “If I thought that, I would have made that clear from the beginning.” Byakuya aggressively defended his terms for the party.

            “I-I-I’m terribly sorry!” Mikan shielded her face with her arms again. “I’m so, so sorry for trying to meddle with your plan!”

            “It’s important to be flexible in situations like this…” Nekomaru mused. “Perhaps a diversion from all this is just what we need.”

            “Then let’s party~!” Akane grinned, ear to ear.

            Teruteru perked up.

            “Ah, in that case, I’ll put my amazing cooking skills on display for you guys.”

            “Where is the party going to be held?” Chiaki tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Would this restaurant be okay?”

            Byakuya raised a finger to his temple shrewdly.

            “No, this won’t do… We need a location that’s impervious to interference from outsiders. A place even Monokuma cannot enter… What we need is an enclosed space.”

            “… An enclosed space?” Chiaki tilted her head.

            “If the restaurant won’t do, then neither will the lobby…” Tanaka pointed out. “That’s not nearly enclosed enough.”

            “Nor will the cottages…” Sonia mused. “With so many people, we would all be pressed up against each other.”

            “But if you want to be pressed up against each other, then clearly a cottage is the best choice!” Teruteru chipped in with a perverted grin. His nose started to bleed a little. “Pressing up against ladies… without sneaking aboard the women-only train in drag… I feel so lucky.”

            Kazuichi rolled his eyes scratching his cheek.

            “I can’t believe how comfortable you are with saying your perverted thoughts out loud…”

            Teruteru giggled merrily.

            “Mmhmhm~! I may be a pervert, but I’m the kind of pervert everybody likes~!”

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment.

            “Your confidence is seriously impressive…”

            Nagito raised an index finger astutely.

            “Then… how about that old-looking building near this hotel?”

            “That rundown place…?” Chiaki tilted her head curiously.

            Nagito laughed lightly, giving a carefree wave.

            “Yeah, but if we do our best to clean it, I think it’d be perfect. Plus, it’s basically the only place that meets our needs for an enclosed space, right?”

            Peko frowned thoughtfully.

            “Indeed. However, Monomi has forbidden us from entering that old place. As I recall… it’s in the middle being renovated.”

            Monomi chose that moment to appear excitedly.

            “I have heard your conversation! Heard it all with my very own ears~! Ahem! I have good ears! Cuz I’m a rabbit!”

            “Oh, so you use your ears, that’s strange…” Byakuya scowled at the rabbit.

            “Huh?!” The rabbit yelped.

            “Then what is the reason for the surveillance cameras? Are they for Monokuma’s eyes only?”

            Monomi wilted, mushrooms growing out of her head.

            “Ah, she looks so disappointed!” Ibuki pointed out.

            “Well, it is of no concern… We can settle that issue another time…” Byakuya pointed at the rabbit. “Regarding the old building! You came to tell us something about it, right?!”

            Monomi nodded happily.

            “Yes, if it strengthens everyone’s bonds with each other, then I will not hesitate to cooperate. So in that case, I will allow you to enter the old building! I’ll cooperate so we can all party together~!”

            Saionji snorted disdainfully.

            “Together? That’s not gonna happen ‘cause you’re so disgusting~… Do yourself a favor and stay away from mirrors. You’ll be grossed out by what you see.”

            “Ugh… Your kind words make me want to cry…” Monomi departed tearfully.

            “Um… So we’re all good with the old building?” Mahiru asked, not really sure how to respond to any of that. “Then what about the preparations? If it’s in the middle of a renovation, don’t we need to clean it first?”

            Sonia gushed excitedly.

            “I have never done the dirty work known as ‘cleaning’ before. I am excited to finally experience it!”

            Kazuichi got riled up at that.

            “No way! There’s no way we can dirty our dear Princess’s hands!”

            “Nyeeeh, I don’t wanna do it, either!” Saionji pursed her lips.

            Nekomaru picked at his nose in boredom.

            “What… Nobody’s going to do it…?”

            Nagito grinned brightly and waved his hand again gleefully.

            “In that case, why don’t we decide on a random drawing?” He produced some sticks he carried around in his pocket.

            “A random drawing…?” Hajime stared down at the sticks incredulously.

            “To be honest, I already prepared a drawing because I assumed something like this would happen. Whoever draws the chopstick with the red mark on it will be in charge of cleaning, okay? Does that sound fair?” Nagito’s grin was so innocent… Hajime didn’t like the feeling it might’ve been rigged, and he’d end up on cleaning duty.

            Nagito wouldn’t do that… right…?

            “Well then, let us entrust our destinies to the whims of this drawing!” Tanaka agreed to the proposal.

            And that’s when Chisa struck, walking up behind the luckster, placing a hand on his shoulder, giving a closed-eyes grin of her own.

            “That won’t be necessary, Komaeda-kun… As the former Ultimate Housekeeper, I’ll get that place cleaned up in a jiffy!” She opened her eyes and glanced around the restaurant before her eyes landed on two individuals. “That said… it’d be a shame to turn down help when offered… Ikusaba! Nevermind! You’re going to be my little helpers~!”

            Sonia’s eyes sparkled in merriment at the appointed task, while Mukuro stared unblinkingly at the orange-haired woman. This felt… coordinated. But at the same time, it didn’t. If this was staged, what purpose was it for?

            … And why turn down Komaeda-kun’s suggestion of a drawing? It seemed harmless.

            “Ah, and no one else is allowed inside the old building while we’re preparing it…” Chisa tacked on at the end, patting Nagito’s shoulder as he chuckled lightheartedly.

            Mukuro narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Definitely planned. But why?

            “I’ll handle the cooking.” Teruteru reiterated his earlier remark. “All right, first I need to prepare my ingredients, then I’ll start cooking at the old building. I, Teruteru Hanamura, will go all-out! I will prepare the world’s tastiest dishes for you all~!”

            Peko bowed her head and nodded stoically.

            “Then I just need to pass along the party details to Kuzuryu.”

            “Let’s go about our business then. After Monokuma’s nightly announcement, we’ll meet at the old building.” Byakuya instructed them all. “Last order of business: Souda, if you would.”

            The mechanic rubbed the back of his head and giggled nervously as he started handing out small devices to his befuddled classmates. Hajime looked down at his, finding that it resembled a phone, but it didn’t do anything when he fiddled with it…

            “What the heck are these?” The brunet wondered aloud. Byakuya was kind enough to elaborate as he held up what appeared to be a tablet with blinking lights displayed on it.

            “We are all navigating uncharted waters here, unsure of if we can trust each other… As such, I have deemed it prudent to know your positions at all times. These GPS trackers will help fulfill my promise to you to not allow anyone become a victim. Cooperate and keep these with you, especially when you leave your cottages. That way, if anyone is in danger or missing,  we will find you and save you, if it comes to that.”

            Mahiru looked down at the device with an uncertain frown.

            “I dunno… It seems like an invasion of privacy. What if we have a promise to keep, and need a meeting to be secret?”

            Byakuya huffed exasperatedly. The photographer definitely liked challenging his authority…

            “What’s more important? A promise or someone’s life?” The heir raised a finger to his temple astutely. “Ultimately, it is your decision to cooperate or not. But I assure you – if we all cooperate with these ‘pointless’ safety measures, then we will all make it out of here without a single fatality. I vow that on the Togami name.”

            Ibuki raised her hand and waved it in the air.

            “Ibuki has a question~!”

            Byakuya arched an eyebrow at the overexcited musician.

            “Yes?”

            “Why do these look like phones?” She tilted her head curiously, clasping her hands behind her back.

            Byakuya went quiet at that. Kazuichi scratched his cheek and chuckled nervously.

            “W-Well… He kinda wants to make these phones, later. When we have the parts. I just followed what he told me to do…!” The mechanic pointed at the heir heatedly.

            Byakuya huffed, crossing his arms and looking off to the side in aggravation.

            “Souda, I will reveal these safety measures at their appointed time, and not a moment before… Do not make me lecture you on this. I assure you, everything I do has a reason.”

            As Kazuichi grumbled and backed down, Hajime stared down at the device in his hand curiously.

            ‘A phone, huh…?’

            That would definitely be a nice thing to have… Too bad the coverage would probably be limited to Jabberwock Island, though…

            The stuff about the party was interesting, too. Even if he didn’t understand the reasoning behind the sudden party, at least it’d be good to unwind and not worry about everything…

            … Oh. And he avoided cleaning duty. Dodged a bullet on that one.

            Komaeda looked a little put out, though… Not that Haime could understand wy.

Chapter Text

            Nagito rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he listened to Ibuki happily chat his ear off. They were outside the ranch, since that’s where the musician had stumbled into him on one of her… runs.

            “… And that’s why Ibuki’s a little bummed she can’t perform at Byakuya-chan’s party! Ibuki has the guitar, but not nearly enough fire or loudspeakers! Monomi says we might get that stuff later, so Ibuki wants the other islands opened already…” The musician whined and kicked at the dirt.

            The luckster nodded slowly as he listened with half an ear.

            “It truly is a shame, Mioda-san… It’s as if Monokuma and Monomi are conspiring to limit your talent! How can you hope to rise to your full star potential without the necessary equipment? Such a waste…” Any of the other students would have been perturbed by the amount of “fire” Ibuki preferred to have during her shows, but not Nagito. Nagito was open to a lot of things related to Ultimate talents…

            Even trifling things like fire hazards didn’t faze him. As long as Mioda-san was happy…

            Ibuki perked up, despite the dreary atmosphere.

            “Well, a party’s still a party! Teruteru-chan’s a creep, but his food’s supposed to be tasty! And! And! Byakuya-chan probably has fun games we can play! Like Twister~… Karaoke~… Eat-Until-You-Puke contests~!”

            Nagito chuckled nervously as he held up his hands peacefully.

            “I… hope it doesn’t get to the point you actually puke… Eating should be pleasant for everybody…”

            Ibuki wasn’t listening to the luckster, however.

            “Wish we didn’t have to be inside, though! We totally have the stuff we need to throw a festival~! The supermarket’s chockful of festival goodies!”

            Nagito seemed to perk up.

            “Oh? Like what kind of stuff?”

            Ibuki giggled cheerfully as she flounced about.

            “Kyahahaha! Yukatas, for one~! And festival masks~! Giant teddy bears and other stuff that could be prizes for winning games~!” The musician crossed her arms and grinned ear-to-ear smugly as she nodded sagely. “They even have fireworks~! Clearly the defining feature and best part to any festival~!”

            Nagito’s arms dropped to his side as his face abruptly went blank.

            “…”

            Ibuki tilted her head curiously.

            “What’s the matter? Did I break Komaeda-chan’s brain?”

            After several awkward moments of silence, the luckster chuckled nervously and held up his hands again peacefully.

            “A-Ah… I’m sorry, Mioda-san. Your enthusiasm and admiration of festivals… inspired me. It would be truly splendid if we could throw a festival during our stay here on Jabberwock Island! The supermarket sounds amazing, if it has all the materials we need for that…”

            Ibuki bobbed her head up and down vigorously in agreement.

            “Ibuki’s especially happy about the yukatas! They look really well made~!”

            “… I’m sure they are.” Nagito gave a small smile.

            “I bet Nanami-chan would be happy with the toy guns they have for shooting games~! Kuzuryu-chan and Ikusaba-chan, too~!” Ibuki chirped obliviously.

            Nagito crossed his arms, grin widening.

            “What about Nidai-kun and Owari-san? Or one better – how would Hinata-kun be able to unwind? He’s so jittery and tense~…”

            Ibuki gasped, flailing her arms rapidly.

            “You’re right…! Hinata-chan needs the yukata the most~! Sorry, Komaeda-chan, but Ibuki’s gotta go measure Hinata-chan!” Without another word, the musician sped off into the distance.

            Nagito chuckled warmly at the sight. So full of energy and vigor, that one…

            “Festival, huh…?” He was going to need to talk with a certain bear about some particular matters very soon.

            ~*~

            “… I still do not understand why my presence is required.” Peko intoned flatly, standing in the dojo with the two athletes of the class. The Ultimate Team Manager belted out a laugh.

            “I told ya! You’re one of the most disciplined people on the island! One of the most disciplined people I’ve ever met in my life, actually.” The coach picked at his nose shamelessly. “I honestly wanted to gauge your skills at some point… The fact you’re perfect for what I need done with Akane here, though, that kinda bumped up the timetable on approaching you.”

            Peko’s hawklike gaze veered over to the gymnast, who was crudely picking at her ear in boredom.

            “So, you want me to spar with the two of you? Even if we go one at a time, don’t you think that’s rather unfair to have me face the both of you?” The swordswoman demanded guardedly. Nidai held up his hands peacefully.

            “Whoa there, easy! I know I probably could have explained that better, but we’re not gonna fight. With a party happening tonight, I don’t want either of you injured or to stress your bodies to the point you can’t enjoy yourselves!”

            Akane groaned in disappointment.

            “Whaaat?! I thought that was the whole point of asking Pekoyama to train! Racing Mioda yesterday was fine ‘n all, but I wanna see how Pekoyama brawls!”

            Peko’s hand instantly went for the bamboo sword on her back. Akane didn’t seem like she would strike right that moment, but it would behoove her to be ready to defend herself. The gymnast appeared to be rather carefree and… whimsical. She could change her mind at a moment’s notice.

            Nekomaru placed his hands on his hips, sending the gymnast a reproving stare.

            “That’s your problem, Owari! You jump straight to brawling! Training doesn’t equate to that. I can understand wanting to test yourself against others, but where’s it gotten you so far? Against me? Ikusaba? Even Mioda? You want to repeat those losses so soon?”

            Akane deflated as she grunted.

            “Doesn’t mean I can’t kick Pekoyama’s ass…” The brunette seemed oblivious to the affronted glare Pekoyama shot her way for that comment. “And ‘sides, doesn’t Mioda get better at running by just… doing it?”

            Nidai shook his head sagely, crossing his arms.

            “Mioda’s not an athlete, right? She’s got spirit, but she’s a musician, and you’re a gymnast! Different career paths have different potentials! I figured maybe Mioda would inspire you to throw yourself into training with everything ya got, but you’re still being half-assed about it. So, I decided to try a different tac and have Pekoyama give you some pointers.”

            A brief, tense silence fell over the trio as they awaited Akane’s response to the coach’s words. Peko’s grip on the bamboo sword relaxed as the gymnast resumed picking at her ear.

            “You keep sayin’ I’m half-assing everything, but I still did all the track and field stuff my old Coach wanted me to do… Well, the stuff that mattered, I guess. If I lost, I lost. I’d just do better next time, I guess.”

            Nidai sternly extended a finger toward the gymnast, giving her a fierce scowl.

            “That! That right there’s why you’re half-assed! Don’t you get upset when you lose a match?! If you’re not invested, you’re never gonna reach your full potential as an athlete…!”

            Akane lazily placed a hand on her hip, tilting her head.

            “So you’re sayin’ I should get hung up on winnin’? I mean, yeah, it sucks when I lose. But I’m not scared or pissed or nothin’.”

            Peko crossed her arms, answering in place of the Ultimate Team Manager.

            “No. He’s saying you lack a drive, a purpose. That is detrimental for any warrior or athlete. I see now why Nidai is troubled with your performance.”

            Akane cocked her head in confusion before puffing out her chest in determination.

            “What are you sayin’?! When I brawl, I always aim to win! Fighting’s my passion!!!”

            “No. At best it is a pastime, a hobby for you.” Pekoyama fired back, narrowing her gaze in scrutiny. “If you wish to get better, to overcome opponents, then you must learn from every loss. Celebrate in victory, but keep in mind your weaknesses and what you can improve on. The key is that losses are not meant to be obsessed over… yet they are still significant. You must care. Because a loss very well could mean the end of your life… or the life of someone you are sworn to protect.”

            Another brief silence fell over the trio as they absorbed the swordswoman’s words. The silver-haired girl pushed a strand of hair out of her face carefully.

            “My apologies. I seem to have overstepped my bounds as a… consultant. I merely wished to stress… that Nidai has a point about your attitude, Owari. You are too lazy and carefree.”

            Nekomaru blinked owlishly as he returned to reality. He held up his hands peacefully.

            “No, no! You did great! This is exactly the kind of stuff Owari needs to hear. I’ve been trying to get it into her head for the past couple of days, but maybe hearing it from a different perspective like that will…” The coach trailed off thoughtfully. “Well, point is. I was caught off-guard by the intensity, but I agree a hundred percent!”

            “… If you insist.” Pekoyama allowed a stiff half-bow at the praise. Her gaze, as well as Nidai’s, turned to Owari who hadn’t said a word for the past few moments.

            “A loss could mean the end of my life…?” Akane muttered, still a bit stunned. “Or the Old Man’s life?”

            Nekomaru rubbed the back of his head and belted out a laugh.

            “Well, even if you lose, I promise that even if I’m in danger, I’ll protect us both! That’s what teamwork is for! We cover each other’s weaknesses.” He crossed his arms and frowned thoughtfully. “But now do you see? A loss can mean something. Not just life-or-death, even a game during a season can mean you make it to the play-offs or don’t. A woman with a passionate fighting spirit like yours, I figured you’d have learned that by now. Seriously, if you’re gonna do something, own it! Give it 9000%!!!”

            Akane roared in determination, chest puffing out again.

            “I’ll give over 9000%!!! Alright, what else ya got for me, Pekoyama?! I’m ready to train!!!”

            Peko eyed the two athletes with a trace of wariness. While she wasn’t against disclosing her professional opinion as a fighter, she knew that if she got too involved, it could prove… troublesome, later. She’d already pegged these two as a fearsome combo that could cover each other’s weaknesses, but now she was actually… helping them.

            … She wished the Young Master was here to order her, one way or the other. She was his Sword, meant to have no feelings or thoughts of her own. Peko knew that her automatic response should be to excuse herself before she assisted a potential threat to her Young Master too much…

            Yet as a classmate… she did feel an obligation to be professionally courteous. And the both of them did… respect… her, took her words to heart. This did not… stir up unnecessary feelings. But out of fellow respect for their warrior spirit, she would indulge them.

            … And hopefully, this would not backfire on her, later.

            ~*~

            Hajime wandered aimlessly down to the hotel’s lobby, after breakfast. It’s not like Komaeda’s polite decline to hang out had killed all of his possible plans for the day… Or Ikusaba’s absence, for that matter. He could understand if they had other stuff to do.

            … This did put him in a bit of a small predicament, though. He hardly knew the rest of his classmates, and he was a bit nervous about possibly running into the more intense ones… Maybe this was a good thing, though. He needed to get to know the other students at some point, and he shouldn’t come to depend on Komaeda and Ikusaba – not to the point of overdoing it, anyway. Hajime barely knew them, too.

            And that’s how Hajime found himself parked in front of one of the gaming tables. Not because Chiaki or anyone else was there, but because he just… didn’t know who to seek out. Yukizome-sensei, Nevermind, Ikusaba, Hanamura, and Komaeda were automatically off the table because he didn’t want to bug them while they were setting up the party and doing other things. He wasn’t about to race and find Nidai or Owari, either. And Kuzuryu probably would snuff him if he approached…

            That left… just about half the class left? Hajime supposed he could work with that. He just needed to decide who to approach.

            “You play Gala Omega?”

            Hajime nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice he wasn’t expecting, coming from behind him. He whipped around in the seat to see Chiaki leaning over his shoulder, peering at the gaming table he was sitting at. Staring down at the table, he indeed registered it was that classic game. He had to admit, not too many people that he knew played it…

            Yet he had no shame admitting that he liked it.

            “Y-Yeah… I-I New Game Plus’d it five times in a row, once…”

            He was not expecting what came next.

            “S-Seriously?!” The gamer was immediately at his side, and up in his face. It was… the first time he’d seen her so pumped about something…

            Hajime threw up his hands peacefully, feeling himself sweating a little as he grinned nervously.

            “C-Cross my heart!”

            Chiaki turned to the table slightly, giving a fond smile that warmed Hajime’s heart.

            “I know how tough that is… I did ten in a row, once.”

            “That… that blows mine out of the water.” The brunet muttered, though not with any bitterness or jealousy. The girl had introduced herself as the Ultimate Gamer; it was only natural that she’d be a million times better at any game than he would ever be.

            “It’s a classic. There’s nothing else like it in the whole genre!” Chiaki gushed, nodding faintly, eyes still on the table. “I’ve just never met someone who can play it as much as me, before… Sometime, I wanna see your very best run, okay?”

            Hajime found himself nodding faintly in agreement. It’s not like he could turn her down when she was so… happy. And to be fair, Gala Omega was one of his favorites, too. One that he hadn’t touched for a while, but he was with her one hundred percent on it being a classic.

            “H-Hey… what are you…?” Hajime muttered as Chiaki sat across from him at the same table, engaging what seemed to be multiplayer. The gamer lifted and tilted her head curiously at the brunet.

            “You don’t have to focus on that ‘best run’ thing right now… I just wanted to play with you. Is that okay?”

            Hajime scratched his head sheepishly.

            “Well… Y-Yeah, I guess that’s fine. Just… I hope I won’t drag you down, too much. I’m not that great at video games… and it’s actually been a while since I played Gala Omega, so, I’m definitely more than a bit rusty…”

            Chiaki shrugged.

            “Doesn’t matter if you’re good! When you’re with friends… everything feels like it’s more fun! Don’t you think so?”

            … Hajime really couldn’t deny those innocent, yet earnest eyes. If he was honest, she definitely had a point. Even yesterday, when all he did was read books with Komaeda and Ikusaba, he enjoyed the time he spent doing that. They didn’t get through all the books on those shelves, but they learned plenty about Hope’s Peak and a little bit about each other.

            And really, when was the last time he enjoyed a video game with a friend? Hajime… honestly struggled to dredge up that old memory. That really was… some time ago. He really must have focused on Hope’s Peak and getting a talent, if he didn’t even make time for video games with others…

            “If you’ll have me, then… Sure, I’ll be your Player Two.” Hajime mustered a small, self-depreciating smile. He wanted something to do anyway, right? Well, he could think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.

            The grateful smile Chiaki flashed him was so radiant and heartwarming… She really was kind.

            … And cute.

            ~*~

            Kazuichi scrunched his nose as he watched the monkeys playing around.  He just didn’t get it. What Sonia-san saw in this place. … And Tanaka. He could understand that she’d never been to a zoo, since they didn’t have those in Novoselic. But man, this place reeked.

            Not that he was one to talk, getting covered and being surrounded by oil all day. But what did a bunch of monkeys have that he didn’t?!

            “You. Just how did you pierce the barrier to this domain?”

            Kazuichi whirled around to see the breeder he’d just been musing about tapping his foot impatiently with his arms crossed.

             “Eh? If you’re talking about how I got in, Monomi opened the gate. Said somethin’ about… how the place should be open to everyone.” The mechanic muttered. He had to admit, that gate was mighty impressive. It had to be sturdy to keep all these wild animals in here. Though if someone were trapped in there with the animals, they’d be up a creek, unless Tanaka or Monomi was nearby…

            Monokuma definitely wouldn’t help. He’d probably just laugh and rub salt in the wound. Maybe rile up the animals, just to mess with you.

            Gundham humphed, looking off to the side, with his lower face buried in his scarf.

            “That undead abomination presumes too much… That barrier exists for the safety of you mortals. Why, if that foolish rabbit had done that while I was in the middle of a sensitive ritual that required the utmost delicacy…” He trailed off, grumbling bitterly. Still, the mechanic heard the first part, and he pointed at the breeder accusingly.

            “H-Hey…! Our safety?! You mean Sonia-san could get hurt in here?!” Kazuichi could run away if he was ever in danger, but if the Princess was ever at risk…

            Gundham clicked his tongue, glaring at the mechanic coldly.

            “I said you mortals! The Dark Queen and I are the only ones that have dominion over this purgatory! Outsiders such as yourself should stay away!”

            “I-I won’t be fooled!” Kazuichi was still pointing at the breeder accusingly. “If they’re a danger to us, they can be a danger to Sonia-san! I heard what you said yesterday! What if Sonia-san comes in here when you’re not around, and something… happens?! What’re you gonna do then?! Your little hammies aren’t gonna save her…!”

            Gundham’s hand twitched violently, and he held his arm in outrage.

            “What… did you… say?! Insulting not just my Four Dark Devas, but the Hell-beasts of Tartaros?! You are fortunate I do not just incinerate you on the spot, Kazuichi Souda…!”

            Kazuichi placed a hand on his hip and scowled.

            “Look, man! You got confidence in your skills, that’s great. But it’s like I’m saying! If they’re a danger to us, they’re a danger to Sonia-san. Sonia-san’s not gonna be an exception just ‘cause she’s your ‘Dark Queen’ or whatever. She gets along with the animals, sure, but they’re animals! They do whatever the heck they want. If they’re ever in a… mood… they’re gonna hurt her, y’know.”

            Gundham’s arms dropped to the side as he seemed to consider the mechanic’s words, the expression on his face was blank and unreadable. He then crossed his arms, scowl forming.

            “You are still a suicidal fool, insulting my subordinates… Yet… I cannot deny your words have merit, riddled with paranoia though they are. My Four Dark Devas can be quite the handful, encroaching on one another’s territories… These Hell-beasts can be even more devastating in their rampages… You do show them the proper respect in your own way.” He looked to the side, burying the lower half of his face in his scarf again. “And in the end… your fears are for the sake of the Dark Queen, not your own. Just this once, I shall spare your wretched life.”

            Kazuichi ran a hand over the top of his beanie and frowned uncertainly.

            “Y-Yeah… well… A-As long as you understand that much…” Admittedly, Kazuichi had to concede that he was being overly suspicious of a guy that took care of animals for a living. As jealous as he was of Tanaka, he figured the breeder wouldn’t let anything really bad happen to Sonia-san.

            … But accidents happen, y’know? Better to play it safe now rather than later, after the damage has been done.

            “Not so fast.” Gundham’s hawklike gaze made Kazuichi wilt a little. “As penance, you will be my disciple, this one day. We shall fix that attitude of yours, and give you a proper understanding of the beasts of Tartaros. Only then shall this incident be water under the bridge.”

            Kazuichi tensed at those cryptic words.

            “D-D-D-Disciple?!” He yelped. He didn’t like the sound of that at all!

            Unfortunately for the mechanic, Gundham closed the gap between them and started dragging Kazuichi by the jumper, deeper into the zoo.

            “Perhaps we should start your indoctrination with the wisdom of the mighty Astaroth… You would most certainly pass out from being near Gremory and Sitri… Yes, Astaroth shall do nicely as a first lesson!”

            Kazuichi paled, really not liking where this was going. Those names meant nothing to him, and he was kind of nervous eventually finding out what the heck Gremory and Sitri were… Why would he pass out from being near them…? Astaroth wasn’t the snake, was it?

            … Please don’t be the snake!

            “S-Somebody heeeeeeeelp!” Kazuichi balled, the breeder not slowing down in the least.

            … This was going to be a very long… stressful… day…

            ~*~

            Teruteru couldn’t help staring in both wonder… and dread… at how efficiently Mukuro put down the cow’s life so casually. So easily. She also did it without ruining the meat, as Teruteru had requested…

            But damn, Mukuro knew how to kill. Teruteru knew it was just an animal, and he was no stranger to seeing animals put down for the sake of human consumption… But… But still…

            “Do ya feel any remorse, anymore?” The chef wondered aloud, not really thinking about the insensitivity of the question before it was too late.

            Mukuro shrugged nonchalantly.

            “You needed the meat for the party. It was bound to wind up on someone’s plate at some point.”

            … Not that Mukuro seemed to mind how careless the chef had been with that question. If anything, she was accommodating and practical. The ease with which she killed the cow, though… like it was as simple as breathing…

            Teruteru nervously combed his hair and chuckled sheepishly.

            “I-I suppose so…” He’d definitely have to be careful about raiding her panty drawer, or researching her measurements. He didn’t want to be the next slab of meat on the cutting board, you know? Not… Not that he’d do anything dirty like that…! Oh no~… “You’re… You’re quite good at this.”

            Mukuro tilted her head curiously.

            “We’re Ultimates. We’re supposed to be good at what we do.” The chef cooks, the mechanic tinkers; the gamer plays games, and the photographer takes photos. So, too, did the soldier excel in her field. She wasn’t going to hide that, there’d be no point. People were already suspicious or wary of her.

            … That’s why she’d rather get all these party preparations done so that she could return to her vigilant watch over the luckster. Who knew what he might’ve been getting himself into, this very moment?

            Teruteru tapped his chin, frowning.

            “Hey, Ikusaba… Why’d you decide to become a soldier in the first place? What drew you in?”

            Mukuro’s brow furrowed.

            “Why I became a soldier?” She echoed. The chef nodded in confirmation, raising clenched fists and adopting a focused expression.

            “Yeah! You know, we all have our ‘origins’, so to speak! Take me, for instance. I grew up in a diner – sure, my siblings went and exploited their youth, becoming the Ultimate Male and Female Escorts… But I watched our mother cook, and became enthralled!” He then adopted a coy grin, cupping his chin. “And now I’m a first-rate chef~! I’m gonna be rich, have a trophy wife, have cooking shows about me, partner with supermarkets and fast food chains… The works! So what about you?”

            Mukuro blinked owlishly. This guy seemed like a walking contradiction, from the affectionate tone he had with his family’s diner to his superficial dreams… Then again, she could hardly claim to know this guy. Maybe he was just in denial. Or something.

            … It’s not like she had anything to hide, either. If he was willing to be open about his past, Mukuro saw no reason to lie to him.

            “Military stuff just always interested me, I guess.” The soldier confessed, staring down at the ground in thought. “They… always have something to fight for. And with their training, they’re practically guaranteed to protect what’s important to them… I suppose I wanted that guarantee.”

            She wasn’t really sure why. From what little memories she did have of her childhood, she couldn’t perceive anything or anyone she particularly wanted to protect. Maybe if she knew Komaeda-kun as a child, that would have spurred her to get that training… With his luck, he’d need the superhuman reflexes of a soldier to help him out in a pinch.

            … That was Mukuro’s current theory, anyway. Doubts she got from Monokuma be damned – Komaeda-kun had to be someone she knew. He was just too… familiar to her. Granted, he didn’t seem to recognize her…

            But his acceptance of her had to count for something… right?

            Teruteru cocked his head curiously.

            “Guarantee, hmm…? Did you have family you wanted to protect? Or perhaps a cute boy~…?” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively.

            “I… I don’t know.” Mukuro mumbled, shuffling her feet uncertainly despite the suggestiveness of his tone at the end there. “I won a survival game tournament in elementary school, and wrote for military magazines. By middle school I had run off and joined Fenrir. I was... a natural with weapons.”

            Teruteru nodded sagely.

            “Like a duck takes to water~… Well, I’ve got the general picture, I think! You’re a woman that holds her special people close to her bosom~… Real bride and mother material, that’s what you are. Mmhmhmhm~…”

            “You… You really think so?” Mukuro couldn’t help giving a small, vulnerable look.

            … The first part. Not the last bit. Couldn’t Teruteru keep his mind out of the gutter? She couldn’t help thinking that, as a soldier, her sense of love, care, and compassion had been twisted into this inhumane, twisted thing. Mukuro had lost sight of… quite a lot of things, in her training to become a soldier. Like she had tunnel vision.

            Teruteru suavely combed his hair.

            “But of course~! I’m sure that with a fit, lithe bod like that, you’ll bear many children~… All for a charming, sexy husband~! Mmhmhm! My loins quiver at the thought of it!”

            Despite the direction he was taking the conversation, Mukuro smiled faintly, staring off into space.

            “Children…? Even though I’ve got freckles and don’t really have an attractive bone in my body?” She was really bearing her vulnerability for all to see, now.

            Teruteru rubbed his chin speculatively.

            “You kidding me? Those freckles are adorable! And you’ve got some fine legs, girl~!” … Was his nose bleeding?

            Mukuro’s smile widened, in spite of it all. A dreamy look entering her eyes.

            “Perhaps Komaeda-kun would…” She trailed off meaningfully.

            “Eh? Komaeda?” Teruteru froze in his perverted thoughts and actions. “He wouldn’t be my first pick, but I suppose he’s not ugly…”

            … Mukuro wasn’t listening anymore, however. Too absorbed in her fantasies… Fantasies of children with fluffy white, marshmallow-y hair… Kids that had insane luck going for them, but reflexes to ward off any of the bad variety.

            Sublime~…

            ~*~

            Sonia’s eyes sparkled as she had watched Sensei tear into the old lodge like a cleansing tornado… Armed with only a feather duster and a few cans of air freshener. In mere minutes, the entrance, office, bathroom, and hallway were positively immaculate. That still left the main room, kitchen, and some storage room toward the back, but Yukizome-sensei had paused in her revelry to address Sonia.

            “Nevermind, do you mind checking the rooms and getting me a quick inventory? I know about the bathroom and all that I need to do in there. The office, I’m pretty sure I won’t have to do much else in there. And I guess Hanamura-kun has the kitchen covered… But the main hall and storage rooms, I’d like to know what I’m working with. Could you be a dear?”

            Sonia pumped her arm excitedly.

            “Fo sho! You can leave it to me, Sensei~!” The princess didn’t even question as the orange-haired woman bobbed her head up and down merrily before slipping into the office and closing the door behind her. Even if she didn’t have much to ‘do’ in there, Yukizome-sensei probably at least wanted to take inventory.

            With bated breath, Sonia cracked open the doors to the main hall. Despite the lights being on, it was a bit like wandering into an ancient crypt. Cobwebs and dust… everywhere. Metal plates covered the windows toward the back, an air conditioning system was attached to the wall on the right, a power outlet was also along that wall, and there were five tables sprawled out over a wooden floor that had many weathered gaps between the boards. Aside from all that, there wasn’t anything else to note in the old-looking room.

            After wandering around the main hall to get a better look from all angles, she moved to the storage room, walking past Teruteru and Mukuro as they were on their way out to the ranch. The storage room was in worse shape than the main hall, if only for the simple reason that it was smaller and more cluttered. Boxes containing supplies were piled toward the back of the space, while clothes were folded on a shelf and draped over some sort of basket on wheels. There were also three unused irons to the left. After rummaging around some of the boxes to see the treasures they held, Sonia returned to the main hall after what must’ve been ten or fifteen minutes or so to find Yukizome-sensei standing there, hands on her hips and looking around the hall.

            “Definitely going to need a carpet in here…” The orange-haired woman muttered before hearing Sonia re-entering the hall. Turning around and beaming pleasantly, hands clasped together and held up to her cheek, Yukizome said, “Thank you, dear~! I’m assuming the storage room is the worst off, aside from the hall here?”

            Sonia nodded sagely.

            “With that flickering lightbulb and tight, claustrophobic space, it is like a room straight out of a horror film! The kind of place where a poor, defenseless woman or man goes to get brutally murdered with a knife to the back!”

            Chisa’s smile twitched the tiniest amount at that description.

            “Nevermind, sweetie, no more talking like that, okay…? I love you, and I don’t want to have Nidai sit on you all night.”

            Sonia tilted her head curiously.

            “Sit on me…? I have never heard of this custom in Japanese culture before. What purpose does it serve?”

            “The ‘keeping you out of trouble’ kind…” Chisa muttered under her breath before tapping her chin in concentration. “Now, there wasn’t anything dangerous back there, right? Like sharp, pointy, or murder-y things?”

            Sonia shrugged neutrally, again not really understanding the context of the conversation.

            “There were irons, tablecloths, and boxes of random things all piled on top of one another. Could you kill someone by holding a scalding iron to their face?” Now she was curious…

            Chisa’s smile grew twitchier.

            “… Guess I know which room I’m giving the ‘cavity search’ treatment to…” She ignored the comment about the irons. Irons were tools of her trade as a housekeeper – to call them dangerous would be like calling herself dangerous! And that was just silly~…

            If she was a bit intense, that was your fault, not hers. … She will love you violently, damnit.

            But not too violently~!

            Sonia’s eyes regained their sparkle as she got back on task for what they had to do.

            “So what would you like me to do, Yukizome-sensei? How can I help with the dirty work?” The princess really was an eager one for learning how to clean.

            Chisa patted the blonde’s head affectionately. She wouldn’t overwhelm the poor girl with an atrocious first experience like this… The lodge was in awful shape. It would take every skill she had as the Ultimate Housekeeper to clean out this building, make it murder-proof, and have it ready for tonight’s festivities. Togami-kun said he’d ensure that no weapons would be brought in, and she’d trust him on that…

            Thankfully, the office and bathroom were safe and clean, hardly needing her attention at all. At least it was nice to know where the breaker was, and that it was out of reach. … That just left the main hall and storage rooms.

            Chisa clasped the princess’s hands, her own eyes sparkling in return.

            “You can fetch some things from the supermarket for me. We have tablecloths, but we still need a carpet for the floor, some streamers perhaps, and if you can, a lamp or two for the back tables. A little bit of extra lighting never hurt~!” Especially with the windows covered up like that. Why were they sealed up like that? The halls were the same way…

            Sonia deflated just a little.

            “Aww. I wanted to use that ‘duster of feathers’… You are quite good at using it, Sensei.” The blonde pouted.

            Chisa just patted her head again affectionately.

            “There’ll be plenty of opportunities later!” When they weren’t dealing with a murder scare. And when Chisa wasn’t pressed for time in terms of having the building ready in mere hours… “Get some of the others to help with the carpet. I don’t want you carrying that all by yourself, you hear?

            Sonia beamed indulgently, if not still with a trace of disappointment.

            “Loud and clear, Sensei…”

            The princess shuffled out of the room, leaving her Sensei to tackle the dusting and cleaning of the main hall, and then departed from the lodge. Unbeknownst to her, Nagito, who had been circling the lodge from the outside, noticed her departure. He chuckled lightly to himself at the sight.

            “Well! I guess that just leaves Sensei…” Experimentally, he opened the door to the lodge and poked his head in, muttering under his breath. “Housekeeping?”

            No verbal response. Just the far-off sound of a vacuum cleaner from within the lodge.

            The luckster brightened at the fortuitous turn of events. He patted at his hoodie’s big, deep pockets before turning around and plucking up the other object he’d been lugging around with him. He’d have to drop that off first, and then find a place to conceal the things in his pockets…

            With any luck, this would only take about a minute. He didn’t need to worry if his… supplies would be discovered. His luck was the stuff of legends~…

            ~*~

            Hajime wasn’t sure what it was that tipped him off. He’d been playing around with Chiaki for hours, bouncing from platform to platform, genre to genre, co-op to challenging her in Tekken or Dance, Dance Revolution… The point was, even though Chiaki absolutely destroyed him in everything they played, demolished his scores and accomplishments, it really had been an enjoyable afternoon.

            As they resumed chilling on the couches, playing a multiplayer game on their Nantendo Game Girl Advances… Hajime couldn’t help thinking…

            ‘Ahh… this is the…’

            That. That’s where the atmosphere changed. Not because of anything he or Chiaki had done… But because of the person that came stomping up to them, seeming aggravated.

            “Hmph. So this is where you’ve been hiding, Hinata. Come with me, we have matters to discuss.”

            Hajime looked up at the snooty heir, spluttering as he did so. After all, because of him, he’d just screwed up a combo really bad, and he just got owned by Chiaki yet again…

            “I-I haven’t been hiding!” Hajime defended himself. “A-And besides, what do you even need me for?”

            Byakuya snorted, crossing his arms and looking off to the side.

            “I pegged you as the sort to remain in your cottage all day, so I figured you going anywhere else was your way of avoiding me…” The heir raised a finger to his temple curiously. “No matter. You are found, and we are wasting valuable time. You may return here once we are done.”

            Hajime spluttered again at how forceful the heir was being, and he looked to the gamer for help. However, she had fallen asleep with a small snot bubble coming out of her nose. The brunet deadpanned a little at the sight… mostly because she was still pressing buttons without missing a beat. She could play games in her sleep? How was that even fair?!

            ‘Thanks, Nanami…’ Hajime inwardly sighed before reluctantly placing the Game Girl Advance down. He looked up at Byakuya uncertainly. “Well? Where’d you want to go talk?”

            He hoped the heir didn’t have any other bomb-like things to show him… The one in Jabberwock Park was already stressing him out. He didn’t need any more stressful things.

            Unsurprisingly, Byakuya led him back to his cottage and barged in without even asking permission. Really, after Nagito, Mukuro, and Chisa… He was desensitized to others invading his cottage by this point. Although, Yukizome-sensei hadn’t fully invaded his house yet. So that was something, right?

            “A study on the second floor?” Byakuya caught a small glimpse of the upper level. “It seems I will have to reevaluate you. You may be more sophisticated than I gave you credit for.”

            “… Thanks.” Hajime slightly deadpanned. He didn’t want to completely kill the good vibes he got from hanging out with Chiaki… And who knows? Maybe Togami would get less pushy as they moved along. That was the only thing that rankled him right now. “So, uh… what did you wanna talk about?”

            Please don’t be anything too serious…

            “The chicken in my hands...is far tastier than the beef inside the freezer...” Rather than give him a straight answer, the heir gave him that.

            Hajime blinked owlishly.

            “Uh… what?”

            “It’s a German proverb.” Byakuya explained. “It means something inferior that's nearby is better than something good that's far away. But why would chicken be inferior to beef?
Aren't there times when you'd obviously want to eat fried chicken instead of steak?”

            Hajime scratched his cheek, chuckling sheepishly.

            “That’s true, but… what are we even talking about?” The brunet wondered. ‘Is that even a real German proverb?’

            Not that he was an expert on German proverbs…

            “And furthermore, why is pork not even mentioned in this comparison? Is pig meat unattractive to Germans?” Byakuya scowled and shook his head vigorously. “No... that's impossible. When you think of Germany, you think of sausage...  And if you think of sausage, you're thinking of pig meat. What does this mean!? What is this conspiracy!?”

            The Togami heir kept getting more and more worked up over what seemed like such a trifle to Hajime.

            ‘Wh-What in the world is he so worked up about…?’

            “Hajime... Do you know which meat is the most efficient source of energy...? What meat contains the most vitamin B1 for converting glucose to energy!?” The heir demanded an answer.

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously, grinning sheepishly again.

            “Uh… um… P-Pork, I guess…?”

            Byakuya grinned proudly, crossing his arms.

            “Correct... The same amount of pork has ten times the energy efficiency of other meats. Do you understand? Ten times!”

            “I-I get it already… What’s your point?” Hajime tried once more to make sense of this rambling.

            Byakuya turned his head to the side, scowling.

            “There's only one thing I want to say to you. ...Hinata, become my assistant.”

            If Hajime was lost before, he was even more perplexed now.

            “H-Huh…?”

            “The situation surrounding us and this island is even more complicated than I had thought. Even if it's just a commoner's assistance, it's better than having nobody at all...” The heir said by way of explanation, keeping his arms crossed and frowning in concentration.

            Hajime scratched his head uncertainly.

            “But...I don't even remember that much about myself. We don't even know if I have a talent that would be useful to you, you know?”

            Byakuya shook his head, scowl deepening.

            “Memory… Who… cares about that?”

            “What…?” Hajime titled his head, perplexed.

            “Even if you don't have your memories, you're still you, right? You are able to live your own life. That is already enough. All you have to do is be yourself.” The heir assured the brunet, nodding firmly. “As you stand before me, I... will believe in your potential.”

            “Togami…” Hajime muttered, feeling touched that another person had such faith in him. Komaeda and Togami both… they had such faith in him, despite not knowing what his talent could be.

            “Also… what use is the past?” Togami scoffed. “I, too, was...powerless in the past... but I'm different now... Throw away your past self... It's meaningless.”

            Hajime stared at the Togami heir, not understanding in the slightest.

            ‘Powerless…? What is he talking about? Was Togami really powerless in the past?’

            “Anyway… think about my offer. Despite appearances, I really do think you’re one of the more capable ones here. Between you, me, and Yukizome-sensei… we will protect everyone. No one has to die.”

            ‘No one has to die…?’ Hajime echoed in his head, feeling like he was missing a ton of context for this conversation. Out loud, he said. “Well, I don’t mind… I mean, if you want, we can bring in Komaeda and Ikusaba, too. I’m sure they’d be happy to help keep everyone safe. Ikusaba alone would be more reliable than me, y’know? Being a soldier and all.”

            Byakuya frowned deeply at that suggestion, for some reason.

            “Komaeda and Ikusaba, hmm…?” The heir trailed off uncertainly. He then declared cryptically, “Hinata, be careful. Who you make friends with… is your decision. I am certain Komaeda and Ikusaba have their good points… Just, don’t blindly trust in them. We are all strangers to one another, that makes this a very delicate situation.”

            Hajime blinked owlishly again.

            “T-Togami…?” The brunet really wasn’t sure what to say.

            But Byakuya chuckled, slightly bowing his head and closing his eyes.

            “Pay me no mind, Hinata. I am merely thinking out loud. Cherish those bonds with Komaeda and Ikusaba… Perhaps you can turn things around and reach them when no one else can.” The heir then suddenly snapped his eyes open, fixing Hajime with a deadly serious look. “Now. Enough of this heavy talk. More importantly… Do you like chicken or beef?”

            … Hajime talked with Byakuya about meat until he had heartburn. He wondered about Byakuya’s cryptic words, though…

            ~*~

            Mahiru huffed as she yanked Hiyoko away from a bawling Mikan as Ibuki tried to cheer her up. It really was one thing after another with this girl…

            “Saionji, why do you keep picking on Tsumiki…?” The photographer asked exasperatedly, once they were a safe distance from the other two.

            Hiyoko snorted disdainfully.

            “Don’t tell me you’re falling for her, too! That big phony’s just dying for attention…” The dancer snapped venomously. “Did you not see what she did to my Charizard?!?!”

            Mahiru released another airy sigh. She could kind of see why Hiyoko would see Mikan’s timidity as an act… The erotic accidental falls were becoming a bit of a problem. But still… The bullying was way over the line!

            “Saionji, you just need to… stop treating her like crap.” The redhead felt her own patience wearing thin. “If you don’t trust her, just leave her alone! Same goes for the others. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

            The dancer pouted at the stern lecture.

            “I’m not bullying them… I’m stating the blunt truth!” The blonde sniffled and shed tears at the redhead’s unconvinced glare. “What else am I supposed to say?! Grandma showed me how to deal with phony-baloneys like Pig Barf! You step on cockroaches before they can walk all over you! That’s how I was raised!!!”

            Mahiru’s gaze became despondent as the dancer brought up her home life. It sounded… rough. By no means did it exchange the prickly words that Saionji spat out of her mouth all the time, but it at least explained where she got that scathing tongue from…

            “Saionji…” The redhead groaned slightly. She placed her hands on her hips in exasperation. “How would you like it if someone bullied and was nasty to you? Try and think about it that way.”

            Hiyoko snorted derisively.

            “I would just establish the pecking order! They can be nasty all they want, but I’ll make them know their place!”

            “With crocodile tears?” Mahiru pressed with a lazy shrug of her shoulders. At the dancer’s shocked expression, the photographer elaborated. “Yeah. Not everyone’s gonna fall for that stuff. And whether they do or don’t… once they find out you were manipulating them, they’re just gonna be more pissed at you. Do you really want to distance yourself that badly?”

            Hiyoko’s face soured, clasping her hands behind her back and looking to the side.

            “O-Of course I do! People can’t be trusted! My family’s had lots of assassinations and stuff… So… Why should I go out of my way to be nice to phonies?”

            ‘With attitudes like that, is it any wonder you guys are targeted…?’ Mahiru shook her head in pity. “I know it’s hard… But you can help change your family’s traditions, you know? If you’re so scared people are out to get you, then… start changing yourself. I’m sure once you do, others will see, and the people who aren’t phonies will see that. And they’ll want to be your friend.”

            Saionji muttered sourly under her breath. When asked to repeat that louder, she hissed.

            “I-I s-said it’s hard to open up when we’re supposed to kill each other to escape!!!” The tears that came this time appeared much more genuine. “Who’m I supposed to trust in this hellhole?! A-Any of those bastards c-could get me…!”

            Mahiru’s eyes softened before she abruptly pulled Hiyoko in for a hug, which the shorter girl stiffened as a response to the contact.

            “You can trust me. And you can trust Mioda, Nanami, even Tsumiki… Hinata and Komaeda seem decent enough, too. I’ll even help you get to know those guys, okay?”

            Hiyoko hesitated before burying her face in the photographer’s chest. She… she wished she could believe that… Maybe Koizumi was decent. But the rest just… really had her on edge.

            And she wished she could tell Koizumi exactly why she was on edge… But no one would believe her.

            ~*~

            Nagito smiled disarmingly as he approached the mechanic who was walking in a daze away from the zoo after the sun began to set. Kazuichi rubbed his brow in slight aggravation at having to talk to someone else so soon.

            “Waddya want, dude? I just wanna go to my room and crash for a couple of hours…”

            Nagito chuckled lightly.

            “Oh, Souda-kun… Don’t worry, I’ll only take a few moments of your time, I promise~… And if you won’t hear me out, I’m sure I’ll find someone else who will.”

            ~*~

            “Wh-What is it…?” Mikan couldn’t help asking the luckster as he approached her.

            “I just wanted to ask what your thoughts were on the whole ‘memories’ ordeal…” Nagito smiled innocently as he crossed his arms.

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously.

            “W-Well… M-Memory loss is possible… There are w-ways to pull it off…”

            Nagito shook his head slowly.

            “Uh-oh, that’s not what I meant~… I mean, what are your thoughts on killing someone to get those memories back for everyone…? After all, Monokuma said it’s just one murder, that’s all he wants. And that’s why I’ve given you guys the perfect setup for it!”

            Mikan wailed, clutching at her head as the luckster continued so casually.

            ~*~

            Sonia was pale as Nagito just waved his hand casually after such a troubling explanation of what he had planned, why he’d done it, and how others knew about the plan.

            “Wh-Why would you do such things?!” The princess demanded heatedly. “A human life is not meant to be treated so lightly…!”

            Nagito crossed his arms and gave a smug grin.

            “I wholeheartedly agree. Monokuma’s price for our memories is steep… But think about it, Nevermind-san. At least two to three years are missing. I wonder what happened to Novoselic in all that time…? Has there been any civil unrest? What about your abduction, has that thrown your people into a panic? Even if you don’t care about the memories… don’t you at least want to alleviate their concerns…?”

            Sonia shuddered at the rhetoric he was using. It… It all did make sense. And of course she wondered what had happened in her home country after all this time, it was always on her mind… Yet… and yet…

            “Wh-Why are you telling me this…?” The princess whispered, feeling weak in the knees, and feeling oh-so-conflicted.

            Nagito’s face brightened even more… if that was even possible. It made Sonia queasy.

            “Don’t you already know, Nevermind-san? I want to see your Hope and everyone else’s Hopes shine! We can overcome this Despair, I know we will~!” The wheezy laughter that escaped him unsettled Sonia even more.

            ... This man was not well. And… And someone was going to die. He was absolutely right. For even if his plans were derailed tonight, he had planted the seeds of doubt… Nagito would not even reveal who else he spoke to.

            Would they be able to come back from this…?

            Would she be able to resist the temptations of her heart, when the time came?

            Would any of them?

Chapter Text

            The Monokuma Nighttime Announcement rang out, as it always did. But for once, Hajime wasn’t going to turn in for the night. It’d be his first all-nighter with a class... and it’d be for pleasure, not working on a school project or studying for a test.

            … Hajime wasn’t sure how to feel about a party like this. He was excited, sure, but Togami’s words were still echoing in his head, and he couldn’t help wondering about the reason for the party. It was a bit… ominous.

            They could’ve picked a better night to hold a party indoors, though… Aside from a few clouds, the stars were all out and the night looked gorgeous.

            “You’re here…” Byakuya muttered as Hajime stepped into the old building. There were two cases sitting right beside the heir, and from what the brunet could see, the building did look to be in need of some serious renovation… At least Yukizome-sensei made it look immaculate. “Now then, stand up straight and raise your arms.”

            Hajime’s brow wrinkled in confusion.

            “Why do I have to do that?”

            “Because I need to do a body check.” The heir said by way of explanation, which… didn’t explain anything. At Hajime’s bewildered expression, Byakuya snorted. “Since I’m the one hosting the party, it’s necessary for me to take all possible security measures. I already promised that I would not allow even one person to become a victim…!”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced the tiniest amount.

            “I-I get it…” He understood, though it was a bit uncomfortable having to undergo a body check…

            After the brunet reluctantly submitted to the body check, Byakuya raised a finger to his temple speculatively.

            “Excellent. You haven’t brought anything dangerous. And you even have your GPS locator on you, as I advised. I had to turn away a couple of our more… neglectful… classmates for not being more prepared. Just as an extra measure, I want everyone to have their locator on them this evening.”

            Hajime’s shoulders sagged a little bit at that.

            “You’re… really going all-out for just a party…” The brunet muttered. He frowned as he got a better look at the cases near Byakuya’s feet. “Metal cases…?”
            “Duralumin, actually.” The heir corrected him. “I found them at the supermarket. This one is used for storing any dangerous items I find during body checks. The other one is for… well, let’s just say it’s for emergencies only.”

            Hajime blinked owlishly.

            “What do you mean by ‘emergencies’…?”

            Byakuya rolled his eyes and turned his head away, crossing his arms.

            “… Don’t worry about it. Some of the others are already here, gathered at the dining hall in the back. Go there and wait…”

            Hajime sighed at the heir’s dismissal, but proceeded further inside the old building. For the sake of sating his curiosity, the brunet took a more indirect route since this was his first time inside the place. The first room he encountered upon rounding the corner was an office. From what he could see, it seemed to be an average office with a desk, shelves, and drawers; there was also an AC unit on the wall, and it seemed the breaker for the building was in there… way up high, towards the ceiling. The desk seemed a little… cluttered with folders and papers. Almost like someone had sifted through a drawer and emptied out its contents right out on the desk…

            But it wasn’t Hajime’s place to comment on the untidiness, since Yukizome-sensei probably had her hands full with other areas. So he moved onto the room next to the office, which was a unisex bathroom. This room seemed much more scrubbed down and cleaned. Which… Hajime could honestly understand Sensei focusing on this room, since this one would definitely be used all night… The towel on the rack was bigger and longer than he expected, though – more like a full-length body towel used after showers and baths. And there were two trash cans, not one; different kinds, too. One was without a top; the other was a small can that you stepped down on a pedal to open. Everything else seemed commonplace with the sink, mirror, and toilet.

            The brunet didn’t care enough to examine the bathroom for much longer, so he moved on. Next up seemed like the center of the building and hall, with the hall expanding into a square, doors to what must have been the dining hall on the left and windows with metal plates affixed to them on the right. That’s where Hajime found Nekomaru loitering.

            “There’s a tantalizing aroma wafting from the kitchen…” The team manager mused, crossing his arms and nodding sagely. “However, Togami will yell at me if I don’t go straight to the dining hall. You should head over there as well!”

            “Y-Yeah, I will…” Hajime sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck as Nekomaru waltzed into the dining hall after that. He was just curious about the building, so he decided to explore the back of it before heading to his destination.

            Close to the kitchen, there was a pair of fire doors located along the walls. Hajime took a few steps into the kitchen, seeing how bustling and cluttered it all was. There was a method to Hanamura’s madness, however; even if the brunet didn’t understand how the chef liked to organize things, he could tell it was organized chaos.

             “Oh, did you need something? Don’t worry, I’ve already prepared all the dishes.” Teruteru grinned coyly at his fellow brunet. “Or rather… Did you want me to cook you up, too?”

            “What does that mean?” Hajime asked warily. Teruteru just combed his hair suavely and giggled.

            “Mmhmhmhm…”

            … Hajime decided he needed to get out of there and fast, so he swiftly took his exit. As he did so, he bumped into Mahiru as the hall branched off to the left.

            “So this is what the inside looks like. There are a lot of gaps in the floor… Is that just due to old age?” The redhead shrugged nonchalantly. “We really need to be careful in here. I know some of us are real klutzes, that’s for sure.”

            Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly.

            “Tsumiki trips over air, apparently, so… We’re probably in for a long night.”

            Mahiru stared at the brunet for a while after that. Hajime could see the gears turning, however, so he didn’t really blame her when she darted off without another word. He’d help watch out for the clumsy nurse, too, but he wanted to check out the room at the end of the hall, first. When he approached the door, Mukuro emerged from it, blinking owlishly at him.

            “Ikusaba?” Hajime asked uncertainly, not expecting to find anyone else back here.

            “Oh, hey, Hinata.” The soldier greeted plainly. “You need something?”

            Hajime frowned, brow furrowing.

            “Not… particularly? I was just exploring a little before the party.”

            The soldier nodded faintly at the reasoning, hand not leaving the door handle.

            “Scoping out unknown territory’s always a good idea… You never know what pitfalls or traps to avoid, if you don’t.”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck a bit anxiously, and gestured vaguely at the door.

            “Is… that what you were doing back here…?”

            Mukuro tilted her head curiously.

            “No. Komaeda-kun asked a small favor, that’s all.”

            “A small… favor?” The brunet echoed, obviously lost.

            The soldier shrugged nonchalantly, releasing the door handle before beginning to depart.

            “He was gonna use something later. I just warmed them up for him.” Waving, the dark-haired girl took off, presumably to rendezvous with the aforementioned luckster. “Well, see ya.”

            Curiosity piqued, Hajime poked his head into the mysterious room… only to find a neat and tidy storage room. The only item he saw the soldier could have been referencing were three irons, all plugged in.

            Well, that was a little more boring than he was expecting. Hajime was half-expecting some nefarious device or, you know, some kind of subterfuge after the soldier had described it so vaguely… He was glad it didn’t turn out to be that way, yet some part of him still felt a little disappointed. If it had been something sneaky or devious, he could have put a stop to it before it got out of hand.

            But he wasn’t gonna mess with Komaeda’s laundry. At best, unplugging the irons would only stall him, anyway.

            … What did Komaeda need to iron, though?

            ~*~

            When Hajime wandered back to the dining hall, he could see over half the class was present. Mahiru, Mikan, Chiaki, Nagito, Mukuro, Nekomaru, Akane, Gundham, Sonia, and Kazuichi were all there. In addition to that, Hajime observed the hall, seeing tables and chairs spread out over a carpeted floor. Streamers hung from the ceiling, lamps were on the tables toward the back, the windows toward the back of the hall were covered with metal plates like the ones in the hall, and there was another AC unit over on the right wall.

            Nagito waved as Hajime idly looked around and wandered over.

            “Do you like it? Yukizome-sensei worked really hard to clean this place! Nevermind-san said it was like an ancient catacomb in here when they first opened it up…” The luckster spread out his arms grandly, smile widening. “But now look at it! Such a magnificent venue for our little soiree~…”

            Hajime’s brow crinkled as he got a better look at the edges of the room, where the floorboards could be seen, poking out. The carpet didn’t seem to match the width and length of the room.

            “Was… this carpet always in here?” He couldn’t help asking.

            Mukuro shook her head.

            “Nevermind and some others brought it here. Sensei cleaned this place out and then had us cover up the floor…”

            “It’s enough, right?” Nagito asked, gazing at his hand as he held it up to his face. “It’s not like we’ll all be standing along the edges. That’d be such an awful waste of a hard day’s work! Sensei might have some words for you, if you did that~…”

            Hajime shivered at the not-so-veiled threat. Yukizome-sensei could be very high-strung, and he didn’t want to find out what kind of “words” someone who spent hours cleaning had to say about their work going to waste… Ultimate Housekeeping talent or not, you did not push Yukizome-sensei’s buttons.

            Ever.

            Deciding to socialize a little before the party, Hajime walked around and talked to some of the others.

            “I’m worried about Monokuma.” Chiaki murmured, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “If he finds out we’re having a party, there’s no way he’ll leave us alone… We gotta do something about it.”

            Hajime nodded.

            “You’re right, we should do something.” Though he wasn’t sure, exactly, how they were supposed to stop a bear that could seemingly pop out of anywhere…

            Chiaki pulled up her hood around her head protectively.

            “I wonder if someone can do something about it.”

            “Hmm, I wonder.” Hajime muttered.

            “I wonder?” Chiaki echoed, tilting her head cutely.

            ‘… So we’re on the same page, then? I’m not sure if I understand.’ Hajime thought to himself in bemusement. He decided to just leave it at that and wander over to somebody else… who happened to be Gundham, in this case.

            “Even though that man is a lowly worm, it appears his cooking skills are most impressive, indeed…” The breeder crossed his arms, cackling to himself. “Nevertheless, even this food cannot stand against the gourmet cuisine of the multiverse…”

            “I-I… Yeah, sure…” Hajime sweatdropped, not really sure what the breeder was talking about. He frowned when he saw Sonia standing there, too, and looking distracted, massaging her arm while looking down. “Er… Nevermind? Is everything okay?”

            Sonia jumped the tiniest amount at the sudden voice and smiled apologetically at the brunet, who jumped in response to her knee jerk reaction.

            “I-I am sorry… I simply have a lot on my mind. R-Remind me again, of what were we discussing?”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.

            “Uh… Well, Tanaka said the food seems pretty good. I haven’t sampled anything yet, but I’ll take his word for it if the Ultimate Cook made all this. It looks and smells and amazing.”

            Tanaka eccentrically struck a pose, his hamsters emerging from his scarf.

            “But, compared to the multiverse, this is all but a trifle! Dark Queen, lay to rest your concerns for your labors have produced a marvelous banquet! Tonight we feast!”

            Hajime didn’t have to look too deeply into those words and feelings. He could tell right away Gundham wanted to cheer the princess up. … And it was working, if the way she had her pumped up excitedly was any indication.

            “Then let us feast! Hell to the yes!”

            … Hajime decided to leave those two alone for now, and proceeded to talk to some more people.

            “Man, that was so uncomfortable…” Kazuichi grumbled, pulling his beanie over his head. “Getting groped so thoroughly by a man, that was my worst nightmare.”

            Hajime blinked as he took a moment to realize who the mechanic was talking about. Not Teruteru, but…

            “Oh, you mean the body check.” The brunet mused, not feeling comfortable with it, either.

            “Plus, he got super pissed and started yelling at me when he noticed I had a wrench with me…” The mechanic continued unloading his woes on Hajime. “Seriously… How friggin’ annoying…”

            Hajime shrugged neutrally.

            “It’s your fault for having a wrench in the first place.”

            Kazuichi crossed his arms and glowered at Hajime the tiniest amount.

            “I just happened to find it at the airport. Carrying it around calms me down. But… Togami put it in that duralumin case of his.” He then rubbed the back of his head, laughing nervously. “And can ya blame me for needing some comfort? I mean, after all that crap that psycho was rambling on about…”

            “… Psycho?” Hajime echoed, baffled. “Who are you talking about?”

            Kazuichi massaged his temple, grimacing.

            “… Oh. He didn’t say anything to you, despite being besties… It must be nice, having your head in the fluffy pink clouds. Uh… I’m kinda jealous of you right now, so… Later.” Again, laughing nervously, the mechanic excused himself.

            Hajime stared after him, feeling a bit concerned now. Kazuichi was definitely on edge, and he wasn’t acting like his usual self. Sure, the mechanic complained all the time, but you’d think with a party going on he’d be all about getting in-between Sonia and Gundham. And if not that, boasting about something he was tinkering with in the service shop.

            Hajime didn’t know if the uneasiness related to Sonia’s own concerns from earlier… But the princess had bounced back, so maybe that wasn’t the case. There’d been no rebound for Kazuichi. He looked as catty as when Hajime first laid eyes on him, in the dining hall. Hopefully the party would put the mechanic more at ease…

            Deciding to leave the drooling Akane in Nekomaru’s capable hands, Hajime moved onto the final two in the dining hall, Mikan and Mahiru. The former was crying for some reason, though the brunet couldn’t perceive what that reason was. Mahiru was comforting her in the corner.

            “Hey, what’s wrong?” Hajime asked, walking up to the two girls with a furrowed brow.

            “I dunno!” Mahiru said, massaging the purple-haired girl’s shoulders consolingly. “She just started crying out of nowhere. I thought she tripped, but…”

            The redhead trailed off meaningfully, and Hajime found himself agreeing with the assessment. If the nurse had tripped recently, all eyes would have been on her. Mikan was by herself, so it was hard to believe any of the current people in the hall had made her cry… After all, none of them had picked on her or started a fight with her.

            … Now, if Hiyoko was here…

            Still, Mikan didn’t seem to be in a hurry to stop the waterworks, even with both Mahiru and himself present. Hajime decided to take the initiative.

            “Hey, Tsumiki, are you okay? Are you hurt?”

            “I-I-I’m sorry…” Mikan sobbed, rubbing at her eyes in futility. “I-I know I shouldn’t c-cry… N-Not when Togami-kun and Sensei are in charge of the party…”

            Hajime frowned as more uneasiness creeped up his spine.

            “You’re right, Togami and Yukizome-sensei are in charge, but… What’s that gotta do with anything?”

            Mikan sniffled.

            “Th-They’ll keep us safe… I-I know they will…” She mumbled without really answering his question. Mahiru leaned in a bit, dabbing at Mikan’s tear-stained face with a handkerchief.

            “Was Saionji bullying you again? Is that why you’re worried?”

            Hajime’s confusion multiplied as Mikan… hesitated. They were in the corner, far removed from the rest of the partygoers. And Saionji hadn’t even arrived yet. Why was the nurse hesitating to say anything…?

            “Y-Yes…” Mikan seemed to settle on, at last. A defeated look seemed to flash in her eyes, and her shoulders slumped even under the photographer’s soothing massage. “Sh-She… She…”

            The nurse trailed off incomprehensibly, covering her face as she sobbed anew. Hajime was about to ask whether it really had been Saionji that bullied her again, or if it was someone else. Because while it was plausible, something about this whole thing seemed… off.

            But before he could inquire further, another voice cut in.

            “Sorry to interrupt, but it seems like everybody else is here!” Nagito explained, hands clasped behind his back as he strode over to the trio. Mukuro accompanied him, as she always did. “Hmm…? Is something wrong with Tsumiki?”

            Hajime looked out at the hall to see Togami, Yukizome-sensei, and most of the other stragglers were indeed present. He then gazed back at Mikan and Mahiru before flashing a weak smile at the luckster.

            “… Let’s just go see what Togami wants us to do now.” He said, guiding the luckster away with the soldier. Mahiru shot him a grateful smile, and Hajime simply nodded back to her.

            Even if it wasn’t much, he’d let Mikan collect herself. She didn’t need to be gawked at right now.

            … In his efforts, however, he did miss the way Mikan tensed up when Nagito appeared…

            ~*~

            “Thank you for waiting.” Byakuya addressed the class soon after entering the dining hall. “Teruteru is in the kitchen, but everyone else seems to have made it.”

            Hajime blinked slowly and looked around. Indeed, everyone seemed accounted for… even Fuyuhiko was standing aloofly off to the side, stubbornly crossing his arms and looking off to the side.

            “Tch. Not like you bastards gave much choice.” The yakuza grunted.

            In response, Chisa just swayed back and forth, humming merrily.

            “Thank you for coming~… We care about you, y’know? We don’t just want you physically safe. You’re one of us, and we want to get to know you. There’s always time for brooding tomorrow.” When the yakuza just deadpanned at her, the teacher gave a closed-eyed, pleasant grin. “That goes for all of you! Every single one of you matters. Don’t forget that.”

            As most of them absorbed Yukizome-sensei’s kind words, Byakuya abruptly tensed up, snapping toward one of the tables.

            “Hey, what is that?!” His face became intense as he stomped towards the table that had him on high alert. “… Dangerous.”

            Everyone stared, flabbergasted, at the heir as he casually scooped up iron skewers and began devouring the meat on them. Hajime was the first to recover from the shock.

            “H-Hey! What are you doing?!” The brunet cried out, thinking it a bit unfair the blond had started without them. … And with gusto, at that.

            “You’re hoggin’ all the food! No fair!” Akane whined.

            “No, I’m not!” Byakuya denied as he continued to feast.

            “I don’t care what you say, you’re totally pigging out!” Mahiru scolded the heir.

            The heir sighed.

            “I told you, I’m not…! Look carefully at this dish.” He demanded, not stopping his vigorous pace.

            “Looks like delicious roasted meat…” Nekomaru muttered, hands on his hips as he watched the heir engorge himself, just like everybody else.

            “And just what is stabbed into this roasted meat?” Byakuya declared leadingly.

            “Hmm. It’s an iron skewer. They’re all like that.” Peko mused thoughtfully, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

            Byakuya nodded sagely.

            “That’s right. This iron skewer is definitely a dangerous item. I must take full responsibility and collect it!” He declared passionately… still pigging out, too.

            That was the moment the chef decided to show up, grinning excitedly as he brought in more food.

            “Heeey~! Looks like everyone’s here! I should go ahead and bring out the rest of the… huh?” Teruteru paused as he registered what Byakuya was doing. He whined. “Whaaa?! Some messy eater ruined my arrangement!”

            “Who made this dish?” Byakuya demanded after finishing all the meat and storing away the skewers in the duralumin case.

            “Th-That would be me, but… um… Are you a food critic?” Teruteru asked uncertainly.

            Byakuya ignored that.

            “What are you plotting? Cooking with such dangerous items…” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at the chef.

            Teruteru quivered emotionally.

            “D-Dangerous…? That’s churrasco, it’s a South American meal where you stab meat on an iron skewer to cook it.” He helpfully imparted his knowledge on the dish. “It felt really tropical and exotic, so I totally thought it would fit the party’s atmosphere.”

            Byakuya was not moved by the passionate display.

            “These iron skewers are a problem.” The heir declared with no room for debate.

            “E-Eh?! Iron skewers aren’t allowed, either?!” Teruteru cried distressfully.

            “If that’s how you’re acting, then there might be more skewers than just these…” Byakuya’s lips curled in disapproval. He then turned his back on everyone and started to leave the dining hall. “Hey… Hinata. Come with me. I need your help.”

            Hajime recoiled a little at being dragged into this.

            “Wh-Why me?!” Did this have to do with that ‘Assistant’ offer from earlier? It wasn’t fair to start his ‘duties’ in the middle of a party when he just wanted to relax…

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head and chuckled nervously.

            “It’s your fault for standing right in front of him… My condolences.”

            Hajime simply deadpanned at the mechanic. Really? He was gonna be blamed for where he randomly chose to stand?

            “I think it’s a wonderful idea~…” Chisa chipped in, beaming innocently at the brunet. “You’ll help Togami-kun, won’t you, Hinata? He picked you first because you’re so reliable.”

            … Okay, that wasn’t even fair. Togami, he could probably have turned down, if only because of the heir’s pushiness. Yukizome-sensei… not so much. Sighing, Hajime reluctantly followed after Byakuya, and paused just outside the kitchen.

            “All right… This is the kitchen. We have to thoroughly inspect it to make sure there are no dangerous items.” The heir declared forcefully before entering. Hajime followed him in. “Let’s get on with it, then. Search this place thoroughly. Look… I found these. There are forks and knives on that shelf.”

            Hajime wilted at that.

            “Don’t tell me, those too…?”

            “These are definitely dangerous items. If you’re just eating, chopsticks are enough.” The heir told him pointedly, tossing the forks and knives one by one into the duralumin case.

            “You’re being very thorough about this…” Hajime muttered, looking around the kitchen more carefully this time. It helped that Teruteru wasn’t… present.

            And even if he was, Hajime was sure that Byakuya would stop any perverted antics. So. He handed the heir some cooking knives he found on the center counter.

            “Out of the question! Knives are far too dangerous! I’ll safeguard them.” The heir tossed the knives in the duralumin case with the rest.

            Hajime’s eyes fell on the ginormous piece of meat next.

            ‘Chinese, Japanese, French, and Italian cuisine… Seafood dishes, too… There’s even a huge piece of meat on the bone…! That Hanamura… he sure got fired up. I don’t even know if I’d be able to eat that much food.’ The brunet mused to himself.

            Byakuya crossed his arms, frowning.

            “It seems there are no dangerous items – like that skewer in the churrasco earlier – inside that pile of food.”

            “That… appears to be the case…” Hajime nodded faintly, feeling a bit relieved. ‘Phew. I wouldn’t have known what to do if he said fish bones and meat bones were dangerous items, too…’

            The last major thing Hajime noticed was a clipboard dangling off a hook over the counter. It had a bulleted list on it.

            “I see… It appears to be an equipment list for the kitchen.” Byakuya mused.

            ’20 forks, 20 knives, 20 spoons, 5 iron skewers, 3 frying pans, 20 wine glasses… There are also iron plates for barbecue… and even a portable stove for cooking hotpots.’ Hajime read the list side by side with the heir.

            “Iron plates and a portable stove… I do recall seeing them on the shelf over there. This kitchen seems to be well kept. There should be no problems using it.” Byakuya nodded sagely, gazing around the kitchen with appraising eyes. “Though this building is old, the kitchen is impressive. Compared to a normal restaurant, it’s not too shabby.”

            Hajime stared down at the floor for a moment, deep in thought.

            “Hey, Togami… Are you sure we have to go this far for a party…?”

            “I’m doing this because it’s necessary.” Byakuya insisted stubbornly. “If I’m to fulfill the promise I made to not let anyone become a victim, I must be extra vigilant.”

            “Really…? Is that all?” Hajime asked, perplexed.

            “What do you mean?” Byakuya demanded.

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck anxiously.

            “Well, I’m just assuming, but… I think something must’ve happened to you… After all, you decided to throw a party so suddenly. I can’t help but thinking there’s a reason for that.”

            The heir shook his head.

            “That’s not it… I’ve been a distrustful person… for as long as I can remember.”

            “Distrustful person…?” The brunet echoed, confused.

            Crossing his arms, the heir clicked his tongue.

            “Hmph, I don’t like to talk about my past, but… It’s fine, I’ll just tell you a little bit of it. I cannot talk to others about my past… I suspect that my skeptical nature is partly to blame. Distrusting others… and being distrusted in turn… For a long time, my life has been a living hell. It was inevitable I would end up this way. But, in this kind of situation, my skeptical nature might be of good use. If we’re to survive here, skepticism is necessary at all costs.”

            Hajime’s frown deepened.

            “By the way… that past you mentioned…”

            “Now is not the time.” Byakuya cut him off with a disapproving glare. “However, one day… There will definitely be a time when I will be able to tell you about it. If nothing happens and time passes for us peacefully… I will have no choice but to talk.”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed at the rather incomplete story. Maybe because it was incomplete, it was even more mysterious… The heir definitely had a huge mystery slumbering deep within him. Hajime just couldn’t begin to guess at what it was.

            “Hey, enough with the unnecessary banter.” Byakuya decided sternly. “We’d better hurry up and find the rest of these dangerous items.”

            Shortly after, Teruteru waddled into the kitchen, appearing devastated.

            “Wah, the kitchen’s a mess! What happened here?!”

            “Don’t raise your annoying voice…” Byakuya scowled. “I just removed all the dangerous items.”

            But the chef didn’t calm down. If anything, he seemed more distressed.

            “Ah, there are no knives or forks! Why?! How come?!”

            “I literally just said that I removed all the dangerous items…” Togami huffed.

            The pupils in Teruteru’s eyes turned into pinpricks.

            “Don’t tell me… You’re treating cooking utensils as dangerous items?!” The chef paused thoughtfully. “Well… most of the dishes are finished. All I gotta do is arrange the plates, so it’s not a problem, but… but… But still! Waaaaaaaah! Hinata!”

            Hajime recoiled as the chef started clinging to him desperately.

            “St-Stop it! Get off me!”

            Teruteru stroked his chin.

            “Eh? Not into that sort of thing? Well, that’s a little depressing.” The chef lamented.

            Hajime just deadpanned at the portly boy. Why did he have to be so horny?

            “Hey, before you get all flirty with each other, answer something for me…” Byakuya demanded of the chef. He held up the clipboard. “Is this everything that is stocked in this kitchen? No hidden items?”

            Teruteru nodded distractedly, mind still clearly on… other things.

            “Yep, yep… Sensei and I counted them to verify the list… That’s everything stocked in this lodge. No surprises.”

            Byakuya hung the list back up on the hanger.

            “Then there is nothing for us to worry about now… All dangerous items have been secured. All that’s left is to keep a watchful eye. Hinata, let us return to the dining hall. You, too, Hanamura.”

            Hajime frowned at that.

            “You’re not gonna keep a watchful eye all night, are you? You just said all the dangerous stuff’s been locked up!”

            “Never rule anything out, Hinata.” The heir scolded the brunet. “It’s always possible to kill someone with your bare hands. I am merely doing my duty as your leader.”

            The brunet wilted at the lecture. Togami… really needed to lighten up.

            ~*~

            “Ah, they’re back!” Mahiru said as the trio returned to the dining hall.

            Akane placed a hand on her hip, glaring pointedly at them.

            “Hey, let’s eat already! I’m starvin’ here!”

            “There are still issues that need to be addressed.” Byakuya denied the gymnast’s hungry complaints.

            “Eh? An issue?” Akane punched her open palm. “Who do I gotta beat the crap outta? Just say the word, I’ll do it for ya!”

            “That won’t be necessary…” The heir scoffed. “One of the issues is where to safeguard this duralumin case that has all the confiscated dangerous items.”

            As Byakuya held up the case in question, Kazuichi scratched his cheek nervously.

            “Can’t we just leave it here?”

            The heir raised a finger to his temple astutely.

            “I’ve already put a lock on the case, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but… we should definitely up the security and keep it someplace safe.”

            “Someplace safe…?” Sonia echoed, tilting her head. She then straightened up as she thought of something. “Ah! There is a storage room in the back of this building.”

            “A storage room… Well, we can’t just leave it alone back there.” Byakuya mused.

            “Someone can guard it, then.” Peko chipped in, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “That would resolve the issue, yes?”

            “Eh? Who? Who?” Hiyoko pursed her lips, cocking her head obnoxiously.

            Peko sighed breezily.

            “I will do it, of course.”

            Mikan tittered nervously.

            “Eh, are you sure…? I guess… if you insist. Just kidding…!” Hajime was a little relieved to see the poor nurse had recovered, if even just a little bit.

            Ibuki rubbed the back of her head.

            “But it’ll be lonely there by yourself.”

            Peko bowed her head slightly, closing her eyes solemnly.

            “I don’t mind… I’m not really good in situations where I have to be around lots of people, anyway.”

            “Nyahaha~!” Ibuki giggled, waving her arm about in the air cheerfully. “If I wrote a song about this, its title would definitely be ‘Lonely Girl in the Storage Room’~!”

            “However, Hanamura has gone to the trouble of cooking… Is it all right to bring some of this with me?” Peko formally requested.

            “Yeah, that’s totally fine!” Teruteru piped up, grinning proudly.

            Chisa clapped her hands together once, frowning thoughtfully at the swordswoman.

            “Now, I don’t have a problem with your guard duty, Pekoyama, but asking you to isolate yourself in the storage room is too much. Even if I cleaned up in there, you deserve to be in a more comfortable place, where we can check in on you!”

            Byakuya nodded sagely at this suggestion.

            “Very true. This party is for everyone’s sake. Pekoyama, guard the duralumin case in the office near the front. There’s a circuit breaker in there, too, so it would behoove us to watch that, as well.”

            “Understood. I shall guard the office, then.” Peko accepted her new duty, taking a plate of food along with her and the duralumin case. “I should get going. Have fun tonight, everyone.”

            Ibuki grinned ear to ear, nodding eagerly to herself.

            “Mmm, seeing Peko’s back as she walks away makes me feel like she’s got this super cool, melancholy vibe…”

            Hiyoko scratched her cheek curiously, staring at the other duralumin case.

            “But shouldn’t she have taken that other case with her, too?”

            Byakuya stared down at the case in question.

            “This… No, this case is fine.” The heir declared confidently.

            The dancer snickered at his clear bias.

            “Ah, no fair! You’re, like, the only one who got to bring their own stuff.”

            “When you’re as special as me… you get special privileges.” Byakuya rebutted her.

            “When you put it that way… it’s hard to argue with you.” Kazuichi laughed nervously.

            “This duralumin case stays with me at all times. I’ve put the key to the other case in here as well.” The heir revealed, keeping his arms crossed over his chest. “I will take full responsibility for watching over it. There’s no way I can let anyone else handle this matter.”

            Akane drooled as she hungrily raised her hands, ready to launch herself at the food.

            “M-More importantly… We’re all done now, right? Let’s start the party…”

            “No, there’s still one other issue.” Togami refuted her again.

            The gymnast groaned, punching her palm again.

            “Ugh, who do ya want me to beat the crap outta?! Hurry up and tell me already!” She demanded impatiently. Hajime sweatdropped.

            “Seriously, it has nothing to do with that…”

            “Actually, if you’re volunteering, I do have one particular nuisance in mind.” The heir corrected the brunet, much to his surprise. “I’m talking about Monokuma, of course. He’s the one thing that could obviously disrupt this party.”

            Akane grinned wolfishly as she radiated an intense energy.

            “Awww riiiiight~! So you’ll let me eat if I beat the crap outta Monokuma, right?!”

            Nekomaru held up his hand authoritatively.

            “Wait a sec… If you actually pick a fight with that thing, you’re just going to end up perforated.”

            “Are you tellin’ me to wait until I starve to death?!” Akane demanded, giving the coach the stinkeye.

            “Starve to death? That’s a little extreme…” Mahiru muttered.

            “Our opponent is not someone we can just fight. Rather, it’s better if we use our heads and think of a plan…” Byakuya concluded.

            Mukuro took a step forward, face looking more determined than before.

            “I can do it.”
            “You?” Byakuya challenged before seeming to reconsider. “… No, I suppose you would be the most qualified. If you’re sure you can handle this.”

            “I can.” Mukuro reaffirmed. And she meant it. If she had to pick which was the bigger threat to Komaeda-kun, it would have to be that bear. That still left people like Nidai, Owari, and Kuzuryu in here with the luckster, but that was balanced out by Yukizome-sensei and the bossy Togami.

            … She’d always feel conflicted about leaving the luckster’s immediate side, but this was a party, and Komaeda-kun wanted it. Mukuro would honor that.

            Chisa frowned, not completely satisfied.

            “… Hey, how about this, Ikusaba? You and I can have guard shifts. That way, you can enjoy the party, too.”

            Mukuro’s brow furrowed. Didn’t Togami just say she was the most qualified for this particular guard duty?

            “Why…?” The soldier didn’t mean to come across as fragile or uncertain, but she was really caught off-guard.

            “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Byakuya raised an eyebrow at the orange-haired woman.

            Yukizome beamed happily at the solder.

            “Because you deserve to be happy, too, silly! This is a party, not some warzone!” She then sent the heir a knowing look. “Besides, this party’s for everyone, remember, Togami-kun? Ikusaba can’t have fun if she’s out there all night. We’ve taken more than enough precautions… We’ll be fine.”

            Byakuya reluctantly backed down after that. Mukuro herself felt… a little warm in her chest, for some strange reason she couldn’t discern. It’s not like she had wanted to be included like this, but still, to be given the opportunity… To be accepted… It was a nice feeling. Mukuro wouldn’t mind if she experienced this feeling more often.

            After one more, quick, dirty debate, Mukuro had earned the right to first guard duty. Even if Sensei had the best of intentions, the soldier wouldn’t allow for anyone else to take the first shift. It was agreed shifts would take place hourly… Mukuro had recommended two hour shifts, but was shot down.

            … At least she had first shift. That was what mattered.

            Akane twitched toward the food tables yet again.

            “So it’s settled, right? Then can we…?”

            Byakuya chuckled heartily.

            “You’re right. Let’s begin.”

            “ALLLLLL RIIIIIIGHT!!!” Akane roared, puffing out her chest in determination as she charged.

            “Kehehe… So the ‘banquet’ has finally commenced…” Gundham cackled to himself. “FWAHAHAHA! You better keep me entertained!”

            And with that, the party really kicked off… Hajime gazed around the dining hall, seeing so many smiling, content faces. Teruteru. Sonia. Nekomaru. Kazuichi. Nagito. Mikan. Akane. Gundham. Mahiru. Ibuki. Chiaki. Even Saionji, in her own sadistic way, was laughing her ass off, the white insides of the sleeves of her kimono exposed as she covered her face in a poor attempt to muffle her cruel laughter. Byakuya and Fuyuhiko were more removed from the main partygoers, but at least the heir seemed satisfied with how things were turning out.

            Yukizome-sensei herself was lit up like a Christmas tree as she bounced around the dining hall, socializing with everyone with such ease. Hajime had to smile at such a sight.

            ‘I still don’t understand why we’re even having a party in the first place…’ The brunet thought to himself. ‘But whatever the reason, everyone seems to be having fun.’

            “Hey, are we good? Can I finally eat?” Akane asked, even as she was stuffing her mouth excitedly.

            “You’re already eating!” Kazuichi pointed out. The gymnast just laughed deliriously in joy.

            “Haha… Ahaha…! I-I can’t stop… Hahahaha! I can’t stop my hands from shovin’ food in my face!” … Yep, she was clearly too far gone…

            “Well, of course you can’t stop.” Teruteru teased with a proud grin. “These are the world’s tastiest party dishes, after all! No matter how full you feel, you can’t help but continue eating such exquisite delicacies~… That is what I cook! The world’s tastiest dishes!”

            “Th-That’s quite scary…” Mikan mumbled, having a more meager helping, herself.

            Hajime had to agree… From what little he had sampled so far, his hands were twitching, begging to follow Akane’s example. Glancing around the table he was at, seeing Sonia, Kazuichi, and Gundham, they were following a similar cautious approach. It’s not that they suspected Teruteru of anything underhanded…

            No. It was the exact opposite. They knew the food was packed with maximum flavor, and that they’d very much enjoy the meal. But once they had a lapse in control, there’d be no going back… Akane was a living testament to that.

            “… You’re not eating?” Akane asked with such craving in her eyes. “Then I’m gonna eat all this by myself~!”

            Teruteru nodded sagely.

            “I’ll make lots more in the kitchen and then I’ll bring it all out here, okay?”

            Over by her table, Mahiru grinned, holding up her camera.

            “Hey, everyone! While we’re at it, why don’t I take pictures for you guys?”

            “Wow, that sounds wonderful! Please do!” Sonia eagerly accepted the offer.

            As Mahiru took one picture after another, Hajime could truly feel himself relaxing. When they’d first come to this island, seeing everyone having fun had really bugged the brunet… But now that he was watching the party unfold, it felt reassuring. They were all friends who fought together… Friends who developed a sense of unity.

            Time seemed to pass by in a haze for Hajime. With no clocks, he had no concept of it. People drifted from table to table. Teruteru was the one that was in and out the most, juggling new platters and empty dishes with each successive trip. Fuyuhiko had left the hall at some point, and Hajime wasn’t really sure what that was about; Byakuya seemed to notice, as well, though Yukizome-sensei had been preoccupied with Ibuki getting out of hand, at the time. It’s not like the yakuza and chef were the only ones to step out, however… There were others who departed, and then came back after a few minutes. The brunet just assumed they were using the bathroom.

            Eventually, Hajime found himself approached by the enigmatic luckster.

            “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Nagito breathed, gazing out at their class with his arms crossed and a faraway look in his eyes. “This camaraderie… I’ve wanted to see something like this for so long…”

            Hajime frowned thoughtfully at the wistful tone.

            “I thought you were a pretty average guy? Isn’t this kind of… normal? Classmates do stuff like this all the time, y’know.”

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully, chuckling a bit, chagrined.

            “Of course! I’d never insinuate otherwise. It’s just… the stuff with Monokuma, all the drama about killing… It hasn’t dragged them down, not completely. Even in a hurricane of Despair… Hope blossoms, like a fragile flower~…”

            Hajime quirked an eyebrow at the analogy.

            “Well, no murders have happened. The memory stuff is messed up… But Togami’s right. We’ll make it through this. We… everything that makes us unique, we’re still ourselves. Nothing can change that.”

            Nagito tilted his head curiously.

            “I certainly can’t deny that, but… Aren’t you the most curious? Each of us forgot our school memories, but you forgot your talent. Wouldn’t you say that a part of you is missing, because of that? Wouldn’t you like to be whole again?”

             “O-Of course I’d like to know…” Hajime defended himself. “But… murder’s way too high a price. I don’t care what Monokuma says, I’m not going to kill over something stupid like memory! I’ll… I’ll become something ‘new’, if I have to. I don’t have to know what I was, in the past.”

            Nagito hummed, sounding intrigued.

            “That’s… not a bad answer. We’ll have to compare notes, later. I’m not sure if I agree with the premise, but I’d much rather you show me your answer, rather than argue it.”

            “Wh-What does that mean…?” Hajime spluttered.

            Nagito chuckled heartily, waving his hand casually.

            “Don’t you worry, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that later~… Enjoy yourself, Hinata-kun. None of us know how much time we have left, but I have a good feeling about you.” With another casual wave, the luckster took his leave.

            … Hajime felt himself growing more and more uneasy. He didn’t want to jump to conclusions and assume Nagito was being ominous, but at the very least his words helped egg on that niggling thought that something was wrong, and Hajime just couldn’t place what that was…

            Nekomaru suddenly grunted in concentration.

            “I… must… return to my c-cottage…!” The team manager clenched a fist as he grimaced. Byakuya turned to the man sharply.

            “Don’t be foolish… I won’t allow such selfish actions.” The heir snapped.

            “Don’t stop me, Togami! There comes a time when a man knows he’s gotta go…!” Nekomaru fired back with such passion. “If I don’t go now… It would shame me as a man. Shitting my pants would totally shame me as a MAAAAAAANNNNNNNNN!!!”

            “… So he was talking about the toilet!” Hajime muttered to himself, easily overhearing the conversation, even from across the room.

            Byakuya scowled, brow pinching together in confusion.

            “If you need to use the bathroom, there’s one here in the lodge. Why do you need to go back to your cottage?”

            Nekomaru’s fist trembled as he clearly struggled with himself.

            “I-I’ve been trying to use it many times,.. but the door just won’t open at all!”

            Hiyoko muffled her giggles, waltzing on over from the entrance.

            “He’s totally gonna shit himself~! You got a clean diaper in that case of yours, Togami?”

            Byakuya sent her a withering glare.

            “I’m not having this conversation right now… You two, leave. Nidai, no, that doesn’t mean you can leave the lodge. Stay here until the bathroom opens up.”

            Chisa rubbed her chin, staring down at her watch.

            “I should probably go relieve Ikusaba… Everyone, play nice!”

            Ibuki giggled mischievously.

            “Ibuki needs another round~! Ibuki’s starting to smell colors~!”

            Chisa shot the heir a pleading look, which he returned with a sympathetic stare.

            “… Hinata! You’re on babysitting duty until Sensei gets back. Keep Mioda away from the soda…” The musician was a handful, enough as it was. They didn’t need her hyped up on sugar, too.

            Hajime spluttered at being ‘volunteered’ again without his consent.

            “Wh-Why me?!”

            “Just do it!” Byakuya barked. No way was he going to juggle keeping an eye on both Ibuki and the duralumin case. It paid to be able to delegate the dirty work…

            “Oh shit! I’m gonna SHIIIIIIIIIIIIT!!!!” Nekomaru boomed.

            “Shut up! Don’t you dare!” The heir commanded.

            Akane was still shoveling quite the amount of food into her mouth.

            “Hey! Is it really all right if I eat all of this?” She asked eagerly.

            Of course the heir took offense to that.

            “D-Don’t be an idiot! Make sure you leave some for me!”

            Mahiru beamed as she waltzed over.

            “Heeey, Togami! Everyone, c’mon! I’m gonna take a picture! All right, say ‘cheeeeeeeese’!” The photographer spontaneously took a number of photos.

            “Hey! Why can’t you all act a little more mature…?” The heir huffed impatiently, but was distracted by an obnoxious beeping sound that echoed throughout the dining hall. “… Hm? What was that sound just now?”

            A moment later… there was darkness. Not in a figurative sense, but quite literally. All the lights went out at once, and since the windows were covered up, it was a pitch blackness throughout the whole lodge.

            “Uwah! It’s a b-blackout!” Mahiru cried out.

            ‘A blackout…?’ Hajime echoed in his head. He then grew more panicked as he realized that’s exactly what it was. ‘E-Eh?! A blackout?!’

            This didn’t bode well.

            “Hey, I can’t see anything!” Kazuichi whined. And just like everyone else, Hajime was sure that the mechanic was stumbling around in the dark, too.

            “I-It’s pitch black! My future is pitch black!” Ibuki screamed eccentrically.

            The sound of frantic footsteps and other screams echoed throughout the hall, making Hajime nervous to move around too much.

            “E-Everyone, calm down!” Yukizome-sensei’s voice rang out, clear and loud. “We have to stay calm at a time like this!”

            … And then, that chaos that had been steadily growing… It intensified by the next turn of events. Hajime swore he heard some kind of slight sound, like something small getting struck… It would only be moments later that he would realize it was a match being lit. And that wasn’t the only thing that happened. Oh no.

            No, it got worse. Out of nowhere, the sound of something igniting and rocketing across the room could be heard. It was a miracle no one got hit… But what really threw them into a frenzy was the great burst of light that smashed into the wall, over by the covered windows.

            Hajime was too delirious from these sensations to pick up on where, exactly, the match had been lit. But that wasn’t important. Why the hell were fireworks going off?! Who the hell set off fireworks inside a building?!

            Hajime didn’t get to ponder that thought for long. None of them did, in their panicked, screaming states. Moments after the first one had gone off, another match could be heard being struck, and Hajime knew what was coming next. Another volley of fireworks launched across the room, exploding along the wall in a brilliant array of lights. Hajime was a little more on the uptake this time, being able to make out silhouettes in the darkness. Honestly, it was all a blur for him, though.

            “Somebody turn the damn lights on!” Akane barked. “I can’t eat like this, you know?!”

            “Is this really the time for that?!” Mahiru cried out in disbelief.

            “Wah! Don’t step on my feet!” Hiyoko whined gruffly, bumping into a table by the sound of things.

            “WAAAAAAH!” Mikan wailed, making a big crashing sound as she tumbled over something in the dark.

            “SHIIIIIITTTTT!!!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “What in the nine Hells is this madness?!” Gundham yelled out.

            “I said watch where you’re going…!” The dancer grunted with exerted effort.

            More chaotic sounds could be heard through the darkness, all around the room. And all of it was disjointed, having no distinguishable pattern for where sounds or voices were coming from within the room. Hajime just… didn’t know what was going on, and he really, really needed to know. Byakuya sounded as lost and panicked as Hajime felt.

            “What the hell?! What’s going on here?!”

            … Small mercies, whoever set off the damn fireworks twice hadn’t seen fit to release a third volley.

            And just as he thought that, Hajime swore he could hear a third match being struck. Uh-oh.

            “KOMAEDA!” Byakuya abruptly bellowed out, followed by the sound of feverish running as people cried out from being slammed into by the heir in his frenzy to get to the luckster, for whatever reason.

            The third fireworks exploded while all of that was happening, and… Hajime had honestly become desensitized by this point. The chaos was… just too much. The overstimulation was… just too much for Hajime. The sound of scuffling could be heard from somewhere nearby, but Hajime had stopped trying to make sense of the senseless.

            “You guys? Where are you? Wasn’t the blackout just in the kitchen…?” Teruteru whispered in distress from what must have been the entrance to the dining hall.

            “Perhaps the breaker overloaded…?” Sonia speculated, though she too sounded quite shaken from the three fireworks displays…

            … That had clearly sparked a fire on the far end of the room. Oh boy.

            “Everyone! Head away from the fire!” Byakuya barked out, exerting some effort as he seemed to heft something or someone off the floor. “Once you bump into a wall, just feel your way until you can find the doors to the dining hall! I will assist those who are not in a position to do so. Move!”

            It seemed like an eternity, with everyone pushing and running over themselves to reach the walls and feel their way around to the doors. But once they had done so, it was a simple enough task to remember to head right and feel their way along more of the walls to get to the exit of the lodge. Around the time Hajime had gotten out into the hall, he heard Fuyuhiko’s voice from the direction of the office.

            “The fuck’s going on, you assholes?!” The yakuza hissed.

            “A-Are you kidding?!” Kazuichi griped. “You were with Pekoyama the entire time, why didn’t you reset the circuit breaker, ya jerk?!”

            “The breaker is high up on the wall. None of us can reach it.” Peko smoothly cut in. “More importantly, what is the urgency? Why are you all out here?”

            “Th-There’s a fire in the dining hall!” Mahiru cried out frightfully. “Somebody set off damn fireworks in there!”

            “… What the fuck.” Fuyuhiko deadpanned in disbelief.

            “OUTTA MY WAY!” Saionji screeched, apparently one of the stragglers out of the dining hall and trying to reach the exit.

            Eventually, they all worked their way outside. It really helped when the door was opened and some light could finally shine into the lodge, no matter how slight it was. The last ones out were Yukizome-sensei, Mikan, Byakuya, who had night vision goggles on… and Nagito, who the heir had a firm grip on.

            “What do you think you’re doing?!” Mukuro spoke up in alarm, advancing on the heir threateningly. He held up his hand authoritatively, and even Yukizome-sensei placed a hand on the soldier’s shoulder, halting her.

            “Is this everyone?” Byakuya warily asked, trying to look around and try to ascertain how many were standing outside at that moment. As much as he wanted to interrogate the luckster, the safety of everyone was still on his mind.

            “I-I think so…” Mahiru mumbled, looking quite spooked, and for good reason.

            Hajime also looked around with glazed eyes, trying to count the number of heads. People started whispering amongst themselves, but it was Nekomaru who got everyone’s attention.

            “Hey… I figured she just raced out of there, once she got out… But where’s Owari?”

            Mukuro shook her head.

            “None of you guys ran beyond the pool or hotel.”

            Kazuichi scratched the back of his head as he peeked around the corner of the lodge.

            “Doesn’t look like she’s behind it, either…”

            “Not on this side, either.” Peko checked the other side, to be safe.

            Byakuya’s grip on Nagito’s shoulder tightened.

            “H-Hey, Togami…” Hajime licked his lips as he tried to speak without completely falling apart. He still felt so overwhelmed from everything. “D-Didn’t you have everyone bring their GPS thing tonight…?”

            The heir’s scowl deepened, and he fished in his pocket for the tablet that would reveal all of their locations. He reluctantly released the luckster into Yukizome-sensei’s care. As he powered on the device, he noticed right away that one tracker was isolated from everybody else.

            “She’s… still in there?” Byakuya turned back toward the lodge, on high alert. Yet as he did, the sound of an obnoxious siren could be heard, off in the distance.

            The siren came closer and closer… And finally, they were able to identify it – a firetruck with Hope’s Peak’s logo, and Monokuma dressed in fireman attire at the wheel. It came to an abrupt halt near the lodge, after knocking chairs and umbrellas into the pool in its wake.

            “STOOOP! Stop, stop, stop~!” Monokuma eccentrically commanded the children, patting his belly contently. “We got a call about a disturbance! We’re gonna hafta ask you to stay out here ‘til the fire’s been put out~!”

            “’W-We’…?” Chisa echoed faintly, not really getting who else Monokuma was referring to. But that became clear in the next moment.

            “Get your ass out here, Monomi! We got work to do!” Monokuma barked, dragging the rabbit out by the ears.

            “OOOUUUCH! Don’t pull on my ears!” The rabbit wailed.

            But rather than listen, the bear hastened them inside, dragging a fire hose with them. Several painfully stressful minutes later, the stuffed animal duo returned outside, and the lights within the lodge flickered back on.

            “Welp! My work here is done~!” The bear sighed contently, patting his belly again. “I could sure go for a cold one after working up a sweat like that~…”

            Byakuya ignored the bear’s ramblings.

            “Enough! What about Owari?!”

            Monokuma tilted his head curiously.

            “’Oh, wow, whee!’?” The bear giggled at his own bad pun. “That sort of investigation falls on you guys! My job is to make sure you can conduct that investigation~! See you soooooon~!”

            Hopping back in the firetruck, yanking Monomi with him, Monokuma drove off. Needless to say, none of them were eager to go inside, now.

            “… She can’t be!” Nekomaru clutched both sides of his head in distress.

            Byakuya raised a finger to his temple in thought.

            “Indeed, that hasn’t been confirmed. For all our sakes… I pray she is only unconscious, or trapped.” The heir then crossed his arms and barked out. “Hinata! Nidai! Both of you come with me. The rest of you stay here. We will retrieve you if the worst has come to pass.”

            Nervously, Hajime trailed after Byakuya and Nekomaru as they reentered the lodge. The hallway seemed unaffected by all that had happened… but the dining hall was most certainly in disarray and not as they had last seen it. A table had even collapsed at one point, spilling food out on the floor. Hajime wasn’t sure when that had happened, but he supposed that wasn’t the most worrying thing he saw… Because aside from the chairs and food all scattered about, there was…

            “Blood splatters…” Hajime whispered as he froze, gazing at the small bloodstains he saw on the floor, on the left side of the room between the collapsed table and the intact table, near the front.

            Byakuya clenched the tablet tighter, and marched up to that intact table. Apparently, that’s where the signal from Akane’s tracker was coming from. Briefly, the heir paused. After all, he had a feeling… that once he lifted the veil, everything was going to change. And not for the better.

            … But he couldn’t hold it off forever. The others were waiting outside… And judging from the look on Nekomaru’s pale, grimacing face as he clenched a fist, if they hesitated for much longer, the team manager might suffer a heart attack from the stress.

            He deserved to know. They all did.

            Byakuya lifted the table cloth and draped it over the food on top of the table. Immediately Hajime’s vision was filled with a hazy red as he caught glimpses of Akane’s blood-soaked back, a knife sticking out of her, and another blood-soaked table cloth lying next to her body under the table.

            Not a moment later, the monitor in the room flickered on with a Monokuma Announcement of some kind.

            “A body has been discovered~!”

            … Hajime wasn’t sure when he had collapsed to his knees. But that was probably due to the fact he was focused on Nekomaru’s sorrowful, bellowing wail. As well as the tablet that slipped from Byakuya’s nerveless fingers as he soaked in the sight of what he considered to be his first failure as a leader.

            Akane Owari was dead. And she wasn’t coming back.

Chapter Text

            “A body has been discovered~!” Monokuma’s voice rang out across the island via the monitors. “Now then, after a certain amount of time has passed, the Class Trial will begin!”

            Hajime should have seen that obnoxious announcement for the call-to-arms that it was. After all, there was only one person it could have referred to. Of course the others were going to rush in to confirm with their own eyes. As it was, Hajime could only remain in his drained kneeling position as Nekomaru just kept screaming and screaming, and Byakuya clenched his eyes shut and bowed his head slightly.

            “O-Owa…ri…?” Sonia was the first to give a broken response to seeing the body under the table. “Wh-Why is Owari…?”

            “No…” Mahiru whispered before shrieking sorrowfully. “NOOOOOOOO!”

            Other screams soon joined the photographer’s, but Hajime could only sit there, gazing quietly at the body of his former friend.

            “Wh-Why?!” Chisa had gone pale as she gazed at the lifeless body of her former charge.

            “WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?!” Kazuichi screeched, shaking a fist in outrage as tears streamed down his face.

            “GYAAAAAAAAAAAH!” Teruteru cried out, clutching at his head with both hands and reeling back in shock.

            “Th-This is… some kind of mistake…!” Hiyoko was as pale as everyone else, staring down at the body with wide, petrified eyes. “Don’t mess with me! This is impossible!”

            “This… can’t be real blood, right?” Ibuki’s hands had also flown to her face, and as opposed to her usual energy it was clear she was just as distressed as everybody else. “It’s gotta be something like jam or sauce… ‘Cause if not… then, this… A-blub-blub-blub-blub!”

            The musician started foaming at the mouth. Monokuma chose that time to pop up again, strutting around until he was closer to the front of the group.

            “Good gracious… Things quickly took a turn for the worse…My, my, now this is interesting~!” The bear rubbed the back of his head bashfully. “On this tropical paradise known as Jabberwock Island, the very first murder has finally taken place!”

            “Murder…?” Hajime croaked out, staring at the monochrome bear with bloodshot eyes.

            “H-Hold on!” Mikan wailed. “Then does that mean…?”

            “Of course! Owari… was killed by one of you. If you look at the body, you can tell instantly. She was obviously murdered. Look, she has such a horrible expression on her face, don’tcha think…? A face filled with regret that her life was ended by force, all thanks to someone’s selfish desires… To have a dying face such as this… If this isn’t murder, then what the heck could it be? Owari was most likely sacrificed… by someone who reeeally wanted to leave this island.”

            Hajime’s face became stony as he glared back at the bear.

            “Lies… It’s all lies! You’re lying that she was murdered!” As soon as he screamed that, a thick, muddy feeling of despair swelled within his body… Which meant… that he accepted the fact Owari was murdered.

            The evidence was right in front of his eyes… What else could he do but accept it?

            “Enough.” Byakuya curled his hand into a fist and bared his teeth and glared at Monokuma. “You made certain promises, did you not? A murder has happened. Does that mean the killer, whoever he or she is, can leave the island? And what of our memories? I suppose you will be returning those to us, as well…”

            Chisa whirled on the Togami heir with an ashen and distraught expression.

            “T-Togami-kun?!”

            Monokuma’s paws flew over his mouth.

            “Upu… Upupupupupupupupu…” The bear belted out a hearty laugh, clutching his stomach. “Oh, Togami-kun! I hope you’re not serious about that. I mean, if you’re checking the fine print, that’s great! But if you really thought it was going to be that easy, then you’re as gullible as a newborn babe~! Committing a murder and expecting an express ticket off this island… is like waltzing past the cashier guy without paying~!”

            The heir’s body trembled as he growled impatiently.

            “Then… what more would you have us do? Will you finally explain the seventh Rule?”

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “But of course~! Maybe I should’ve said something sooner so even the laymen and laywomen would understand, but what can I say? I was tickled pink when I thought about certain people feeling nostalgic, watching this. But that’s neither here nor there.” The bear mischievously showed his dark, grinning half. “Ahem! A murder has occurred~! Therefore, we shall hold a Class Trial where you shmucks debate whodunit! It’ll be a clash between the blackened killer and the spotless students! After you’ve talked it over, the result will be determined by popular vote. If you guys pick the right person, then only the blackened will be punished, and the rest of you guys will be allowed to continue your happy-go-lucky tropical life. But if you pick the wrong person… I’ll punish everyone besides the culprit! And they will be allowed to leave this island~! And just so we’re toootally slap-you-silly clear, when I say punishment, I mean I’m gonna execute your cute little asses~! Bzzt-bzzt goes the electric chair~! SWISH goes the guillotine~! I’ve got something unique in mind for each of you, so know that when your time comes… It’ll be a hoot. Aaaaahahaha~!”

            The room had gone very quiet at Monokuma’s explanation. When he concluded it, that silence was broken by indignant screams and shouts.

            “The fuck you just say?!” Fuyuhiko seethed, hands twitching. “You didn’t mention any of this in that damn rule…!”

            “He did suggest the killer was better off not getting caught…” Mahiru pointed at the bear accusingly. “But that’s not the point! Why the hell should all of us get punished just because we get a guess wrong?! Where’s the justice in that?!”

            Monokuma snickered.

            “Such a smart chimpanzee~… Ever so subtly claiming you’re not the killer~!”

            “Th-There is no justice in that! None at all!” Sonia cried with a pale complexion.

            “WHYYYYYY?!” Nekomaru cried, clutching both sides of his head.

            “You can’t do this!” Chisa added her own hysterical cries to the growing number of voices.

            Monokuma huffed and raised a claw threateningly.

            “Do we all need to go through the whole Monobeasts thing again? I’d hate to bust up your crime scene, but if another lesson needs to be taught…”

            Byakuya clenched his fists at his side, scowl deepening.

            “Enough. Do not challenge him. This is your leader’s order.”

            “T-T-Togami-kun…?” The housekeeper glanced over at the heir in both concern and distress.

            Byakuya shook his head, gritting his teeth.

            “I will not lose anyone else to senseless violence! Cooperate for now… Our time will come.” He crossed his arms, eyes sharply looking around the room. “We have no business denying any of this, anyway. Owari… is dead. As her friends… it falls on us to find her killer. If we do nothing because it’s ‘impossible’, or ‘unfair’, we trivialize her life. Owari’s killer… made their choice. Now we must make ours.”

            The room went silent again at the heir’s harsh, weighty words. Abruptly, Monokuma belted out another cackle.

            “That’s riiight~! An impassioned battle between you guys and the culprit has begun! I guess it’s already well underway ‘cause the first shot was fired with Owari’s death… Or, no, one better! It began when one of you assholes plotted to kill someone~! That’s the real kicker!”

            Monomi popped in at that moment, crying out urgently.

            “H-Hey! What are you saying?! Everyone! Please! You cannot, you should not, believe what Monokuma says!”

            Monokuma giggled.

            “No matter how much you interfere… there is only ever one truth~! On my grandfather’s name!” Monokuma declared passionately.

            Monomi tilted her head in confusion.

            “You have a grandpa?”

            “On my grandfather’s grave!” Monokuma nodded sagely.

            “Grave? Your grandpa is dead? What happened to him?!” Monomi demanded.

            “On my grandfather’s plane!” Monokuma continued nonsensically.

            “What happened to your grandpa?! Did his plane crash?” Monomi asked.

            Monokuma hung his head miserably.

            “Hmm… I don’t even know where to begin… At this rate…” The bear punched Monomi again, savagely. “You ain’t my comedy partner anymore!”

            Monomi wailed as she flew through the air.

            “Waaah! It hurts so much when you hit me with a charging corkscrew attack!”

            Monokuma raised his claw threateningly at the rabbit.

            “Didja see that?! This stunning display of power! Defy your big brother and I will show you no mercy! I will harden my heart and teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget!”

            Monomi popped back on her feet, all bloody on her head from the attack.

            “Ugh… If only I had my Magic Stick… I’d be able to fight back against Monokuma…” The rabbit sobbed.

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s just leave this whiny rabbit loser alone and get on with the investigation. Now then… in the spirit of lovey doubt and dovey deception, put your heart and soul into investigating~! Yahoooooo! I wish you the best of luck~!” Monokuma clutched his belly as he laughed gleefully and departed.

            He left their grief-stricken selves alone in their despair…

            “Wh-What does this mean…? I don’t understand this at all…!” Mahiru whispered hoarsely, her hair puffed out a little from shaking her head vigorously so much.

            Peko bowed her head, gritting her teeth.

            “A search for Owari’s killer… Why did it turn out like this…?!”

            Kazuichi massaged his forehead as he moaned.

            “Ugh… Gimme a break… Why do I… have to be involved in this horrible situation…?”

            Monomi tittered about nervously, poking her paws together.

            “U-Um… You can’t doubt each other… Cuz… you’re all friends…”

            Hiyoko’s eyes darkly bored into Monomi, and she quivered emotionally.

            “Except that girl… really did get killed, right?” The blonde hissed darkly. “And if we don’t find out who the killer is, we’re all gonna get killed, right?”

            Sonia clutched at the bow over her chest in anguish.

            “That being said, I cannot abide by this! Now that I have finally made friends… There is no way I can doubt them…!”

            “Seriously? Did you even listen to what I said?” Hiyoko spat venomously. “It doesn’t matter if you can ‘abide’ by this or not… We gotta do this to survive, right? Then we have no choice but to do it.”

            “Nooo!” Monomi wailed, trying to make a determined face. “Friends doubting friends is a major no-no!”

            Kazuichi shook his fist at the rabbit.

            “Argh! Shut up! Just go away already, you useless piece of trash!”

            “Ha-wa-wa! Threats are scary!” Monomi cried out, vanishing.

            Hajime stared off into nothingness, feeling utterly numb.

            “Do we… really have to do it…?”

            Mahiru clutched the strap for her chest sorrowfully.

            “No… I don’t want to do something like that…”

            “I-I don’t want to do it… either!” Mikan wailed. “I-It sounds so scary!”

            Peko snapped her eyes open, gazing around at everyone.

            “However, it is just as Saionji said. If we’re going to get killed for not doing it… then we must do it.”

            “Survival instinct, huh…” Fuyuhiko muttered and looked off to the side, still clenching his fists in frustration.

            Hajime half-expected Nagito to pipe up with a hopeful speech about not doubting one another, knowing he was just the type of guy to do that – but the luckster hadn’t spoken a single word since before the blackout. And as he snuck a glance over at the aforementioned luckster, Hajime couldn’t help growing antsier. The white-haired boy’s face was a blank mask, but if his wide eyes were any indication, he hadn’t been anticipating Monokuma’s rules to be like this.

            … What had Komaeda been trying to do, anyway? Togami had gotten furious about something, the brunet remembered that much; but was it really Komaeda that was setting off those fireworks during the blackout? Was it something else?

            Why wasn’t Komaeda saying anything?

            This hopeless reality… That was the real enemy they needed to fight. If they were going to survive… they had to fight this.

            “Ah, before you start, can I say something?” Chiaki piped up, all of a sudden. “In closed-circle detective games, the player usually has to decide on who’s going to guard the crime scene… What should we do?”

            Hiyoko tapped her chin.

            “Oh yeah, it would be bad if the killer destroyed the evidence and got away with it.”

            “D-Destroyed the evidence…?” Mikan stared at the dancer in horror at the suggestion.

            Ibuki pointed towards Nekomaru.

            “Look, over there! That big, bulky, brawny guy is perfect for the guard job!”

            Nekomaru clenched his fist in anguish for a few moments before he clutched both sides of his head and ran off, sobbing.

            “O-OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!”

            Kazuichi scratched his cheek nervously.

            “That guy… has a sensitive heart, despite his looks…” He muttered.

            Byakuya shot the mechanic a reproving glare.

            “Souda. Out of all of us, of course he would be the one most affected. His help would have been much appreciated… But I understand his feelings, in this matter.” The heir raised a finger to his temple astutely. “Someone else will have to take on this duty.”

            Mahiru looked down forlornly.

            “Um… I can be the one who watches the crime scene… I don’t have enough confidence to investigate the body… and it’s not like I have the brains, either… I’ll just stay by Owari’s side. That’s the least I can do. That’s what guard duty is, right?”

            Byakuya crossed his arms, nodding indulgently at her offered help.

            “Very well. We will be counting on you.”

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously.

            “K-Koizumi…” She then straightened up, raising her voice to be heard. “Um… um! I’ll do my best! I’ll do my very best… to not get in your way! I-I have medical training so i-if it’s not too much trouble, I can perform an autopsy… Please.”

            “Then she’ll be staying, too… Is that alright, Togami?” The gamer tilted her head.

            Byakuya snorted, keeping his arms crossed.

            “I would have asked for her assistance regardless, yet that volunteer spirit is commendable. Thank you, Tsumiki.” The heir nodded towards the nurse, who melted at the praise a bit.

            “And what, specifically, should we be doing now?” Ibuki tilted her head. “Ibuki has nooooo idea~!”

            “Obviously, we search this lodge for clues.” Byakuya decided for them. “This site… this is where the incident occurred. The bulk of our investigation will be here. I will now assign each of you a location to investigate, to ensure a pure and just investigation.”

            “Huuuh?” Hiyoko tilted her head obnoxiously. “You’re still acting like the leader, even after you obviously failed to protect us?”

            The heir breathed through his nose and pinched the bridge of it, closing his eyes.

            “I… am aware of my failings, at this point. A reminder is unnecessary.” He then reopened his eyes, staring sternly at them all as he crossed his arms again. “I cannot do anything for Owari. But I can protect all of you.”

            Fuyuhiko snorted derisively.

            “You want us to believe that shit, even now? Even in the best case, the killer dies.”

            Byakuya narrowed his eyes at the yakuza.

            “I will reiterate myself. The killer made their choice. It is now up to us to make ours.” He gazed out among the students. “Unless… the killer had a change of heart, after hearing Monokuma’s rules. Well? Will you speak up now, and save us grief and hardship? Will you atone for what was clearly an act of desperation? Or do you not care that the rest of us will be killed, if you do not?”

            No one responded to Byakuya’s cold, sharp words. Each of them just looked around fearfully and suspiciously. Some, like Yukizome-sensei, were still staring off into space with a deer-caught-in-headlights look. Hajime cringed. He knew that everything Togami said was technically true… After all, the killer wouldn’t have known about the trial rules – he would think that most people would have a pang of conscience, in a situation like this.

            … But at the same time, Hajime understood. The killer had committed their deed. Monokuma closed off all exits. Their life was now at stake. The killer had to be scared out of their mind right now… Only the strongest willed people would be able to handle this kind of pressure, and if Akane’s death was an act of desperation, how likely was it that the killer had that kind of will? By the prolonged stretch of silence, Hajime suspected fear trumped conscience, in this case…

            The heir sighed sadly at no one coming forward.

            “Very well. I will take your silence as your answ…”

            “It was me, Togami-kun.”

            All eyes snapped to the luckster, who had up until now remained silent. He had his arms crossed and was having a staring contest with Byakuya, who was glaring at him the hardest. The others stared at the luckster in waves of fear, skepticism, and… and hope. Hajime could definitely detect some hope in those gazes. The hope that it would be that simple. That they wouldn’t have to go through a whole guessing game and gamble with their lives.

            And… And something else. Hajime couldn’t decipher some of the emotions written on some of their faces, but there was something else there…

            “Komaeda-kun?” Yukizome-sensei was getting paler by the minute.

            “You?” The heir repeated, appearing not the least bit convinced. Nagito bit down on his lip hard before nodding firmly.

            Kazuichi shook his fist, a little spittle flying from his mouth as he yelled.

            “H-H-He just confessed! He confessed! Let’s skip the dumb trial thing and just execute this psycho…!”

            Togami’s scowl deepened as the frantic, hysterical cries of others were quick to join the mechanic’s.

            “EEEEEEEHHH?!” Ibuki clutched both sides of her face in shock.

            “K… Komaeda…! You killed Owari?!” Mahiru demanded, pointing at him in disbelief.

            “To think your soul was that drenched in darkness…!” Tanaka reeled back, astonished.

            “AVRLI LAVIIIGNE!” Teruteru clutched both sides of his head as his hair blew dramatically backward. “You’re the one that soiled my banquet?!”

            “Wh-Why?! Why did you kill her?” Mikan clasped her hands together and squeezed her eyes shut tight, looking pale.

            “K-Komaeda-kun…!” The soldier immediately ran up to the luckster, grabbing both of his shoulders. “D-Don’t go making false confessions! Y-You can’t be the killer!”

            Nagito chuckled weakly at her defense.

            “But I caused the blackout! I even told Togami a murder was going to happen… And most incriminating of all, Togami-kun found that on me, right? That damning evidence?”

            Sonia nervously played with her hands as her gaze panned over to the heir. As did everyone else.

            “T… Togami? Is this true?”

            Byakuya thinned his lips, narrowing his eyes at the princess.

            “… Someone snuck me a note last night, declaring a murder would happen. That much is…” He trailed off as he got cut off by Yukizome-sensei, whose eyes had become pinpricks.

            “W-We don’t know who sent that note, though! Just because Komaeda-kun knew about it…!” The orange-haired woman seemed to be floundering for a good enough sounding excuse, but was coming up blank. Hajime winced at the sight. To be fair, he didn’t want to just blame Komaeda, either… All they had was the luckster’s confession to go on.

            Hiyoko darkly glared at everyone.

            “That’s not all he said! What’s that evidence you found, Togami?” The dancer hissed.

            “… I wasn’t hiding it.” Byakuya huffed, taking out a familiar-looking knife – it looked just like the one deeply embedded in Owari’s back. “I was going to reveal it eventually. Even if his confession should be scrutinized, having a knife on his person, even after I searched him…!”

            The heir found himself cut off again, and Hajime simply wasn’t surprised by this point.

            “Th-There you have it! He had a knife! How the hell can he talk himself outta that?!” Kazuichi pointed at the knife in outrage.

            Byakuya’s lips curled in frustration as he clenched a fist.

            “A knife that is pristine, I might add! And furthermore, he’s not even trying to deny it…!”

            “Who cares if the knife’s clean?!” Hiyoko fired back, glaring at the heir heatedly. “None of us had a knife, and you know that! Why are you defending him?!”

            Byakuya pinched the bridge of his nose.

            “If you would let me finish a single sentence, you would know that I’m not defending him, I am merely saying that…!”

            Ibuki tilted her head curiously, hands clasped behind her back.

            “Say… Didn’t Togami-chan call Komaeda-chan out during the party and tackle him? Ibuki’s pretty sure that’s what she heard!”

            Mahiru’s glare became withering as she focused it on the luckster, who just watched them all silently with interest.

            “Oh, he didn’t just call him out! He almost knocked me over! What were you in such a huge rush for?!” She briefly glared over at the heir.

            Byakuya huffed again, impatiently.

            “Could you not tell someone was setting off fireworks?! In case it hasn’t become clear to you all, Komaeda was the one doing it! During the blackout, I was the only one that could apprehend him. I tried to avoid knocking you people over, but haste was of the utmost importance…” The heir looked to the side in frustration. “And in the end… I still failed to prevent the third firework from going off. If I’d just been a little faster, maybe the fire wouldn’t have broken out, and Owari would still be with us…”

            Peko frowned as she recalled a detail.

            “That’s right… You had night vision goggles. In that pitch darkness, only you would have had the ability to see.”

            Fuyuhiko placed a hand on his hip and hung his head, sighing.

            “Even so… Don’t you think that makes him pretty damn suspicious? If he could see, he could say whatever he wanted, and we wouldn’t know if that was the truth or not.”

            Byakuya turned sharply on the yakuza.

            “What?” The blond demanded in outrage.

            “That’s not the only thing suspicious about him!” Mukuro accused, fixing the heir with a potent glare. “I was there when he searched Komaeda-kun for the party! He didn’t have a knife on him then! And he didn’t have access to the lodge ‘til the party, so he couldn’t have hidden it somewhere.”

            Chisa wilted at the direction this discussion was headed.

            “Th… That’s true, but…” The poor woman just seemed so lost. Hajime winced in sympathy before turning to the soldier carefully.

            “Y-Yeah, but… Togami was collecting all the dangerous weapons in that case Pekoyama was guarding! He was trying to keep everyone safe. I… I don’t think he’d set Komaeda up like this…”

            “That’s just what he wants you to think!” Mukuro coldly snapped. “Even if he was just being paranoid, night vision goggles are a weirdly specific thing to have prepared on a night we just happened to have a blackout! And he had a case that he kept at his side at all times, didn’t he? You can’t say he couldn’t have had a couple of knives hidden in there!”

            Chiaki tapped her chin, staring up at the ceiling in thought.

            “Togami-kun received that murder note, right? He probably prepared a lot of items, just in case. It’s not proof he knew a blackout was going to happen…”

            “It’s not proof he didn’t know, either.” Mukuro fired back. “We don’t even know what he had in that second case!”

            Byakuya snorted derisively.

            “There’s an easy way to rectify that. Simply check the contents of the case, I left it open.” The heir clicked his tongue as Mahiru volunteered to do it.

            “There’s… some security equipment in here…” The redhead muttered as she studiously examined the contents. “Gloves, a taser, a night stick, tear gas, the key to the other duralumin case… and a weird, empty case.”

            As the photographer held it up for everyone to see, Byakuya huffed.

            “For the night vision goggles, obviously. Do you see now? I had nothing lethal.”

            Mukuro narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

            “Like we can just believe that. Did anyone search you and your belongings, before the party? Or were you conveniently exempt from that?”

            Byakuya balled his hand into a fist, yet again. But it was Chisa who spoke up.

            “I-I searched Togami-kun! And… And I knew what he had in that case. Togami-kun’s innocent.”

            Mukuro’s mouth became a thin line, but she turned her head away sharply, apparently all out of arguments… for now. Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head, chuckling nervously.

            “S-So… We’re back to the psycho bein’ the culprit. Are we just gonna ignore his confession?!”

            “Komaeda-kun is not a psychopath…!” Mukuro hissed, taking a warning step toward the mechanic, who reeled back in fear.

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, frowning.

            “We can’t rush this, you guys… Even if we got Komaeda’s confession, we should still investigate the murder because we only have the one shot to get it right…”

            Mikan trembled a little, frightfully.

            “B-B-But… if there’s any other possibility, d-does that mean you doubt… the rest of us…?” She squeaked and threw her arms up defensively in front of her face. “I-I’m sooorryyy…! I-I j-just don’t s-see how anyone else could have done it…!”

            Ibuki tilted her head curiously.

            “Komaeda-chan hasn’t said much… He just kinda screamed, ‘I did it!’ and then clammed up!”

            “Well, he did also say he caused the blackout, and that Togami found that knife on him…” Mahiru muttered, tapping her chin as she slightly bowed her head in thought.

            Prompted, Nagito casually waved and laughed lightly.

            “I will abide by whatever you amazing Ultimates decide to do! The truth will come to light eventually, right~? Whether by your or Monokuma’s hands!”

            Hajime stared at the luckster strangely.

            “I… don’t think we have a choice here. If Monokuma tells us the answer, and we’re wrong, we’re goners.” He clenched a fist and squeezed his eyes shut tight in frustration. “It’s not like I want to doubt anyone… But we only get one shot. We can’t afford to just skip ahead to voting time… Investigating Owari’s death isn’t just for our sake, but hers, too. She’d want us to find who killed her.”

            Byakuya stared at the brunet and nodded his approval.

            “… Well said. I was right to pick you as my Assistant.”

            ‘… I still haven’t agreed to that.’ Hajime sweatdropped.

            Hajime’s words seemed to mollify everyone, at least for the most part. Some still seemed on edge about the whole thing. Teruteru, Kazuichi, and Mikan appeared the most antsy of the group. Hiyoko appeared to be scrutinizing Nagito the most, though her eyes would pan over to Mikan at times, as well. Ibuki seemed happy enough to go along with an investigation, as did Chiaki. Mahiru and Sonia seemed troubled, but resigned to the investigation. Peko, Gundham, Fuyuhiko, and Nagito seemed the most calm and composed. Mukuro was a bit vindictive toward the people that were leaning towards Komaeda being the killer, inclining her chin at them in a slight gloat. Yukizome-sensei, though… She still seemed so lost. Hajime really couldn’t help feeling bad for her.

            … That left Nekomaru, of course. But he had run off, pained by Akane’s death the most. Somebody would definitely have to check on him, later.

            Before they could decide on the next course of action, Monokuma popped up again randomly.

            “TA-DAAA~! You thought it was time for the investigation, buuut… The Monokuma File~!” He produced what appeared to be similar to the tablet related to the GPS trackers. “Just as I thought, you amateurs need this, right?”

            Hajime blinked owlishly as he reluctantly accepted the device.

            “What the hell… is a Monokuma File?”

            Monokuma hung his head in depression.

            “Jeez, explaining the rules all the time reeeally breaks my bones…” He perked up again, showing his dark, grinning side. “Well, it’s not like I have bones in the first place… Like, don’t even make me say such lame jokes! Let’s seeeeee… The Monokuma File contains precise and detailed information regarding the dead body. I’ve brought it to ya so you guys can smoothly proceed with the investigation. I’m such a nice guy~! I’m so nice I wanna be known as the Mother Teresa of the Mascot World!”

            Monomi raised her paws in outrage.

            “’Nice’, you say… You’re such a selfish meanie!”

            Monokuma tilted his head cutely.

            “My, my, my… Monomi the Meaningless Mascot, you’re still here?”

            “Don’t put me in the meaningless mascot category!” Monomi cried in outrage.

            Monokuma raised a claw threateningly at her.

            “C’mon, let’s go! Your turn is already up! Hurry up and get the hell outta here with me!” He proceeded to yank her by the ears to haul her out of the dining hall.

            “Ouchie! Don’t pull my ears! They’re gonna come off!” She wailed, being dragged away.

            Hajime deadpanned at their undignified exit.

            ‘They’re… finally gone… The Monokuma File, huh? Guess it couldn’t hurt to check it out…’ He touched the tablet’s screen, scrolling down to check the contents. ‘The victim’s body was discovered in the dining hall of the old building near the Hotel Mirai… The estimated time of death is around 11:30pm… The victim was repeatedly stabbed over ten times in the back, from the neck to the waist, resulting in death… Aside from that, the body has no other external injuries, and no chemicals such as poison were detected.’

            He glanced from the File to Akane’s body and heaved a sigh. So… Akane really was dead. He wished he could deny it… But someone really did kill her. And it was up to them to discover who that killer was, and why they did it. They had… no choice. To survive… They had to prepare for the worst.

            No matter what the truth was, Hajime was determined to find it so Akane could rest in peace.

            ~*~

            “Where are we even supposed to begin?” Hajime asked uncertainly, after Byakuya had directed most of the others to inspect other areas.

            The lodge would be the biggest site of the investigation. Yet there would be a couple of other hotspots – the kitchen in Hotel Mirai’s main building, Akane’s cottage, and searching for where Nidai had run off to, just to name the big ones. Byakuya insisted that Nagito would have to remain watched, and kept out of the lodge so that they could have an impartial investigation; Chisa had volunteered for that duty, feeling more than a little overwhelmed by everything. Hajime wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to have her watching a guy that was confessing to be the killer – it couldn’t be good on her psyche, especially if he decided to “confess” more things to her… But Byakuya approved of the arrangement, so it was out of Hajime’s hands.

            Byakuya, Hajime, Mukuro, Mahiru, and Mikan were the only ones left in the dining hall. Mahiru volunteered to help watch over the crime scene, since Nekomaru had run off. Mikan followed suit and offered to perform an autopsy so they could glean more details about the murder. The heir requested that Hajime and Mukuro both stay behind, as they had some things to go over, apparently.

            “Hmph. Don’t get too ahead of yourself.” Byakuya snorted, looking off to the side sternly. “I will be the one conducting this investigation – the two of you will be mere extensions of me. Appendages, if you will. Brainstorming is fine, but in cases like this, it is best you just take a step back and allow me to chart our course. As future head of the Togami Corporation, my leadership skills are unparalleled; you would be running around like headless chickens without me. Now, the easiest place to start is how the blackout occurred… After all, with only a few exceptions, we were all gathered here in the dining hall. This required an elaborate setup…”

            “I hope you’re not going to suggest I triggered the blackout…” Mukuro dryly quipped. “I was on guard duty outside the lodge. I didn’t set one foot inside until after all of you came rushing outside.”

            Byakuya shook his head, raising his finger to his temple in thought.

            “No, no. I highly doubt it was you, Pekoyama, or Hanamura. The reason being… that all of you would have had to navigate to the dining hall after triggering the blackout, committed the murder, and then get yourselves back to your posts to evade suspicion. Something very hard to do without the necessary equipment, such as night vision goggles or some kind of light. … And we didn’t see any sort of light, aside from Komaeda’s fireworks. Not to mention, my thorough search of all of you turned up no goggles.”

            Hajime scratched the side of his head.

            “Plus… I mean, well, Ikusaba, Pekoyama, or Hanamura could have done it. But them being isolated during the blackout, that puts more suspicion on them. Kind of counterintuitive, if the whole point is to not get caught. It’d be easier to hide amongst the majority of people with alibis, and arrange some kind of trick to cause the blackout.”

            Byakuya nodded sagely.

            “My thoughts exactly. Though I will concede that Kuzuryu had stepped out and never came back.”

            “… Oh. He was actually with Pekoyama, in the office.” Hajime nervously chuckled as the heir’s eyes bored into him, critically. “I-I heard him when we were all rushing outside, when the fire started! He sounded as confused as we were.”

            Byakuya humphed, craning his head to the side again as he kept his arms crossed.

            “I will have to speak with Pekoyama later, about this. If Kuzuryu did anything while in the office, it’s paramount that we know. For now, I will accept that those two have a strong alibi, if they were together the whole time…”

            Mukuro arched an eyebrow skeptically.

            “Really? Even though the breaker is located in the office?”

            “It’s high up on the wall.” Byakuya reasoned, returning the soldier’s sharp gaze. “Barring the possibility that they might be accomplices to one another, their alibis guarantee that neither of them could have tripped the breaker. This, in turn, means… that the blackout was triggered through some other method. What I am most curious about… is what happened just before the blackout occurred. I feel that it is possibly related.”

            Hajime’s eyes widened as he recalled that detail, too.

            “That beeping noise! I-I remember that happening kind of close to where I was standing…” The brunet murmured, furrowing his brow as he looked around the hall.

            Byakuya straightened up at hearing this. He pointed at the brunet authoritatively.

            “Hinata! You are to show me where this was.” As Hajime vaguely directed them to the right side of the room, the heir’s eyes trailed from the tables to the AC unit on the wall. Byakuya stormed up to it immediately, seeing as that was the most suspicious thing closest to them. “Hmph… Set to turn on at 11:30, the same time as the murder. There is no doubt this is related.”

            Mukuro scrunched her nose as they returned to the front of the dining hall, for now.

            “Maybe it’s related, but that can’t be all there is to it. You don’t cause a blackout every time you turn the AC on.”

            Byakuya raised a pointer finger to his temple in thought again.

            “No, but we can determine that a power surge is the most likely cause for the blackout. A simple enough method, if you know the threshold for the power usage… That is another thing we will have to determine – how the killer came across this knowledge, and how exactly the power usage was capped just before the blackout.”

            Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly.

            “W-Well… I’m pretty sure Monokuma would’ve been happy to let anyone in on that info. I mean, the only other possibility is that someone helping clean and prep the lodge learned the info firsthand, and, well… Did Yukizome-sensei say a blackout happened at all, during the day?”

            Byakuya lowered his arms before staring at Hajime for several moments, gears clearly churning in his head. He then crossed his arms and clicked his tongue.

            “She did not report such a thing. And I suppose it would be just like that troublesome bear to volunteer such dangerous information…” The heir huffed. “Let’s set aside the matter of ‘how’ the blackout happened, for now. We will simply have to investigate the building’s power usage in due time. The next questions in front of us are where, when, why, and how Owari was murdered.”

            Hajime sweatdropped at the rapid-fire, yet understandable string of important questions. It was a big jump… So the brunet decided to bring up another question that bugged him.

            “Not just those… I mean, returning to the blackout for just a sec. Komaeda said he caused it, right? Even if we can’t just accept his testimony as the unblemished truth, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves this: Are the killer and the person who triggered the blackout really the same person? Can we be sure of that?”

            Byakuya narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at this question.

            “A fair question. But it’s not something that we can answer just yet. Regardless of their intentions, the one who caused the blackout is a person of interest in our investigation. And furthermore, the killer somehow killed Owari during the blackout – it’s unthinkable that they wouldn’t have had some prior knowledge of it. The two broad possibilities are that the killer triggered the blackout, or there is an accomplice involved. We should proceed with the investigation, bearing both of these theories in mind.”

            While the boys were talking, Mukuro had wandered over to some of the more eye-catching sights in the room – the bloodstains on the floor on the left side of the room; the way they were situated, they were close to being triangulated between Byakuya’s duralumin case, the middle-left table, and the front table. Though it was worthy to note they were closer to the tables than Byakuya’s case.

            Mukuro was crouched down low, getting a better look at the stains when Hajime and Byakuya rejoined her.

            “To think an attack occurred so close to me…” Byakuya’s lips curled in distaste as he clenched his fists. “How could I have missed this? The moment I put those goggles on, I should have seen everything as clear as day. The murderer stabbing Owari in the back, Owari fighting back, even the bloodstains should have tipped me off… Yet I saw none of this.”

            Hajime scratched his head as he looked over at the nearby collapsed table, food sprawled out everywhere.

            “Er… What did you see?” He found it hard to believe the heir had seen ‘nothing’. Granted, it was probably total chaos, but every little bit helped.

            Byakuya’s frown deepened as he seemed to dredge up his memories from that murky time.

            “I saw…” The heir trailed off, tapping his chin rhythmically for a few moments before seeming to come to a decision. “… No, never mind. There are still some things that I have to keep to myself until the time is right.”

            Hajime groaned in frustration.

            “Really?! We’re your ‘extensions’ or whatever, and you can’t tell us even a little bit of what it was like?”

            The heir glared at Hajime hawkishly.

            “Hinata, please understand! I do trust you, and I can say that I trust Ikusaba because of everything I witnessed in that darkness. But you must realize, every tidbit of information I leak to you can possibly get back to the culprit… If that happens, they can cover their tracks. We can’t allow them even the slightest advantage here.”

            Hajime deflated at the heir’s logic. That was… That was fair. It didn’t mean he had to like it.

            “Fine… you don’t have to get into the specifics for now.” The brunet sighed. “Just fill us in on this much, at least. Can you narrow down Owari’s time of death at all?”

            Byakuya snorted derisively.

            “If I was sitting on something that significant, Hinata, I would have a favorite suspect by now. No, the strangest thing is that during the whole time of the blackout, I didn’t catch a glimpse of Owari. Not that I remember.” The heir craned his head to the side in frustration. “Then again, when I saw the fire breaking out, my mind was on everyone’s safety. At the time, I assumed Owari was one of the few I wouldn’t have to keep an eye out for, that she was at the head of the pack in escaping to safety. But that still begs the question of why I didn’t see her body at all…”

            “… Isn’t that because she was pushed under the table?” Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly at the reproving glare he received.

            “We still don’t know when that happened.” Byakuya pointed out. “At the very least, I can assert this, Hinata: When I left the dining hall, I was sure no one was left behind. If the murder happened sometime in the middle of all that chaos, I never caught a glimpse of the act, the murderer, the body, or the body getting moved. Either there were extraordinary circumstances that allowed the murder to escape my gaze… or she was killed later, as we were all escaping.”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed as he rubbed his chin.

            “That... shouldn’t be possible. I mean, if you were the last one out of the dining hall, no one should have been able to slip by you. I remember it clearly: You, Yukizome-sensei, Tsumiki, and Komaeda were the last ones to make it outside.”

            “… And that’s what makes this murder so vexing.” Byakuya sighed tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

            Mukuro abruptly stood up, and started carving a lazy half-circle around the general area.

            “This is definitely where it happened.” Mukuro confidently asserted. She came to a stop near the flattened table, kicking a scrap of food away to show another small bloodstain underneath.

            Hajime’s brow scrunched together in confusion.

            “Are you sure? I mean, did you see Owari’s back? She was a mess. The blood around here seems so…” He gestured vaguely, trying to best describe it. “Limited.”

            You’d think with her being stabbed multiple times, the stains would at least be a little bigger. Where else would it land, if not on the floor? Not even the tablecloth of the front table had been spared, as flecks and small splatters could be seen coating the side of it.

            Mukuro shrugged lazily before she abruptly yanked Hajime towards her and stiffly situated him near the biggest bloodstain, even positioning his arms and legs. He spluttered at the randomness of it all.

            “Wh-What are you…?” He yelped a little as Mukuro tapped his back a few times with the underside of her fist, pressing up close against him as she did so.

            “If they were like this…” The soldier muttered to herself before shaking her head, eyeing another splatter close by on the floor. “… No, maybe half an inch back… to avoid getting stepped on… Yeah, it’d still be possible.”

            As the soldier nodded slowly in satisfaction, releasing the brunet, he whirled around to face her, flabbergasted.

            “The hell?!” Hajime spluttered. He didn’t like Togami volunteering him for things… Being forced into a demonstration made him even more uncomfortable. “And you didn’t answer my question! Why’s there so little blood around here if this is where Owari was killed?”

            “Well, I wouldn’t say there’s little blood around here…” Byakuya muttered shrewdly, eyeing the floor. “There’s more under all this food. We’ll have to investigate this area thoroughly.”

            Hajime gestured frantically and with a bit of exasperation.

            “For her wounds it is! D-Don’t you think it’s weird?”

            Mukuro shook her head.

            “Nope. When you plan to kill someone by stabbing them, it’s best to have something draped over you to block the splatters. There was another tablecloth near Owari’s body, under the table. That thing definitely soaked up the blood.”

            Byakuya nodded slowly in approval of that theory.

            “True… that cloth might help explain some things.” The heir mused to himself. He tapped his temple, humming uncertainly. “Ikusaba, I want your professional opinion. Would you say Owari could have been murdered by ‘any’ of us? Or would she have been a more difficult kill compared to, say, Hinata?”

            As the brunet shot the heir a withering glare at the example, Mukuro rubbed her chin as she reflected on it. She was silent for a few minutes.

            “… Owari would have fought back.” Mukuro eventually settled on, brow furrowed. “If I had to individually kill all of you to get off this island, and I did it by targeting the strongest ones first, it’d probably be in this order: Nidai first, then Pekoyama, Tanaka, Kuzuryu, and Owari, followed by Sensei and the rest of you. While Kuzuryu isn’t physically imposing, he knows how to handle weapons, which is why I would handle him before Owari. Owari’s problem was that while she could be impressive in her physical abilities, she fought on raw instinct rather than any real disciplined form. So basically… she’s not weak. But she definitely wasn’t the strongest. Hypothetically, anyone could have caught her by surprise and killed her… but there couldn’t have been any hesitation. If there had been, Owari would have turned the tables, barring the possibility of her attacker being stronger than her.”

            Byakuya’s scowl deepened.

            “… Anyone could have killed her, you say?” He didn’t look happy about that.

            Mukuro shrugged again.

            “Once the killer wounded her once, and kept going, Owari would have got progressively weaker in her attempts at fighting back. I imagine once the killer landed a ‘lucky blow’ close to the heart, that was Game Over for Owari. I’m gonna look her over later and compare notes with Tsumiki, but based off what little I saw earlier, the killer clearly went to town on her. Then again… they would’ve been in pretty big trouble if they didn’t finish what they started, so… It’s natural they were in a frenzy, killing someone in the dark like that.”

            Hajime frowned as Mukuro brought up that fact.

            “… Hold on. The killer being in a frenzy, I get that. But how’d the killer find Owari in the dark and not tip her off that they were right behind her? I mean… Owari wasn’t subtle at all. If someone felt around or bumped into her, she would’ve said something. Yet all we heard was…”

            “Somebody turn the damn lights on!” Akane barked. “I can’t eat like this, you know?!”

            Hajime remembered that so well because Owari was so loud. If she had said anything else, it would’ve stuck in his mind. Yet, those were the final words he heard from her…

            “Plus!” Hajime felt obligated to point out. “How’d the killer get Owari under that table? They shouldn’t have been able to see, but I guess the killer did a pretty good job without a light or night vision goggles!”

            Hajime’s frustration was palpable, and who could blame him? The murder just seemed so… impossible. Yet it was carried out, even somehow managing to slip by the Togami heir’s gaze. Byakuya tapped his temple, deep in thought.

            “… We have to keep investigating, Hinata. It’s all we can do.”

            They had one chance to get it right… They couldn’t let it go to waste.

            ~*~

            “I won’t believe… I won’t believe… I won’t believe…”

            Fuyuhiko groaned as the portly chef anxiously fidgeted and wandered about the kitchen, checking on everything. Just his luck to get assigned this shmuck as his ‘investigation’ partner by that asshat, Togami. Next time he’d tell that fatass where he could stuff his ‘orders’.

            “You done lyin’ to yourself yet?” The yakuza glared pointedly as the chef stiffened and froze in his pacing around the kitchen. Teruteru nervously turned towards the blond.

            “I-I-I-I dunno what ya mean, good sir…! Nope! Nothin’ happened at all! I’m still cookin’ food for all those hungry mouths out there! No rest for the wicked!” The brunet combed his hair, grinning twitchily as his eyes darted from side-to-side.

            Fuyuhiko rolled his eyes and looked off to the side in annoyance.

            “Tch. Who’re you trying to convince? Yourself?” The yakuza crossed his arms. “Big Tits is dead. Just another body on a slab in the morgue. You wanna keep lying to yourself, go right ahead. It ain’t gonna bring her back. A murder’s finally happened – get over it.”

            Teruteru whined pitifully before clenching his fists, his whole body quivering.

            “Do ya hafta say it like that?! Owari-san was probably the greatest, you know? Parading her body around like that… Stuffing her face with my glorious cookin’ ‘cause she couldn’t help herself… Pickin’ fights with everybody…” Teruteru rubbed his chin uncertainly. “O-Okay, maybe that part of her personality coulda used some work… But that body~!”

            “Friggin’ pig…” Fuyuhiko grunted, turning his back on the chef and beginning to walk away.

            “Wh-Where you goin’?!” Teruteru pointed accusingly at the yakuza. “Ain’t we supposedta be workin’ together?!”

            The yakuza snorted derisively, turning back around and gesturing at the kitchen vaguely.

            “Oh, yeah, real great work! Running away to your shitty dream world just ‘cause things got a little too real for you… You do what you want. I’m not gonna let you drag me down to an early grave because we couldn’t find the killer! Unlike you, I have to live. I’ve got reasons to live. If you fuck shit up for me, I’ll never forgive you. So just shut the hell up and stay outta my way.”

            Teruteru recoiled at the aggressive tone and words.

            “N-N-Now hold on a hot minute! I-I’ve got reasons to live, too!”

            Fuyuhiko raised a fist in aggravation.

            “Could’ve fooled me, ya bastard! Sitting around on your ass isn’t gonna find the truth. If you want to survive, you have to give it your all! Monokuma isn’t gonna execute me. Not happening. I know just the prick to grill to get to the bottom of this… So I’m getting some fucking answers. Just stay the hell outta my way!” As he yelled that, Fuyuhiko stomped away, hands shoved in his pockets.

            Teruteru poked his index fingers together and his eyes darted about side-to-side before he chased after the yakuza, not wanting to be left alone. Plus, if the guy had a lead, it was better than nothing.

            Fuyuhiko was scary as hell, but he had a point. He couldn’t die. Not yet.

            ~*~

            “Oooh~! Why’d you stop in here, Peko-chan?” Ibuki chirped, poking her head into the bathroom, where the swordswoman was having a look around.

            Peko frowned as she eyed the barren rack on the wall.

            “Nidai mentioned how he couldn’t get in here, during the party. I thought it strange for someone to be in here that long.”

            Ibuki rubbed the back of her head awkwardly.

            “Maybe Hanamura-chan slipped someone laxatives… He’s just the kinda weirdo to do that.”

            Peko shook her head, crossing her arms.

            “No. At least if he did, there wasn’t any in the food I was given. And Kuzuryu didn’t mention anything odd about it, either.” The swordswoman tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “This seemed like an opportune place to conceal a weapon. Easy to access, and I doubt Sensei or the others spent much time in here while preparing the lodge. The missing cloth also concerns me…”

            Ibuki tilted her head curiously at these tidbits.

            “Oh? Oh? But isn’t that the place you hang towels?”

            “It is.” Peko confirmed, making Ibuki’s eyes light up. But just as the musician opened her mouth… “… Which is why I thought it strange someone replaced it with a cloth entirely too long to drape here. I’m sure some of the others must have noticed it, as well. The only reason I peeked in here before the party was a cursory examination for traps or suspicious items… Clearly, I should have conducted a more thorough search.”

            Ibuki rubbed the back of her head sheepishly.

            “Ibuki thinks Pekoyama-chan is being too rough on herself… Do ya really think something big like the murder weapon would’ve been in here?! That’s totally crazy…!”

            Peko shrugged neutrally.

            “Somehow, a knife eluded Togami’s body checks. And as Hinata said, he also gathered sharp instruments from the dining hall and kitchen. I am merely taking a guess where the killer could have hidden a knife that would slip by such tight security, but still be within the killer’s reach. If I am wrong, then so be it.”

            Ibuki hummed noncommittally, tapping her chin rhythmically.

            “Ibuki thinks Pekoyama-chan is so serious all the time… She should learn the simple joys of… of…” Ibuki’s eyes lit up again before she suddenly slipped past Peko in the narrow space of the bathroom and leaped down hard on the pedal of the metal trash can, making the top fly up from the pressure. “JUMPING ON PEDALS! WHOO-HOO~!”

            Peko sighed a little at the impish behavior and closed her eyes to collect her thoughts. However, just as she was doing that, she caught a glimpse of something in the trash can from getting an inadvertent look when Ibuki swayed to the side. The swordswoman’s eyes snapped open again and she lightly brushed the musician aside, unintentionally making the lid snap back down.

            “Oh? Oh? Does Pekoyama-chan wanna smash down on that pedal, too?!” Ibuki tilted her head to the side as the silver-haired woman reopened the trash can, examining the lid part.

            “No. I needed to see what this was.” She pried off the duct tape that was left stuck to the underside of the lid. “… As I thought. The knife was likely in here, before the party. At the very least… something was here.”

            The lid was just big enough to fit that knife, underneath. Barely. She had thought it strange there were two trash cans, and two different kinds at that, in a single small bathroom like this. Peko had chalked it up to Sensei trying to accommodate everyone over a whole night of partying while minimizing trips to empty the trash… But no, this may have been someone else’s handiwork.

            Ibuki raised a finger pointedly.

            “But! But, but, but! If the killer hid the knife in here, anybody could’ve grabbed it or seen it! How does this help narrow down who the killer is?!”

            Pekoyama got back up from her slightly crouched position, once she found nothing else in the trash.

            “It doesn’t. It would’ve been a risky move, but so long as they got into the lodge before Togami started the party, they could have retrieved the knife. … And the cloth, if that was their handiwork.” Peko crossed her arms, narrowing her eyes sharply. “Another thought to consider is that only a few people should have been allowed to plant the knife in here… Prior to the body checks, only Sensei, Nevermind, Ikusaba, and Hanamura should have been allowed inside the lodge. Hypothetically, it should be one of them.”

            Ibuki tilted her head to the other side, hands clasped behind her back.

            “Pekoyama-chan doesn’t think it’s one of them?”

            The swordswoman closed her eyes solemnly.

            “… Well, it could’ve been Ikusaba.” She conceded. Of the four, she was definitely the most suspicious. The problem remained that the soldier had gone outside for guard duty, and Peko hadn’t seen her try to slip back in before the blackout. She’d left the office open in order to survey the hallway, as well, so Peko knew this for a fact. Yet the possibility remained Ikusaba could have slipped by, through the darkness – the possibility was admittedly slim, however. Even if she had lost her sight, Peko still retained her sense of hearing, and she was trained to hear even the slightest hint of sound… there hadn’t been any, out in the hall. All she heard was the others panicking from further within the building… as well as Fuyuhiko checking on her. “But restricting ourselves to those four suspects is foolish. With enough fortune, anyone could have slipped in, unnoticed, and planted the knife… We need to come at this investigation from another angle. Mioda, you were in the dining hall. Did you hear anything that was amiss?”

            Ibuki laughed cheerily, dancing around a little.

            “Kyahaha! Ibuki heard many dark secrets~!” The musician proceeded to recite everything she heard from memory.

            ~*~

            A moment later… there was darkness. All the lights went out at once, and since the windows were covered up, it was a pitch blackness throughout the whole lodge.

            “Uwah! It’s a b-blackout!” Mahiru cried out.

            “Hey, I can’t see anything!” Kazuichi whined, stumbling around in the dark.

            “I-It’s pitch black! My future is pitch black!” Ibuki screamed super importantly.

            The sound of frantic footsteps and other screams echoed throughout the hall. Yukizome-sensei, Koizumi, Saionji, Tsumiki, Nidai, Nevermind, Kazuichi… they were totes yelling at the top of their lungs.

            “E-Everyone, calm down!” Yukizome-sensei’s voice rang out, clear and loud. “We have to stay calm at a time like this!”

            Then a match was totally lit! Ibuki heard it with her super-amazing ears~

            And then a firework totally zipped and zoomed across the room after it was ignited, and then it smashed into the wall, over by the covered windows, lighting up plenty of the room and making a bunch of silhouettes crystal clear from where Ibuki was, in the back. Well, that was an easy-peasy way to whip everyone into a frenzy, don’tcha think?

            Ibuki didn’t know what was going on, but she was kinda getting pumped up from all the sudden exciting stuff, so she listened even harder with her super-amazing ears~

            They were pretty much all screaming at that point… well, mostly everyone. Owari-chan had her mouth stuffed full o’ food, but she sounded kinda mad. Another match got lit. Another volley of fireworks launched across the room, exploding along the wall in a brilliant array of lights. Ibuki saw so many cool, awesome silhouettes~!

            “Somebody turn the damn lights on!” Akane barked. “I can’t eat like this, you know?!”

            “Is this really the time for that?!” Mahiru cried out in disbelief. Ibuki thought she might’ve heard some other sounds, too, but everybody was kinda panic-y at the time.

            “Wah! Don’t step on my feet!” Hiyoko whined gruffly, bumping into a table.

            “WAAAAAAH!” Mikan wailed, making a big crashing sound as she tumbled over a table in the dark. Kinda sounded like the table was all sorts of broken, too…

            “SHIIIIIITTTTT!!!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “What in the nine Hells is this madness?!” Gundham yelled out.

            “I said watch where you’re going…!” The dancer grunted with exerted effort. Kinda sounded like she might have been in the middle of standing back up. Was Saionji-chan goofing off like Tsumiki-chan?

            Oh wells. There was lots more fun stuff going on. Yukizome-sensei was trying to call out for her, Nanami, and Hinata-chan, since they were the closest ones to her before the lights went out. Then you had Hinata-chan hyperventilating. Nanami-chan was mumbling something about a game and finding switches to light up areas. Tanaka-chan was telling his cute little hamsters to stay in his scarf. Kazuichi-chan was screaming at the top of his lungs about psychos needing to be banned from fireworks. Nevermind-chan was a little hyperventilate-y, too – she was stumbling around close to Ibuki’s table… or, well… the table at the front. Cloths were rustling somewhere kinda nearby, but Ibuki was focused on other noises. Nidai-chan was also screaming suuuper loud. Koizumi-chan was very grouchy.

            “What the hell?! What’s going on here?!” Byakuya-chan sounded so cool and in charge~!

            Uh-oh, Spaghettio’s~! Ibuki could hear a third match being lit!

            “KOMAEDA!” Togami-chan roared like a lion~! He totally charged like a wild elephant, too~! Koizumi-chan and Nidai-chan didn’t like getting bumped into, in Togami-chan’s rush to Komaeda-chan, wherever he was.

            The third fireworks exploded while all of that was happening. Pretty sparkles~! Yaaay, more silhouettes~! The sound of scuffling could be heard from somewhere nearby, kinda sounded like Togami-chan and Komaeda-chan were wrestling~…

            “You guys? Where are you? Wasn’t the blackout just in the kitchen…?” Teruteru whispered in distress from what must have been the entrance to the dining hall.

            “Perhaps the breaker overloaded…?” Sonia speculated, though she too sounded quite shaken.

            … And theeen the fire broke out, on the far end of the room. Ibuki was totes outta there~! Ibuki didn’t need a tan that bad, so Ibuki was like the first one outside. … You know, if you didn’t count Ikusaba-chan.

            ~*~

            Peko dryly glanced at the musician as she concluded her rather... colorful reminiscence of the blackout.

            “Did you have to put it like that…?” The swordswoman mumbled, adjusting her glasses slightly.

            Ibuki dramatically pointed to the side with her index fingers.

            “Never question Ibuki’s vitally important narration! It shall never steer you wrong~!”

            “… Right.” Well, at least the musician had given her plenty to mull over with that… convoluted retelling of events.

            ~*~

            “This is messed up…” Kazuichi massaged his forehead in aggravation after checking out the AC unit on the wall in the office. It had been set to go off at 11:30, strangely enough.

            But that wasn’t important! At least, the mechanic didn’t think so. Not compared to everything else that happened that night…

            “You have already said as much.” Gundham exasperatedly muttered, over by the cluttered desk. A couple of his hamsters were even crawling across it, sniffing for clues.

            Kazuichi shook a fist at the breeder in annoyance.

            “W-Well, it is! Why do we gotta drag this out if we know who the culprit is?! That freak confessed! Let’s just execute his ass and get on with our lives!”

            The breeder buried the lower half of his face in his scarf as he narrowed his eyes and looked off to the side.

            “Hmph. Your bloodlust has risen to astronomical levels, yet your Magic Essence still caps at a mere thirty! Do not presume too much of yourself, you have much to learn! For all we know, that foolish human is sacrificing himself when we have no possible way of finding the real killer. In that nigh well impenetrable fog, anyone could have stolen Owari’s life! We have yet to see what lies beyond the veil, and I fear that without the All-Seeing Eye, that will be all but impossible.” Tanaka gritted his teeth, clenching his fist in frustration. “Curses! Why did I not come more prepared? There must have been an omen I missed, during my daily rituals… Owari paid the price for my negligence.”

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head chuckling nervously.

            “You still say the weirdest stuff… But… uh… D-Don’t blame yourself too bad? I mean, unless that psycho talked to you, too, there’s no way you coulda known!” The mechanic paused for a moment, his mind catching up to his mouth. Then he recoiled at the slip of the tongue. “I wasn’t supposed to say that…!”

            Too late, the damage was already done. Gundham fiercely whirled on the mechanic. He gripped his scarf and kept it below his mouth and chin.

            “What did you say?! That foolish human told you of the cataclysm that was to come?” The breeder took a threatening step forward as Kazuichi took a step back, fearfully. “Kazuichi Souda, answer me…!”

            Kazuichi spluttered.

            “H-Hey…! I-It’s not my fault!” The mechanic defended himself. “L-Look, that freak said that even if we stopped him tonight, he wouldn’t rest until the killings started! S-So, I figured… If he was so determined, wh-why not let him make the first move, y’know? Get himself executed!”

            Gundham huffed, crossing his arms and looking off to the side in exasperation.

            “Fool… If you had known, it was your duty to inform us of his villainous intentions. The fact you kept silent means you are no better than he who concocted the scheme in the first place.”

            “D-Don’t go comparing me to him!” Kazuichi griped. He reeled back at Tanaka’s hawkish glare.

            “You intended to sacrifice one of us in order to remove a troublesome individual! How is that no different from committing the act of murder yourself?”

            Kazuichi’s shoulders sagged in defeat at the accusation.

            “D-D-Don’t go putting words in my mouth…! I… I didn’t… want anyone to die…” If it was any consolation, Kazuichi didn’t seem to believe in his own words. He was basically on autopilot.

            But Gundham would set him straight, all the same.

            “How else did you plan to rid ourselves of that villain? It clearly wasn’t on your mind, but someone would have to die for Komaeda to be executed. Making him break any other rule would be a nigh well impossible task, and Monokuma shall not execute us without reason. It would be unreasonable to assume the scoundrel would end his own life.”

            Kazuichi tugged his beanie over his head anxiously.

            “I… Look, I’m sorry! I figured if it wasn’t you, me, or Sonia-san, it wouldn’t matter!” He sighed miserably. “But I guess that’s just some dumb excuse, right? I mean, it’s like you said, I still treated it like it was no big deal. Owari didn’t do anything wrong. But as long as Komaeda gets out of our hair, it shouldn’t matter – that’s what I thought, like an idiot. I’m… I’m sorry. It’s… my fault this thing happened.”

            A hand clasped Kazuichi’s shoulder firmly, making him jump a bit at the contact. He looked up into Tanaka’s compassionate eyes with confusion.

            “Carve that into your memory so that you will never forget. Despite your sin, the brunt of this catastrophe does not lie on your shoulders. Komaeda himself has much to answer for, inspiring fear in my disciple. If he is indeed the one that severed the thread of Owari’s life, then he shall receive no mercy from me.”

            Kazuichi blinked owlishly.

            “Y-You don’t think… I did it…?”

            The breeder scoffed.

            “Did you forget? The two of us and the Dark Queen were at the same table on the right side of the dining hall, and we were not close to where the body was discovered. It is unthinkable that any of us could have done it… Especially the Dark Queen.”

            Kazuichi nodded quickly, cracking a small, relieved smile.

            “Y-Yeah! No way Sonia-san murdered Owari! It was totally that freak!” The relief emanating from him was palpable as he crossed his arms behind his head and chuckled to himself.

            Gundham frowned, tapping his chin in thought. Something about that… stuck out at him. He tried thinking back to immediately before the blackout happened, but it was a bit troubling because the party had gone for at least an hour, and he was not always keeping an eye on their surroundings. Regardless, something was tugging at his memory…

            They returned to the investigation of the office soon after that. Kazuichi determined that with the breaker high up on the wall, it’s unlikely any of them tripped it to cause the blackout. Then again, with Pekoyama standing guard in here, anything was possible. They also determined that since the duralumin case in the office was still locked, the killer probably didn’t access it to get the murder weapon.

            … The last thing they found, though…

            “What the heck is a firework doing in there?” The mechanic scratched his head in confusion. For indeed. In their search of the desk, they found a lone unused firework in an emptied desk drawer.

            … At least that explained why the top of the desk looked so messy.

            ~*~

            Nagito chuckled weakly as the orange-haired woman paced back and forth in front of the lodge, antsy. He himself was casually seated in the grass, leaning back against the building. She truly was a kindhearted woman that cared about her students. It was so beautiful~!

            “I’m sure everyone is doing their part, Sensei! Togami-kun is the Ultimate Scion, so he knows exactly how to put everyone to good use! And Hinata-kun makes for a wonderful assistant~… Even I felt inspired by his bright, shining Hope!”

            Chisa froze in her pacing, back turned to the luckster as her body trembled a little, hands clenched into fists at her side.

            “Komaeda-kun, I’m sorry, but I need you to stay quiet right now… I don’t… I’m not ready to listen to you yet. You need… to stay quiet.”  Her voice was gentle, but there was a steel edge beneath the surface. Her whole body was wound up and tense.

            The luckster frowned as he mulled over her words. She even singled him out, hadn’t she? It’s not that she was unwilling to hear anyone out… Just him.

            That hurt… a little.

            “Sensei…” Nagito wet his lips, mulling over the best tactic to approach this. “If this is about my confession in there, I want you to know I meant every word of it! This well and truly is my fault.”

            “Komaeda-kun.”

            The luckster tilted his head at the forceful tone, tinged with emotion. There was frustration and anger, yes – but there was also… anguish. A deep sorrow that cut through Nagito like a knife. It made him clam right up, despite feeling inclined to talk it out.

            Her shoulders began to wrack with silent sobs. She was faced away from him, but Nagito could infer that there were tears spilling down her face. Tears that she didn’t want him to know about, if the way she kept her back towards him was any indication.

            The luckster rubbed his chin thoughtfully at the development. It had to be Owari-san’s death that grieved her. Nothing else made sense to him. Though he wasn’t shedding tears of his own, he agreed the loss of the Ultimate Gymnast was tragic. Who knew she’d be the first to die? From what he knew of his classmates, it didn’t make sense. There wasn’t someone with a deep enough grudge to murder Owari that brutally. She could be overwhelming at times, and thus annoying to some of the more composed students, but she radiated and represented life itself. Was the kill done out of pity…? Did they not want someone as innocent as Owari to be dealing with this tragic game anymore than she already had?

            Nagito hummed to himself quietly. He’d have to ponder this later. Sensei was the priority.

            “Sensei, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but Owari-san had to die.” He crossed his arms, staring at her back studiously.

            Yukizome’s breath hitched at the sharp words. Her eyes widened into pinpricks, and her hands trembled a little at her side.

            “Had… to die…?” She echoed, feeling she wasn’t processing those words correctly.

            Nagito shrugged neutrally.

            “If it wasn’t her, it would have been Tsumiki-san, or Kuzuryu-kun. Or Hinata-kun. Or even Ikusaba-san.” The luckster spread his arms out vaguely. “Sooner or later, a killing was going to happen. Monokuma truly has us at a disadvantage – we don’t know him, the person controlling him, or even if everybody in our group is a student of Hope’s Peak Academy! But he seems to know us. Eventually, he would’ve gotten his way.”

            Nagito tilted his head curiously as he continued, unabashed.

            “So isn’t it better to confront this grim destiny head-on, rather than run from it? Isn’t that what Hope is? Hope doesn’t cower and run! That only leads to Despair.” Nagito shook his head sadly. “Don’t look at this as some failure on your part. Your passionate, burning desire to protect everyone is admirable! But it was an impossible dream from the start. You can’t shield and save everyone… But you can watch over those who survive the trials ahead! They might need you more than ever, after they learn the truth.”

            The orange-haired woman whirled on the luckster, tears pricking at her eyes as she appeared panicked and afraid.

            “Y... You don’t know that…! If we all worked together, trusted each other, no one had to die!!! You never had to cook up a murder scheme in the first place! By doing that, you gave up! That’s not ‘hope’…!”

            Nagito looked down at his hand with a thoughtful frown.

            “Well, I suppose we can agree to disagree on that. I mean… Moving on with life after a funeral, is that not Hope…? I think it’s perfectly natural to accept death as every human’s fate. Sometimes, it comes too soon. Sometimes, it’s unfair a person died in a particularly brutal way… But in death, they can still be a stepping stone to Hope for those they left behind~! If we just approach this with the right attitude, I know we’ll be better off than we were before!”

            Chisa clutched at both sides of her head, fearful eyes now averted to the ground.

            “That’s… That’s not… Owari didn’t have to die! You don’t ‘help’ people by giving them someone to mourn over… Komaeda-kun, that way of thinking is wrong! You’re… you’re sick…” She whispered, horrified. The orange-haired woman was backing away slowly.

            Nagito chuckled sheepishly, rubbing the back of his head with a closed-eyed grin.

            “Don’t worry, you’re not the first to think that way about me. And who knows? Maybe you guys are right, and I’m the crazy one. But you know… Dwelling on the negatives is such a waste~… If you walk on eggshells around me, the others aren’t going to know how to deal with me, either. As our teacher, you should set the example! A murder’s happened, it wouldn’t be surprising if I’m the next corpse. Of course, we don’t want another body… But it’s kind of inevitable, now. By the end of tonight, the killer’s going to be dead, too. That, or everyone besides the killer… But I have faith in you guys~!” The luckster spread his arms out again, a manic look entering his eyes. “I wonder how brightly your Hopes will shine. Will they be so dazzling that they eclipse Monokuma? Will it be enough to smother all Despair on Jabberwock Island? I’m positively giddy with anticipation~! I especially look forward to you, Sensei. Everyone looks up to you, they listen to your every word with bated breath. I… I want you to be the most beautiful beacon of them all… Sensei. You’ll be perfect, I know it!”

            Chisa wasn’t sure why… But she ran. She turned and fled, unable to listen to the luckster anymore. It was probably a combination of pressures wearing down on her, but she kept running and never looked back.

            And Nagito watched her go with nothing but admiration reflected in his eyes and the wide grin sported on his face.

            “Hey, bastard.”

            Nagito hummed thoughtfully at being addressed in such a vulgar manner, and craned his head to see Fuyuhiko standing in the doorway, at the top of the steps to the lodge.

            “Kuzuryu-kun…?” The luckster murmured.

            “We need to talk. Now.” The yakuza growled lowly, eyes hardening as he glared daggers at the white-haired boy.

            Nagito’s grin widened.

            ~*~

            Sonia sighed tiredly as she placed the knife back up on the wall, after examining it. She feared that would be the case. They were exactly the same style of knife that was buried in Owari’s back, and the knife that was confiscated from Komaeda… So they came from Hotel Mirai’s kitchen, and not the one from the lodge.

            It was a minor piece of information… But it did set her mind at ease. Because that meant Togami-kun and Hinata-kun hadn’t been lying about collecting the dangerous items in that duralumin case. That meant she could… trust them. She could.

            If she wasn’t able to do that, she might’ve gone crazy. Then again… maybe she already was, after everything Komaeda-kun had said to her. Maybe that’s why her heart and will had… in the end… crumbled. Why she had…

            Her thoughts were cut off by her investigation partner.

            “Tch. You’re all so stupid… Dragging this out is such a waste of time.” The dancer pouted moodily.

            “Y… You should not say such things, Saionji-san. Remember what Hinata-kun said!” Sonia tried with all her might to keep the exhaustion out of her voice.

            She knew she had failed miserably when Hiyoko rolled her eyes in annoyance.

            “I know, I know!” The dancer groused. “It’s not gonna change our verdicts! This is all that shit’s fault… You agree with me, right? You heard him say it, himself!”

            As her fellow blonde stomped impatiently, Sonia sagged her shoulders, unable to hold it in anymore. This whole ordeal was choking her with stress and worry. And Saionji wasn’t helping.

            “I-I know… a-all too well what Komaeda-kun… said…” Sonia flinched, fingers nervously fidgeting together. Her eyes then adopted a faraway look, recalling how much simpler things had been earlier in the day…

            Then Komaeda-kun ruined it. It truly was his fault.

            Hiyoko nodded stiffly, appearing oblivious to the princess’s inner conflict.

            “There’s nothing more to find.” Saionji grumbled. “Only a shit like him would want to kill an idiot like Owari… He set up everything. He deserves to be executed for it.”

            Sonia shivered. Set everything up? The dancer had no idea.

            “I… I will not argue with you…” Sonia murmured, looking pale. Monokuma’s explanation of the trial echoing in her mind.

            Why…? Why did things have to turn out like this…? It’s not fair to hide the rules like that…

            Hiyoko tilted her head tauntingly at the princess, hands clenching into fists.

            “Why’re you so quiet, huh? If you really hate the guy as much as I do, you gotta speak up! What would your people say if they saw you whimpering ‘cause of a freak like him? Show some spine!”

            “I do not want to talk about this anymore, good day!” Sonia’s booming voice oozed authority, and the dancer clammed right up.

            Hiyoko, with narrowed eyes, watched the princess anxiously depart, soon after that.

            ~*~

            Chiaki tilted her head as she slid the dojo’s door open. It was different in here at night. The moonlight gave the whole place a tranquil, melancholic vibe. Maybe that was why he had chosen this place to grieve. Or maybe it was the few precious memories he had here.

            Either way, Chiaki shuffled into the dojo and approached the hulking man who was kneeling on the floor in the middle of the main hall. She didn’t initiate the conversation, she just stood there patiently as the Ultimate Team Manager sat there, clutching his knees tensely. For several moments, nothing was said. But then…

            “I promised I’d take care of her…” Nekomaru muttered softly, eyes trained on the floor but not actually focusing on anything at all. “It wasn’t just an idle one, either. I swore I’d protect us both if we were in danger… Some manager I turned out to be. Can’t even save one impulsive woman.”

            “… It’s not your fault, Nidai-kun.” Came Chiaki’s natural and earnest response. “We were all in the same situation. Any of us could have been killed… I think.”

            The fabric of his pants balled into his fists as Nidai gritted his teeth in shame.

            “But unlike most of you guys, I could have done something…! I should have done something! If I’d just stayed by her side… Hell, maybe if I’d just listened hard enough, maybe… maybe I could have done my job…”

            Chiaki ambled over and placed a hand on the team manager’s shoulder consolingly.

            “Retries only happen in RPG’s, Nidai-kun… We haven’t found a way to make Save points in the real world yet. What’s important now is working together to find the truth. We’ll definitely have time to grieve, later. For right now, everybody needs us.”

            Nekomaru chuckled bitterly, squeezing his eyes shut shamefully.

            “You’d make a wonderful Coach, Nanami-san… Better than me.” His shoulders shook slightly as he barked out a short, sorrowful laugh. “Hah! Maybe that’s why Owari didn’t listen to me. She… She already knew I was pretty much a fake.”

            Chiaki shook her head sternly.

            “Owari-san was headstrong, Nidai-kun… You’re being too harsh on yourself.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “When your teams lost in the past, did they give up? Did you let them give up?”

            Nekomaru slowly opened his eyes and gazed down at the floor solemnly. He didn’t answer for several moments.

            “… No. I’d have kicked their butts if they did that. Losses… aren’t the end. Losses teach you valuable lessons. They’re… they’re necessary for motivating athletes to be better.”

            “You see?” Chiaki tilted her head cutely, gripping the straps of her backpack.

            Nekomaru’s frown became a bit wobbly before he belted out a hearty laugh, unable to contain it any longer.

            “Okay, okay! I’ve been served. Maybe the Ultimate title went to my head a bit… I got cocky.” Nekomaru stood up on one leg slowly. “I won’t… run away. I’ll face Owari’s death head-on! And I’ll catch the one who killed her!”

            The manager got back up on both feet and cracked his knuckles in anticipation. Chiaki smiled kindly, a hand over her heart.

            “I’m glad. We need you, Nidai-kun. More than you can ever know.”

            Nekomaru laughed, rubbing the back of his head bashfully.

            “Glory lies beyond the horizon! It’s not something you ever stop chasing. I… I want all of you to see that. To make up for my failure to protect Owari.” His posture relaxed and his eyes softened as he looked to the Ultimate Gamer. “Really, Nanami-san… Thanks. I won’t let this stop me.”

            Chiaki beamed in relief.

            ~*~

            Hajime ran a hand through his hair as he approached Mikan and Mahiru. They’d been assisting the investigation in their own ways, but had needed more time to conduct their work. Mikan had especially been stalled by Mukuro chipping in, but the two of them had seemed to reach a satisfactory agreement on the autopsy, at last.

            “Um… If you’d like, I can tell you a little bit of what I want to say…” Mikan nervously mumbled, fingers poking together.

            “Did you find anything out?” Hajime asked.

            “Um, I tried, within reason, to perform an autopsy on Owari’s body… A-And I discovered… there were multiple stab wounds all along Owari’s back… D-Deep wounds… Deep enough to reach her lungs and internal organs… It can be assumed that… the knife that was left buried in her back… was the instrument that carried out the murder. A-All the measurements line up perfectly.” Mikan stared down at the floor, chewing on her lower lip. “B-But that’s not all… While those were the only injuries Owari received, sh-she was found clutching… a small, torn strip of white cloth in her left hand… P-Part of it was lodged under her fingernail, s-so it’s reasonable to assume Owari f-fought back against her attacker…”

            Hajime’s frown deepened at this new piece of information.

            “But wait… There was a bloodied tablecloth next to Owari. If we assume the killer had that on them, wouldn’t that mean she could’ve torn off a scrap of that cloth…?”

            Mikan poked her index fingers together anxiously.

            “Th-That’s what Ikusaba-san immediately assumed, too. But she examined the cloth, and it w-wasn’t torn… N-Neither was the table cloth o-obscuring Owari’s body.”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed. If it wasn’t a shredded piece of table cloth… What was it?

            “… Tsumiki, a-are you okay?” The brunet abruptly asked as his eyes panned down to her leg, where there was a splotch of blood he hadn’t previously noticed before. It was more on the lower, inside of her leg, toward the shin, but the blood was indeed there.

            Mikan followed his gaze down and let out a light scream before recovering herself.

            “O-O-Oh… Y-You noticed it, too… Ehehe…” The nurse let out a nervous chuckle, poking her fingers together more anxiously.

            “Anyone would notice that!” Hajime exclaimed, a little flabbergasted. “Did you get cut on something?”

            Mikan rapidly shook her head, hands clasped together as she squeezed her eyes shut tight.

            “N-N-N-No…! Th-The blood isn’t mine! I… I mean…” The nervous wreck of a girl clutched both sides of her head in distress. “Wh-Wh-When I fell during the b-blackout! I-I-I think that’s wh-when it got on me! I-I noticed it after w-we made it outside.”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed even more in confusion.

            “When you fell… over…?” He trailed off as he vaguely remembered something like that happening. He scratched his cheek sheepishly. “O-Oh… That… That sounded pretty big and like it hurt. A-Are you sure you’re okay?”

            Mikan blinked in surprise at the brunet’s continued concern.

            “Y-Yes… I-I think I made that table collapse…” She nervously laughed as he gazed at the broken furniture. “I-I-I’m sorry…! I-I s-slipped on something!”

            “Slipped on something…?” Hajime echoed, baffled. “The carpet?”

            Mikan shook her head again rapidly.

            “I-It felt like a cloth under my foot… I-I wasn’t expecting th-that, and I… s-slipped…” The poor girl clutched both sides of her head again. “M-My back got all covered in food… Y-Yukizome-sense was nice and l-let me go change into a new change of clothes… B-But then w-we found… Owari…”

            Hajime couldn’t get much new information from the nurse after that, so after consoling her to the best of his abilities, he moved onto Mahiru, who was looking impatiently at him.

            “So, what’d you find, Koizumi?” The brunet asked curiously as she pulled out a few photos, and then her hand-drawn map.

            “Just as Togami told me, using the photos I took before the blackout, I tried to pinpoint where everyone was standing. When I did, this diagram was the result.” She then referenced the hand-drawn illustration.

            “So this is everyone’s standing position before the blackout… Everyone’s pretty much in the dining hall.” Hajime mused.

            Starting from the back of the dining hall, no one was at those two rear tables. There were just lamps on them. Then, on the far left you had Byakuya and his duralumin case along the left wall. Mahiru and Nekomaru were near him, behind the left middle table; Mikan was in front of that table, which came as no surprise since she had accidentally made that table collapse. Then, at the right middle table, you had Sonia on the left side, in the center of the tables, Hiyoko close by her in the center, but dining at the front table. Kazuichi was behind the right middle table, and Gundham was on the right side of that table. Nagito was standing along the right wall, close to the AC unit. Hajime was also near that table with Sonia, Kazuichi, and Gundham; near Hajime were Chisa and Chiaki – the teacher had been about ready to go and relieve Mukuro of guard duty, outside. Lastly, at the front table, in addition to Hiyoko, there was Akane and Ibuki; Akane was to the left of that table, and Ibuki closer to very front of the dining hall.

            Outside the dining hall, Teruteru was marked to have been in the kitchen – with a question mark, due to no one being able to verify it. Peko and Fuyuhiko were in the office. And Mukuro was marked as outside.

            “I’ve made this diagram from analyzing my photos, so I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.” The redhead explained.

            ‘So Owari was standing next to the table she was found under…’ Hajime thought to himself. ‘How the hell did Nagito get over there, if he killed her? He was on the right side of the room!’

            “Huh…” Hajime muttered, rubbing his chin.

            “Did you find something?” Mahiru asked curiously, looking at the sketch, herself.

            The brunet shook his head.

            “I… It’s not clear to me yet, but…” He trailed off, not sure how to word his thoughts.

            “It’s fine.” Mahiru frowned, hands clasped behind her back nervously. “I… didn’t think this thing would be much of a clue, either. It’s probably just a waste of labor…”

            Hajime shook his head firmly, surprising the photographer.

            “No, it wasn’t a waste at all.” At her perplexed look, he explained as best as he could. “Koizumi, I know there’s a clue in here somewhere. It’s really important we know where everybody was, during the blackout. I don’t know why just yet, but that’s fine. We’ll uncover it together.”

            Mahiru gripped her camera bag strap, looking down uncertainly.

            “I dunno… It’s just… I can’t see how Komaeda could’ve done it, from how he was positioned. If he was launching fireworks on the right side of the room, how could he have stabbed Owari?”

            “… That just means we have to look to other suspects.” Hajime pointed out. “It’s possible someone asked Komaeda to help them commit murder. We don’t know if an accomplice would get the same perks as the Blackened, right?”

            “Th… That’s crazy…” Mahiru muttered, looking off to the side anxiously. Hajime followed her gaze and saw…

            ‘Tsumiki…?’ He chalked it up to the photographer being concerned for the nurse, but…

            But she had been standing close to Owari, during the blackout…

Chapter Text

            “… Huh?” Kazuichi held a hand over his mouth as he looked up at the specially carved mountain before them. “Hey, what the heck is that mountain?! Wh-When did that get here?!”

            Hajime shot the mechanic a dry look.

            “Well, the mountain’s been there for a while… The Monokuma heads at the peaks, though? That’s a new addition. How’d they even make a mountain shaped like Monokuma?”

            Peko crossed her arms, frowning.

            “That story… might be true after all.” The swordswoman mused. “There might be an enormous organization involved in all this.”

            “You mean what Togami was telling us about?” Hajime asked, to which he received a nod from the swordswoman.

            “I… I cannot believe an organization would go to such strange extremes…” Sonia massaged her arm in worry.

            Nekomaru clenched a fist in frustration, clenching his eyes shut.

            “I know if Owari was still alive… she’d probably want to climb around on those heads, just because she could.”

            Ibuki foamed at the mouth a little.

            “Owari, Owari, Owari…”

            Chiaki tilted her head.

            “Hmm… Where are Togami-kun and Sensei? They’re sure taking a while.”

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously.

            “N-Now that you mention it… they don’t appear to be here yet…”

            Hiyoko threw her hands in the air, carefree.

            “Ah, I know! They probably ran away!”

            Monokuma appeared, rubbing the back of his head bashfully.

            “Aw, hell naw! There’s no way I’d let them escape, you know! Look! I dragged this one back over here!” Eccentrically, the bear was tugging at Togami’s pant leg, like leading a wayward child.

            Byakuya deadpanned down at Monokuma.

            “Unhand me. I was already on my way when you ‘tagged along’…” He pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration.

            “Now, now, Togami~… We’ve already played your tsundere route! You’re supposed to be the Cinnabun route!”

            The bear was summarily ignored. Mahiru placed her hands on her hips in exasperation.

            “Hey, Togami! Where did you go off to? I was looking around for you, since you asked for that diagram in the first place, but you were gone from the old building!”

            The heir crossed his arms, staring at the photographer sternly.

            “I had to check on everyone, to make sure the investigation was running smoothly. But something urgent came up, so I was indisposed until now.” He extended his hand authoritatively. “Give it here. Hinata, come this way. Fill me in on what Tsumiki and Ikusaba found.”

            Mahiru huffed impatiently at being dismissed so easily, but let the brunet wander a small distance away with Togami to brief him on the investigation. Teruteru combed his hair suavely.

            “Guess we’re just waitin’ on Sensei, hmm? Wonder what she’s cookin’ up…”

            Fuyuhiko crossed his arms, looking off to the side in annoyance.

            “That bastard Komaeda made her run off… Said some things that were uncalled for.”

            Mahiru rounded on the luckster, who held up his hands peacefully. Mukuro got between the photographer and luckster, defensively.

            “N-Now, now, Kuzuryu! Don’t give people the wrong impression. Sensei was a bit emotional from Owari’s death, which was what really drove her off. I was… trying to give her a pep talk, which didn’t exactly go as planned… It’s not like I said anything that was untrue!” Nagito explained… not so helpfully.

            “Whether they were true or not, they can still be insensitive!” Mahiru pointed towards the luckster furiously. “You really need to watch what you say! Sensei isn’t the only one you’ve said some ‘things’ to…”

            “You watch what you say.” Mukuro’s eyes hardened at the photographer. “Komaeda-kun hasn’t done anything wrong!”

            “He set off those damn fireworks!” Kazuichi shouted, shaking a fist in aggravation.

            “That hasn’t been proven…” Mukuro stubbornly insisted. Peko narrowed her eyes at the soldier.

            “I wouldn’t say that… While we were outside, waiting to hear about Owari, I noticed some of his fingers looked slightly singed… Those marks were most definitely recent.”

            Mukuro turned on the swordswoman sharply, but Nagito cut her off before she could speak.

            “Ahaha… Your observational skills are splendid, Pekoyama! You’re right… I was in a hurry to get the third fireworks going because Togami-kun was onto me, and I got careless. Just my luck.”

            “Komaeda-kun…!” Mukuro craned her head to look back at the luckster in mild frustration. Nagito spread his arms out amicably.

            “There’s no need for me to be shy, Ikusaba! Every one of my actions is going to be brought to light. Just sit back and let things take their course, okay? I promise it’ll be over soon.”

            Mukuro fully turned to the luckster distressfully.

            “Komaeda-kun…! Th-There’s no way I can just accept this…!”

            Gundham buried the lower half of his face in his scarf as he looked off to the side in mild annoyance.

            “Where is that woman? If the bell of catastrophe rings, it is nature’s providence to answer it. She is not a slow-witted woman… Why does she drag her feet?”

            As if answering a summons, Chisa appeared, sheepishly running a hand through her hair and cracking a small, broken smile.

            “Sorry, you guys… I’m right here. Wouldn’t let you start without me.”

            Sonia’s brow knitted together in concern, not being the only one to notice the obvious swollen and puffy eyes their teacher had.

            “A-Are you sure you’re alright…? We could…” She trailed off uncertainly, knowing Monokuma wasn’t likely to make an exception to this Class Trial.

            Chisa just offered a pleasant beam that would melt your heart. She was obviously mustering up every ounce of strength to remain standing, but still, here she was. She was here… like she promised. Whenever they needed her… she would be there.

            Monokuma showed off his devious side as he raised a paw dramatically.

            “All right, now that everyone’s all together… Let’s take the secret entrance to the trial field~!”

            “P-Please, wait a second!” Monomi appeared, raising both her paws.

            Monokuma tilted his head cutely.

            “My, my, Monomi… Just what are you doing here? Nobody asked for you.”

            “I-I… I…!” Monomi trembled with determination.

            “Hmm…? Do you actually wanna join in? Do you want to taste how powerless you are at the class trial? You’re an even bigger masochist than I thought~! Oh well! I’m a niisan who dotes on his imouto. I shall allow your special participation!” Monokuma belted out a laugh. “I’ll go on ahead and wait for you guys, so hurry over!”

            Monokuma then took his leave. Teruteru poked his fingers together anxiously.

            “He told us to come, but… How do we get there? I… don’t see any doors… or vehicles…”

            “He mentioned something… about a secret entrance, was it…?” Mahiru mused, tapping her cheek.

           

            As they pondered this, the second Monokuma head from the left on the mountain roared, opening its gaping mouth wide, and releasing an escalator for them to use.

            “S-Something came out?!” Mikan exclaimed in shock, looking quite pale.

            “C-Could it be… Is he telling us to enter it?” Peko asked warily, glaring at the construct.

            Gundham held his hamsters, looking terrified.

            “S-Such a suspicious aura…! Even Crimson Steel Elephant Maga-Z is trembling with fear!”

            “Uwaaah! That’s totally suspicious!” Hiyoko cried out.

            Kazuichi massaged his forehead in aggravation.

            “F-Forgive me…! Seriously… Just forgive me already…!” He whined pitifully.

            Teruteru combed his hair suavely.

            “Hey, why don’t we just stop here? I mean… none of this is real, anyway. Like… not even remotely… There’s no way! There’s no way we’ll find the killer~!”

            “C-Complaining won’t get us anywhere!” Mahiru pointed out in aggravation. “If you’re really a man, then man up for god’s sake! We’ve come this far… We have no choice but to keep moving forward…”

            Hajime nodded sadly.

            “You’re right, there’s nowhere for us to run… We need to do it.”

            Chiaki tapped her chin thoughtfully.

            “If that’s everyone’s decision… I’ll just follow you guys. If this were a video game, it’d have a very high difficulty level… Let’s do our best to clear the game.” She spoke with determination and conviction.

            Soon after, they each boarded the escalator and were whisked into the Monokuma head, where they found themselves in an elevator. Once they were all inside, the escalator was sucked back in, and then the elevator began making its descent.

            “This… is an elevator!” Nekomaru called it out for what it was. There was a little space with the seventeen of them in there... But it was kind of a tight fit. “I see…! This entire rock is an elevator!”

            “Once again… Monokuma is doing as he pleases…” Chiaki murmured under her breath.

            “However, if he’s gone this far and made something like this… I don’t think he’s playing around.” Peko mused.

            “Even so, we’re goin’ pretty deep!” Ibuki couldn’t help noticing as the elevator just kept traveling downward at a decent clip.

            “You’re right…” Hajime muttered. He heard an unnerving chattering sound in his head. He soon realized it was the sound of his own teeth. All he could do was purse his lips tightly so no one else could hear it.

            After some time passed, the elevator reached its destination with a chime, and the doors slowly opened. As they spilled out of the elevator, they drank in their surroundings – the room was set up with stadium seating all around the main area. The floor was checkered black and white, and had tracks of red carpet leading up to eighteen witness stands all arrayed in a circle, with one stand already occupied with a portrait of Owari’s face towering over it. Her face had colorful turkey legs marking an X on it.

            The other seventeen witness stands… were clearly for them.

            Other features of the room included a throne, which likely belonged to Monokuma. And a giant TV screen was arranged over the entrance to the courtroom.

            “Okayyy~! Welcome!” Monokuma greeted them, making his dashing appearance. “This is the Class Trial Field~! How do you like it? It’s a special place that will decide your fates!”

            Fuyuhiko’s hands twitched at his side in outrage.

            “Tch… What the hell is he thinking…?! Locking us in a shitty-looking place like this! Are you fuckin’ crazy?! Don’t mess with me, asshole!” The yakuza growled lowly.

            Monokuma giggled, covering up his mouth.

            “Upupu~… Complain all you like, I’m used to it by now. C’mon, you’re wasting your time and energy. Hurry up and take your seats where your names are written!”

            As instructed, they all took their places. They knew there was no use resisting. Hajime looked around the circle and took note of where everybody was. Starting from his right, and going all the way around the circle until he got back to his left side, he noticed they were arranged: Mahiru, Kazuichi, Peko, Chisa, Teruteru, Sonia, Nekomaru, Chiaki, Byakuya, Mikan, Nagito, Ibuki, Fuyuhiko, Mukuro, Akane’s portrait, Gundham, and Hiyoko.

            ‘The Ultimate Gymnast, Akane Owari… She was brash, loud, and could be really stubborn…’ Hajime thought to himself grimly. ‘But… She also just wanted to have a good time and not think about the complicated stuff. She was precious to Nidai, and she could bring a smile to your face if you just gave her a chance. A woman like her… got murdered. The person who did it… is one of us? I can’t believe it… There’s no way I can believe it… But… if it’s really true… We need to find out, by any means possible. Because… that’s our only option. There is no way for us to survive unless we sacrifice the killer…’

            And so… this life-threatening trial billowing with Hope and Despair… has begun.

            Monokuma patted his belly contently as he sat on his throne.

            “As is tradition in my house~… During the Class Trial, you will present arguments for who the killer is, and vote for whodunit. If you vote correctly, then only the Blackened will be punished. But if you pick the wrong person… Then I’ll punish everyone besides the culprit, and that person will earn the right to leave this island!”

            “S-Such a cruel rule…!” Monomi shook in outrage from where she was dangling, hogtied by a rope.

            Togami glared at the monochrome bear shrewdly.

            “For final confirmation… There is a killer among us?”

            Monokuma nodded sagely.

            “Most definitely~… There’s no doubt the Blackened is lurking among you. Such a sad state of affairs, isn’t it~? By the way, the Class Trial is going to be 100% fair, so there’s no need to worry. I’m the type who hates favoritism and prejudice… Well, not as much as I hate Monomi, of course.” The bear giggled, paws over his mouth.

            “You hate me that much?!” Monomi exclaimed in shock.

            “Nooow~! Let’s begin!” Monokuma cheered, pumping one fist in the air.

            Mikan stared down at the floor, trembling nervously.

            “Y-You say that… But what are we supposed to do?”

            Kazuichi pointed at the luckster in outrage.

            “We already know who the culprit is! The guy confessed! Can’t we just skip to voting time?!”

            “… We need to talk this through. I… really don’t wanna gamble with lives.” Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly.

            Fuyuhiko sneered.

            “Didn’t that Owari chick get killed in the dining hall, huh? Then everyone there’s a fuckin’ suspect.”

            Mahiru sighed exasperatedly.

            “Yeah, yeah. What you’re really trying to say is that you’re not the killer, right?”

            Fuyuhiko nodded in confirmation, bowing his head and placing one hand on his hip.

            “No shit. You’re the ones that decided to start killin’ each other. This has nothin’ to do with me or Pekoyama.”

            “What’s that mean?” Mahiru demanded.

            “That remains to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.” Byakuya raised a finger to his temple shrewdly. “But let’s start tackling this piece by piece, rather than throw around accusations. The most pressing issues to address first are this: who caused the blackout, and how did they do it?”

            Nagito waved his hand casually, giving an unabashed closed-eyed grin.

            “I’d be more than happy to tell you everything! There wasn’t much to it, really!”

            Chisa pleasantly beamed back at him, though her tone came on a bit strong.

            “Komaeda-kun… just stay quiet until we ask you something, okay?” Her smile twitched the tiniest amount when Nagito zipped his mouth shut.

            Teruteru rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

            “Why’s the blackout such a huge deal? Couldn’t someone have just used the breaker?”

            Peko crossed her arms, frowning.

            “No. The breaker is high up on the wall, and Kuzuryu and I were both in the office at the time. There’s no way anyone meddled with it.”

            Mukuro narrowed her eyes at the swordswoman.

            “If you and Kuzuryu were co-conspirators, it would have been quite possible.”

            “What’d you say, bitch?!” Fuyuhiko clenched his fist and shouted in outrage. “There’s no fucking way we messed with that breaker…!”

            Peko sighed airily.

            “Would an accomplice even have a reason to help the killer? Would they be able to ‘graduate’, too?” Her glare turned fiercely on the robot bear. “Well, Monokuma?”

            Monokuma tilted his head cutely, raising a paw to his mouth.

            “Well… I’d hate to step on any toes… But since I never talked about ‘accomplices’ in the school’s trips rules… Hmm… Nah~! We’re too early in the game for me to be cooking up zesty motives like that! We don’t even have someone in gaudy Gothic Lolita to pull off an Invincible Hammer move! That rings an entirely different school bell~! The only one making it off this island is the Blackened. No free rides for moochers.”

            Peko turned back to the soldier sternly, arching an eyebrow.

            “You see?”

            Mukuro’s eyes remained narrowed in suspicion.

            “The accomplice wouldn’t have known that beforehand.” She looked around when no one spoke up to confess to being an accomplice. “There could still be an accomplice. If they had a motive beyond escaping…”

            Nidai placed his hands on his hips, frowning.

            “Hold on… If there was an accomplice, they’d die, too, if they helped the killer escape. Who would put down their life like that? What reason could they have for helping the killer?”

            Mukuro spread her arms vaguely.

            “You’d be surprised the lengths some people will go to. Never underestimate someone’s loyalty.”

            A grim silence fell over the group as Mukuro brought that up. They couldn’t exactly deny the possibility, since they knew next to nothing about each other… But still, it seemed so… out there. Who could be that selfless?

            Wrapped up in their own thoughts, people missed the staredown that Peko and Mukuro had.

            Byakuya humphed.

            “Setting that possibility aside… Let’s assume that our mystery instigator used a different method to cause the blackout.”

            Hiyoko sneered.

            “Then… who tripped the breaker and how’d they do it? If you can’t answer that, I’mma bop you on the head!”

            Ibuki tilted her head curiously.

            “Did they throw a stone and hit it?”

            “Maybe they used a remote control…” Kazuichi mused.

            “Th-They probably messed with the breaker…” Mikan quivered, clasping her hands together nervously.

            Sonia hummed doubtfully.

            “It does not have to be the breaker… They could have tampered with the power supply and transmitters.”

            “Maybe they caused a power surge…?” Mahiru mused.

            Hajime raised an index finger astutely.

            “Yeah… I think that’s how they went about it! If you guys remember back to just before the blackout, there had been some kind of loud beeping sound in the dining hall. After Togami and I investigated, we found it was the AC control unit – it had been set to activate at 11:30pm, around the same time Owari was murdered!”

            A hand flew over Chisa’s mouth in shock.

            “The… The AC unit…? B-But I never put that on a timer!” She remembered leaving those units alone because Monomi advised that due to the building’s age, it probably wasn’t a good idea to use too many things at the same time.

            “It was the same for the office…” Peko mused, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. “An obnoxious beeping, then darkness. You might be onto something, Hinata.”

            Fuyuhiko waved a hand airily.

            “Yeah, yeah… The AC stuff is definitely suspicious, but that could only be the direct trigger! How the hell did someone cause a power surge? How’d they know the threshold to keep it at?”

            Hajime rubbed his chin, frowning as he looked down at the floor, deep in thought.

            “That’s probably because…” His eyes widened in realization. “Ikusaba…! Y-You… You helped set that up…”

            Mukuro’s brow furrowed at the accusation.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I remember, when I explored the building before the party that you were helping Komaeda with a small favor! I checked the storage room and saw three irons were plugged in and turned on… Don’t you think those helped max out the building’s energy usage? We definitely didn’t plan on using those, yet, you turned them on!”

            Mukuro opened and closed her mouth in shock. In truth, after everything that happened, that small detail had eluded her. But even still…

            “B-But… But, it could have just been a coincidence! “ Mukuro spluttered. “Komaeda-kun said he’d need them for later!”

            “Need them for what?” Byakuya pressed, head turned to the side slightly. “Komaeda should have had no business in that lodge. Even his knowledge of the irons is suspect… How would he have known about them? He should not have set foot in that lodge until this night.”

            Mukuro couldn’t supply an answer for that. No flash of insight or inspiration as to why Komaeda-kun would know about the irons… She still believed in his innocence. She still thought the allegations against him were absurd.

            Yet… a part of her, in hindsight, did find Komaeda-kun’s knowledge was… suspicious…

            Perhaps he was told by one of the people cleaning the building…?

            “Regarding the energy usage… They probably asked Monokuma about it.” Chiaki mused, tapping her chin.

            “Dun-dun-dunnn~!” Monokuma teased.

            “Is she right?!” Monomi screeched. “Such a hateful bear… You deserve to die a thousand deaths!”

            Monokuma tilted his head cutely.

            “A thousand, you say? If I died that many times… I might really stay dead, y’know?”

            “Shut up! You guys just stay quiet!” Mahiru raged in irritation.

            “So… I think that pretty much covers the blackout.” Hajime declared, rubbing his chin. “The building’s energy usage was brought to the threshold with the irons. And then all anyone had to do was set the AC units to go off at a time of their choosing! They wouldn’t have to be in the office at all, for this kind of setup. They could be anywhere they want!”

            Gundham scowled fiercely.

            “However, the most suspicious ones are Ikusaba and Komaeda! Ikusaba turned on the irons herself, and we only have her word that Komaeda asked her to do that.”

            Kazuichi’s face scrunched together before he pointed accusingly at the luckster.

            “… Hey, that’s right! I saw you! You were standing over by the air conditioner for a while before the blackout! If you wanted, you could have tampered with that thing at any time!”

            The breeder reeled back in shock.

            “He… was…?” He had his back toward that wall for much of the evening, but he did have vague recollections of people walking behind him at various points… Well, at least one person.

            Tanaka cursed his inattentiveness. … Even if that kind of relaxed behavior was to be expected at a party.

            Nagito crossed his arms, giving a small grin.

            “Good eye, Souda~… You’re right. I was in that corner of the room.”

            Chiaki tilted her head curiously.

            “Did you tell Ikusaba to plug those irons in?”

            The luckster nodded again, happily.

            “Yup. That was no perjury on her part. Just my luck that Hinata bumped into her while she was in the middle of doing that…”

            “You did claim to have caused the blackout…” Nekomaru rumbled, brow furrowing. “But why did you do that?”

            Nagito dropped his arms to his sides as he blankly turned to Chisa, who looked unsettled by that behavior of his.

            “A-Am I allowed to answer that? Can I speak freely?”

            Chisa watched him warily especially with how he phrased that. She turned to the heir pleadingly.

            “Togami-kun… isn’t there something else we could talk about, first?”

            But Byakuya raised a finger to his temple astutely.

            “Actually… now might be the perfect time to review Komaeda’s part in this. The cause of the blackout is behind us, and we need his testimony. We have to determine what he is guilty of.” He crossed his arms again and stared at the luckster sternly. “You may speak.”

            Chisa deflated just the tiniest amount. She knew this was inevitable, but… Well, the altercation with the luckster during the investigation was still fresh in her mind.

            … And his unhinged giggling was not helping sooth her rattled nerves.

            “Aha…!” Nagito clutched the side of his head and made a theatrical gesture with his other arm. The warped, demented grin on his face was only matched by the swirls in his eyes, as if layers upon layers of darkness were folding within them. As if hope and despair had been crudely mixed together… “Ahahahahahahahahahaha! The Ultimates are working together to combat the despair of their friend’s death! Ah, how wonderful, how beautiful it is! Let’s cut to the chase… You’re correct! It was my doing all along! I’m the one who caused the blackout… I’m the one who set off the fireworks… And of course, I’m the one who murdered Owari-san! After all, there’s no way I’d knowingly whip out a knife in front of everyone, right?”

            Ibuki poked her fingers together nervously.

            “Is it just me… or does he seem a little nuts right now?”

            Nagito spread out his arms grandiosely.

            “I never expected Togami to have night vision goggles, though… Because of that, we had a little scuffle! And, well… you all saw how that played out.” They certainly saw the heir drag him outside like a prisoner. Not to mention the way Togami had bellowed Komaeda’s name and charged him… “But with a twist ending like this, I think we can all agree this ended up being a very interesting mystery. Hahaha! Togami performed admirably~!”

            Kazuichi massaged his temple in aggravation.

            “J-Just stop it already…! Seriously… what the hell happened to you?!”

            “Don’t tell me… is this your true nature? Were you lying to us this entire time?” Mahiru demanded.

            Nagito tilted his head curiously.

            “Me, lie? That’s outrageous! There’s no way someone like me could ever lie to you guys! I understand better than anyone else that I’m utterly worthless.” The luckster hugged himself creepily. “I’m too arrogant to have dreams or cling to hope… I’m too disdainful to actually try at anything… I’ve made peace with myself that I’m a lowly, stupid, insignificant human who can’t do anything right.”

            Ibuki clutched both sides of her face in horror.

            “Holy crap! He’s totally the type of guy who spent his childhood killing neighborhood pets!”

            “I know I like to squish ants and crabs, but this guy’s lost it…” Hiyoko muttered.

             Chisa wilted with that fanatic, crazed way of talking Nagito had descended to. This was just like earlier… and she still had no good plan of attack for countering this.

            “K-Komaeda-kun… please… stop… You’re not trash…! None of you are lowly, insignificant, or stupid…” Her heart ached as the fires in the luckster’s eyes simply refused to die down, even from her desperate pleading.

            “Oh, Sensei~! You truly are magnificent for putting any faith in a guy like me…” Nagito sighed dreamily, still hugging himself. “But it’s still not enough… I… I wanna see that mesmerizing hope of yours become the Ultimate Hope! That’s the only way I’ll be satisfied…”

            Hajime stared at the luckster owlishly. Was… Was this the real Nagito, after all…?

            Nekomaru placed his hands on his hips.

            “Hey, Komaeda… If you were behind all of this, then did you also send that threatening letter…? The one Togami got?”

            “Yep. I sure did.” Nagito confirmed with a sage nod. “There’s nobody else on this island whose handwriting is that painful to look at… Togami should know.”

            “But why would you send a threatening letter in the first place…?” Hiyoko’s shoulders had drooped, and she actually appeared vulnerable, for once. Hajime frowned in sympathy at the sight, standing next to the blonde.

            Nagito hummed thoughtfully.

            “I think… somewhere deep in my heart… I was probably hoping to find someone who would stop my evil deeds.” He chuckled warmly. It was a disturbing sound that had many shivering in dread. “… Well, I bet if that really was my reason, at least some of you would feel sorry for me.”

            Teruteru poked his fingers together nervously, averting his eyes from the crazed luckster.

            “Y-Y-You’re nuts…!”

            Mikan wailed, clutching both sides of her head as she, like Ibuki, tried getting a little space from standing right next to the white-haired boy. Sonia looked far paler than usual, where she was standing. And Kazuichi was pointing at Nagito hysterically.

            “L-Let’s just skip to voting time, damnit! No matter how much we talk it out, he’s not gonna change his tune!”

            “No shit.” Fuyuhiko sucked in a low breath as he stared at the luckster warily, hands stuffed in his pockets. “I know we gotta be careful, but this guy…? He’s definitely lost it…”

            Mukuro whirled on the yakuza, as they were adjacent to each other, and gave him a heated glare. Peko tightened her grip on her elbow, lamenting she and Fuyuhiko were spaced so far apart.

            Chisa gripped the railing of her witness stand and glared at the luckster with determination. She… She might not have an ideal counterattack yet, but the important thing right now was gathering information. After all, even if he was misguided… Nagito was still her student.

            “Komaeda-kun… If you don’t mind, how did you smuggle in everything that you did?”

            Nagito straightened up at that prompt, his face becoming blank again.

            “… I beg your pardon?”

            Byakuya frowned, keeping his arms crossed.

            “Fireworks, two knives, and that blood-soaked cloth… You didn’t have them on you when I performed your body search. Ikusaba was quite eager to point that out, and I know she’s right… That would mean, somehow, you smuggled in those items.”

            “T-Two knives…?” Kazuichi seemed to freeze at this information.

            Hajime nodded in agreement.

            “Yeah, don’t you remember, Souda? Komaeda had one knife on him that Togami confiscated after the blackout. And then there was the knife that killed Owari, which was left stabbed in her back…”

            “That Togami claims to have confiscated from Komaeda-kun…” Mukuro grunted distastefully.

            Hiyoko growled impatiently, glaring daggers at the luckster.

            “Never mind that! Did you ask your slave to hide that stuff, for you? She was on cleaning duty, wasn’t she?” The dancer hotly accused. “I’ll bet you buried it in the trash, since that’s what you seem to like calling yourself.”

            Mukuro gripped the railing of her witness stand hard enough the others could hear it. Hajime held up his hands peacefully, facing Mukuro as he did so. After all… He was standing right next to the offensive blonde.

            “Wh-What Saionji is trying to say, is that Ikusaba… could have… snuck stuff in…? M-Maybe?” He wilted under the soldier’s heated stare.

            Teruteru hummed doubtfully, rubbing his chin.

            “I dunno… Ikusaba-chan helped me organize the kitchen with Sensei… That ate up a lot of time.”

            Chisa poked her cheek as she hummed thoughtfully.

            “And when she wasn’t helping in the kitchen, I made sure she and Nevermind set up the dining hall after it was cleaned… At worst, she moved between the dining hall, kitchen, and storage room during the preparation period. I’m pretty sure she was with at least one of us for most of that back-and-forth stuff…”

            Nevermind gave a formal beam at this.

            “That is correct! And when she was not with one of us, she was almost always back right away! I… ‘totes’ admired her work ethic! Ikusaba-san is amazing!”

            Mukuro blinked owlishly at the praise that came out of nowhere for her. She didn’t think she had done anything deserving of praise… And yet… She couldn’t say she disliked being complimented. Komaeda-kun gave them out all the time – which wasn’t a bad thing, really! – but when the others did it… It felt… nice.

            “This is going nowhere.” Byakuya muttered. He glared suspiciously at Nagito. “Komaeda. Tell us how you smuggled in the weapons.”

            Nagito maintained his rigid posture and blank expression. It was clear he had no intention of saying anything. Hiyoko groaned in frustration.

            “Damnit! When you’re backed into a corner, you sure like to clam up, don’t you?”

            Peko tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.

            “I… believe I might be able to shed light on where the knives and cloth were hidden… Or at the least, one of the knives.” She revealed. “In the bathroom, there were two trash cans. One of them was a normal, open waste bin – the other was a trash can with a pedal to open the top.”

            Ibuki cheered, dancing about a little.

            “Pedals are meant to be leaped onto with everything ya got~!”

            Chisa’s brow furrowed.

            “Th-There were… two trash cans? But when I cleaned it earlier today, there was just the one! I know there was!”

            “Was it the one without a pedal?” Peko asked, genuinely curious. When she received a nod, the swordswoman continued. “As I suspected… The metal can was added later. There was a piece of duct tape that was halfway peeled off the inside of the lid when I found it. The lid was large enough it could fit a knife underneath. What’s more, there had previously been a cloth hanging on the towel rack; I know it wasn’t a towel, from the feel of it. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but there’s the possibility it was about the size of a tablecloth… It was folded a couple of times to give the appearance of a normal towel one uses for showers.”

            Hajime nodded quietly as he remembered seeing that, too, when he peeked in there before the party. But what did that mean? If Nagito left his supplies in there, anybody could have pilfered the knife and cloth. That… That only gave them the smuggler’s route.

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head nervously as he chuckled.

            “As for the fireworks… I dunno if they were all in there at one point, but I found an unused firework in the desk drawer in the office!”

            Gundham flashed a dramatic pose.

            “That desk looked like quite the grizzly spectacle~…! A nefarious fiend most certainly emptied the contents of a drawer to make room for their dastardly ingredients for a demonic ritual! Supernova Silver Fox San-D has pierced the veil of this mystery, laying the truth bare for all to see~!”

            Kazuichi ran a hand over his head, grumbling in mild exasperation.

            “I’m the one who opened the drawers, y’know…”

            Byakuya’s hand curled into a fist furiously as he gritted his teeth. He turned on Nagito more intensely.

            “… I myself saw the mess on that desk, before the party… If I had just been a little more thorough…!” He growled in frustration. “Talk, Komaeda! Did you or did you not use the bathroom and office as smuggling routes?!”

            The luckster waved a hand lazily, giving a closed-eyed, bashful smile.

            “Okay, okay~… You worked out the smuggling routes! Guess I can’t hide anything from you guys.” He spread out his arms again grandiosely, grin widening excitedly. “There’s really no point beating around the bush anymore! You know how I caused the blackout. You know how I snuck in the murder weapon and fireworks… Might as well jump to voting time so you guys can move on with your peaceful, tropical lives, right?”

            Kazuichi trembled a little as he pointed at the luckster in frustration.

            “Y-Yeah…! W-We solved everything! S-So we’re done.”

            Sonia adopted a relieved smile, herself.

            “It… It is quite a relief, when the killer confesses like this. It is like a burden has been settled on our shoulders!”

            “Th-The saying goes ‘a burden has been lifted’, Sonia-san…” The mechanic chuckled nervously, awkwardly rubbing the back of his neck.

            Teruteru perked up at this turn of events.

            “If we wrapped up this early, all that food hasn’t gone to waste… A late night snack can’t hurt, right? Eat until your stomachs are fit to burst~!”

            Mikan trembled nervously, crying out.

            “E-E-Eating too much i-is d-definitely not healthy…! A-And it’s recommended you don’t eat this late, either!”

            Fuyuhiko scoffed, crossing his arms and looking off to the side.

            “Let’s just execute this bastard already and be done with him. I’m sick of listening to his simpering, nasally voice…”

            “Komaeda-chan turned out to be a real creep!” Ibuki rubbed the back of her head anxiously, still not looking thrilled to be standin next to the guy.

            “Y-You guys…” Chisa moaned a little, not liking how a lot of her students seemed eager to execute one of their own. Then again, with how Nagito had been acting, it was natural they’d be upset with him. ‘But still… Something about this feels… off…’

            The orange-haired woman wasn’t the only one having such doubts. Hajime, Byakuya, Chiaki, and Mukuro all looked dissatisfied or contemplative, to varying degrees. Then you had the more neutral classmates like Nekomaru, Mahiru, Peko, and Gundham, who would go with what everyone else decided to do.

            “Komaeda-kun didn’t do it!” Mukuro barked out yet again, sounding as defiant and frustrated as ever.

            Hiyoko rolled her eyes, spitting out caustically.

            “Do you have any proof of that? ‘Cause he’s pretty suspicious, y’know! He’s confessed to everything, so if you don’t have anything else to say, just shut up! You’re stressing me out as much as Pig Barf’s ugly, stuttering face!”

            Mikan wailed.

            “U-Ugly s-stuttering face?!”

            Nagito laughed warmly again, sending another round of shivers around the circle.

            “Ikusaba-san, I really am lucky to have had a friend like you! But you shouldn’t trouble yourself with worrying about trash like me. This was just the opening act to your heart-pounding life on Jabberwock Island~! I’m sure with my death, you’ll all find peace…” He spread out his arms grandiosely and belted out a raspy laugh. “It was I who caused the blackout, set off the fireworks, and stabbed Owari in the back! A menace like me really deserves the worst kind of death…”

            Hajime’s eyes snapped to the luckster at that confession. Something about that… still bothered him. And he seemed to have a hunch about what it was that unsettled him.

            “Hey, Komaeda… If you stabbed Owari, why… why were your positions in the dining hall so far apart?”

            Nagito took a more arrogant stance at that question that seemed to come out of nowhere.

            “What was that…?”

            Hajime rubbed his chin, looking down slightly.

            “Well, it’s just… It’s like Souda said, earlier. You were over by Souda and Tanaka’s corner of the room right before the blackout. Koizumi’s diagram supports this. Owari, on the other hand… was clear toward the front of the dining hall, on the left side! How’d you navigate through the dark when we were all stumbling around?”

            Nagito hummed thoughtfully.

            “Owari and I were that far apart…? That is weird! But what if I just used each fireworks display to work my way towards Owari and murder her? That might explain it, right?”

            Byakuya narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

            “No. Because by the time I got my night vision goggles on, you were still on the right side of the dining hall. I highly doubt you could have murdered Owari while still setting off those fireworks, one right after the other… It’s not feasible to journey from the right side of the hall to the left, and then journey back.”

            Nagito took a pompous stance again.

            “Are you sure? You could just be lying, y’know. If you’re the only one who saw me in that darkness, who’s to say that you aren’t just protecting me? We also only have your word that you confiscated that second knife from me…”

            Hiyoko groaned, grabbing both sides of her head.

            “Ugh…! You’re so confusing! If Togami’s lying about everything, how could you be the killer without a murder weapon?!”

            Nagito shrugged carelessly.

            “I just want to solidify the foundation of Togami-kun’s testimony! He’s the only one who could see, so he could say anything he likes and we wouldn’t know any better. He could be telling a white lie somewhere in that testimony, y’know?”

            Byakuya’s scowl deepened.

            “For one, lying would get me killed, if you were the culprit. And I would not throw away the lives of everyone here, just for the sake of the killer… That goes against everything I have promised as your leader. Second…” He trailed off as Nidai cut in.

            “Hey, Togami bumped into me during the blackout. If he says you were on the right side of the room, he was heading in the right direction. I was behind that left middle table.”

            Mahiru nodded sternly.

            “I was, too, and he was being totally reckless running like that! I’m still shocked we let a pushy guy like you lead us.”

            Byakuya huffed exasperatedly.

            “You see? There are witnesses to my actions. Furthermore, you burned your fingers when you set off that third firework… So we know you did at least that much. However, whether or not you also killed Owari, that still has yet to be proven.”

            “You don’t even have a motive… do you?” Hajime chipped in, earning an approving nod from the heir. “Why go after Owari if you were all the way over there? If you just wanted to kill someone, Souda and Tanaka were more within your reach…”

            Nagito hummed doubtfully.

            “Well… I mean, if I went after them, you’d immediately suspect me, right…? I just went after someone who was a little more challenging~…” The luckster shrugged his shoulders again carelessly. “Besides, we’re all strangers! I don’t think anyone would have a motive to kill Owari in particular… Well, except maybe Nidai, who spent more time with her than anyone else…”

            Chiaki raised an index finger astutely.

            “If being obvious was something you were worried about, you wouldn’t have confessed right off the bat.”

            Nagito sighed breezily, crossing his arms.

            “Well, I guess I really did have a change of heart after Monokuma explained the rules fully. I didn’t want you guys to be executed.”

            Hajime groaned at the luckster’s obstinance. At this point they’d keep going back and forth… They needed a new topic. Thankfully, Yukizome-sensei provided just that.

            “We didn’t narrow down Owari’s death yet, right? How about we narrow it down as much as we can, just to be thorough.”

            Tanaka arched an eyebrow inquisitively.

            “But how would we do that…? Did Togami perhaps see Owari while acquiring the All-Seeing Eye?”

            Byakuya gritted his teeth, turning his head away slightly.

            “… No. As I told Hinata and Ikusaba, I did not catch a glimpse of Owari even once, during the blackout. I… was focusing on locating the madman setting off the fireworks. But as Owari had been standing nearby before the blackout, I did find her lack of presence… odd.”

            “M… Maybe she was already murdered…?” Mikan suggested, poking her index fingers together nervously.

            “… I wouldn’t be able to tell you.” The Togami heir lamented, raising a finger to his temple. “The area around me was a mess, due to the collapsed table, as well as you and Saionji both being on the floor. When I saw the third match being lit over by Komaeda, my attention was solely on resolving that threat…”

            Peko calmly rubbed her chin.

            “If Togami did not glimpse Owari at all… Then… Ibuki. Perhaps your testimony will be useful, after all.”

            Kazuichi blinked owlishly.

            “Ibuki…? What’d she see that we didn’t?”

            Ibuki waved her arm in the air excitedly.

            “Hellooo~? Did Souda-chan see that pitch black?! Nobody could see anything in there except Byakuya-chan!” The musician struck a cute pose. “But Ibuki heard everything, oh yes! Ibuki heard it all with her super-amazing ears~!”

            … And then the musician proceeded to recite word for word what she had relayed to Pekoyama during the investigation.

            ~*~

            A moment later… there was darkness. All the lights went out at once, and since the windows were covered up, it was a pitch blackness throughout the whole lodge.

            “Uwah! It’s a b-blackout!” Mahiru cried out.

            “Hey, I can’t see anything!” Kazuichi whined, stumbling around in the dark.

            “I-It’s pitch black! My future is pitch black!” Ibuki screamed super importantly.

            The sound of frantic footsteps and other screams echoed throughout the hall. Yukizome-sensei, Koizumi, Saionji, Tsumiki, Nidai, Nevermind, Kazuichi… they were totes yelling at the top of their lungs.

            “E-Everyone, calm down!” Yukizome-sensei’s voice rang out, clear and loud. “We have to stay calm at a time like this!”

            Then a match was totally lit! Ibuki heard it with her super-amazing ears~

            And then a firework totally zipped and zoomed across the room after it was ignited, and then it smashed into the wall, over by the covered windows, lighting up plenty of the room and making a bunch of silhouettes crystal clear from where Ibuki was, in the back. Well, that was an easy-peasy way to whip everyone into a frenzy, don’tcha think?

            Ibuki didn’t know what was going on, but she was kinda getting pumped up from all the sudden exciting stuff, so she listened even harder with her super-amazing ears~

            They were pretty much all screaming at that point… well, mostly everyone. Owari-chan had her mouth stuffed full o’ food, but she sounded kinda mad. Another match got lit. Another volley of fireworks launched across the room, exploding along the wall in a brilliant array of lights. Ibuki saw so many cool, awesome silhouettes~!

            “Somebody turn the damn lights on!” Akane barked. “I can’t eat like this, you know?!”

            “Is this really the time for that?!” Mahiru cried out in disbelief. Ibuki thought she might’ve heard some other sounds, too, but everybody was kinda panic-y at the time.

            “Wah! Don’t step on my feet!” Hiyoko whined gruffly, bumping into a table.

            “WAAAAAAH!” Mikan wailed, making a big crashing sound as she tumbled over a table in the dark. Kinda sounded like the table was all sorts of broken, too…

            “SHIIIIIITTTTT!!!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “What in the nine Hells is this madness?!” Gundham yelled out.

            “I said watch where you’re going…!” The dancer grunted with exerted effort. Kinda sounded like she might have been in the middle of standing back up. Was Saionji-chan goofing off like Tsumiki-chan?

            Oh wells. There was lots more fun stuff going on. Yukizome-sensei was trying to call out for her, Nanami, and Hinata-chan, since they were the closest ones to her before the lights went out. Then you had Hinata-chan hyperventilating. Nanami-chan was mumbling something about a game and finding switches to light up areas. Tanaka-chan was telling his cute little hamsters to stay in his scarf. Kazuichi-chan was screaming at the top of his lungs about psychos needing to be banned from fireworks. Nevermind-chan was a little hyperventilate-y, too – she was stumbling around close to Ibuki’s table… or, well… the table at the front. Cloths were rustling somewhere kinda nearby, but Ibuki was focused on other noises. Nidai-chan was also screaming suuuper loud. Koizumi-chan was very grouchy.

            “What the hell?! What’s going on here?!” Byakuya-chan sounded so cool and in charge~!

            Uh-oh, Spaghettio’s~! Ibuki could hear a third match being lit!

            “KOMAEDA!” Togami-chan roared like a lion~! He totally charged like a wild elephant, too~! Koizumi-chan and Nidai-chan didn’t like getting bumped into, in Togami-chan’s rush to Komaeda-chan, wherever he was.

            The third fireworks exploded while all of that was happening. Pretty sparkles~! Yaaay, more silhouettes~! The sound of scuffling could be heard from somewhere nearby, kinda sounded like Togami-chan and Komaeda-chan were wrestling~…

            “You guys? Where are you? Wasn’t the blackout just in the kitchen…?” Teruteru whispered in distress from what must have been the entrance to the dining hall.

            “Perhaps the breaker overloaded…?” Sonia speculated, though she too sounded quite shaken.

            … And theeen the fire broke out, on the far end of the room. Ibuki was totes outta there~! Ibuki didn’t need a tan that bad, so Ibuki was like the first one outside. … You know, if you didn’t count Ikusaba-chan.

            ~*~

            Ibuki nodded sagely, grinning ear-to-ear while crossing her arms.

            “As you can see, Owari-chan was still alive after the second firework went off! Then there was a bit of time where everything was all upside-doodley, and theeen the third match was lit!”

            Byakuya gnawed at his fingers in concern as he absorbed all that… immensely helpful information.

            “… I… I think we found a very approximate time of death for Owari. She had to have been killed between the second and third fireworks going off… because I didn’t see her at all, when I put on the goggles. And after the third firework went off, the fire broke out, and I ordered you all to clear out. It would not be feasible to kill someone during that chaos while also hiding the body so no one would trip over it… It had to be between those second and third fireworks. Yet how did I miss it…?”

            Hajime stared at the heir strangely.

            “You… didn’t see anyone draped in a cloth or anything?” No one had any bloodstains on them, after they all got outside. Well, Mikan admittedly had a bit smeared on her leg… and he was pretty sure if she had any other bloodstains on her clothes, Yukizome-sensei would’ve noticed them before making the nurse go change to deal with the food stains on her back.

            … So someone definitely had to use that tablecloth to block the blood splatters from the stabbings. There was no two ways about it.

            “No.” Byakuya kept gnawing at his fingernails anxiously as he himself tried thinking back on his memory of the blackout. “As I told you, Hinata… If I saw anything conclusive like that, I would have a suspect in mind.”

            And he wouldn’t bother scrutinizing Komaeda like this. He already knew the luckster couldn’t have committed this murder, based on where he was on the other side of the room. But that still left so many questions, like how he managed to miss catching a glimpse of the killer… how he missed seeing Owari at all… He only had more questions to show for it.

            “Well, I guess all of this proved one thing…” Mukuro declared, deathly calm. Yet her icy glare betrayed the anger boiling beneath the surface, as her attention was solely on the heir. “Komaeda-kun didn’t do it. He didn’t have the tablecloth, and he wasn’t anywhere near Owari’s table during the approximated time of death. Komaeda-kun isn’t the killer.”

            There was a temporary, unsettling silence as the soldier confirmed this for them all. Deep down, they all knew she was right. For once, the stars lined up to prove the luckster’s innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt… It wasn’t long before they erupted into chaos.

            “WHAT THE FUUUUUUUCK?!” Kazuichi screamed, face contorted in a twisted panic.

            “Komaeda-kun… didn’t… kill Owari…?” Sonia gasped, appearing ghastly pale as her hands were clasped together anxiously.

            Teruteru clutched his head in a panic.

            “Wh-Wh-What the heck are we gonna do now?! He was our culprit! He confessed and everything!”

            “WAAAHHH!” Mikan cried, clutching both sides of her head as well.

            “Wh-Who else is LEEEEFFFFFTTTTT?!” Nekomaru bellowed, apparently following a trend. “Komaeda’s the only one who knew about the smuggling routes, wasn’t he?!”

            Byakuya shook his head firmly before he resumed gnawing on his fingernails.

            “Ikusaba would have been the next one to scrutinize, but neither she nor Pekoyama nor Kuzuryu were in the dining hall during the blackout. Mioda’s testimony confirmed that I hadn’t somehow missed them. We’re… we’re out of leads.”

            “You’d like that to be true, wouldn’t you?” Mukuro refuted the heir, once more gripping the railing of her witness stand harshly. “Too bad for you, the facts don’t align in your favor, Togami. I remember Mioda’s testimony pretty clearly; you were quiet until the second fireworks went off. And with night vision goggles, it would have been child’s play to avoid everyone and murder Owari…”

            The heir clenched a fist in aggravation, gritting his teeth.

            “I didn’t know about the smuggling routes! So I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to slip out and grab the tablecloth and knife from the bathroom!”

            “Who said you used the supplies Komaeda-kun provided?” Mukuro returned coldly. You had that duralumin case prepared in advance; for all we know, there was another tablecloth and knife hidden in there. Maybe you used the ones in the bathroom as red herrings.”

            Byakuya pointed at the soldier authoritatively.

            “I swore to protect each and every one of you! There is no way I would have premeditated a murder. If I had the advanced knowledge of what Komaeda was plotting, I would have prevented it, not instigate it! All I got was that murder threat; I did not know a blackout was coming.”

            “Talk is cheap.” Mukuro’s tone was clipped as she kept up her glaring contest with the heir. “You had those goggles, even if it was ‘coincidence’. You had the opportunity. You were right there, mere feet from the victim before the blackout. Why shouldn’t I believe you’re the murderer? You clearly meant for Komaeda-kun to take the fall for you.”

            The tension in the air was palpable, and Hajime could tell Mukuro’s arguments were gaining ground, among the students. Yukizome-sensei seemed worried about Togami, too, but she seemed lost as to how to reassure them all that Togami was innocent. Hajime could feel… it was going to be up to him to support Togami here. The heir hadn’t exactly made a lot of people happy, as the class rep; they wouldn’t be keen to stick up for him.

            … But Hajime had seen the effort Togami put in to protect them. Unlike Ikusaba, he couldn’t just immediately jump to the idea that the heir was faking it the entire time.

            “I-Ikusaba… wait…” Hajime pleaded, feeling the need to steel his nerves as the soldier focused on him next. “Look. I know you’re still mad we suspected Komaeda. I… I wanted to believe in Komaeda, too, and I’m glad he couldn’t be the killer. But… just like I wanted to believe in Komaeda, I believe in Togami, too. His desire to protect everybody isn’t fake.”

            “Do you have any proof he’s not faking it?” Mukuro reiterated her stance, eyes narrowing.

            Hajime clenched his jaw and rubbed his chin in thought. He knew he didn’t have anything conclusive that Mukuro would accept… Not about Togami’s intentions.

            So he’d have to try a different approach.

            “I might not have proof about that, specifically.” The brunet conceded. He was quick to clarify when Mukuro opened her mouth. “But do you have any proof that the cloth and knife we found were not the ones from the bathroom? You should know, just as well as me, we never found a second cloth lying around; and the one from the bathroom definitely disappeared. It’d be kinda half-baked to prepare the murder weapon, but not a way to prevent incriminating yourself, don’t you think? There’s definitely two knives, but not two tablecloths.”

            Now it was Mukuro’s turn to clench her jaw shut. She… didn’t have an answer for that. And by the look of everyone else murmuring to themselves, it appeared no one had encountered such a cloth.

            And then like a herald of chaos… Komaeda-kun decided to speak his mind again. Mukuro gripped her witness stand’s railing as she could feel more stress and anxiety coming on. Great.

            “Okay… I guess it’s time for me to pass the torch, right? That’s what you guys want?” Nagito massaged his brow, squinting at his classmates.

            “P… Pass the… torch…?” Sonia echoed, a hand over her mouth and the color drained from her face.

            “We’re going to ask the real killer, not an imposter like me, to show themselves!” Nagito spread out his arms grandiosely. “As much as I appreciate your defense, Ikusaba, accusing Togami-kun was outrageous! Even I could tell he really did mean us well. So let’s not beat around the bush… I know the name of the true killer~!”

            Mahiru’s eyes widened as she pointed at him accusingly.

            “Y-Y-You know?! If you knew, why the hell did you confess to being the culprit in the first place?!”

            Nagito tilted his head curiously.

            “Why did I come forward as the killer…? Well, that’s obvious! This trial was not just a stepping stone for you guys, but the killer, too! Everything had to be absolutely perfect, or even I would be left in the dark. So, allow me to give you guys the biggest hint so far~! A hint so big that it might as well tie a noose around the killer’s neck… The killer is… Kazuichi Souda.”

            As the luckster paused for seeming dramatic effect, the mechanic bellowed out in shock and horror.

            “What the FUUUUUUCK?!”

            But Nagito wasn’t done.

            “Mikan Tsumiki.”

            The nurse jolted upright at being named.

            “H-H-H-H-HUH?! EEK!”

            “Fuyuhiko Kuzuryu.” Nagito laughed, waving his hand casually. The yakuza shook a fist at him in outrage.

            “What’d you say, fucker?!”

            “… And Sonia Nevermind.” Nagito wrapped up his list of names.

            Sonia trembled as she was reduced to a ghastly pale complexion.

            “I… I have… no idea… what you mean…”

            Nagito elaborated on his little game. The corners of his mouth twitched into an amused grin.

            “The killer’s absolutely lurking among you guys, I’m sure of it~! After all… Each of us had a nice little chat earlier in the day, right? I gave you all the knowledge you needed to commit this murder without anyone discovering you~! I even did just as I promised. I became your patsy. I was willing to put down my life so that one of you could let your Hope shine~! Alas… The worst has come to pass, and I’ve been knocked out of the running. The floor’s all yours~!”

            … Well, that escalated quickly. Everyone was quick to make their emotions known, both suspect and bystander alike.

            “You little fucker! This is why you wanted me at the party, isn’t it?! You didn’t tell me shit…” The yakuza bellowed furiously.

            “K-Komaeda! What the hell?!” Hajime exclaimed, making a vague, panicked gesture at the chaos that only the luckster seemed content to be in.

            Teruteru combed his hair nervously.

            “Well, this should make it easy, right? We just need to whittle it down some more…”

            “Like hell it does!” Mahiru sighed exasperatedly, hands on her hips as she glared reprovingly at the luckster. “Why are we even trusting him at all right now?! He’s lied so much up until now! All he’s done is put pressure on two poor, defenseless girls!”

            Peko rubbed her chin speculatively.

            “While I admit he has not been completely honest, he has been candid with some of the facts we’ve learned up until now… But naming four people like this most certainly speaks of ulterior motives…” The swordswoman murmured, looking troubled.

            “WAAAH! I-I’m not the killerrrrrr…! I promise I’m not the killer!” Mikan wailed, clutching both sides of her head.

            “Oh yeah, sob harder, you nasty pig-faced troll! We’ll totally believe you just ‘cause you cry!” Hiyoko hissed, glaring darkly at the nurse.

            “Th-That goes for me, too!” Kazuichi cried. “I was standing right around where Komaeda wassssss…!”

            “A-As… was… I…” Sonia choked out, finding it difficult to formulate a sentence.

            Gundham seethed furiously.

            “Not just my disciple, but you cast aspersions on the Dark Queen as well?! Nagito Komaeda, I shall tear you limb from limb…!”

            Nekomaru cried out sorrowfully.

            “B-B-But… Why would any of those guys murder Akane?! It doesn’t make any sense…!”

            “Holy crap…!” Ibuki also cried out, though she did so in shock. “Did everybody but Ibuki know a murder was gonna happen?!”

            Chiaki tapped her chin doubtfully.

            “I don’t think that’s quite it… This trick relied on most of us not knowing. It’s just that a few of us were scared into either acting, or keeping quiet… I think. Hmm.”

            Mukuro and Byakuya remained quiet through all this; the soldier seeming placated that Nagito wasn’t on the list of suspects, while the heir was glaring sourly at the luckster. Finally, Chisa spoke up loudly to draw all their attention.

            “That’s enough!” Once she had the floor, the orange-haired woman looked around, eyes softening. “Everyone… I know how hard this all is, right now. I hate scrutinizing any one of you… But if we’re going to make it through this, we have to remain calm. Thanks to everything we learned up until now, we have whittled down our list of suspects, at least a little… This time will be no different! So… just hang in there. Okay?”

            The older woman’s words seemed to have a balming effect on the group, as they always had. The suspects in question still looked wound up, but that was to be expected – no one appreciated being put under the microscope. Byakuya nodded approvingly at the Ultimate Housekeeper, crossing his arms again.

            “Well said. That is precisely the attitude to have.” He turned to stare at Hajime. “Hinata. Help me evaluate each of these people. We need to ascertain, once again, how much of what Komaeda said is truth, and how much of it is lie. We cannot let him do as he pleases anymore.”

            Mukuro, of course, seemed to take issue with that attitude. But Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly and cut in before she did.

            “That’s great, but… Where should we begin?”

            Byakuya raised an index finger to his temple astutely.

            “… Kuzuryu.” The heir prompted.

            “What the fuck do you want, you fat bastard?!” The yakuza growled, curling his hand into a fist.

            “You said that Komaeda is the reason you showed up, tonight. Just what did he tell you?” Byakuya arched an eyebrow when the yakuza’s lips thinned and he crossed his arms, looking off to the side.

            “Don’t see why I hafta report everything to you. I thought you had a bug up your ass already, and that you were gonna protect everybody? What happened to that?” The yakuza spat challengingly, side glaring at the heir.

            Byakuya did not rise to the bait. But he did arch an eyebrow, unimpressed.

            “You do realize, there is no point in hiding what you know? If you’ll recall, you and Pekoyama are each other’s alibis. Komaeda’s aspersions regarding you never held water in the first place.”

            Fuyuhiko dropped his arms to the side and stared a bit wide-eyed at the heir in shock at his frankness. But then he placed one hand on his hip and dipped his head as he heaved a sigh.

            “Even if you say that… I still can’t tell you. It’s a private matter.” The yakuza heir grumbled, crossing his arms and looking off to the side again. “But since you recognize that much, I… I’ll say he really didn’t tell me jackshit. He just told me it’d be in my ‘best interests’ to attend, so… I said to hell with it and came anyway. Been real annoying seeing that bastard run circles around all of you chucklefucks… He’s got balls, I’ll give him that.”

            Byakuya’s frown deepened. The explanation wasn’t completely satisfactory… but he would take it for now. He nodded reluctantly and turned to the mechanic next.

            “… Souda. You’ve been accusing Komaeda since the investigation started. You will explain everything he told you, and what you did about it.”

            Kazuichi shook a fist at the heir in aggravation.

            “The hell, man?! You’re gonna believe some yakuza over me?!”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

            “You’ve been jumping the gun all night, Souda… It’s not like we’re saying that you’re the killer. But if you want us to believe in you, you have to do your part.”

            Kazuichi pulled his beanie over his head stressfully.

            “Uggghhh… Fiiine…” He moaned, just knowing this wouldn’t help his case.

            ~*~

            Nagito smiled disarmingly as he approached the mechanic who was walking in a daze away from the zoo after the sun began to set. Kazuichi rubbed his brow in slight aggravation at having to talk to someone else so soon.

            “Waddya want, dude? I just wanna go to my room and crash for a couple of hours…”

            Nagito chuckled lightly.

            “Oh, Souda-kun… Don’t worry, I’ll only take a few moments of your time, I promise~… And if you won’t hear me out, I’m sure I’ll find someone else who will.”

            Kazuichi arched an eyebrow suspiciously.

            “What’s that mean?!”

            Nagito raised up his hands peacefully and laughed.

            “I’m just concerned about our state of affairs, Souda-kun! We’re so stressed over this killing business when we should be confront it head-on~! After all… Monokuma is tenacious. He’s not going to give up after giving us one motive. A murder is going to happen. It’s practically fate.” Nagito raised a hand to his face and stared at it, an unnerving smile on his face. “That’s why taking the initiative is so important, y’know? If we proceed at Monokuma’s pace, anything could happen! Therefore, if we take the wheel, we at least minimize the damage… Isn’t that the best outcome, in this situation?”

            Kazuichi chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head.

            “Wh-Whoa, there… If you start talking like that, someone might think you’re plotting murder or somethin’!”

            “I am.”

            Funny how two simple words can make a rock settle in one’s stomach. Kazuichi’s nervous chuckles were increasing frantically.

            “G-Good one, dude… Okay, where’s the camera?” The mechanic looked around suspiciously, only for him to be highly disturbed by the twisted smile on the luckster’s face as he spread out his arms theatrically.

            “Why, Souda, trash like me would never joke about something like this~!” The luckster gave a wheezy, rasping laugh. “All I want you to know is, I will support you! I’m giving you the opportunity here to kill to your heart’s desire and get away from this island. It’s literally that simple~! You could kill me if you wanted to. I won’t mind, really. If trash like me can be a stepping ladder for the Ultimate Mechanic, to reach the heights you were always meant to achieve, then I’ll gladly lay down my life~!”

            Kazuichi trembled and shook a fist at the white-haired boy in outrage.

            “What the fuck, dude?! Who even says that?! I’m not gonna kill you, even if you are a freak!”

            Nagito tilted his head curiously.

            “Hmm…? What’s the matter? You’re not worried about me, are you? Don’t be! It’s like I said, I’m utterly worthless – you’re the priority here. So that’s why I’ve taken everything into account for you. Tonight, I’ve arranged for a blackout to happen. Now, you might be thinking it will be difficult to kill someone when visibility is nil, but I took that into account, too! I’ll be your shining light so you can escape this island… I’ve prepared a knife in a trash can in the bathroom of that lodge, and a tablecloth for you to shield yourself from the blood. If you use those… you’ll definitely make it out of this nightmare alive~! Everyone will be so focused on me that you’ll get away free and clear!”

            Kazuichi palmed his forehead and shuddered.

            “Y-You’re nuts…! This is… This is insane…!”

            Nagito tilted his head again curiously.

            “Hmm…? I really don’t follow. Souda-kun, every sports fan wants their team to win the championship match, right? That’s exactly what I’m doing right here~! All your hopes, dreams for the future… I want you to pit them against the Despair of murdering a friend! When you do that… I just know your Hope will be a splendid thing to behold~! And if you don’t want to chase your dream that far… I know I’ll find someone that will.”

            ~*~

            As Kazuichi finished recapping what the luckster had told him in secret, he continued tugging his beanie over his head in distress.

            “I-It’s not my fault! The bastard said if we derailed him tonight, he’d just find another way some other time! S-So… I-I thought I’d let him make the dumbass move. I didn’t go anywhere near that bathroom before the blackout! I didn’t know he actually talked to others, definitely not Sonia-san!”

            And that really worried him. Just what did that psycho say to her? If it was anything like the stuff he was told, Souda was gonna kick that guy’s ass…!

            “Before you all say a bad word against him, know that I have already lectured my disciple on the error of his ways.” Tanaka buried the lower half of his face in his scarf, looking off to the side. “Souda was wrong to commit to inaction, but after hearing that rubbish, I cannot blame him for wanting a swift death for that sinner. Most humans would feel the same, if not try to murder Komaeda themselves; I praise Souda for his restraint, at the very least.”

            Everyone else, meanwhile, absorbed Souda’s story with horror and disbelief. Hajime was one of the first ones to find his voice as he turned to the luckster, ashen.

            “K-K-Komaeda… What the hell?! Why’d you tell… anyone that stuff?!”

            Nagito waved casually, chuckling.

            “It’s like I told Souda~! I’m the ultimate Hope fanboy! I even tried telling Yukizome-sensei much the same things during the investigation, but even she wasn’t willing to hear me out… Don’t you guys think that’s a little unfair? Aren’t teachers supposed to be impartial?”

            “You’re not just some fanboy, you’re a bully!” Mahiru bellowed, hands on her hips. “During the investigation, Tsumiki said you told her all of that stuff, too… Didn’t even let her get a word in edgewise! I promised I wouldn’t say anything because she was afraid of what you might do, but now everyone knows. Don’t you feel even a little bit of regret?”

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully. 

            “I do feel bad for overwhelming Tsumiki-san and Souda-kun, but no, I don’t regret anything I said. Why should I apologize when that’s how the world works? Surely, you guys realize a murder was inevitable. When people have Hope, they’re destined to clash with others, someday… I just… sped the process along~…”

            Byakuya heaved a sigh as a number of others seemed they were going to take issue with the luckster’s system of beliefs. He decided to cut them off before they got sidetracked.

            “Listen. Komaeda can be dealt with later. Right now we need to identify the killer before we’re all executed…”

            Monokuma pumped his paw in the air excitedly.

            “That’s right~! That’s what Class Trial is all about~! If you’re gonna Segway and talk about Despair, that’s great. But if it’s garbage like Hope, then I don’t wanna snooze to that noise… Voting Time comes when I get booored~!”

            Sonia licked her lips, hands fidgeting nervously with her bow.

            “Th-The important thing is narrowing down our list of suspects, right? Can we trust Souda-kun’s testimony…?”

            Gundham crossed his arms stubbornly.

            “Souda was toward the right side of the dining hall, with me. As were you, Dark Queen. Do not fall for that sinner’s honeyed lies…”

            Hajime rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

            “… It’s true. Komaeda even praised Souda’s powers of observation, when he confessed being over by the air conditioner. Not to mention, with Souda screaming as much as he did during the blackout, I can’t really fathom how he’d sneak over to Owari and kill her…”

            Mahiru nodded slowly raising an index finger astutely, frowning.

            “Plus, the photos I took confirmed his location. He’s a little too twitchy for a guy, but I think he’s clean.”

            “I did run by him, when apprehending Komaeda…” Byakuya mused thoughtfully. “Very well. We’ll cross him off the list, too.”

            Chiaki tapped her chin thoughtfully.

            “That leaves Nevermind and Tsumiki… Where were they during the blackout?”

            Mahiru hummed, bringing out her diagram as a reference.

            “Even thought she was by the table with Souda and Tanaka, Nevermind was more situated in the center of the three tables with food. And Tsumiki…” The redhead paled as she did a double take. “N-No… Guys, don’t…”

            Hiyoko sneered at the plead, seeming to remember the nurse’s location, herself.

            “She was over by Owari! So she could have done it…” The dancer declared in a conspiratorial tone. She then snapped towards the Princess. “… But I don’t buy it! Nevermind’s been suspicious all night! She was even mean to me and kept hiding something! I’ll bet it’s ‘cause she killed that big-titted cow just so she could return to her country, people, or whatever!”

            Sonia’s hands clasped together desperately and she squeezed her eyes shut tightly.

            “P-Please stop, Saionji-san…! I-I… I did not kill Owari! I absolutely could not have!”

            Nekomaru cocked his head curiously.

            “Huh…? Why’s that?”

            Sonia wailed distressfully.

            “I-I… The devil in my heart… did tempt me to take Komaeda-kun up on his offer… H-He was very persuasive…” The Princess snapped her eyes open, dropping her clasped hands to a lower position. “B-But I did not take the knife! When… When I found it in that garbage can, my hands trembled too much as I held it! I-I did not want to kill any of you, my classmates! S-So… So I left the knife in there. I even buried it in paper towels, because I knew Komaeda-kun had told others about the knife! I-I thought it would… that it would make the rest of you think it had been dealt with, that your chance had slipped away! I prayed… and prayed, and prayed, and prayed that none of you would find it… I did…”

            Hajime frowned as a certain phrase in that testimony stuck out to him.

            ‘Buried…? Didn’t that phrasing come up before, somewhere…?’ His brow furrowed as he tried thinking back to everything they’d discussed until now.

            Someone definitely brought up the word ‘buried’ before… He didn’t know if it would be a hint to the real killer, but for all their sakes, he needed to remember.

            “Nevermind…” Chisa’s voice sounded so broken at hearing the blonde pour out her heart. Wasn’t there any way to prove Sonia couldn’t have killed Owari?

            Byakuya had his eyes closed for several long moments before he opened them again and stared intensely at the Princess.

            “… I’ll believe you, Nevermind.”

            Hiyoko tilted her head jeeringly at the Ultimate Scion.

            “Huuuh…? You guys sure are tossing that word around a lot like it means a damn anymore! We ‘believe’ that fruitcake couldn’t have done it, we ‘believe’ Ham Hands-san couldn’t have done it, we ‘believe’ that spineless, gaudy coward over there couldn’t have done it, now we’re ‘believing’ that this suspicious bitch couldn’t have done it… Who’re you gonna finger, Pig Barf? Ohhh, I get it, ‘cause she had blood on her, she must have been near Owari when she was killed! Yeah, I see where you’re going with that…”

            Byakuya pointed at the dancer authoritatively.

            “We’ll discuss Tsumiki in a minute. Right now, I wish to reiterate something curious: When I put the night vision goggles on, I didn’t spot anyone wrapped up in a tablecloth. Save for Owari, Kuzuryu, Pekoyama, Ikusaba, and Teruteru, I saw everyone else I should have, right in that dining hall. And that includes Nevermind. She was towards the front table when I saw her, but she was towards the wrong side of it…”

            Chisa blinked curiously at the heir.

            “Hmm…? What do you mean, Togami-kun?”

            Byakuya scoffed, as if what he was insinuating should have been clear enough.

            “Owari was on the left side of that table, true? Well, when I looked around the room, I spotted Nevermind feeling around in the darkness like everyone else was. But she was toward the back of that front table and heading for the right side of it, ever so slightly. In other words, towards Hinata, Nanami, and Yukizome-sensei.” The heir raised an index finger to his temple again, astutely. “Komaeda was unaware I had night vision goggles. All of you were unaware of that, since I had elected to keep the contents of my duralumin case a secret. I should have seen the killer or a suspicious party at some point… yet I did not. Something extraordinary must have happened to have me miss it in plain sight… And I can think of only one incident that happened near me.”

            Mukuro’s eyes widened in realization.

            “The table collapsing after Tsumiki fell into it…”

            Hiyoko’s lips curled in distaste before shaking her head firmly in denial.

            “Even if the killer didn’t know about your dumb night vision goggles, they still knew about the fireworks! They would’ve known how suspicious they would have looked to everyone else, wrapped up in a cloth!” The dancer pointed heatedly at Sonia again. “Nevermind knew about the fireworks! That psychopath told everyone he talked to about that part!”

            Sonia shook her head in return, feverishly.

            “I-I assure you he surely did not!”

            ~*~

            “… So that’s why I’ve taken everything into account for you. Tonight, I’ve arranged for a blackout to happen – you’ll know when the air conditioner goes off that it’s your moment. Now, you might be thinking it will be difficult to kill someone when visibility is nil, but I took that into account, too! I’ll be your shining light so you can escape this island… I’ve prepared a knife in a trash can in the bathroom of that lodge, and tablecloth to shield yourself from the blood. If you use those… you’ll definitely make it out of this nightmare alive~! Everyone will be so focused on me that you’ll get away free and clear!”

            Sonia was pale as Nagito just waved his hand casually after such a troubling explanation.

            “Wh-Why would you do such things?!” The princess demanded heatedly. “A human life is not meant to be treated so lightly…!”

            Nagito crossed his arms and gave a smug grin.

            “I wholeheartedly agree. Monokuma’s price for our memories is steep… But think about it, Nevermind-san. At least two to three years are missing. I wonder what happened to Novoselic in all that time…? Has there been any civil unrest? What about your abduction, has that thrown your people into a panic? Even if you don’t care about the memories… don’t you at least want to alleviate their concerns…?”

            Sonia shuddered at the rhetoric he was using. It… It all did make sense. And of course she wondered what had happened in her home country after all this time, it was always on her mind… Yet… and yet…

            “Wh-Why are you telling me this…?” The princess whispered, feeling weak in the knees, and feeling oh-so-conflicted.

            Nagito’s face brightened even more… if that was even possible. It made Sonia queasy.

            “Don’t you already know, Nevermind-san? I want to see your Hope and everyone else’s Hopes shine! We can overcome this Despair, I know we will~!” The wheezy laughter that escaped him unsettled Sonia even more.

            ~*~

            As Sonia recounted her own altercation with the luckster, Kazuichi nodded slowly, finding it pretty similar to what he was told.

            “Hey, yeah… He never mentioned fireworks! Just some vague bullshit about light…”

            Mikan clasped her hands together desperately as she wailed.

            “B-But Komaeda-kun told me…!”

            ~*~

            “… So that’s why I’ve taken everything into account for you. Tonight, I’ve arranged for a blackout to happen – you’ll know when the air conditioner goes off that it’s your moment. Now, you might be thinking it will be difficult to kill someone when visibility is nil, but I took that into account, too! I prepped fireworks and stowed them in the office, three displays in total, so you have three chances to commit your murder. I’ve prepared a murder weapon in the bathroom of that lodge, and a way to shield yourself from the blood. If you use those… you’ll definitely make it out of this nightmare alive~! Everyone will be so focused on me that you’ll get away free and clear! If you don’t go through with it, well… I just might start the killings with the knife I’ve prepared for myself~!”

            ~*~

            The nurse sniffled loudly.

            “I-I knew Komaeda-kun had fireworks… B-But I thought, with the one left in the drawer when I looked, I thought someone had stopped himmm…!” Mikan sobbed, rubbing at her eyes. “I-I didn’t even check the bathroom because of that! I-I didn’t even know there was a knife or tablecloth in there…! I-I-I’m sorrrrrrrryyyyyy…!”

            Byakuya did a double-take after listening to both the Princess and Nurse’s explanations. He turned to Nagito rigidly.

            “You… only gave them partial information…? Why? What compelled you to…?”

            The luckster crossed his arms and smiled mysteriously.

            “Hmm… I wonder. I don’t think now’s the time to address that, though. Who do you think the killer is, Togami-kun? Nevermind? Or Tsumiki?”

            The heir’s brow furrowed in confusion.

            “I would be inclined to think it’s Tsumiki… I’ve given my rationale on why I don’t think Nevermind’s the culprit. But Tsumiki had that fall… And I did not see Owari anywhere, not even on the floor.”

            Hajime raised an index finger studiously.

            “Hold on, Togami… I don’t think it could be her, either. Tsumiki said she fell because she hadn’t expected to step and slip on some kind of cloth under her feet...”

            Chisa rubbed her chin speculatively.

            “A tablecloth, maybe…? She made that one table collapse…”

            Mahiru shook her head in disagreement.

            “No way. Those tablecloths looked like a perfect size for those tables. Plus, if Tsumiki walked right into the table, wouldn’t her front be covered in food from falling forward?”

            Chisa laughed sheepishly at the memory.

            “Oh yeah… I had her change clothes while you guys were going to search for Owari. Her back was a total mess…”

            “She fell back into the table…” Mukuro trailed off speculatively. She glanced towards Byakuya meaningfully. “Those tables were spread apart. If she felt a cloth under her feet, and she fell backwards…”

            Byakuya clenched a fist uneasily.

            “Tsumiki and the killer must have crossed paths… And the only one close to her at that time, aside from myself…”

            Eyes slowly panned toward the Ultimate Traditional Dancer. Hiyoko scrunched up her face in annoyance.

            “What are you idiots implying? Just ‘cause Pig Barf probably stumbled into me, suddenly I’m the killer?! The hell’s wrong with you?!”

            Hajime frowned as he narrowed his eyes.

            “… It’s not just that. I mean, you said Nevermind knew about the fireworks, too… But she hadn’t heard that part of Komaeda’s plan – only Tsumiki heard that.”

            Hiyoko scoffed loudly at that point.

            “Riiight… Just because I assumed the psychopath told everyone the same stuff, I’m automatically suspicious. Where’d all that ‘belief’ crap go, huh?”

            “I want to believe you…” Hajime defended himself. “But you made that claim after Souda explained what Komaeda had relayed to him. You should’ve immediately known not everyone had heard about the fireworks.”

            Hiyoko tensed at that rebuttal. She quivered in anger.

            “It was just a stupid brain fart! Seriously, why are you so suspicious of me?!”

            “… Because I remembered.” Hajime muttered as he rubbed his chin. “Way before Nevermind brought it up, you said…”

            “Never mind that! Did you ask your slave to hide that stuff, for you? She was on cleaning duty, wasn’t she?” The dancer hotly accused. “I’ll bet you buried it in the trash, since that’s what you seem to like calling yourself.”

            Hajime pointed towards Sonia emphatically.

            “Remember what Nevermind said she did? She buried the knife under paper towels so others would be less likely to find it! Sure, you might have made a wild stab in the dark, but it’s weird how you coincidentally used the same term that turned out to be the knife’s eventual circumstances… Only Nevermind should have known about that.”

            Sonia raised a hand to her mouth in shock.

            “Now that you mention it… Shortly after I left my shame behind, I walked by Saionji in the hall, and she was heading toward the bathroom!”

            Fuyuhiko snorted.

            “That stuff’s suspicious, but didn’t she also call Nevermind out on the shit that Komaeda tempted her with? She seemed pretty eager about it, too, even though she hates Tsumiki’s guts.”

            Hiyoko trembled more intensely.

            “Just ‘cause you morons can’t see past that skank’s ‘woe is me’ act, doesn’t give you the right to look down on me, shit-for-brains! I’m not the killer!” Hiyoko screeched.

            Mahiru’s eyes softened as she clutched at the strap to her camera bag, looking down morosely.

            “Hey… Maybe this is a mistake, you guys? I mean… Saionji wasn’t approached by Komaeda. How could she have known what was going on?”

            Mukuro narrowed her eyes critically at the dancer.

            “It’s not just the testimonies and her behavior… Saionji’s height should be taken into consideration, too.”

            “Her height?” Ibuki tilted her head curiously. “But Saionji-chan’s all dwarf-sized~! What’s weird about that?”

            “If we assume Tsumiki really did slip on the tablecloth the culprit was wearing, who do you think is more likely to have excess cloth dragging on the floor? Nevermind? Or Saionji?” Mukuro helpfully explained. “They both would possibly have excess cloth, but Saionji’s would be more abundant and pool around her feet more. She’s too small.”

            Peko hummed thoughtfully.

            “I agree with that assessment… Owari herself must have stepped in it too, if she moved around at all, in reaction to being stabbed…”

            Mukuro nodded confidently.

            “I checked out the cloth – while it’s clear where the blood mainly erupted onto the cloth, there were splotches closer toward some edges of the cloth, which would further explain why there were bloodstains on the floor, under the scattered food. Owari definitely struggled with her killer, even if it was only a little bit. One stain in particular appeared to be smeared like paint across the cloth.”

            “Smeared?” Nekomaru cocked his head, hands on his hips.

            “From when Tsumiki fell…” Hajime recalled. “There was a bit of blood smeared on the lower part of Tsumiki’s leg. It’s not a cut or an injury, she definitely got that from falling on top of one of those bloodstains.”

            Byakuya scowled as he kept his fist curled in frustration.

            “Saionji did have a cloth partially draped over her, when I saw her on the floor during the blackout. I didn’t think much at the time because that was in the aftermath of the table collapsing, and she and Tsumiki were close together… However. If the cloth wrapped around her got undone when Tsumiki slipped…” The heir trailed off for a moment before gritting his teeth. “Damnit. How did I not see that was a second cloth? Of course Tsumiki was lying on top of the collapsed table… Then I had to be distracted by Komaeda…”

            Ibuki made a shocked, horrified expression.

            “Ehhh?! So when Saionji-chan fell down, that’s what Ibuki was hearing? Ibuki thought Saionji-chan was just being a klutz…!”

            “I am not a klutz, thank you very much!” Hiyoko raged. “The shit with Pig Barf was just an accident! I dare any of you to not get wrapped up in her perverted falling crap when you’re in the dark with her!”

            Byakuya gnawed at his fingernails, ignoring the dancer’s mounting frustration.

            “… It makes sense. Saionji’s position was just as close to Owari as Tsumiki’s position was… Mioda! What were the sequences of noises you heard around that time, again?”

            Ibuki saluted eccentrically before reciting her testimony from Owari’s last spoken words.

            ~*~

            “Somebody turn the damn lights on!” Akane barked. “I can’t eat like this, you know?!”

            “Is this really the time for that?!” Mahiru cried out in disbelief. Ibuki thought she might’ve heard some other sounds, too, but everybody was kinda panic-y at the time.

            “Wah! Don’t step on my feet!” Hiyoko whined gruffly, bumping into a table.

            “WAAAAAAH!” Mikan wailed, making a big crashing sound as she tumbled over a table in the dark. Kinda sounded like the table was all sorts of broken, too…

            “SHIIIIIITTTTT!!!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “What in the nine Hells is this madness?!” Gundham yelled out.

            “I said watch where you’re going…!” The dancer grunted with exerted effort. Kinda sounded like she might have been in the middle of standing back up. Was Saionji-chan goofing off like Tsumiki-chan?

            ~*~

            “… Stop there.” Byakuya commanded the musician. “Mioda, could you explain what those ‘other noises’ were, around the time Koizumi was speaking?”

            Ibuki rubbed the back of her head, making a sort of nervous and bemused expression.

            “Uh… Ehehe… Ibuki never elaborated on that part, ‘cause I didn’t hear anything like it for the rest of the blackout…” She then perked up. “At least until Ibuki heard Byakuya-chan duking it out with Komaeda-chan! It kinda sounded like those noises, like the heavy breathing and struggle-y noises? Just… maybe a little different?”

            “Different how?” Byakuya impatiently prompted her. “If more than one person was involved, could you identify them?”

            Ibuki rapidly shook her head.

            “Nope! Way too intense for Ibuki to identify… But Ibuki could tell they were kinda close by~!”

            Chisa crossed her arms, closing them in thought.

            “That was when the murder happened, wasn’t it…? I mean, Mioda also heard the rustling of cloth sometime after that…”

            Ibuki giggled mischievously.

            “Those rustle-y noises were in the same area as the struggle-y noises~! Ibuki remembers that because she heard more rustling later at Ibuki’s table!”

            “The table at the front of the dining hall…” Peko murmured, remembering the diagram Mahiru shared with them, showing everyone’s locations. “That must have been when the body was concealed. But when did you hear the rustling at your table?”

            Ibuki hummed, deep in thought.

            “… Right around the time Byakuya-chan and Komaeda-chan were wrestling?”

            Byakuya pinched the bridge of his nose.

            “You didn’t mention that earlier…?”

            “Ibuki was focused on cheering for Byakuya-chan!”

            “I didn’t hear cheering of any sort.” The heir deadpanned.

            “… Ibuki was cheering on the inside.” She stage whispered, earning a round of groans.

            Fuyuhiko crossed his arms, scowling.

            “Hold on. If Owari was shoved under the table after Togami ran off to have his beef with that psychotic fuck, how the hell did he miss Owari’s body?”

            Byakuya frowned in frustration.

            “… The area around Tsumiki and Saionji was a disaster area. There’s a reason I elected to go around Koizumi’s side of the table – the other way looked too unpredictable, with everything strewn about. That cloth partially draped over Saionji really should have struck me as odd, and I curse my inattentiveness. The first set of rustling noises Mioda heard may have been when Saionji was shifting around on the floor – and at some point, Owari’s body must have been covered up. If I had taken a better look at the floor and the cloth… maybe then…”

            Hiyoko finally exploded caustically.

            “Would you bastards back the fuck up?! You’ve just been spewing whatever springs to mind for the longest time without any proof!” The blonde hissed acidly. “Using my height as evidence…? Really? Why would I even kill Owari in the first damn place?! She was annoying, but so are all of you…!”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.

            “You were in a pretty huge rush to get out of there after the fire broke out…” He mumbled. Though he knew that wasn’t any more conclusive than all the previous circumstantial evidence. They needed something more concrete…

            Then Mahiru spoke up carefully.

            “Hey… Didn’t Owari have a strip of white cloth under her fingernails…? Did we ever get an answer for that?”

            Mukuro shook her head negatively.

            “Nope. None of the tablecloths had tears in them. We can only assume the killer’s own clothes got ripped, somewhere. Though no one has stuck out…”

            Mahiru seemed to brighten at this turn of events.

            “Then Saionji can’t be the killer! She’s got an orange kimono, right?”

            Hiyoko sneered.

            “See?! Didn’t I say?!” She glared at the odd look Hajime was shooting her, his brow furrowed. “Got something to say? Huh?! It’s like Koizumi said, my kimono’s orange! Pig Barf probably murdered Owari, tripped over me like the walking disaster she is, then later changed her clothes! You can’t prove Pig Barf’s innocent ‘til we’ve checked her clothes! And guess what we don’t have right now?”

            Chisa scratched her cheek sheepishly, turning towards Monomi apologetically.

            “Um, Monomi…? Could you be a dear and go retrieve the clothes Tsumiki changed out of…? We need to check something.”

            “Umm…” Monomi trailed off uncertainly. Her gaze then turned towards the floor, where they saw Monokuma… being a weirdo.

            “Mmm~! Yummy~!” The bear giggled in delight as he licked the food splattered on the back of Tsumiki’s clothes. “Is this what they call functional clothing? Stuff you can wear, but stuff you can eat~? I-I’ve never seen anything like it! The taste reminds me of my days in the wild…”

            Kazuichi pointed at Monokuma accusingly.

            “Hey, hey, hand those over! They’re important evidence!”

            After the bear slurped up some more of the food for good measure, Chisa reluctantly accepted them and turned them over for all to see.

            … No tears.

            Hiyoko deflated a little at the visual confirmation.

            “… D-Damnit… Well, the cloth can’t be mine! It’s white!”

            Hajime scratched his cheek nervously.

            “S-Saionji…?”

            “What?!” The dancer bellowed.

            The brunet dreaded what he was about to say. He didn’t want to doubt Saionji, he really didn’t…

            But…

            “Y-You’ve got inner sleeves to your kimono…” He licked his lips carefully. “… And they’re white.”

            A heavy silence fell over the group as this sank in. Eventually, Hiyoko managed to splutter out a defense.

            “Y… Yeah?! S-So what?!”

            Hajime clenched a fist over his heart in anguish.

            “Would you please show us those sleeves…? I don’t want to believe it. But this is how we can determine your innocence or guilt. If… If there’s nothing amiss, then… then we’re off-track. But if there’s even a small tear…”

            Hiyoko’s face became red in barely concealed outrage.

            “I don’t have to show you pedos anything! B-Back off!”

            But it was too late. Mukuro had made her way over there, shortly after Hajime had made the observation of the sleeves. She held the dancer in place, and yanked the inner sleeves out in the open to get a better look at them.

            While the left sleeve was clean… The right sleeve had a clear tear in it.

            … The silence became suffocating after that. No one moved to call for Voting Time, though they knew it was inevitable at this stage. As Monokuma instructed them to cast their votes, and the results were processed, they all waited with bated breath.

            And then the slot machine determining the results stopped spinning. All three faces showed Hiyoko Saionji’s head. A positive match. A correct verdict.

            Guilty.

Chapter Text

            “Let’s try going over the whole incident, beginning with right after the party started…” Hajime began the closing argument at Byakuya’s request. “Togami had us gather in the dining hall of the old building near the hotel. He was extra cautious about a murder occurring that night because of a threatening letter he received. Therefore, he decided to throw a party to monitor us; he even roped Yukizome-sensei into helping him. With some behind-the-scenes goading, we all assembled at the dining hall… and the party was underway.

            Hajime continued the closing argument.

            “But, at the time, the trap set by a certain someone was already in motion. They had Ikusaba plug three irons into the outlets in the storage room, which nearly capped the power usage… Additionally, they prepared something else that would activate at 11:30pm… The air conditioners in the office and dining hall. They set the timers for these. Thanks to the irons maxing out the power usage, the breaker was tripped when the air conditioners kicked on. Since the windows in the old building were covered, the blackout plunged the dining hall into total darkness. This darkness was quickly broken up by two volleys of fireworks that Komaeda set off to assist the killer in navigating the darkness. The blackout was a signal for the killer to get ‘suited up’ in the tablecloth and have the knife ready to go, items that they acquired from the bathroom, which Komaeda used as a smuggling route to get past potential body-checks.  Once the first firework went off, the killer had to make use of the silhouettes they saw in the brief flash of light to navigate to their designated target. However, just about anyone would have trouble adapting to a sudden burst of light right on the first try; that’s why Komaeda had prepared at least two shots to aid the killer on their way.

            “Once the second shot had gone off, the killer would have been more confident in their position relative to their target’s back. With only Komaeda’s word that there would be three ‘displays’, the killer took the plunge and began their desperate attack. There was no going back, so they stabbed Owari numerous times due to the zero visibility; they had to be absolutely sure their target would die. Of course, Owari struggled against the killer’s assault; and unbeknownst to the killer, Owari had torn off a bit of their clothes in their rush to finish the job. But in the end… the killer succeeded, and Owari died…

            “Around this time, Tsumiki was about to throw another wrench in the killer’s plans. She slipped on the tablecloth that the killer was wearing, most likely around the time that the killer was bending over to move the body, and that fall brought down both Tsumiki and the killer, as well as the table she fell back into. When that happened, Togami took out a specific item that he brought in his case. That item… was the night-vision goggles. Togami was so concerned about a murder occurring that he brought a variety of security equipment with him. When he put on his night-vision goggles, he saw Tsumiki and the killer collapsed on the floor – the tablecloth wrapped around the killer was undone, and it unwittingly obscured Owari’s body from Togami’s sight. But Togami wasn’t given the time to examine the scene in more detail; Komaeda, who had lit a third match, was preparing to launch the last firework. Wasting no time, Togami charted the fastest, most stable way over to Komaeda, and hurried so he could to put a stop to Komaeda’s plans. It was a close thing, but… in the end, Komaeda managed to unleash that third display.

            “While Togami struggled to apprehend Komaeda, the killer used the light of the third firework to regain their bearings and get Owari under the table near the front of the dining hall. They stowed the blood-soaked cloth there, too, no doubt being as careful as they could to not let any of it get on them. But they wouldn’t have time to rest yet – due to the fireworks displays, a fire broke out at the far end of the dining hall, and Togami urged everyone to evacuate to safety. We all followed his instructions, and it was a mad rush out of that room, everyone pushing and shoving. Eventually, our ruckus attracted Pekoyama and Kuzuryu’s attention, and they joined us in the evacuation. Back in the dining hall, Togami and Yukizome-sensei helped Tsumiki regain her bearings, and they along with Komaeda were the last ones to make it out of the old building. We all thought we made it out of there in one piece… But it was far too late. We only discovered Owari after Monokuma and Monomi put out the fire.

            “Hiyoko Saionji…” Hajime stroked his chin thoughtfully. “If it wasn’t for that torn sleeve, and your knowledge of Komaeda’s initial targets, you might’ve gotten away with it… But I’m sorry. The killer can be none other than you…! How about it? Did I get anything wrong?”

            Hiyoko, who was trembling both furiously and with tears pricking at her eyes, twitched her hands waspishly.

            “Th… This is a mistake, I’m telling you…! I-I had no reason… You don’t have proof I overheard… that piece of shit…” The dancer screamed in anguish. ”Owari wasn’t supposed to die! Why the hell was it her?! Why do you guys have to be such idiots…? WAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!”

            Byakuya heaved a heavy, reluctant sigh, arms crossed.

            “It seems… this is the end.”

            Nagito massaged his brow in disappointment.

            “How unfortunate… So this is as far as your Hope went. I had a hunch… My one regret is my luck couldn’t play into your favor more! It obviously hid Owari’s body until you could get clear… But it still failed you in several crucial areas. I can’t help but admire the initiative you took~! The setup was almost perfect…”

            “Just be quiet…!” Mahiru bellowed, pointing at the luckster accusingly. “It’s your fault… things turned out like this!”

            Chisa’s face fell as she watched the dancer wail and sob at the unfairness of it all. It really shouldn’t have turned out like this at all…

            “Saionji…” The orange-haired woman murmured softly.

            Unsurprisingly, Voting Time commenced shortly after… It wasn’t unanimous. There was one holdout for accusing Saionji… And it surprisingly didn’t come from the girl herself.

            ~*~

            “Correct~!” Monokuma bounced up and down a little, once the slot machine stopped spewing out coins. “That’s right! This time, the Blackened responsible for killing Akane Owari is Hiyoko Saionji!”

            The Ultimate Traditional Dancer shrank back from the looks she was receiving from everyone, the color drained completely from her face.

            “Th… This is… s-some kind of… mistake…” She mumbled to herself, eyes darting around cautiously.

            Fuyuhiko’s hands twitched in disbelief as he gritted his teeth.

            “A-Are you serious…? Out of all these people… Are you saying this brat is the one who killed Owari?”

            Hiyoko hissed at the jab.

            “Who’re you calling a brat, Ultimate Babyface?!”

            “What’d you say, you little bitch?!” The yakuza bellowed right back at her, making the dancer shrink back more.

            “B-But…” Nekomaru mumbled before he broke out sobbing, loudly. “WHYYYYYY?! WHY DID YOU KILL HER?!?!”

            Hiyoko stared down, biting down hard on her lower lip.

            “I-I told you… It was a mistake! Owari was an idiot, but I didn’t want her dead!” The blonde whirled on Mikan, glaring venomously at her. “It’s because of you…! Why can’t you just come clean already, you pig-faced troll?! I heard you and that psycho! I saw that damn face you made! Just admit it already!”

            As the blonde screeched at the top of her lungs, Mikan recoiled, covering her face with her arms.

            “Wh-Wh-Why do you always have to be so mean, Saionji…? I-I never wanted to kill anyone…!” The nurse wailed mournfully.

            Hiyoko snarled in frustration.

            “Like hell you didn’t! Then what the fuck was that face you made?!”

            “What face?” Kazuichi asked, scratching the side of his head, perplexed.

            Hiyoko huffed exasperatedly, hands balled into fists at her side.

            “I saw everything, I’m telling you…!”

            ~*~

             “Wh-What is it…?” Mikan couldn’t help asking the luckster as he approached her in the supermarket.

            “I just wanted to ask what your thoughts were on the whole ‘memories’ ordeal…” Nagito smiled innocently as he crossed his arms.

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously.

            “W-Well… M-Memory loss is possible… There are w-ways to pull it off…”

            Nagito shook his head slowly.

            “Uh-oh, that’s not what I meant~… I mean, what are your thoughts on killing someone to get those memories back for everyone…? After all, Monokuma said it’s just one murder, that’s all he wants. And that’s why I’ve given you guys the perfect setup for it!

            Mikan wailed, clutching at her head as the luckster continued so casually. Hiyoko, who overheard the deranged laughter and the loud wailing from a few aisles over, got closer so she could see the two and observe them more closely. The way she was positioned, the aisle was hiding her from view, but consequentially, she mostly saw Komaeda’s backside – well, she really wanted to see Tsumiki’s reactions anyway, so it didn’t matter to her if she couldn’t see the psychotic faces Komaeda was making.

            “… So that’s why I’ve taken everything into account for you. Tonight, I’ve arranged for a blackout to happen – you’ll know when the air conditioner goes off that it’s your moment. Now, you might be thinking it will be difficult to kill someone when visibility is nil, but I took that into account, too! I prepped fireworks and stowed them in the office, three displays in total, so you have three chances to commit your murder. I’ve prepared a murder weapon in the bathroom of that lodge, and a way to shield yourself from the blood. If you use those… you’ll definitely make it out of this nightmare alive~! Everyone will be so focused on me that you’ll get away free and clear! If you don’t go through with it, well… I just might start the killings with the knife I’ve prepared for myself~!”

            Mikan shook her head rapidly, tears streaming from her face as she stared in shock at the luckster.

            “Wh-Wh-Wh-Why would you do something so cruel…?! D-Do you hate us all that much…?”

            Nagito tilted his head curiously, spreading out his arms affectionately.

            “Hate you? Not at all~! I love everyone here. That’s why I want to be good use of them. I love all of the Ultimates… and I admire them being symbols of Hope!” Nagito hugged himself. “That’s right… In the name of Hope, I love everyone’s talent from the bottom of my heart. I want them to prove to me that Hope will never lose, no matter how daunting the Despair they face may seem. I want everyone to prove to me, ‘Hope will never lose to Despair!’ I want to make your Hopes shine… It’s as simple as that…”

            The nurse shivered fearfully, and even Hiyoko was feeling uncomfortable from where she was watching this shitshow.

            “Y-You’re… You’re sick, Komaeda-kun… L-Let me help you… Please…” Mikan clasped her hands together, pleading desperately with him.

            Nagito just gave a raspy laugh.

            “Oh, don’t worry, Tsumiki-san, I’m quite alright! There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with me… I’m just an obsessed fanboy. The Ultimate Ultimate fanatic, if you will. That’s why it’s okay! If my love is unrequited, I don’t mind.” He spread out his arms again affectionately. “This is what love is! A gift from me to you~!”

            Mikan froze at these words, her mouth clamping shut as her eyes glossed over. Her expression was perfectly blank. And all the while, Nagito just kept laughing…

            ~*~

            Hiyoko sniffled furiously, still glaring daggers at Mikan. Everyone else had fallen silent in disbelief, but their attention was more on the luckster, rather than the nurse, who was still pulling away from Hiyoko in fright.

            “Y-You can say all the b-bullshit you want… I-I saw that damn face! Those eyes were so empty, it was creepy! Why wouldn’t I think you were some psycho killer under all that stupid sobbing?! You’re just a fucking faker that’s trying to get everyone to drop their guard!”

            “Th-That was…” Mikan waved her hands defensively in front of herself. “I-I-I wasn’t thinking of killing, Saionji…! K-Komaeda-kun s-said…”

            “I don’t give a rat’s ass about what that freak said!” Hiyoko snapped waspishly, pointing heatedly at the nurse. “You’re as crazy as he is! Maybe you’ve got everyone else wrapped around your finger, but not me! I see through your shit!”

            Mahiru held out a hand to the dancer’s shoulder to try and calm her down.

            “S-Saionji… wait…”

            “Though I guess you’re not the only one who’s gone mental.” Hiyoko growled, speaking over the photographer fiercely. She whirled on Sonia next, jabbing an accusing finger at the Princess. “You got to the knife before I did, but you ‘chickened out’ or some shit! The hell were you even spewing with that whole ‘whispering devil in your heart’ crap?! If you’re gonna lie, at least tell a believable one! You were gonna murder someone to get back to your country, so you’re guiltier than I am!”

            Ibuki rubbed the side of her head in confusion.

            “How does that work? Nevermind-chan just almost-killed somebody.” She chuckled nervously as she got reproached by Gundham and Kazuichi.

            Hiyoko snarled.

            “Are you fucking serious?! What’s worse? Killing people you don’t know for even more people you don’t know, or killing for someone you give a shit about?!” The dancer stomped her foot impetuously. “’Cause that’s what she was gonna do, shit-for-brains! She was gonna sacrifice all of you for a shit ton of more people that she never even met! Just people she’s ‘supposed’ to rule over or whatever.”

            Sonia paled and shrank in on herself, face anxiously looking down at the floor in shame. Chisa, face ghastly pale, also reached out for Hiyoko comfortingly.

            “That’s still no excuse for killing, Saionji! If you’d just told us what you’d seen, then…”

            Hiyoko screamed bloody murder.

            “How the hell do I trust you shitstains?! Who do I know I can trust? Pig Barf and Princess Bitch are disasters waiting to happen! No one else reported that psychopath! Ikusaba’s his damn lapdog. Togami likes pretending he knows what’s going on, but shit still gets by him! The rest of you could snap my neck like a twig!” The blonde sobbed emotionally, taking a little satisfaction in pissing Mukuro off, and making Sonia, Mikan, and Byakuya avert their gazes in shame. The heir placed a hand on the railing to his witness stand, gripping it in frustration. Everyone else looked vaguely uncomfortable, and Hiyoko seemed to take pride in that.

            “You could’ve told me…” Mahiru tried calming the dancer down, but the blonde wasn’t having that.

            “Koizumi, you’re really kind. The nicest person here…” Hiyoko gritted her teeth, looking down and clenching her fists in aggravation. “… But you wouldn’t have been able to do anything. The rest of these shits had their heads up their asses and were too stupid to listen to you… Th-That’s why I never said anything. Out of everyone here, you didn’t deserve to be bothered by all this bullshit. I-I… I wanted to just… expose Pig Barf for the liar she was. Maybe frame Princess Bitch for the murder, if it happened. It was supposed to be simple. But that bastard bear… said everyone else died if I got off the hook… How’s that even fair, telling us the rules after the shitty game’s started?!”

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “Rules are never explained early, nor are they ever late~! They are revealed precisely when I want them to be! Upupupu~!”

            Chisa wilted even further… if that was possible.

            “S-Saionji… you should have told me. You were supposed to tell me…!”

            Hiyoko averted her gaze slightly at the broken voice that got under even her skin. She spluttered just a little.

            “I-I dunno how I was supposed to do that when you were holed up in that lodge all day… By the time the party started, the killer coulda swiped the knife already! It’s not my fault! You said you would be there when we needed you, s-so why… why weren’t you?!” The blonde sniffled emotionally. Chisa hung her head miserably.

            Hajime clenched a fist in frustration. Hiyoko was deflecting all the blame, and while he couldn’t agree with that completely, he did understand her position. She was dealt an awful hand. They all were. He turned to the luckster heatedly.

            “Komaeda… What the hell were you thinking, talking to everyone like this? What’s the meaning of this?”

            Nagito held up his hands peacefully and chuckled nervously.        

            “You see, if you have a favorite boxer, don’t you want him to fight against a strong opponent and win?”

            “You better not compare us to that!” Fuyuhiko raged, eyes hard as he glared at the luckster. Nagito blinked slowly, looking to the yakuza in confusion.

            “Huh? Am I wrong? It’s a given that trials are necessary to become strong, and the harsher the trial, the stronger you become, no?” He waved a hand casually, passing it off with another sheepish laugh. “For mere humans, killings are simply a tragedy, but… for worthy humans, a trial such as this can elevate their status to an even higher level. It’s amazing to me that someone as untalented as myself can become that trial! There’s no point in someone like me surviving… It’s far more significant for me to die as everyone’s trial. There’s no greater honor than becoming the foundation so that your values may ascend to brave new heights.”

            Kazuichi tugged his beanie over his head, tears streaming down his face.

            “S-Stop it… You’re seriously… starting to piss me off…”

            Mahiru fumed, glaring at Nagito.

            “I-I don’t understand at all! Are you saying you basically wanted to commit murder for fun?!”

            Nagito shrugged dismissively.

            “It’s not the same as someone killing for fun, but… I guess it’d look the same in your eyes. I have no intention of surviving and leaving you all to die.”

            Byakuya’s eyes hardened as he raised his head to glare at Nagito as well.

            “Is that why you told Nevermind, Tsumiki, and Souda, yet you don’t mind that Saionji overheard you?”

            “Or perhaps that was intentional…” Chiaki mused. Hiyoko appeared startled at that.

            “Wh-What…?”
            “Komaeda wanted to involve us in the killing… Plus, it’d be better for him if the mystery was more complex. Is that why you only gave partial information to each of your initial targets? You wanted to know which of them would commit the murder, but if someone eavesdropped multiple times, you wanted to be able to realize that, too?”

            Nagito smiled mysteriously, crossing his arms.

            “Well… you’re basically right. It’s true, I was looking forward to the mystery being more complex. And it’s also true that by controlling the spread of information, I knew the killer would give themselves away by knowing too much. It was ultimately my way of making this a fair trial for everybody! You guys would have a vital hint… and I would be able to assist the killer in covering their tracks~!” He laughed lightly as several stared at him incredulously and in disbelief.

            Kazuichi smacked his forehead and shivered in dread.

            “This dude… he’s seriously batshit crazy! He’s insane!”

            Hiyoko shuddered as well.

            “Maybe I shoulda aimed for you, instead… Guh! You’re creepy to the max!”

            Nekomaru grunted in frustration before turning to the dancer again, hands on his hips.

            “You still haven’t explained yourself. Why? Why did you kill Owari?”

            “I told you, it was a mistake!” Hiyoko grunted, hands behind her back as she looked off to the side with a scowl. “Moving around in that darkness was confusing as hell… I musta mixed up my directions, ‘cause when I first saw Tsumiki’s silhouette, she was toward my right. Then, when I moved and tried to aim for her back, I just… went for the person on my right again. Their silhouettes were kinda similar… I knew I messed up when Owari started talking, but it was too late – I already went for the stabbing… Then Pig Barf did her dumbass erotic falling routine… and took me down with her, the slut.”

            “That’s uncalled for!” Mahiru reproached the dancer, who thinned her lips and looked to the side with a humph. “I’m telling you, Saionji, you’re wrong about Tsumiki! She… She didn’t tell me everything, but she told me enough that I got the gist! Komaeda said a lot of things that were uncalled for. I… I didn’t want to make ruin the party, so… So I tried cheering everyone up by taking pictures.”

            Kazuichi looked at the photographer strangely.

            “You knew Komaeda was plotting a murder, so you said nothing and just tried to keep the party going???”

            Mahiru huffed exasperatedly, hands on her hips.

            “No! Like I said, I just got the gist. I knew Komaeda was bullying Tsumiki… And based off how anxious Saionji had been, I knew something was up! I didn’t think it’d come to murder. Wh-When… When the murder happened, I really hoped Tsumiki hadn’t killed Owari, mistaking her for Komaeda… I’m glad she didn’t, but…” She clutched the strap of her camera bag emotionally. “If I’d just hung around Saionji more. I know I could have stopped the murder… I’m such an idiot…”

            Byakuya crossed his arms, scowling.

            “You’re not the one at fault, Koizumi… And neither is Saionji. Or even Komaeda. This. All of this is on my head… If I’d just done one last sweep of the lodge before the party. If I’d just done that…” The heir clenched a fist and looked down in aggravation.

            Nagito gave a raspy laugh.

            “I never expected an ending like this… Such Despair! We shouldn’t let Owari die in vain, you know… I’m sure everyone will become stronger by overcoming this Despair… Honestly, I just took some precautionary measures so I could be prepared for however it turned out, but I never expected it to turn out like this. In the end, I failed to realize Saionji was the killer until it was too late for me to offer up any real help. I’m really so pitiful…”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed and he narrowed his eyes.

            “Why… would you try to help Saionji…?”

            Nagito shrugged casually.

            “Well, because… Saionji decided to commit her crime because she also had strong Hope, right? Which means her actions were motivated by Hope… If she was willing to go that far, I thought she might truly be the person whose existence I’d been waiting for. I thought she might be the Hope that could defeat any type of Despair. In order for me to confirm it, I really did want to help Saionji… Alas, I’m so slow-witted~…”

            Hajime spluttered.

            “What do you mean ‘confirm’?! Just… Just stop it already…!”

            “But this trial was easier than it could have been, don’t you think? If I’d realized Saionji was the killer during the investigation, I could have given her pointers about what to avoid saying! After all, much of this victory is due to her poor, confused, and frustrated state…” Nagito sighed morosely, gazing down at his hand. “Still, maybe I’m too arrogant here… Perhaps Saionji was always destined for a terrible ending like this. But you should be proud of yourself, Saionji! You will not die in vain. You will become a splendid sacrifice for everyone else so their Hopes can grow even more powerful~!”

            “Sacrifice?!” Hiyoko bellowed. “Like hell I’m sacrificing myself for a shitstain like you…!”

            Kazuichi shook his fist furiously at the luckster.

            “Seriously, stop it already! I’m gonna go crazy just listening to you!”

            Fuyuhiko stuffed his hands in his pockets, scowling.

            “Hey, is it really okay for us to just leave this crazy bastard alone like this? Isn’t it better if we just fucking kill him off?!”

            Mukuro defensively stepped between the yakuza and the luckster, glaring fiercely at the blond.

            “You will not lay a finger on him…!”

            Peko thinned her lips and glared back at Mukuro warningly.

            “Ikusaba… Think about what Komaeda hopes to achieve. If he deems a killer to be this deity of ‘Hope’ that he seeks, that means he sacrifices everyone – including you and even himself – so that killer can live. Are you satisfied laying down your life for such a cause?”

            Mukuro’s eyes widened in shock, like she’d been slapped in the face. She recoiled and took a step back.

            “Th-That’s… That’s not… I’m not important…” The soldier spluttered excuses.

            Peko closed her eyes, sighing patiently.

            “Komaeda has betrayed you in the worst way possible. You have to ask yourself, Ikusaba – who do you serve? Komaeda? Or his cause? You cannot serve both.”

            Mukuro’s discomfort multiplied, and she looked to Nagito imploringly, yet the luckster only waved casually at her and chuckled warmly.

            “Ikusaba, I said it from the beginning! I’m not important. What you should do is strive for the Hope that you believe in. That’s all any of us can do~…”

            Mukuro went quiet at that, looking down miserably. This was… ludicrously unfair. And Komaeda-kun wasn’t even remorseful… What… What was she supposed to do?

            “Sooo… Can we just kill him, too, and be done with him?!” Fuyuhiko said, taking a step forward challengingly. For once, Mukuro flinched back, unable to meet the challenge head-on.

            She didn’t know what to do.

            Monokuma giggled, paws over his mouth.

            “Kyaaah~! ‘Kill,’ he said! High school students are sooo violent these days~! But the person who’s gonna get killed now isn’t Komaeda. It’s Saionji.”

            Hiyoko reeled back with a haunted look.

            “Wh-What?!”

            “Upupu, you didn’t forget, right? Cuz I told you already at the beginning, right? If the Blackened killer loses… a fun Punishment awaits them.”

            “Th-That’s…!” The blonde shrank in on herself even more, tears pricking at her eyes. “That’s not fair! It was an accident! It was… self-defense…! It wasn’t intentional…! It’s not my fault!”

            Monokuma raised his paws angrily.

            “It doesn’t matter if it’s an accident, self-defense, or intentional, a murder is still a murder! If you kill someone, that’s murder!”

            Hiyoko quivered in rage and frustration, herself.

            “Isn’t there sympathy judgements or extenuating circumstances?! Take Pig Barf or Princess Bitch if you don’t wanna execute that psychopath! They’re way worse people than I am!”

            “I don’t accept any of those claims!” Monokuma denied.

            Hiyoko whirled on her class furiously.

            “S-S-Somebody say something! You don’t think I deserve to be executed, do you?! It’s not my fault!”

            Monokuma snickered, showing off his devious side again.

            “Be honest… After learning about Komaeda’s plan, you saw an opportunity, right? You probably thought nobody would find out if you killed shady Tsumiki, ‘cause Komaeda talked to Nevermind and Kazuichi and Kuzuryu, right~? That’s what you thought, right?”

            Hiyoko stuttered out excuses.

            “Th-That is… w-well…”

            “There’s no way a person who has no malice… would kill someone like that.” Monokuma patted his belly contently. Hiyoko groaned in frustration. “In truth, you were just desperate to kill Tsumiki… and willing to sacrifice everyone else to survive, right? Just be honest already… at least, in the end.”

            Hiyoko sniffed loudly before letting loose another mournful wail.

            “S-Saionji…” Mahiru murmured, hand over her heart in anguish.

            “If you didn’t try to kill Tsumiki… Owari would still be alive!” Nekomaru wailed alongside the dancer. “Why did you have to do this, Saionji?!”

            Hiyoko sobbed.

            “I… I doubted Tsumiki, it’s t-true… I-I still think she’s a lying w-witch! B-But…” The blonde bowed her head, face adopting a solemn expression. “But if she was telling the truth… then… me killing her would be a mercy, wouldn’t it…? Sh-She wouldn’t deserve to be in this shitty place… if she was really as kind as she claimed to be… S-So… So I wanted to s-see one way or the other! A-And… And I wanted to go home…”

            “Home?” Hajime echoed, hand clenched over his heart, too, watching the dancer studiously. Hiyoko nodded miserably.

            “My dad’s waiting for me… I-I couldn’t die here… My dad… is the only person that makes my shitty life worth it…! H-He’s as kind as Koizumi and Sensei… And… And I hated leaving him alone for all this time, even if my mom and grandma were raising me to be the ‘elite’ that I am… Dad… never cared about that stuff, and just wanted me happy… I had to return home no matter what! H-He’s treated like an outcast at home… I almost never get to see him… And then Monokuma said our memories were stolen… and that several years have passed since our first day. I… I had to find out what happened to him! Is he still okay?! D-Does he still… love me…? Or does he hate me ‘cause I was away for all these years…? I had to know!”

            Peko clenched her teeth, bowing her head in anguish.

            “So you did believe Monokuma…”

            “How the hell were we supposed to know what you felt, with you bullying us all the time?!” Kazuichi raged.

            Sonia clasped her hands together pleadingly.

            “S-Saionji, you always did seem to have a confidence, misplaced or not… Wh-Why are you so insecure…? W-We would never have hurt you!”

            Hiyoko snarled.

            “And I can’t trust that, especially from you!” She pointed at Sonia accusingly. “You guys have no idea what it’s like to constantly be on your guard! My family’s had loads of assassinations, and my mom and grandma taught me you have to doubt people, no matter what, or it can get you killed! I-I… I have to be so careful, day in and day out… The only people I think that are worth trusting are my dad, Koizumi, and Sensei… I-I don’t know what to think of the rest of you! B-But… But I guess… I didn’t want you guys dead… I just… had to go home, no matter what.”

            Hajime sighed tiredly. Even if she had been a real jerk at times… Saionji’s paranoia was understandable. Especially on this island, especially amongst a group like this where she was pretty much the ‘weakest’ out of all of them… Hiyoko just needed people she could place her faith in.

            In that regard… they failed her. They all had. Prickly person or not, that was unfair to her.

            “Sooo, you wanted the first kill?” Monokuma taunted the dancer again.

            Hiyoko moaned guiltily.

            “I’m sorry, you guys… If I knew I’d be sacrificing you, I wouldn’t have gone through with this crap. And I ended up killing Owari instead of Tsumiki… Even if I thought she was suspicious as hell, that’s no excuse… I guess… I’m the one who fucked up and went crazy.”

            “I see, I see… Interesting. But…” Monokuma nodded sagely before bowing his head miserably. “As far as motives to kill are concerned, wanting to see your dad is boooooooooooooooring…” The bear cackled as people looked to him in confusion. “Sooo… It seems there’s no point in basking in the afterglow, so let’s hurry up and begin the Punishment!”

            Monomi threw her paws up in the air in a panic.

            “N-No, you can’t!”

            Monokuma huffed and corkscrew punched her out of the way in aggravation.

            “Jeez, get outta my way! There… Now that my annoying little sister has been dealt with, let’s get back to business.”

            Hiyoko tensed and then shouted at Monokuma.

            “HEY! Hold on! Don’t you owe us some memories since I murdered Owari?!”

            Monokuma belted out a laugh, clutching his belly.

            “I’ve prepared a special Punishment for Hiyoko Saionji, the Ultimate Traditional Dancer~!”

            Hiyoko shook with poorly contained rage.

            “AT LEAST TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO MY DAD, YOU BASTARD!!!”

            “Let’s give it everything we’ve got! It’s… PUNISHMENT TIIIIIIIME~!” Monokuma cheered.

            “DAAAAAAAAAADDY…!” Hiyoko wailed, once more ignored by the bear as he began the execution, slamming his gavel down on the button.

            Her classmates and teacher could only watch in muted horror as a screen displayed an 8-bit version of Monokuma dragging off Hiyoko, declaring she was found guilty. In the courtroom, a collar clamped down on the dancer’s neck, and dragged her back to the elevator by a chain… The last look they saw on her face was one of pain and fear.

            … This was going to hurt. For all of them.

            ~*~

            Shred Her on the Dance Floor: Ultimate Traditional Dancer, Hiyoko Saionji’s Execution

            As the screen flickered on in the courtroom, displaying the site of Saionji’s execution, they saw Hiyoko was on a stage, and a Noh mask was forced on her face. Suddenly, spotlights turned on over and under the stage, giving the dancer a perfect view of everything. Even though she was no longer chained, there was an audience of Monokuma’s before her, so she knew that she wouldn’t be able to just run away.

            Her shoulders sagged in defeat. But then, unseen by Hajime and the rest, a sign flickered on in the back of the room, instructing Saionji to dance following the lighted sections on the floor of the stage – if she completed the dance all the way to the end, she would be allowed to leave. Green lights were areas she could dance on; red areas were off-limits.

            Feeling better about the stakes, though the neon lighting on the floor certainly disturbed her, Hiyoko began dancing using the form of Noh Mai, a form of Japanese traditional dance. At first, it wasn’t bad. The lighting on the floor was slow-moving enough she could keep up and maintain the grace and beauty that came with the form of Noh Mai. A couple of times she narrowly missed red areas that abruptly appeared…

            But then the stakes really began to sink in. Because Monokuma started revealing the consequences of brushing against red areas – circular buzz saws embedded in the floor would pop up and slash into Saionji’s kimono and ankles. The dancer hissed but kept going for it. Monokuma would not win! This was the area she was superior to all others, damnit! The Noh mask was a blessing, because it would hide her suffering.

            … Things went downhill. Fast. Tempos changed. The lights sped up in their transitions. Hiyoko had to scrap the Noh Mai pacing she was accustomed to; if she didn’t, she was going to start losing toes… amongst other appendages.

            Mistakes were increasingly made. The buzz saws on the floor tore into her, but they were no longer the sole source of Punishment – knives would eject from the wall, slashing at her kimono sleeves and hair. Hiyoko kept dancing. She had no choice. Stopping would mean death – she was grimly aware of that now. The buzz saws and knives multiplied in number, and bursts of flames would occasionally belch down from the ceiling. Hiyoko dodged these plumes of fire with all the grace of the Ultimate Traditional Dancer, but avoiding the fire cost her. Her socks were practically pink, her feet bloody pulps…

            Still she danced. Every time she made a ‘mistake’, she could tell the walls had mechanisms within them that moved in on her. Her stage shrank, yet it did not get any easier to keep up. At one point, the lights on the floor changed to a random corner she was farther away from, so she had to take a leap to reach the safe area…

            Her eyes bugged out as a swinging pendulum chopped off her arm that had been extended outward. Blood gushed out like a geyser from the now severed appendage, and Hiyoko screamed and dropped to her knees at the center of the stage, mid-leap.

            … That was her undoing. The squares she landed in her marked red… and the longer she stayed there, rooted in pain, the more buzz saws emerged to shred her to pieces, from top to bottom. Hiyoko screamed. And screamed. And screamed. And screamed. But still the saws kept going at their breakneck paces, the walls moved closer and closer…

            Almost mercifully, a second swinging pendulum came down and severed Hiyoko’s head from its body. Moments later, her body was crushed by the walls, blood exploding and erupting everywhere.

            It was over. Whatever you could say about her, how mean and snotty she was, no one… No one deserved such a grizzly fate. They wouldn’t be able to honor her death with a burial, that was for sure…

            ~*~

            Monokuma cheered and bounced up and down in the courtroom.

            “YAHOOOOOO! EXTREEEEEEEEME~!” The bear let out a relieved breath as people started screaming at the carnage. “Phew! The adrenaline is rushing through me~!”

            Mikan wailed loudly.

            “S-S-Saionji…!” Why?! Why was Monokuma so cruel?!

            All the nurse had wanted was for Saionji to like her. For them to be friends. Even when Hiyoko was so mean… Mikan… Mikan just wanted to be friends. Was that so awful…? Was this “Punishment” for her failure to reach out to Saionji?

            Was this her fault…?

            “Gh… Ooooooh…” Kazuichi moaned loudly. “A-Are you… serious…?  Ughhh…!”

            “Ah… Ahhh… AAAAAAHHHHHHH…” Ibuki foamed at the mouth, overloaded with grief, terror, and shock.

            “Wh-Why…? Why… did you do something so cruel…?!” Sonia cried out, clutching her bow and feeling sick.

            Monokuma tilted his head.

            “Huh? Didn’t you learn when you were in elementary school? If you badmouth someone… The teacher writes it in a note, and makes whoever you badmouthed read it to you in front of the class.” The bear rubbed the back of his head bashfully. “When that happens, only then do you think about how it feels to be badmouthed. The same applies to murder.”

            “Y-You’re the one who drove her to do it…!” Mahiru screamed in anguish.

            Teruteru shivered in dread.

            “Too cruel… This is just too cruel…!”

            “Well, it just can’t be helped.” Monokuma flippantly replied. “Rules are rules and this is the Killing Game after all~!”

            Hajime snarled. He had had enough.

            “What… What rules?! You’re the one who’s breaking the rules!”

            Monokuma snapped toward the brunet sternly.

            “Huh? I can’t just let that slide… What do you mean?”

            “You can’t just force us to play a game when we don’t know all the rules!” Hajime bellowed back, hands clenching into fists in aggravation. “More than that… Didn’t you also promise something?! You said you’d tell us about our missing memories once a murder happens! Why didn’t you tell Saionji about her dad?! She deserved to know!”

            Fuyuhiko’s hands twitched at his sides in aggravation.

            “Yeah, us too…! We all have a right to know!” The yakuza snarled. His hands curled into fists and he raised one up threateningly. “Hey! Hurry up and tell us! What did you mean earlier when you mentioned our ‘school memories’?!”

            Monokuma giggled, paws over his mouth.

            “Oh, yeah. I did promise to return your memories after the killing began…”

            Monomi wilted.

            “Huh…? You’re gonna do it? But… telling them is kind of…”

            “But I never told you guys that I’d tell you right away~!” The bear taunted.

            “Wha…?!” Fuyuhiko exclaimed.

            “That’s not fair.” Mukuro hissed, clenching her fists tightly. Even if she had no idea what to expect, she still wanted to know

            Maybe it would give her an answer with how to feel and respond to Komaeda-kun’s… betrayal…

            “Of course, I’ll keep my promise to return your memories someday…” Monokuma declared merrily. “But… It’s still not clear when that ‘someday’ will actually be… BWAHAHAHAHA~!”

            Belting out that last laugh, Monokuma departed. Monomi nervously fidgeted in place.

            “I must excuse myself as well! Th-There’s something that I need to do!”

            Aaand Monomi left, too…

            “Wh-What the heck…?!” Kazuichi screamed, tugging his beanie over his head.

            “That’s not fair! They both ran away!” Ibuki cried out.

            “Monokuma had us wrapped around his finger, after all…” Peko let out an airy, dejected sigh.

            “Saionji…!” Nekomaru sniveled, tears and snot flowing down his face as he clenched a fist in anguish.

            Nagito looked down dejectedly, as well.

            “An ending like this is just full of Despair… A seriously tragic Despair… But still, at times like this… As symbols of Hope, you guys need to keep doing your best~!” The luckster mustered another creepy, seemingly warm smile.

            Byakuya, whose hands were gripping his witness stand as he kept his head down, spoke in a stern, emotionless tone.

            “Komaeda. Be quiet. You have done more than enough.”

            Nagito tilted his head at the heir curiously.

            “Hmm…? Did I say something to upset you, Togami-kun…? I’m sorry…” The luckster was cut off forcefully.

            “Stop. Now… is not the time for your machinations. An appropriate punishment will be decided for you tomorrow. I… cannot deal with you right now.” The heir turned his back on the luckster, who was left at a loss for words.

            Nagito turned to Hajime next.

            “Hinata… Surely you understand? We spent the most time together – you, me, and Ikusaba. I feel like we have a special connection because of our admiration for Hope’s Peak…”

            Hajime gritted his teeth in frustration, balling his hand into a fist.

            “Komaeda… Do what Togami said. We’re not going to deal with you right now. Just… stop. I see now it’s a waste of time talking to you.”

            Nagito’s shoulders sagged.

            “Aww, you hate me now, too… That’s so disappointing…”

            “Komaeda-kun. Be. Quiet.”

            The luckster turned to Mukuro last of all, feeling especially at a loss for words by her frosty tone and cold glare. Had he really gone too far…? He had to wonder, for the first time since drawing up the plans for a murder mystery…

            “Sensei…?” Chiaki tilted her head, turning at last to Chisa, who had been completely silent since Hiyoko had been dragged off for her execution. The gamer’s brow knitted together in concern at seeing the empty, traumatized expression on the woman’s face. Chisa’s hands were on her witness stand, but there was no grip to them.

            There was no… life in her, if Hajime was to be completely honest as he got a look at the orange-haired woman. The telltale rising and falling of her chest, along with the rare blink of the eyes, was the only telltale sign that they didn’t have another corpse on their hands… But everything else about her, she might as well be a corpse, from the presence she conveyed.

            For Chisa’s part… she was just so… lost. Started off the night with a party, party ended with one of her students being killed, and now she had to watch another student of hers get executed… In a completely unreasonable, completely unjust, completely unfair way…

            The blood of those students might as well have been on her hands. Saionji was right… What the hell had she been doing? She should have known from the moment she volunteered to clean out the lodge, and Komaeda’s compliance with that decision, that it wasn’t going to be enough to protect her students. She should have immediately suspected something was out of place, and she… and she…!

            It didn’t matter that she only had a hunch Komaeda was the one behind the note Togami-kun received… She should have thrown everything into that hunch. Not shoo him away from the lodge, giving him free reign to do whatever he wanted. Owari and Saionji’s blood were on her hands. The orange-haired woman stared down at her hands with swollen, bloodshot eyes from the amount of crying she had done, already.

            She could feel the blood, tainted, vile, and sludgy… oozing through her fingertips… She hadn’t even touched Owari’s body during the investigation. Hadn’t even touched blood outside of chem lab experiments in high school… She could imagine it, so it was there. And because it was, Chisa wept all the harder, her deceptively ‘clean’ hands flying to her face as she crumpled to her knees.

            Mahiru, Ibuki, Mikan, Sonia, Chiaki, Fuyuhiko, Peko, and Nekomaru instantly moved to comfort the poor woman, while the rest of them could only hang back and watch, painfully. They all knew this breakdown had been coming for a while… It hurt seeing their upbeat, cheerful Sensei like this. Broken. Shattered.

            … And they’d brought this on themselves, if Hajime was honest. Yes, Tsumiki, Kuzuryu, Souda, Nevermind, and Saionji hadn’t “said” anything about Komaeda’s plans… But the rest of them couldn’t really be completely spotless, either. It was their fault for not noticing sooner. So many of them were on edge, and they’d just continued obliviously… Hajime was kicking himself for not looking into Mikan’s distress before the party, like Mahiru had tried to do…

            If he had, would it have made a difference?

            “We cannot continue on like this. It’s not sustainable.” Byakuya muttered, having moved closer to Hajime as they watched their classmates try to bring some comfort to the grieving woman. Hajime mustered up a wry expression… he didn’t think he could call it a ‘smile’.

            “What are we supposed to do…? A murder’s already happened. Can we really say there’ll never be another one?”

            Byakuya’s frown deepened, keeping his arms crossed.

            “... We can only try our best, Hajime. There is… no other recourse for us. We will just have to sleep on it… And hope that tomorrow will raise our spirits. Somehow.”

            Hajime chuckled bitterly.

            ‘Hope? That’s the last word I want to hear right now…’

            ~*~

            Mukuro tossed and turn in her bed. It was honestly the first night she could remember having anything but a calming, fitful rest… But she wasn’t awake to realize that.

            No… she was having a dream.

            ~*~

            Mukuro blinked slowly as she drank in her surroundings. There was a fountain behind her as she sat at a bench, gazing at the Sakura blossom trees in full bloom, giving the area a very serene, majestic feeling.

            The soldier didn’t honestly know what to think about it. She’d never put much thought into… pretty things. Or just appreciating things as simple as nature and a peaceful, relaxing day.

            In her line of work, ‘peace’ and ‘relaxation’ happened when you were dead… That was the brutal truth.

            And yet she didn’t feel out of place here.

            “May I?”

            Mukuro looked up at the soothing, gentle voice to see a black hoodie… and a short, yet stout boy with brunet hair. The ahoge made her think it was possibly Hajime, but, no… The bright, optimistic eyes were a far cry from the other boy, who was most certainly a pessimist…

            And that smile

            The soldier blushed lightly and immediately acquiesced, moving over on the bench and nodding almost eagerly. The mysterious boy’s laughter… It was like melodious notes to her ears. She could listen to his voice all day. Strangely, it was like Komaeda-kun’s, yet… had its own distinct feel to it.

            As the brunet sat down, letting out an exhausted sigh, he grinned kindly at her, making her heart beat several miles per minute.

            “Wh… Who are you…?” The question tumbled out of Mukuro’s mouth, unbidden. The boy just beamed brightly.

            “Aw, c’mon, Ikusaba! You should know by now? I know I’m mind-numbingly average, but that almost hurts, y’know?” He chuckled sheepishly.

            Mukuro felt like kicking herself. Of course she knew who he was. He was…

            He was…

            Before she could manage to dwell on that, however, the boy leaned back on the bench, his fingers grazing Mukuro’s, making her already racing heart pump into overdrive.

            “Well, Ikusaba? Shall we begin?” The tone was mischievous, almost conspiratorial, yet Mukuro knew there was no real malice behind it.

            It felt… right. She belonged here. With him. This was where she belonged.

            ~*~

            Mukuro mumbled in her sleep.

            “Ma…ko…to…”

            19 days, 7 hours, and 40 minutes remaining…

Chapter Text

            The silence was overwhelming. It was palpable, thick, oppressive, and enforced a sense of surrender upon them all.

            There was no denying it any longer… In classic Monokuma fashion, the execution displayed on the computer screen in the darkened room cut out like the end of a movie reel, paying special attention to the gruesome, messy blood and guts splattered across the stage. It was so overbearing and over-the-top. Nauseating. Disgusting. Revolting. This wasn’t some charlatan passing himself off as Monokuma… no one else in the world had a mind this demented. No one executed criminals, children, in such a monstrous way…

            The bear was back. How, why… They were going to figure that out. But he was back, and now they were down two patients. Two of their former upperclassmen.

            And if they did nothing, more casualties would be on the way.

            “Good to know we can predict some things…” Byakuya dryly quipped, arms crossed. “Damn bear hasn’t lost his air for theatrics…”

            Mondo’s hand quivered angrily, eye twitching slightly.

            “A name. Gimme a name and a face… I’ll bring this sick fuck’s head in on a pike…” The biker growled lowly.

            “And just how well did that work for you, last time?” Celes deadpanned, shooting the biker a disapproving glare. She was seated in a chair, one leg crossed over the other. “Anger will not help us here. We need clear minds to assess the information we know so far…”

            Mondo snorted, lowering his arm and shooting the gambler an unimpressed stare.

            “Says the chick who flipped her lid over a damn firetruck.”

            A dark aura sparked over Celes as she glowered at Mondo.

            “Perhaps you would like to experience a truck to the face firsthand? Might help give you perspective on that bear mercilessly stabbing at old wounds…” She hissed. “Fuck that bear. He knew exactly what he was doing, brought me up in all but name… I’ll fucking kill him myself…!”

            Mondo shuddered at the killing intent rolling off the gambler in waves as she trembled with rage, raising her taloned finger. He knew not to press this matter further… He liked needling her as much as he used to, but she was technically his superior… That meant she could make life really unpleasant, if she wanted. The years since escaping Hope’s Peak had not tamed this chick’s antics. If she wanted to get back at you…There was no stopping it.

            Well, assuming they all got back to the Future Foundation in one piece. This shitshow with Monokuma and the Killing Game might throw a wrench in that…

             Byakuya sighed airily, raising a finger to his temple in thought.

            “Never mind the taunts aimed at us, childish as they are. Chihiro, what are the odds Monokuma can carry out his threat to restore their memories?”

            Chihiro nervously fidgeted in his seat at the main computer terminal, toward the back of the room. He tapped his chin anxiously.

            “I-I’ve been monitoring their avatars for any irregularities… But we’ve lost some of the admin access. I’m working on a way to get that back, but in the meantime… I can’t fully guarantee their protection.”

            Byakuya deadpanned at the answer.

            “… So once again, it comes back to Monomi’s blunder with the wand. Fantastic.” He dutifully ignored the indignant squawk from the bunny avatar on the therapist’s laptop screen, from where she was sitting nearby in her wheelchair.

            Celes arched an eyebrow curiously.

            “Is it true that Monokuma hacked admin privileges…? Can a computer virus do that?” By which she meant, even if it was an artificial intelligence, could it outmaneuver the Ultimate Programmer?

            Chihiro wilted.

            “I… I’m still investigating that.” The programmer answered cagily. Clearly, he already knew a tidbit of information, and it would only stir up more trouble.

            Just as Celes leaned in a little to draw the answer out of Chihiro, Mondo cut in loudly.

            “Hey, uh… Is Sayaka alright?”

            Celes’s eyebrow twitched at the biker’s clear interference, and was about to voice her displeasure, when she shot a look over at the former idol, out of habit.

            … Oh. That wasn’t good. Interference or not, Mondo’s concern had merit.

            Makoto chuckled weakly, having allowed one of his hands to be clung to by Sayaka’s, while his other was wrapped around her shoulder; Sayaka’s own grip looked to be very tight, from the whites of her knuckles. Her shoulders were hunched over, and she just looked so small. That wasn’t the alarming part… No, that honor belonged exclusively to her empty eyes… her pale, mostly blank expression.

            Mondo and Chihiro recognized that expression right away. Sayaka was clearly distressed, and who could blame her, after what they watched? She’d be comatose like that for some time…

            Surprisingly, Byakuya’s expression softened the tiniest amount. It was almost contrived… but the difference was there.

            “… We’re not going to get anywhere like this. Let’s… call it a night. We’ll all need the rest, with the days ahead.”

            Celes held a knuckle over her mouth, eyes never straying from Sayaka.

            “Indeed. Analysis can wait until morning… at the very least…”

            Wordlessly, it was decided to leave Sayaka in Makoto’s capable hands. They didn’t make it a big spectacle and provoke her, even if they were concerned about this severe reaction. The most they could do for her right now… was take tonight’s guard duty in shifts between Byakuya, Celes, and Mondo. Give Makoto and Sayaka the night off, this once.

            … It’s not like any of them were actually going to get sleep, anyway. Not after that.

            ~*~

            “Sh… She… She…” Sayaka mumbled, hours after they’d gone off to bed. Her voice was tiny, broken, and small as she was pressed up against the luckster like he was a lifeline. Makoto just kept his arms wrapped around her consolingly, waiting patiently for her to find the words she needed to let out. “She was just a… child…”

            “I know.” Makoto mumbled back, closing his eyes solemnly as he rubbed her back. Hiyoko Saionji was a year older than them, but did that matter, in the grand scheme of things? Before the cruel eyes of Monokuma, they were all children… No one deserved a death that barbaric and malicious.

            The dancer hadn’t even known all the rules. None of them had. Not in Hope’s Peak, and not in this virtual simulation… They were all lambs to the slaughter.

            Sayaka sobbed, her grip on Makoto tightening painfully.

            “I… I made the same mistakes she did… I-I even did them intentionally…” The former idol said, barely above a whisper. Her eyes turned to pinpricks, in anguish. “D… Did I… Should I have gotten punished like that? Is that why all this is happening? Sh-Should I have just… died…?”

            Makoto’s own grip in the hug tightened, almost possessively. He shook his head firmly.

            “No, no you didn’t deserve to die!” The luckster’s strong words were a little jarring for the bluenette, but she let him continue to speak… Her mind practically begged for salvation. “Sayaka, you didn’t go through with your attempted murder! You helped keep everyone together when we went through the trials… You’ve shown more than enough remorse and regret, and you atoned for something you never did! Sayaka, you never deserved an execution like that… Not now, not ever.”

            Sayaka’s eyes fell, her hold on him slackening a little, but not too much.

            “Saionji-senpai was a dancer, Makoto… She… might’ve been groomed for the role, but that bond with her father… The way she wasn’t sure if she could trust anybody… Hell, even the murder weapon was what I was going to use… It just feels like… a harsh reminder of my sins. A slap in the face…”

            Makoto smiled a little bitterly at that, understanding where she was coming from.

            “Sayaka… if we’re drawing parallels, wouldn’t that mean that I kind of… inspired you to kill?” He could feel her freeze in his arms, and to be fair, maybe it was a bit of a stretch comparing him and Komaeda-senpai… But in a sense… “I mean, maybe I didn’t go the route Senpai did. But still – I wasn’t able to stop you from thinking about murder, right? After we watched those videos? I… I have to admit, back then, I wasn’t ‘really’ thinking about getting everyone out of there, at the time… I… It didn’t truly hit ‘til the trial. I… I was just thinking about you, and getting you out. If pushed a little more, I might’ve even sacrificed myself…”

            The luckster trailed off morosely as Sayaka cupped his cheek with one hand. Unparalleled grief reflected in her eyes as she looked at him.

            “I don’t want you ever blaming yourself for my actions… do you hear me, Makoto?” Sayaka tried not to come across as too forceful, but she really felt it needed to be stressed. Whatever feelings she might have held toward seeing Komaeda-senpai acting the way he did, they didn’t change her perspective on Makoto at all. They were two different people, even if their talent was identified as the same, and had a similar fascination with hope. They might as well have been night and day, for Sayaka. She stroked his face tenderly. “My worries, my doubts… those are on me. You didn’t push me into a corner! You never pushed me into committing murder! You saved me, Makoto. No matter how similar you and Komaeda might be… I know the kind of person you are, and believing in you is something I’ll never regret. That belief saved me in Hope’s Peak, it’s kept me alive out here, and it kept me going all the years we were in school together… You never resort to the kind of methods Komaeda uses, and that’s why he fails where you succeed – he goes too far.”

            Makoto averted his gaze.

            “Well… The Neo World Program seems pretty heavy-handed. Maybe I’m not exactly like him, but isn’t it kind of my fault Mukuro and everyone’s lives are in danger?” They both knew, now that one murder happened it was only a matter of time until more followed. It was... the nature of Monokuma’s game. No matter how hard they tried, the Mastermind always found a way to scare or coerce someone into committing murder.

            Sayaka shook her head firmly, once more soothingly stroking his face.

            “The Neo World Program didn’t put them in this situation, Makoto. It’s not you, or Chihiro, or Gekkogahara-senpai’s fault. You know that we put them in there… because we all wanted them to have a fresh start. To go back to the people they were, and atone for their misdeeds as members of Ultimate Despair. Monokuma, and whoever’s behind him, they’re the ones at fault for the murders. We’ll… We’ll get them out of there. We’re not losing anyone else.” Never again. Not after Kyoko, Sakura, and everyone else…

            “But…!” Makoto cried out in anguish, squeezing his eyes shut. “Even if it didn’t mean to put them in this kind of situation… Don’t you think we went too far, removing Mukuro’s memories to the extent we did? A fresh start is one thing, but making her completely forget Junko… and us…”

            Sayaka’s expression softened, and she touched her forehead against his, consolingly.

            “You know why it came to that… I don’t like it any more than you. But she was hurting, Makoto – you said it yourself, noticed it before the rest of us did… Completely forgetting Junko, as harsh as that is, is what she needed to heal… Junko was absolutely the worst, in the way she treated Mukuro – never considered her feelings, treated her no better than garbage, even wanted to hurt her… And against all odds, Mukuro still loved Junko. Even after we all found out just how much Junko hated her… Mukuro loved Junko. Family… was one of her only remaining connections in this world, and she lost that. She burned practically all other bridges for her sister. As her class, we tried to fill the void Junko left behind; Celes and I have even tried to be like sisters to her… But in the end, I think only you, and maybe Komaru-chan, had a hope of reaching Mukuro, in the state she was in. But after she began hunting Ultimate Despair… Mukuro kept changing, and not for the better. She was getting farther and farther away… As she was, Munakata was never going to let her live a normal life after overcoming the Tragedy. We… We had to do it, Makoto. For her. For us.”

            Class 78… For the short while they were together, they became something like a family. Even the aloof ones like Byakuya and Kyoko… or the greedy and self-centered ones, like Celes and Yasuhiro. Junko stole those precious memories, but instincts kept them bound together. Kept those bonds intact. Mondo and Kiyotaka. Mondo and Chihiro. Byakuya and Touko. Celes and Hifumi. Sakura and Aoi. Makoto and Sayaka… Makoto and Mukuro… Those bonds were still there, under the surface. That’s why Mukuro’s pain was their pain. Yes, Mukuro had kept her distance while she had known them… But that didn’t make her place among them any less valid. Especially when that family was cut in half in one fell swoop…

            You don’t know what you ‘til it’s gone.

            Makoto let out a shaky breath, keeping his eyes closed.

            “M-Maybe… A part of me just feels, this is like taking the ‘easy’ path…” And that rarely, if ever goes well. Sayaka knew this all too well – there were no shortcuts, not in rising to the top in the idol industry, and not in life. “Like we’ve given up on her, in a way…”

            Sayaka squeezed his shoulder reassuringly.

            “We haven’t. Giving Mukuro a blank slate, it doesn’t erase the past itself – this is just the only way we felt that she, and our upperclassmen, could move forward. The only way Future Foundation would ever accept them back into society. It… It is extreme. But the alternatives… It didn’t seem like they’d have a future at all, once Future Foundation put the pieces together they captured all the members of Ultimate Despair. They have to realize… that more bloodshed won’t return the world to the way it was. Revenge won’t make you happy… It’ll just leave you empty and hollow. Mukuro realized that… on some level.” She still pursued Ultimate Despair with a fire that they had never seen in her before, but if she really hadn’t learned anything, she wouldn’t have been miserable with Junko’s death.

            Mukuro was just… lost. And it was up to them, as her family, to help her find her way again. Supporting a loved one doesn’t always mean that you approve of everything they do… You correct them, straighten them out, when they stray from the path. You don’t abandon them to a never-ending cycle of pain and misery.

            Makoto smiled wryly and opened his eyes, gazing at the former idol softly.

            “Let’s just hope Munakata and Sakakura can forgive us after this is all over…” Never in his wildest dreams would he have suspected Yukizome-sensei was a Remnant of Despair, like her former students. She always seemed so nice and supportive of Class 78 joining the Future Foundation…

            And then Mukuro dropped that bombshell on them, mere weeks ago… Proving yet again, there can be a side to someone that you never see until it’s exposed… As disheartening as it was to discover that horrifying truth, Makoto was glad to see the Yukizome-sensei that he’d come to know in these past couple years hadn’t been a total lie… Seeing her past self try to lead her former class in the face of the threat Monokuma presented, it was heartwarming to see.

            … He hoped she could accept the deaths of her students, and move forward, carrying their memories. From what he’d seen so far, Makoto liked to believe Yukizome-sensei had the willpower needed to do that. She was strong. She arguably had the biggest heart out of everyone in that simulation; you can’t fake love like that. He knew from personal experience.

            But… He knew Monokuma could get to just about anybody. Being strong didn’t make you indomitable. And yet, Makoto would place his faith in her until proven wrong. He would place his faith in all of them… Yukizome-sensei, Mukuro, everyone.

            “They’ll understand.” Sayaka beamed pleasantly, trying to soothe him. Though to be fair, she was trying to convince herself, as much as she was him. She couldn’t blame him for being worried about those two. “Once Sensei is out of there, and back to her old self… they’ll understand…”

            Makoto chuckled sheepishly, being able to tell that Sayaka was as concerned as he was.

            “We’ll just have to count on that, then. If it comes down to it, I’ll take full responsibility for everything. It was my idea in the first place.” The luckster winced a little when the bluenette pressed their foreheads together with more determination, pretty much glaring disapprovingly at point blank.

            “Makoto… we are absolutely not letting that happen. Chihiro and Gekkogahara-senpai feel guiltier than you do, and we’re not letting them take the blame, either! Celes would sooner use her clout as 14th Division Head than let you take the heat from Munakata. And Byakuya would use every resource to get you out of trouble. Mondo and I would be more direct about getting you out of jail. Not to mention what Mukuro would do, once she wakes up.” She pressed their noses together, in determination. “No becoming a martyr for our sake. Each of us wanted to heal Ultimate Despair.”

            Makoto chuckled weakly again.

            “Well… if it all goes right… Mukuro might not even remember me, so…”

            “It’s got every chance of going wrong, too.” Sayaka pointed out. “And even if she gets her memories erased… you won’t forget. Are you really going to become a martyr after Mukuro helped save your life?”

            That popped Makoto’s bubble. He sagged in Sayaka’s embrace, averting his gaze. That wasn’t fair. He didn’t want to make Mukuro’s efforts meaningless, no, but he also didn’t want everyone else getting in trouble for this…

            ‘… Mukuro…’ The luckster thought to himself in reminiscence.

            How had things come to this…?

            ~*~

            “M-Mukuro…? They let you out?”

            The soldier blinked slowly as she perceived the luckster, who caught her standing by a makeshift grave near Hope’s Peak. Most would be offset by the intense red eyes, but not Makoto – Mukuro wouldn’t hurt him. Besides… he was more curious about  whose grave the soldier would take the time to visit.

            “Not exactly…” Mukuro mumbled, staying rooted in place by the grave marker she’d etched out, personally. “I decided to make a slight detour before reporting back to Yukizome-sensei. She has me on jobs for Future Foundation…”

            Jobs that she would spare Makoto the details on. He… wouldn’t exactly approve.

            “They gotta be pretty huge ops, if Munakata approves them…” Makoto rubbed the back of his neck, chuckling sheepishly. “B-But that’s good! That means he trusts you now, right?”

            Mukuro averted her gaze at that.

            “… Sure.” If by ‘trust’, that meant sending her into operations that would sooner get most people killed. The truly suicidal jobs that the Future Foundation took on. It was only by her raw talent and skill as the Ultimate Soldier that she tackled these suicide missions solo…

            Yukizome was still trying to find one that would finally do her in. Duplicitous bitch held a grudge, and Mukuro couldn’t necessarily blame her. … Though Mukuro wouldn’t be letting her have her way anytime soon, not so long as Makoto was still at risk.

            Makoto frowned thoughtfully. Sounded like he needed to change the subject. He moved around so he could get a better look at the grave.

            “… ‘Yasuke Matsuda’? Who’s that?” He asked, genuinely curious. Mukuro stared down at the grave, deep in thought.

            “He was… a friend.” In the loosest of senses. He associated more with Junko than her, but they had common ground in the way they treasured and wanted to protect Junko. She explained as much to Makoto, even going so far as to explain the circumstances of his death.

            Makoto nodded slowly after hearing Mukuro’s explanation, feeling like he understood.

            “I get it… You felt bad about him not having a grave or anything, so you decided to make one yourself. That was… really thoughtful of you, Mukuro!”

            The soldier shrugged nonchalantly, eyes never straying from the grave. In truth, she’s still unsure why decided to do this on a whim. The common ground she once had didn’t hold up anymore; frankly, she probably should have hated his guts for helping Junko…

            Yet she didn’t. Somehow, she set Yasuke apart from the members of Ultimate Despair. Mukuro didn’t understand why; he was arguably worse than that bunch of psychos. They at least had the excuse of being brainwashed by Junko; Yasuke willingly went along with her…

            A phone buzzed in Mukuro’s pocket. She briefly stared down at the screen, and then started moving. Apparently she took too long with the detour… She didn’t object when Makoto fell into step next to her, in fact, she welcomed his company. Maybe he could help her make sense of this.

            “It’s not like I feel pity for him or anything… He was Junko’s lover. He basically asked to be stabbed in the back.”

            Makoto hummed thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. He could sense that she was searching for an answer to her own actions and desires, here.

            “Well, it’s like you said – you felt a connection with him, no matter how small. Junko used and threw both of you away, only Matsuda died for it. Maybe in a way, you saw yourself in Matsuda’s shoes, and that’s why you felt like giving him a grave.”

            Mukuro frowned a little at that.

            “It’s more a memorial than a grave. Obviously, his body’s long gone.” It still didn’t make sense to her, either.

            Makoto ran a hand through his hair awkwardly.

            “We all honor death differently… From what I remember, you usually avoided funerals and cemeteries unless they were my acquaintances…” Even then, she usually saw to him first, paying the dead barely a second glance. “Maybe I can’t prove it because I never knew Matsuda, but just going off my own experiences with you, I think he was important to you, even a little. Didn’t you attend your parents’ funeral?”

            Mukuro tilted her head, face scrunching up a little as if recalling a distant memory.

            “They died while I was off in Europe with Fenrir… And when I got back, there wasn’t really time to process that news ‘cause of being accepted to Hope’s Peak…”

            Makoto winced sympathetically. He didn’t need an explanation for that – Junko made sure to put her to good use, as she planned out the Tragedy.

            “Well… all the more reason! I think the reason you’re confused is that this is probably the first real loss you’ve thought about, and Junko’s not around anymore to keep you from thinking about it… So you did the first thing that sprang to mind, you gave him a memorial.”

            Mukuro’s frown deepened.

            “… He’s not you, though. “ If anyone was worthy of a memorial, it was Makoto.

            … Not that Mukuro would ever let it come to that. If she had her way, she’d pass long before he ever did.

            Makoto chuckled sheepishly.

            “We all have that special friend that is more dear to us than most others are… But that doesn’t mean those other friends are worthless. Don’t you remember that funeral for my friend from middle school?”

            Mukuro went quiet at that. Of course she remembered it, though maybe not for the same reasons that Makoto remembered it… Still, her curiosity got the better of her. She knew better than to ask when she already knew, but…

            “… Do you have a ‘special friend’, too?” Mukuro hated how vulnerable she sounded in that moment…

            Makoto smiled wryly at her, and Mukuro could feel her heart already crashing and burning from the disappointment.

            “Well… Sayaka was…” He trailed off, deep in thought. But as if sensing her misery, Makoto carried on. “… But I dunno if I can be selfish like that anymore. It wouldn’t be fair to Celes… or you…”

            Mukuro’s eyes bulged as her heart accelerated, threatening to burst from her chest.

            “M… M… M-M-Me…?!” For the first time in what felt like ages, she squeaked.  Surely, Makoto was just taking pity on her…

            … But as she dared to spare him a glance, she knew right away… Makoto was being serious. He was rubbing the back of his neck and looking down guiltily.

            “I… I don’t want any of you guys to be unhappy. I can’t really explain it… I know I was in a relationship with Sayaka, and I know Celes made it seem like she’d approve my decision as long as I was happy… But now I have the knowledge if I pick any one of you, the other two are gonna be sad and disappointed… I can’t do that to you guys!” Makoto held up his hands peacefully at her shocked, disbelieving gaze. “N-N-Not that I’m arrogant to think that you can’t find another guy to make you happy! I just… u-until that happens for two of you, maybe it’s best if I… refrain from deciding… J-Just so no one feels abandoned…”

            Mukuro stared at Makoto for a long time after that. There was obviously a ton of flaws in his ideal outcome… There was no way it was ever going to end up that clean cut, and most girls would probably be offended the man couldn’t decide for himself… But then again, they kind of did force this situation on him. And Makoto was really that kind of rare soul that didn’t wish to hurt anybody… He was far, far too kind and generous, putting off his own happiness for selfish girls like them…

            The soldier thinned her lips in determination, eyes glazing over as she came to a decision, herself. Sayaka and Celes could be stubborn all they liked… Mukuro wasn’t going to budge. If Makoto was going to be like this, she was going to be just as dedicated. Her life was already Makoto’s to begin with, but now she had motivation like none she’d experienced before.

            … That still left the matter of securing Makoto’s future… So long as Junko’s legacy was still breathing, he was at risk. Mukuro’s hands curled into fists at her side. That’s right… as elated and happy as this made her, she couldn’t forget that above all else, Makoto’s safety was paramount.

            She would need to put off her own happiness… just a little while longer…

            ~*~

            “… Let’s not beat around the bush. This state of affairs is absolutely unacceptable.” Byakuya declared with authority, as he tended to do in these impromptu strategy meetings. He had one leg crossed over the other as he sat with arms crossed, leaning back in his chair at the head of the meeting table. The conference room was attached to the command center, in case an immediate response was needed.

            Chihiro still had a laptop with him, just in case. The six of them were alone in the conference room, leaving Miaya to oversee the Neo World Program as Class 77 proceeded with their morning. Mondo was seated next to the programmer, while Makoto was seated on the opposite side of the table, flanked by Sayaka and Celes.

            “How did it even reach this stage…?” Celes wondered, a knuckle over her mouth. “Monokuma should not have been a factor at all. A virus slipping by the Ultimate Programmer seems like a very grave oversight…”

            Mondo growled furiously at the gambler immediately picking up that topic again, seeing how it made Chihiro sink lower in his seat in shame.

            “Everyone makes mistakes, Ludenberg! Lay off! Who the fuck expects a virus here of all places?!”

            The gambler gazed at the biker with half-lidded eyes, unimpressed.

            “The Ultimate Programmer should have seen something like this coming, especially during an apocalypse run by terrorists… It does fall under his purview…”

            Chihiro waved his hands frantically, trying to calm Mondo down while also trying to appease Celes.

            “I-I don’t know…! It didn’t come from outside! I know that because I’ve made sure to modify our firewalls… Th-There’s no way a virus should have gotten in…! I-I would have been alerted to it attempting to break through the first layer of security!”

            Celes arched an eyebrow accusingly.

            “Oh…? So that’s what this is about… You were nervous about pointing fingers, because this was an inside job.” Her words were harsh, but not without truth. Chihiro hung his head sorrowfully as the room grew very quiet at the implications.

            Makoto, eyes wide in panic, tried to stop the distrust from gaining traction.

            “G-Guys…! We can’t fall for Monokuma’s trap again! W-We can’t doubt each other…” He held a hand over his heart, face pinched in anguish. Sayaka nodded slowly in agreement.

            “Y-Y-Yeah… The four of us – me, Makoto, Celes, and Byakuya were in 14th Division! Mondo’s in 6th Division, and Chihiro in 7th, but we don’t doubt you guys, either!” They couldn’t doubt each other. It would have made the escape from Hope’s Peak meaningless…

            Byakuya scoffed airily.

            “Calm down, will you? Celes wasn’t saying it was one of us…” He rolled his eyes in distaste. Not even he was going there again.

            Celes twirled a lock of hair around her finger.

            “Gekkogahara should be scrutinized, but she is not the only one. Recall: This facility at Jabberwock Island was previously occupied by a contingency of Future Foundation personnel. This place was all but ready for us to use, when we arrived; Chihiro and Gekkogahara merely needed to apply the finishing touches, and for us to prepare the pods that Ultimate Despair are sleeping in. For all we know, a mole had infiltrated the ranks of Future Foundation and left behind a virus on a whim… We have no way to know yet, do we not?”

            Chihiro nervously fidgeted in his seat. No, no they did not have a way to know… When they set up shop here, it was a combined effort between him and Miaya. If a virus was already in the mainframe of the computers Miaya had been working on, she wouldn’t know precisely what to look out for, not for malware of this caliber. Chihiro himself did perform a last-minute diagnostic on all the important software, but at that point the virus could have moved to a more obscure hiding place within the system, somewhere Chihiro wouldn’t have thought to check.

            A lump formed in the programmer’s throat. He wasn’t going to doubt Miaya… They made the Neo World Program, together with Yasuke. This was all his fault. His attention was on the firewalls and anything coming from outside… But that was no excuse. Now two avatars were lost, and he was doing his utmost best to recover them. He’d… He hadn’t slept much at all, last night. The bags under his eyes attested to this.

            Byakuya snorted derisively.

            “So, that’s our first bit of legwork. Finding out who was a part of the initial occupation of Jabberwock Island and digging into their backgrounds. We’ll turn our eyes elsewhere if nothing immediately sticks out…”

            Mondo cocked his head, unsure.

            “Hah? Hold the phone. For a virus to get by Chihiro, doesn’t that seem like a member of Ultimate Despair would’ve pulled this shit?”

            Celes raised her taloned finger pointedly.

            “Except each of them was personally escorted to and placed into the pods... I believe you, me, Byakuya, and Mukuro oversaw that process. They were not allowed anywhere near the computers. We are not that foolish, Mondo.”

            The biker raised a twitching hand in aggravation.

            “Not when we got here, but… like… What if one of ‘em came to Jabberwock Island before this shit went down?”

            Byakuya tapped his finger on the table impatiently, scowling at the biker.

            “… Leaving aside the ironclad defenses around Jabberwock Island during its occupation,  let’s review the members of Ultimate Despair, shall we? Who among them could have possibly conceived a virus?” The heir pulled out a tablet to bring up the profile pictures of each member. “Already, we can rule out the Ultimate Cook, Swordswoman, Yakuza, Nurse, Dancer, Musician, Breeder, Team Manager, Gymnast, Luckster, Soldier, and Princess. None of them have to work with computers, not to the degree that it would take to create an artificial intelligence. You can rule out the Photographer, I think, because she was primarily around that Princess while she laid siege to Europe. The Imposter, whose full abilities we do not yet know, ran my Togami Empire into the ground and left naught but ash, so I hardly think he had the frivolous free time to pop over to Jabberwock Island while that was going on – similar to the Princess, he was always in the public eye. Of course, this leaves the Mechanic… I will admit, we can never entirely rule him out. But usually, we would hear something about his movements and activities. Towa City is so far the biggest oversight we had, with regards to him.”

            Makoto hummed as he looked to the last profile… the mysterious guy with the long hair.

            “Hinata-kun… Do we know anything about his skillset?” He scratched his cheek as all eyes were on him. “I mean… yeah, in the simulation, I know what we’ve seen of him. But remember, this is what he was like in the past. So far, all we know is the Future Foundation wanted us to keep an eye out for him…”

            “He is by far the most mysterious…” Celes mused in agreement, also eyeing the portrait on the tablet. “I do not see the investigation into him proceeding smoothly at all. Even as a Division Head, I have not been made privy to that man’s background. An enigma among the Ultimate Despairs does not bode well…”

            Sayaka’s brow furrowed in concern, one hand slightly over her mouth.

            “So… We should try looking into the Future Foundation occupation of Jabberwock Island, Souda-kun, and Hinata-kun… That seems like a lot to do, already.” Especially considering they wouldn’t be able to investigate willy-nilly. Munakata had the Future Foundation on high alert, looking for them – any access to their records was going to take Chihiro pulling the files and covering their tracks thoroughly.

            Byakuya snorted again.

            “Oh… we’re not done. Now that we have our homework settled on, let’s go over what we’ve seen so far, yes?” The heir raised a finger to his temple shrewdly. “Nagito Komaeda is by far the biggest wild card in the game right now. With Mukuro gravitating towards him, he might as well have free reign on that island. Do we have any safeguards in place that can keep him in check?”

            An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. They knew full well a therapeutic program wasn’t going to have ways to completely immobilize a patient, let alone two, if it came to that. They weren’t even expecting death to be a factor… not with them in charge. Monomi had been their go-to for micromanaging Class 77 during the healing process… and guess who lost her admin access? With Monokuma around, you might as well pour gasoline over those flames and make it an inferno…

            “I-I’m working on it…” Chihiro wilted, feeling the heir’s expectant gaze on him. Makoto held up his hands peacefully, seeing Mondo about to yell at Byakuya to lay off.

            “L-Look, we dunno how dynamics are gonna change now that a murder’s happened! M-Maybe Mukuro will be less loyal, now that she has to realize Komaeda was using her…” He knew that on some level, that was wishful thinking. Mukuro was loyal even when Junko was abusing her… She could be attached at the hip to Komaeda for the entire game, for all they knew.

            Celes giggled a little hysterically, despite the morbid situation.

            “I, for one, welcome this newfound affection for Komaeda-senpai… She is adapting quite well~…”

            Mondo and Sayaka deadpanned at the gambler.

            “That adapting shit again?” Mondo grumbled.

            “Mukuro deserves better than that, and you know it, Celes…” Sayaka sourly glared at the gambler in disapproval.

            Celes cupped her hands under her chin, beaming pleasantly.

            “I am merely saying that she is wise to begin looking elsewhere~… Whether she settles for Komaeda, or raises the bar, that is up to her. All that matters is her removal from the race… that is all~…”

            Makoto sweatdropped. Why did everything have to be a competition with Celes…? Why did he have to be the prize to be competed over?

            “A-Anyway…” Makoto coughed, trying to defuse the argument before a fight broke out.

            “Rest assured, Komaeda isn’t the only liability.” Byakuya scoffed. “His machinations have shown that the problems go deeper than that… Nevermind and Kuzuryu are two more we have to keep an eye on. Souda might as well be the same level of idiot as Yamada or Kuwata, and Tsumiki is as weak and vulnerable as Chihiro was.”

            Mondo growled threateningly at the unapologetic heir. Celes twitched at the insult to her late friend.

            “Hifumi may very well have had his flaws, but at least he would have reported Komaeda’s insanity to me… No, I would go so far as to say Souda’s idiocy is on the level of Hagakure. Did you not see how many times he wished to jump the gun, in that trial?”

            Byakuya shrugged uncaringly.

            “A fool by any other name is just as moronic, Celes… Don’t take pity on idiots.” He rolled his eyes disdainfully as the gambler hissed at him furiously.

            “I-I’m more worried about Coach Nidai and Yukizome-sensei…” Makoto again tried to smooth ruffled feathers. Sayaka followed up his attempt with a hesitant nod.

            “Koizumi-senpai, too… She at least tried to be friends with Saionji…”

            “I-I’m glad the Imposter is trying to step up…” Chihiro piped up. Mondo belted out a laugh.

            “Hell yeah! He’s the asshole Byakuya we needed. Not the shitty bastard we got.”

            “I must agree…” Celes darkly mused, eyeing the heir who now appeared annoyed.

            “You plebeians are never going to let that go…” The blond deadpanned, his hand curling into a fist. “His mockery of my appearance will not go unpunished, I assure you. I will have your ‘hero’s’ head, one day… Mark my words.”

            The discussion devolved a bit from there… Not even Makoto could mount a defense for Byakuya, considering he himself kind of wished the heir could be a bit nicer, like the Imposter… The heir lamented their productivity was plummeting, and ordered a ten-minute break to “cool heads”…

            That was when Celes approached him about a concern.

            ~*~

            “S-So what’s up, Celes…?” Makoto asked, once they were alone in a secluded room they hadn’t used yet since occupying the former base.

            Celes had contemplated using her room for this sensitive meeting, but didn’t want Sayaka eavesdropping… This was a delicate matter, and Celes didn’t want to start a mass panic. Only she, Byakuya, and now Makoto would know of this.

            The gambler took a deep breath, wrestling her own emotions back under her control.

            “… Makoto. Do not be alarmed, but Monokuma was in control for a short period of time.”

            The luckster scrunched his face in confusion.

            “Y-Yeah… I know that already. You’re talking about when he had Monomi’s wand, right?” He felt a little relieved when the Goth nodded her head in confirmation. “I know he changed the rules, but he doesn’t have that authority anymore.”

            … That relief was all swept away with her next report.

            “That’s not all he did… Byakuya is looking into this, trying to recover the deleted e-mail to check the contents, but we fear the worst…” At the luckster’s increased confusion, she took a shaky breath. “Makoto, this isn’t easy to say. But during the short time Monokuma had that wand, he sent an e-mail out… through your account. That bastard bear deleted it from the sent box right after. We don’t know the exact contents, but he sent that e-mail to Munakata.”

            Makoto went pale, before impulsively walking over to a nearby wall and using it to support himself. Celes worriedly asked if he was alright. The luckster cracked a small, broken grin.

            “I-I… I guess it’s easy to assume the worst, huh…?” He dipped his head in anguish. “They were probably going to find us eventually… I just hoped we had a little more time…”

            Celes made her way over to him, placing a hand on his shoulder consolingly.

            “We’ll…. We’ll make it through this, Makoto. It might look grim for us, but… I’m prepared to pull what little weight I have left in this disaster of an organization-”

            Makoto shook his head grimly.

            “No, Celes… I… If Munakata’s coming, if there’s even a chance that he is, I want you to take Sayaka, Mondo, Chihiro, Byakuya, and Gekkogahara and get out of here… Maybe Munakata will still hunt Chihiro and Gekkogahara down, but he won’t know about your guys’ involvement, not with any solid evidence! I’ll stay here and take the blame. I… I have to. This is all on me.”

            Celes hissed in frustration, grip tightening on his shoulder.

            “Makoto, we are not abandoning you….We all made our choice. We wanted to help Mukuro and everyone here… Plausible deniability or not, abandoning you is not an option.”

            “Munakata’s definitely not going to let this go…!” Makoto cried out, whipping around, hand over his heart. “You know as well as I do, Monokuma is broadcasting to the rest of Future Foundation! Munakata knows, Celes! He knows we have Yukizome-sensei, and… and Ultimate Despair… If anyone has to risk dying, let it be me! I’m the one who wanted this the most…!”

            A harsh slap rang out in the darkened room, and Makoto cradled his cheek shortly after, staring at the crying gambler in disbelief. Not just a few tears, either… Celes was having a full breakdown from this.

            “Whatever else happens, you do not leave me!” Celes heatedly shouted. She gnashed her teeth in anguish, and clenched her eyes shut, turning away from him slightly. “I already lost you once, Makoto… It is not your duty alone to march to the guillotine for our sakes. You can’t tell us to live, while your first impulse is to give up your own life… It’s not fair! Even if Munakata marches in here with the rest of the Foundation, and he isolates you from us… You come back to us, got it? You owe us that much!”

            Makoto’s shoulders slouched in defeat. He pretty much had this argument with Sayaka… But now he saw was reminded of just what impact his death would have on his friends… He didn’t mean to make Celes cry. He didn’t mean to immediately jump to martyrdom, but… But if it meant saving everyone else… He…

            Makoto hesitantly hugged Celes close, feeling even worse when she tensed.

            “I’ll do what I can… But you know we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Owari and Saionji might be dead, though I hope Chihiro can recover their avatars… Monokuma’s back, and instigating killings again… We might as well assume Munakata is on the way. We have to keep everybody alive, Celes… whatever it takes… We have to be ready when Munakata gets here.”

            The luckster knew he was saying this just as much for himself as he was for her… So he did the only thing he could do. He held Celes close and comforted her as she sobbed into his shoulder. They had to be there for each other while there was still time…

            This new Killing Game… was only just beginning. And it wasn’t going to be any easier for them out here.

Chapter Text

            Hajime blearily cracked his eyes open, once the Monokuma morning announcement rang out. When he moved to sit up, everything ached. Sluggishly, he craned his head toward the window, where he had a view of Hotel Mirai… and the lodge, which was now the source of a great many painful memories.

            … He wouldn’t do much good, moping in here all day. But he was exhausted from the… two? Maybe three? Hours of sleep he had gotten. It hadn’t been a pleasant rest, even when he did succeed in falling asleep. Phantom images of Owari and Saionji haunted his dreams, and a manic Nagito Komaeda not far behind them…

            The brunet eventually mustered the strength to leave his cottage, though his limbs felt weighed down by exhaustion and depression. It seemed kinda empty, out in the hotel grounds – the first person he bumped into was a bit of a surprise… because she was actually standing a bit close to his cottage, between it and the crosswalk that led to the main building. Like she had been waiting for him.

            Hajime chuckled nervously and waved lamely at the soldier as he walked up to her; the dark-haired girl watched his every move.

            “H-Hey, Ikusaba… Y-You need something?”

            Mukuro blinked slowly, registering his question. She then just shook her head.

            “No… I was just waiting for you.”

            Well, that didn’t put him at ease. He continued to sweat nervously at the simple answer.

            “Um… Komaeda didn’t put you up to something again, did he? I-I don’t want any trouble!” He raised his hands defensively on reflex.

            Mukuro stared down at the boardwalk, her eyes adopting a faraway look.

            “I… haven’t seen Komaeda this morning. I just got up, actually.” She murmured, anxiously fidgeting, contrasting the tough, determined girl act he knew she was capable of.

            Hajime’s frown deepened, the more he watched her. He knew last night affected her, too, but he thought things would practically go back to normal once morning came. That… didn’t seem to be the case.

            “Hey…” He trailed off uncertainly. When she looked back up at him, he rubbed the back of his neck and grinned sheepishly. “Wanna talk about what’s on your mind?”

            Mukuro seemed to hesitate at that honest invitation. Hajime really wanted to know what was up now; was it really some big secret? Was she that rattled from the previous evening? Not that he could necessarily blame her… It’s just, she struck him as the type that didn’t get fazed often. Durable, resilient, whatever adjective you wanted to use – Ikusaba was the Ultimate Soldier, she was a strong girl.

            That’s what Hajime had thought, anyway… Maybe he shouldn’t have assumed he’d never see her affected by anything. That’d make her seem inhuman.

            “I…” But after several awkward moments, Mukuro did seem to find some words. “Hinata… Did Komaeda-kun… Did he really ‘betray’ me…?”

            Her voice was small, uncertain. Hajime scratched his cheek, sheepish grin remaining on his face.

            “Well… I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on Komaeda’s motives and all that… He’s… not normal.” He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, once again. “If I had to say one thing, it’s that he did… use you.”

            “But soldiers take orders all the time!” Mukuro defended, a bit frantically. “We… We give up our lives, too. That’s… normal, for me…”

            Hajime frowned as he puzzled over her view on things. True, she came from an entirely different world than he did; personally speaking for himself, he wasn’t comfortable with Komaeda’s willingness to sacrifice everyone for the sake of one person… He relayed as such to the soldier, who shifted awkwardly in her stance, as well.

            “… And anyway, it’s like Pekoyama said – if Komaeda had succeeded, only Saionji would have lived. The guy you’ve sworn loyalty to… doesn’t care about his own life.” Hajime reminded her, feeling like a heel when she stared down at the boardwalk again, appearing crushed in spirit. “Maybe it’s not my place to say, but you could use some time away from him. We’re all strangers here. Depending on one guy, and one guy alone… It seems self-destructive, don’t you think? What happens if he gets murdered? Or if he becomes a killer and gets executed? What are you going to do then?”

            Mukuro paled at that hypothetical scenario.

            “I-I… I… I wouldn’t let it come to that! I’d… I’d stop Komaeda-kun before it got that far!” She was wiser now. She’d know what to look out for!

            Hajime grimaced at the desperation laden in her tone. This didn’t sound like it was about Komaeda, specifically… He was getting a better idea of what drove Mukuro, now.

            “Ikusaba… If last night taught me one thing, it’s that anything can happen.” Especially here. Especially with such talented individuals. “Maybe you’re capable on your own, and maybe you can account for a lot… But we’re all human. Even you can’t do everything by yourself.”

            Mukuro appeared stricken by all this. She clutched a hand over her heart in anguish, and Hajime took a deep, steady breath.

            “I’m in the same boat as you. I’ll eventually have to decide how to handle Komaeda from now on. But still… Regardless of what happens, I don’t think I want to make ‘enemies’ with anyone… Not you, not Komaeda… That just plays into Monokuma’s hands.” Stiffly, he started to walk past her, briefly stopping when they were adjacent to each other. “Just… take it one day at a time, okay? I’ll be here, if you ever want to talk.”

            Hajime eventually left, after it became clear Mukuro wasn’t going to say anything else, just stare listlessly into space. He felt bad, but at this point, he wasn’t sure if he wasn’t just spewing a bunch of complicated, nonsensical stuff; maybe he didn’t know what he was talking about. He was concerned about Mukuro more than anything else. Similar to Komaeda, she was someone he’d spent the most time with so far. Even if they were strangers… they had a fledgling friendship.

            He didn’t want their bond to wither up and die.

            ~*~

            Unsurprisingly, the cafeteria was quiet as a morgue when Hajime got up there. The few people who were in there – Sonia, Nekomaru, Teruteru, Gundham, and Byakuya – were off in their own little worlds. He wasn’t expecting a conversation of any kind for a while, even when the stragglers would eventually drag their feet in here.

            … Which is why his eyebrows raised when the heir approached him calmly.

            “Hinata. Punctual as ever.” The blond greeted him, crossing his arms.

            Hajime chuckled nervously, scratching his cheek.

            “Yeah, well… There was no running from this. Best to get it out of the way now, and hope things blow over soon.” He knew, whether it was by Togami or Yukizome-sensei, that they would all be rounded up for breakfast meetings. It was inevitable.

            Still, the brunet’s response seemed to satisfy the heir. Byakuya gave a mysterious smile, closing his eyes.

            “… It’s a relief to hear you say that, Hinata. I knew I was right to choose you as my Assistant.”

            Hajime cocked his head a little at the tone he couldn’t place.

            “You know I still never agreed to…” The brunet shook his head, deciding to just drop that old complaint. Because he was, wasn’t he? He willingly helped Togami during the investigation, and even before the party started up… Hajime couldn’t even say he was mad about it. Besides, there were more important things. “Did something happen?”

            It wouldn’t be strange if people were irate about the events of last night, but Togami usually took it all in stride. Togami typically radiated confidence and authority… Right now, he just looked as tired as Hajime felt.

            Byakuya raised an eyebrow curiously, lips dipping in a thoughtful frown.

            “No, not as of yet. Why would you…?” He paused as it occurred to him what seemed ‘off’ to Hajime. He chuckled and gave a self-deprecating smile as he closed his eyes again. “Forget it, Hinata. It’s nothing. I’m just… I’m reminded to treasure consistency and dedication like yours. I would be a fool to not appreciate your efforts, leader or not.”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck and grinned in embarrassment. The heir was giving him way too much credit – like with Ikusaba earlier, he barely knew what he was doing. But it was still nice to have Togami acknowledge and praise, well... anything. Togami might’ve been pushy, but he had the heart of a real leader under there. He cared about everyone here, and he tried to keep them all on the right path…

            Maybe that was the real reason he came to breakfast, this morning. Not because of how Togami or Yukizome-sensei would have dragged him here anyway, but because deep down he admired and respected them. He wanted to be here. For their sake, at least.

            It didn’t take long for the others to trickle in. He spotted even Mukuro and Fuyuhiko among the crowd; they likely had Sensei to thank for that, in wrangling them all here. Chisa glanced around the cafeteria expectantly, a tired, strained smile tugging at her lips.

            “Alright… are we all here? Is this everybody?”

            “I think so…” Kazuichi muttered, rubbing the back of his head. He laughed nervously. “Who’d miss the wakeup call? Ehehe…”

            For everything she’d been through, Chisa could still muster the rounds of going to everyone’s cottages and pounding on their doors… Or maybe that was a coping mechanism for her, to make sure everyone was still alive.

            … That woman still terrified the shit out of the mechanic, how casual she was with dragging people if she ‘needed’ to… Even if he felt bad for her, that ever-present smile was a force to be reckoned with…

            Fuyuhiko snorted.

            “We gonna take attendance before we eat? That shit sounds like something you do in elementary school…”

            Mahiru pointed at the yakuza accusingly, hair a bit frazzled from her own restless night of sleep.

            “You…! Can’t you cut out the tough guy act for a day?! After all we went through yesterday?” She demanded heatedly. Fuyuhiko deadpanned at the photographer, but kept his mouth clamped shut for once, surprising Hajime a little.

            Teruteru combed his hair suavely, grinning pervertedly.

            “All of the girls are definitely here~! You can trust me on this. I marked all you cuties down as being present, I saw you all~…”

            Ibuki shuddered and cried out dramatically.

            “Teruteru-chan’s still a creep…! Ibuki has the willies!”

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously, smiling anxiously.

            “I-Isn’t it a good thing he’s keeping an eye out for us…?”

            Mahiru scratched her cheek sheepishly.

            “… Tsumiki, we’ll talk about this later. There’s what a kind and caring person does… and then there’s what Hanamura does…”

            Peko crossed her arms, face calm and composed.

            “I believe everyone is here… with the exception of Komaeda. I count fifteen heads here.”

            Chisa’s eyes widened as she looked around with more alarm than before.

            “Has anyone seen Komaeda?!”

            Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mukuro tense up as well. Teruteru humphed poking at his chin skeptically.

            “Who cares about a guy like him? Sometimes, too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the broth!” He adopted a look of outrage. “And who says I want him eating my divine dishes, anyway?!”

            … So Teruteru made today’s breakfast… Somehow, that made Hajime feel a little better, after the taste he had gotten to experience last night. Then again, he knew it was going to be addicting, having meals like this. Would he ever be able to eat normal food again?

            “He is cursed… A child who summons misfortune, so to speak.” Tanaka nodded sagely, arms crossed.

            Hajime scratched his cheek, understanding why Nagito wasn’t super popular.

            “Well, that may be, but…” He trailed off as Nekomaru abruptly bellowed out.

            “J-Just letting you know… I don’t know anything! W-Without hesitation… I-I don’t know anything about Komaeda at all!”

            Kazuichi pointed accusingly.

            “He’s right, forget him! Let’s just forget about that creep already!”

            Chiaki tilted her head curiously.

            “… They’re obviously acting suspicious, aren’t they?”

            “I-I’m not suspicious!” Kazuichi defended himself. Nekomaru was quick to follow suit.

            “Hmph! That’s right! I-I’m not suspicious!”

            Monokuma took that time to make his unwanted appearance.

            “What’s up? Did someone get kidnapped or something?” The bear tilted his head adorably.

            “Y-You came at just the right time…!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            “Hm? At the right time…?” Monokuma echoed.

            “N-No… It’s nothing…” Nekomaru clenched a fist, looking down in anguish.

            Monokuma started panting as he poked his paws together nervously.

            “I don’t really get it, but… you must have yearned for me. Your outlook on life must have changed due to my cuteness, so your body can’t stand to live without me, huh? ‘I-I can’t help myself, you know… M-My body… reacts to Monokuma… on its own…’ Somethin’ like that, right?” The bear giggled at his own joke.

            Mahiru huffed impatiently.

            “Who cares about that? Just hurry up and tell us why you’re here.” She demanded.

            Monokuma sighed wistfully.

            “To be honest, I’m searching, too. My valued servant… has disappeared!”

            “Your servant?” Hajime blinked owlishly.

            Monokuma hung his head in shame.

            “You know, my Monobeasts… One of them just disappeared…” The bear tilted his head curiously. “Maybe I cut back on the cost of their food too much? Perhaps they’re boycotting me?”

            Gundham chuckled to himself, muttering.

            “’But… that guy is the weakest of the League of Four… How shameful for a Monobeast to lose to a mere human…’ That’s what you want to say, right?”

            “Hm?” Monokuma turned sharply to the breeder.

            But Gundham crossed his arms, looking off to the side disinterestedly.

            “Though this is merely the prelude, the climax will occur soon after…” The breeder struck a sensational, dramatic pose. “Now then, let me hear you scream! I shall make such sweet music for you!”

            Monokuma hummed unconvincingly to himself, seeming quite unamused. Mahiru made a vague gesture, frowning.

            “Hey, Tanaka… You should stop playing with that stuffed animal.”

            “I’m still being called a stuffed animal…” Monokuma grumbled, turning his back on them all. “Oh well… It doesn’t look like you guys don’t know anything about my Monobeast either… Then, it’s a waste of time for me to worry about it. I don’t wanna go bald from worrying too much. A wise catbot once said, ‘Our eyes are on the front so we can keep moving forward!’”

            The bear then took his leave, leaving them mystified and curious.

            “Hey, what do you think he meant just now? He said something about a Monobeast disappearing…” Peko wondered aloud.

            Chiaki tapped her chin thoughtfully.

            “Hmm… The only possibility  I can think of is…” She trailed off as Monomi made her appearance.

            “Um… Were you in the middle of something? If so, I can just come back later…” The rabbit said graciously.

            Chisa tilted her head curiously, despite other things being on her mind than Monokuma’s nonsense.

            “Hey, Monomi… Did you have anything to do with the disappearing Monobeast?”

            Monomi pumped a paw in the air victoriously.

            “Ah, yes! That’s right! Tadaaa! I’m the one who defeated that Monobeast!” She asserted proudly, paws at her hips.

            “Y-You did?!” Hajime couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

            Kazuichi scratched his cheek.

            “Defeating a monster like that… How the hell did someone like you pull that off?”

            Monomi giggled, spreading her paws out comfortingly.

            “The details aren’t important! Anyway, I’ve released the bridge gate for you all!” The bunny announced. Chiaki tilted her head.

            “If the gate is open… That means we can go to the new island across the bridge, right?”

            “I-IS THAT TRRRRRRUUUUUUUUUEEEEEE?!” Nekomaru bellowed.

            Monomi nodded sagely.

            “Ahem! That’s totally right! Now that you all can go to more areas, let’s all get along and live a fun life for sure this time! Love, love~!”

            Mikan poked her fingers together anxiously.

            “L-Living together on this island isn’t what’s important… W-We need to find a way to escape.”

            “Of course! Escaping from this island is our main goal!” Mahiru agreed wholeheartedly.

            “… Huh?” Monomi tilted her head in confusion.

            Ibuki raised a finger fiercely.

            “Nobody wants to live in a swashbuckling, Hollywood type, action film!”

            Mikan nodded quickly in agreement.

            “I-I want to live a life where I can be more average… a life where nothing happens… That’s better for me.”

            Kazuichi grinned excitedly, pumping his fists.

            “All right! If you find anything that can be salvaged for boat parts, let me know immediately!”

            Monomi hung her head a little in disappointment.

            “I-It seems like… everyone’s united on a path that’s different from what I had planned…” She mumbled dejectedly. Gundham laughed uproariously, bringing out his hamsters again.

            “FWAHAHAHA! Then let’s disperse! The time has come to release this cursed seal!”

            Fuyuhiko smirked, raising a hand casually.

            “Okay, then. Let’s find a way out of this hellhole!”

            “That is… impossible…” Monomi lamented. “Leaving the island… is no longer possible…”

            The rabbit disappeared before any of them could question her cryptic statements. But more importantly, Sensei had all of their attention again when she slammed her hands down on the table she was seated at.

            “Before you all run off… We need to talk, you guys!” Her smile became the tiniest bit twitchy as she turned towards the coach and mechanic. “… Especially you two. Now, I’m only going to ask this once: Where is Komaeda-kun…?”

            … There was something sad about watching a grown man like Nekomaru wailing like a baby. It was kind of expected from Kazuichi… But they both sung like canaries, all the same. It wasn’t long before Mukuro slipped away to free the luckster, even before Chisa had requested for someone to do that.

            Hajime squirmed a little uncomfortably, where he was seated with Byakuya, Ibuki, and Chiaki. He knew he wasn’t going to enjoy seeing the luckster again, so soon…

            ~*~

            Nagito chuckled as he sat down at an open table, rubbing at his wrists but otherwise appearing as if he hadn’t just been tied up by his peers.

            “Thank you, Ikusaba! I’m truly grateful for your help! For you to be worried over trash like me… I’m so moved!”

            Hajime rubbed his chin as he noted Mukuro moving to sit at her own empty table, not sparing the luckster a single word. It’s true she could have said something while going to untie him, or on their way back from the lodge, but from the way she kept her gaze averted the brunet got the sneaking suspicion that not much had been said, if at all. He was honestly… a little relieved by this turn of events. It meant Mukuro was possibly moving past being blindly loyal.

            Everyone else was obviously shooting the luckster wary or distrustful looks. Or in cases like Ibuki, she just tried to staring at him; and in Mikan’s case, she looked to be on the verge of falling apart.

            Chisa just clapped her hands together contentedly, forcing the biggest smile she could muster.

            “We’re all here… Great…” The teacher took a deep, composed breath. She then released it calmly, seeming to wrangle her own nerves and emotions under control. “I know it’s not easy, you guys… But we have to talk. We can’t be walking on eggshells around each other. So… Even if it seems a bit weird for me to say, I want you guys… to let it all out, here. Don’t hold anything back. If you’re angry, upset, sad, or some mix of it all… Let us have it. The floor is yours.”

            Hajime winced at the orange-haired woman’s decision. It was a bold move, but he had to admit, it was way nicer than the tongue-lashing he was expecting right off the bat. Clearly, she had a game plan. Just letting people vent here, that seemed way too risky, considering she wanted them all to get along.

            … Then again, her strategy up until now had involved preaching about camaraderie. If a murder happened despite that strategy, that meant there were grievances and distrust amongst the group… Maybe this did need to happen. Still, couldn’t Yukizome-sensei have structured this a little better…? He could see the many, many different ways this could go wrong…

            At least he wasn’t the only one. Byakuya was looking over at Chisa with an arched eyebrow that demanded an explanation. However, Chisa just kept quiet and looking out among the students, waiting for them to take her up on her offer.

            Fuyuhiko snorted derisively, his lips curling in a distasteful sneer. Hajime wasn’t surprised the yakuza would be at the forefront of people with grievances.

            “We finally done with the Kumbaya crap? You done licking your wounds? You done lying to yourselves?” The yakuza raised a hand casually, one hand on his hip. “Welcome to the real world. Yeah, people lie, manipulate, and murder. Death was gonna happen. It’s gonna happen again. The sooner you all accept that… the easier you make it on yourself.”

            Mahiru growled lowly in frustration.

            “What the hell do you know?! Saionji… was a victim, too…! You can’t just lay this all on her!”

            Fuyuhiko curled a fist as he raised his voice aggressively, shouting at the photographer.

            “Shut the hell up! Who said I was pointing fingers, bitch? You’re the one that brought up that shitty twerp all on your own. I was just saying a murder was inevitable! If it wasn’t that twerp, it would’ve been that psycho fuck with the fireworks, or the coward that kept quiet ‘cause he wanted that psycho fuck to die, or even that two-faced broad that got taken in by ‘thoughts of her people’ or whatever horseshit she used as an excuse before wimping out at the last second…” The blond raged, his hands twitching furiously. “But since you wanna talk about Saionji, fine! Let’s talk about her, too! You think that bitch is innocent in all this?”

            Mahiru seemed to hesitate as Fuyuhiko gave his rebuttal. It seemed she’d revealed her hand a bit earlier than she had wanted, but it was too late now. All eyes were on her.

            “I… I didn’t say she was innocent…” The photographer sidestepped the accusation, hands clasped behind her back anxiously. “Just… This whole thing about not trusting each other, isn’t this the whole reason she panicked in the first place? What gives any of us the right to look down on her? We were all in her shoes, so she doesn’t deserve to be singled out here. We’re… We’re all at fault.”

            Fuyuhiko snorted again, crossing his arms and looking off to the side.

            “I’m not singling out anyone here, don’t put words in my mouth either. But grow up, ya bitch…” At her shocked, disbelieving gaze, he scowled, glaring at her out of the corner of his eye, reproachfully. “None of us have the right to look down on her? That ain’t what this is about, this is about accountability. The twerp snapped because everybody didn’t trust each other? Well, no shit! Everybody’s got something to hide, we only look after #1, so of course we can’t trust each other! Not the way you guys want us to trust each other, unwaveringly, unflinchingly… Whether you like it or not, Saionji chose to murder… Or don’t you remember what she said? Owari wasn’t her target. That was just a damn accident. Not like it would’ve been much better if she had stabbed and killed her real target… Saionji chose to go all the way. She coulda called it off any time, but she didn’t! Maybe she didn’t know the rules, but she’s still a murderer! That fact will never change.”

            Mahiru appeared as if the air had been sucked out of her lungs as she wordlessly tried to argue the yakuza’s points. In the end, she just stared down shamefully at the floor. She clutched the strap to her camera bag in anguish.

            “Um… Excuse me? Might I interject?” Sonia decided to chip in, poking her fingers together anxiously.

            Fuyuhiko side-glanced at her, frowning.

            “Huh?” He barked.

            It spoke of Sonia’s innate regality that she was able to bear the brunt of Fuyuhiko’s prickly personality and not be intimidated.

            “I believe you have spoken at length about Saionji’s sins, and what she was accountable for… But what of you, yourself, Kuzuryu…? If you knew murder was inevitable, and you had been approached by Komaeda, then… Then you bear some of the responsibility as well!”

            Fuyuhiko scoffed. Loudly.

            “This finger-pointing crap again… Alright, fine! Why not! I’m used to being suspected and hated!” The yakuza heir balled his hands into fists at his sides, growling. He turned his hot glare from Sonia to Byakuya. “You wanna know why I didn’t report shit to you about Komaeda? Because he didn’t say jackshit to me about any murders or threats! Not to you assholes.”

            Byakuya blinked slowly as he rewound the yakuza’s words in his head. … Even the third and fourth time he repeated them in his head, the words didn’t make sense.

            “You… what?”

            Fuyuhiko shook a fist in righteous anger, bearing his teeth.

            “Some shit needs to be handled internally… When a psychopath tells you it’s in your ‘best interests’ to show up to a party, and he’s got something on you, you fucking handle it by yourself! That’s what I fucking did. Bringing you, or even Sensei, into my affairs was just gonna cause more problems… so I kept quiet! I dunno how that creep found out, or even how much he actually knew, but he threatened me! There’s no way I was gonna pussy out and take chances with an asshole that basically ruled with an iron fist, or a teach that was too busy cleaning, bonding, and shit… If Komaeda carried out his threat, I was gonna meet him head-on! I didn’t know he went around threatening other idiots, too!”

            “Kuzuryu…” Peko trailed off, head bowed in shame, having a feeling she knew what Komaeda might have pieced together, even partially.

            … This was her fault for not adhering to his wishes, and stubbornly attempting to stay in touch with him. If she’d been more careful… at the very least, her Young Master would not have been pressured like he was. As her Young Master’s tool, she had failed in keeping attention off of him; this was her failure, and her failure alone.

            Kazuichi shook his fist in outrage.

            “Hey! Don’t call Sonia-san an idiot, you jerk! That psycho freaked all of us out! Sonia-san can’t be blamed when he randomly decides to bring up her country.”

            Fuyuhiko felt like his eyes would roll right out of his skull as he glanced over at the mechanic, clearly unimpressed.

            “You don’t got the high ground, shithead! How about you worry about your own spineless ass before trying to cover for a gutless killer?”

            Sonia had gone ghastly pale again, staring down at the floor with a haunted expression. Kazuichi continued griping even as others started murmuring uncertainly about both of them.

            “True, Nevermind did consider killing… She said so herself.” Nekomaru rumbled, hands on his hips as he looked between the Princess and the mechanic.

            Teruteru combed his hair agitatedly, looking side-to-side shiftily.

            “Well… I’d hate to step on any toes, but at least Nevermind-chan called off the killing thing! Souda’s a little shadier, just letting a murder happen like that…”

            “Hey…!” Kazuichi cried, pointing accusingly at the chef. “I said I was sorry for that! I-I’m gonna be better…!”

            Gundham humphed, burying the lower half of his face in his scarf.

            “I would ask you all to desist your senseless allegations… My disciple has been put in his place, and the Dark Queen has stayed on the correct path! Harping on their sins will get us nowhere. Is it not the machinations of that cursed jester who frolics with fortune and misfortune that we are all in this predicament? I say let him burn in the fires of pandemonium so that the rest of us may finally know peace…!”

            Ibuki shivered as a number of them looked over at Nagito, having largely ignored him for a while. He wasn’t helping his case as he waved at them so nonchalantly.

            “True… Komaeda-chan is a creep that wanted us to start murdering! Even the great Ace Attorney couldn’t have seen this coming!”

            Mikan wailed mournfully.

            “I-I-I tried telling you about him…! I-I did…! I-I’m s-s-sorry Owari and Saionji died! D-Don’t hate meee…!” She sobbed, shielding her face. Mahiru tried massaging her shoulder consolingly, mustering a smile as best as she could.

            “No one’s blaming you, Tsumiki… It’s my fault for not doing more when you and Saionji laid your concerns on me… It… It is my fault Saionji was so insecure…”

            Chiaki hummed, unconvinced, as she tapped her chin.

            “I dunno… I think a lot of this really is just lack of communication! Kuzuryu-kun, Nevermind-chan, Souda-kun, and Saionji-chan knew something was up, but never said anything.” She raised a hand to stop Fuyuhiko from arguing back in defense of himself. “Even if you didn’t know as much, Kuzuryu-kun, you still knew Komaeda-kun was suspicious. Whether it was private or not, your fight with Komaeda-kun would have affected us, sooner or later. None of us live in a vacuum. If you know something is coming that will have a big impact on everyone, and you don’t say anything, that means, to an extent, you don’t care about everyone else. We have… to work together! Not just for everyone here, but for Owari and Saionji, too! We don’t want more victims like them.”

            The room grew more quiet and ashamed at Chiaki’s speech. She had… plenty of good points. They had to start looking beyond themselves, and see how their actions would affect others. Fuyuhiko grumbled about how another murder was gonna happen, regardless of what they did, but for now he seemed like the only major holdout on working together as a class, as a community.

            Chisa clapped her hands together joyfully, beaming proudly at Chiaki.

            “There we go! I think that really cuts down to the heart of the matter, don’t you?” She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear before glancing around at the students meaningfully. “I never wanted to point the finger at anyone. But those of you who did know that something was going on, and didn’t say anything, you need to seriously reflect on this. I was never angry with you… with any of you… I’m sad, but I know you guys can move past this! I know we… can move past this…”

            The teacher stood up and walked toward the center of the room, hands clasped behind her back. She did shoot Nagito a significant glance, one that the luckster wasn’t able to completely decipher with the amount of emotions behind it.

            “Moving forward, I imagine there’ll be hard feelings… But I want you guys to keep going, okay? Don’t let bad blood… Don’t let it prevent you from reaching out. We all make mistakes, and maybe Kuzuryu-kun’s right – maybe it’s not possible to trust people to such an ideal, complete extent… I think that was my fault, impressing that notion on all of you. Maybe that’s why… Owari and Saionji ended up dying.” Chisa’s face fell for a few moments before she slowly shook her head, curling one hand into a determined fist. “Make memories you can be proud of! Keep bonding with the friends you have, but don’t be afraid to make new ones! If you just keep an open mind and keep learning new things, you’ll make it through this! We all will. So… how about we go explore that new island? Who’s with me?!”

            Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly as he could tell Yukizome-sensei had tacked that on at the end because she was nervous and worried for their sake… She didn’t want them stuck dwelling on this. But at the same time, she was also aware this needed to be addressed if they were to move forward, and Hajime knew she was right… He was pretty sure many of them knew that.

            Just out of curiosity, he snuck a glance over at Komaeda, wanting to know how he was taking all this. Unfortunately, the luckster’s face was blank and unreadable, though his eyes were definitely on Yukizome-sensei. Hajime wished he could crack open the boy’s head and check to see if he was planning out a new murder already… But as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t. And really… it was probably true that Komaeda wasn’t thinking about that… yet.

            In the end, it wasn’t Komaeda who halted everybody in their general agreement to end the meeting. It was… Mahiru.

            “Hold on, you guys!” The photographer grunted, hands on her hips in disapproval. “I know it’s a bit more, but I just thought we deserved to go over this one more time!”

            Hajime scratched the side of his head in confusion.

            “G-Go over what…? Did we miss something?” He didn’t think they had.

            Mahiru slowly shook her head, again raising a hand vaguely.

            “I just… Look, I’ll just come out and say it, okay?” She placed her hands on her hips again, before shaking a finger at Togami furiously. “I think we need to go over who’s our Class Rep! We let Togami do it last time because no one else wanted to, but that’s just… lazy! He’s way too bossy and forceful! We should just… put it to a vote, at least! That’s fair, isn’t it?”

            Byakuya blinked owlishly at the suggestion before he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose in shock.

            “I… I’m sorry? You want to do what now?”

            Mahiru rolled her eyes at the question before crossing her arms.

            “I won’t deny you’ve tried your best, Togami. But this murder did occur on your watch! And it’s not because you weren’t more careful, or more forceful with us… It’s because you don’t try to understand our feelings! Do you think we liked you bossing your way into being our Class Rep? Do you think Saionji, or Nevermind, or Tsumiki, or Souda felt comfortable approaching you about Komaeda? Your answer would have been to restrict us even more! Whatever you would’ve done with Komaeda, I bet his luck still would have played into his favor and gotten someone killed… You can’t… lead people like this. If you’re gonna lead us from now on, at least do it fairly and let us put it to a vote! We deserve that much.”

            Byakuya’s frown deepened as he crossed his arms. Murmurs were making the rounds around the class, some agreeing and some disagreeing with the photographer’s proposal. Hajime himself felt… a little tense about all this. And the reason he felt this was a bad idea was summed up perfectly by Byakuya.

            “Koizumi, I… understand your frustrations.” The heir pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration, closing his eyes. “But if not me, and if you do hold a vote, who else would you propose? Who else would you place on the ballot?”

            Mahiru shrugged loosely, making another vague gesture with her hand.

            “I think… it’d be best for everyone involved if we wrote down our votes. It doesn’t have to be anonymous, we can write down our names with our votes, and explain why we chose that person… This way we don’t make it mob mentality.” The redhead explained. “Don’t you think a write-in system would be best? That way, we don’t make this a popularity contest.”

            “I… suppose.” Byakuya allowed, still appearing fairly uncertain about all this. “If this is what everyone wants.”

            Hajime frowned when no one else spoke out against this idea. He wished he could keep quiet, but he felt compelled to speak out on the heir’s behalf.

            “H-Hey, Koizumi… Don’t you think the vote thing is a bit much? We’re kind of still… reeling, from last night. I think a change of leadership at this point would be… Well, it’d kind of be lashing out, don’t you think? Togami might be pushy, but we agreed to let him be the Rep!”

            Mahiru huffed exasperatedly.

            “And if we just keep going forward like this, never changing, are people really going to be happy? Look, Togami might win, and I’d be fine with that! I just want… a fair vote. We’ve just ‘let’ Togami do whatever he wants, and that might not always be to our benefit if Monokuma throws a new motive out there! Isn’t it better to let the people speak for themselves?”

            Hajime scratched his cheek and gave a nervous smile. Mahiru might’ve had a point about ‘fairness’ and addressing everyone’s feelings, but there was still something about… not thinking about the alternative. They should put more thought into ‘who else’ would be leader, if not Byakuya…

            Alas, slips of paper and pens were produced, and the voting commenced. As Hajime nervously filled his vote in, just so it’d be counted, he wondered how the others were voting… It was decided by default that Yukizome-sensei would collect the ballots and read them out. But he also noticed, looking around the room, there were a couple of others who notably didn’t pick up their pens to write anything down. The brunet hoped they’d settle on a candidate – he’d be really concerned if Byakuya of all people couldn’t vote for himself, after all.

            Eventually the moment of truth came, however. Chisa collected all the papers, and proceeded to read out the results.

            “Togami-kun, Pekoyama-chan, you two didn’t vote?” Chisa tilted her head as she shuffled the ballots into a nice, orderly stack, tapping them on the table as she glanced over at the aforementioned students.

            The heir had his arms crossed, as he usually did, and he scowled.

            “If Koizumi wants a fair vote, I’ll abstain and let everyone have a say. This whole ordeal started because I was too pushy, correct?” He tilted his head and looked to Mahiru pointedly.

            The photographer held a hand over her mouth in shock, not expecting that.

            “Togami…”

            Peko closed her eyes calmly and sighed discontentedly.

            “I… could not decide. I’m sorry.” Came the swordswoman’s response.

            Chisa’s brow furrowed, but she nodded reluctantly.

            “Okay... Well, let’s see what the rest of you have to say.” She shot one more nervous smile before reading the results. “Hanamura, you voted for Nevermind.”

            Teruteru combed his hair suavely, grinning.

            “Honestly, I think we could just use a woman’s touch~… And who but Nevermind-chan is the fairest among the ladies?”

            Peko frowned in slight disapproval.

            “She… did try to commit murder. Are you sure you would trust her as the Class Rep?”

            The chef just chortled.

            “She already expressed regret for what she almost did! I see no reason to get so hung up over it. As I believe someone said earlier, we all make mistakes. Let’s give her a chance, hmm?”

            Chisa nodded reluctantly before setting his ballot aside.

            “Okay… Next, we have Koizumi, who voted for Nevermind, too.”

            Mahiru, who at least had the decency to look apologetic after Byakuya abstained, gave an uneasy smile.

            “I just thought… We could try her out as the Rep. Like Hanamura said, she’s sorry about everything. I just… want to give her a second chance.” She clasped her hands behind her back uncertainly. “Being our Rep, it’d be easier for Nevermind to see us as her charges, too, don’t you think?”

            Sonia beamed regally, waving off the stares she received as a result of Mahiru’s reasoning.

            “I am but a figurehead, Koizumi-san… You really are too kind! Honestly, I would prefer Togami-kun to remain our leader…”

            Chisa shuffled through the ballots and plucked out Sonia’s, since she was speaking up now.

            “Why is that, Nevermind-chan? Do you have a particular reason?”

            Sonia adopted a firm stance as she nodded stiffly.

            “A leader must take charge, even if he is not well-received at first… And that is precisely what Togami-kun has done. Perhaps his strategy with the party was not perfect, but he tried… I cannot help but admire that.” Sonia looked down dejectedly. “I truly am sorry I did not report Komaeda-kun to you, Togami-kun… It will be a shame on my honor until the day I die.”

            Byakuya looked to the Princess with an unreadable expression.

            “I… thank you for your support, Nevermind.” He really was thankful… But the way two people had voted for Nevermind already, it filled him with unease about the other votes.

            Not because of Sonia getting elected in particular… But because the write-in system could make it challenging to determine a victor. They might have to have a tie-breaker, in the worst case scenario.

            “Next we have… Mioda, who voted for Togami-kun, too!” Chisa announced next. Ibuki pumped her arm in the air proudly.

             “Ibuki thinks Byakuya-chan needs to keep leading us! It’d be one of life’s greatest mysteries if Byakuya-chan wasn’t our leader, right up there with the Bermuda Triangle and who thought it’d be a good idea to have mushrooms on pizza~!” Ibuki placed her hands on her hips, giving a bit of a troll grin. “Plus! Byakuya-chan throws the best parties~! It’s Komaeda-chan who messed it up…”

            Chisa sweatdropped, like they all did, at the musician’s eager explanation of her vote. It was clear she held great affection for the heir. The orange-haired woman still smiled kindly and moved on.

            “Next we have Tsumiki, who voted for Nanami…” The teacher hummed thoughtfully.

            Mikan poked her fingers together nervously and laughed anxiously.

            “Ehehe… D-Don’t hate meee…! Nanami’s j-just… she’s nice… A-And… I-I think Togami-kun is a good leader, too! I-I just… I had a tough time deciding between you two… I’m sorryyy…!” The nurse wailed, shielding her face again.

            Byakuya gave a small smile, chagrined.

            “You have nothing to apologize for, Tsumiki… If you voted for Nanami-san, I will respect that.”

            Mikan reluctantly calmed down at that. Chisa read out the next vote.

            “Tanaka-kun voted for Nevermind… That’s three for Nevermind.” The teacher tallied.

            Gundham looked off to the side disinterestedly as eyes were on him.

            “Need I explain where my loyalties lie? Even if Togami has done an admirable effort, I must stay loyal to the Dark Queen… If she must be doubted for her inaction last night, then I shall show her the way, just as I am with my disciple!” The breeder struck a dramatic pose. “Leave it to me, the Overlord of Ice…!”

            Chisa just kept a smile up at receiving another eccentric explanation. She wouldn’t fault her kids for their enthusiasm… Even if the others were giving the breeder strange looks.

            “Next we’ve got Nidai-kun, who also voted for Nanami!” She announced next. Nekomaru rubbed the back of his head and chuckled nervously.

            “Actually, I’m kinda in the same boat as Tsumiki… I couldn’t choose between Togami and Nanami! You both have a unique energy that I really dig, as a manager! Nanami just won out ‘cause of the speech she gave earlier… Sorry, Togami. I still approve of your leadership, too.”

            Byakuya shrugged nonchalantly. What else could he do? Chiaki’s speech was inspiring to listen to. He couldn’t fault people if they wanted Chiaki as the Rep… He would approve of her.

            “Next we have Nanami-san herself, who voted for Togami-kun!” Chisa called out next. “That’s three for Togami, three for Nevermind, and two for Nanami!”

            Chiaki beamed warmly at the heir, a hand over her heart.

            “I don’t think I have to explain myself, really… I think you’re doing a great job, Togami-kun!”

            Byakuya nodded indulgently at the gamer. They weren’t out of the woods yet. Five more votes to get to.

            “Next we have Souda-kun, who also voted for Nevermind…” Chisa revealed next. Kazuichi rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “Like you guys said already… Sonia-san is sorry! If there’s ever any doubts about her, we can just help her out! She’s our Princess, after all!” The mechanic chuckled, lazily resting his arms behind his head.

            A few rolled their eyes at Kazuichi’s vote. Really, they weren’t expecting anything different from him. For his part, Gundham just gave a closed-eyed smile in approval while his arms were crossed. The Dark Queen had taken the lead again.

            “Next we have Kuzuryu-kun, who voted for Nanami!” Chisa revealed next.

            Fuyuhiko just crossed his arms and snorted derisively.

            “I just didn’t want the fat bastard or the Princess… Figured no one was gonna take me, so I went for Nanami. Nothing else to it.” He said that, but the gamer really wasn’t a bad kid, in his opinion. There were way worse picks out there… And she was one of Yukizome’s favorites, so…

            Hajime gulped nervously. It came down to him, Komaeda, and Ikusaba… Fancy that. He knew his own vote already; it’d be the other two he’d be waiting with bated breath about. Did Ikusaba vote for Komaeda? It’d be great if she approved Togami, but… considering how she butted heads with him during the investigation, that might’ve been a stretch.

            “Hinata-kun!” Chisa beamed, reaching his ballot. “I see you voted for Togami-kun.”

            Hajime chuckled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his head.

            “Yeah… I’m kinda just like Nanami, it’s a no-brainer for me. I think Togami should stay our leader. He’ll get better at the stuff he needs to improve on, I know he will.”

            … Now it really was down to the mystery pair. Togami and Nevermind were tied up again. Oh boy.

            “Next is Ikusaba… She voted for… Hinata-kun?” She quirked an eyebrow and tilted her head at the soldier, who averted her gaze.

            “… I have my reasons.” Mukuro mumbled quietly. Hajime stared at her with wide, disbelieving eyes. Had what he said earlier really had such a profound effect?

            Regardless, he wouldn’t become the Rep. All her vote did was keep the vote split, and leave it up to Komaeda… Hajime became glassy-eyed at that disturbing thought. He knew it was just the way the votes ended shuffled up, but still. Komaeda being a deciding factor for anything after what he did last night… It had Hajime’s stomach doing somersaults.

            Chisa shrugged neutrally.

            “Okay… Well, Komaeda’s the last one. And he voted… Nevermind.” Chisa blinked after announcing that. She turned her eyes to the luckster, who just raised a hand casually.

            “Honestly… I just trusted my luck, like always! And really… I have a good feeling about Nevermind! Her Hope will be amazing~!”

            … Well, if that didn’t start a new wave of chaos in the room…

            ~*~

            Hajime numbly moved across the bridge to Jabberwock’s Second Island, once he found that was the gate that had been released… The morning meeting had gone to hell after the vote, but in the end, they allowed Sonia to be the new Rep… A vote was a vote, after all. Even if they weren’t nearly as united as they had been before the first murder… At least Yukizome-sensei agreed to stay on as an advisor for Nevermind… Hell, at least Yukizome-sensei was still the chief authority around here. Thank goodness for small mercies.

            … Hajime liked Sonia. He did. But just like a number of others, he didn’t know what to make of the fact she was one of the ones to know about Komaeda, and not say anything. Maybe she did show remorse, but a person like her being made the Rep so soon… This was gonna be a mess. Sonia did make it clear she herself disapproved  of this outcome, but she had reluctantly taken up the position anyway, in the end.

            The brunet shook his head slowly. There’d be plenty of time to think about that later. There was a new island to explore. New facilities available to them. He paused as he stepped onto Second Island and looked around at the nearby areas.

            “So this is the new island…” Hajime muttered as the ruins were the most eye-catching thing in his immediate view, but there was also what appeared to be a building you might see on a college campus, close to the ruins. “The ambience seems different… compared to the First Island with the hotel…”

            “Seems older or more historic…” Mukuro murmured next to him, getting a look, herself.

            Hajime nodded slowly.

            “Yeah…Maybe more studious, too? A place you can get lost exploring…” He paused, and nearly jumped out of his skin as he registered the soldier had been following him without his knowledge… He pounded his chest to slow down his racing heart. “I-Ikusaba…! Wh-Where’d you come from?!”

            Mukuro tilted her head curiously.

            “I followed you. Figured I might as well.” No one else was in need of her protection… right? If she was gonna take a break from Komaeda, might as well get to know Hinata better. Plus, there was sort of a poetry to exploring new places with the brunet; that’s what they ended up doing, at least partially, on the First Island. That was her logic, anyway.

            … Not that it helped Hajime come down from his near heart attack…

            “I… I see…” Hajime coughed, deciding to try and… let it go. He felt kind of responsible for just leaving Mukuro to her thoughts, earlier this morning. A better friend would have stayed with her ‘til she was more sorted out…

            As impressive and mysterious as the ruins were, Hajime decided to save those as the final destination, on his trip around the Second Island. Going the opposite way brought Hajime first to…

            “Is… Is this a music studio?” Hajime had to wonder, gazing at the electronic sign out front that had neon colorful musical notes flashing across it, along with spinning stars and an 8-bit electric guitar. Otherwise, aside from the radio tower that jutted from the top of it, Hajime wouldn’t have been able to guess what the plain-looking black building was for.

            Mukuro shrugged nonchalantly, pushing open the glass door that led inside.

            “Only one way to find out, isn’t there?”

            Smiling wryly, Hajime nodded and followed her in. Moving past the small receptionist area in the front, which appeared pretty basic, the main attraction of the facility seemed to be the recording studio.

            Now, the brunet didn’t know a whole lot about the music industry… but the place seemed pretty high-tech, and pretty spacious. There were microphones and speakers scattered around, a wide array of classical guitars and similar-looking instruments like violins and violas were displayed on a back wall, some drums sat in the corner, an electronic piano too… And…

            Oh. Ibuki appeared to have the sole electric guitar, and she was plugging it into a jack that was connected to a large speaker while cackling to herself. Uh-oh.

            “H-Hey, Togami…?” Hajime anxiously asked, approaching the heir who was also having a look around the studio. “What’s going on…?”

            Byakuya had his arms crossed as he frowned thoughtfully.

            “Mioda said she wanted to give a performance, once she spotted this place. I figured I’d indulge her.” The heir nodded slowly to himself. “It’s a well-equipped studio, I must say.”

            Mukuro idly moved over to some computers, inspecting them.

            “If this place has a radio tower, we will have to experiment with the broadcast capabilities… Perhaps this can be a way for us to send for help.”

            Byakuya nodded faintly.

            “True… We must try, if nothing else.”

            Not long after the heir uttered that, a sound could be heard over the speakers, indicating they were all about to bear witness to the Ultimate Musician’s mad guitar skills… Ibuki strummed the electric guitar… And… oh…

            Oh. What the hell was that? Hajime couldn’t say that he had ever heard music this intense or loud before… Holy shit…

            Even Byakuya and Mukuro looked taken aback by Ibuki’s style of music. It wasn’t just the guitar anymore, Ibuki was singing, screeching into a microphone… Hajime couldn’t help plugging his ears as the music was only cranked up louder.

            Ibuki was moving around now, almost like she was dancing… But that wasn’t the most disturbing part. Soon after Ibuki started rocking the electric guitar back and forth, she started messing with some knobs on it, and in the next moment, fire burst from the tip of the handle. At first it was just tiny bursts, timed with the rhythm of Ibuki rocking back and forth. But then Ibuki really tested it out as she hit the crescendo of her first song… A steady, intimidating stream of flames dragged across the floor, shamelessly leaving scorch marks.

            … And Ibuki, that madwoman, just crowed with delight.

            “IBUKI HAS HER FIRE AGAIN~! Now we’re cookin’ with gas~!” The musician flashed another shameless troll grin.

            Hajime shuddered, while Mukuro just stared. Byakuya was staring, too… But he was muttering under his breath.

            “… I will need to hold a safety seminar, after all…” The heir lamented with a sigh. It seemed like something he’d been wanting to spare them, from what he was hinting at.

            Hajime scratched his cheek anxiously. A safety seminar? Couldn’t they just lock that thing that should not have been made in an impenetrable vault or something?

            … Please?

            ~*~

            Down the road from music studio, Teruteru was having a look around the diner with a parking lot that had a connected path that led to a place called Chandler Beach. The diner had a 1950’s themed motif, which Teruteru personally wasn’t sure if he would have chosen that… But it was a homely looking restaurant. Nice, welcoming, relaxing and peaceful.

            The chef ran a finger across the counter, surprised he didn’t find a speck of dust.

            “… Huh. Not too shabby. But we can do better… I’ll make it somethin’ to be proud of…” It could never hope to equal the Hanamura Diner… But Teruteru would put in the hours, while he was here.

            Down by Chandler Beach, Peko emerged from a beach house after inspecting it. She walked up to Nekomaru, who was surveying the beach that gave off a vibe of being a private resort for celebrities.

            “The beach house is well-equipped. A functioning shower room, a well-stocked drink machine, and a closet with wetsuits, surfboards, and other miscellaneous supplies…” The swordswoman crossed her arms, frowning shrewdly. “Monomi explained we may use the shower room, if the need arises, but to lock it when in use.”

            Nekomaru hummed thoughtfully.

            “That does sound… pretty useful! Sounds great!” The manager barked out a short laugh, eyes never straying from the picturesque ocean.

            Peko’s own gaze followed his. Eventually, her conscience compelled her to continue speaking. It was unlike Nekomaru to be this melancholic… She’d help him take his mind off the previous evening, as best as she could.

            “It’s beautiful. We may be trapped here, but the view is exquisite.” The swordswoman murmured. Nekomaru nodded slowly, keeping his arms crossed and eyes forward.

            “Yeah… Owari would have liked it here. This place is perfectly out of the way for training! I couldn’t help thinking she would have jumped me the moment I strolled out here… Heh.” Nekomaru sniffed and looked to the side for a moment. Peko pretended not to notice when he dabbed at his eyes.

            The swordswoman tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.

            “What do you intend to do now? Do you have another pupil in mind? Or pupils?”

            The manager belted out another small chuckle.

            “Heh… You can’t coach someone who doesn’t wanna cooperate… But I’ve got a couple ideas, yeah. I’ll be a spotter for everyone’s life goals and shit, if that’s what I gotta do!” He turned to the silver-haired girl, eyes dry and serious. “How about you? You okay after everything?”

            Peko closed her eyes solemnly.

            “I am fine. I did not lose someone like you, and Komaeda did not approach me. I am more concerned for you.”

            Nekomaru gave a small, bitter grin.

            “… Don’t worry about me. It’s my job to inspire you guys to dream. I can’t do that if I’m cryin’ my heart out. Glory lies beyond the horizon…!”

            Peko hummed as the manager clenched a fist in determination. It was true he did not seem overwhelmed by loss, like he had during the investigation… But strength, remaining steadfast and unbreakable, was not always needed… It was true for her, a weapon. A tool. But Nekomaru? As superhuman as he was, he remained human. And humans relied on each other… they needed to. They couldn’t be expected to handle everything alone.

            “… If that is your wish.” Peko wasn’t certain how helpful she would be… But Nekomaru’s dedication spoke to her. She could… understand him. Sympathize with him.

            As long as supporting him did not conflict with her duties to the Young Master… She would stand with Nekomaru, as well.

            ~*~

            Further down the road, there were buildings across the road from each other. One looked more distinguished, professional, and stood by itself on one side. Across from it stood a pharmacy and a nearby electronics store.

            Sonia breathed excitedly, having chosen to inspect the building that stood by itself.

            “W-W-Wooow…! Th-This is one of Novoselic’s Embassies…! When did we send representatives here…? I had not even heard of Jabberwock Island before coming here!”

            Gundham looked around the marble floors that practically sparkled and gleamed; the stone pillars that stretched to the ceiling, scattered around the lobby of the embassy; the winding staircases that led up to another level… Everything in here was so totally different from everything they had seen. Like stepping into another world.

            And only he and Sonia had chosen to explore this legendary hall.

            “It… It is as if I’ve stepped through a spacious wormhole into a medieval castle…!” The breeder choked out, feeling quite overwhelmed by the ambience. Sonia merely giggled.

            “My country is small, and does not have many embassies… But we strive to give foreigners the experience of stepping into Novoselic’s royal castle~! It is exactly how I remember it…” The blonde sighed wistfully, staring down at the floor sadly. “Perhaps the years have been kind, after all, if we have an embassy even in this distant land… I… I do miss my home. And I hope to be updated on its recent history… Of course, I hope to bring all of you here to learn about Novoselic! I would be happy to give you all a tour~!”

            Gundham was at a loss for words. Truly, he had underestimated the many worlds apart the Dark Queen was from him… He’d felt proud, inviting her into his world, getting to know his many friends… Yet standing here, he wondered how a woman from such a formal and dignified background… could deign to lower herself to his level. To dirty herself in his humble hovel.

            “Tanaka-kun?” Sonia tilted her head curiously at how quiet the breeder had gotten.

            Gundham snapped to attention, but still, it was difficult to muster words.

            “I… was simply taken aback at the luxurious furnishings…” He murmured, unable to mask his feelings behind bravado, like he usually could. He was truly stunned and taken aback. “To think you came from such a world of decadence…”

            Sonia beamed at the breeder, in spite of the feelings of unworthiness swirling within him.

            “Is it really so different? Though Jabberwock Island has a different ambience, I feel just as amazed to be surrounded by your everyday novelties! The beds, the bathrooms, the kitchens, the cleaning and manual labor… I totes want to experience it all~! Fo sho!” She pumped her arm excitedly. “Your zoo has been the most exciting of all, Tanaka-kun! Novoselic does not have such a commodity… We are still racing to ‘catch up with the times’, as they say! Your animal friends are amazing, Tanaka-kun! And so are you, for being able to speak with them!”

            Gundham tugged at his scarf, hot with embarrassment underneath.

            “Th… Thank you…” He coughed awkwardly.

            He would definitely talk with Kazuichi later. Despite being repelled and denied constantly, the mechanic always found the courage to try and impress the Dark Queen. While Gundham had no need to feel modest with Sonia’s genuine affection… He did now have to wrestle with ‘debasing’ a true Queen. How could one suppress the pang of conscientiousness that came with that notion?

            Could two people from completely different worlds really… be friends?

            ~*~

            “This pharmacy seems really well-stocked…” Mahiru mused as she gazed around the shelves and different sections. Mikan giggled in contentment.

            “We can definitely cure and fix most injuries and ailments here… I’m… I’m glad I can be useful now~!” Mikan sighed dreamily, looking around aimlessly.

            Mahiru frowned in concern.

            “Tsumiki… Hey, you’re totally helpful! Don’t you remember the investigation? We wouldn’t have found the truth without you…!”

            Mikan poked her fingers together anxiously.

            “I-I’m only useful… when somebody’s sick, injured, or d-dead… Th-That’s why people are upset with me, isn’t it…? I-I… I didn’t help Komaeda-kun get better, s-so he ended up hurting everyone… M-Maybe I am a monster…” She mumbled, eyes darting to the floor in shame.

            Mahiru took Mikan’s hands in her own and willed the nurse to look into her eyes.

            “No, no you’re not! What Komaeda did… You’re not as guilty as he is! Don’t beat yourself up over what he did! You… You tried to tell me. I’m the one who didn’t do something when I should have… Komaeda is not your responsibility…! So… just have more confidence in yourself, okay?”

            Mikan moaned pitifully, squeezing her eyes shut tight.

            “B-But people are still suspicious of me… Th-They definitely hate me…! H-How can I help people th-that refuse m-me…? I-If they don’t h-hate me… th-then they’re ignoring m-me, and that’s… even worse…!” The nurse’s eyes snapped open, and they were filled with so much panic and distress. “J-Just throw mud or darts at me! D-Do whatever you want…! J-Just don’t ignore meee!”

            Mahiru’s heart ached at the broken nurse’s plea. She… really did need help… Maybe she couldn’t reach Mikan through her own efforts. She would need some help.

            But who would Mikan listen to…?

            ~*~

            “Well, the good news is Togami’s gonna be happy…” Kazuichi muttered as he surveyed the electronics store. “I’m definitely gonna be able to make those cell phones now…”

            Fuyuhiko scoffed in disbelief, a few aisles over.

            “You’re still thinking of sucking up to that fat bastard? Ain’t your prissy Princess the leader now?”

            Kazuichi chuckled nervously, rubbing the back of his head anxiously.

            “Y-Yeah… well… Togami sees how useful I am, y’know? It’s not like I’m doin’ it ‘cause I have to, now… I’m doin’ it ‘cause Togami has a point! We need to keep up with Monokuma and stay connected and all that… Cell phones are useful! Useful!”

            Fuyuhiko rolled his eyes in annoyance.

            “Yeah, sure… That’s all you wanna make ‘em for… I bet you’ll use this junk to spy on that two-faced bitch. Hell, that might even be a good thing. We need to keep an eye on her.”

            Kazuichi gave the yakuza the stinkeye.

            “Not as much as we need to keep an eye on you, y’know! You’re yakuza. For all we know, that stuff you said earlier was a bunch of crap!” He said, pointing accusingly at the blond.

            “You want those fingers smashed?!” Fuyuhiko bellowed, raising a clenched fist. “Lemme make one thing clear to you, bastard… I don’t answer to you! The only one who can give me shit and chew me out is Yukizome! I’ve acted friendly ‘cause of her, but my patience is just about run out…! Do whatever shady shit you want with that two-faced bitch… I’m gone!”

            Kazuichi scratched the side of his head as the yakuza stormed out. He scowled in aggravation.

            “What a jerk…” He grumbled, going back to perusing the electronics.

            ~*~

            Close to the electronics shop, Nagito gazed around the library, impressed that there were a total of five floors. Each one crammed with assorted shelves. That was… a lot of books.

            But more importantly…

            “That is a really tall…” The luckster stroked his chin, craning his head all the way to the top.

            He had a feeling… that he wouldn’t be the only one fascinated with this place…

            ~*~

            Chiaki furrowed her brow as she leaned in to get a closer look at something carved into the door to the ruins. That… That hadn’t been there before… She was sure that hadn’t been a message left by the Future Foundation.

            Chisa frowned as she noticed the troubled look on Chiaki’s face.

            “Something wrong, Nanami?” These ruins piqued her curiosity, too. especially because of the… gun… guarding the entrance.

            They’d have to be extremely careful around here…

            Chiaki blinked, shaking her head slowly.

            “No… it’s nothing. … Probably.” Carefully, the gamer swept some dust to obscure the message.

            If Monokuma left it… She didn’t want her class getting caught up in his pace. Granted, it was probably going to come to light sooner or later… But a strange message like that… What could it mean? Why did Monokuma want them to see it?

            ‘Wish-lined Parities… What does that mean?’

Chapter Text

            ‘Another new day…’ Nagito thought to himself, departing from his cottage.

            Yesterday had been quite the adventure. Between Souda-kun and Nidai-kun tying him up in the old building, to Ikusaba rescuing him, to the intense meeting between his classmates, to the exciting vote for a new leader, to the investigation of Second Island, and finally, but certainly not least, to Monokuma informing them all of the organization known as World Ender. It really did sound fantastic, perhaps a little too farfetched…

            But truly, was anything impossible anymore? They were trapped on a tropical island. All but strangers to one another. The very best, cherry-picked from across Japan. Forced to kill each other for Monokuma’s amusement, and other unknown reasons… Considering his luck, this might as well be a casual Friday.

            Well… maybe not casual by others’ standards. Just his. That was why he never took his classmates’ fear and revulsion personally; they all had such different and extraordinary lives from him, of course they wouldn’t want to abandon those ways of life…

            But still! If they could just grasp the fundamental truth that overcoming the deaths of their friends would make their Hopes shine even brighter… That death wasn’t something to run from… That Monokuma’s motives should be clashed with head-on…

            Ah, but he was getting carried away again. All in due time. Today was a brand new day, and he had breakfast to… get… to…

            “Hiii~!” Chisa chirped, hands clasped behind her back as she barred the luckster’s way to the hotel.

            Nagito tilted his head curiously at the woman.

            “Why, good morning to you, Sensei!” Nagito laughed lightly. “Were you coming to collect me for the morning meeting? Don’t worry~! I was already on the way.”

            The orange-haired woman’s face fell, making the luckster raise an eyebrow in curiosity.

            “Komaeda-kun… It hurts me to do this, but just for the foreseeable future, we’re gonna have you eat your meals at the diner on Second Island. There are some other new rules that I have to put in place, but we’ll go over those later. Everyone’s still a little on edge.”

            Nagito frowned, feeling a little wounded.

            “You’re making me eat all alone…?” Well, to be fair, he did deserve the scorn and loathing of his classmates. But this seemed a bit harsh, by Sensei’s standards.

            Chisa gave a mysterious smile and giggled, making the luckster all the more curious.

            “Now, whoever said I’d be making you eat by yourself…?”

            ~*~

            “GAHAHA! Is that all you got the stomach for? We’re gonna need to fix that, if we’re going to get some meat on those bones of yours…”

            Nagito chuckled weakly, holding his hands up peacefully. He perfectly understood Sensei’s strategy now… Two people to guard him, and one of them was rather physically imposing…

            “Oh, this is more than plenty, Nidai-kun! Really! I usually eat light breakfasts.” And it was true enough – he had his typical serving of steamed rice, miso soup, and grilled fish… True, it might have looked a bit… small… But he really didn’t have that much of an appetite to begin with.

            Not compared to these amazing, splendid Ultimates, at any rate~…

            Nekomaru frowned at that phrasing. He had heard it all before from some of his former athletes, and it made him place his hands on his hips as he stared at the luckster critically from over by the jukebox at the far end of the diner.

            “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, y’know. Don’t go neglecting your health, Komaeda.” He had a feeling this was a discussion that Nagito had faced before… But the manager was prepared. He was used to turning people around for the better.

            “Oh, I’m not!” Nagito, predictably, defended his eating habits. “Like I said, I’m just not very hungry.”

            “Tsk, tsk, tsk…” Teruteru wagged a finger at the luckster from where he was, behind the counter, preparing more dishes despite it just being the three of them. “I have ways of fixin’ that, monsieur! Just tell me your poison, and I’ll cook it right up!”

            Nagito just chuckled weakly at the chef’s enthusiasm, no doubt in his mind that Teruteru could bring out the maximum flavor in anything. Nekomaru crossed his arms over his chest, scowl deepening.

            “Komaeda, I’m serious. Remember how I gave you that pat-down when you got in here? That wasn’t just some body-check like Togami did. I could tell from the moment we met you looked paler than most people, and I’ve been worried about you ever since the trial. Getting a feel of your body… makes me even more concerned.”

            A tension settled in the air of the diner, like a ghastly, foul haze. For his part, Nagito didn’t show any overt reaction to the unspoken accusation. His face merely became blank, and his shoulders seemed stiffer than they were mere moments ago. Casually, Nagito opened his mouth to speak again.

            “Nidai-kun… I don’t mean to call your talent into question, but all people are different, y’know? Not everyone is intended for the life of an athlete! You’re not going to get on Teruteru’s case next, are you?”

            Teruteru whimpered a little before another thought occurred to him, and he grinned lecherously.

            “Well~… I wouldn’t mind those hands all over my body~! Rawr!”

            Nekomaru ignored the chef, eyes staying locked on Nagito, whose eyes were now closed and his smile becoming a tad too strained.

            “This ain’t about bein’ an athlete, Komaeda.” The manager rumbled, eyes narrowing. “Your body should be like a temple. I’ve seen people in your shoes – some use the excuse they just don’t have the time, the know-how, or the drive to do anything about it, but it’s all the same. You don’t respect yourself. The reasons behind it can be different, but it still comes down to that.”

            Nagito tried to keep his voice level, to keep it cordial, but something definitely snapped within him at the direction the discussion was going.

            “And why should I praise trash like myself?” Nagito asked archly, taking a haughty pose. “Nidai-kun, your concern is admirable but misplaced. My life is inconsequential compared to your life, or Teruteru’s life. If either of you died, it’d be a downright tragedy – people would get to mourn and overcome your deaths. But me? No one’s gonna sob over worthless garbage, much less get any actual hope out of it.”

            Nekomaru’s eyes hardened.

            “And you’re okay with that? You really just gonna let people hate you for the rest of your life?”

            Nagito scoffed. It was a virulent, arrogant noise that lingered in their ears.

            “Are you really going to take pity on Owari’s murderer? I might not have done the deed myself, but I gave Saionji the knife. I provided her the opportunity. You of all people should be despising me the most…”

            Teruteru noticeably shrank in on himself, edging away from the counter as he cast a wary glance over at the luckster. Nekomaru took a deep, patient breath, closing his eyes calmly.

            “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I am still mad at you for stirring up all that shit…” He opened his eyes again, but they didn’t reflect hatred or malice… only heartfelt grit and determination. “But ya know what? I’ll deal with that on my own time. Life’s too short to waste on shit like revenge; we’re talking about you here. Are you okay with staying like this? Shouldn’t you of all people be about hope and self-improvement? All it takes is reaching out your hand, kid. I’m already offering mine, so the rest is up to you.”

            Nagito’s hands clenched at his side, and he looked down with mild aggravation.

            “Ridiculous. Someone as worthless as me doesn’t deserve a nanosecond of your time and effort. I’m only a stepladder, and that’s all I ever will be. When you’re born, you either have talent, or you don’t. And the only worthwhile thing about me is my luck, which isn’t always good, if you couldn’t already tell…”

            Nekomaru shrugged nonchalantly, head turning to look out the window with a somber expression.

            “You’re still the only one saying that. I’ve helped countless teams make it to the championships… They all had to start somewhere.”

            Nagito’s face twitched in what looked like scorn before reeling himself in, still clenching his fists at his side.

            “All those people… only got there because of your greatness. They’re only riding on your coattails. They’re not Ultimates… as ashamed as I am to admit that about your talent.”

            Nekomaru’s gaze didn’t leave the window.

            “Talent’s not the be-all, end-all, kid. If you think like that, you’re gonna be waiting in vain. All those teams, they might’ve been happy with the end result, yeah. But they got there through blood, sweat, tears, and by working like a well-oiled machine! That’s the real joy of life, Komaeda! Camaraderie. You don’t have to soldier it alone. If you wanna make a big deal about being special, that’s fine, but you’re missing out on satisfaction that could be yours! Believe it or not, we do care about you. We can be your team, if you just let us.”

            Nagito clammed up after that. He could see now… arguing with Nekomaru was pointless. The man, for all the good his talent did him with understanding others, could not possibly begin to fathom the trials he’d gone through or the reasons why hope and talent were inextricably intertwined. Preaching at the manager would be senseless. He wouldn’t get through that hopelessly thick skull.

            The luckster clutched at the sleeve of his hoodie, gritting his teeth in frustration as he narrowed his eyes.

            But… he could not deny that jab at camaraderie had cut deep. That was a low blow, even if Nekomaru hadn’t known it…

            ~*~

            Hajime scratched his cheek sheepishly from where he was sitting over by Byakuya and Ibuki; Mukuro was also sitting nearby, but she was keeping a quiet vigil, content to keep an eye on the brunet.

            “Nevermind… sure has different ideas about leadership than you do, Togami…” It didn’t take the Princess long at all to enact some fairly radical changes. You had to be 13 minutes early for meetings, including the meals… Teruteru was to be in charge of preparing all their food from now on – apparently Sonia, and quite a few others, were addicted to the chef’s cuisine. They each had to visit Tanaka’s zoo at least once a week – Sonia was on the cusp of enforcing them to have a “pet” from that zoo… but thank God Yukizome-sensei talked her down to just visiting the animals. They were “encouraged” to have races on the scooters Kazuichi designed – a few, like Gundham and Mikan, looked terrified at the prospect. Oh yeah, and speaking on things to do, Sonia had a tour all lined up for the Novoselic Embassy, and attendance was mandatory because Sonia was “hella stoked” about it… Kazuichi had his plate full, repurposing the GPS devices into cell phones, and also creating those loudspeakers to scatter around the islands for emergencies; Sonia approved of Byakuya’s ideas, in regards to those.

            … And there were a few other, harmless ones, like being around Komaeda in pairs or more. Yukizome-sensei had actually been the one to announce that; she was nervous about the luckster starting something else, and Hajime couldn’t blame her. Komaeda had… a way with words.

            Oh yeah. The remaining fireworks were put under lock and key in Sensei’s cottage. Apparently Kazuichi, Gundham, and Nekomaru had helped move them all from the supermarket… and they’d be on the lookout for any resupplying from Monokuma. Komaeda wasn’t allowed around the supermarket without an escort, and that was really for the best.

            Naturally, it wasn’t fair to single out the luckster when there had been others who had kept quiet about Komaeda’s plot. But between Souda being overworked, Nevermind being kept in check by Sensei, and Koizumi watching over Tsumiki, all their bases were covered, really. Kuzuryu was content to keep to himself, but Yukizome-sensei and Pekoyama checked in on him, apparently.

            “This is her vision, Hinata. Let’s give her a chance,” Byakuya replied calmly, lightly nudging his plate aside for his next one. Hajime slightly balked, as this would be the heir’s eighth serving. “You’re not jealous that she accepted Tanaka and Souda as assistants, are you?”

            Hajime frowned thoughtfully.

            “… No? I’m just… bummed people didn’t give you another chance. It’s not like it was your fault things turned out the way they did.”

            “The burden of leadership is heavier than you know.” Byakuya began eating again in earnest. “The fact remains I failed to keep my promise. I hope… everyone will find happiness with Nevermind as the Class Rep. That’s all I can ask for. I will not force myself on all of you again.”

            Unable to keep quiet anymore, Ibuki brushed some bangs out of her face and peered at the heir.

            “Hina-tater-tots is right, Byakuya-chan! You’re too hard on yourself~! Everyone’s just all over the place! S’not your fault everyone’s votes were split~!”

            The heir swallowed and eyed the musician shrewdly.

            “That is… true.” He couldn’t deny that. He was rather surprised no one had truly gotten a majority of the whole class; they were just that split in the votes.

            … That, and he did himself no favors by abstaining, but that was a matter of honor, at this point.

            Ibuki crossed her arms and nodded sagely, grinning ear-to-ear.

            “Sometimes we just gotta rock back and let the current take us where it will~! No harm in that!”

            Byakuya and Hajime both nodded slowly in agreement at the musician’s logic. A murder happened, people’s hearts and minds were all over the place. That was natural. Maybe in a sense, Togami’s restrictive and demanding rules and policies would have done more harm than good, at this stage… It certainly would’ve just added more stress. Monokuma was going to doubtlessly spring something new on them soon enough; one murder happened, more were bound to follow. They were better off allowing everyone some breathing room after everything… They all needed it.

            Perhaps Sonia’s style was what they needed, after all. Aside from the arriving to meetings early part, and the rules applying to Komaeda, she was rather… loose with them all. Sonia’s goal seemed to be allowing everyone to have a good time. Overall, a laissez-faire attitude if Hajime had ever seen one.

            “All I can do is support you all.” Byakuya muttered, slowing down in his eating as he adopted a far-off look in his eyes. “Sensei and Nevermind will do just fine, I have no doubt. More importantly… Hinata. About Komaeda…”

            Hajime tensed up as the topic turned to him. He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly and coughed.

            “Look, you don’t need to say anything about him, Togami… I… know I was naïve, placing my faith and trust in that guy. But I still… need time to sort my feelings out…”

            Byakuya shook his head slowly, crossing his arms in disapproval.

            “Your way of thinking was not naïve, Hinata. Remember what I told you? You are perhaps one of the few that can get through to him. Perhaps it is simply because of your amnesia, but he is quite taken with you, Hinata. Use that intrigue as leverage, and try to get him to open up. Like it or not, he is still one of us.”

            Hajime’s brow furrowed in uncertainty.

            “Are we even sure that part of him is real? I just… I don’t even know where to begin with him. I’m totally out of my depth here…”

            “Don’t overthink. Just take the initiative, and feel your way as you go.” Byakuya advised the brunet. “We’re all strangers, Hinata. That goes for us just as much as it does for him. I will not allow us to make a pariah out of him. Even if it is just a handful of us… We must do our part to reach out, and set him on the right path.”

            Hajime absorbed the heir’s reasoning and frowned.

            “So… just do it, huh…?” While he could understand Byakuya’s position, it was still a bit nerve-wracking. Komaeda had shown them all what he was capable of, and Hajime wasn’t too keen on setting him off again…

            But… Byakuya had a point. Isolating Nagito was only going to make him worse. And Hajime knew he was in a prime position to take the lead on that venture… Nagito probably would open up to him better than Byakuya or Sensei. Hajime held no authoritative sway. He was… just a friend.

            … Huh. Nagito really was his friend, wasn’t he? Hajime was chagrined to realize that he’d labelled the luckster as such without an ounce of hesitation. And here he thought burning bridges was the only way forward… Part of him must not have wanted that, if he was willing to think of Nagito as his friend, even after all this.

            He still wasn’t sure how to approach the luckster, though…

            Ibuki waved her arm in the air elatedly.

            “Hinata-chan should come practice with Ibuki first! Ibuki will show you what to dooooo~!”

            Hajime paled a little, as he recalled how many cups of coffee the musician had downed.

            “Wh… What? Uh, n-no…. I-I’m fine, Ibuki… Really. I’ll work it out myselfffff….!” Wow, Ibuki’s grip on his wrist was ironclad… And that beaming, innocent smile was… was… It was just as cute as it was terrifying.

            “Amusing you think you have a choice in the matter.” Byakuya smirked as he watched the brunet get dragged off.

            “T-Togami…! Help!” Hajime pleaded.

            “Can’t, I haven’t had breakfast yet.” The heir smoothly turned him down.

            “You had eight servings…!”

            “… Yes. But I have not yet had ninth breakfast.”

            “Togami, she had coffee!” The brunet begged and pleaded.

            “Godspeed, Hinata… Godspeed.”

            Hajime deadpanned as the heir got the last word. Ninth breakfast… Who did that?!

            ~*~

            “… So, this is a… makango…?” Mahiru chuckled a little nervously as Sonia had handed out pamphlets on the endangered wild animal. The tour of the Novoselic Embassy was in full swing, but it looked like only a few opted to do the tour at the scheduled time Sonia set. She gave a polite closed-eyed smile as she sweatdropped. “… It’s bigger than I thought it’d be…”

            It really was. She was expecting an animal the size of a baby bear, based off what Sonia was describing with Novoselic’s romantic rituals… But this was not a baby bear… It wasn’t even a bear, with that face…

            … But it looked just as fuzzy and cuddly…

            “I-It looks c-cute!” Mikan complimented without hesitation. She traced a finger over the front cover of the pamphlet, wishing she could pet it.

            “Isn’t it?! Isn’t it?!” Sonia gushed with a pleasant beam. “I feel so terrible when these poor creatures are auctioned off to the highest bidder, even if it is nice to have as a symbol of high status… But I shall reform these practices! That way, we can live in harmony with makangos and skongs~!”

            Mahiru scratched her cheek sheepishly, not really sure what to think about animal auctioning.

            “That’s… that’s great, Nevermind… But what are skongs…?” Some part of her suspected she would regret asking…

            Sonia’s face falling in shame did not instill her with great confidence.

            “We… do not usually show those to outsiders. It is because another custom of ours is that you are not an adult until you consume a skong, and, well…” She trailed off guiltily.

            Mahiru sweatdropped. Animal conservationists would have a field day in Novoselic, it seemed. Then again, eating dogs was a thing in China… Each country had their own customs and traditions, and it wasn’t fair to judge another nation based off your own beliefs.

            … But that did set them worlds apart… The photographer couldn’t help feeling that, the more she learned about Novoselic.

            Sonia clenched her fists with determination, nostrils flaring.

            “I know we have much to reform, but traditions started for a reason, so we mustn’t forget our history! It is the same for other countries, as well! Using the knowledge of the past to create a new path, a better path… I know it is difficult, but I will accomplish it by any means! Guiding my people along the right path is my duty as a ruler!”

            Mahiru smiled wryly, knowing not to press further with it. There was no doubt in her mind Sonia would lead her people well; she was already doing a great job with her class, or at least Mahiru thought so.

            Mikan poked her fingers together anxiously, averting her gaze suddenly. Mahiru frowned in concern at the reaction. The nurse’s words only troubled her further.

            “I-If… If I was o-one of your p-people… Y-Y-You’d love me, right…?”

            Sonia beamed at the nurse, oblivious to the kind of effects her words would have.

            “Of course! You would have all of my love and protection! Why? Would you like to come back with me, Tsumiki? We would be honored to have you! The immigrant process is rigorous, but do not fret! I will ensure they are gentle with you!” That smile was so innocent… so tender and kind…

            But Mahiru didn’t like the way Mikan’s eyes widened, or… or how excited she looked…

            “M-Maybe another time, Nevermind!” Mahiru apologized hastily, before taking the nurse by the hand and excusing themselves for a few minutes, leaving Sonia and Gundham to themselves. When they were alone, Mahiru patted the nurse’s hand consolingly. “Tsumiki… Tsumiki… I know it sounds great, but think about what moving to another country means! You’d have to learn a whole new language so you could live with the people there…”

            Mikan trembled anxiously, a nervous grin spreading across her face as she adopted a faraway look.

            “I-I wouldn’t mind, Koizumi-chan… I-If Nevermind w-would give me all of her love, I… I…” She trailed off in a broken, yet unsettling tone.

            Mahiru shivered. The longer Mikan seemed to warm up to the idea, the darker her eyes became. The photographer could see a ravenous hunger lurking behind those eyes, but also an intent to get what she wanted by any means necessary. But there was also guilt, shame, and a number of other intense emotions swirling in those eyes… She was beginning to suspect this is what Hiyoko had seen, when Nagito cornered Mikan…

            ‘Tsumiki...’ Mahiru thought to herself in anguish. What had made Mikan turn out like this? She honestly felt so bad for the poor girl. “… Let’s go get some air. You’re not… ready to commit to something like this… N-Not yet.”

            Mikan’s eyes snapped toward the photographer, and she found another shiver traveling up her spine. Such intense emotions aimed at her…

            “Wh-Wh-Why can’t I go?! Nevermind-chan… p-promised! She promised! Shepromisedshepromisedshepromised!”

            Mahiru held up her hands peacefully, attempting to give a disarming grin.

            “I-I know she did, Tsumiki…! But Nevermind is… She’s a Princess! And… even if she had any say, I don’t think you’d be able to just live at the royal castle with her… Y-You’d be alone, in a foreign country…”

            Mikan stomped her foot impetuously, cheeks puffing out a little, and that dark look stayed lurking in her eyes.

            “I-I can do it! Nevermind-chan promised! E-Even if I-I live as far away from the castle as p-possible… Nevermind-chan promised she would give me all her love…!”

            “Tsumiki…” Mahiru mumbled, a hand pressed over her heart in anguish. “Th-Think about it this way, sh-she… Nevermind won’t be able to think about you all the time! She won’t be able to give you the love that you need! You’ll just be another face in the crowd to her.”

            That seemed to take the wind out of Mikan’s face as her shoulders deflated, and Mikan trembled in both rage and sorrow.

            “Wh-Wh-Why…? Why won’t you just let me go with her…? She promised to love me!!! It’s not fair!!!”

            “I know it’s not fair…” Mahiru tried consoling the nurse as best as she could, even when the purple-haired girl wouldn’t let her hands be held at the moment. “Tsumiki, please. I promise, I’ll be there for you. And… And you’ve got a whole class here who loves you! You don’t have to go to a whole different country to get that…!”

            Mikan trembled again, tears pricking at her eyes as she scowled.

            “She promised…!”

            Mahiru heaved a small sigh and timidly patted the nurse’s shoulders, nudging her toward the exit.

            “Let’s… Let’s go get some air… Please, Tsumiki…” She was pleading by this point, and that seemed to reel Mikan in, at last. Though the nurse naturally still seemed upset as she grudgingly cooperated.

            Mahiru massaged her temple, heaving another small sigh once they were outside. She’d have to have a talk with Sonia later… Even if she hadn’t meant it, Sonia had to understand making a promise like that to Mikan was… It wasn’t right. Maybe Sonia would love Mikan as a citizen of Novoselic…

            But that wasn’t the sort of love Mikan was looking for. Mahiru honestly wasn’t sure… what kind of love Mikan needed. But it probably wasn’t the love Mikan wanted, either... This needed to be handled delicately… And Mahiru just wasn’t sure how to go about it.

            ~*~

            Kazuichi grumbled irritably as he hammered away at the small tower he was crafting. Loudspeakers were easy enough to make, but he had to scavenge for parts, like he told Togami. And because of that, it was more akin to a patchwork quilt of metal pieces and screws. That meant it didn’t all go together like something you’d build from following instructions in a kit…

            The mechanic had no problem at all with tinkering and making something from scratch. He did it all the time. However… there came a certain monotony to this particular request. Because this wasn’t the only loudspeaker being created; he was actually making a ton of them. And it’s not like he had an assembly line to streamline the process… He had to do it all by hand. All by himself. Because he was the only one who knew how.

            His hammering ceased as he finished the touches on the latest tower, and he wiped sweat from his brow after doing so. His eyes then roved over the empty service shop, and felt his shoulders slouch. Not even one person had come by to visit in the past few hours. That… sucked. Even if he was doing this to be useful, some company would have been nice.

            Grumbling under his breath again, the mechanic set to work on the next tower.

            “Now, where’d I put the screwdriver…?” The pink-headed teen muttered as he looked around the floor, not spying it anywhere. He groaned at the possibilities. “Aww, man… Did I kick it around again?! Damnit…”

            He hated when work got so monotonous he barely paid attention to what was around him on the floor. It was so easy to fall into that routine… As he prepared to search high and low for it, yet again, Kazuichi blinked as he felt something poke at his shin. He turned around warily, and let out a startled yelp when he saw a hamster holding the screwdriver in question.

            “The hell?!” He blinked owlishly again as the hamster once more held up the tool, as if offering it to him. He scratched his head in confusion. “For… me? Really? Tanaka trained you guys to tell tools apart?”

            Naturally, the mechanic didn’t get a verbal response. He would’ve freaked out, if he had. Instead, Kazuichi just let the little guy do what it wanted. Which, as it turned out, involved handing him tools and pieces over the next hour. Kazuichi figured it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the little guy stuck around. It was a hamster doing the supporting, so it’s not like the work went abundantly faster; and a few times he did need to correct the hamster, but surprisingly those times were pretty rare… It was pretty sharp-witted, and learned fast.

            Kazuichi wasn’t all that surprised when Tanaka and his other hamsters came storming into the service shop eventually. He rubbed the back of his head and chuckled sheepishly at the dirty look the breeder was giving him.

            “So, Silver Fox San-D was here all this time, was she…?” Gundham tapped his foot in impatience.

            Kazuichi waved his hands defensively.

            “Hey, hey….! I-It’s not my fault! Sh-She just showed up, and started handing me stuff! How was I supposed to say no when she looked so… happy doing it?!” There wasn’t a real bite to his griping. He really was grateful for the help and company, minor as it was.

            Gundham frowned thoughtfully at the mechanic’s admission. He looked down at the hamster now resting in his palm, appearing mildly exhausted, but otherwise very satisfied and content. He stared back up at Kazuichi critically.

            “Just when did you become so powerful that San-D noticed you…? Have you been training in secret? Did you have a hidden ability I never perceived?” The breeder tapped his chin, puzzled over this turn of events before allowing San-D passage back into his scarf. He then buried the lower half of his face in his scarf and cross his arms, looking to the side. “Very well. If San-D ordains it to be, you shall rejoice and accept her help when offered. I shall not allow any other answer!”

            Kazuichi rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.

            “Wh-Whoa… Hold on, you’re okay with it? I thought you were pretty protective of those little guys. Y-You’re saying you… trust me?”

            Gundham peered at the mechanic shrewdly, lower half of face still buried.

            “You already have San-D’s blessing! You need not anything else. I am more curious about what specifically drew San-D to you… But I shall wait, and allow her to tell me in time if she is willing to share. More importantly, I am shocked you missed the Dark Queen’s exhibition of her castle…!”

            Kazuichi blinked owlishly before facepalming.

            “Aww, man…! The embassy tour thing! How’d I forget that was happening today?! Damnit…!”

            “Do not fret, for the exhibition is far from over. There is much more the Dark Queen wishes to share with us about her homeland.” Gundham looked off to the side again. Kazuichi just scowled, frustrated with himself more than anything.

            “Guess I need to get a clock in here, after all…” The mechanic grumbled sourly. He wasn’t expecting to miss the tour, of all things. Thankfully, the electronics store had a few decent ones to choose from… The pink-haired teen heaved a sigh. “Well… what’s done is done. What took ya, anyway? Sandy’s been helpin’ out here a while, y’know…”

            Gundham tugged at his scarf in embarrassment, not even bothering to correct the mechanic on the hamster’s name.

            “W-Well… that is…” The breeder raised his head back and barked out a short, forced laugh. “A time-space anomaly! Yes… that’s all it was! Life is always so simple~!”

            Kazuichi deadpanned at the response. It must have been pretty big if the breeder was that distracted… And if it involved Sonia-san…

            “H-H-Hold on…!” Kazuichi cried, pointing at Gundham grouchily. “Don’t tell me you had your paws all over Sonia-san! Grrraaahhh! I turn my back on you guys for one day…!”

            Gundham coughed awkwardly, still tugging at his scarf while his face heated up.

            “Sh-She… um… was the one who… initiated… sentimentalities…”

            Kazuichi cocked his head, confused.

            “Eh?” He scowled.

            Gundham’s face reddened tenfold.

            ~*~

            Sonia breathed a happy sigh, still riding on the emotional high that Mikan put her in. She batted her eyes at Gundham welcomingly.

            “What about you, Tanaka-kun? Would you like to come to Novoselic, after all of this is over?”

            Gundham reeled back in shock at the question being turned on him now.

            “I… you… what?!”

            Sonia pleasantly beamed.

            “I would be most honored, if you did! I would give you the grand tour of the royal castle! It would be wonderful~!” Sonia giggled merrily. She sighed contently, a dreamy look entering her eye. “You do not even have to become a citizen of my country to receive my love… You already have my heart. All of it.”

            Gundham hastily buried his face in his scarf as steam blasted off his now tomato red face. He nervously tugged at his scarf.

            “Th-This is all… very sudden…”

            Sonia tilted her head curiously.

            “Hmm…? There is nothing sudden about it.” The Princess adopted a vulnerable look, briefly. “Or… am I misreading the situation? Do you have a beloved that we do not know about?”

            Gundham tensed up, for whatever reason. Every cell in his body was practically screaming to protect the Princess’s feelings. And so he did, though his answer came choked out and increasingly erratic.

            “Wh-What?! M-Me? Not… Not at all!” Gundham inwardly wondered what was coming over him. This whole discussion was… surreal.

            Sonia looked relieved as she beamed again.

            “Ah… g-good… Then, are you at least… interested in someone…?” There came that vulnerability again…

            This time, Gundham just had to put his foot down. His heart couldn’t take this.

            “H-Halt…! Wh-What in the world is going on here? Why… are you curious in where this cursed life’s heart lies…?”

            Sonia tilted her head again, never dropping her beam.

            “I-I was just curious… Was it wrong of me to ask?”

            “N-No…” Tanaka mumbled, still feeling so surreal about all this. “It… It isn’t awful…”

            And it really wasn’t. However, learning everything he had about Novoselic so far, it had painfully reminded him just how distant their worlds were. To assume he was anything more than a passing fancy to her was... arrogant beyond the pale…

            Sonia giggled again at the breeder’s embarrassed state, her intent seemed to be calming him down.

            “It is only natural I’d be curious, though, isn’t it? After all… we’re…”

            Gundham’s eyes bulged in disbelief.

            ‘We’re?!’ He thought to himself in both shock and anticipation.

            “We’re classmates, going through the same ordeal together! Hope’s Peak chose both of us!” Sonia’s smile was so innocent… Gundham’s face couldn’t help but fall, though.

            ‘Classmates… of course…’ The breeder thought to himself in frustration, for getting his hopes up at all.

            Sonia hugged herself and her smile became a tad strained at seeing Gundham’s mood not improving.

            “But, that’s not all there is to it… You and I are more than just classmates…”

            Gundham’s breathing came to a halt as he froze, staring at the Princess once more with shock and incredulity.

            ‘M-More than that…?!’

            “We are friends! The best of friends, don’t you think? We have learned so much about each other already!” Again… that innocent smile… Gundham could not get mad at her for it…

            ‘Of… Of course we are friends… Why would I ever expect anything different…?’ The breeder felt like kicking himself for getting his hopes up twice…

            Sonia frowned in concern, apparently not content with his silence.

            “W-Well… aren’t you going to ask me?”

            Gundham did a double-take. Again.

            “A-Ask you… what?” The breeder carefully phrased his question.

            “No, not what.” Sonia shook her head firmly. “Aren’t you going to ask if I have a beloved to who I am engaged?”

            Gundham’s frown deepened, and he narrowed his eyes at the blonde, trying to find the meaning behind this conversation. He found none, just by looking at her blissfully smiling face. It’s not like he wasn’t curious, but…

            “I suppose… it would not be outside the realm of possibilities…” Gundham answered cagily, preparing himself for the disappointment this time. “You are the Dark Queen, who is fated to rule her nation one day… It would be natural for you to be betrothed waiting for you…”

            Sonia giggled gleefully at his response.

            “Mmhmhm! Bzzzzzt! I do not have a boyfriend, nor do I have anyone to whom I am betrothed! As future Queen, it is my sworn duty to find my fated beloved one day, and we shall hunt the Golden Makango together so that we may be married!” Sonia sighed dreamily again.

            Gundham, for some reason, felt a little more self-assured, this time.

            “Th… Then… Do you have someone that you are interested in…?” He couldn’t help but press the offensive while he could. He felt a little too… hopeful…

            Sonia’s smile became all the more mysterious as a light pink dusted her face.

            “Hmhm… I wonder…? I think there may be someone here who has my attention~…”

            Gundham choked on his own saliva a bit as she stared straight into his eyes, her cheeks tinged with red now.

            ‘M-Me…?!’ The breeder thought to himself in disbelief. Sonia averted her gaze upward a little as she released another contented sigh.

            “Indeed… If it weren’t for you, Tanaka-kun, I would have succumbed to the devil in my heart that night!” Sonia confessed, easily enough. The smile on her face only seemed to grow bigger the more she talked, and the more she glowed, as a result. “So… I, I wanted you to at least know of my feelings. And I… can tell you have special feelings for me, as well! Even if we cannot be a lovey-dovey couple in the truest sense yet, I… I want us to take that step forward, if it is alright with you! Life is too long, as they say! I… I cannot fake my feelings. So please… take care of me, won’t you? Let us return to Novoselic together~!”

            At that point, Gundham had checked out of the conversation, his brain short-circuiting from the rash confession on Sonia’s part, and just how excited she was… It really was too much for him, and he found himself wandering off after requesting time to process this confession.

            ~*~

            “A-And so I wandered aimlessly for a time…” Gundham coughed awkwardly, still bushing up a storm under his scarf. “Eventually I realized San-D had gone missing, and now here we… are…”

            He still hadn’t given Sonia an answer. This whole thing was… much too sudden. Perhaps Kazuichi would provide some insight and make the world make sense again.

            … That’s what Gundham was hoping for, at least. But the mechanic actually looked quite…. furious.

            “You… jerk!!!”

            ~*~

            Hajime dried his face off with a small towel and chugged a water bottle as Ibuki finally got them to where she wanted to go, initially… He hadn’t been expecting a vigorous run around Jabberwock Island, when he woke up that morning. And he certainly hadn’t been expecting to be roped into a band, unofficially or not…

            Thank God they were at the music studio now, though. The AC was a balm on his soul.

            “H-Hey, Ibuki…?” Hajime asked, after he’d recovered his voice enough to continue their discussion from after they’d left the hotel grounds.

            Ibuki tilted her head cutely as she picked up some nearby drum sticks and impulsively tapped them together.

            ?Yeah? Yeah? What’s up, Hajimeme~?”

            The brunet sweatdropped at the nickname.

            “Um… Are you sure you want me to be in your… band? I know you said all that running was supposed to help with music theory, but, uh… I feel more frazzled than enlightened…”

            Ibuki pouted moodily at the brunet.

            “What are you saying? There's no way you could go through a live performance if you get winded by something like this.”

            Hajime rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

            “Well, that’s what I… kinda mean… Do you usually train like this all the time?”

            “Ibuki doesn't do it for training. Running is Ibuki's hobby!” The musician only added onto his confusion.

            ‘I thought this was training so I could learn proper music theory...?’ Hajime thought to himself, mystified.

            Ibuki tapped the drumsticks together rhythmically, grinning cheerfully as she swayed back and forth.

            “Ibuki also likes playing one-person tag and one-person hide and seek too! It's a lot of fun! Have you ever found an eight-leafed clover by the riverbank? It's seriously sooooo hard, Ibuki definitely can't find one at all.” Ibuki briefly crouched on the floor and sulked.

            “W-Well… eight-leafed clovers don’t exist…” Hajime muttered, and of course was disregarded by the musician, who was onto the next thing.

            “Also, it's fun to play a game called, ‘Will I Get There?’. It's super thrilling!
Ibuki forgets lots of stuff really fast, so she tries to write memos for important things...” Ibuki moved both drumsticks to one hand as she whipped out a memo pad she had on her and waved it excitedly. “See?! See?! Ibuki wrote down Hajimeme is gonna be Ibuki’s drummer! It’s already decided!”

            Hajime smiled wryly at the spontaneous decision.

            “Decided, huh…?” He mumbled. The brunet was sort of getting the gist that this is what Ibuki meant when she said she was going to show him how to just… ‘do’ things. Well, it’s not like he minded, either way.

            Ibuki went back to what she was talking about just a moment ago.

            “But on days Ibuki plays that game, Ibuki goes outside without thinking about anything. When Ibuki does that... Surprise, surprise! No matter how long I'm out, Ibuki can't get back home! Ibuki just thinks of fun stuff all the time, and after Ibuki has taken a bunch of shortcuts and detours... Ibuki usually ends up somewhere Ibuki has never been before.” And Ibuki just kept going… “One time, Ibuki nearly walked onto a fishing boat and almost ended up in a foreign country! Ah, but sometimes Ibuki likes to spend time relaxing, too. The other day, Ibuki woke up in the morning with a powerful hankering to look at the stars. So Ibuki just waited all day till the stars came out!”

            Hajime felt himself sweating again from just hearing the musician babble on about… anything and everything. There was no way he could keep up with her… But maybe…

            “H-Hey, Ibuki… Could you give me those drumsticks?” He knew it was kind of a long shot. But if he just started doing the activity Ibuki initially wanted… Maybe that’d help give her some focus?

            The musician stared down at the sticks in her hands before giggling mischievously.

            “So, Ha-JI-me wants to skip to dessert~! Ibuki can rock with that!” She tossed the sticks at the dumbfounded brunet, and raced over to a table, where she’d left her favorite guitar on.

            Hajime watched her a bit warily, but moved over to the drums and sat down. He was kind of expecting Ibuki to use a recorded soundtrack for him to try and drum to the beat to… But this looked like…

            “Uh, Ibuki…?” Hajime asked carefully as the musician slung the guitar strap over herself and eagerly plugged it into a loudspeaker.

            She turned to the brunet excitedly.

            “This’ll be Ibuki and Hajime’s first jam session~! This is gonna be great!” The blue-haired girl cackled gleefully, and Hajime sweatdropped.

            “P-Please tell me you’re not going to…” He trailed off as he was cut off.

            Ibuki strummed the guitar with passion, it crackled over the loudspeaker noisily.

            “IBUKI’S POP QUIZ TIME~!” The musician shouted at the top of her lungs. “Who wrote Ibuki’s lyrics and songs?! The answer isssssss… IBUKI DID IT ALL HERSELF!”

            … That didn’t instill Hajime with confidence. That didn’t instill him with confidence at all… But… even so… even as Ibuki’s guitar playing overloaded his eardrums again… This time, he didn’t immediately shield his ears, despite the music being just as unique as it was the first time he’d heard it.

            He couldn’t. Not with Ibuki’s expectant eyes and contented grin aimed at him. Taking a ragged breath, Hajime… tapped out a beat. He knew it wasn’t anything to write home about. But he knew he’d made the right choice when Ibuki perked up and… pumped up the volume… Was… Was his body vibrating to the music?!

            Good god, what had he gotten himself into?!

            ~*~

            Mukuro tilted her head as she was handed a controller.

            “Time to show us what you’ve got, Muku-chan!” Chisa beamed supportively at the soldier, and gave her a thumbs-up.

            Mukuro just stared as the countdown to the race began. Why was she even allowed to play when she didn’t know the controls? This was… vexing.

            Beside her, the swordswoman had also been granted a controller, but even though she must have been just as lost, her face was perfectly blank and calm. Indeed, when the countdown reached zero and the race started in earnest, only two cars zipped and zoomed ahead, leaving the other two helplessly at the start of the track as the two players in question struggled to learn the controls as quickly as possible.

            “Ah… I see…” Peko murmured suddenly, and indeed, her car seemed to finally leave the start of the track, ahead of Mukuro’s.

            The soldier narrowed her eyes in response. This would not do. This could not be allowed. She could not be challenged so early on. Taking a deep, steadying breath as she closed her eyes, Mukuro calmed herself down and cleared away unnecessary thoughts. All her focus was trained on the game, and mastering the controls.

            It took her a few moments, but she grasped the basics. Best of all… she had worked out a secret weapon. So when she eventually zipped around a corner ahead of Peko, Mukuro unleashed it with all her tactical might. Peko’s eyes widened as she received a shell to the face, point-blank. Her car spun out of control, and Mukuro reveled in her newfound power and might… And her secured 3rd Place standing.

            Mukuro huffed impatiently at the result being made reality. Nanami and Yukizome-sensei had simply been too far ahead… But that was okay. This was merely the first round. She would not lose again.

            The soldier paid no heed to the determined glare Pekoyama was shooting her, too engrossed in watching the countdown to the next race as it began in earnest.

            “Wow, Ikusaba! You learn fast!” Yukizome giggled as the race started a bit more evenly this time. “You, too, Pekoyama! Wow. This is… This is pretty intense.”

            The orange-haired woman had no idea. An unholy fire had entered both Mukuro and Peko’s eyes as they glared at the screen, both embodying a spirit that absolutely refused to lose this time. And indeed, the tricks and gimmicks got cheaper. Cars were smashed into walls, endless shells were launched…

            “Again.” Mukuro and Peko barked simultaneously, once the second race had ended in Chiaki’s victory.

            …. Peko had edged into second place… this time… But neither soldier nor swordswoman were happy with the result.

            Chiaki hummed thoughtfully.

            “I think you’re ready for the rainbow road…”

            Chisa nervously laughed at Chiaki’s decision, having played on that track before, herself. It was the most dastardly track ever designed…. Oh. Chiaki’s face was serious. Not a single giggle escaped her lips.

            … Uh-oh.

            ~*~

            Unfortunately, all fun and games must come to an end… Apparently, Monokuma was itching to give them their next motive, so that evening he summoned everyone to Chandler Beach on Second Island.

            As Hajime showed up, he bore witness to quite the peculiar sight… Chiaki and Mukuro. Glaring at each other. Though admittedly, Chiaki’s was far more pouty and innocent, with her puffed cheeks. In concern, he asked the girls what was wrong.

            “… I shouldn’t have underestimated Ikusaba-chan.” The gamer brooded, still with puffy cheeks. Mukuro’s glare didn’t lessen.

            “I still lost.” Mukuro grumbled moodily.

            “You almost won, though.” Puffy face was still puffy. “I never get shelled.”

            “I’ll just have to try harder, next time.” Mukuro deadpanned.

            Hajime looked to Byakuya for explanation, but the heir shrugged nonchalantly.

            “Ask them later, Hinata. It looks like he’s arrived.”

            Following the heir’s extended pointed finger, Hajime sweatdropped as he saw the monochrome bear arriving to the beach in a small boat, manning a wheel while wearing a pirate hat...

            A pirate… hat…

            “Yohoho~!” Monokuma laughed, clutching his belly after he weighed anchor. “Ahoy, ya scurvy dogs! Long time no see~!”

            Fuyuhiko deadpanned at the obnoxious bear.

            “We saw you yesterday…” And that had been annoying in of itself, what with all that shit about “Future Foundation” and “World Ender”… it was enough to make his ears bleed from just remembering it.

            Monokuma waved off the yakuza dismissively, then rubbed the back of his head bashfully. Byakuya narrowed his eyes, clenching a fist with determination.

            “What is your game, this time? We won’t fall for your tricks again!”

            Sonia also clenched her fists with determination, feeling obligated to speak up as well.

            “Togami-kun is right! We will remain united this time!”

            Nekomaru cracked his knuckles threateningly.

            “I’ll make a bona fide team out of you guys, yet!”

            The bear patted his belly contently, his ever-grinning face mocking them all.

            “I was just thinking~… ‘Boohoo, you stole our memories!’ ‘Give them back, Monokuma-sama!’ ‘You shitty memory-stealing bastard, Monokuma-sama!’ It’s all I ever hear~!” Monokuma waddled to a cannon he had stationed on the deck, aimed out at them all. “Well, kiddos! Today I start fulfilling my promise~! I call this… Message in a Bottle!”

            Just like the madman he was, Monokuma fired out sixteen glass bottles with what looked like documents in them out into the crowd of students and teacher. They each had a cork in them to keep the contents contained, and each bottle landed in each of their hands without any pain.

            “Wh-What… What is this…?” Hajime asked carefully, not daring to open his bottle – in fact, he stared at his like it might explode.

            Monokuma rubbed the back of his head bashfully.

            “It’s what it says on the tin, swashbuckleroo~! I have spent my day collecting these lost bottles at sea, y’know… And wouldn’t ya know it?! They’re messages from your loved ones! Isn’t that just the best news ya heard all day?”

            Teruteru’s eyes dilated.

            “M… Mama? Mama sent me a message?”

            Mahiru placed her hands on her hips and glared reprovingly at the chef before aiming it at the bear.

            “He’s… He’s obviously lying…! Why would they send stuff… so unreliably?!”

            Monokuma shrugged uncaringly.

            “You were shuffled off to Jabberwock Island, y’know. No phones, no computers… ET isn’t phonin’ home anytime soon, and your loved ones know that! Why not hear what they have to say after all these wasted years~?”

            A vein popped on Fuyuhiko’s forehead as he raised a shaking clenched fist.

            “Don’t… you… fucking mess with me!!!” The yakuza roared. “Why should I believe any shit you hand to me in a bottle?!”

            Chisa nodded faintly, while still gripping the bottle in her hands a little too tightly.

            “K… Kuzuryu-kun is right…! Th-This is obviously… a trap…”

            Monokuma raised a paw, showing off his dark side mischievously. It somehow looked more ominous with the pirate hat on.

            “To believe~… or not to believe~… That is the question, me chums! However~… Like all motives I’m assigning some conditions to this motive! First~! You cannot destroy these love letters from your precious people~! If you do, that will be treated as an assault against Headmaster Monokuma, and will be punished as such! Second… You must read these letters tonight~! I’ll be watching you, so if you don’t wanna be tossed in a volcano tomorrow morning, ya better read these letters veeery closely~! Also, no sharing your letters ‘til you read them yourself. I worked hard to deliver these to you~! So ya better show some appreciation~…” Monokuma patted his belly contently.

            Hajime paled at the implications of all this. This bastard was… cornering them again… And so soon! What the hell was his endgame?!

            “Why are you putting us through this?!” The brunet demanded heatedly. “What did we even do to you?!”

            This started a chain reaction of outrage aimed at the bear, and he turned his back on them all, sighing disappointedly.

            “Rather than waste your time on adorable Monokuma-sama, I think you should all focus on your loved ones~… They might just be the last things ya ever get from ‘em. Ya don’t know what ya have until it’s gone~! Yohohohohohohoho~!” Having spoken his peace, Monokuma returned to the wheel of his vessel and spun it like a madman. The boat got turned around, and he drifted off into the sunset.

            … Monomi was tied to the front of the vessel, her mouth taped shut.

            But Hajime and the others paid that no mind… They were too absorbed in staring at the bottles given to them, or giving each other wary glances.

            This was not going to end well… If the first motive was bad… This second one was so much worse… So much worse.

Chapter Text

            Hajime stared at the letter in his hands, brows knitted together. It was short, and not very warm… But it had been something.

            ‘Hey, idiot… Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten Hope’s Peak. It’s where you belong, of course you wouldn’t forget. What was it you used to tell me? It’s lonely being left behind or some shit? If you don’t hurry, I’ll leave you in my dust. And I’m not looking back. I told you… The only way to make it in this world is to be Ultimate. It’s the only way you can feel proud of yourself. To stand on equal ground with other Ultimates, and not look up to them all the time… Well, even if you forgot, I haven’t. I’m going to be someone my brother can be proud of… So do whatever you want. Maybe I’ll see you around, dipshit. – Natsumi K.’

            The brunet’s nose scrunched together before he folded the letter as it had been initially. He then placed it on the table and looked out his window, out toward the hotel grounds, deep in thought. He didn’t remember this Natsumi person… She must have been someone he met after coming to Hope’s Peak. But even so, her words resonated within him… The frustrations of making something of your life, to know what his talent might have been…

            Hajime rose up and flicked off the light switch to his cottage, before crawling into his bed and staring up at the ceiling listlessly.

            Of course he understood. More than ever, he wanted to know what his talent was, and just what kind of life he had at Hope’s Peak… But murdering everyone else to achieve that and escape this island… He didn’t have that kind of resolve. That would make him a monster.

            Hajime shifted over to his side and closed his eyes calmly. He wondered if he should ask anyone if the name ‘Natsumi’ rang a bell… Then again, what were the chances of that?

            ~*~

            Next morning was bleak, rigid, and… tense. They gathered in the dining hall, as they knew Sensei was going to round them up if they didn’t… But very few could look around and meet the eyes of the others. Hajime couldn’t tell which was more prevalent – rage or fear. Whatever it was, uncertainty and unease was palpable enough to choke all of them.

            Even if it wasn’t his place to know… He wanted to know what the others received. Because even Komaeda, who was supposed to be eating separately from them, was sitting with a tight, close-lipped expression as his face rigidly remained blank. Nekomaru was sitting by the luckster, arms crossed and eyes calmly closed as he frowned thoughtfully. From where he was sitting, Fuyuhiko looked tense and wound up enough to snap at the first sign of provocation. Mahiru appeared just as stony and upset; Mikan and Sonia had haunted looks about their faces. Teruteru, Kazuichi, and Ibuki looked scared and like they were willing to deny the whole situation all over again… Gundham, Byakuya, Peko, Chiaki and Mukuro seemed more composed like Hajime was, but the brunet knew that after the first murder, looks could be deceiving.

            … Chisa was the last one to set foot in the dining hall, presumably to make sure no one was skipping out on the meeting. The orange-haired woman flashed an uneasy, yet determined grin at all of them as she came to a stop at her table.

            “… Okay, you guys… Why don’t we just take a deep breath? It’s… It’s been a stressful past couple of days, and I know last night didn’t help. But that’s why… that’s why you have me, and you have each other, to make it through this! So why don’t we start sharing what’s on our minds, like we did yesterday?”

            Fuyuhiko snorted derisively, curling a hand into a fist.

            “Oh yeah, let’s have a share circle… I’m sure people won’t hoard secrets and use that against us later. Great plan!”

            Chisa wilted at the yakuza’s doubts. She ran a hand through her hair uneasily, but mustered the best smile she could.

            “I’m… I’m serious! Even if you don’t want to do it here in front of everyone, I’m willing to speak to each of you in private! Whatever you’re more comfortable with!”

            Fuyuhiko furiously raised a pointer finger, and spittle flew out of his mouth as he snapped back waspishly.

            “Are you fucking kidding me?! Don’t you get it yet? It’s over. Maybe we could’ve had a ‘peaceful island paradise’ if we all cooperated with each other, like you said, but those days are fucking over! A murder happened! And you wanna know why it happened? Because nobody fucking trusted each other in the first place! Not me. Not Nevermind. Not Souda. Not Tsumiki. Not Komaeda. And especially you!” He switched between pointing at both Byakuya and Chisa. His glare became more heated as he kept the finger outstretched. The heir weathered the yakuza’s scornful look much more easily, but Chisa looked crestfallen at the accusation. “Everyone gave us so much shit, and maybe it was deserved, but what the hell did you two do? Huh? You went around our backs, trying to smoke out a killer quietly. You never trusted us to handle it as a team!”

            Chisa opened and closed her mouth in an attempt to defend their approach, but the arguments that sprang to mind sounded more like excuses to her, so she couldn’t help but stay quiet. Byakuya narrowed his eyes at the yakuza.

            “Everything we did was for your safety. If we brought the letter to everyone’s attention, that would have spurred more restlessness and tension. Somebody might have tried to take matters into their own hands and gone on a witch hunt… Or worse, taken advantage of the opening to frame Komaeda for the murder.”

            Fuyuhiko’s hands twitched over his chest as he snarled, eyes boiling with frustration and righteous anger.

            “That… That’s the shit I’m talking about! You were scared shitless by a fucking letter! To you guys, anybody could have been the killer! So you treated us like glass, and look what happened! Owari died, Saionji got her ass executed, we shattered! Now you want to throw this friendship and Kumbaya crap back in our face?! Are we just a fucking joke to you assholes?!”

            Mahiru crossed her arms and shot the yakuza her own scathing glare.

            “Pretty high and mighty talk for the guy who never wanted us to get along! If you want to throw any stones in other people’s houses, make sure your own is in order, first!”

            Fuyuhiko growled back gutturally, glaring daggers at the photographer.

            “You want your fingers smashed?! This ain’t about high ground shit anymore! We can’t trust each other! How do we know anything we say here is the truth? How do we know anything we say won’t be used against us later? I say, tell whoever the fuck you want. As for me, I’ll do my own thing.” The yakuza turned to Yukizome-sensei rigidly, shoving his hands in his pockets, and glare softening the smallest amount. “Listen. I don’t blame you, as much as I’m pissed off. You had your reasons for handling things the way you did, but now you’ve gotta face facts. You can’t protect us anymore… not all of us. The bear got to us once, he’s gonna get to us again. I have to do what I have to do… Don’t take anything I do personally; you’re the last person I have a bone to pick with. Just… stay out of my way, and things’ll probably sort themselves out, and I’ll be out of your hair. Goodbye.”

            With those chilling, foreboding words, the yakuza stormed out of the cafeteria. Chisa bundled her apron in her hands anxiously, staring after Kuzuryu, heartbroken.

            “Kuzuryu-kun…!” Despite calling after him, she didn’t have the heart to stop him. Not with everyone else in just as much of a mess as the yakuza was…

            Nekomaru started to get up from his seat.

            “I can go get him; we shouldn’t just let someone walk out… Not during a time like this.” The team manager rumbled, brows knitted together in concern as he looked to Sensei. The orange-haired woman shook her head sadly.

            “No… Let him go. I’ll… I’ll check on him later.” And she would. There was no way she’d just leave him alone, completely. She raised her hand to stop Nekomaru from fully standing up.

            Peko stood up in his place.

            “I’ll go with him. We need to make sure he doesn’t do something he’ll regret.” The swordswoman spoke calmly, but with a tone that brooked no argument.

            Chisa mustered a weary grin.

            “Th-Thanks, Pekoyama… I… He should have a friend, at least. I’m glad you’re in his corner. Keep the both of you safe!”

            Peko nodded stiffly as she turned to go.

            “Of course. Hold down the fort here.” Having spoken her peace, the silver-haired girl briskly departed.

            Chisa scratched her cheek sheepishly and turned to everyone else that remained… Thirteen students.

            “Now then… What do you guys want to do?”

            ~*~

            Despite how earnestly she pleaded and offered to be a listening ear, everyone decided to split off by themselves, in pairs, or groups. The biggest one remained behind, consisting of Chisa, Sonia, Ibuki, Mahiru, and Mikan. Apparently, the musician had an idea to cheer everyone up, and she was just itching to share it as she told them to wait there and ran off to collect some things.

            Not surprising, they sure didn’t have to wait long for Ibuki to get back with markers and what looked like stacks of cards or papers… Naturally, the whimsical girl sprawled them out on the table they’d since cleaned off, making one big mess again in one fell swoop…

            Yet impressively, not a single item fell to the floor.

            “What’s all this, Mioda?” Chisa tilted her head curiously as the musician placed her hands on her hips and gave a proud troll grin.