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KIYOTAKA ISHIMARU: ACE ATTORNEY

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“Should I call Makoto?”

Mondo already had his flip phone out.

Kiyotaka gaped. “You have his number?”

“Uh, yeah? We're pals.”

This whole time he had Makoto's phone number...

They'd stepped outside and sat on the front steps of the courthouse, giving their quaking legs a chance to rest. Taeko, convinced that she was about to become the next best prosecutor, was analyzing Byakuya's leftover evidence.

The early afternoon sunshine powered against their eyes, notoriously bright. Kiyotaka welcomed it as his thoughts hurtled around like sidelong hurricanes.

“Yes,” he said, harsher than he meant to. “Sorry—Please call him.”

Mondo dutifully opened up his phone and dialed the number. He held it between them so they each could hear Makoto's cheerful, tinny tone once it erupted through.

“Oh, hi Mondo! What's going on?”

Mondo spoke first. “Hey, bud. Sorry to call like this, but do you know where the hell your mans is? He's, uh, supposed to be prosecuting for the trial...”

“He—He's missing?” Concern sharpened Makoto's tender tone. “But I watched him drive off to work this morning with all his evidence..! Wh-Where could he...”

“He was with us,” Kiyotaka interjected, “until the last recess. Could you call him? Track his phone?”

“Oh—Good idea! Let me call him.” There was some fumbling around on Makoto's end as he regained control of his breathing and dialed for his boyfriend. A faint ringing on their end until—third dial—fourth—fifth—a certain smarmy tone erupted.

“Makoto! What is it? You know I'm in court right—”

“Buddy where the FUCK are you?” Mondo yelled first, followed by Makoto's whimpered “Taka and Mondo said you aren't in the trial..!”

Byakuya's breaths were steady. “Whatever do you mean? I am still present.”

A painstaking silence, drawn out by the utter shock in Mondo's face.

It took the biker a few tries to get any words out. “The... fuck?” The crackle of Byakuya's annoyed breaths as they stole precious time from him. “What the fuck do you mean you're still goddamn present? Taeko just ran an entire cross-examination for you cuz you weren't present!”

Byakuya's scowling reply. “How could that be? Surely that much time has not yet...” His voice reverted to mumbles as he checked his phone. “...I see. Wait—Taeko did what? Tell me you're lying. Don't you dare—”

“Where are you, physically?” broke in Kiyotaka. “We have twenty minutes to find Ryota Mitarai if we have any hope of figuring out what happened to Yukizome!”

“Oh, that is a non-issue.” Byakuya clucked his tongue. “I have trapped him in the men's restroom of the courthouse. It is now a war of attrition.”

He—

Mondo's face fell into his hands. He almost dropped his phone—Kiyotaka had to rush in and snag it before it busted onto the marbled stairs and ruined their only chance of dragging Byakuya back to his job.

Kiyotaka gained his bearings first, enough to explode at their prosecutor.

“WHAT'S TAKING SO LONG, THEN?!”

“I don't know!” Byakuya shot back. “I'm not going to knock on the stall door and ask!”

“Oh my fucking god.” Mondo snagged his phone back. “You in the one across from our courtroom?”

“Yes, but—”

“Be right there,” snarled Mondo, slamming the phone shut. Poor Makoto didn't even receive a kindly goodbye after witnessing what must have been his most nonsensical trial yet. And he wasn't even participating in it.

They stood up together and made haste for the restroom. On the way there, Kiyotaka couldn't help but ask, “What is it with strange witnesses and hiding in there? First Taeko, now Mitarai... who next?”

“God, I hope nobody. This is ridiculous,” Mondo retorted. “I dunno about you, but I genuinely thought his life was at risk. Fucking... just hanging out in the bathroom! God, he should really fear for his life. You ever think about how breakable Byakuya's kneecaps look? He's like a porcelain Barbie doll. Some weird bougie overseas one.”

Kiyotaka snickered. “Limited edition?”

“Oh you fucking bet. Comes with like, five outfits and a comb to keep his stupid hair perfectly fuckboy-looking.”

Their laughter bounded down the halls. Once they'd reached the restroom, Kiyotaka poised to knock only for Mondo to barge past him.

Surely enough, there stood the prosecutor, carefully positioned as not to touch any surfaces in the public restroom save for the floor. Reminded him of how Taeko had taken off her shoes and stood barefoot here for the sake of trying to lock them in. Oh, Taeko...

They stared at the shocked prosecutor for a long moment before Mondo yelled, “We thought you were dead, you piece of shit!”

“Dead? Excuse me, why in the world would you—?”

Kiyotaka broke in. “We just witnessed a second victim to that mysterious murder weapon! And then you went missing! What do you think we assumed?”

Byakuya, simultaneously touched and disgusted by their care, folded his arms across his chest and sneered. “I was fine.”

“Whatever.” Mondo rolled his eyes. “Which stall?” He didn't try to lower his nearly bellowing voice.

The prosecutor shot a glare at him, then held out three fingers.

“Oh. Cool.” Mondo proceeded to walk over to the third stall over and slammed his fists against it. “Hey! You've been in there long enough, kiddo. We just wanna talk.”

Silence, at first. No feet poked out from the bottom, but it was entirely likely the kid had folded up his legs over the toilet to conceal himself.

Unfortunately for Mitarai, Mondo was nothing if not a big stubborn fool. “Like, I get it if something severe's going on in there? But if it's been going on for this long, we should probably seek medical help. You need us to call you an ambulance or something?”

Still nothing.

“Hmmm. I've seen this before. Either he fell into the toilet and is on the verge of drowning, or maybe his feet went so numb it's cutting off his circulation? Either way, lemme—pull out my flip phone and... dial the number... there's the nine, there's the one... where's the other one, where's, uh... uhhh... there we—”

“N-NO, WAIT! PLEASE DON'T!”

Mondo's brows raised. He shut his phone. “You okay in there, bud?”

Hesitation. The silence crackled between them. Finally a high-pitched tone ventured, “Mentally, not really.”

“Yeah...” Mondo rested his hand across the stall. “I dunno what it is about high school kids and hiding in these things. I had a friend who used to do that a lot too. Had to help her find a better place because holy fuck are these stalls depressing. You should really go outside next time, at least get some fresh air. The hall monitors aren't nearly as perceptive as you think.”

The student didn't seem to know how to respond to that.

Mondo kept on peacefully babbling. “Anyways, I get the need. This is a really hard time for all of us. It was really scary seeing one of your teachers just—you know. I promise you I'm not badgering just for the fun of it. But we're trying really hard to figure out why your teachers got hurt in the way they did, and we think you might be able to help us with that. You're our last lead.”

Mondo drummed his fingers along the stall. “Also, it kinda smells in here. I dunno how you've put up with it for the past—hour? Two hours?”

Somehow this was what brought Mitarai out of hiding. There came the trickle of footsteps gingerly crossing over tiled floor, then followed the creak of hands pressing against the old stall door. Mondo stumbled out of the way, giving them space, and blinked at the reveal of the first-year student.

Mitarai had an utterly submissive face—soft and rounded, white-skinned, splotchy pink cheeks. His shaggy hair, a sort of choppy honeyed brown, ended just above the shoulders. His eyes, a faded green, roved about the room, landing anywhere except on another person's. He wore the typical Academy uniform, the black blazer and the red pants, accompanied by a plaid tie that they'd never actually seen on a student before since the other male student they knew, Izayoi, dunked his giant red hoodie on top of the rest of his clothing.

The kid all but recoiled at the sight of three adults in the restroom. He glanced back as if considering returning to the stall. Casually Mondo sidled behind him and shut the door. “Alright, you ready? Hey, hey—Don't be nervous. Let's put some names to these weirdos' faces.” He gestured to himself. “I'm Mondo. That's Taka—Don't let his eyebrows scare you. He's very nice. Looking. Um!” He posed an obviously false cough. “And that's Byakuya. He's a real piece of work.”

Byakuya scowled. “You forget multiple titles of formalities in these names, Mondo Owada.”

“Eh,” was Mondo's eloquent reply.

It would have been beneath the prosecutor to commend Mondo for accomplishing in five minutes what the prosecutor had failed at for over an hour. Instead he turned to the boy and said, “Witness, accompany me to our lobby. I must prepare you for the remainder of the trial.”

Nervously glancing between the sunny, grizzled Mondo and his sneering, sharp-faced counterpart, Mitarai made the tiniest step toward the biker.

Byakuya snapped his fingers. “No, you can't go with him. He just helped us coax you out of that stall. He's on the other side. Now—Let's be off, witness.”

Mitarai stared for a long moment at Byakuya's receding back before slowly, reluctantly following after him.

By the time he'd finally gone, Mondo grabbed Kiyotaka by the wrist and dragged him to the nearest couch in their lobby, where they proceeded to collapse.

“Holy mother of god,” wheezed Mondo. “I dunno what the hell it was, but something about the way that kid stared at me... fuckin' scary.” Shook himself.

Kiyotaka gazed after him. “You didn't show it at all.”

“Comes with the trade of pickin' up random stray kids. Show fear and they'll feel it tenfold. You don't realize just how perceptive they are of your emotions until you mess up once or twice, and... that shit sticks with you. People like to say kids are stupid or weaker-willed or whatever, but that's because they don't work with 'em themselves. That or they're real shitty people.”

He found himself staring at Mondo. Mondo's gaze slowly redirected, taking him in. His friendly grin resurfaced. “Whatcha lookin' at, bud?”

His throat caught. “Just...” Drew out a sigh. “Just really impressed with you, is all. It seems like you give every moment of your life to kids who need it.”

“Hey, not every moment, geez.” Mondo kicked at the floor, his laughter gentle. “I take time for myself too, you know.”

“Goodness,” murmured Kiyotaka. “I don't know how you find the time, between watching those kids and helping me.”

“Well—Uh—” Mondo's gaze shot past him. “Sometimes things overlap.”

“Overlap? Mondo, you are taking care of yourself, ri—”

“Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Don't worry about it.” His foot thumped impatiently as he turned away, his fluffy hair shrouding his face. “Looks like the gallery's gathering back up. Let's prep for this next leg of the trial. God, it won't fucking end... Who knows how many more Academy kids're gonna pop outta the woodwork with fuckin' never-ending testimony...”

Kiyotaka smiled to his partner's back. “I feel like we're getting close. It shouldn't be too much longer, now that we've located Mitarai.”

At least, he hoped not. He still had a promise to keep to himself.


Although the trial had been specifically postponed for the sake of Lang's trip to the hospital, nary a howl surfaced in the cold courtroom air.

Kiyotaka tensed. So he hadn't made it back, then. He fretted momentarily for Lang's sake, then stiffened. They couldn't postpone Mitarai's testimony just for that evidence, not when the kid was so emotionally unstable he kept trying to sneak away from the witness stand. A stalwart Bill Bailiff kept him grounded with a glare here and there.

On the other side of court, Taeko fought tooth and nail to reclaim her position as the trial's residing prosecutor. She begged, she screamed, she accused Byakuya of committing the greatest crime of all: homophobia.

Ultimately she got to stay on as Byakuya's assistant replacement once he had grown tired of arguing with her and discovered that she wouldn't shut up anytime soon unless he acquiesced. As well—in spite of Byakuya's groaning—the Judge continued to assert that, as Makoto's replacement, Taeko simply could not be expected to step down when Byakuya just looked so lonely up there by himself. So he had no help on the side of the law in this regard.

“If I catch you going easy on the defense because they're your friends, I'll dismiss you immediately,” snarled the prosecutor.

“If I catch you going easy on yourself or overlooking critical pieces of evidence for a mysterious time labeled 'later', I shall snap your kneecaps, Sir Prosecutor.” She giddily smiled in turn, too excited to still have that prosecutorial power bestowed upon her to let the smarmy Byakuya ruin this for her.

Kiyotaka rolled his eyes, watching their bickering at the edge of his vision. Taeko just liked ordering people around. He had to admit however that he hadn't been prepared for her—truce?—with Byakuya. Was it even physically possible for people like them to get along..?

The Judge side-eyed the prosecution before rapping his gavel. “Court resumes for the trial of Mr. Sohnosuke Izayoi. Prosecutor Togami, have you resolved your extenuating obligations?”

Byakuya Togami—porcelain Barbie doll man, cool and curt and frustratingly suave—blushed. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I am prepared to continue with the trial.”

Mondo elbowed his partner. “Heh—Always prepared, my ass.” Smirking, he punched his fists into their desk. “Eat your shitty words, Byakuya!”

Byakuya did not so much as grace them with a glance. Raising one gloved hand, he said, “I now call my final prepared witness to the stand. Ryota Mitarai?”

There was a yelp somewhere behind the witness stand. Mitarai's head peeked up around it.

“Wonderful. Now would you testify about the day Chisa Yukizome was killed? Where were you?”

Mitarai's eyes widened so greatly that an entire fish could've swam through their watery depths. When he spoke up, his voice trembled, threatening to shut down entirely. “I-I-I have something else I'd like to bring up first.”

Byakuya's slim brows raised. So even the prosecutor could be surprised. “By all means.”

Testify: “Don't Trust Mr. Juzo's Statements!”

“Likewise, p-please feel free to listen to me instead, for I am very trustworthy! S-See, I did not hallucinate false evidence and attempt to pass it off in court, so you know I'm genuine!

“I couldn't help but, um, but bring it up, because I noticed that Mr. Juzo's testimony wasn't true when I was listening with the gallery.

“H-How could Miss Chisa talk, right? She died way too quickly!

“Also, um, also... he wasn't in a right state of mind! That's all!”

...huh.

“Sure odd that he felt the need to try and revoke Juzo's statements,” Mondo commented.

Kiyotaka pinked. “Perhaps he desired to expose the real truth!”

The edges on Mondo's face softened as he gazed at his partner. “The world would sure be a whole lot nicer if everyone was as sweet and innocent as you.”

His eyes wobbled, seeking Mondo's. His heart stumbled up his throat and his chest constricted and all the warmth rushed to his face as all concept of time flew out the window up until the awkward crunch of gavel on desk. “Mr. Ishimaru—your cross-examination?”

“O-Oh! Um! That! Y-Yes!”

Hurriedly he smashed his hands onto his desk. “HOLD IT—Mitarai, would you—”

“OBJECTION!”

The court drew silent.

All eyes fell on the high-pitched tone that had hurtled the accusatory word.

Taeko's entire face bled crimson. “U-Uh. Never mind. I just wanted to try saying it to the defense.”

He stared at her from across the room.

This was going to take forever.

Clearing his throat, Kiyotaka brushed a speck of glitter from his sleeve to resume pointing at the witness. “Please clarify how you are aware that Mr. Sakakura wasn't in a 'right state of mind' at the time of Ms. Yukizome's death!”

Mitarai blinked. “Because he watched his best friend die?”

Oh. Oh that made a lot of sense.

Shoot...

His stiff shoulders eased at the familiar brush of Mondo's hand. “Hey, hey. I know what you mean. He sounded so fuckin' sure of himself when he said that last statement. But I'unno if we got any clues as to why the hell he thinks there was something wrong with Juzo when that happened—besides the obvious, I mean.”

Frowning, Kiyotaka struck at another angle. “HOLD IT! What do you mean that Ms. Yukizome died too quickly? Did you see it happen?”

“Nooooo!” Mitarai whined. “But I heard the trial's proceedings! Her eyes bled out, right? And then her throat—There would've been no opportunity to get whole sentences out to Mr. Juzo!”

Taeko broke in. “HOLD IT!” Byakuya glared at the back of her head. “Are you insinuating that Sir Defendant did not have a single hand in Madam Victim's death?”

“N-No, that's not—um—maybe she died... more slow?”

“WHICH IS IT?” Kiyotaka thundered back. “Did she have time, or—”

“NO! SHE DIDN'T! I KNOW SHE DIDN'T!”

A murderous black slashed across the boy's face. His hand opened to reveal a pen. Scowling at the floor, he furiously drew a few squiggles across his fingers. “I have proof that Mr. Juzo isn't trustworthy!” He reached into a pocket on his blazer, only for his hand to grope empty air. “My tablet—Oh... Oh, that's right... um...”

“The drawing?” Kiyotaka posed, raising the evidence in question. “Do you refer to the drawing of Juzo Sakakura on this tablet, in which he... appears...”

Mondo broke in, all too excited. “Scary! Fuckin' spooky as all hell!”

Kiyotaka wordlessly pointed to his partner.

Mitarai made a slow, nervous nod.

“Did you draw the picture of Juzo?” Kiyotaka asked.

Another tight nod.

Putting aside the fact that this witness had felt the questionable urge to sketch Juzo while he was literally hallucinating, Kiyotaka could safely confirm that Mitarai had witnessed Juzo during the moments he couldn't account for.

Valuable knowledge, if concerning.

Byakuya rapped his knuckles over his desk, shoving Taeko aside in the same fluid motion. She huffed around his shoulder. “With that odd interlude out of the way, share your testimony of the crime scene with us.”

Mitarai's pen gouged his palm. He blinked, straightened, and capped it.

Testify: “I-It Wasn't Me!”

(Mondo hummed thoughtfully. “What a... uh, expressive title,” he mused.)

Mitarai's hands scrabbled for purchase over the witness stand. “I saw n-n-nothing!

“You heard me, didn't you?” Abruptly his head turned to face Kiyotaka. “You heard me that day! I didn't know she died! I was scared she'd be mad at me for showing up late..!

“Sh-She can't be mad at me if she's dead!”

Kiyotaka blew a sigh into his palm. All these witnesses were so... nervous, anxious. Children. Children shouldn't be in a courtroom, serving testimony to a crime such as this one.

...students of a mutilated teacher...

He shook his head. At least he had some sort of trajectory this time. When the Judge signaled to him, Mitarai returned to his drawings, inking on the witness stand. For a moment Kiyotaka was distracted—he had these flowing strokes that carried through the characters he'd sketched out, giving them a surreal, almost human quality, as if they could peel themselves up off the wood at any moment.

Kiyotaka shook himself. Now was not the time to be impressed by the witness's superior graffiti skills.

“HOLD IT!” he shouted. Mitarai cringed, blotting out a character's face with a massive scrabble of black ink. “Before I press you any further, I have a question for you.” He carefully plucked the tablet at his side and displayed it for the witness to see. “To confirm—this is your personal tablet, Mitarai. Correct?"

Mitarai stared up at it, his eyes wide fish bowls. “Um. Yes, i-it's mine,” he squeaked.

“Okay.” Kiyotaka put it away. “How did you lose access to it?”

“It... It broke.” He bit his lip. “So maybe that's not my tablet, because mine—”

“When did it break?” Kiyotaka pounded his desk.

“U-Ummm! The afternoon Miss Chisa died! I-I-I didn't know she was dead, though!”

Wow, Mitarai. Kiyotaka whistled.

Then he pounded a fist and cried, “OBJECTION!” From across the way, Byakuya smirked.

Mitarai quavered. His drawings reverted to wobbly stick figures. They kind of resembled that Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

“Mitarai, if you didn't witness Ms. Chisa Yukizome's death, then why is there an incredibly graphic image of her on your drawing tablet, drawn by your hand—which you just confirmed was in your possession up until it broke?”

Nobody else could've drawn that image of Yukizome with her eyes bleeding. In fact...

While Mitarai shook in place, refusing to speak, he added, “You must have seen what happened to her! Not only that, but you witnessed the first wound that was inflicted upon her!”

Byakuya's sneer glinted as he pounded his fist into the back wall. “Witness—Testify at once about how Yukizome was inflicted by this first wound!”

Mitarai ducked under the witness stand, wailing.

“WITNESS! TESTIFY AT—”

“GODDAMN, BYAKUYA! GIVE HIM A MINUTE!”

Having successfully drowned out the prosecution, Mondo strode up to the witness stand. He stuck his tongue out at Byakuya. “Don't yell at a kid, goddammit. 'Specially not one this soft-spoken.” Byakuya, while scowling, didn't oppose the biker and unofficial child therapist.

He'd ducked his head over the stand and murmured something to the witness, who eventually brought himself back up to his feet. His gaze darted between affable Mondo and thunderous Byakuya, until he sighed a breath and started up another doodle.

He didn't recognize the implications of Mitarai's drawing until he made out Byakuaya's gilded hair and glasses—his neck attached to a... oh, that was far too unpleasant to even think aloud.

With Byakuya furious and ruffled, Taeko cleared her throat. “Hello, witness! Do please testify about the mysterious bloody eyes Miss Chisa Yukizome was inflicted with!”

Byakuya muttered something about how he'd never listen to her when, perhaps out of spite, the witness stood up straight and opened his mouth.

Testify: “It Still Wasn't Me!”

“The image was seared into my mind... I-I couldn't help but draw it!

“Miss Chisa's eyes went molten red, and her head snapped forward, and she... she m-met my eyes before collapsing.

“I had been in hiding. I don't know how she saw me...

“Her eyes, um, her eyes...” Under such pressure between the defense and prosecution, Mitarai locked down, the sweat bulleting down his forehead.

Suddenly he froze, and he glanced directly at Kiyotaka. “You noticed, didn't you? That there's a video on my tablet. I think the video shows us what happened.”

A strange, steely tightness had entered his tone, and he stared down Kiyotaka, daring him to play it for the courthouse to witness.

The heat rushed to his cheeks. He's been told by multiple sources, both credible and questionable—Miaya, Seiko's corroboration, Shi-Long Lang—that, above all else, he should not watch the video. Now the man whose tablet held the video was imploring him to watch it... was telling him important evidence laid resting upon it, if he only dared to seek it out...

His fingers latched onto the tablet. It was evidence he'd yet to look at... and he still lacked it, the truth, the evidence that conclusively presented what had killed Yukizome. He didn't even have that yet. He still couldn't prove whether Ruruka or anyone else had killed her.

...but everyone else had told him not to watch it.

Sweat clung to his cheeks. He glanced once, wordlessly, to Mondo, seeking counsel.

Mondo stared down at the tablet. He whispered, “I dunno, man. Something tells me it wouldn't be safe to.”

“Well?” The Judge rapped his gavel. Kiyotaka's heart shook. “What are we waiting for, Mr. Ishimaru? Is there a piece of evidence we need to see as to better understand the crime, as Mr. Mitarai so succinctly puts it?”

This video had caused an entire computer to explode. Unless—No, not the doubts, no—unless Lang didn't understand how to operate computers any better than he did his flip phone. Unless Miaya hadn't wanted them to play the video because secret evidence slumbered upon it, evidence that proved she or Seiko had had a hand in the murder...

He couldn't... he couldn't just ignore a piece of evidence like he had been... now the doubts were creeping in, their potentials swarming his mind, eating away what he thought he'd known about this case...

“You'd know,” Mitarai spoke up, voice a distant, looming phantom, “you'd know who the murderer was if you watched it. That's why you're questioning me, because you don't actually know. You wouldn't have dragged me up here if you did.

“You wouldn't believe me if I told you what's on it. You'll have to watch it, watch it, watch it, watch it for yourself.”

Mitarai... Mitarai was right. If he didn't, he'd always be missing something from the crime. He'd never truly know if he'd located the correct murderer—if the right person had taken the brunt of the fall for their actions. He'd never know, never know, never know...

His fingers glided over the tablet's cold, bloodied surface. Someone had destroyed it and scattered the pieces in what should have been a successful attempt to hide crucial evidence. One fragment found on the victim, another in Juzo's pocket, the third on the ground. He had to know.

Vaguely he could hear voices, other voices, approaching him, trying to reason with him? To offer... it mattered not. He couldn't believe how stupid he was. Why hadn't he checked the video before? How could he have simply skipped this over—?

Well, no matter. He opened the tablet seamlessly, thanking Mitarai's lack of passcode, and swiped over to—

“NOT SO FAST!”

A sprightly tone launched across the courtroom, accompanied by fast footsteps and the vast stretch of voice, struggling to reach them in time. “While under surgery, a chip was found in Juzo Sakakura's brain!”

What—

Detective Lang rushed to the witness stand, practically leap-frogging off of Mitarai's head to stand atop it. He placed his hands upon his hips, reveling in the undivided attention of the courthouse. “Yeah, I got it right here.” He procured a clear zip-loc baggie from his pocket and held it out for them all to see: within slumbered the minuscule brain chip, coated in a red fluid. Lang shook the bag a little.

Once he'd decided everyone had gotten a good look at it, he sidled off the witness stand and approached Kiyotaka's side. “That's not all,” he said, low and husky. “The doctors handed it right over to that forensics expert—I dunno how she's that fast—and she did all these tests on it. Apparently it activated approximately two hours ago.”

...at the start of the recess, his chip activated. That was when his mind was forcibly shut down.

His other evidence momentarily forgotten, Kiyotaka turned to Lang. “What's the brain chip connected to? Where are the controls?”

“Wait wait, I'm not done yet. See, we networked the thing back to its source and found that it had also activated the same code, uh...” Lang hurriedly counted on his fingers. “Two days ago, at around noon o'clock.”

Yukizome.

And the speed with which Juzo had collapsed could not be ignored. To think that she had likewise been incapacitated in such a quick, efficient manner... even the chocolates she'd eaten couldn't have possibly taken her life quickly enough. By the time she was coughing up blood, her body had already all but shut off.

It was even possible she hadn't noticed the knives in the chocolates because her motor functions had ebbed.

This kill command came first. His hands shook. The kill command came first.

Who administered it? Shaking himself, Kiyotaka returned to the tablet, pointing it out to Lang. “You said this tablet was connected to three sources, didn't you? O-Originally, I mean.”

Lang nodded thoughtfully. Mondo had slunk around him to try and be a part of the conversation, but he was too bewildered to get any words in. His eyes jumped between the two as they reasoned this case together.

“Yeah, and the video's the only thing that could've been broadcast,” Lang clarified.

...he'd almost been pushed to watch it.

What would that video have done to him..? What faculties would he have lost as a result of watching it..?

These children—First Ruruka, now Mitarai... what had pushed them so far as to steal the autonomy of living human beings..?

What had...

His mind came to a halt. Could it have been—

The smack of the gavel. “Mr. Ishimaru, what are you and Detective Lang muttering about over there? Would you like to share with the rest of us?”

Kiyotaka flushed all over, then scowled at himself. Really? Shaking his head, he said, “This new piece of evidence changes everything! I request that Mitarai amend his testimony to reflect the true contents of his video!”

Taeko clapped. “Sure, why not?”

Byakuya came dangerously close to smacking her, but he settled with a rude nudge. “Don't act so lenient! What did I tell you? You can't simply—”

“What? That last testimony was a little boring, anyways. I do not want to do the witness's homework and watch his stupid video. I would rather make him describe it to us.”

The prosecution scowled. “That sort of attitude could cost you everything in a—”

“Testify, witness!” squealed Taeko, jumping in place. Byakuya all but sank into the floor.

With little choice left, Mitarai found himself surrounded once again by eager authority figures awaiting his version of the truth. His hands clenched. “I-I told you... to watch it for yourself. You won't believe what's on it unless you see it...” His cheeks had reddened, mouth drawn into a thin line.

Taeko merely shrugged and said, “Try me.”

Testify: “Fine, I'll Try You”

(Taeko snickered.)

“I guess I'll just have to go ahead and say it, then...

“Are you ready?” Mitarai swallowed. He ducked his head back into the witness stand, the majority of his drawings now smudged by Lang's hands and feet and whatever else of his got into contact with them. “Because...

“I caught a video of none other than o-one of my classmates. My superior, Miaya Gekkogahara, to be exact. With her skills in therapy and cybernetics, creating something like that brain chip would've been nice and easy for her.

“It must've been to help Juzo with his anger issues, only to backfire horrendously.

“Even us Academy students make mistakes in our field, you know.”

It didn't take a genius for every able brain in the courthouse to wonder why Miaya had been conveniently left out of Mitarai's testimony up until this exact moment. Kiyotaka could imagine Seiko signing up a furious storm as she explained this bout of testimony to her girlfriend.

Mondo had returned to his aide, his forehead all bunched up as he stared down Mitarai. “This kid's losing it, Taka. Be careful.” His hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder. The flutter of warmth came rushing through him.

Lang sort of hovered at his other side, but he clearly didn't expect to be of any use. He was barely paying attention to the trial. It was more like Lang had parked himself here and, after being useful for the first time in his life, had promptly checked out.

Swallowing, he went for the first lead he could jump at. “HOLD IT!” he shouted, pointing straight at the witness. “You say that you Academy students all make mistakes—but surely that means you do as well, yes, Mitarai? Your skill in animation has been fascinating me as of late. What makes you so certain that Miaya had to have been the one to control Juzo's mind?”

“You think I know h-how to work all that fancy technology?” Mitarai huffed. “I just draw things! I don't know what that brain chip has to do with anything!”

“You don't?” posed Kiyotaka. “Could you add that to your testimony?”

Scowling, Mitarai appended his testimony.

“OBJECTION!” The boy practically leapt into the air when Kiyotaka grabbed Lang by the wrist and foisted his hand holding the zip-loc back. “This brain chip was connected to Juzo's mind up until the surgery that forcibly ejected it form his body! And not only that, but, having run an analysis of the software, detectives found that it was connected wirelessly to your tablet! How can you claim that you don't know anything about it?”

Mitarai's eyes widened, false-soft. “B-B-But I don't!” he whined.

Even Mondo cringed. “Dude, you can't keep using that excuse. It's getting pretty fucking clear that you had a play in the death of Chisa—not to mention the attempted murder of Juzo. Hey, speaking of”—Mondo turned to Lang—“did you find out how the big guy was doing?”

Lang turned his head down, letting out a strange keening wolf sound. “He's hooked up to one of those coma machine thingies right now. His mind was forcibly shut down by that brain chip, but they're hoping they can convince it to come back now that the chip's out of his head.”

...still in limbo, then. Kiyotaka's heart trembled. Albeit strange, Juzo hadn't seemed like a bad person. He'd had trouble coaxing his feelings out to the one he loved, but then he found his footing and... and now he might lose it, forever.

Kiyotaka shook himself. If Juzo died after everything he'd gone through... well, from one homosexual man to another, Kiyotaka would have to see this through.

He returned to the witness. “Why didn't you mention Miaya's addition to the crime scene until now?”

“B-Because... um... uh... I forgot!”

Gosh, he was even worse than Ruruka. Kiyotaka seethed. “Miaya herself testified that she wasn't physically present when Ms. Yukizome died. What do you have to say to that?”

“I wasn't either!” he screeched. “So stop trying to indict me for killing my favorite teacher!”

Kiyotaka drew out a long, slow breath. “This map of the crime scene reveals an opening where you could have—”

“Could have... Could have! You have no concrete proof!” shrieked the boy. His hands had torn into the witness stand, besmirching his artwork, leaving his hands bloodied black by ink.

Shoot—He was right. Floundering, Kiyotaka glanced aside—

—and his prosecutor was already slamming his hands palms-first onto his desk. “OBJECTION. Witness, I ran my own investigation of the carnival grounds and similarly located this shadowy alcove likely to have hosted you while you sniped down the victim. My proof is here.” He plucked a singular stuffed dog from his court record. “Gekkogahara has already corroborated that she saw you win this animal prior to the murder of your teacher.

“I happened to find it in the shoddy blanket fort set up at the back of the carnival. Not only that, but Gekkogahara also confirmed that you were the only person she saw win a single prize from that claw machine during the entire day. She had attempted it multiple times to no avail. Funny”—his smirk hiked up a notch—“how, had you offered to assist her, as she had requested, you could have more easily pinned the murder on her. You aren't much of an assassin, now are you?” His head cocked, and his glasses glittered.

“Ohhh!” Taeko whispered, grabbing Byakuya by the arm to forcibly give him a high-five.

The frigid precision of his tone gave even Kiyotaka chills. To think that the prosecutor had given up on proving Izayoi—and even Ruruka—in favor of utilizing the evidence he preferred to hoard and misconstrue to make Kiyotaka's life harder...

Trials went by so much easier with his help!

Mitarai, staring down his stuffed animal, let out a wail. “NO! THAT WASN'T ME! I'D NEVER KILL HER!” Then his voice cut off, and through his tears he shrieked, “I COULDN'T HAVE KILLED HER!” His eyes turned directly to Kiyotaka, and he sneered. “YOU. You think I could have done it, but how could I have killed Miss Chisa if you can't prove I was able to kill Mr. Juzo? They were killed by the same method, weren't they?

“I didn't have my tablet with me when Mr. Juzo keeled over! In fact, that barking detective over there was holding it when it happened! It sounds like you'll have to prosecute him next!”

Lang clearly had no idea what was going on. His head cocked at the sound of his name, but he just sort of nudged Kiyotaka, like, you'll take care of this, right?

Kiyotaka's entire body grew cold in one slow, fluid motion. But Lang... Lang wouldn't have activated the video and shut down Juzo's brain... right? He couldn't have..!

...unless there was a different method to administer the kill command, and Mitarai was bluffing.

If there was... it had to be something he had on his person right now—or had, prior to the recess, when Juzo collapsed.

Kiyotaka met the murderer's eyes cleanly. “Detective Lang, would you please search the witness for any electronic devices that could have remotely set off the kill command on Ms. Yukizome and Juzo?”

Lang's mouth fell open. “A thing for me to do? Oh, I'm honored!” He rushed over to the witness—

—when the witness lurched back, a black fob suddenly entering his hand. “DON'T COME ANY CLOSER!” His breaths were jagged, frantic, borderline manic. “IF YOU DO I'LL DETONATE IT ONE MORE TIME. I'LL KILL MR. MUNAKATA NEXT! APPROACH ME AND I'LL DO IT! I'LL DO IT! SO DON'T YOU DARE..!”

Kiyotaka's hands clapped over his mouth.

That was it.

That was the confession. He'd done it. Mitarai had killed Ms. Yukizome, and possibly Juzo too.

“Why?” The word wrenched, trembling, from his lips. “Why did you kill them, Mitarai? What drove you to such lengths?”

The boy stared, wild-eyed, back. His hand had crunched around the kill command, his thumb dangerously close to stabbing the third switch ON. The other two, he saw, had already been switched.

What would drive this boy so mad as to commit murder against not only one but all three of his teachers..?

He didn't understand. He couldn't possibly. And he had no other evidence to come to a conclusion. He glanced across the way and saw Byakuya similarly empty-handed. His prosecutor shrugged, murmured, “There were scraps of evidence, and I took a photograph, but none of it actually made any sense. Scrawls of paper, mostly, identified as Juzo Sakakura's handwriting.”

How Byakuya spoke so calmly while a witness threatened to kill the remaining teacher of the Academy was an unthinkable mystery. The entire rest of the courthouse had come to a deathly standstill, nobody daring move closer to the boy, but still Byakuya sneered and spoke, his fingernails rapping one by one against his desk.

“It was strange, actually. In his ravings, Sakakura appeared delusional. Didn't you report of a similar finding to me, Ishimaru, when you came across him yesterday? It was as if he was a completely different person.”

Kiyotaka blinked, his heart seizing.

They needn't any other evidence than what they had to silently confirm that Mitarai must have hijacked Juzo's mind more than once. His art of the raving Juzo and his access to fobs and brain chips already more than proved it.

But if so... still the question remained: why? Why experiment on his teachers' brains..?!

He had nothing else that could answer it. Gazing after the bloodthirsty boy, Kiyotaka grasped his katana charm and awaited the familiar spinning as the world dimmed, then bloomed an unearthly green.

His katana's comforting weight entered his hands. He surged across his desk, no longer afraid of the distance that separated him from Mitarai, and lunged first. “Tell me why you're picking off your teachers one by one!”

“Because I have to,” came the frantic reply. Mitarai hadn't any weapons in view. He slunk to the ground, letting Kiyotaka prod him with his sword.

Once he'd comfortably secured Mitarai was unarmed and had no feasible way of attacking him, Kiyotaka continued. “You have to?”

“Yes.” A breath like a sob. “I have to. He said so. He said we have to keep an eye on the teachers because they keep doing things that aren't good. Miss Chisa isn't supposed to teach us math or home ec or geography. Mr. Munakata can't mentor his favorite students. Mr. Juzo can't come to terms with his emotions.

“They have to stay in place.” A new layer entered his voice, one sure and steely and cool. “They have to do exactly as I say.” His very complexion had altered, taking on crinkled eyes and stooped shoulders. “These children are my pride and joy, and I must have their talents exceed all expectations.

“But there is nobody else to take their place, and so my beloved students shall help me.”

Kiyotaka didn't realize how badly he was shaking until his sword had fallen from his grip, stabbing the ground by Mitarai's head.

Someone helped him take over the teachers' minds. His thoughts launched back to Ruruka—Ruruka and her mind-altering sweets—Ruruka who had been approached by an old man who declared to love his students...

...oh god, oh god oh god oh god...

Hurriedly Kiyotaka grabbed his sword. “Mitarai,” he called, voice curt. “Mitarai, listen to me. That man is using you for your ultimate talent. He's drunk on what he can do with your animations.” His voice caught, tight. “Tell us that he's using you. Tell us in court. He needs to seek justice.”

...Otherwise, Kiyotaka had no evidence. This man utilized clueless children—purposely kept clueless—who left so much intent in their wake that it was easy for him to get away unscathed. Because technically he didn't do any of it... Kiyotaka felt sick.

While it could be argued that Mitarai had killed Yukizome... and, legally, he had...

“Please, Mitarai.” His voice shook. “Just tell me. Tell me Tengan did this to you.”

Mitarai froze. “Tell... you..?” His hands scrabbled for his pockets, and out came a jade fob with a glowing crystal button. “But how can I trust you?”

...his own faith in others had been decimated. Kiyotaka's mind flashed back to Ruruka.

Ruruka. Tengan had wanted her to plea temporary insanity not only to hide Mitarai's actions but to keep her for himself. To keep them both. If she lost her ability to function in the regular world, she'd have nowhere else to go, no one else to support her... and she was still fourteen... god...

The fob was glittering as Mitarai's thumb edged over it. Kiyotaka's eyes locked onto it.

“Don't,” he whispered, desperate, “Mitarai, please.”

But how could he convince the boy to listen to him? In his hands he held a weapon that easily, seamlessly killed. Did Mitarai even fully understand what he was doing when he'd switched the fob that had rent Yukizome's mind?

...what was its association with Ruruka's murder attempt? They... hadn't both been drawn to kill her by Tengan, had they..? What sort of set-up... what sort of disgusting plan had he...

They have to stay in place. What, had she crossed some invisible line? Had she been too good of a teacher? Panicking, Kiyotaka stared down the glittering jade fob in Mitarai's hand.

...but his proof—but where was his proof? A slimy sensation crawled up Kiyotaka's throat, and the lead weighted his arms, and the fractured breaths squeezed through his lungs, but he couldn't show that to the Judge, to Byakuya, even to Mondo.

As the boy hesitated, Kiyotaka continued. “Just tell them. You don't have to explain everything. Just tell them that—”

—all it took was one thumb-press, and Kiyotaka was knocked to the ground.


His vision returned in fragments, little throbbing bursts of light. Squinting, he could only just make out the sing of metal as the blade flung through the air and pierced the fob from Mitarai's grip, sending it clattering to the ground, where it burst into black confetti.

Izayoi had stood up and smashed his fists against the defendant's desk. He screamed. It was a meaningless thing, without words or definition, and it lasted for a good few seconds. When he was done, the silence fell into place—deafening.

Then he shut his mouth, swallowed, and said, “Fuck you.” He dragged his hood off his head. His smoldering silver gaze all but punched Mitarai in the face. “I wouldn't kill you, even if it was legal. Because if you die, then—I don't really know what happens—but if there's even a chance you get to rest once you're dead, then obviously that's not fucking okay. B-Because you can't just get away with what you did like that.

“Hey, Mr. Ishimaru.” His eyes cut over to his attorney. “Is he gonna die for what he did? He better not... I refuse it.”

Mitarai was trembling all over, the utter shock of having lost his only weapon painting his face a sickly gray. Or—Wait—Now his hand disappeared into his pocket—Now out came his pen—Now—

“Oh, goddamn,” Mondo hissed and scrambled over their desk, grabbing the kid's arm moments before he charged and plunged his pen into Izayoi's neck. “Stop turning things into weapons! This is not helping your case, kid!”

Kiyotaka blinked away the sting of hot tears.

Even if their principal had some sort of play in what Mitarai had become, it could not be denied that he was too dangerous to let live a normal life anymore. He didn't actually know what would happen to the kid—likely juvie, but then what? Or would his next trial rule him as too unsafe to even let into the minor's court?

It wasn't his call. His case would likely move above their level in severity—and Kiyotaka had already participated in this one, so he doubted he could take the next just to continue his pursuit of the truth.

“Hey.” Mondo had already handed off the kid to Bill Bailiff for arrest, and he now rested his hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder. “You okay? For someone whose case just got proven, you look...” His brow furrowed. “You're all tense. See, I get it with Byakuya.” They glanced over to Byakuya, who had in fact frozen in place.

“I guess he didn't realize how dangerous of a witness he'd picked up,” Kiyotaka said. “I wonder what he told him in his interrogation.”

Mondo guffawed. “I bet he said he definitely wasn't the murderer.”

“Oh yeah. Definitely.” Kiyotaka sighed. He was just so tired now. He all but crashed into his desk.

The Judge's voice resounded as Mitarai was carried away. “I do believe we have seen ample evidence to fully prove that our defendant had little to nothing to do with the crime. While a separate trial shall be held for the case of Ryota Mitarai, and we will have to hold yet another for Ruruka Ando, I believe we can safely rule Sohnosuke Izayoi as...

“NOT GUILTY.”

Kiyotaka considered sleeping for the rest of his life. He heard the confetti going off and the cheers and just... just wanted to go home.

Mondo nudged him, not one to let him sneak out of the festivities. “We won! Stop slouchin', Taka!”

Scowling, Kiyotaka slowly picked himself back up.

A certain wolfish detective passed his periphery. “Oh—Is it already over? Wow. I feel like my friend's investigations took way longer. Or maybe that was because we didn't do normal trial times and just sat around screaming at random perpetrators until four in the morning.”

“You—” Kiyotaka blanched. “Lang, are you okay?”

“You even have to ask?” Detective Lang gestured to himself. “You think anything about the person that I am screams I am completely normal and fine?”

He couldn't dispute that.

Lang suddenly flushed, and, bowing his head, spoke in a low, husky tone. “It was—uh—nice to meet you. I'm gonna go do my job now.” He sort of glanced, once, Kiyotaka's way before lumbering off.

Kiyotaka was momentarily blown away. Just like that, the detective was gone.

Would they ever meet again? Who was to say?

“I don't like the vibes you give off when you're around him,” Mondo grumbled.

“Why not? He's just a... a friend.”

“You hesitated!” Mondo's cheeks tinged.

Kiyotaka gawked at him. “Why does it matter what he is to me? And I hesitated because it would've felt weird calling him a coworker when our time working together just ended!”

“It matters because... uh...” Mondo blinked. “I guess it doesn't matter.”

Goodness. Kiyotaka rolled his eyes.

At the other side, he saw Taeko and Byakuya trying to get out of each other's way the fastest. She proudly said, “I did very good today, did I not? You should hire a second assistant, Sir Prosecutor! I think we would—”

“No, no, and no. Makoto was... a special case, and I've no need for someone other than him.”

Taeko gagged. “What, do you sleep with all of your subordinates? Gross!”

“NOT ALL OF—” His face burned red. “Just... Just one,” he finished, snapping his mouth shut. “Good day, you... nuisance.”

Taeko stuck out her tongue to his back before reminding him, “Had I not taken your place earlier, this entire trial would be over. Dipshit.” She happily returned to Kiyotaka's side to help them finish putting up their evidence.

As the gallery emptied and the accused parties were escorted away, only Izayoi remained. He was finishing up some paperwork and—his eyes kept leaping, anxiously, to the entrance. His dad had already come to congratulate him, though their mood still had this testy edge to it, and some of the remaining students had gathered around him to talk about the trial.

Seiko in particular had situated herself on top of his desk to pester him. “Yeah, sorry I didn't do a better job warning you about what was coming. My bad!”

Izayoi sometimes humored her with a response, but he was focused enough on his work with the policemen that he mostly ignored her. In the meantime, she carried a second conversation with Miaya.

Idly Kiyotaka wondered what all of the students were waiting for, sitting around gathered in a courthouse, when he turned and—there, at the door, stood a white-suited figure. He all but sprinted over to the students and accounted for the ones who remained, breathing out a great sigh when he found that nobody, aside from the accused parties, were missing.

Then one of them looked up to ask, “Mr. Munakata, what do we do now? We saw the email.”

The email... Kiyotaka didn't mean to listen in, but he was still trying to gather up his evidence from the prior day—or at least remember where in the world he'd left it—so he happened to overhear.

“I know,” Munakata finally said, voice drained. “I'm sorry, everyone. But we deemed it too unsafe to keep the school going. After what happened, I—I admit I'm afraid it could occur again. You all saw how Ruruka and Ryota acted... I...” His voice carefully lowered. “I believe I know why, too. Or, more accurately, who had pushed them to cross that line where human becomes... inhumane.”

But the disappointment in his gentle complexion...

Izayoi broke the silence first. “What? No way! Mr. Kyo, that's not okay! I don't...” He bit his lip. “I have nowhere else to go. All the nearby schools have already expelled me for one reason or another, and... and this was the only...”

“Fuck,” Seiko mumbled. “But you're the only teacher left. Fucking... fuck. This is why we can't have nice things, dammit. Field trips my ass...”

Miaya tugged at her girlfriend's sleeve and signed haltingly.

Seiko's breaths sharpened. “Mr. Munakata, where the hell is Miaya gonna go?”

She stared after their teacher, who was already signing in return to Miaya's question. He raised his gaze to face Seiko. “We'll have to find another teacher who is willing to give her the time and effort she deserves.”

“Fuck you, Mr. Munakata! We need you!” Seiko paused, slapping her hands over her face. “God damn, I can't just ask that of you. Miss Chisa and Mr. Juzo are...”

There was a flicker in Munakata's gaze. “Yes, I do agree that having only one teacher would make it... well... much more difficult to maintain.”

In complete and utter contradiction to his words, none other than Juzo Sakakura entered the courtroom. He wrapped an arm around Munakata's side and leaned into him as every single student before them began shouting at once.

“Everyone! Please be quiet!” Somehow Munakata managed to control the din.

Even Mondo couldn't help but smile to himself. “Good for them,” he murmured. Then he tried to pick up that one blade they found in Chisa's throat with his bare hands and let out a yelp.

“As you can see,” Munakata continued, “Juzo has recovered. He—no, close your mouth, I see you—He genuinely was dead for, I want to say a few minutes, but the machine at the hospital managed to resuscitate him when that... that horrid chip was removed from his brain. We are...” he sagged, “so very lucky.”

“So what do you mean about one teacher?” Izayoi broke in, eyes shimmering. “If the both of you are still here, can't you stay for us?”

Munakata managed a tired smile. “I don't think Juzo could teach all of you on his own. I thought about taking the spot as principal so that the school could continue to function, seeing as—ah—Principal Tengan may be discreetly dismissed soon, but...”

He'd figured it out too. The weight dissolved from Kiyotaka's shoulders. Of course Munakata had. He was going to do everything to protect the kids he had left.

“Wait, wait wait...” Izayoi was thinking hard. “Can't you both teach and also principal at the same time?”

Juzo glared down at him. “Grammar, kiddo.” He looked about to collapse against Munakata. “We're workin' on it right now, but tryna find replacement staff is... hard.”

“In addition to almost dying,” Munakata said, shooting a glance over his students. “This is a conversation we can continue later. As for now, let's go home, everyone. This has been... an utterly exhausting—not to mention obscenely prolonged—field trip. What we all need is some rest.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but watch as they all gathered their things and began to leave the trial behind them. For a moment Munakata hesitated before coming over to Kiyotaka and shaking his hand—then Miaya and Seiko had to get Taeko's number—and then Izayoi had to say goodbye too—and then on they went.

He had this distinctive feeling that he was never going to see these people again. He couldn't describe it—like, their paths had not meant to cross, and they never would, beyond this interaction.

He shook himself. “Are you ready, Mondo?”

“Huh? Yeah, but...” Another nudge. “C'mon, let's go celebrate! You're supposed to be happy!”

Kiyotaka tried and failed to muster a smile.

“See? That attitude fuckin' eats shit. We gotta change that. We should... let's, um... hmmm...” He absently tapped Kiyotaka's arm. “Oh! The carnival! You still didn't get to choose a place to go! Come on, come on—I'll cover the fare.” He glanced over. “Oh. Shit! Taeko, you wanna—”

“No,” she patiently said, eyes meeting Kiyotaka's. With a knowing smirk, she bowed. “I am going to call Servant. He shall drive me home.”

She gave him another look before heading out with their evidence, promising to drop it off at the police department on the way. That was legal, right?

...but he remembered, faintly, that he'd made a promise to himself.

Here it was.


The carnival was still around for the rest of the week. It had seen a decrease in revenue with the end of the trial—that and it was well past five in the afternoon—so the breezy summer evening saw few merrymakers. The Ferris Wheel line was wonderfully deserted.

Kiyotaka could feel his pulse through his palms. His hands shook so hard he could practically see the sweat glistening in rivulets off of them. Come on, he kept reminding himself. He'd said he would do it.

He met Mondo's kind gaze. He had to do it. For everything that had happened these past couple days—no, these months that he'd spent in Mondo's presence. He... couldn't imagine their relationship going in any other way.

They entered the metal basket at the bottom of the Wheel. Mondo went in first and tried to hold it down as it shook for Kiyotaka. He couldn't help but giggle when Mondo tripped, the contraption jiggling underfoot. “Damn, I don't know why the hell we're going on this thing!” he squeaked.

Taeko had said it would help, he reminded himself. And why would Taeko steer him wrong—Taeko, who had improvised as a prosecutor for the last leg of the trial for them?

As the Ferris Wheel climbed heavenward, Kiyotaka's heart flumped in his chest, lodging in his throat. He couldn't find the words. What... What was he supposed to say, exactly?

He shook himself. He'd know when. For now he gazed after Mondo—fluffy hair twined with ribbons of violet and pale golden yellow. They were still in their suits, he realized, and he couldn't help but smile faintly at how they matched.

“Mondo,” he murmured, and his friend's gaze approached his.

“What's up?” His grizzled response, the biker smiling affectionately.

Then all too quickly their seats swung into place and hovered over the top of the carnival. Kiyotaka peeked once at the drop and looked away abruptly. He had to put this case behind him. This ridiculous, nonsensical, heart-wrenching case.

His eyes settled to Mondo's.

“There's... something I have to tell you,” he uttered.

Mondo clung to his gaze, inviting him to continue. If he was nervous, he didn't show it.

“These last few months have...” Kiyotaka smiled to himself. “They've been a blessing, really. I'd be so lost without you.”

Mondo chuckled. “Imagine trying to run that whole law office by yourself. I'm happy you didn't have to.”

A starburst of warmth settled in his chest. “Me too. Thank you, Mondo.”

“Hey, hey.” Mondo's gentle laugh. “It's my pleasure. I mean, I just did it cuz Jin asked me to at first, but...” He couldn't quite finish his sentence and gazed, instead, at Kiyotaka.

His heart thundered. Now.

“It's different now, right?” Mondo's lavender eyes glistened as Kiyotaka spoke. “I... I want you to stay with us not because I can't do it on my own now. It's...” He choked. “I need you.

“Mondo, I...” His entire body trembled. Mondo was—gorgeous. The sun drenching his tanned cheeks, mellowing his complexion. The sweet oranges and pinks and violets drew out the softness of his face. “I've always cared about you. Really... cared about you.”

A faint smile on his partner's lips.

“But it's only now that I know how to put it into words. Mondo—I want to be with you.” There. He said it—and then he couldn't stop saying it. “I have feelings for you. Every day I've spent with you has been... like a dream, if I'm honest, and I just want these days to continue. I want...”

...you, he would have said, had his throat not closed up.

Mondo's smile—Mondo's sweet, radiant smile—his lips drawn apart, lush and summery. It held for a moment as the biker leaned in, only for the pale rush of—something—to pass his gaze and render raw terror. He shook himself, broke eye contact, breathed out a sigh. “I—Taka, I'm sorry, I—I have to...”

His gaze fluttered down as the Ferris Wheel lunged forward, dragging into its steady descent.

“I have to go. This has been—This has—I'm sorry, I—”

...what was happening? The languid warmth ever present in his eyes, the laughter, the gruff gentle tone, the way he couldn't help but smile—it had all been drained away, leaving behind a pale phantom of the Mondo he had grown to adore.

“We have to stop seeing each other.”

His mouth fell open. “Mondo..?”

“I should've made things more clear. I... god...” His voice lowered to a tremulous mumble.

“M-Mondo, what's wrong? I'm sorry—I didn't mean to upset you—”

“It's fine, it's fine.” He was already getting up, awaiting the Wheel's doors to snap open. “Well, this... this is goodbye.”

He was making his way to the entrance when Kiyotaka's voice snapped. “I'm sorry! If this is about what I said—I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. Can't we stay friends, at least?”

Mondo didn't respond, just kept hurtling forward.

Mondo!

He was already a dark smear on the horizon, and then, not even that.


To Be Continued...