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KIYOTAKA ISHIMARU: ACE ATTORNEY

Chapter Text

Day 1: Part 1

“Is the defense ready?”

The Judge's gruff voice was still ringing through Kiyotaka's flabbergasted brain. He kept checking the gaping wide doors that led to the rest of the courthouse, blindly hoping his mentor would magically materialize at any moment now. But the seconds were creeping by, slowly, solemnly, and the sweat was trickling like icicles down Kiyotaka's hot forehead.

He gave it another moment before capitulating in defeat. “Y-Y-Yes, the defense is ready, Your Honor.” So Mr. Jin had left him all alone for his first ever trial, huh? Kiyotaka gritted his teeth. He'd have to somehow pull this off on his own. He couldn't leave his defendant hanging... like how Mr. Jin had just left him...

He repressed a scream. If he messed this up, his defendant would die. The courtroom of the futuristic Japanifornia was a brutal lawless hellscape, and any defendant proven guilty was sent to their death with little to no respite. Kiyotaka still hadn't figured out if his client was guilty—to be honest, he was so nervous that he'd totally forgotten to even speak with him beforehand—but he had to believe, for his client's sake, that there was more to the truth than what the nasty prosecution had devised.

Not that he even knew who the prosecution was. Fashionably late, had Mr. Judge said?

“Oh ho,” chortled the Judge. “You're Jin Kirigiri's new protegee, aren't you? Isn't he coming to help coach you during the trial?”

Kiyotaka bit the inside of his cheek. GEE! He sure HOPED Mr. Jin would! Struggling, and partially failing, to keep his tone cool and low, Kiyotaka said, “I suppose he's putting a lot of trust in me t-today!” He ignored how badly his ears were burning and smoothed down his white suit, straightening his lilac tie. “But Mr. Judge, where is the prosecution?”

“That's right.” Mr. Judge checked his papers before glancing down to the bereft prosecutor stand as if noticing it for the first time. “This one tends to be a bit tardy, so I usually give the benefit of the doubt—”

“I'm so sorry! I'm here now! I'm sorry, Mr. Judge!”

A bright, hopeful tone broke out from the front of the courthouse as a young man raced to the prosecutor stand, setting up his briefcase and files of evidence. Kiyotaka swallowed nervously. Mr. Jin had said he would bring the evidence they had proofed through beforehand. All he could do was vaguely recall an autopsy report and the bloodied murder weapon, a kitchen knife.

The prosecutor had fluffy spines of brown hair and one big ahoge. He had a perpetual pale pink blush adoring his cheeks and the most indescribable hazel eyes. His suit was black, his pink tie oddly matching with his naturally soft complexion. He glanced over to Kiyotaka, beaming. “Oh no, are you missing the trial's evidence? Feel free to share mine!”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell right open. The one thing Mr. Jin had told Kiyotaka was to never accept help from the prosecution. There were rumors floating amongst the courthouse that a number of other lawyers were now utilizing forged evidence to forcibly win cases, and even Mr. Jin hadn't quite figured out who was safe and who wasn't yet. He'd taken Kiyotaka's training very seriously, drilling into him not to ever make fake evidence—the highest importance was finding the truth.

Which was weird to Kiyotaka. Why wouldn't he want to find the truth? And why did so many lawyers seem desirous of working against him?

While he struggled with the prosecution's proposal, Mr. Judge spoke up. “Go ahead, Mr. Ishimaru.”

Well. He'd just received the Judge's full permission.

Kiyotaka fast-walked over to the prosecution stand and awkwardly took note of the various pieces of evidence Makoto had collected before him. As he feverishly wrote down his findings, Makoto would helpfully point out extra tidbits about them, such as the murder weapon's smudged, impossible-to-discern fingerprints and the autopsy report's state of incompleteness. “Look out for that one. When I was at the precinct, a detective warned me that they weren't done examining the body. It had been found the victim may have been drugged beforehand, but they're still working through the whole examination.”

How fascinating that Makoto proved to be much more useful than Kiyotaka's own mentor.

As Kiyotaka finished up his notes, Mr. Judge looked over his perch to say, “I thought this might happen. Did your prosecutor make you take the stand again?”

Makoto let out a long sigh before blinking sharply. “Oh! That's right! Allow me to introduce myself.” Bowing, he said, “My name is Makoto Naegi, and I'm a prosecutor's secretary! Unfortunately, my prosecutor likes to send me off to do trials that are allegedly too easy to bother with, so I must apologize for my tardiness. I only learned ten minutes ago that I was expected in court.”

Mr. Judge started laughing over Makoto's sheepish sigh, as if this was all one delightful joke to him. “Not to worry, Makoto. I understand. Your prosecutor does tend to be... a bit strange, if wildly successful.” That caused Makoto to crack the slightest chuckle.

Kiyotaka returned to his stand in a hurry, his mind struggling to keep up with all the information he'd just received. So he was facing a prosecutor's secretary—not an actual prosecutor. And this secretary was about the kindest person he'd ever met. Kiyotaka shook himself, blinking rapidly. And not only that, but he'd shared his three key pieces of evidence with Kiyotaka.

He took a cursory glance over his court record to examine them.

There was the kitchen knife. Its hilt was covered liberally in blood—a messily intimate wound must have resulted from contact with it. He reminded himself, as Makoto had told him, that the prints were hard to read, and not even the suspect's prints could be lifted.

Then there was the autopsy report. The victim, a girl named Sayaka Maizono, had died somewhere between 2 and 3 AM the night before. Her death was most likely caused by the kitchen knife, as the wound in her stomach matched its blade. However, it may have taken multiple stabs, as it appeared other wounds decorated the entryway of the killing blow. And there was that tricky point about the victim potentially having been... drugged?

His only other piece of evidence was the shattered glass found in Sayaka's apartment. They appeared to form the shape of a bottle, though it was difficult to tell while in so many pieces.

He vainly wished Mr. Jin had bothered to show up. How was he supposed to figure out any of this one his own?

“Mr. Ishimaru, would you introduce yourself to the prosecution?”

Kiyotaka flushed. “Y-Your Honor, I'm in the court record's profiling system!” Makoto's information had just been updated to it as well.

Mr. Judge cleared his throat. “Please?”

Well, Kiyotaka couldn't say no to a please.

Bowing stiffly, he said, “My name is Kiyotaka Ishimaru, and I'm an up-and-coming defense attorney. Th-This is my first case.” Just saying it caused the ground to tilt beneath his boots.

“Oh, wow. No wonder I didn't recognize you! I thought Mr. Kirigiri would be in charge of this one, so I figured I might as well prepare to lose immediately.” Offering a nervous grin, Makoto said, “I hope we can find the truth together.”

Kiyotaka hoped so, too. Fisting his hands, he prepared himself for what came next.

Mr. Judge smacked his gavel against his desk, then asked, “Makoto, do you want to bring in the defendant?”

Makoto nodded. “Yes, please bring the defendant to the stand. I'd like to hear his testimony first.”

“Sounds good.” Mr. Judge rapped his gavel one more time and repeated Makoto's request to a “Bill Bailiff” who apparently was not a bailiff but, due to his friendship with the Judge, sometimes helped out with bailiff-esque requests.

It was then that Kiyotaka realized he would be utterly exhausted by the end of the day.


“I swear, man! I had nothing to do with it! See?”

Kiyotaka's client was pulling a crystal ball seemingly out of his beige cardigan's droopy pockets. He began to rub his hands along it, then raised it and, peering through it, cried, “Yes! See? I had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with this trial! And my crystal ball is right 30% of the time, so you gotta believe me!”

Hmm. It was looking bad for Mr. Yasuhiro Hagakure.

“C'mon man, back me up.” Hagakure stared despondently at his defense attorney. “30%. That's pretty high, if you're playing Fire Emblem.”

“Playing what?” Kiyotaka tightened his already tight grin. “Mr. Hagakure, put that away. This is a court of law, not... fortune telling!”

“Yeah, man, but this is my law, right here? And I said, call me Hiro. And I'll call you Taka. We'll be like best friends. See? I'll predict it.” Hagakure picked up his crystal ball, began peering into it, and then promptly dropped it onto his foot in one clean motion. The ball, after rolling off Hagakure's sandal, spilled down the little staircase into the middle of the courtroom. It then veered directly at the Judge's stand and shattered into a million pieces against the wood.

Makoto opened and then shut his mouth. “Name and profession?”

Frantically struggling to keep up, Kiyotaka's court record updated with profile information on the victim and defendant. Hurriedly Kiyotaka glanced over his records—Sayaka Maizono, 22, the singer of a small indie band; Yasuhiro Hagakure, 25, high school drop-out and pizza delivery man with a penchant for fortunes. Makoto seemed to wince as he looked over the profiles.

Hagakure made a wobbly attempt at a bow. “Oh, yeah. Sorry about that, little dude. Totally forgot. So uhhh, name's Yasuhiro Hagakure, but everyone should just call me Hiro, aight? I feel too old if you use my last name. Oh—And I'm a fortune teller.”

Kiyotaka, releasing a defeated sigh, sucked in a breath and cried his very first “OBJECTION!”

Then he glared right at Hagakure. “It says right here on your profile record that you're a pizza delivery guy, and fortune telling is just a hobby!”

An odd thrill passed through his veins. Okay, if this was what being a lawyer felt like, then he figured he could get through this on his own. Also the slamming of the stand felt really good, despite how much it hurt his hands.

Hagakure had already begun to sweat. Kiyotaka wondered if his client would receive a guilty verdict in the time it had taken Makoto to prepare and arrive at the courthouse. “Y-Y'see, that's true, man, but it just, it sounds cooler when I say that I'm a fortune teller. Because I am! Technically. Or I will be, when someone buys one of my fortunes.”

Perhaps politely, Makoto asked, “How much do you charge for them?”

“A thousand dollars. But you can get a 10% discount if you try me not guilty!”

Makoto's mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Mr. Judge said, “Ah, bribery,” and slammed his gavel. “We can't have that, Hiro.”

“Awww, maaaaan! Fine, how about a 20% upcharge?”

Mr. Judge nodded. “Much better. May we proceed with the testimony?”

“R-Right.” Makoto shook himself. “Mr. Yasuhiro Hagakure—”

“Dude. Just call me Hiro.”

Makoto, mouth agape, slowly recovered his senses once again. “Hiro, please testify about the scene of the crime.”

Hagakure nodded slowly. His massive brown afro shook as he stumbled around with his cardigan and unearthed a second crystal ball. Peering into it, he suddenly gasped. “Aha! Yes! The scene of the crime!”

Kiyotaka rolled his eyes. Mr. Jin had warned him that he'd heard tales of defense attorneys cursed with ridiculously unrealistic witnesses, but it had never occurred to Kiyotaka that he might be one of them.

 

Testify: “My Crystal Ball Says It Wasn't Me!”

 

Hagakure laughed nervously, putting his crystal ball away. “Okay, I had noooooooo relation to the crime, so I didn't actually even see the scene. I was just super unlucky!

“See, I happened to be in the area, doing pizza deliveries, and I was walking by the hallway when the police busted in.

“They were like, yoooo, Hiro, what's up? And I said what's up back, because I'm best friends with everyone.

“See? No relation! They just got confused!

“Also, the victim, like, died at 4 AM, so it definitely wasn't me, because 4 is my luckiest number.”

And then his big fat mouth shut.

Kiyotaka thought his head might explode and ravage the entire courtroom. But first, the cross-examination. Mr. Judge gestured for Kiyotaka's turn, and gratefully he slammed his hands upon the wooden stand and cried, “OBJECTION!”

He pulled out the autopsy report and began waving it against his hot, sweaty face. Very satisfying. “Mr. Hagakure, the victim died between 2 and 3 AM! Your testimony is false!”

Hagakure winced. “Oh, shoot. You're totally right, man. Hey, Mr. Judgey?” He looked up at the Judge with pleading eyes. “Can I amend my testimony?”

Mr. Judge nodded solemnly. “Go ahead, Hiro. But make sure you get your facts straight this time, alright?”

“Cool, cool. I only have to change one thing, anyways.”

So he changed the victim's time of death to 2:30 AM.

And nothing else.

Kiyotaka glanced frantically at his 3 pieces of evidence. The knife hadn't even come up at all—and Hagakure's prints weren't pulled because the grimy knife was so muddled with blood that nobody's could be located. And the glass was found at the scene of the crime, which Hagakure was convinced he had nothing to do with.

None of his freaking evidence contradicted this totally bogus testimony!

The only thing he could think of was that the glass at the crime scene vaguely resembled the glass of Hagakure's broken crystal ball, but that seemed too thin a connection. He had to prove somehow, without a doubt, that Hagakure had been at the scene of the crime.

Makoto was smiling weakly at the other side. He knew that if they didn't find the truth here, Hagakure would get dragged away anyways, since there was no other evidence that anyone else could have done it. Hagakure probably didn't even realize his idiotic testimony could end his life, and Kiyotaka wasn't sure if he could convince someone this monumentally stupid that he needed to take that into account.

For the sake of Hagakure's chances at living, Kiyotaka had to find a contradiction..!

As he struggled over his extremely little evidence, he froze as something hard crunched onto his shoulder and bounded over the defense stand. Kiyotaka peered at it—a wad of paper. He glanced back at the milling crowd of juries and audience members, but he couldn't find any obvious perpetrators.

Scowling, Kiyotaka went back to furiously scanning his client's incredibly unhelpful testimony.

Then a second wad of paper hit him, this one less tightly-packed than the last. Scrawled on one of its folds was a poorly-written note: Open the other paper.

Kiyotaka glared back out at the seats behind him before carefully unfolding the wad of paper. It read, Do you need help?

Kiyotaka's brow furrowed. Had Mr. Jin's phone died, and this was his only way of communication? But everyone knew Mr. Jin was supposed to be here, so there was no need for him to go snooping around like this. And his handwriting was much neater.

Before Kiyotaka had a chance to consider what else might be vying after his attention, a pair of thick boots clomped down beside him as a large figure hefted over the partition separating the audience from the lawyers and landed in a pile of biker jacket at his feet.

“That's not legal,” was Kiyotaka's first sentence, as the man picked himself up and brushed himself off.

Suddenly legality did not matter, because oh god was he hot.

He had this tanned, chiseled face that screamed danger. Kiyotaka prided himself on his rule-abiding nature, but something about this total rule-breaker's aesthetic had caused his heart to start pounding. His piercing lavender eyes were lined in artistically-drawn lashes that accentuated his rough beauty. His lips were scarred but full and an alluring peachy complexion. And his hair—a waterfall of fluffy, dirty blonde locks that pillowed about his shoulders.

Before Kiyotaka could remember that this was totally suspicious and should be immediately reported, the guy extended a calloused hand. Kiyotaka apprehensively twined his smaller alabaster fingers with the rule-breaker's and visibly deflated when the man gave a single shake before withdrawing and dipping his fist into a pocket. “Name's Mondo Owada. I have your mentor on speed-dial. He's my go-to. I've kinda been here a lot.”

Ooh. His voice was hot too. Low and gruff and—dare Kiyotaka say lovely.

Owada waved up at the judge. “Hey, what's up, Udgey.”

“Why, hello again, Mondo! Lovely to see you.” Mr. Judge waved down at the troublemaker.

He threw a fist-bump into Makoto's direction. “What's up, little dude.”

“Good to see you again, Mondo.” Makoto proffered a tender smile.

Shrugging around his jacket, Owada said, “So yeah, at this point I'm basically a lawyer myself. I, like, absorbed your lawyer jargon through osmos... osmo... uh... fuck, I'm qualified.” Fingering the busted flip phone in his pocket, he pulled up his recent call history. “I owe your boy one. He called me and told me to help you out since something came up with him.”

Oh, no. Kiyotaka forgot to tell Mr. Jin that he didn't mix well with hot men who were troublemakers! Sweating profusely, Kiyotaka cried, “Y-You can't possibly assist me! That's gotta be outside of the rules!”

Mr. Judge banged his gavel, silencing Kiyotaka's mewl. “Assistants aren't actually required to have any amount of legal experience to be let into the courtroom, so long as their residing lawyer has passed the bar and gone through law school.”

Wh...WHAT?!

Kiyotaka stared hopelessly at his outstretched hands.

Owada helpfully tapped his shoulder. “I have an idea.”

“Oh, do you,” mumbled Kiyotaka, glaring up at him.

“Yeah. Check this out.” He pointed at the defendant, who'd been standing there repeating his testimony for the past five minutes, totally checked-out, and yelled, “HOLD IT!”

“YEEP!” screeched Hagakure before dropping and shattering his second crystal ball.

Owada narrowed his eyes. “On your second statement...” He elbowed Kiyotaka. “Hey, this is called Pressing, by the way. Nifty, ain't it? Jin's gotten me outta so many jail times with it.” Then he refocused on the defendant, gaze icy cold. “Do you have any proof that you were delivering pizzas at 2:30 in the morning?”

Hagakure blinked, staring dumbly ahead. Then his hands disappeared into his massive hair, untangling a third crystal ball. After peering into it, he breathed out a huge sigh. “Yeah, man, course I do! Says here the prosecution knows what the heck you're looking for.”

Owada shifted his blinding stare to Makoto, who let out a nervous yelp and shifted hurriedly through pages of evidence. “A-Ah! Yes, the precinct just finished printing out the defendant's call and text history for us.”

Arising from the shadows, Bill Bailiff handed some hot papers from the press to the prosecution, who passed them like kindergarten worksheets along the courtroom until everyone had a set of Hagakure's phone data.

After thanking Makoto, Owada leaned up into Kiyotaka's personal space and peered over his own copy with him, despite the fact that Makoto had handed him his own sheet. One calloused finger landed upon a certain contact. “Hey, see this, Taka?”

“T-TAKA?” shrieked the attorney. “HOW C-COULD YOU ASSUME WE'RE ON A—”

“—first name basis?” Owada snorted. “Makes things simpler, don't it? If we're gonna be relying on each other, we might as well act like it. I'll call you Taka, and you can call me Mondo, aight?”

Kiyotaka considered dying on the spot.

But—No! He had to figure out if his client was guilty first!

Shaking himself, Kiyotaka regarded his new assistant, and, with a sigh of capitulation, said, “F-Fine. Mondo.” He had a point... Mondo. If they couldn't trust each other, then Kiyotaka pretty much had no one. Well—Technically, he had Makoto too, but he still wasn't entirely sure if all that innocence was just a front.

“So, uh, Mondo, what did you want to show me?”

Mondo gave him a weird look before returning to the evidence at hand. “Y'see this? Up at the top, we have a list of all the people our pizza man contacted last night for deliveries.” At the fourth name in the list, Mondo's finger twitched. “Look at this. 2:30 AM, he texted one Sayaka Maizono: Ok I'm here, whats ur rm #.

Kiyotaka's eyes blew open. “NO WAY!” There it was, irrefutable proof that this total idiot had gone to the scene of the crime!

He unleashed an “OBJECTION!” and smugly straightened his tie. “Mr. Hagakure, care tell me how you could have nothing to do with the crime if your cell history reports that you had every intention to enter the apartment room where Ms. Maizono lived?”

Hagakure's mouth dropped open. A massive crack shuddered across his ball, but somehow, perhaps out of sheer desperation, it held itself together.

“But I told you, man! I wasn't there!” he whined, cheeks filling with air.

Mr. Judge shook his austere head. “Now, now, Hiro, Mr. Ishimaru caught your lie fair and square. Your call history clearly proves that you had every intention to enter Ms. Maizono's residence.”

Makoto jumped in, oddly helpful. “Unless... Hiro, do you have any proof that you didn't enter the building? Like... Ms. Maizono's order? Is it still in your car? I don't believe the police confiscated it off of your person when they arrested you.”

Bombarded with so many questions, Hagakure's hair stood on end as a wail broke out between his lips. “I don't knowwwwwww!” he cried, eyes swimming with tears.

“Defendant!” Mr. Judge rapped his gavel several times until Hagakure had found some semblance of calm, wiping the wet streaks from his stretched cheeks. “You're supposed to testify with the truth and nothing but the truth.”

Hagakure pouted. “But what if the truth makes me look bad? I mean—Uhhh, not like, murder-y bad, buuuuut...”

“Keep your mouth shut, defendant!” squeaked Kiyotaka. But it was too late. Hagakure's reputation had crashed through the floor. He could hear the gallery jeering.

“Hmmm. Hiro, I'm sorry to say that it's not looking very good for you.” A new wrinkled had cropped up on Mr. Judge's brow as he examined their lost cause of a client.

Makoto slapped his pink hands onto his desk, wincing in pain. “W-WAIT, PLEASE!” Was that his version of the “Hold it!” gesture? “I'd like to ask the defendant to testify once more before you rule for or against him, Mr. Judge!”

“Oh! Of course, Makoto. Go right ahead.”

Breathing a heavy sigh, Makoto fanned his face, his ahoge swaying. “Hiro, now that we've proved you were at the scene of the crime, could you testify about what you saw there, before the police arrived? I'd really like to get your perspective on what may have changed between what you and they noticed.” Then he updated the court record with a police-drawn map of the crime scene.

Mondo beamed. “Great, new evidence. Make sure to look your evidence up and down, Taka. You never know what'll end up saving your butt.”

Kiyotaka nodded gratefully, shaking the sweat from his face. “Right.” He and Mondo huddled close to examine the map.

The front door opened up into a small rectangle of a room. There was a couch situated against the back wall, with a television set up in front of it, and large speakers adorned the corners of the room. A small kitchenette was squished behind the couch. Other than that, a door on the left wall led into a small bedroom with only a bed marked at the corner, and another door in the back led to a single bathroom.

The body was marked close to the front door of the residence. The shattered glass evidence was also marked, crowded around the victim's white outline. Nothing else of note was drawn.

Humming to himself, Mondo looked up to ask Makoto, “Did this Sayaka chick live on her own?”

“No, actually.” Makoto cleared his throat, looking a bit relieved to be interrogated by the more relaxed biker rather than his red-faced lawyer. “She lived with her boyfriend of two years, but he remembers nothing of the night before, so he must have either been asleep or out of the building.”

Mondo's dark brows raised. “Fishy,” he murmured to Kiyotaka. “It all points to our client, but remember what Makoto just said there about that boyfriend being out of the picture. Sounds too convenient, don't it? I wonder...” Gaze dark, he kept his eyes trained on their new evidence and muttered a little more to himself.

“Okay, I think we've given ourselves enough time to look that over.” Makoto gestured to Hagakure. “Please testify about what you saw, Hiro.”

Hagakure's mouth flinched into a twisted grin, like he was already coming up with another terrible lie to try and save himself. Kiyotaka inwardly groaned.

 

Testify: “I Don't Get Paid Enough For This!”

 

“I swear, man, I wouldn't kill the girl! You think I make enough to bail myself out?” Wiping the sweat from his brow, Hagakure twirled his crystal ball like a basketball.

When it stopped, he clenched it, his face reflecting through it at an odd, disfiguring angle. “I dunno, it was pretty dark in there. Hard to see what was going on.

“I remember the TV was blaring something. It was the only light in the room, besides the front door.

“The bedroom door was open, and uhhhh, I bet the dead girl's boyfriend was hiding in the shadows!”

(Baseless conjecture. Kiyotaka cringed, tensing.)

“But anyways, that Sayaka girl wasn't there when I came in. How the heck would I grab a kitchen knife and walk all the way back to her without her getting wise on me?

“You think I'd stab a girl with the front door open? C'mon, man, not even I'm that stupid!”

Then he drew silent, wiping away another trickle of sweat.

Kiyotaka sighed. No obvious contradictions, other than a load of baseless fluff. And that wasn't so easy to prove, since the whole point of it being baseless was that it wasn't an obvious contradiction.

Mondo clapped his shoulder. “Don't worry. If this isn't the truth, there'll always be something we can contradict. Besides, he's got a good point about that knife thing. How the hell'd he get in there and take a Maizono knife without her noticing? Makes this whole deal seem pretty sketch.

“Oi, Makoto!” The secretary blinked, glancing over to Mondo. “Who called the police?”

“Uhhh...” Makoto closed his eyes, clearly exhausted. “The apartment owner. Someone saw Ms. Maizono's body in a security camera—the door was left wide open and she was visible—and alerted them. Unfortunately, the knife was left at the crime scene and the only person who reportedly left the apartment room after Ms. Maizono's reported death was the defendant, so... it looks like a botched murder attempt.”

“But he had no motive!” Kiyotaka tried, only for Makoto to deftly shake his head.

“Hiro told it to us himself. He's not paid enough. Conversely, Ms. Maizono and her boyfriend were part of an indie band that's recently hit their big break.” Swooning weakly, he murmured, “I even got to see them in person...” before shaking himself and returning to the facts. “Just last night, they'd gotten home late from a gig that had sold out completely. It's entirely plausible that Hiro saw them on the news and thought he could make some easy cash off of them, his big break being that he'd miraculously been called by Ms. Maizono as their pizza delivery man. Unfortunately for him, his robbery attempt ended not only in failure—as no vital items appear to have gone missing from the house—but in murder.”

Makoto's eyes tightened. Kiyotaka realized that Makoto couldn't help but be a little biased against Hagakure purely for being indicted of killing a musician that he had liked. Not only that, but a band who'd finally achieved their big break!

Kiyotaka nervously glanced between his evidence and the defendant's recorded testimony as Mr. Judge signaled for the cross-examination.

“Let's try Pressing him a bit, huh?” Mondo's warm voice bloomed as his ear. Kiyotaka ignored his flustering heart. “A lot of his claims are unfounded, so if we put on some pressure, he'll probably crack.”

“Oh! That's... a really good idea.” Flushing, Kiyotaka bowed to his assistant. “Thank you!”

“Yeah, no problem. That's how Jin saved me this one time. I'd gotten into a huge wreck, but the other guy totally hit me. Bastard couldn't handle it when Jin poked through his lies like tissue paper. Ha!”

At his gruff laugh, Hagakure flinched.

Now was his chance. Kiyotaka scrutinized the testimony before settling on some of the more unfounded claims.

“HOLD IT!” He pounded a fist into his desk. “Mr. Hagakure, why are you so insistent that the victim's boyfriend was in the bedroom?”

Hagakure glared into his crystal ball feverishly. “Beeeecause... where else would he be? He wasn't in those security cameras or anything!”

“You know what's weird, Hiro?” Mondo broke in, causing Hagakure to yelp. “You insist that you saw the victim's boyfriend, but nothing about the victim! What about her, huh? Didn'cha see her?”

“N-N-N-N-NOPE!” cried Hagakure.

“STOP LYING!” Kiyotaka shot back, only for the defendant to drop to his knees and crawl under the witness stand, holding his crystal ball up in the air like it might testify for him.

Kiyotaka ignored him, mind circulating. Surely Hagakure would've tried to prove it, had he legitimately seen this boyfriend, rather than continually insist on intentionally vague testimony that didn't cover him all that well. If that pizza had gotten delivered to the right apartment, then, wouldn't the victim have been the one to take it? Kiyotaka fumed, hands over his head. He had to think. What was going on in his client's head to make such a scrambled attempt at blatant perjury?

The Judge's gavel was going off like firecrackers overhead. Scowling, Kiyotaka pounded his desk in an attempt to steady himself. Mondo glanced between him and that gavel, his lilac gaze steady. “Mr. Ishimaru,” stated the Judge into the cool, placid climate that came after, “do you have anything to say for the defendant's sake?”

Him? Kiyotaka swallowed tightly, loosening his tie.

But of course he had to say something. If Hagakure kept lying, then this case would go nowhere and he would be consumed by the smog of guilt threatening to overwhelm him. Hagakure was still hiding under the witness stand, his hand wavering with the weight of his crystal ball. Sweat clung to it in melted hand-prints.

If Kiyotaka couldn't get the witness to crack... it would all be over. Already.

“Mr. Ishimaru?” pressed the Judge.

“Yes!” he shouted back, somehow finding the enthusiasm deep within to continue on. Clearly Hagakure was still hiding things—therefore, he had to have a contradiction lying about in his evidence. “I will prove to this courtroom without a doubt that the defendant still has important testimony to tell us!” ...If they could only coax him into sharing it.

They had to keep him relevant, or they'd lose him.

No pizza box at the crime scene to prove that Hagakure had delivered the order... and no other pertinent evidence, such as a receipt, either. Then what did he have?

Kiyotaka rummaged through his meager evidence, Mondo leering over his shoulder. The autopsy report—the allegedly unfinished report. There were strange markings surrounding the stomach wound, but other than the knife, nothing else could have made it. The map, the knife itself...

...perhaps, in Hagakure's exasperated state...

“I present these pieces of evidence to the court!”

Gesturing to the map and the shards of glass in the court record, Kiyotaka projected his voice for the stands. He couldn't quite swipe the giddy grin from his face. “This glass was found at the crime scene, but no windows or other obvious glass items were broken. Just look around this very courtroom... it must be another of Mr. Hagakure's discarded crystal balls!”

“NOOOOOO!” emitted a wail from behind the podium before the telltale shatter of glass. Kiyotaka wiped the sweat from his brow, a trill jumping through his veins.

“Hmmmm.” Mr. Judge eyed the evidence with the examples of broken glass scattered about the room. “That does appear plausible, but is there any way we can prove that the glass matches that of a crystal ball?”

“Is that really my job?” squeaked Kiyotaka. And hadn't Hagakure just screamed in an incredibly incriminating manner?

Mondo nudged him. “Here, look. 'S like arts 'n crafts, really.” Like it was nothing, the biker started sketching out the shards of glass from the court record onto a spare napkin and ripped them all into their appropriately-sized pieces. “Jin told me one time there was this lawyer who had to reassemble an entire vase for the court. Well, we don't got the glass, so, uh, gotta improvise. Just make it look circle-y.” He puzzled the pieces together as he explained, and before Kiyotaka's astounded eyes, Mondo assembled an unnervingly spherical-shaped form from his napkin pieces.

“Huh. That's weird,” he remarked, flicking at a small pile of extra napkin scraps. “Wonder if that'll make somethin' else.” He carefully scooped up these extra pieces and stowed them away between a couple of files, muttering under his breath about air conditioning stealing away his hard effort.

Mr. Judge, upon eyeing Mondo's masterwork, gave a satisfied nod. “I suppose that proves Hiro's presence at the scene of the crime.”

Makoto, releasing a relieved sigh, stepped in, smacking a hand onto the desk and wincing immediately. “Hiro! Will you tell us what you saw of the victim now?” His cheeks were redder now, his lip bitten.

“I... I...”

Hagakure had fallen backwards, head smashing into the floor.

Kiyotaka blinked. “M-Mr. Hagakure?!”

Oh, great. He wasn't responding. “Mr. Hagakure, please get up! We're trying to prove your innocence, and we need your cooperation to find the truth!”

Miraculously he lifted his head back up and returned to the witness stand, hands anxiously scrabbling for purchase. “M-Man... I got nothing left...”

“You?” Mondo smirked. “You got nothin' left, uh?” An odd twinkle darkened his expression by its sheer brightness. “Then tell us, bud. Tell us what happened.”

Geez, what a rollercoaster. Kiyotaka couldn't undo the knot in his stomach. What, was his witness going to confess to the murder of Maizono now?

“I'll tell you everything. E-Everything about how I killed her.”

Oh, great.

Mondo rolled his eyes. “We'll see about that. Remember to keep checking for contradictions, Taka. Don't let your guard down now.”

What Kiyotaka really wanted to do was get this over with and go home. It wasn't even noon yet and he was ready for bed.

But—He still had to do this. For the sake of the truth, if not for the sake of his unruly client.

 

Testify: “Put Me in Cuffs and Send Me Back to Jail!”

 

“Okay... I know this sounds crazy, but...” Hagakure wrung out his hands. Still empty. He must've finally run out of crystal balls to destroy. “I did it. I'm the murderer.

“I-I didn't mean to! It was a total accident! S-See—I asked for a tip, and she started yelling at me!

“Then she walked all the way back to her little kitchenette and came back with a freaking knife!

“I got scared and pulled out the only weapon to my name: my trusty pizza cutter.

“We had a really epic battle. If you press this statement, I'll totally relay it for you.

“But once I'd exhausted her, I-I cut her... and she fell over... and she totally died right in front of me, man. I killed her with my pizza cutter. I'm a failed pizza guy.

“Now I'll definitely get fired...”

He was crying by the end of his testimony. Kiyotaka's gut pinched in some sort of mixture of half-sympathy, half-pity.

“I kinda wanna press on that fifth statement, Taka... I just, I'm so curious about that epic battle...” Mondo muttered into his fist, beholding their blubbering witness.

Kiyotaka shook his head. “Didn't Mr. Judge say that off-topic conversations could be penalized?”

As they conversed, Mr. Judge went ahead and signaled for the cross-examination to begin.

“Nah, nah. Let me show you how a real lawyer gets away with off-topic conversations.” Mondo cracked his knuckles and looked straight at Hagakure, offering a reassuring smile to Kiyotaka that did not come off as reassuring whatsoever. “Hey, HOLD IT! I wanna hear about the epic battle.”

“You do?” Surprisingly, Hagakure perked up.

Mr. Judge was already clasping his gavel. “Mondo, I don't believe that will be necessary. This epic battle sounds very cool, but how could it have anything to do with the trial?”

Mondo outright scoffed. “Udgey, lemme tell ya. You don't know what the witness will dredge up until you press it. I got this.”

The Judge smiled around his fluffy beard. “I believe in you, Mondo. I'll overrule myself for you.” Makoto had remained silent for the duration of this testimony so far, but here he covered his face with his hands.

A silence had descended upon the courtroom. Mondo helped himself to it. “Well? Ya gonna share or what, Hiro?”

As Hagakure worked himself up to it, Kiyotaka nudged his assistant, whispering under his breath, “Don't you think the knife proves sufficiently that Hiro couldn't have killed her?”

Mondo shook his head. “With the testimony we got, I'd say it's possible someone—maybe even he himself—tried to obscure a pizza cutter wound with the knife gouge. The knife's sharper and thicker, so it'd hide any pizza cutting killer wounds. Dunno yet.”

Oh. Kiyotaka sighed. He really thought this would be an easy one, too. Foolish of him.

Then Hagakure clapped his hands together, and once again the resumed mutterings of the courthouse fell silent. “Alright, so it all started when Sayaka went for me. It was so scary!” His hair stood up on end as if to accentuate the point. “But—Well—You should've seen me at the scene of the crime. There were pizza sauce stains and bloodstains alllll over my body. It's a good thing that nice cop at the precinct let me go home to take a shower.”

“Let you what?” shrieked Kiyotaka. Now that surely couldn't be—

“Hey, hey, shhhhh.” Hagakure waggled his fingers over at his attorney. “Don't worry about it. Forget you even heard that.” Then he went back to describing his big battle with the victim like it was nothing. “I dunno what was going on, but she didn't have great aim. She kept calling me really bad names too. Kept swinging at me and screaming bloody murder, her spit getting all over the place.

“She cut me a couple times, but they were pretty shallow cuts. Either she didn't usually attack her pizza guys, or maybe she just never got any good at it? But eventually I deflected her with my pizza cutter and tried to, like, push her onto the ground? Except I did it with my hand that was holding the pizza cutter? So I, like, pushed her with the pizza cutter.”

So he pushed her with his pizza cutter. Kiyotaka also covered his face with his hands. Now both the prosecutor and the defense attorney were hiding their faces.

Mondo was humming to himself over the din of the courthouse. “Hiro, can you describe this pizza cutter to us? What's it look like? What's it made of?”

“Oh, those things were tragic. I have to buy a new one every time my company pizza cutter breaks, except, joke's on me, they almost always break every shift. They're super duper flimsy. And then I have to buy another company cutter even though I know they're gonna break again! They're just playing with my paycheck at this point.”

“Hmm. Very interesting.” Mondo pounded a fist at the desk, and said, “Udgey, please append that to the witness's testimony.”

Mr. Judge said, “Oh, sure,” before including it after the epic battle.

Then Mondo made an oddly quiet objection, adding, “Okay, who the fuck thinks he could've killed a woman with a pizza cutter that breaks while cutting hot dough?”

Kiyotaka resurfaced from his self-imposed isolation to squeak, “You're a genius, M-Mondo!”

Mondo was beaming. He looked away when Kiyotaka made an attempt to meet his eyes, cheeks tinged.

Unfortunately, the Judge's gavel broke their jubilation in half.

Makoto jumped onto their case.

“Mondo, while I agree that the witness couldn't have killed the victim with his pizza cutter, he did also mention deflecting her knife. Nobody else was located at the scene of the crime, so it's looking quite clear that, despite the number of odd twists and turns in this case, the defendant is still the culprit. You might want to give yourself in as guilty now and save us some trouble, Hiro.”

Hagakure cringed, then opened his mouth.

“OBJECTION!” shrieked Kiyotaka, slapping his desk.

He didn't actually have an objection. He was just trying to keep Hagakure from giving himself up so easily.

As he panted, his mind wandered and latched upon another segment of the witness's testimony. “So we have no proof that Ms. Maizono's boyfriend was present at the scene of the crime?”

Makoto shook his head. “That's why he's not here today. He couldn't be a witness, either, because he simply wasn't present by the time the cops arrived. They found Hiro collapsed in shock before the victim. The pizza cutter wasn't at the scene, so he must have hidden it with the rest of her home appliances.”

“Must've been a shitty investigation if they couldn't even find it,” Mondo muttered.

Makoto looked oddly defensive. “It's only because their best detective wasn't on the case.”

Mondo rolled his eyes. “Doesn't excuse the rest of 'em for sucking ass.”

“P-Perhaps not.” Makoto bit his lip. “This still doesn't change the state of the evidence. Nobody except Hiro could've committed that crime. Unless you can somehow prove that someone else had to have been there, only to leave before the police showed up... I'm afraid this trial is over.”

The Judge nodded thoughtfully. “That's correct, Makoto. Oh, don't you just love him? I hardly have to do my job up here when he's around.”

Kiyotaka winced. “Please do your job, Mr. Judge.”

But... now what? Had Hagakure really committed the murder all along? That last testimony sounded like the truth. No mind tricks with crystal balls, no wobbly pride horrifically constructed in some lame attempt to make him sound perfectly innocent... Hiro himself was convinced that he'd killed her.

But he never mentioned touching that knife, the only possible murder weapon located. He'd just been trying to hide what he thought was her death. (Because he was stupid.)

Kiyotaka, swallowing nervously, asked, “Didn't you tell me, Makoto, at the start of this trial, that the victim's autopsy report wasn't yet complete?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, that's right.” He stepped back and took his smartphone out of his pocket. “I have my ringer set on, just in case they call me... but how would the victim's state of being potentially drugged prove anything about Hiro's own innocence?”

“Because it could change what we know about the crime last night!” Kiyotaka bit his lip, pounding his desk. The tears jolted into the edges of his eyes. “We can't let someone who might be innocent be tried guilty! We have to examine every single avenue for the truth, Makoto! Come on, you said that yourself!”

He did not like the exasperated look Makoto threw back at him.

If the complete autopsy still wasn't ready, then he had to stall, somehow, or search out yet another way that someone other than Hiro could've killed the victim. And he had to think fast.

Everyone was hanging onto his last word.

Hurriedly Kiyotaka scanned his evidence only to find little to no useful leads. The knife without prints taken off of it, the broken pizza cutter, the ludicrous napkin art, the map, the unfinished autopsy report...

Evidence, evidence, evidence...

Suddenly, like a frigid meteor glancing over the sky, a bright idea careened through Kiyotaka's mind. “Mondo,” he murmured, nudging his companion, “can I ask the defendant about evidence that wasn't found?”

“Uhh. I don't see why not. If you can make up a reason why it's relevant, Udgey here'll buy about anything.”

“I-I'm not making up a reason!” Kiyotaka shrieked, then slammed his hands onto his desk. “HIRO!” His defendant let out an involuntary shudder. “You never did give us a straight answer. Where was the pizza box that you had every intent to deliver to Ms. Maizono's apartment room?”

Hiro was sweating profusely, eyes wide and glassy and almost transparent. He clearly was trying to decide whether or not he should tell the truth, so Kiyotaka pressed a little harder. “We already have conclusive evidence that you entered her apartment with your last testimony, so it won't make you look any more guilty if you did.”

With a sort of sagging finality, Hiro collapsed over the witness stand.

“OKAY! I DID! BUT YOU CAN'T GET ME FIRED B-BECAUSE OF THAT!”

“Is that really what you're...” Mondo drew off, rolled his eyes. “Okay, Taka. You know what to do with this?”

Kiyotaka nodded excitedly. Pointing over at Makoto, he unleashed a thunderous “OBJECTION!

“Makoto! You insist that this case is closed, but here yet another riddle has been uncovered by my client, something your detectives didn't pick up!” He balled up his fists and punched them into his desk. “Makoto, if Hiro left the pizza box at the scene of the crime, but none of the police officers saw it, then someone ate that pizza! Whether it was a still-alive Ms. Maizono or somebody else entirely, we yet lack conclusive evidence. But this hereby proves that there are still secrets left to be uncovered throughout the duration of this trial!”

Taking in a deep breath, he cried, “The defense requests to hear testimony from the only surviving inhabitant of that apartment who could have information on the whereabouts of the missing pizza box: Ms. Maizono's boyfriend!”

Mondo whistled, clapping a hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder. “Nice one, Taka.”

Hiro had gone utterly slack-jawed. He probably had no idea what had just happened.

So, too, were the Judge and Makoto similarly shocked into speechlessness.

Finally, croaking, Makoto ventured a sound. “I don't... I don't think we can learn much more from Hiro, so perhaps it would be best if we brought this man onto the stand. We might learn more about the whereabouts of Ms. Maizono's, um, demise, if we ask Mr. Leon Kuwata to testify about last night.”

The Judge nodded solemnly. “Okay, Makoto, if that's what you think is best.” He banged his gavel once. “We will have a 30 minute recess while Bill Bailiff hunts down Mr. Kuwata to testify.”


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

New Beginnings and Turnabout

 

Day 1: Part 2


Evidence:

 

-Autopsy report

Victim: Sayaka Maizono. She died between 2 and 3 AM, and the likeliest cause of death is the stab to her abdomen. Smaller cuts line her stomach that were too shallow to have caused death. May have been drugged. The prosecution warned that this report may not be complete.

 

-Kitchen knife

The murder weapon. Was found in Maizono's abdomen. Came from a set of kitchen cutlery in Maizono's apartment. Too sullied with blood for fingerprints to be pulled.

 

-Shattered glass

Found all around Maizono's corpse. Mondo discovered that this glass was once in the shape of defendant Yasuhiro Hagakure's crystal ball, thereby proving his relevance at the crime scene.

 

-Cellphone records

Hagakure made 4 delivery stops on the night of the murder. The 4th and final delivery was set to be at Maizono's apartment. She had ordered a single large cheeze pizza.

 

-Map of the apartment

Maizono's corpse was found in front of the gaping open front door, surrounded by the shattered glass of Hagakure's crystal ball. There is a small kitchenette in the top-right corner of the living space, and a door on the left leads to a small bed and bathroom. Hagakure claimed Maizono's boyfriend, Leon Kuwata, was in the room somewhere when the murder allegedly occurred.

 

-Napkin scraps

To prove that the glass shards made up one of Hagakure's crystal balls, Mondo cut out scraps in the shape of the shards and managed to somehow form them into the shape of the ball. He pocketed a few leftover scraps that could prove another glass item was broken during the murder.

 

-Pizza cutter

When Hagakure and the victim engaged in a knife fight, this flimsy pizza cutter was Hagakure's only weapon. He accidentally pushed Maizono over with the pizza cutter and wrongfully assumed it had killed her. The shallow cuts on Maizono's abdomen match up with the pizza cutter, which Hagakure hid in the kitchen before exiting the not-yet crime scene.

 

-Pizza(?)

Maizono's order. Missing from the crime scene and proof that the timing of the murder was off.

 

Profiles:

 

Kiyotaka Ishimaru (24)

An up-and-coming defense attorney. His mentor, Jin Kirigiri, left Kiyotaka to take the stand by himself in his first trial! He loved rules so much in school he decided to make his career upholding them.

 

Jin Kirigiri (44)

A long-time defense attorney. His family was known for detective work, but Jin broke his familial heritage to become an attorney. Had qualms about the detectives' tendencies to be uncomfortably biased. Picked Kiyotaka as his apprentice due to his enthusiasm and optimism.

 

Mondo Owada (23)

The leader of the neighborhood biker gang. Has been in enough biker accidents to have put his favored attorney, Jin Kirigiri, on speed dial. Apparently “owed” Kirigiri, which was why he showed up to help Kiyotaka in his first trial.

 

Makoto Naegi (25)

The secretary of a well-known prosecutor. Adored by the courthouse due to his friendliness, hopeful optimism, and relentless perseverance, despite the way his prosecutor sometimes treated him, sometimes giving him more work than earned. Oddly attached to one of the detectives down at the precinct.

 

Sayaka Maizono (22)

The victim. Her band Lolli-POP! was set for a big break prior to her death. Lolli-POP! consisted of herself, her boyfriend, and her best friend, Ibuki Mioda. Had wanted to sing since a young age, and collected cute items such as stuffed animals and stickers.

 

Yasuhiro Hagakure (27)

The defendant. A pizza delivery man down on his luck, despite his penchant for fortune telling. Couldn't he fix his own fate? Didn't get paid enough for his job and was unluckily plucked as the murderer of Maizono.

 

Leon Kuwata (20)

The witness(?) of Maizono's death. Maizono's boyfriend and lead guitarist of Lolli-POP! A bit easily excited, but was known to be a pretty down-to-earth guy by his closest friends. Dropped out of high school and lived off of odd jobs and guitar teaching until Maizono found him and picked him up out of his gutter.

 

The Judge (???)

The friendly Judge. He's gotten used to the hijinks of his courtroom.


Kiyotaka promptly exited the courtroom to locate his client and yell at him. Upon weaving through the throng of all-too-excited spectators, he found Hiro jammed between a couple of officers while he fiddled with the empty air before him as if cupping an invisible... ball.

He didn't realize until he'd reached his client that Mondo had followed along, the weirdest half-smile at his lip. “What?” Kiyotaka asked, turning on him, and Mondo shrugged.

“You fast-walk and stomp at the same time when you have a mission. It's kinda cute.

CUTE?!

Kiyotaka momentarily short-circuited. Cheeks blurting red, he shook his head and continued on, now uncomfortably aware of his gait.

“HIRO!” he cried in relief upon locking eyes with his client. “Please do inform me why you felt a compulsion to LIE in court today!” One of the greatest sins of all... perjury. Though this Judge wasn't doing a great job of making it clear how hefty a crime it was to commit it.

Hiro cringed, promptly sitting on the floor and throwing his hands over the top of his head. His massive brown curls soldiered through the cracks between his fingers. He had the look of a frothy cloud. “I-I-I-I thought I could get away with it, man!”

Mondo stepped in, gently squeezing Kiyotaka by the arm before the attorney blew a gasket. “What the fuck, man. You're our client. Why would you lie to us? We're supposed to trust each other.” He screwed up his lip, muttered, “If I didn't trust Jin with my life, I'd be off in a ditch somewhere decomposing.”

That comment left both the defense attorney and his client speechless. Finally Hiro squeaked, “Okay, but who are you again? I'd spoken with a Jin Kirigiri last night, not, uh, Boy Wonder and his fluffy friend.”

“Who is Boy Wonder?” asked Kiyotaka.

“Don't worry about it,” Mondo replied, covering his snicker. He self-consciously ran a hand through his hair. “Jin apparently had things to do, so now you're stuck with us. But Boy Wonder here is Jin's sort of apprentice, and I assure you I am basically a lawyer after all the hell I've been through, so we gotcha covered.”

Hiro gave him a look that about summed up Kiyotaka's feelings toward Mondo's ascendance to lawyerhood.

“And anyways, you still don't understand what the fuck you just caused. You do realize telling the court you weren't at the scene of the crime isn't all that helpful when you're the most likely suspect, right?”

“Uhhhmm...” Hiro nibbled at his lip. He was still sitting on the floor. “Yeah, but... but...” He sniffled. Oh great. Kiyotaka stiffened. “I don't... I don't wanna die yet...” Covering his face with his hands, he let out a wail. “I didn't mean to kill her with my pizza cutter! I swear! D-D-Does that mean I'll still hang in the gallows?”

Kiyotaka blew out a long breath. Hiro's reason for lying was atrocious, but he couldn't bring himself to keep screaming at someone who was cursed with their stupidity. “I think we've uncovered a possibility that you hadn't killed Ms. Maizono, Hiro.” Now all they could do was hope that that Mr. Kuwata would be any amount of helpful.

More helpful than Hiro at least.

“Hey,” Mondo said, “do you have anything else you'd like us to know before we go back in? Anything that could be helpful? Evidence, or... testimony, or something weird you saw that nobody else seems to've noticed about the crime scene?”

Evidently they were dealing with a client who had seen the crime prior to the murder of Ms. Sayaka Maizono, as she had conversed, sort of, with Hiro. He was still kind of just sitting there like a crouched turtle who had forgotten he was wearing a shell, so Kiyotaka cleared his throat. “What did Ms. Maizono do after you, uh, pushed her down with your pizza cutter?”

Hiro whimpered. “I dunno. I freaked out, cuz I thought I killed her and all, so I hid the pizza cutter in her sink and left the pizza on the kitchen counter. I even took a slice—just one, man—to make it look like she'd eaten it. I thought it'd make it look like I didn't kill her, maybe. Also I was hungry.”

“Understandable.” Mondo nodded as he rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

Kiyotaka scowled. “Did you completely forget to look at Ms. Maizono after you pushed her over?”

“Yeah, uhhh... I was trying not to look at her.” Hiro shrugged like this was a very normal thing to do. “After that, I ran away and hid under a chair in their lobby area. I hadn't received any other orders yet, so I was hoping I could get off my shift soon and go home.”

“Why didn't you drive home?” Kiyotaka prodded. “Your car was parked outside of the apartment, and as of yet, no police officers had been informed of the crime scene. Your testimony reinforces that you visited the apartment before the murder, and therefore have little to no connection with it. Honestly, if you'd left then and there, perhaps you wouldn't have been arrested.”

Hiro swallowed tightly, hands over his face. “Yeah, about that...” Kiyotaka and Mondo drew silent as they watched their client sweat. “I, ummm, I forgot where I left my keys... I might've locked them in my car...”

Ah. Well. No wonder he hadn't driven home.

Mondo grabbed him by the arm and tugged him a little ways from their client before Kiyotaka broke down and screamed, “HOW COULD YOU LEAVE YOUR KEYS LOCKED IN YOUR OWN CAR? THAT'S THE MOST BASIC RULE OF DRIVING! NOT TO DO THAT!”

Mondo was chuckling as he led the attorney back to their desk. “We can't all be as prepared as you, Taka.” He straightened his jacket a little as they walked, not that it made him look any more like he fit in. “Damn. Jin told me you were relentless, but I hadn't realized just how serious he was being till now.”

Kiyotaka blinked, momentarily forgetting his frustration. “Mr. Jin talks about me?”

“Course he does. You're his little buddy, ain'tcha? He's proud of you for making it this far.” Mondo's grin wobbled slightly. Wistful. “He said he'd had every intent to make your first trial today, but something came up. He sounded all distraught over it over the phone. Something about a lead on a case he'd been following for awhile now.

“Sorry you're stuck with me.” He gave a somewhat self-conscious chuckle. “I'm sure you'd prefer to have your mentor here with you, not the client that has him on speed-dial.”

Kiyotaka flushed.

He didn't speak a lot with people his age. Recently he'd checked his profiling records and found Mondo in there—just a year younger than him at 23. He didn't know how to feel around someone who could've been in his class in high school. Kiyotaka wasn't exactly the type to make friends easily.

But Mondo had been nothing but kind to him this entire time.

“No,” he eventually said, gently pounding the desk with a fist. “Thank you for being here.” He inclined his head to Mondo, sensing the blush rushing up to his ears. “You've helped me a great deal today. I might not have found our crucial evidence without you.”

A sudden burst of warmth brushed across Mondo's tough face. His complexion softened, and he looked away, biting his lip. Then he shook himself and abruptly that transformation ruptured. “Yeah, yeah. No prob. Buy me dinner and we'll call it even.”

...what was that supposed to imply?!

Unfortunately, before Kiyotaka could parse out the ominously flirtatious nature of Mondo's words, the Judge returned and banged his gavel against his podium.


Something looked notably wrong with the witness. Maybe it was his arm sling. Or the nasty look stretched across his face like an infected cut. He had his bright orange hair all gelled up in the front, and this snaky goatee with a metallic ring through it. Piercings glittered along his ears and on his tongue when he snarled at the defense like everything was already Kiyotaka's fault. His grungy stretched-out long sleeve and acid-washed jeans only added to his vibe that anything might set him off.

He was missing shoes, Kiyotaka noticed. Where were his shoes?

The Judge had handed out these magazines with the witness's face plastered across them, the title BASEBALL STAR emblazoned over the cover. He'd acted like a giddy child, begging the witness for an autograph. “I'm not a baseball star anymore! Leave me alone!

“And why the hell'd you bring me here?” Kuwata growled, pounding his good fist on the witness stand. Mr. Judge meandered very sadly back to his chair, sans autograph.

Kiyotaka's heart leapt up into his throat, but he steeled himself, pressing his booted feet into the ground. “For the sake of the law!” he replied. “We need you to testify about your girlfriend's death in order to find the truth of what happened to her!”

Kuwata scowled. “The truth? Whaddaya mean? It's all spelled out on your evidence, ain't it?” He slumped over the stand, his eyes a too-bright shimmering blue. “The fucking pizza delivery man killed my girlfriend! That's it, case fuckin' closed.”

Mondo smirked. “Nice attitude.”

“Fuck you.” Kuwata made an offensive hand gesture at him.

Hurriedly the Judge pounded his gavel. “Mr. Kuwata! We will not have offensive hand gestures in this courtroom!”

Makoto still hadn't said a word. His face was deathly pale, eyes horrifyingly wide. His mouth hung agape, like at any moment he might funnel some words out, but his pasty hands shook against his desk.

Glancing once at the catatonic prosecution, Kiyotaka cleared his throat. “So... witness... what is your name and occupation?”

Kuwata gave him a dirty look, but he opened his mouth to speak. A pair of lip piercings glimmered. “Leon Kuwata. 20. High school drop-out and full-time guitarist.” He said it like it was the greatest accomplishment to his name, his mouth smugly quirked into a grin. “My girl and I were in a band with one of her pals. A record dealer'd just signed off with us, and we'd been walkin' on clouds all night. Gah...” He gazed up at the ceiling, oddly somber.

“Now the pizza delivery man has killed her. Literally the pizza delivery man.” His lips wrenched apart, his exhales sharp. “What the fuck do you need me for? Take him already!”

Mondo winced, nudging his companion. “Taka, this guy's not gonna let up. If there's any proof that Hiro didn't do it, this is our way of showing it.”

Kiyotaka side-eyed Makoto, waiting for the prosecution to request Kuwata's testimony.

Maybe the offensive hand gesture had broken Makoto's brain..?

Well. Nobody else would do it.

Kiyotaka pounded his desk. “Mr. Kuwata, I know this might seem redundant for you, but please testify to the court about what you remember from last night!” He racked his brain for any particular details he could request. Was he really going to ask this grumpy, grieving man to remind him where the pizza went?

...well, he had to! For the truth!

“And please tell us the whereabouts of the missing pizza in your testimony.”

Kuwata gave him the most disgruntled snarl. “The fuckin' what?”

“The pizza.” Mondo slammed his palm into the desk, eyes cold and narrowed. “Somebody ate it, which means that someone was at the scene of the crime that we didn't account for. Unless it was your girlfriend, but if it was her, then that means someone else killed her, as Hiro wasn't there when the pizza was eaten. The pizza's timing is paramount in this case.”

They really were hinging the truth of Maizono's death on a missing pizza. And yet it was the only piece of evidence that could save Hiro.

“Thanks,” Kiyotaka whispered. Mondo gave him a little side grin.

To Kuwata's eye-roll, Mondo sort of gestured to him with his hand. “Go on. We're all waiting.” Excepting Makoto.

Testify: “How Does a Pizza Help My Girlfriend's Case”

Kuwata straightened, opening his mouth to speak. His tongue piercing, now exposed, gleamed beneath fluorescent lighting, and Kiyotaka shivered. “I'm gonna be real here. I don't remember much about last night.

“But, what the hell. Let's see... uh... Sayaka and I got back home late. We'd had our concert, and all.

“We were too jazzed up about the record deal to go to sleep, so she ordered some food while I sat around and watched television.

“And then... damn... I don't fucking know. I woke up and my girlfriend was dead.”

His good arm supported his head as he stared off into the courtroom's carpet flooring. The Judge signaled for the cross-examination while Kiyotaka stood there, reeling.

“That's it?” he whispered to Mondo.

Mondo shrugged. “We'll have to Press around and see if we can scrounge anything else up.”

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. Well, what to Press on first...

“HOLD IT!” he squeaked, wringing out his sweaty hands. “Mr. Kuwata, why don't you remember anything about last night?”

Kuwata barely looked at him. “I'unno. Too excited? It was a pretty exciting day. Guess I just blacked out after it was over.”

Kiyotaka waited for him to add anything of importance to that statement. When it became apparent that Kuwata had no plans of continuing that line of thought, Kiyotaka cleared his throat. “But what do you remember before blacking out?”

“Kissing my girlfriend. Having a good fuckin' time with her.” The ice-cold quality of his stare was lethal, and Kiyotaka backed off.

His voice cracked halfway through his second “HOLD IT!” Nervously straightening his tie, he asked, “How late did you and Ms. Maizono get back? Do you know a specific time?”

Kuwata stared off into the gallery. “Mid...night? 1 AM..? 2..?”

Somehow, Makoto recovered enough to pipe up. “The security cameras in the building collected footage of Mr. Kuwata and Ms. Maizono entering their apartment building at about 1:48 AM.”

“Anywhere between 10 minutes and an hour before her death,” muttered Mondo, brow furrowed.

“You mean 12 minutes,” said Kiyotaka.

“Geez, Taka. I can't do math. Do the details make that much a difference?”

His mouth clamped shut when Kiyotaka glared at him.

Well, that didn't return anything stimulating. Trying yet another “HOLD IT!” Kiyotaka asked, “Could you expound upon the statement, 'I don't fucking know,' please?”

Mondo looked about blown away. “Damn. Didn't know ya had it in you.” Kiyotaka flushed.

“No.” Kuwata blew out a low breath. “I can't. I don't fucking know means that I don't fucking know, genius.”

Kiyotaka gritted his teeth. How could the witness remember nothing about the scene of the crime? “Your girlfriend died, Mr. Kuwata! Do you not recollect a thing from this traumatic experi—”

“Maybe because I wasn't fucking there when it happened!”

“You said you woke up!” Kiyotaka fired back. “Where did you wake up?”

“In the goddamn hospital, if you must know!”

The courtroom went eerily silent.

“What?” Kuwata awkwardly flapped with the arm in his slung. “Thought this was just for show? Apparently I fell out a window and got patched up overnight. I remember literally nothing, so I'm not sure why you have to keep badgering me, you little punk. My girlfriend died, and unfortunately, I can't help you track down her killer, not that you need me for that.”

Mondo poorly disguised his laugh with a cough. “Why, uh, why'dja fall out a window.”

Kuwata's face screamed red. “I'D LOVE TO TELL YOU! IF I REMEMBERED A SINGLE GODDAMN THING ABOUT LAST NIGHT!”

Eyes widening, Mondo let out another chuckle. “Whoa, man.” He glanced over to Taka. “Well, we know one thing: this idiot remembers very little about the crime scene.”

Kiyotaka scowled. “Isn't there a way to jog his memories?” He paused, confounded. “If he can't prove anything, and they can't conclusively prove that Hiro did it, then will Hiro at least go free?”

Mondo's mouth opened, then shut. He frowned. “I have no idea. I'm gonna err on the side of no. These monkey courts really like to make sure they peg someone guilty, even if there's not a ton of evidence to corroborate their claim. So, uh, better safe than sorry.” His hand rested by Kiyotaka's as he thought. It was very distracting for Kiyotaka. He couldn't decide whether he should move his hand away or “accidentally” nudge it against Mondo's, and ended up doing neither. “Jogging his memories...

“It'd sure be nice if we had a magic green stone that lets us see giant locks over the hearts of people who're hiding the truth. Ooh! Or a bracelet that helps us pick out people's innate tells for when they're lying. Oh, oh, oh, or even a psychology laptop that lets us reconstruct a witness's emotions and reveals to us where those emotions don't add up.” Mondo paused, eyes vacant. “Yeah, that last one doesn't make any fucking sense, but it'd sure be cool.”

Kiyotaka squeaked, “None of those make sense!”

“Yeah, but the psychology one makes literally no sense at all. Like, less sense than the other two.”

“You're telling me that using psychology to analyze a witness's triggers makes less sense than a magic glowing rock that visualizes giant liar locks?”

Mondo thought about it. “You know, I'm not really sure what I'm telling you, other than that you should invest in a magic lawyer trinket.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open. “I'm going to find the truth! I don't... I don't need a glowing rock to find the truth!”

Fired up by his baffling conversation with Mondo, Kiyotaka planted his feet on the ground and stood tall. (The effect was difficult to conjure due to Mondo's being a head taller than him.)

“Mr. Kuwata!” he fired at the witness. “What window did you fall out of?” Before Kuwata could snap back, Kiyotaka cut himself off—“And you can't tell me you don't remember! There must be hospital records that state how they located you, or a security camera that caught the fall—somewhere!”

From the other side of the heated courtroom, Makoto gasped. His pink cheeks had darkened to a magenta. Gently patting his desk with a hand, he said, “Yes, I do believe Mr. Kuwata was located on the street just below his own apartment room. It is highly probable that he fell from the window in his apartment.”

Kiyotaka gasped. “Then why didn't the map have anything marked up on it pertaining to this development?”

“It didn't appear to have anything to do with the crime scene?” Biting his lip, Makoto managed a limp shrug. “Um, like I said, their best detective isn't on this case, so, um, it's only natural they wouldn't do a very good job.” Under his breath, he added, “No wonder this case is such a tightly-contained mess... geez, who was on call last night..? Was it him..?”

So even Makoto couldn't deny the poor credulity of whoever had arrested Hiro and located the crime scene.

“Of course,” Kiyotaka regained momentum, “this means that if Mr. Kuwata fell out of the window between 2 and 3 AM, he is likely to have been involved somehow with the events that occurred in his home.”

Kuwata's face heated, his broken arm flapping. “Excuse you! Are you implying I tried to kill my fucking girlfriend? First of all: rude. Second, if she died, do ya think I could've continued the record deal without her? Man, that slob was drooling all over my girl! He's gonna probably cancel our deal purely because she's the one who died, of the three of us!”

'Three of you?” Mondo asked. “Who's the third? Were they at your house?”

Kuwata shook his head. “No, she wasn't with us. Don't drag her into this fucking nightmare too.”

Makoto stared dreamily at the ceiling. “Miss Ibuki Mioda... such a creative guitarist...”

Mr. Judge pounded his gavel. “So Mr. Kuwata could have been at the scene of the crime?” He was clearly having trouble keeping up with the developments of the case.

“That's right!” Snapping out of his stupor, Makoto focused in on the witness. He folded his hands together all polite-like in front of him. “Mr. Kuwata, would you please testify about anything and everything you may recall about the scene of the crime prior to your falling out of the window? Anything at all that may have been dislodged in your memories by our discussion! Your testimony is integral to finding the monster who killed your girlfriend!”

Kuwata gave him this awkward look. “Dude, she's my girl. You don't gotta...” Shaking himself, he mustered a courageous grin. “I'll see what I can do, bud. There's gotta be something up in this useless noggin of mine.”

“Oh, so the witness and the prosecutor are best friends now, huh,” Mondo huffed, rolling his eyes.

“I was kind of wondering why Makoto doesn't have anybody while I get to have you,” Kiyotaka replied.

Mondo shrugged. His hand still rested just a little ways from Kiyotaka's. It was killing him inside. “Usually Makoto supports his prosecutor, but the prosecutor didn't show up, so it's just him today.”

“What a jerk,” Kiyotaka muttered. “It's scary going up here all by yourself. I—Um. I wouldn't wanna do it alone. Or uh.” Shoot. Shoot. What should he say. “Without your, um, very reassuring company.”

A sly little half-grin drew up Mondo's lip. “Yeah, yeah. Let's get this over with.”

Testify: “I Fell out a Fucking Window and Only Got This Cast to Show”

“Uh, let's see... the docs told me I'd been located at around 3:12 AM, but they're not sure how long I sat there on the sidewalk before someone found me.” Kuwata kept glancing to Makoto, for approval, or maybe reassurance. Makoto was a great candidate for this, what with his soft cheeks and radiant smile.

“I kinda remember the pain. It was pretty monumental. I'm lucky we lived on the second floor or I could've died, too.”

His brash tone had softened, lowered. “I really don't remember much. I'm trying, I swear.

“I remember Sayaka... I remember her voice... if, if I could only remember what she was holding...

“I think she got mad at me about something. Maybe she pushed me out the window, or maybe I fell.

“I'm sure I didn't do it on purpose.”

With that out of the way, the Judge lightly tapped his gavel. Kiyotaka's hands were quaking. The courtroom felt it'd lowered some twenty degrees. Mondo looked it too, jaw tightened, hands fisted at the desk. His lavender eyes had sharpened. He must've been carefully examining each and every last statement thoroughly for even the tiniest droplet of evidence—whether supported or contradictory.

Kiyotaka spoke up before the cross-examination was signaled. “Can I ask something?”

Kuwata gave him a look, but he inclined his head for Kiyotaka to continue. “Do you recall anyone other than yourself, Ms. Maizono and the pizza delivery man entering your room?”

“I...” Kuwata's gaze tightened. “I'd love to say yes. But I don't, and I don't think the security cams caught anyone suspicious entering or exiting the room either.”

Oh, dear.

Kuwata didn't yet seem to understand the implications of his statement, but Mondo cringed, and Makoto looked away, face ashen. Kuwata had just sentenced one of three people to their demise—and the best option for his sake, the easiest one, was looking less and less likely by each testimony.

“It's between a suicide and Leon himself,” murmured Mondo. Even he had lost his fiery luster.

The Judge, still oblivious, pounded his gavel. “Go on, Mr. Ishimaru.”

Kiyotaka swallowed sharply. He had to start somewhere.

His “hold it”s had become oddly quiet. “Mr. Kuwata, you said there was an item Ms. Maizono was holding?” This seemed the most likely alleyway into Kuwata's tormented mindscape. “Is there anything—anything at all—that you can recall about it?”

He was surprised to find Kuwata's brow furrowed, his unbroken hand tented around his eyes. He was genuinely thinking, genuinely trying to help them find the truth. While he was still ashen, still grouchy, his lip curled and he finally said, “I remember... it was clear. It was something clear—cuz I could see Sayaka's hand through it, and her rings were all twinkly-like. She had something like blood on her skin. Or maybe pizza sauce, now that I think about it. I don't... I don't know.”

Mondo bit his lip. “Great. Was she holding a shard of Hiro's crystal ball?”

“No, no. It wasn't that small.” Kuwata closed his eyes. His cheeks were so pale. “Something else. I bet if I saw it, I could point it out to you.”

Ah. Kiyotaka couldn't immediately think of any other glass items at the crime scene. Unless...

Mondo sort of eyed their files of evidence, muttering a curse when he opened up their folder and sent a small avalanche of napkin art fluttering through the air conditioning.

Hurriedly Kiyotaka started grabbing at them, and Mondo, catching his intent, helped secure the rest. They laid out their few scraps and made an attempt to assemble them into something, anything, that might resemble a clue for their case.

It was all they had. They'd really gotten that desperate.

Mondo was forming what looked like a pirate ship. “No, no,” hissed Kiyotaka, scrambling his efforts. “That doesn't make any sense.”

Mondo sheepishly laughed and said, “Guess I was getting excited for nothing.”

He stepped back as Kiyotaka searched for the unnervingly perfect seams between napkin scraps that formed an image. His scrutinization was coming in handy. In school, he'd always been called annoying and a kiss-up for how he hard he tried, and it was relieving to finally see it come to use.

...to have someone over his shoulder who watched not in pity but with awe as Kiyotaka managed to assemble an image out of the napkin scraps.

“Is that... a bottle?” he murmured, brow furrowed.

Kuwata stiffened. “Yeah. I see it now. Oh my god, I see it...” His eyes burst open, mouth half agape. “Oh, she was fucking drinking again, wasn't she.”

“That's it!” Makoto spoke up, voice crackled with shock. “That must be it!” He pulled out a crisp new piece of evidence that could've been sitting there ever since the recess.

“Makoto, is that the updated autopsy report?” Mondo asked, mouth set in a grim line.

“Um... yup!”

Mondo let out a gruff sigh. “And why didn't you present it to the courtroom as soon as you received it?”

Kiyotaka's blood boiled as the prosecutor made the most inoffensive shrug he'd ever seen. Makoto shouldn't be allowed to be this cute as he presented evidence he should have presented as soon as he'd freaking received it. “Well, we didn't have any proof that corroborated its claims. But now that we know Ms. Maizono had a bottle at the crime scene, there is ample enough proof as to why her blood-alcohol levels were so high.”

So Kiyotaka had spent the last excruciating minutes proving things that Makoto could have already proven if he'd just submitted the autopsy? Oh GREAT!

“OBJECTION!” Kiyotaka screeched, jabbing his finger at the prosecution. “You should have presented that evidence as soon as you received it!”

Makoto's lips curtseyed a most innocent smile. “Yes, well, I couldn't have been sure until now as to when to present it. This was an opportune moment.”

Kiyotaka started stomping over to the other side of the courtroom when Mondo grabbed his arm and yanked him back. “Hey, calm down. It's kinda just common knowledge that the prosecution's a piece of shit at all times. Even someone as cute and soft as Makoto has moments like this.”

“That's not fair!” squeaked Kiyotaka. He wiped a sudden influx of tears from his cheeks.

Mondo let out a small breath as he gazed into him. “Yeah, I know, buddy. That's probably why Mr. Jin told you not to trust anyone.”

But this was worse than going in knowing not to trust anyone. Makoto had given him the evidence he was missing, had helped poke holes into Hiro's lousy testimony and even, at times, posed the possibility of a perspective shift—such as when he first brought up the missing pizza.

This just hurt.

“Hey, hey.” Mondo rested a hand by his shoulder. Kiyotaka, pouting, let Mondo comfort him. “I'm sure he didn't mean it. It's just the influence of his prosecutor coming in. I hope you never have to meet that one. What a fuck.” Patting Kiyotaka, he shoved his hand back into his pocket and spoke up for the courthouse to hear—

“Okay, great. Now we've got conclusive evidence that the victim was totally shit-faced at the scene of the crime, which explains her fucked up behavior. But we still have no conclusive proof of the murderer.” Mondo's mouth was set in a grim line, gaze heavenward, already dreaming up possibilities.

Kiyotaka looked up, holding his breath. While the evidence no longer pointed to his defendant, he didn't feel great about the remaining options.

“Um...” The witness pounded his good hand into the stand. “Give me another shot. I think I'm starting to remember more about the night... about what happened to Sayaka...” He lost his fist, fingers quaking.

Kiyotaka bit his lip. He was surprised to find a part of himself unwilling to continue on.

But—the truth!

But Kuwata's desolate expression was haunting him.

Mondo nudged him a little. “Hey, we gotta keep going with this if we're gonna find out what actually happened last night. Sometimes the truth is nasty, but what's the point if we don't find it?”

“Ri...Right.” Kiyotaka swallowed, recovering his uptight stance. “Of course! I could never waver on my goal!”

Mondo could hear the shaking in his tone, but he smiled all the same. “You got this, bud. I'm here if you need anything.” And he gave Kiyotaka his full attention, as if to prove how wholeheartedly he meant it. Those lavender eyes were full of Kiyotaka's face, his fluffy dirty blonde hair pillowing his harsh complexion. And he was so—freaking—pretty...

Kiyotaka had to tear his eyes away when he heard Makoto's little voice. “Please testify once again about the scene of the crime, Mr. Kuwata. Tell us everything you've remembered.”

Kuwata nodded back. “Okay. Uh, here it comes.”

Testify: “We Made Some Bad Decisions”

“Our other band-mate's still a senior in high school, so she went home right after the gig. Good kid, she. But, uh, me and Sayaka...

“We stopped at one of the nearby bars. I remember now. We were so excited, we let ourselves get totally wrecked.” His eyes were dewy, pale like the sky after rainfall, on the edge of a rainbow.

“We got home late. Sayaka was still hungry, so she called up a pizza. I got changed when the pizza guy came in. Felt like shit.

“When I came back... she... Sayaka...

He forced himself to breathe. Squeezed his hand into another fist. Pounded weakly at the stand. “Dammit, I don't even know what she was so mad about.

“Did she push me out the window..?”

He drew silent, covering his head with his hand.

The Judge signaled for the cross-examination, and Kiyotaka collapsed against his desk.

They were supposed to work with that. He had to cross-examine that.

Even Mondo had subtly tensed. “Damn,” he murmured, “what a first case.”

“What do we even Press on?” whispered Kiyotaka. “Th-The last statement?”

He'd wanted so badly for his first case to come. He'd stayed up late the night before, thinking about all the cool objections he'd make and important decisive evidences he'd uncover.

Now he realized just how serious his profession was. How high stakes ruled the inhabitants of the courthouse, and how likely it was a not guilty verdict might still make him queasy.

He wished someone's fingerprints were just on that kitchen knife. Some random guy. Frank Didit. A totally irredeemable murderer.

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. Kuwata was putting himself out there to testify. He had to do that too. If they couldn't locate the truth, then what was even the point?

“H-HOLD IT!” he finally cried. Kuwata jolted in relief. “What makes you think the victim may have pushed you out the window of your apartment?”

“I-I don't...” Kuwata shook himself. “What I do remember is this immense feeling of betrayal. I remember the wind whipping my face as I fell, and this feeling, this horrible sense that I'd lost Sayaka somehow. I-I remember... I remember...

He drew off, panting. When he spoke again, his voice had been reduced to a weak rasp. “Hey, hand me that pizza cutter. Looks familiar.”

In perhaps the worst decision he'd made since the start of this trial, Kiyotaka walked over to the stand and gave the witness his evidence pertaining to the pizza cutter. Kuwata mused over it, and then slowly, weakly, a light sparked in his ashen gaze. “Oh, great. I recognize this.” He gestured at Hiro's written testimony about placing it in the sink. “Yeah, I found it in there. I found it. I...

“Oh, fuck.”

Something painstaking and destructive overcame the witness. The shadows spilled down his sunken cheeks, lips sucked in. His free hand squeezed his shoulder—not the shoulder of his casted arm, but his unhurt arm. It was an odd motion, and, sensing a peculiarity, Kiyotaka took his court record back and jotted it down.

Mondo snagged his evidence when he reached their desk, brows raised. “Kuwata's unbroken arm?” he uttered, quiet enough that not even the people in the gallery behind them could catch it.

Frowning, Kiyotaka nodded. If only Kuwata wasn't wearing a sleeved shirt, they could've been able to tell. “I think he's hiding something under it.”

But Kuwata had become much more supportive over the course of this case, so Kiyotaka still retained some sense of “all will be well” when Makoto spoke up.

“Mr. Kuwata, did you remember something?” To Kuwata's silent, moody nod, Makoto clapped his hands. “Great! Please testify to the court about your discovery!” He had to be the only one in the courthouse still smiling.

Testify: “This Is All I Remember”

“I just remembered something—something that implicates that pizza guy."

(WHAT?!)

“Yeah, he couldn't have done it the first time he stopped by, but do you think his lack of a tip would've stopped him from coming back?”

(“I do, actually,” Mondo whispered. “He's such a pussy I doubt the thought occurred to him.” Not that they could conclusively prove it.)

“Hey, okay, I didn't see much through my drunken haze, but I'm sure I could tell you it wasn't me and it wasn't Sayaka who killed her.

“That bastard pizza guy must've pushed me out the window too, waving his pizza cutter around like a fucking $2 coupon. I probably misinterpreted what he was holding.

“Can I go home now? Nobody else could've done it.”

As his mouth drew shut, lip piercings shining, Mondo raked a hand through his fluffy hair. “Damn, and I thought we almost had it,” he murmured.

The Judge pounded his gavel. Kiyotaka flinched.

“Can't he rule a mistrial?” he squeaked. But Mondo shook his head.

“If Kuwata's gonna claim all this bullshit, we have to disprove it. Else Hiro's gonna get implicated anyways.”

Ah... Kiyotaka let out a long, exhausted breath.

“Keep your chin up.” Mondo, again, hand by his shoulder. “This sounds like a last-ditch effort to dissuade us from whatever the fuck he remembered when he looked at that pizza cutter. If he's lying, there'll still be contradictions, even if they're hard to pull.”

He patted Kiyotaka's head, once.

Somehow all the exhaustion in his body evaporated.

Shaking himself, Kiyotaka listened once more to Kuwata's scrambled testimony. Then he settled and, slamming a hand into his desk, pointed straight at the witness. “HOLD IT! Mr. Kuwata, what do you remember that conclusively proves to you Hiro killed your girlfriend and pushed you out the window?”

Kuwata winced. His hand danced nervously against the witness stand, like he was trying to strum it. “I just know it!”

“That can't hold up in a court of law, Mr. Kuwata! We need conclusive proof that supports your testimony! Without it, how do we know you're not lying to cover up something else?”

“What the fuck? Man, why would I lie about my girlfriend's death?” The strumming intensified. Mondo's eyes kept falling to Kuwata's flickering rings. Their metallic coating caught and bounded off the fluorescent lights. Awful distracting. “Here, I'll show you some fucking evidence.

“See that pizza cutter? The pizza man subdued her with it, then used it to push me out the window!”

Utter, dumbfounded silence.

Mondo cleared his throat. “I suppose you would've missed this, Leon, but we earlier proved that the pizza cutter would've likely broken if it tried to create a wound deep enough to kill. Your claim doesn't hold fucking water.”

Kuwata's mouth launched open, cheeks flaring red.

He had to be lying. Kiyotaka's heart jumped. “Thanks, Mondo,” he whispered to his companion, and Mondo high-fived him.

Shaking himself, Kuwata said, “I guess I remembered wrong. My bad. Give me a second to think before I open my mouth.” He drew silent, hand incessantly pounding away at the witness stand. Aside from Mondo's snide comments—“I hate his shiny rings” and “This fucking sound is killing me”—the cold courtroom was utterly devoid save for that terrible racket.

“Okay. I know what happened.” Mondo and Kiyotaka steeled themselves for their next onslaught of perjury. “I must've fallen asleep when I was gonna change. That's why my brain's all frazzled.” Right, definitely not because he was coming up with a total farce of the truth on the spot. “So anyways, I woke up when I heard my girl scream. I rushed over to see what happened, and it was that shithead, holding one of our knives.

“He made like he was gonna hurt me, and when I backed away, I fell.”

Mondo squinted. Kiyotaka pounded his fist. “Mr. Kuwata! Did Hiro even have the time to open the window between attacking Ms. Maizono and your entry?”

“UHH!” His hand morphed into a bared set of claws. He played feverishly at an invisible guitar. “WHY NOT!”

“That doesn't sound very probable to me! Hiro's a bit too clumsy to have that level of coordination!”

“FUCK! NO! THAT'S TOTALLY WHAT HAPPENED? WHY DON'T YOU BELIEVE ME?"

A sweat broke out across his pale face, and—again—his free arm clutched at the shoulder. It was such an awkward pose that Kiyotaka cringed.

Couldn't the Judge see how guilty his face screamed?

Glancing over his map, Kiyotaka replied, “It doesn't appear that the window in your apartment is easy to open. It's very large and outdated, and it has this weird broken latch. And if Hiro had already killed Ms. Maizono, why would he even give you an entryway of escape? It would've been much more efficient for him to kill you too!”

Kuwata's knuckles were white from where he clutched his arm. “DAMMIT, I'D OPENED THE WINDOW BEFORE HE EVEN GOT HERE AND FELL OUT OF IT ON MY OWN TERMS! THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED!”

“You took the screen out and everything?” pressed Kiyotaka.

“YEAH! WHY NOT!”

Hmm! This sure sounded like a straight up fabrication!

Squinting into the map, eyes swimming for evidence, Kiyotaka jolted. “There's knife scratches on the screen! They're so slight and oddly-placed I hadn't noticed them before, but...”

Then Mondo gently tapped him. “Bud, I think you're missing something.” He glared over at Makoto. “Somethin' we should've known from the start.”

Something they should've known..? As he peered over at the prosecution, his blood iced over.

“MAKOTO!” screeched Kiyotaka, cheeks blurting red. “YOU HAD THE EVIDENCE OF THE SECURITY CAMERAS!” Ducking his head, Makoto guiltily took the defense's objection. “IS THERE EVEN EVIDENCE THAT HIRO CAME BACK TO THE ROOM?!”

Makoto opened, then shut his mouth, then sighed. “No, there isn't.”

And he wasn't going to tell them?!

“Fuckin' prosecution.” Mondo blew out a breath. “That's what I thought. Cheeky bastard.”

The Judge hadn't even given him a single foothold as of late. This case was wearing down on him—but it couldn't be much longer, could it?

Shaking himself, Kiyotaka returned to his sweating, quaking witness. “Mr. Kuwata, you didn't even see Hiro! He didn't even return!” Swallowing, he added, “You posed this question earlier without coming to a conclusive answer: did Ms. Maizono push you out of that window, Mr. Kuwata?”

Biting his lip, Kuwata said, “I-I guess there's nothing else it could've been.” His arm relaxed, hand sliding into his pocket. Streaks of sweet had spilled down his face and marred his articulate mascara.

Kiyotaka exhaled slowly, smacking a hand to his desk. Just to feel something. “Then the only other murderer could be... Ms. Maizono herself. Nobody else walked into the building until the police were called.”

Kuwata stared at him, long and hard. Then he said, “No, she did not kill herself.” The hand leapt back to his arm, and he clutched it, grunting through his words like each one struck him. “Why the hell would she do that?”

Kiyotaka shrugged. “You're not giving me a lot to work with! And you're lying! A lot!”

He kept waiting for the Judge to say something about that, but his egg-shaped head just kept swiveling between the witness and Kiyotaka, like he'd gotten himself caught up in a stimulating legal drama.

“I'm just getting the facts mixed up is all,” Kuwata muttered. He'd calmed down, mostly, but he still kept that hand locked on his unslinged arm.

...Kiyotaka didn't have any other leads.

So he asked, pointing at Kuwata's arm, “Did Ms. Maizono attack you too, Mr. Kuwata?”

Mondo gasped softly, fitting the remaining pieces of their evidence together. He cringed at the resulting image. Makoto, too, had stiffened, shutting his eyes like it would somehow prevent him from experiencing the unpalatable truth. The Judge clearly still had no idea what was going on.

Kuwata's breathing had tapered. He fisted and unfisted his arm until it sagged to his side, and he closed his tired eyes. His expression drained of color when he said, “Yes. I found the pizza cutter in the sink, and she went after me. Threw the knife at me.

“Fuck...” he moaned into his tented hand, collapsing over the witness stand. Kiyotaka prepared himself for another barrage of the evidence he had left, but Kuwata kept talking, his strained voice streaming between the gaps in his fingers. “I didn't mean for this...”

Instinctively Kiyotaka leafed through his evidence, landing upon the magazine. Plastered across the cover was a quote: “He never misses!”

Kiyotaka cleared his throat. “You... threw the knife back at her, didn't you?”

It couldn't have been the pizza cutter. The pizza cutter couldn't have left such a large wound.

Kuwata couldn't string together another lie. He sank further into his hand. “That's not how it was supposed to go... I... She attacked me, and I got mad, and I didn't realize what she'd done until...”

Until.

Then Kiyotaka realized, eyes lighting up, “You ate the pizza!”

Mondo smacked a hand across his face. “Taka, read the fucking room.”

“It hadn't been accounted for,” Kiyotaka whispered hotly. “Now it has been. I was just making sure.”

Kuwata straightened somewhat. He glared at the attorney. “Yes, I grief-consumed the entire fucking pizza and then cut my way through the window screen in some terrible drunken attempt to escape my actions.”

“I was right,” Kiyotaka said. Mondo closed his eyes.

Was... Was that everything accounted for? His stomach pinched as his mind roved over the last few movements of this case.

Kiyotaka drew a shaking hand through his spiny black hair, glancing over his arm at Mondo. His companion was staring out at the witness, an odd wistfulness sharpening his lilac gaze, dragging his lip into a frown. His rugged complexion had softened, wistful, and as he lost his edge, his fluffy hair fell over his brooding sneer.

“You okay?” squeaked Kiyotaka.

Mondo shook himself, his gruff voice pervasive. “Yeah—Yeah... Yeah, I'm fine.” That was now three “yeah”s. He sure sounded sure of himself.

Kiyotaka was about to reach out to him when the Judge's gavel slammed down and he froze. “Well, I believe I've heard enough of this trial to have the defendant's innocence conclusively proven. The witness will be tried for this crime at a later date; as for the defendant, I rule...

“NOT GUILTY.”

Makoto gasped and rummaged about his briefcase, emerging with a handful of confetti that he happily threw into the air. “Oh, this is my favorite part,” he said, and his smile bedazzled his eyes. Kiyotaka sort of stared after him a moment as the secretary dashed over to him, handing him fistfuls of confetti. “Go on! This is the best part of the trial.”

“What? You just gonna stand there?” Mondo chuckled, taking his handfuls and throwing them into Kiyotaka's face. “Oops, I missed. Haha!” He picked a speck of pink tissue paper out of Kiyotaka's hair. Kiyotaka felt his soul violently escape from his body.

He didn't mean to look away from Mondo, but the excitement of the moment caused his gaze to slide askance, and it landed on Kuwata. The truth had saved Hiro, but it'd shattered the perspective of the true murderer.

Swallowing tightly, Kiyotaka found himself diving around Mondo and the overly-cheerful Makoto to speak to the witness. Kuwata gave him this nasty side-eye before closing his eyes, defeated. Quietly he said, “Why the fuck did she try to kill me..?”

Kiyotaka rummaged one more time through his evidence for this case, settling on one. “She only attacked you when you picked up Hiro's pizza cutter, right? Perhaps... in her drunken state, she felt threatened when she saw that item in your hands, after her fight with Hiro. S-So she didn't hate you. It was just...” a mistake. A terrible mistake.

“Fuck,” was all Kuwata could conjure. “Fuck, fuck...” He drew off, lips pursed into a wobbly sneer. “St-Stupid Sayaka... Stupid, stupid Sayaka...”

He couldn't bring himself to say anything else and bowed out. Makoto gently caught his sleeve and said, voice low, “He probably will be tried in self-defense. Not only that, but he was inebriated at the time, so I don't imagine his penalty will be high, if anything outside of a rehabilitation program. You don't have to feel so guilty, Taka.”

“T-Taka?” he squeaked, glancing over at Mondo. He had a lazy grin scrawled across his face.

“Oh! I'm sorry! I thought, since Mondo said it was okay, I could...” Pouting nervously, Makoto had squeezed his hands together save for his exposed thumbs and the pointer fingers he tapped together incessantly.

Kiyotaka seethed. “Makoto, you hid evidence from us! You were working with the murderer!”

“N-No!” Makoto replied, beads of sweat forming at his forehead. “You don't understand, Taka! My job, you see, is to refute your claims. We have to work together to uncover the truth, and if I do your job for you, then no one will doubt you. And if there's no doubt, then the defendant can always walk away free. I'm, uh...” He shook himself, spiny hair jiggling. “I'm not all that good at it yet, since I don't exactly get much experience on my own. But hey, you still did great anyways!”

He was radiating this borderline nauseating optimism. Sighing, Kiyotaka wended his way back over to Mondo. “I can't tell you not to do your job... but it was frustrating to have you make such blatant falsehoods prevalent about the case!”

Makoto shook his head. “A lot of what you proposed was still conjecture until I pushed you to find the appropriate evidence. It may have seemed like a projection of the truth to you, but we need each other if we're going to find out what really happened. Uh... keep that in mind, for next time, alright? Maybe it's just me, but I feel like we worked well together.”

Makoto held out his hand. Kiyotaka stared at it a moment, lost, when Mondo stepped in for him. He folded Makoto's hand into a fist and fist-bumped it. The pink in Makoto's cheeks dilated. “Go on,” said Mondo, pushing his partner. “You can't disrespect the ancient prosecutor-defense attorney ritual of no-hard-feelings. 'Specially not on Makoto. He doesn't deserve that.”

Reluctantly Taka also fist-bumped the prosecution before they parted ways.


Hiro met them outside the courthouse. He was prancing about the front steps like an overly-excited horse. As soon as the double doors closed behind them, he froze, glimpsing them. “Heeeeey! You're the guys who saved my butt!”

Kiyotaka blinked. “What are you still doing here? You can go home now.”

“Yeaaaaah, but I wanted to thank you first. Hey—I was thinking, instead of, like, paying you for your services, what if I just gave you a discount on my fortune telling?”

“I-I would rather prefer the money!” Kiyotaka replied.

“Okay, okay. But simmer in this.” Hiro mused. “Okay. Super elite deal. I'll give you one for free. Huh? Howzabout that? Seriously dude my bank account is gonna bleed dry as soon as I go home and buy some more replacement crystals on eBay. Like it's either I pay you or I get replacement crystals. And obviously I need my crystal balls. They're like emotional support balls? You know?”

So he had the money, he just didn't want to use it.

Mondo's brow furrowed. “I dunno, Taka, let me think on this one.” He raised his voice, asked, “Oy, Hiro, can you throw in two free fortunes? Pretty please?”

Hiro thought about it. “Weelllllll, I suppose I could, since you asked so nicely.”

“H-How about you pay me so I can keep the lights on in my apartment!” Kiyotaka hollered, jostling Mondo. “And you! You can't let him—”

Mondo had already walked ahead of him. “Soooo, it's a deal? I've wanted to have my fortune read since I was a little kid. Ooh, I'm getting a little giddy.”

Hiro reached out to shake Mondo's hand. A horribly cold sensation slid down Kiyotaka's throat.

“OBJECTION!”

Chapter Text

He kept glancing back to make sure Mondo was still there. A funny little grin had appeared at the biker's lip. “Whatcha checkin' for?” he asked on the umpteenth peek. “Making sure I haven't transformed into a blue-haired sword-slingin' anime boy?” Kiyotaka choked on his forced laugh. That had been part of his fortune. They had eventually convinced Hiro, since he was throwing in two free fortunes, to only do the one, and, in exchange for not giving the second fortune, pay Kiyotaka.

Mondo's fortune had included 3 things, and with Hiro's percentages, it was likely one of these things would come true: He was secretly a Fire Emblem prince, he would become a murderer within the next 6 months, and he would fall in love.

Not exactly a promising fortune. And Kiyotaka questioned how Hiro could consider a fortune as vague as “he would fall in love” to be part of the 3. Mondo was considering it a fun false prophecy that therefore meant it was much more likely for him to either be secretly a prince or an upcoming murderer. Not that those odds were great.

Now Kiyotaka couldn't exactly tell Mondo the truth as to why he kept checking Mondo was here—that this wouldn't be the first time he was duped out of a friendship. And he was afraid of it happening again—And that was the real reason he kept checking.

“Hey, if it's any farther, I could've brought us on motorcycle,” Mondo muttered.

“No, no, it's not far from the courthouse! I used to come here all the time to relax after particularly stressful days during my apprenticeship. I studied here often before my bar exam too. It's sort of—well, it's a comforting place!” Kiyotaka nibbled at his lip. He'd just realized how personal this place was to him, and that he was now taking another human being to go see it, a human being who now knew just how personal it was for Kiyotaka.

Gosh, this was turning more and more into a date by the minute. He was getting a little lightheaded.

Blessedly they came up on the front steps of the café. Mondo looked up and peered at the lights shrouding the small lounge's name: RYOMEOW. “What kinda restaurant..?” He drew off. Kiyotaka ignored his wariness and eagerly grasped the door handle, ushering Mondo in first.

“Oh my god,” Mondo said as soon as he'd entered and a rush of cats had twined around his legs. He stood in place, afraid to step on one, and just watched, eyes wide with disbelief, as the cats purred all over him. There were tabbies and tortoiseshells and mixed breeds that the boss just called “special flavors of cat,” and Kiyotaka knew all of them by name. One of them, a little brown tabby, kept screaming for Mondo's attention, practically throwing herself at him, and when he glanced at Kiyotaka for help, the attorney giggled.

“That one's Jasmine. She's always trying to get people to look at her.”

“Oh god I relate to her,” whispered Mondo, reaching out a rugged hand to let the cat butt her head at his palm.

A short bar-top marked off a section close to the entrance, leaving the rest of the café as open space interspersed with tables, chairs, and cushions for the cats to perch. The sun had begun to spill into the horizon, and in the dim orange-tinged lighting, the boss whistled to himself as he swept. He had on his navy cat-ears hat and matching flannel apron. There was only one other party in the building, a couple tucked into a corner table. The girl was on what had to be a gameboy, and she spoke in a soft tone with the muscular guy who was with her.

The boss looked up at their entry. He came up to roughly Kiyotaka's waist, but his eyes glinted with an aged wisdom well beyond either his or Mondo's years. “Oh, hey, it's you, Kiyo.” Mondo gaped at his surprisingly deep, throaty tone that reached levels even Mondo couldn't quite achieve.

Kiyotaka bowed. “Good evening, Mr. Ryoma!”

“Your first trial was today, wasn't it?” He'd already put down the broom to rifle through the menus and head toward that window table Kiyotaka had always preferred. “How'd it go? Will it be extended? You're out quite late.” He tittered as he glanced at the cat-shaped wall clock.

“Y-Yes, well, Mondo”—he pointed back at his assistant, who waved—“helped me with it, so we were able to just barely finish it within the day. It was... It was quite the first case.” Just admitting it aloud caused a yawn to emerge. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment and shook himself.

“Wow,” murmured Mr. Ryoma. “What happened?”

As they reached the table, Kiyotaka debated within himself as to whether he should push in Mondo's chair for him. But would that be too forward? Was that too much? Then before he could even make a decision, Mondo had already sat down, so Kiyotaka hurried to take the other seat. He eased out of his white overcoat and folded it over his chair's back, stretching before sitting down. Mondo's eyes fell to the lilac long-sleeve he had on under it.

“It was a murder case,” he finally said, and Mr. Ryoma's dark comical eyes widened slightly. He passed out the menus and waited by for the rest of Kiyotaka's story. “The victim was this girl in an emergent band, and I had to defend this pizza delivery guy who made all the wrong decisions in court. He kept lying to try and help himself, and then it turned out what he was hiding didn't even implicate him.

“And the real murderer... was her boyfriend.” Kiyotaka blew out a breath.

“Not to mention the alcohol twist,” Mondo jumped in. His gaze was solely focused in on one of the cats who had begun to creep over to their table. As they approached, he reached out a hand and waited when the cat stopped just out of his reach. He tried to move his hand a little and the cat darted away. “Damn.”

Mr. Ryoma watched the cat jump onto a farther away table. “If you act like you don't like them, they'll come to you naturally. They only want attention when they think you don't want to give it. That's why I like cats. Such difficult creatures...” Turning back to them, he asked, “What can I get you to start? Kiyo, do you want your usual?”

There was this orange dreamsicle milkshake he tended toward, with whipped cream and chocolate sauce drawn over in the shape of a cat. The face always changed, sometimes smiling, sometimes vengeful, sometimes sleepy. Maybe it'd wake him up a little. “Yes, please.”

“Holy shit, there's so many options,” whispered Mondo, his eyes rolling over the drink pages. “What are you getting?”

Kiyotaka leaned over to point it out on Mondo's menu. For a split second their fingertips touched; Kiyotaka proceeded to crash back into his chair. Either Mondo didn't notice or was sparing him the embarrassment of showing he noticed. “Hmmmmm... I don't know if I want to fully commit... Ooh, can I try some of yours?”

Oh god, an indirect kiss? TONIGHT?! “Y-Yeah! S-S-Sure!” If he said no, Mondo would ask why, and Kiyotaka couldn't bring himself to verbalize it. Such indecent, dirty thoughts..!

Mr. Ryoma glanced over at him like he saw straight through him. Kiyotaka covered his red face with his hands.

He was subjected to an agonizingly long muse by Mondo until he finally chose a mixture of grape, soda, and ice cream, and Mr. Ryoma finally, finally left to take their orders. Kiyotaka let his face be seen once more, and Mondo gave him the funniest brows-raised look. “What were you hiding from?” he asked.

Kiyotaka considered melting into the floor. His face was all too hot. “N-Nothing,” he eventually said.

Mondo had a fist to his mouth. Kiyotaka worried at the probability that he was hiding a big fat grin. “Whatever you say, pal.”

They fell into that awkward silence you sometimes fall into when you've just become friends with someone and realized you had no idea what to talk about. Like a black hole, it consumed all elsewhile thoughts until it was the only thing that remained. Laughing weakly, Kiyotaka stared at the window, desperately attempting to conjure even one single conversation topic. Gosh, he was so bad at this. His own fault that he hardly got much experience.

Mondo cleared his throat. “Hey, how'd you meet Jin, anyways? What made you choose him to be your mentor over all the other attorneys in the area?”

Oh thank goodness Mondo could make small talk. He filled Kiyotaka's eyes, the sunset imbuing gilded orange aureoles over his soft hair and serene expression. “I applied to multiple offices around Japanifornia, actually. But Mr. Jin was the only one who accepted me.” He exhaled slowly. “At the time, I was just excited to receive a job, but the more I think about it, the more it bothers me, honestly...” And now he was thinking about it. And now he was questioning himself.

“Hey, hey.” Mondo gently rocked the table with a fist. “Don't doubt yourself like that. You got through this case, didn't you? You didn't even have an actual lawyer helping you out. How many people can say that, uh?”

Kiyotaka managed a weak chuckle. “I guess not even my idol can claim that.” He'd at least had his mentor. “W-Wow, that was... That was hard, though.”

“There's always a contradiction, somewhere, if they're lying. Can be hard to locate, but you got this. You're real smart, Taka.”

Mondo watched him, eyes settling on Kiyotaka's hands. They still shook, a little bit. “Taka, if...” He pursed his lips, struggling with his words. His glittering lilac eyes had tightened, locked upon him. “If Jin doesn't come back anytime soon—or... if you need any help, you let me know, alright?”

“Y-You don't have to do that!” Kiyotaka squeaked—

“Who said anything about having to do anything?” The biker's scarred lips broke into a bright grin. “I wanna help you. You're real, uh...” His cheeks pinked a little, and he scooped up the menu to pseudo-scan its contents. “You've got spunk, and uh, and charm. Of all the attorneys I've dealt with, I feel like most of 'em would've given up on Hiro. It's pretty neat that you kept pushing until you coaxed the truth outta him. Leon, too.” He pushed his lips tight together. “Without people like you—and like Jin—I'd be royally screwed.

“Can't help but wanna look out for you. Damn. Does that even make sense?” He had a low, rasping laugh that did funny things to Kiyotaka's heartstrings. “So—Here. Gimme your number. I'm no good at texting, but call me if you need anything. I promise I'll pick up.”

As he handed his busted flip phone over to Kiyotaka, he added softly, “Or, uh, call me for other things. Wait, maybe don't.” He thought about it as Kiyotaka sent himself a text, adding Mondo to his contacts. “Okay, you can call me for other things. But not every day. I have things to do.”

Kiyotaka glanced up at him as he handed back the flip phone. “What are you talking about?”

“F-Fuckin' nothing!” Mondo replied, all huffy.

Had... Had Mondo somehow become the embarrassed one? Unable to suppress the sudden overwhelming smile, Kiyotaka said, “It doesn't sound like nothing. Please enlighten me, Mondo!”

“Fuck.” Kiyotaka's brows raised. Mondo pulled up the menu. “Nothing. I wasn't talking about anything. Just, uh, call me if you need me for something. Or don't! It's your choice.”

“Thank you for making that clear. I wasn't sure if it was.”

Mondo's ears, not quite hidden by the menu, smoldered.

Unfortunately, their drinks arrived before Kiyotaka could pester him any further. “Oh hey, do they come with straws?” Mondo asked.

Mr. Ryoma shook his head and simply said, “Straws kill turtles.”

“I... You know, I respect that.” He eyed Kiyotaka. “You mind if I..?”

“G-Go ahead,” he croaked, struggling to appreciate the final moments of his life.

He carefully watched Mondo's mouth as it edged against the rim of his drink, took note of where it touched, and, when Mondo placed the glass down, he made sure to push the part contaminated by Mondo so that it wasn't facing Kiyotaka. He was afraid of what might happen if he let himself touch it.

“...Huh. It's almost too sweet, but I like it. Thanks, Taka.”

Kiyotaka tried to act cordial and responsive rather than giving into the utter death he was experiencing deep within.

It was only then that they both realized they hadn't spent a second looking at the food options. Mr. Ryoma said in response to their speechlessness, “If it makes it any easier, I can tell you what I don't feel like cooking. Limits your options.”

And it sure did, because Mr. Ryoma hardly wanted to cook anything outside of breakfast and sandwiches. Upon noticing the entire page of breakfast foods, Mondo's eyes lit up. “Oh my god, cat pancakes?” he whispered. “Shaped... like cats? Oh god, oh fuck, I need that. Please bless my life with the cat pancakes.”

Mr. Ryoma duly noted it. “Kiyo?”

Kiyotaka stared over his options. His brain was still kind of stuck on the lips imprinted onto his glass. “Uhh... You know what I like. Surprise me.”

Mr. Ryoma shrugged. He could most certainly tell the source of Kiyotaka's absentmindedness. “Haven't seen you bring a boy in awhile,” he murmured just to show it before disappearing behind his flat top.

Mondo whipped around his menu. “You seein' this, Taka?” He pointed out all the little pictures dancing across the menu. “These things look lethal with cuteness.” He was jabbing at the cat shaped pancakes specifically. “Who the fuck drew these? I'd fuckin' commission them.”

Kiyotaka laughed. “One of Mr. Ryoma's friends, I think. They're pretty cute, aren't they? Are you an artist, Mondo?”

Mondo broke into a guffaw. “Hell no. I can't even draw a stick figure straight.”

“Then how do they come out?” Kiyotaka blurted.

Mondo was silent a moment. As the quiet extended, Kiyotakas's heart thrummed dangerously into his ribcage. Then the biker's lip hooked into a side grin. “They're some fuckin' gay-ass stick figures.”

Okay but did that mean Mondo was gay.

Unfortunately, the moment had moved on. Mondo rolled his eyes, mulled over his thoughts a moment, then asked, “What do you do in your spare time? When you're not dealing with unrealistic witnesses, I mean.”

“Hey, I only just started today!” Kiyotaka smiled a little self-consciously. “I... Honestly, I spent most of my time studying in school, and I've only just graduated from college... Well—I had a couple friends I used to go out with.” His heart caught when he remembered Aoi and Sakura.

“Yeah? What'd ya do with 'em?” Mondo's expression had softened, his hands open, spread across the table.

“I met them at the gym. We worked out quite a bit together.” Mondo's brow rose, eyes slipping to his pastel purple button-down. Kiyotaka recalled having been told once his muscles hid beneath his clothes. “They dragged me out to town a couple of times. Karaoke bars.” All gay, of course. Aoi used to try and hook him up with any single guy she could find while they waited for drinks.

Shaking himself, Kiyotaka said, “I apologize. I'm not all that exciting.”

“Nah, you're devoted to your dream. That's cool.” Mondo met his eyes, and Kiyotaka sensed his internal world spinning. He went for his drink and tried his best not to accidentally touch—that spot—with a finger. Why was Mondo being so nice to him? Could he..?

No, no! How dare his mind wander to such intrusive thoughts!

“What of you?” he asked. Mondo jolted, hand fisting around his glass. “I-I apologize! I didn't mean to startle you!”

The biker gave a nonchalant shrug. “Fuck, man, no need to apologize so much. I was just lost in thought.” He was looking out the window, a second Mondo reflected back to him. An orange glow settled at his pupils. “I do enjoy my luxurious drives late at night. I'unno. Fuck, why'd I ask you that? Didn't fuckin' realize how hard this was to answer...”

His hands thrummed along the table. Kiyotaka caught the glint of a slim ring at his pinkie. “What's that?” He couldn't help but point.

“Oh, it's...” Mondo eyed it, long and slow, before turning away again. His lips had drawn thin, shapeless. “A memory. Shit—That's ambiguous, ain't it? It's a good memory. Sort of. Of someone I knew a long time ago.” Instinctively the ring slipped off his finger, and he clutched it in his fingertips. It was smooth all around, no engravings, no inlaid gems. A pure metallic band.

“It's pretty,” Kiyotaka offered.

“Yeah.” He spoke softly. As the sun shifted, the dim lighting of the café released Mondo's expression. He'd grown somber, outlined in shadow. “I keep it around so I can't forget.”

“Who...” Kiyotaka started, but he paused, swallowed. “Never mind.”

An odd rift had opened up between them. He didn't know how to bridge it, let alone how to address this foreign chill that now pervaded what had been warm, inviting. Mondo had turned away from him, just enough not to quite see him. And Kiyotaka's brain was totally empty.

When Mr. Ryoma arrived with their food, Mondo made a few exuberant comments on the cat pancakes (“Is food allowed to be that cute?” and “If I wasn't so hungry I'd put them in a fucking frame!”), dutifully naming them and beheading them with his knife as to spare them from what he worried to be an otherwise grueling end. Kiyotaka caught himself watching him and turned reluctantly to Mr. Ryoma's latest culinary experiment, an oozing mass that straddled the line between pancake and panini stuffed with cheese and fruits. He really shouldn't have given Mr. Ryoma that sort of power, but at this point he was so famished he couldn't care less what it was made of.

After a couple failed attempts at speaking with Mondo, Kiyotaka let them share the silence. He tried to take pride in that he'd managed to learn so much about his courthouse savior for someone with little to no experience with talking to other people—let alone people of the same sex. Attractive people... of the same sex, especially...

Mr. Ryoma came back with the bill, and Kiyotaka proudly raised his hand, proclaiming, “I'll pay!”

Mondo jolted up from his last savory pancake. “Hey, I was kidding! You don't hafta do that, Taka!”

“No!” Kiyotaka pointed right at him. “Who said a thing about having to do it?” An immensely smug grin jumped onto his face. “I insist, Mondo!”

That spark ignited in him. “Y'know... Whatever, if you insist.” He shrugged, slouching back in his chair. An easy grin had cast his mouth sidelong. “It's your money.”

The stars came out overhead as they made their way back to the courthouse. Kiyotaka's home was in the opposite direction, but he would've felt horrible thinking about Mondo walking all on his lonesome back to that devoid building. Not even that he was worried for Mondo's safety—thinking about Mondo with that ring and that vacant expression made him shiver.

“M-Mondo! Um...” He fisted the hand in his pocket. “Thank you again for everything today! I couldn't have done it without you.”

“Awww, no sweat. Thanks to you too. I didn't have anything better to do. And it was fun.” He turned back a second to smile. Kiyotaka's heart was shot straight through.

At first they got lost in the parking lot on account of Mondo having forgotten where he'd left his bike. Even this late at night there were still masses of sleeping cars, stretched out like a maze across the lot. Kiyotaka about yelled at him when Mondo raised up the hand holding his car keys and frantically punched the unlock button until he saw headlights flashing faintly off in the distance and dragged Kiyotaka after him.

His rugged hand brushed over a handlebar. He glanced over to Kiyotaka before tying his hair up with a hair band. “How are you getting home? Where's your car?”

“My house isn't so far from here. I like the walk!”

Mondo's mouth fell open. “Don't tell me... You ran all over the fuckin' parking lot for no reason? Oh my god.” His head fell into a hand. “Dammit, Taka! I'm totally wasting your time! Go home! Or—Wait, wait, let me take you home! Please, I gotta fuckin' redeem myself somehow!”

He extended his hand out to the attorney. Kiyotaka examined it—

—only to recall the number of accidents Mondo had gotten into. The accidents that had put Mr. Jin on speed dial for the careless driver. “I, uh, you know, I really love walking at night and—”

“Nah, come on! It's late. Someone cute as you might just get kidn—”

Mondo cut himself off of his own volition. He drew out a long, exhausted breath. “I-I mean, it's safer! It's not far, is it? Please?”

Kiyotaka's cheeks pinked.

He considered the proposition. A chance at dying... but the opportunity of a lifetime!

Finally he let his hand meet Mondo's. They didn't quite shake, just clung to one another. Mondo gazed into him before letting his hand slink to his side.

“Great. Hop on. Lemme pull out my extra helmet for you. Make sure you hold on tight, okay?”

Chapter Text

Kiyotaka hadn't expected Mondo to be such a good driver, but he opted not to question the ease and careful control of speed he experienced on the way home. He collapsed in a myriad of exhaustion, excitement, and pride that night, hardly reaching his bed before blacking out.

The next couple of weeks passed in a stream of relative quietude. Despite the flurried texts he'd sent to Mr. Jin concerning his first case, he received little in response save a singular text 5 days later—Good job, Kiyo. I knew you could do it. Very busy but will hopefully see you soon.

Nope. Not even relatively.

More to create a sense of comforting pattern rather than to check for Mr. Jin, he used his spare keys to tidy up Kirigiri Law Offices when he wasn't finishing up the paperwork concerning Hiro's case. He'd even called Mondo over a couple of times to help him with dubious manilla folders that Mr. Jin had left out for an indeterminate amount of time.

On a particularly quiet Saturday evening—the rain coming down, a peaceful sheet blocking out the rest of the world—Kiyotaka had been organizing Mr. Jin's legal books by size. He had already ordered them by alphabetical order, color, and how genuinely interesting they sounded. He probably needed a hobby.

His television, perpetually set on the news as to better search for poor shmucks who needed defense attorneys, began to blare. He caught sight of a body slumped over—someone screaming—

—when his phone went off. Gasping, he hurried to answer the call.

“KIYO!” cried a high-pitched voice. Overly emotional, bright and bubbly... He was buffeted with nostalgia.

“Aoi?” he asked. “What is it?” It wasn't unusual to receive a call from her. They'd talked less after graduation, as their lives had moved into separate directions, but they still met most months at a gym or restaurant.

It was that shrill quality to her tone that caused his blood to freeze over. He was staring at the slumped-over body on the television, noticing the waist-length white hair, noticing and not wanting to recognize the brown-skinned, muscular physique, when Aoi released a choked sob.

“KIYO... KIYO, I NEED YOU...”


Day 1: Investigation


Aoi Asahina crashed through his door and into him, wrapping her warm, tanned arms tight about him. Her tears waterfalled down his shoulder, lost within streaks of her wet hair and her damp, skin-tight clothes. For a long moment she cried, and she cried, and Kiyotaka awkwardly folded his arms around his friend.

Aoi had always been the more affectionate one out of the three of them. He remembered the high-fives and hugs she gave out relentlessly between tests and papers, her high-energy optimism when he'd cried into her over the stress of the bar exam.

As much as he wanted to ask Aoi what had happened, he couldn't bring himself to dredge up those memories. He'd seen enough on television and heard the vital words—a type of deadly poison found in her drink—to be able to piece the worst of it.

Had... Had someone killed his friend? Just the thought of it caused the warmth to suck out of his hands and his throat to dangerously tighten, as if a fist had clamped around it.

Aoi's drenched brown hair had fallen out of its hairtie and now slid down her back in thick rivulets. Her cheeks had been drained of their warm orange-tinged cheer, her eyes deep navy whirlpools swirling amongst shiny black pits.

“Aoi,” he whispered, trying to find the wording to ask, “do you need my help to locate the—”

Three lethal pounds at his front door. Aoi's back was facing it, and she shook like she felt them pummeling into her. Hurriedly Kiyotaka stepped in front of her, taking off his jacket to wrap around her shivering figure, and opened the door.

He met the eyes of a detective and two policemen. His mouth opened and no sound exited.

The detective, a woman with waist-length white hair tied at the back with a ribbon and dressed in a tight violet suit, stepped around him to lock a handcuff around Aoi's wrist. “Ms. Aoi Asahina, you are suspected of killing Ms. Sakura Oogami.”

Kiyotaka shouted when one of the policemen barreled past him, elbowing him in the chest, causing his voice to taper into a wheeze. Aoi had gone deathly silent save for her sobbing breaths, her eyes fitfully wide, her hands open and empty and shuddering.

The detective peered over at Kiyotaka, her pale lilac eyes pinched by her sneer. Her voice was low, but each word was clearly punctuated. “Were you attempting to hide her? Are you an accessory to the murder?” Her head cocked, her pale hair flitting over a shoulder. “No... I don't believe so. You weren't located at the crime scene, and you clearly haven't stepped outside since the rain began to fall.”

As if just to make sure, she signaled the policemen to hold Aoi in place and stomped around Kiyotaka's apartment in her knee-high heeled boots. Her hair whipped back behind her like a cape as she searched, carefully removing pillows from couches and utensils from the sink as if each might secretly be hiding a sliver of evidence. She looked in places even Kiyotaka wouldn't have thought of hiding things in—going so far as to unscrew his sink's neck to check in its metalwork if he'd dare stow away the poison or some other preposterous link to the scene of the crime.

Kiyotaka couldn't bring himself to stop her from storming into his personal office, knowing well himself that he would have done the same had he been able to get his hands onto a potential crime scene before his defendant's trial. When she'd disappeared behind the door, he grabbed one of Aoi's hands and squeezed tightly, whispering into her ear, “Where was the crime scene?”

She followed, nodding subtly. “There was a gambling house Sakura wanted to visit. Th-That's where she...” Aoi swallowed tightly. Choked out the words. “I d-d-don't know why she wanted t-t-to go there. It must h-h-have something to do with her death. That place was m-much too shady...

Shaking herself, she added, “It was called Praying Stars. I don't know wh-why Sakura...” Then she gasped, and her eyes filled with tears. “It w-wasn't a suicide... w-w-was it..? No... no...

“Why would Sakura want to die?” Kiyotaka gasped. The cold pinprick of tears had formed in his eyes, streaking down his cheeks like open wounds. “She has you! She loves... l-loved you! There's no way. And how could they think you—

“I—” Aoi broke into a weak laugh. “It's because I ran away as soon as she died. My feet... My feet took over... and I c-called you... and I came here... a-and they must think I was trying to hide from the...

“I-I didn't accidentally poison her... d-did I...”

“No!” Kiyotaka took her by the shoulders. “You would never. B-Believe in yourself, Aoi!” He wiped his wet cheek, gently squeezing her. “I'll go look for evidence. Tell them you want me to be your attorney. Please.”

Aoi's eyes widened, as if she'd completely forgotten her friend could defend her in court. Kiyotaka had kind of assumed she'd run all the way over here to ask that very thing, and he was surprised to realize she'd just needed to see him out of all of her friends.

His heart sparked, honored she'd chosen him. Now he needed to use his lawyer prowess to help her, too.

Sakura... Why did Sakura die? Kind, strong, noble Sakura...

No, not even why, but how? How could Sakura's guard have been let down that severely?

Kiyotaka took his friend's bound hands one last time, said, “I'll come check on you after I visit the crime scene for myself,” and exited the office in a hurry. He was surprised to find that neither officer attempted to stop him from leaving. Weren't they afraid of that terrifying detective with them? She surely hadn't been to Hiro's crime scene or she would have likely pieced it all together immediately.

...did they just think she was overkill, and they'd already assumed Kiyotaka hadn't done it? Or perhaps they didn't care. Well, either way, Kiyotaka left and nobody stopped him from doing so.

He got a head start walking down the block and took a shortcut that would hopefully keep that terrifying detective from immediately locating and detaining him. As the rain pelted down over him, he opened up his phone, dialing a number he'd already memorized.

One ring... two... three... Kiyotaka's heart clenched—

“Taka! Hey! What's up?”

He took in a deep breath, the relief immense and borderline crippling. “My friend's girlfriend just died, and she got arrested for it.”

“HOLY SHIT. Where are you?”

“I'm right outside my office. I know where the crime scene is. Could you—”

“Hell yeah!”

When he heard the motorbike rumbling down the street, screeching to a halt before him, Kiyotaka decided not to question just how fast Mondo had gone to reach him that quickly. But then it occurred to him—that if Mondo had gone really fast—then that meant Mondo had really wanted to see him!

And he did not know what to do with that information.

Upon seeing the shivering Kiyotaka before him, Mondo blanched. “Dude, you don't even have like a rain slicker? What the fuck! You're gonna catch a cold and fucking die before you solve any murders!” And like it was nothing, he shucked off his own slicker—it was bright pink, which Mondo begrudgingly blamed on having found it in the bargain bin—and threw it at the attorney. “Come on. We gotta go.”

All he had on underneath was a white tank top that poorly covered Mondo's warm tan chest. Kiyotaka's face burned away its cold pallor before it got pelted by the slicker.

Hurriedly Kiyotaka pulled the slicker over his head, lacking the time to think about how it smelled like exhaust but also something sweet and foreign like someone... someone in particular. He jumped up behind Mondo, squeezing his arms tight around the biker's waist, and tucked his head into Mondo's shoulder to keep the rain out of his eyes. An extra helmet was plunked onto his head. Mondo had thrown his sleek lightning-lined helmet back onto his own, and the raindrops pelleted off him like bullets. With a frantic rev, they pulled off into the dreary evening, an accumulating fog folding them into the gray cityscape.


Praying Stars was a massive cathedral-like building with vaulted windows and stained glass decorating every orifice. Upon entering the cold, marble building, black silks that draped from the ceiling enveloped the two, leading into a short gated checkpoint that blocked off the rest of the pavilion. Kiyotaka and Mondo had to show their IDs and prove their ages before they were allowed entry, which said something relatively nice about the establishment. (Though it also caused Kiyotaka to question why they needed to ensure children couldn't come in.)

Immediately upon passing the silk-guarded entrance, they located the body. Kiyotaka's heart lunged as he rushed around the gambling huts and long tables and reached the back wll, where the white-lined chalk blocked in the still-present, still-warm figure. Perhaps reinforcements would come to... collect her after the original team had chased after Aoi.

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly at the thought.

He collapsed at Sakura's head and covered his face, the emotions pouring fourth so suddenly he couldn't stifle his sobs. He heard Mondo gasp and sit down next to him, a hand resting at his back, stroking.

“You knew her, right?” he murmured.

Kiyotaka managed a nod. He forced his eyes to open, his hand to search Sakura's pulse—just to make sure, just to make sure.

But it was lifeless, unmoving.

And—It looked wrong. Kiyotaka blinked furiously and gasped. “Her bracelet's missing!”

“Her... what?”

“See this?” Kiyotaka pointed at her wrist, her empty wrist. “Look, look.” He pulled out his phone and flipped to a recent photo of himself with his friends. Sakura—still smiling Sakura—alive and standing—was too much to bear, but he had to zoom into the photo. Hurriedly he pointed out her wrist, which had on it a woven pink friendship bracelet. “Aoi made it for her a few years ago, back when we first met. She made one for me too.” Subtly he pulled his own sleeve back to reveal his blue-and-white bracelet.

Staring at Sakura's blank wrist—and checking her other arm just to make sure—Kiyotaka fumed. “She'd never take it off..! Where did it... Where could it have gone?!”

Mondo was already thinking, a finger to his lip. “Maybe it fell off somewhere? If we find it, it could lead us to some crucial evidence.” He gently nudged Kiyotaka. “That's great, though. Anything else look weird? Anything at all. You never know how important this stuff ends up being in court.”

Right, right. He had to do this. For Aoi. And for her, too.

Kiyotaka glanced over Sakura's limp form, forcing his breathing to slow.

His friend had been wearing a lovely pale yellow dress on her final day, something he imagined Aoi would have fawned over. Her head was turned towards the ground, as if to hide its unnervingly still quality from her girlfriend. One hand was fisted around her usual protein shake, the same portable cup she'd been using since college.

Kiyotaka's heart thundered. That had to be it. That had to be where the poison was hidden. He fumbled around the body, wondering idly why there weren't any policemen nearby to stop him, and popped off the lid.

Her usual protein drink didn't look any different, but something about it... something about it felt off. Maybe it was the smell—vaguely sterile—or the color—vaguely paler, maybe—but it caused goosebumps to flee up his arm. Kiyotaka quickly popped the top back onto the shake. “I wish we had a way of checking the contents of this,” he muttered, having to settle with writing down its existence and likelihood as the poison's container.

He was about to flip Sakura over when a chilly voice somewhere between a purr and a whisper froze him into place. “Why hello, good sir. What brings you to my establishment?”

Kiyotaka flew to his feet. Mondo jumped over the corpse to take his friend's side.

He hadn't even heard this stranger walk over to him!

A woman in egregious black heels was facing him. With the heels she was nearly taller than even Mondo in his thick biker boots. She had these thick black drills spilling over her shoulders, down her back, and a thin black veil over her painted-white face, her painted-black lips quirked into a faint grin. It was nothing like a smile, more like a prod, like she was toying with their psyches already. Bright crimson eyeshadow pillowed her needle-thin black gaze, lined in elegantly-curled makeup, and she wore a lacy black dress that ended at the knee, revealing white legs decorated with black ribboned tights.

Her white-gloved hands were folded in front of her. Her smile widened, and she was the most terrifying person Kiyotaka had ever met in his entire life. Not even that detective could compare. At least the detective woman was clearly a mortal.

Nodding her head, she asked once more, “What brings you, good sir, to my humble establishment?”

“I...” Oh no, Kiyotaka hadn't the faintest clue what to say. His mind had grown soupy, overflowing, incapable of holding even the slightest notion of a word.

Mondo, shaking himself, sent his fluffy hair flying over his back. “Beat it, ma'am. We're inspecting the murder scene. Y'see, Taka here has a defendant to protect.”

“A defendant!” the woman posed, her angelically low voice heightening. “Oh my, how dastardly. Why have you a defendant?”

Kiyotaka found his voice as soon as he had a platform with which to defend Aoi. “My friend was accused of killing her girlfriend! I have to find evidence before the prosecution tampers with it, or I could... I could lose my chance at saving her!” He was reminded of Hiro's case and how disastrous that had almost gone—just the thought of putting Aoi through such danger caused a shudder to sneak down his spine.

The strange goth woman merely gasped, her carefully-sculpted brows raised. “Now why would the young lady's girlfriend be supposed of murdering her? Isn't it already abundantly obvious that a woman would never dare harm her lady, that there is nothing more powerful than the love shared by two strong women?”

The... what?

Was this scary goth lady on Kiyotaka's side? He was so flabbergasted by the woman's claim that he once again lost his train of thought.

Mondo, squeezing his shoulder, took over. “You believe us? Oh, great. Can you help us then? We're tryna find proof that Aoi couldn't have killed the victim—and uh, as the owner of this establ... stahahabl... uh... building, you must have some tricks that can throw off the police, right?”

A devilish grin drew up the woman's painted lips. “Oh, yes, certainly.” She pulled a bell out of a dress pocket and jingled it. “Servant,” she called, “I require your assistance!”

Out from the shadows shuffled a short, stout, bespectacled man dressed in a gray cat onesie adorned with black and red ribbons.

There were no words that could describe Kiyotaka's face at the sight of this new person.

The woman pocketed her bell and smiled giddily. “Let us introduce ourselves.” When she curtsied, hands primly pinched at her dress's edges, she kicked the onesie man so that his head fell to the ground into the shape of a full-body bow.

From where his face was smashed into the tiles, the servant spoke. Somehow his voice was unnervingly clear, as if he was used to speaking from this angle. “Hifumi Yamada was this body's name at birth, but Miss Special Master Queen Celestia Ludenberg refers to it as Servant, and Servant hopes you will too. It is the highest honor to be Lovely Eternal Ruler Celestia Ludenberg's one and only Servant.”

Upon observing Kiyotaka and Mondo's speechless shock, Celestia clapped her gloved hands. “Servant, please distract the policemen when they arrive so that I may speak with the defense attorney and his, ah, accessory a moment longer.”

—accessory? Mondo glanced away, cheeks red.

Yamada—Kiyotaka wasn't referring to him as Servant, as that crossed a line he wasn't ready to imagine even existed—scooted back and full-body bowed to Celestia before trundling over to the front doors of the cathedral, happily awaiting the arrival of the police.

Celestia had impeccable timing, which only furthered Kiyotaka's assumption that she was not of this world. As soon as Yamada reached the front, one of the doors spilled inward, and there stood the white-haired detective with her two lackeys. She had a phone at her ear and was muttering into it—but whatever response she received had heightened her voice to the point that she screamed, “YOU LEFT THE CRIME SCENE?” into the receiver.

“Detective Lang.” She spoke with a false, forced calm. “Detective Lang, you were supposed to be vigilantly watching. Evidence could have been tampered with if you weren't—” She glanced across the way as she entered through the silken opening at the front and visibly paled when she saw Kiyotaka and Mondo casually standing beside the victim's body.

Her hand formed a fist, and she turned off her phone. “Don't you move an inch.” She hissed through gritted teeth, pointing directly at Kiyotaka.

She took another step, and that was when she tripped right over the cleverly-hidden body of Yamada.

But then her ankle bent weird about her heel when she fell—and Kiyotaka's heart crunched—and he glanced over to Celestia and cried, “Y-You didn't have to hurt—!

Celestia's face remained impassive save for her borderline mocking smile. “She will not die, yes? Not from such a small injury.” This woman couldn't be human. “Her little trip will merely impede her progress. Now, listen, for I have little time to share with you.”

“To what?” Mondo asked. A shady unease had doused his once-brazen complexion, like he now recognized that they had stumbled into Celestia's domain and had little to no control over their actions for the duration of their stay.

Kiyotaka watched his companion's mouth set in a heavy line and sensed his heart pounding faster, harder. Could they trust this woman? Yes, this was his only chance at learning what had truly occurred at his dear friend's death, but how much of the truth would he actually be able to uncover?

...how much would Celestia let him see? And how much of it would be curated by her choosing what they had access to?

Inclining her head, Celestia replied, ignoring Mondo's comment, “Sir Attorney, we will require your assistance to ensure that Ms. Aoi does not receive her unjust dues. Please examine the gambling floor at your leisure, and—here. This may be of assistance to you.”

She casually handed off a suspicious white pill bottle to Kiyotaka. “I am unsure of the contents, but I had found this on the floor by your friend's body.” Her lips stretched into a malicious-shaped grin. “Please, for your own sake, I advise you do not turn her over. You will not find much of use there.”

Kiyotaka could hear the detective muttering over her—bruised?—sprained?—broken?—ankle. He was on a timer, he realized. As soon as the detective arrived, she could twist the truth around her preconception that Aoi had killed Sakura, and Kiyotaka struggled to imagine what sort of horrendous evidence he'd have to contradict in court if such became her case.

“Th-Thank you,” he said to Celestia, frantically bowing before grabbing the stone-still Mondo by the arm and dragging him off into the depths of the gambling den.

Once they were out of Celestia's immediate periphery, Mondo released a weak bark of a laugh. “What the fuck was that?” He managed a jovial grin, but it was too tight, too pronounced.

Kiyotaka shook his head. “We need to focus on whatever we can find here.” He peered once over his shoulder to their crime scene's curator. She remained at the head of Sakura's limp form, her dark eyes trained fully on them.

Mondo followed where Kiyotaka's gaze pointed. “Hmm. You're right, but there's something about the corpse she doesn't want us to see. Another wound? A set up? Damn... No way to tell.” He shook himself. “How the hell do you get set up with the weirdest murders I've ever seen, Taka?”

“I don't know,” Kiyotaka moaned. But for Aoi he kept going. He couldn't linger on his loss now, not when he'd been given this opportunity to at least save one of his friends from the legal beast that was the courthouse.

If only he could ask Aoi where she and Sakura had gone in the gambling den. Its massive cathedral-like structure left an unsettling number of corners to check, but they hadn't the time to search every single suspicious-looking nook and cranny. Not to mention the gratuitous amount of black silks draped over walls and creating false enclosures and so successfully keeping natural light out of certain sections of the labyrinthine cathedral.

Mondo paused as they approached the restrooms at the edge of the den, resting a hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder and squeezing to make him stop. “Did... Did she lead us to a useless trail? I feel like we're wasting time.”

“Wh-Why would she?” Kiyotaka squeaked, turning to Mondo. “She said she wanted to help us secure Aoi's innocence!”

Mondo hesitated. His hand fluttered, addressing Kiyotaka's cheek, briefly suppressing his flow of tears. “Taka,” he murmured, and Kiyotaka bowed his head, biting his lip. “She has to have an ulterior motive. I get the feeling your friends didn't go anywhere near this mess. Besides, if there was a specific place to show us, she could've told us.” And she didn't, was what neither of them said aloud but felt resonate sharply between them.

“N-No,” Kiyotaka stammered, covering his face with his quaking hands. “I thought... I thought...”

Mondo's hand slid into Kiyotaka's suit pocket, unearthing the pill bottle. “The labels are marked off. Can't read 'em. But I wonder... I wonder what's in...” Suddenly his boot stamped into the ground. “DAMMIT. I used to know someone who could've helped us with... Fuck...”

They'd only located three pieces of evidence, and one of them was arguably unrelated to the case. How could they defend Aoi in court when they knew so little of the context of her case?

“Taka.” Mondo was shaking the little white bottle. “Do you recognize this? Have you ever seen your friend carrying this thing around?”

He had to squint through the cloudiness in his gaze, but he firmly shook his head. “No. I-I've never seen it before.”

“Could this be the poison she supposedly died from?” Mondo was still shaking it, brooding. As his face came into focus, so too did the sign over his head.

The women's restroom.

...They had no other leads, and it wasn't like somebody was watching...

And maybe, just maybe, they'd find something worth their time in there...

Wordlessly Kiyotaka stepped around his companion to enter the overdressed door (black with spiderweb-like white lace draped over its top). Mondo, with a huffy “What are you doing!” darted after him. Kiyotaka bit directly into his tongue as he entered the room and his cheeks paled astronomically.

This felt so, so so wrong. But he was right, and none of the pale pink stalls aligned at the left wall were occupied. Thank goodness. That might've actually killed him.

Mondo trudged in like he'd done this before. Kiyotaka squeaked, “Why are you acting so normal in here?” his cheeks shamefully burning.

“Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess I'm kinda used to these.” He meandered in, peering into the sinks as he sauntered through. “I had a friend in high school who used to hide in the ladies' room. I'd have to talk some sense into 'em every now and then to get 'em to come out. Took a few detentions, but...” His biker jacket shuffled around with his shrug. “Worth it.”

Kiyotaka cringed internally. “Is that the person who gave you the ring?” W-Was Mondo engaged? Wait—

“Yeah, it is.” His heart plummeted. “But they died a few years ago. So, uh. Yeah.”

There weren't words.

“I-I'm sorry,” Kiyotaka managed.

Mondo turned to him, gaze seeking his. “No, it's... I just know how you're feeling right now. So I wanna help somehow, if I can.” Upon turning, he froze, gaping into the final restroom stall. “Taka, come fuckin' look at this."

“Huh?! What'd you find?” Forgetting his indecency, Kiyotaka rushed to Mondo's side and peered after him. There, taped to the back wall of the last stall, fluttered a pale yellow envelope. Kiyotaka gasped—same color as Sakura's dress—and, in Aoi's place, peeled the enveloped off the wall.

“What? Not gonna read it?” Mondo huffed.

“I... I can't.” Kiyotaka screwed his eyes shut. “Aoi was clearly supposed to find this, had she not run away. Maybe S-Sakura had been planning on having Aoi find her here, but s-something got in the way...”

“Well, shit.” Mondo pulled out his flip phone. “We've got 20 fuckin' minutes until visiting times end.”

Kiyotaka blinked. “At the zoo?”

“No!” Mondo broke into a laugh, his hand nuzzling Kiyotaka's head. “The detention center! Damn, you really haven't done this before, have you?”

Speechless, Kiyotaka shook his head. He was still thinking about the warmth of Mondo's rough hand. Kind of willing it to come back, except it wasn't working and Mondo had firmly planted his fists in his pockets, after returning the pill bottle to Kiyotaka's.

“C'mon, Taka, let's go. If that's what we gotta do to get you to open up the fuckin' evidence, we gotta hustle.” He grabbed Kiyotaka by the wrist before storming out of the restroom, leading him back through the maze of silks and dice tables toward the entrance of Praying Stars.

Sakura still lay in front of the bar top, her lovely dress spread out like pale petals about her muscular figure. Her hair obscured her face, and Kiyotaka's heart twinged. He knew he wouldn't like but he saw, but he couldn't help but wish to see her one last time.

As he and Mondo returned to the front area of the pavilion, a low snarling tone lashed into the air. He recognized it as the voice of the woman who had arrested Aoi and promptly searched Mr. Jin's offices for evidence of an accomplice in Kiyotaka. Sure enough, once they'd turned the last corner, there she stood.

Kiyotaka cringed, coming to a halt. She might slow them down if she saw them—

But Celestia, perhaps knowing, perhaps acting out her own indiscernible play, replied to the detective's comment with a high-pitched laugh. “My, my, you are frightening, Madam Detective! I am afraid you are scaring me!”

She was holding an alcoholic beverage, and as she spoke, her hand shook, spilling honeyed orange tones onto Sakura's dress. Kiyotaka cringed, biting his cheek—but he realized yelling would only add to Celestia's farce.

The detective was watching her actions and seething. “Stop that. Get over here. I need to investigate the case.” She hobbled on her hurt foot over to Celestia. She was determined, and her ribboned hair swished with her fearsome gait as she rushed over, daring enter the goth's personal space.

Out of nowhere materialized the cat-onesied figure of Yamada, who happened to be holding a match. He now struck it against a matchbox, ogling the fire that glinted over his glasses. As the detective was distracted, Kiyotaka grappled Mondo's wrist and rushed toward the front doors. He shared a single glance with Celestia, who winked as he passed.

As the detective's hand latched onto Celestia's drink, Celestia gasped, dropping its entire contents onto Sakura's head, as Yamada, mimicking his master's shock, loosed the match upon Sakura. Kiyotaka froze as his friend's hair went up in smoke and flame. Mondo tugged at him, once, then turned and covered his gaping mouth with a hand, eyes wide with horror.

The detective stared down at Sakura's enflamed corpse. She seemed to be thinking, hard. Then she pulled out a phone and dialed. Immediately received a response. “Bring a fire extinguisher. Now.” She shut it off, staring at the smiling goth apparition at the head of the fire.

Celestia curtseyed and said primly, “You startled me so greatly, Madam Detective. I apologize for my servant's foolish actions. He has no brain and merely acted without thinking.” She turned upon Yamada and, fuming, reprimanded him. “You scum of the earth! You ruined Madam Detective's crime scene! Get on the floor and grovel, now!”

Kiyotaka decided it was time to leave.

He almost made it to the door, too, having passed most of the way through the black silken wall when he heard the cruel click of heel on tile floor and turned without thinking.

The detective was pointing at him, her face hazy with unmistakable hatred. Her eyes, narrowed, still burned with the smoke and fire of the corpse, and her mouth bared. “Kiyotaka Ishimaru.”

Why did she feel so familiar..?

“Prepare to lose in court tomorrow. I intend to disgrace my father's one and only apprentice and reveal him the failure that he is.”

Oh. Mr. Jin's daughter. He'd seen her in photos in the office, but she had always been young, pink-cheeked, and smiling, soaring in her father's arms.

Mr. Jin had told him that his daughter was his age, and he might face her one day in court.

Well. Here she stood, backlit by fire, hellbent on ending his legacy as soon as it had begun.

Kiyotaka swallowed sharply, then said, “Kyoko Kirigiri. I intend to find the truth. I suggest you do the same.”

Her teeth gritted. “I will.”

She whipped around to face the disaster scene. He turned to rush through the front doors of the gambling den. Aoi was waiting for them.


The streetlights had flickered on, illuminating the husky clouds of night. Most of the remaining patches of snow had been wiped away, leaving the asphalt slick with rain. Kiyotaka cringed, holding tight to Mondo's waist as the biker carefully maneuvered through the darkness, headlights slicing like gilded swords through the streets ahead and beyond.

Mondo's skin was hot against the wind.

He'd already warned Kiyotaka that he'd have to go a bit fast to ensure they made it in time. Steeling himself, Kiyotaka kept his head tucked at Mondo's shoulder, eyes squeezing shut at each jostle.

They arrived in a rush of exhaust. Mondo led him, his legs too quaky to lead themselves, up the steps leading to the Detention Center. The police at the front let them know they only had a few minutes, and they broke into run toward the cement-walled visitation room.

One officer stood guard at the other end of the room. He muttered to himself about having almost gotten off his shift, but his gray gaze softened when he let the sniffling Aoi in. A glass partition separated the attorney from his client; Kiyotaka's hands trembled into fists below the cut-off point, where Aoi wouldn't see them.

She still had her hair down, wild strands of brown. She was draped in her black swimming school's jacket, the one she had facilitated with Sakura, and it nearly hid her flumpy athletic shorts. Her arms hung at her sides, useless. She kept starting to reach out to him, only to squeeze her eyes shut and shake her head. “We found some evidence,” Kiyotaka ventured, recalling that their time was limited, “a-and we wanted to make sure you could see this.”

He pulled out the letter. Aoi's whirlpool gaze widened. “Sakura's handwriting,” she fumbled, pointing at the front. Sure enough, Sakura's elegant script had bescribed Aoi's name. Mondo, from where he loomed over Kiyotaka's shoulder, was watching intently. Kiyotaka's fingers trembled around the crinkly paper.

“I-I'm sorry, Aoi. I wish I could give this to you t—”

“Just read it,” she squeaked, tan cheeks pinking. “Read it aloud for me.”

He bit his lip, nodded to himself, fumbled with the paper, winced as he tore it. For a moment that inhuman ripping was all they could hear. Then he shucked off the envelope and unfolded Sakura's lovely script, blinking to keep his sight clear.

“'Aoi—I'm very sorry to do this to you. You don't deserve the pain that I know my next actions will cause you to feel. Please understand, I had a reason to do this, one that I trust will unveil itself to you soon. Please know I love—'” Kiyotaka stumbled, shook himself. “'P-Please know I love you, and I have faith we will meet again in a safer world.'” He folded the letter closed to let Aoi know it had ended.

She was staring off into a dark corner of the room, her hands plastered against the glass as if searching for purchase in something, anything. “I... I...” Her voice crumbled, and, bending into herself, she shrieked—

“SAKURA, WHY?!”

Through a renewed flow of tears, she rasped, “It doesn't make any sense... We were so happy. K-Kiyo, she didn't say anything to you, did she?”

He shook his head. There was nothing he could add. If Aoi didn't know, would anyone be able to piece together Sakura's actions?

...Ah. That was part of his job now. This letter clearly contradicted with Detective Kirigiri's decision to arrest Aoi.

As if also coming to this conclusion, Aoi's gaze steeled. She wiped her cheeks with the blue-striped sleeve of her jacket, turning to face Kiyotaka. “Hey, there's... there's something Sakura told me to give you. I-I hadn't thought of it meaning anything earlier, but... now I guess I understand why sh-she...”

She swallowed, facing the officer in the room with her. “Can you give this to him?” The cop, head low, dutifully walked over and took the item in Aoi's palm. He pressed some button on the other side that opened up a contraption and allowed him to eject the item to Kiyotaka's side of the partition.

It was a charm. He palmed it—cool green. Weighty, too. It felt like solid jade, in the shape of a katana. Wordlessly he clipped it to his suit, pinning it by his lawyer's badge.

Aoi's eyes followed it. She said softly, “I don't know exactly what it is, but Sakura told me to give it to you in case something really bad ever happened. And... well... seeing how things have gone... I can't help but think that this was what she feared.” She inhaled sharply. “I hope it helps you somehow. I think it's supposed to support you in court, or... something.”

Huh..?

Mondo eyed it. “Looks like a magical lawyer trinket.” Kiyotaka was having trouble keeping up. Now Mondo was pawing at it, watching it dangle from Kiyotaka's overcoat. “Damn, it's well-made. Wonder what it does.”

Aoi shrugged. “Sakura didn't tell me what it does.”

Perhaps it would be a fun surprise in court tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

It hit him, then, that the very next day Aoi's life would be on the line. All he'd written down in his court record concerned the missing bracelet (which he hadn't even located), the protein shake, the pills, and this letter.

...How would that help him tomorrow? Panicking, he turned around, considering the likelihood of Detective Kirigiri letting him back into the gambling den.

“Hey,” Mondo called, grabbing his wrist. Kiyotaka cringed. “What are you thinking?”

“I—” He caught Aoi's gaze through the glass. He couldn't verbalize his fears in front of her. She was already in such a terrible place. Shaking himself, he said, “We should go look for more evidence. Is there anywhere else we—”

“Dude, it's getting late.” Mondo checked his trusty flip phone. “It's almost nine. If you stay up chasing evidence dust, you won't make much of a defense tomorrow.”

Kiyotaka scowled. “But—”

“No. And don't even think about catching an uber to the crime scene as soon as I fuckin' leave.” Mondo paused as the attorney struggled to control his breathing. “It might not seem like much, but what we got'll have to do. I'm sure the prosecution will bring more things for us to contradict tomorrow. It's not gonna do you any good if you tire yourself out the night before the big trial.”

He clapped an arm on Kiyotaka's shoulder. “Come on, let's get you home. Visiting hours are over anyways.” The cop in the room breathed a sigh of relief.

“W-Wait, one other question.”

Aoi looked up at him. She swallowed tightly, inclined her head for him to go on.

“We... We saw Sakura.” Kiyotaka struggled to push his voice through, reminding himself that Aoi needed to hear this. “Her bracelet—It was missing.”

His friend gaped. “Why would it be..?”

“Do you know anything about that? Do you recall her ever taking it off?”

Firmly Aoi shook her head. “No. No, Kiyo, she never had it off. I don't remember it being gone even after... after she...” Shook herself, fisting her hands. “I-I don't know if that helps at all, but... u-um, it was always there.”

Maybe that information would become pivotal tomorrow. Kiyotaka took note of it, releasing one last exhausted breath.

He glanced nervously through the glass at his friend once more, not quite ready to leave her alone. “Aoi, I...” What could he say? What could he say that would make things better? He could tell she wasn't thinking about the arrest on her head. What addled her was the one thing he couldn't change.

He fisted a hand, said, “I'll do my best to find out the reasons behind Sakura's actions.”

Aoi managed a trembling smile. “Thank you, Kiyo. S-See you tomorrow.”

“Try to get some sleep,” he offered, and they both laughed weakly. Like that was gonna happen.

The cop at Aoi's side murmured something to her, and her eyes momentarily brightened. “Really? How many bagels do you have?”

With little else to comfort her through the night, Kiyotaka hoped the bagel cop would keep an eye on his friend in the hours that he couldn't.


By the time they'd reached Kiyotaka's apartment, the exhaustion threatened to crush him. Mondo was right—of course Mondo was right.

As he dismounted from Mondo's motorcycle, handing him his extra helmet, he was surprised to see the biker dismounting alongside him. “What are you doing..?” Kiyotaka asked, his voice quavering.

“Making sure you actually go to bed,” was his response. Kiyotaka's heart slammed into his ribcage.

“I-I will!” he whined. “You said it yourself—I-I can't expect to perform well if I don't sleep well!”

“Okay. I may not know you as well as our defendant does, but listen here.” Mondo had extended his hands as if spreading out his evidence. “Somethin' tells me you're gonna get in bed. You're gonna lay down. Then you won't be able to sleep. You get frustrated, you think, oh well, might as well try to get more work done instead.” Proudly folding his strong arms across his chest, Mondo said, “This is where I come in and say no the fuck you won't.”

...Did he just invite himself over to Kiyotaka's apartment?

“B-But what about you?” Kiyotaka asked. “Who tells you to go to sleep?”

Mondo batted a hand his way. “You're the smart lawyer guy. You need the rest more.”

Kiyotaka pouted. “But what about your health, Mondo?”

“Ehhhhh. I'm fiiiiiiine.”

“No! I insist that you at least sleep on the couch!”

“Whatever! But you need to fuckin' rest!”

Were they actually arguing about this?

Mondo broke into a throaty laugh that stole Kiyotaka's breath away.

Having seemingly come to a satisfactory conclusion, Mondo indicated for him to take the lead. He heard every footstep up the side staircase, felt the landing thrumming underfoot as he reached his door and unlocked it. Mondo stood a respectful distance behind him, but he knew as soon as the door tilted inward those eyes would lock onto his décor. What would he think of..?

Kiyotaka stared into the darkness, flushing. He shook himself and switched on the lights.

Wordlessly he unlaced his boots, placing them on his shoe rack, and hung up the rain slicker first, then his suit jacket on the hook above it. He kind of nervously eyed his guest as he followed Kiyotaka's actions. Mondo patted the rain slicker and Kiyotaka remembered the skimpy tank top his companion had thought for some reason would be a good idea to wear. He found his eyes moving toward the bared skin and tried his absolute hardest to stop.

Then Mondo took in a breath and said in a voice that sounded much too loud, “Damn, it smells great in here. I didn't know houses could smell this nice.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell agape, cheeks smoldering.

This was a good sign, he tried to remind himself as he searched after his lost bearings.

Mondo's eyes roved about the living space, landing on the plush couch overstuffed with pillows, the photographs of Aoi and Sakura and cats lining a shelf above the television, the legal books spilling from the bookshelves at the side wall, and the small, tidy kitchenette in the back. A door on the immediate right led to the bathroom, and one wedged between the living space and kitchenette hid his bedroom.

Kiyotaka felt himself freeze watching Mondo's neutral expression. Then the biker broke into a grin. “Cute! Didja take all those cat pictures at that café?”

Blushing, Kiyotaka nodded.

“It's nice. I like it. Really feels like, like...” He gently shoved Kiyotaka. “Y'know, like you.”

“Thanks,” he managed, quieter than he'd meant it to be.

Hurriedly he busied himself unfolding a couple of blankets draped over the couch and fluffing the already-puffy pillows. “Um, do you need anything? Oh! Um! I have an extra toothbrush if you need one, or uh, if you—"

“Hey, hey.” Suddenly Mondo's breath was at the back of his neck, and the pillow tumbled from his hands. “You don't gotta work so hard for me. I just wanted to make sure you took care of yourself.”

Kiyotaka struggled with the pillow and pouted into it. “W-Well, there's an extra toothbrush behind the mirror if you want it!”

An odd glint had taken to Mondo's warm gaze. He swallowed, looked away, murmured, “Thanks, Taka.” He flexed his right hand, and the ring on his pinkie glistened. Kiyotaka dropped his gaze, feeling stupid and not quite knowing why.

Maybe he should go to bed. Mondo was probably tired too. Straightening, Kiyotaka made his way toward his room. “I, um, I'll be here if you need anything! S-So just let me know.” He bowed to Mondo, then said, “Goodnight.”

Mondo met his eyes. There was still something foreign, something not quite seeing him. But when he said, “Night, Taka,” his mouth inexorably quirked into a reassuring grin.

That smile remained even after Kiyotaka laid down and closed his eyes.


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text


Evidence:

 

-Missing bracelet

The victim Sakura Oogami was reportedly wearing a bracelet up until her death. However, the bracelet was missing from her corpse.

 

-Protein shake

Suspected to be the “murder weapon” that had held the poison suspected to have killed Sakura. Looked about the same to Kiyotaka—is the poison colorless?

 

-Dubious prescription bottle

Found in Sakura's purse. An unmarked bottle of pills. Was opened, but still feels relatively full. The poison?

 

-Pale yellow letter

Written in Sakura's handwriting. An apology to Aoi that was hidden in the bathroom of the crime scene, far from Sakura's corpse.

 

-Katana charm

Given to Kiyotaka by the postmortem Sakura. Apparently supposed to help him in court.

 

Profiles:

 

Kiyotaka Ishimaru (24)

An up-and-coming defense attorney! Has given up on working with his mentor in favor of picking up cases with his unofficial assistant.

 

Mondo Oowada (23)

Kiyotaka's assistant and part-time biker. Didn't sleep nearly enough on the night before the second trial.

 

Sakura Oogami (25)

The victim. Co-owner of the half training dojo, half swimming center Get Ripped! Had met her girlfriend in the business degree program at their local college and begun planning the center with her over 5 years ago—it has been open for 2 of those. Looked tough, but had a deeply kind heart.

 

Aoi Asahina (24)

The defendant. Co-owner of Get Ripped! and girlfriend of the victim. Obsessed with donuts, though a new friend in the Detention Center has introduced her to bagels. Usually upbeat and cheery, the news of the murder has hit Aoi drastically hard.

 

Kyoko Kirigiri (20)

Prodigal detective, known well by her family heritage and impeccable skill. Holds a grudge against her father for not continuing the Kirigiri detective legacy, and appears to have extended that grudge onto his apprentice, Kiyotaka. Has promised Kiyotaka that he will lose this trial.

 

Celestia Ludenberg (???)

The owner of Praying Stars, the gambling den in which Sakura died. Apparently believes that there is no force in the universe stronger than the love between two women. Recently displayed an odd penchant towards Kiyotaka, tripping up Detective Kirigiri in order to give him time to examine the crime scene. However, she also poured alcohol over the corpse of Sakura. Why?

 

Hifumi Yamada (???)

Celestia's self-proclaimed “Servant.” Obnoxious and totally fixated on his “Master.” Lit a match and assisted in the burning of Sakura's corpse. Was there a need to obscure evidence on her body?


Kiyotaka and Mondo met their defendant just before entering the courtroom. Aoi proffered a fake grin, giving them a cheerful wave that lacked its usual energy.

“Good morning,” her attorney said. He was struggling to meet her eyes.

Aoi shook her head. She still wore her swimming center's jacket, and her hair stayed down, a tangled snarl. She didn't bother hiding the tears that continued to streak down her face in bouts.

Finally she croaked, “I couldn't sleep without her. I... just lay there, staring at the ceiling. It felt wrong. Unreal...” Laughing weakly, she wiped at the shadows beneath her eyes. “This can't be happening, Kiyo...”

“I...” They were already running out of time. Kiyotaka eyed the cop at Aoi's side nervously, then went for the embrace. Releasing a pent-up sob, Aoi buried her face into his suit and wailed.

There was nothing to say. He fought to hold back his own deluge of frustration, hurt, grief and torment for the sake of keeping his head as clear as possible. If he couldn't figure out what had happened, it was possible they never would, especially if the prosecution proved to be unwieldy.

Not to mention Detective Kirigiri. Prepare to lose in court tomorrow. He shivered at the phantom of her words. They rattled through him like the skeletal branches of dead trees caught in an unforgiving gust.

Kiyotaka glanced once more at the clock. Already time. He squeezed Aoi, whispered, “I'm going to do everything in my power to help you.” She managed a wrecked smile before he glanced back to Mondo, who abruptly shook himself. He was in the same tank top and shorts from last night, having taken them directly to the courthouse from Kiyotaka's apartment. The rain slicker was tied about his waist. Fashionable.

“Did you sleep last night?” Kiyotaka hissed as they entered the courthouse, a hush falling about them.

“Uhhh. Sleep is a strong word.” Mondo yawned into his palm. Kiyotaka had gotten up this morning to make breakfast and had seen Mondo sitting on the couch like he'd never actually moved. His fluffy hair was sleek and well-brushed, gaze sharp, chest out, hands fisted, but there was this edge to him that had gone round. Kiyotaka couldn't quite pinpoint where it came from—maybe the way Mondo walked with less surety, as if his feet fumbled for each step and hoped not to falter—but he sensed this trial would be much more difficult than the last.

Not to mention the first witness, who had already taken the stand. Kiyotaka decided not to grant the detective the glance and settled upon the opposing stand

Someone was waving to him—ah, Makoto. Kiyotaka waved back. With that settled, Makoto's large hazel eyes settled at the witness stand, a mark of concern creasing his brow. Kiyotaka vaguely recalled him sounding particularly excited about a certain detective and wondered if this could be the one.

Wait, but how could someone so unabashedly sweet mix well with someone like... her?

Soon the Judge had taken his seat and was rapping his gavel onto his desk. The minor sounds of the courtroom now drew painstakingly still.

“Court is now in session for the trial of Ms. Aoi Asahina.” Something that could have been a smile formed under the Judge's cloudy gray beard. “Mr. Ishimaru, I see you're once again without your mentor. I hope you've learned sufficiently from your last trial what you should have learned from him. Ho ho ho!”

This did not make Kiyotaka feel any remotely better. He nudged Mondo, seeking support, and Mondo collapsed across the desk. He jumbled up, shaking himself mid-snort, muttering “what, what is it, did we lose” like it was already over. And in a sense, if Mondo wasn't planning on helping him this time around, maybe it was.

It was then that Kiyotaka knew he would be truly alone for this trial.

Straightening his tie, he met the Judge's wise gaze and nodded. “The defense is ready, Your Honor.” Somehow he was gonna make this terrible disaster of a morning work. He had to. There was simply no other option.

He recalled his katana charm and absently touched it.

“Is the prosecution ready?” The Judge turned on Makoto, who was sitting there sweating on his own.

“Um!” He glanced back, as if searching for someone—

—when a well-dressed young man materialized at his shoulder. “Yes, the prosecution is ready, Your Honor. Let's get this over with, shall we? This case seems relatively simple.” He had a snarky, prideful tone.

The man was taller than Makoto by a good head, and looked to have a couple inches on Kiyotaka as well. His neat golden hair came down to the chin, his bangs swooped in this articulate manner that left nary a strand out of place. His glasses twinkled over his cold turquoise gaze, and his lip was quirked to a perpetual moue of disapproval. He had on a deep green suit and an mauve undershirt that matched Makoto's. Their ties also coordinated—each a striking white.

“Oh! Good to see you'll be gracing our company today, Prosecutor Togami. How many trials has it been since you've bothered to come with Makoto?” The Judge happily turned to the witness stand. “Now, Detective Kirigiri, we're ready whenever you are.”

“Indeed.” Kiyotaka couldn't help but look at the proud, confident woman who belonged to that low, cold tone. She matched with Prosecutor Togami in that—the same voice devoid of emotion. She had draped a black trench coat over her tight purple dress, and wore knee-high black heeled boots to match. Her long white hair had been braided back and whipped about her when she turned to face the prosecution. “The victim of this case is one Sakura Oogami. At around 6:30 PM yesterday she collapsed and died of poisoning. To be specific, the poison found in her body appeared to be of the Hyper-Coronary variety that targets the heart, or, for short, Hi-C.”

L-Like the punch? Whose decision was it to name a poison after that?

“I will speak now of the crime scene and what we believe caused the death of Ms. Oogami.”

Testify: “The Backstabber Girlfriend”

“Ms. Oogami entered the gambling establishment at roughly 6:25 PM with her girlfriend, the defendant.”

(The Judge let out a sigh. “Another case of a lover killing their lover? How tragic!”)

Kyoko cleared her throat, permitting a sharp glare up to the Judge. “She sat down at the bar-top at the front of the establishment with Ms. Asahina and took a drink of her protein shake.

“This is when the poison took effect, shutting down Ms. Oogami's heart and killing her within the next ten minutes.

“The drink was a custom recipe made at their home, which only Ms. Asahina and Ms. Oogami knew the ingredients of. Only Ms. Asahina could have committed the crime.

“I believe the motive was full ownership of their joint business. Ms. Asahina wanted the money that would come from owning both without having to share it with another person.

“Such concludes the crime scene.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open.

Knowing Aoi gave him a better sense of what had happened, sure, but the blatant wrongness of Detective Kirigiri's theory had slowed his brain. Aoi was sitting in the defendant's seat, sobbing her sweet heart out, and Detective Kirigiri had the gall to decide that it was all a ruse.

How?

Even Makoto looked uneasy from his spot beside his prosecutor. He glimpsed the defendant, chewing at his lip. Togami nudged him and muttered, “Don't do that. You'll make a scar.” Makoto blushed, pressing his lips tight together, but his hazel gaze couldn't quite release the visage of the curled-up defendant, her arms hugging her legs.

The Judge signaled for the cross-examination. Kiyotaka steeled himself for a haughty glare from the prosecution, unprepared for the dead-eyed glance he instead caught from Detective Kirigiri. He had this distinct sense that, despite the fact that she was not the prosecution in actuality, the claims he would be refuting would not be coming from the other side of the courtroom.

Kiyotaka swallowed sharply and, pounding a fist into his desk, yelled, “HOLD IT!” Detective Kirigiri frowned. “How can you be so sure of the defendant's motive, if there even is one? Don't you see her in court today? H-Haven't you a speck of sympathy?”

“How erroneous of you to assume there is a place for emotion in this building.” Detective Kirigiri outright rolled her eyes at him. “You should have left your heart behind, amateur. It will only get in the way.” She turned to a document at her stand, flipping through it with a cold, methodical precision. “The likeliest motive is for the money in the joint business, so I took in my evidence and came to the most logical conclusion present.”

Kiyotaka glanced back at his defendant. He couldn't tell if she could bear to listen, but his stomach clenched for her sake.

Emotions would not work on this witness. As he realized this, the warmth drained from his hands, from his cheeks. Only evidence, evidence with irrefutable proof, would free Aoi from the chains this woman had shackled to her.

...Kiyotaka began rifling through his evidence. Detective Kirigiri didn't bother repeating her testimony and stared at him as if daring him to even try questioning her claims.

Mondo was somewhere between drowsing and a spell-bound slumber. At some point the pink rain slicker had become a blanket draped over his shoulders. Kiyotaka entertained the thought of shaking him awake, but—but his face was all peaceful and soft when he slept, and Kiyotaka couldn't bring himself to disturb Mondo's serene slumber. He figured hopefully he could wake up his partner if things started to really stack against him.

At least for now he had Makoto's sympathy.

There wasn't much to rifle through, so Kiyotaka settled at one piece and pointed at the witness. “OBJECTION!” Glorifying heat sung through his veins. Inhaling sharply, he continued. “Your testimony indicates that Ms. Oogami died shortly after entering the establishment. However, that can't be possible!”

He foisted the crumpled envelope he had found in the restroom stall. “This letter had been taped to a stall in the notoriously distant restroom of the gambling den, its contents written and sealed in Ms. Oogami's handwriting!”

Detective Kirigiri's palms slammed onto her desk, her face wrenching apart with poorly-concealed rage. “What is that, Mr. Ishimaru?”

“This, Detective, is irrefutable proof that Ms. Asahina couldn't have been the murderer.”

Her hands clawed into the wood grain. Breathing heavily, she stepped away from the stand and held out a hand for the evidence. “And how do you intend to prove that this is not forged?”

What?

“F-Forged?” squeaked Kiyotaka. “Why would it be forged?”

Detective Kirigiri's lips tightened. She tore the envelope and its enclosed letter from Kiyotaka's quavering hand. “So that Ms. Asahina could dupe her defense attorney into thinking she had not committed the crime, of course.”

Heat rushed up Kiyotaka's neck. “She would NEVER—

“And what evidence proves that?” Detective Kirigiri quirked a brow, her complexion returning to its practiced neutrality. She reached her desk and signaled for someone in the crowd. “Bill Bailiff, would you take this to the precinct and run a handwriting analysis?”

Kiyotaka watched in a frigid state of shock as a nondescript man, vaguely annoyed, came up and toted away his best piece of evidence.

His hand eclipsed his companion's shoulder. “Mondo,” he murmured, jostling him, “please, I need your help.” But Mondo was flumped into the desk, totally knocked out. He bit back a retort to Detective Kirigiri that involved accusing her of rigging this trial and going so far as to have drugged his partner.

From across the room, Prosecutor Togami was obscuring his smirk while watching Kiyotaka sweat. Makoto couldn't meet his eyes. The guilt was pervasive through his usually so soft, so amiable face.

There was only one thing he could do. Shivering, he returned to Detective Kirigiri's testimony. He swallowed, struggling to find and retrieve his lost gusto.

“OBJECTION!” Somehow he mustered his voice as he revealed the pale bottle of pills from his evidence file. “This bottle of pills—most likely the poison—was located by a witness, having been found on Ms. Oogami's person! Why would the poison be hidden on Ms. Oogami if Ms. Asahina was the—"

Detective Kirigiri tittered. “She's trying to hide the evidence and cast suspicion onto the people surrounding her. Obviously.” Clearing her throat, she signaled to Mr. Bill Bailiff who had been about to exit the courthouse. “Take that bottle with you to the precinct. We need to check what's actually in it.”

Kiyotaka watched, stone-faced, as his next best piece of evidence was removed from his person. He glanced desperately up to the Judge, who was watching Detective Kirigiri's actions with a sort of wide-eyed excitement. Kiyotaka realized, dumbly—how many times had the Detective torn apart an up-and-coming defense attorney like this?

And why were none of her actions directed toward the prosecution?

Whether or not it was the indivisible truth, Detective Kirigiri was successfully tailoring all evidence—even evidence that she had not seen prior to the trial—into her version of the truth. Kiyotaka shuddered, eyeing his two remaining potential objections.

But if he couldn't prove that she was wrong, that somewhere, somewhere she was wrong, then the Judge could easily rule in Detective Kirigiri's favor—the prosecution's favor, he knew—and take Aoi away. So he had to, had to find use in his two remaining pieces of evidence.

Even if they hardly made sense. There had to be a way to wrangle some sense out of them. They were evidence, after all, evidence found at the scene of the crime.

And Kiyotaka was sweating, his skin chilled to the bone.

He took a moment to try and steady his breathing, inhaling deeply, pushing the air through his lips.

“OBJECTION!” He knew not where this renewed vigor came from. “How can you tell that the poison was located in the protein shake? I had a chance to see the crime scene yesterday, and from what I saw, the shake didn't appear to be disturbed in any way or form. Besides, if the poison is a pill—then what does it have to do with the shake?”

Detective Kirigiri blinked. Her pale lilac eyes flickered like black ice under a dying streetlight. “Your evidence is growing weaker, Mr. Ishimaru.” She brushed an escaped strand of hair behind her ear. “The protein shake was tested, of course, at the precinct, and the Hi-C poison was found in its contents. This argument holds no weight.”

...what could he say? How, how could he show her that it simply wasn't possible for Aoi to kill her girlfriend? Kiyotaka glanced fearfully back at his friend, who still sat, arms around her legs, chin cushioned by her knees, head slumped. This had to hurt her deeply.

Fisting his shaking hands, Kiyotaka cried, “OBJECTION!” slamming them into the desk. He only had one shot left. If he couldn't use this missing freaking bracelet to alter the detective's testimony, there would be nothing else for him to argue.

Nothing else. The total void in front of him threatened to leave him quaking at the floor, but somehow—for Aoi—he kept himself secure at his desk.

The courtroom sat in the aftereffects of his objection. As the silence lengthened, the Judge coughed into a sleeve. “Mr. Ishimaru, what is it you were objecting to?”

Detective Kirigiri's methods, he so badly wanted to scream. But he could already hear her static response, something about how her methods clearly supported her claims and found the defendant guilty of a crime she in fact did not commit. Kiyotaka stared at his written account of Sakura's missing bracelet, gaze swimming. The straight, tidy pencil handwriting blurred before his eyes.

“There are still mysteries to this case,” he said, forcing his voice to level, shutting down his whimpers before they could pull through, “mysteries that Detective Kirigiri is intent on stifling as to keep her own account of the truth pristine.”

Detective Kirigiri straightened. Her lips carved into a snarl. She hated him. He could feel it emanating from her in nauseating waves.

“I propose one such mystery that has yet to be accounted for.” Swallowing his nerves, he pounded his fists once more against his desk. He allowed himself one glance toward Mondo, who had not yet awoken from his pounding. “Ms. Oogami was wearing a bracelet before her death that she was known to never take off. Ms. Asahina was with her until her death, which, of course, makes her appear to have been the culprit of her girlfriend's death. However, I propose to the court that this bracelet was a trinket from Ms. Asahina, a handmade bracelet that Ms. Oogami wore every single day since she had first received it from her girlfriend.”

Detective Kirigiri's mouth had opened. Kiyotaka spoke faster. “While this does appear quite touching on its own, I would like the court to recognize that Ms. Oogami's corpse was missing this particular bracelet—a bracelet that, as I have just established, was always—always on her wrist. I don't intend to tear down the detective's account, but I want to pose a question for the court to consider:

“Why? Why did this bracelet—that had never left Ms. Oogami's person—disappear?”

Detective Kirigiri had a mission to destroy his last hope as quickly and as violently as possible. “Obviously the defendant—”

“PLEASE, WAIT A MOMENT!”

The court drew eerily silent.

Detective Kirigiri froze, eyes lurching across the room toward the short, flushing boy who had cut her off.

Makoto puffed out his cheeks, nervously glancing about at the horde of gazes that had fallen upon him. “Can't we consider the defense's argument? If there is no room to consider other possibilities, then we might miss what truth the evidence is actually pointing to!”

Prosecutor Togami glared across the room at Kiyotaka, speaking within the cross-examination for the first time. “It is the defense's job to present an argument that is actually debatable. He has yet to do such a thing. It is not your job to make his argument plausible.”

And shooting down Makoto's argument just like that! Kiyotaka's mouth fell open, his exasperation bleeding his energy dry.

That was it. That was that.

He glanced hopelessly at the Judge, who was slumped on an arm watching Detective Kirigiri think through her next refutation. He opened his mouth to say something—to beg him to consider even one of the defense's multiple arguments—but found the words had gone missing. His throat was thick, and he couldn't conjure a voice through the tightly-knotted disaster deep within him. His breaths were coming too fast, his palms clammy, icy, and his heart painfully lurched against his chest as if threatening to elude him. As Detective Kirigiri had so bluntly put it, there was no place for his heart in this courthouse.

He couldn't breathe. He couldn't breathe. His breaths filtered out jagged. He couldn't do this. Aoi—And what of Aoi?

Aoi... vaguely he recalled her handing something to him last night. He remembered her fingers—then remembered, no, that was wrong, her hands were trapped with the rest of her behind that glass partition. But she'd given him something.

The katana. How—How could it help him?

And hadn't he said in his last case that he didn't need a special lawyer trinket..?

But he had no other choice. Already the Judge was coming to his senses, registering the standstill of the room to have meant that there were no other arguments to pose. And if no arguments, then the verdict was already dangling right in front of him, as Kiyotaka hadn't gotten a single claim to break through the detective's iron testimony.

Frantically he clasped the jade charm pinned by his heart, residing beside his lawyer badge. He didn't know what to do, but his thoughts instinctively filled with Sakura. Sakura, whose unjust death had brought this case upon them—had left Aoi in this horrible, nightmarish position—had dragged back in bursts, like stars, the kids who used to bully Kiyotaka in school—

—and he couldn't let them bully him any longer.

Kiyotaka blinked, and the very courtroom shifted before him. The lights took on a strange, faded green sheen, and the people of the building grew distant, as if phantoms, all save for the detective. She froze, staring about the room, and, as if adjusting, whipped back her head and fisted the weapon that had materialized at her side.

Wait—Weapon? But Kiyotaka looked into his outstretched hands and found the jade katana had grown, its gilded hilt fitting perfectly in his grip. He raised it, testing its weight, finding it well-proportioned to his own, and faltered.

What the heck was he supposed to do with a katana?

Then Detective Kirigiri drew her own weapon and Kiyotaka found it was a gun.

A GUN?!

Well that wasn't fair at all!

But this strange dreamscape had no room for fairness, as before Kiyoaka could question the meaning of the weapons, the detective had cocked her handgun. “Your truth is invalid,” she said in a horrible chilling version of her usual low tone, and fired.

The bullet seared through his arm, pelting his skin. Kiyotaka lurched, letting out a scream as fire lanced in his skin, the pain causing stars to beam across his vision. He collapsed, his desk sliding from his grip, and gritted his teeth as another scream tore through.

But it—it wasn't quite as bad as he had expected. Even as he thought it, the throbbing seemed to recede, and Kiyotaka found himself able to wrap his fingers around his blade.

This world was a projection of the one they had come from. He didn't know what that meant, exactly, but as it became clear to him, he realized—he realized he wasn't as outmatched as he had thought.

“NO!” he cried, tearing to his feet, rushing at the detective. “IT'S NOT INVALID... YOU JUST REFUSE TO LISTEN!”

He slashed instinctively—then gasped as Detective Kirigiri stumbled back, a massive welt blooming across her stomach. But there was no blood, and she regained her strength in the silence between their actions.

He—He could attack her, and it wouldn't kill her in the real world.

...He could attack her.

He could refute her claims in this world.

As Detective Kirigiri panted, drawing back her unraveling braid, Kiyotaka took another step towards her. She lurched out of his reach, but stumbled on her hurt ankle, falling to her knees. As he rushed after her, he shouted, “Aoi Asahina met Sakura Oogami a little over five years ago in a statistics course!” The detective flinched, awaiting a wound that was not yet coming.

Kiyotaka panted, reveling in his new power. “Listen to me! They had similar majors, and they frequented the same gym after classes! Very quickly they grew close and planned to start a business together as soon as they'd finished college!

“Two years ago”—Kiyotaka launched ahead, swinging his sword—“They opened their business and moved in together, the happiest I'd ever seen them! Today was just another day of shared joy in their lives—a day that ended horribly!

“AOI WOULD NEVER KILL HER GIRLFRIEND!”

Detective Kirigiri gasped, her free hand fluttering to the peppering of cuts that crested up her neck. She surged to her feet with a sudden rush of adrenaline and fired, once, twice, the pain fighting to spark through her pronounced neutrality. “You can't prove...” She paused to heave a breath. “You cannot prove that.”

“I CAN!” he returned, cutting through her bullets in midair. He pointed at her with his katana, cornering her as he reached out a hand and—magically—the very evidence he'd been aching for since the start of this trial fluttered into hand.

He ripped open the envelope and began to read. Detective Kirigiri stood still, faintly breathing, but the longer Kiyotaka went on, her snarl lost its nerve—her body slid to the ground—and her gaze widened as she took in the excruciating honesty of Sakura's last words.

“Aoi—I'm very sorry to do this to you.” Kiyotaka swallowed. Somehow the letter's contents had gained a new and unexpected weight that drove the detective into the ground. “You don't deserve the pain that I know my next actions will cause you to feel.

“Please understand, I had a reason to do this, one that I trust will unveil itself to you soon.”

The detective squeezed her eyes shut, cheeks paling rapidly. He sensed from within her that someone was surfacing in her mind, someone she could not bear to continue to ignore.

“Please know I love you, and I have faith we will meet again in a safer world.”

“Makoto—” she wheezed, eyes bright with pain. “Makoto, I'm sorry...” Her head fell into her hands, and she shook, and she shook, and she collapsed into herself, the sobs escaping from behind her palms.

When Kiyotaka opened his eyes, he saw he had returned to the courtroom. Detective Kirigiri stood very much the same as she had prior to the jade mindscape—tall, proud, confident—but she gazed upon him with a new wide-eyed understanding. She kept glancing off of him, shuffling through her evidence, dropping her hands, and exhaling rapidly.

The words kept forming at her mouth, but they had yet to leap from her lips.

The prosecution stand remained much the same. Time appeared to have ceased while they had battled with evidence in the jade mindscape.

Was Mondo still asleep? He was too anxious to check.

Kiyotaka opened his mouth—to scorn the detective—to refute her claims—when the tears spilled down his cheeks, and the words jumbled up in his throat.

He didn't realize he was shaking until he sensed something jolt beside him, and a strong, sure hand enclosed about his own. He glanced, stifling his whimper, and found warm, tan fingers interlacing his.

He looked up and met Mondo's shocked eyes. “Oh my god. How long was I out?” His head whipped back to survey the courthouse, and he jumped back to Kiyotaka's evidence. “Where's your—”

Mondo's gaze fell upon the detective. “What did she do?” His voice had pitched to a dangerous low. He squeezed Kiyotaka's hand, then reached out with his free hand to touch his shoulder. “Taka...”

Then he snarled at the courtroom. “What the fuck, guys? Why the hell didja fuckin' steal the defense's only tools?” He was holding Kiyotaka, his touch gentle. Finally his racing heart's beat began to slow. “You think you'll get an unbiased procession if half the courtroom's utterly powerless?!"

Detective Kirigiri's gaze had dropped to the ground. Her hand, now empty, kept fisting and unfisting. Kiyotaka struggled to blink the blurriness out of his gaze. Her form couldn't hold its edges.

Mondo sneered at the courtroom's silence. “Udgey! Aren't you the one in charge here?!”

The Judge sat up as if awoken from a particularly engrossing dream. “Huh? What's going on again?” He peered down at the detective and shook his head. “I just kind of assumed Miss Kirigiri here would find the truth as per her usual. She doesn't need help.”

“Right.” Mondo's gaze narrowed, his mouth stretched into a massively sardonic grin. “Because she's perfectly unbiased.” His grip tightened at Kiyotaka's shoulder. He opened his mouth to launch another insult—

“I...” The detective raised her head, braid whipping behind her. “I see that... I...” Her breaths hitched as her glare dissolved, leaving a glassy, pallid cringe fractured across her complexion. “I must address my testimony. From what I've seen of the crime, it is the only possible truth that could be...” Her hand fisted again, voice raspy. “I need to... Another...”

Her eyes fell to the carpet, at a loss. Hurriedly, as if only now noticing that she was slowing down, she shook her head, screwing up her lip. “It's not my fault if the defense provides no—”

“Kyoko...”

She drew to a halt, mouth agape.

From the prosecution's side rushed small, pink-cheeked Makoto. Despite a cursory, self-conscious glance about the courtroom, he brushed his hand over hers. “I think it might be time to bring in the witness.”

“That's inane, Makoto.” The secretary's hazel eyes pinched. “I have this covered. I said I would prove him wrong with one testimony, and I will. I know—I know he's—”

“Kyoko.” Makoto's voice pitched low, gentle. “You need to rest. I-I'm sorry, I knew you shouldn't have stayed up so late last night preparing the case, and yet I didn't say anything...” Wincing, he pounded a fist against the witness stand. “I'm a terrible boyfriend...”

Detective Kirigiri's head snapped up. “D-Don't say that!” Frantically she picked up his hands and held them. “Just give me a little more time, Makoto. I'm going to prove without a doubt that—”

“That what?” Makoto whispered. “What are you even trying to prove at this point? Taka has evidence that we haven't even considered. This can't be the pure, unbiased courtroom you envisioned. Please, Kyoko, you're not going to prove anything else in this state.”

Her shoulders tightened. She turned her head toward the ground. She muttered something that Kiyotaka couldn't hear. He tried to get the Judge's attention, but the Judge was fully focused on giving the detective and the prosecutor's secretary their moment. From across the courtroom, Prosecutor Togami was looking on, a disgusted grimace tightly attached to his face. He rolled his eyes, muttered, “I didn't need to waste my time here.” Even Mondo had drawn silent, his hand still tightly clutching Kiyotaka's.

Finally the detective straightened, turning to face Kiyotaka once more. Her harsh, curt exterior had worn away, and she fought to keep her face neutral. Kiyotaka caught glimpses of something desperate and vulnerable in her, something that was drawn out by—him?

...why did his existence bother her so deeply?

She opened her mouth—to rebuke, to retort—and shattered, a pule escaping her mouth. She clutched Makoto and released a wet, shuddery breath against his shoulder, head bowed into his neck. His eyes widened as he wrapped his arms about her, grip tender.

Glancing up to the Judge, Makoto said, “Mr. Judge, I think we need to hold a recess.” He glanced back and waved at his prosecutor, who reluctantly deigned to look at him. “Can you hold the fort for me if I don't have the chance to come back?”

Prosecutor Togami huffed. “I suppose. But I expect you to return promptly.”

In response, Makoto sort of shrugged around the detective as if to say, I have my hands full.

Upon receiving the prosecution's promise not to disappear, the Judge pounded his gavel. “Wow, what an exhilarating start to this trial! We've hardly learned anything about the crime scene, and yet I'm perched at the edge of my seat! Such drama!

“In the interest of our detective's health, I will host a”—he waited, and Makoto threw out a time—“a one hour recess, in order to”—he paused again for Makoto's response—“to process the defense's proposed evidence and prepare the first witness for the case. I'll have to get some popcorn while I'm up. Bill, will you remind me?”

There was an unenthused response from somewhere amongst the gallery.

Kiyotaka finally allowed the adrenaline that had gripped him to drain, and he collapsed against Mondo. Mondo blinked, said, “Damn, I missed a trial,” and adjusted his grip to better soothe the quaking attorney.

“I'm so sorry, Taka...”


To Be Continued...

 

Chapter Text


Profiling Updated

 

Makoto Naegi (25)

The uplifting prosecution's secretary. The only one capable of getting Detective Kirigiri to step down, apparently. He had trouble getting in any words edgewise today, which could mean ill for the next leg of the trial.

 

Byakuya Togami (27)

A young but excellent prosecutor. In his few years of business, he has secured a guilty verdict in more trials with each successive year, boasting of an impressive track record. Usually works with Detective Kirigiri to single out, arrest, try, and pass a verdict upon guilty defendants. Today marks the first in a few months that he has bothered to go to a trial rather than sending Makoto to fend for himself.\

 


As soon as Mondo had sequestered them a couch in a corner of the building, he plopped Kiyotaka down, followed suit, then hid his head in his hands. “Taka... I'm so sorry. There's no excuse. That was fucking shitty of me.”

“Wh-What do you mean?” Kiyotaka squeaked, still struggling to move past the deluge of emotion that had poured out from the trial.

Mondo released a low, grizzly sigh. “I fuckin' fell asleep on you! You had to deal with that Kirigiri chick all by yourself. Not only her, but fuckin' Togami too. When they tag team, even Makoto has trouble sympathizing with the defense. Talk about a massacre...

“And your friend's on trial! Damn, I'm so sorry, Taka. I don't know what...” He paused, broke into a yawn.

Kiyotaka frowned, nudging his partner. “You didn't get any sleep last night, did you?”

Mondo stayed still, maybe trying to pretend he hadn't heard Kiyotaka's question. The attorney pouted. “I knew there was something off about you this morning! Mondo, why didn't you sleep? You'd just told me—!”

“I know I know I knowwww!” Mondo threw his head back, teeth bared at the ceiling. “I'm a real loser friend. Can't even keep my own promises. 'Sides, I'm used to my shitty sleep schedule. And I thought...” He glared at his booted feet. He'd tied the slicker back around his waist, opting to continue exposing his chest. The muscles flexed up his bare arms. He really needed a less stretched-out tank top if he was gonna make it part of his courtroom getup, at least to keep from distracting his partner.

Kiyotaka tapped Mondo's boot with his own. “You thought..?”

“I thought... maybe I could try and piece the case together.” He elbowed Kiyotaka, pointing across the courtroom to where Detective Kirigiri lay slumped into a couch, an anxious Makoto consoling her. “I think she had the same idea.” Mondo scowled. “I didn't figure nothin' much out.

“The way I see it, either your pal did herself in, or that Celestia chick is lying. Or maybe her servant—”

“His name is Yamada!” cried Kiyotaka.

Mondo chuckled. “He said he'd prefer—”

“That's such a dehumanizing term!” Kiyotaka was whining, but he didn't care. He couldn't move on this point.

“Okay, okay.” Mondo rested a hand at his shoulder. “Settle down.” His calloused palm gently ran down Kiyotaka's arm. “Or maybe Yamada's got his own agenda. I mean, he is the one who fuckin' lit the corpse on fire. What a shithead. Either way, that letter feels too well-set-up for the murder to be as easy as that asshole detective said.” Mondo whistled low and slow, shaking out his lovely mane of fluffy hair. “Why can't your cases be normal, Taka?”

Kiyotaka leaned into Mondo's warmth, checking nervously to catch his partner's reaction. He didn't seem to have noticed. His hand had been left, distractedly, by Kiyotaka's leg. The edge of his pinkie brushed his thigh. A dizzying spell of heat rushed up through him. The longing was immeasurable.

“So what do you think?” Kiyotaka murmured. “You're... not gonna fall asleep again, are you?”

“Nah, nah.” Mondo shook himself. “I'm awake now. Your, uh...” His cheeks tinged. “See, I've got this motherly instinct? Cryin' wakes me up pretty good.”

“Motherly—?” Kiyotaka blinked. “I didn't think you were the, uh, type to feel comfortable with...” he trailed off.

Mondo's form just screamed masculine, so he wasn't sure what to do with this information.

The biker snorted. “With calling myself motherly? Yeah, well. I used to be way more of a shithead myself, Taka.” He let out a breath, his hand making a fist. The ring gleamed. “I had a friend who beat a lot of the fuck qualities out of me. I've... learned so much. And my hair—Oh my god.” He gathered it up and held it over his head. “I used to have the biggest fucking pompadour you've ever seen. Shit was obscene. Then I...

“I dunno. I tried it down. Wasn't so bad. Didn't feel like an attack on my masculinity.” He smoothed back his hair. Kiyotaka had to stop himself from reaching out and touching it. “But I gotta say, I've come a looong fuckin' way.” He broke into a rough laugh. Kiyotaka's heart fluttered.

“You—Mondo, you...” Kiyotaka bit his lip. “Your hair looks nice.”

Mondo glanced over, holding his gaze as if seeing him for the first time today. His lips had pursed, lilac eyes twinkling. Then he said softly, “Thanks, Taka.

“Hey, I'll make this morning up to you, alright?” His rough smile returned. “Whenever we finish up this trial, I'll take you somewhere. Wherever you wanna go. My treat.”

Gosh, if Mondo was gonna keep saying these sweet things, Kiyotaka might not make it through the trial.

He looked away, mumbled, “Okay.” The residue of the morning still clung to him—and he didn't know what to do with the anxiety, the overwhelming fear, and the sudden throbbing that took over his heart at the thought of returning to the courtroom.

“Taka...” Mondo let out a breath. “I'm here now. And—Hey, you made it through that bullshit testimony. You got goddamn Kyoko Kirigiri to listen to you. That's fuckin' awesome! I've never seen her in a case before—I think she purposely avoids Jin—but I've heard stories. And... damn, Taka, you better be fuckin' proud of yourself.”

He nudged Kiyotaka, who couldn't quite stop the smile from escaping. Then Mondo took his hand, squeezed it, and said, “I'm so proud of you, bud.”

After he ensured Kiyotaka was feeling better, they got up to go check on Aoi. She stood by with a pair of policemen watching over her, so there already wasn't much she felt comfortable talking about, much less small talk. She seemed grateful, at least, to see her defense.

“I'm not really sure how you did it back there, but... thanks anyways.”

Kiyotaka tapped his trusty lawyer trinket. “Somehow, this let me get into the detective's head and show her that she had the crime scene wrong.”

“Huh.” Aoi shrugged. “Who knew.” She wasn't crying as hard as she had this morning, though her gaze was restless, as if searching for someone who was late.

There was still a little time left after a small conversation with Aoi, and before Kiyotaka knew it, he heard a hopeful tone calling him over.

Not Makoto. He looked over, cringing.

It was Makoto. Reflexively finding and squeezing Mondo's hand, he marched over to the prosecution's secretary.

Detective Kirigiri's head had tilted onto his shoulder. Kiyotaka realized with a jolt that she had fallen asleep. Something about seeing her defenseless made his skin crawl, like at any moment she might wake up and lash out at him once more.

Makoto pitched his voice low. He had an arm wrapped around the detective's shoulders. “Taka, I'm really sorry about this morning. That was...” His eyes pinched. “That wasn't right. Kyoko shouldn't have been so harsh to you. I can't help but feel like there was something I could've done...” He shook himself, his ahoge swiveling. “She was just afraid, I think. Afraid that you'd hurt her like her father did. That's no excuse for how she hurt you in return, but it... it gives you a little perspective, I hope.

“I'm gonna take her home now, but I wanted to make sure I apologized to you first. I'll try and join the trial as soon as I can, though.” He managed a tired smile. “Byakuya can be a bit much, but hopefully he'll be more manageable than Kyoko was.”

Something told Kiyotaka that it was time to steel himself once again. He sighed, then eased just a little when Mondo's hand brushed against his arm. At least he wouldn't be alone this time. And he knew what the katana did, in case he needed it.

But Prosecutor Togami's composure made Kiyotaka worry he wouldn't be as easy to argue with in the jade mindscape. At least Detective Kirigiri had had an outlet in Makoto, but from the very few times Kiyotaka had heard the prosecution speak, he hadn't been able to get any sort of read on the man other than a smog of condescension.

He had Mondo... at least he had Mondo.

He realized Makoto was waiting for a reply. “U-Uh, yeah, I hope this section of the trial goes better.”

“I think Byakuya's bringing in the witness. Hopefully she won't be too difficult to reason with!”

If the witness was who Kiyotaka thought it was, he fretted that somehow this next part of the trial might just be more exhausting than the last.

Offering one last smile to Kiyotaka, Makoto gently shook the detective—“I wish I could carry her,” he'd murmured, remorseful—and took her hand, helping her up and out of the hallway.


“Well, what an exciting start to the trial!” The Judge busied himself with skimming over the explosive contents of Detective Kirigiri's written testimony. “It appears that despite the sheer amount of objectives we heard, we haven't moved very far at all on the crime scene!”

Prosecutor Togami, in the midst of a heavy smirk, pounded a single fist at his desk. The reverberations sent his glasses flashing. He stood alone now, and Kiyotaka couldn't tell if this bothered or alleviated the prosecution. “Only further proving the weakness of the defense's case.”

Mondo slapped his hands onto the desk, growling. “You piece of shit, I'll fucking tear your next testimony to shreds!”

Kiyotaka jumped in. “And by that, he means that our own case will prove its worth in this trial, n-not that we plan on stooping so low as to commit petty crime!”

Mondo, nodding, raised his hand for a high-five. “Yeah, that's right,” he said when Kiyotaka's palm met his. If nothing else, they had each other's enthusiasm to help drag them through the court proceedings.

The Judge politely applauded their showing of camaraderie. “You know, Prosecutor Togami, I've always expected that level of cooperation from you and Makoto, not from the defense. You should really take some notes.”

A sudden snarl wrenched itself across the prosecution's otherwise pristine expression. “Right.” His fist hit the air, and he pointed directly at the witness stand. “The prosecution has called forth a key eye-witness of the murder. Her testimony should shed light on the faultiness of the defense's claims.”

Each smarmy word out of the prosecution's mouth only made Kiyotaka's blood boil hotter. He had a goal now, and that goal was to prove this adversary wrong. “Let's hear it!” he cried, fisting his hands. Mondo, nodding, shot a glare at the prosecutor.

The nondescript Bill Bailiff let through a woman of unearthly alabaster skin and elegant floor-length black hair, who wore a dress that dragged along the ground—mauve with crimson trim that matched her blood-red eye shadow. She had also affixed a wine-red veil to her head that obscured much of her face, though her needle-like crimson gaze still punctured through it.

Celestia Ludenberg gave a dainty smile to the courtroom before pinching the sides of her long, voluminous dress and offering a curtsy. She was beautiful in all of the ways that had made a young Kiyotaka decide he never wanted to enter a romantic relationship with a woman. Experiencing her only verified these claims from his childhood.

The Judge whistled. “Wow, she's so cute!”

Mondo scowled. “That's weird, Udgey. Don't do that.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “Okay.”

Hopefully Celestia wouldn't wrap him around her little finger.

Prosecutor Togami smirked. “Name and profession, witness.”

Celestia's red-lined smile hitched up a notch. “Celestia Ludenberg, professional gambler and owner of the popular gambling den Praying Stars. I am... let us say... well-known in the industry.” Another sickly grin, and another curtsy.

Mondo's foot was tapping incessantly at the tile floor. “God, she makes me fucking nervous.” Biting his lip, he brushed his hand just a moment against Kiyotaka's back. “Prepare yourself, alright? This woman screams liar. Doesn't help what her occupation is.”

Celestia's gaze ripped across the courtroom and settled upon Mondo. “That is quite presumptuous of you, accessory.” Mondo's cheeks scorched, his mouth ajar. “Gambling does not equate lying, you know. I did swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth before you all today. How could you threaten to sully my name so soon?”

Mondo's hand fisted at his partner's back. He kept trying to get his mouth to work, but the words had ceased to flow. Frantically Kiyotaka stepped in. “W-We're just preparing ourselves for your testimony, M-Miss Celestia!” She glowed at the sound of his chosen prefix. “Please continue on! The defense is ready, Your Honor.”

The Judge nodded. Prosecutor Togami bobbed his head, once, then said, “Let us begin, witness.”

Testify: “The Unbreakable Love Shared Between Two Women”

“Goodness, I cannot believe this courthouse. What a good thing I made it today to speak on behalf of the poor defendant.”

(Kiyotaka and Mondo shared a shocked look. “She's still defending Aoi?” Kiyotaka hissed. Mondo shrugged, clearly stupefied.)

Celestia's smile strengthened, her gaze whisking beyond the defense and prosecution to land upon the curled-up defendant at a bench close to the proceedings. “I met Miss Aoi and Miss Sakura shortly after they entered my humble establishment. I must confirm that I do not recall either of them ever having walked into Praying Stars prior to yesterday.

“Miss Aoi stayed at the front bar top of Praying Stars. I found Miss Sakura pulling me aside to ask me a question, I presumed about my lovely pavilion.

“Miss Aoi was not in the presence of either myself or Miss Sakura when Miss Sakura began showing signs of having been poisoned, right in front of my very eyes.

“Her body was found at the bar top due to her desire to speak with Miss Aoi before her final breaths. However, she unfortunately terminated at the feet of her poor girlfriend prior to speaking with her.”

Celestia bowed her head; the Judge signaled for the cross-examination.

Kiyotaka had moved his gaze to Aoi as soon as Celestia had done so. He had watched his friend, hoping to glean any sort of indication that what Celestia had said was a truth that Aoi could identify with. But Aoi's face remained hidden by her legs, her eyes firmly shut. And he couldn't blame his friend for that.

Before Kiyotaka had a chance to go over the testimony, Celestia cleared her throat. “Sir Prosecutor, have you an autopsy report that might refresh my mind and tell me what exactly caused Miss Sakura to terminate?”

Prosecutor Togami blinked, as if surprised. “Well, yes, I do, but I was awaiting an opportune moment to present it.”

Mondo sneered. “He means he was gonna crouch in the shadows and chuck the fuckin' thing at us as soon as we made an objection that unknowingly contradicted it. Asshole.”

“Wasn't that how Makoto—” Kiyotaka started to ask, when Mondo cut him off.

“Sorta. I bet Makoto's accidentally picked up some of this fuck's traits and hasn't even noticed. It's all Togami's fuckin' fault.”

Kiyotaka swallowed. So now they were facing off against the progenitor of Makoto's poor courtroom etiquette, whose attitude was far worse to boot.

Celestia, coughing daintily into a spotless white handkerchief, said, “Please, Sir Prosecutor, might you present the autopsy now? I would like to see it for myself.”

“I...” The prosecution stalled, but now even the Judge was following along, eyes trained upon him. Battling a sneer, he bowed, muttered, “I suppose so,” and retrieved a manilla folder from his stack of evidence.

“The victim, one Sakura Oogami, was found at roughly 7PM by police officers after a call was placed concerning the murder at 6:50PM. An autopsy was run that found Oogami's surprisingly muscular body having been considerably weakened by the Hi-C poison.”

Mondo obscured a snigger. “Heheh, Hi-C...”

“Not only that, but a full autopsy was unable to be preformed until roughly 9PM that night due to... complications. By that time, the body had been mutilated beyond repair.”

“Mutilated beyond repair?” gasped the Judge. “Please, Prosecutor Togami, don't leave out the details!”

The prosecutor rolled his eyes. “It was found that the corpse had been...” A curt sigh. “...unintentionally set on fire.”

Kiyotaka wished he could have experienced the same cold shock as the rest of the courtroom, but he unfortunately had witnessed the burning of his friend's body firsthand. Wincing, he spared a glance Aoi's way. She had flinched.

That was right... He hadn't told her. Her head now tore from her knees to stare up at the prosecution, her mouth agape. “My Sakura..?”

“Yes, well, it appears there was a slight error with the treatment of the witnesses that caused them to—ah—feel threatened, oddly enough. And somehow the corpse was burned to a state that mangled the entire body. We are wondering currently whether this has... sullied important evidence on the victim's corpse.”

The Judge frowned. “How could this be?”

Celestia merely wiped a nonexistent speck from her dress, eyes never leaving Togami's face. “It was your detective's fault for frightening the witness. She should have used less force and kept her voice down. She startled myself and my servant.”

Prosecutor Togami kept his cool. “Kyoko is sometimes prone to foolish errors. I don't know exactly what went down; I merely brought the fire extinguisher.”

Finally everyone looked at Kiyotaka, anticipating the cross-exam—

—when once again Celestia cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Sir Judge? Was the defense attorney not supposed to receive his stolen evidence back by now? Was the intermission not supposed to process and return these integral articles to him?”

Mondo gaped. “She's... helping us. A fuck ton.”

“Y-Yeah,” Kiyotaka rasped. A dumbfounded Bill Bailiff came up to the defense stand and handed over the letter as well as the pill bottle, alongside a couple of pages of notes concerning them. As a final hush fell about the courtroom, Kiyotaka gratefully scanned the analyses of his evidence. He had to admit, at least he was able to learn more about them now that he wouldn't have had access to prior to the trial.

About the letter, he found that yes, it was Sakura's handwriting (not that he needed a professional to confirm that for him). However, he also learned that the ink on her handwritten note was dry and aged, so it was likely the victim had written the note multiple days in advance to the murder.

...like it had been pre-meditated.

Terrified of what that meant, Kiyotaka neatly folded up the letter and its accompanying analysis to examine the pill bottle. Someone in forensics had worked very hard to scrutinize its contents and had discovered that, in fact, this pill bottle was not laced with the Hi-C poison that had killed Sakura.

It was an antidote.

The bottle dropped from Kiyotaka's shaking hands and rattled against the desk.

Mondo glanced up from the letter, taking Kiyotaka by the shoulder. “What's wrong?” He grabbed the examination, and, eyes rapidly scanning the page, stiffened. “Then... Why the fuck is she dead? Actually—wh-why the fuck is this even here? What does this mean for Sakura's death?”

Kiyotaka kept trying to get his brain to tie these new reveals into his preconception of the trial, but all he could see was his lost friend. Her kind, wise eyes penetrated him to his very core. Her rough, tender tone circulated through his mind, begging, imploring that he somehow save her.

But she was already dead. Did... Did the antidote not work on her? Had she taken it, only for it to fail?

But the existence of the antidote at the scene of the crime could only prove that Sakura had had foreknowledge that there would also be a poison.

...what was that supposed to say?!

“Hey! Hey, Taka.” Mondo's hand at his shoulder again. He was starting to crave the touch, and found, to his appreciation, that they seemed to have crossed that threshold at which Mondo's hands now lingered. Leaning into Mondo's warmth, he glanced up to his partner. “I know this is a lot to take in right now, but I don't think we have the tools to unwrap all the pieces we just got. What we need to do is focus on the testimony in front of us. What contradicts or enhances that, first and foremost?”

Mondo was right. As shocking as these new reveals had been, what good would it be it if he hadn't anything to contradict it with quite yet? He'd have to save his findings for when they became relevant.

He returned to Celestia and laid his hands flat across his de. She began dutifully going over her testimony, winking once at him. He wasn't sure how to justify her friendliness.

“H-HOLD IT!” he finally cried, the relief coming in waves. “Miss Celestia, you're telling us that you haven't spoken in person with Ms. Asahina or Ms. Oogami prior to yesterday, yes? But have you had any conversations with them... outside of Praying Stars?”

Celestia inclined her head. “No, none whatsoever. I am as surprised as the rest of you. I wish I could tell you what caused Miss Sakura to fall sick so suddenly.”

Mondo squinted at her. “She's gotta be lying. She says that too easily. And if she has nothing to do with the poison, then...” The question was charged between them: WHO knew? Who possibly could know?

Unfortunately, Kiyotaka didn't think he could yet contradict that point. Listening after her testimony, he slammed his fist against his desk, crying another “HOLD IT!” He straightened, eyes locking on the face behind Celestia's veil. “Did you hear what Ms. Oogami had to ask you prior to her, um, falling ill?”

Celestia shook her head, her long black river of hair gliding to her motions. “No, I did not. I am afraid she fell ill and terminated too quickly.”

Kiyotaka peered at her. He didn't think there was much else to attain from Pressing, but he struggled to view how these statements connected.

Mondo nudged him. “Hey, isn't there something that proves Celeste's timing wrong? Sakura couldn't have just come right in and died... right?”

Kiyotaka gasped.

“OBJECTION!”

The sweet relief of discovering a contradiction now coursed through his veins. “M-Miss Celestia!” Something about objecting to her made him afraid for his life. But if it was for Sakura's sake... she'd understand, right? “I'm afraid the timing of your testimony may be incorrect!”

Celestia cocked her head, egging him on. He picked up the letter. “This letter, written in Ms. Oogami's handwriting, was located in the restroom of your building! If Ms. Oogami died as soon as she walked in, she wouldn't have had time to place the letter in the stall!”

The utter silence that came afterwards was spellbinding, and it had a meditative effect on Kiyotaka's exhausted mind. Even Prosecutor Togami stood still, lip curled in a perpetual sneer. He hadn't found the letter—that was evidence only Kiyotaka had access to—so, for the moment, Kiyotaka was steering this trial. He had no idea what to do with this newfound giddiness.

Celestia, startled, blinked rapidly. “Oh my! I am afraid you are correct. How could I overlook such an obvious contradiction?”

“I can't tell if she's playing with us or genuinely forgot about that evidence,” Mondo growled, raking a hand through his hair. “She's... rrrrgh, I've never experienced a witness like this one...”

Curtsying, Celestia posed, “Sir Judge, may I testify once more? I believe that evidence is jogging my memories.”

The Judge nodded. “Of course you can! I understand. Most of our witnesses need a few tries before they get the truth out.”

“Yes, of course.” Celestia's lashes fluttered, and she began anew.

Testify: “My Foreknowledge of the Lovely Muscular Sapphic”

Celestia hesitated a moment, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief, requesting excuse on account of allergies.

Mondo nudged him. “I think she's stalling.”

Kiyotaka gasped. “How can you tell?” he hissed.

“See, here's the thing.” Mondo grinned. “I fuckin' can't. But notice, Taka, how she sometimes finds a way to pause between statements. Little moments to help her think on her feet. Whatever she is, she's fucking smart, so we have to watch out for her."

Finally Celestia, finished with wiping her eyes, returned to her testimony. She now eyed Mondo with an oddly terse suspicion—gaze lidded, lips pinched.

“Now that I think about it, I believe I did meet Miss Sakura one time in passing. We were actually at a nearby pharmacy picking up, ah, pharmaceuticals, as one does.”

(Kiyotaka unconsciously grasped the pill bottle.)

“I sensed a kinship between myself and her and went out of my way to ask her what was wrong.

“She confided in me that she was afraid somebody wanted to hurt her, and was searching for a medicine that might help with this new anxiety of hers.

“I replied that she would be better off with a murder prevention medication, such as a poison antidote, if she felt this certain.” (Kiyotaka's mind blanked. A murder prevention medication?!) “My, ah, connections in the field had revealed to me not so long ago that the new hot murderers around had a prevalence for poisons of the Hi-C variety.

“Perhaps when she visited me yesterday, she had been coming to tell me of an experience with the poison? But if so, I am afraid her death of Hi-C would not make much sense at all!”

And somehow Celestia found it perfectly fine to close her mouth here.

Even Prosecutor Byakuya was squinting. He looked like a peeved cat. A razzled ahoge bounced out of his slick hairstyle.

Kiyotaka was about to start Pressing her statements when Togami's hand pounded against his desk. “OBJECTION.” Kiyotaka froze. Mondo, scowling, grabbed Kiyotaka's hand and squeezed.

Celestia glanced slyly over to the prosecution. “Yes, Sir Prosecutor? What is the matter?”

“Your testimony is a flagrant violation of courthouse etiquette.”

Celestia's brows raised, the lovely full shadows of crescent moons. “Excuse me?”

“It's full of lies. You... You're confusing the facts of the case.”

“I do not understand.” Celestia played with a strand of her long, luxurious hair. “Which facts am I confusing?”

Prosecutor Togami sneered, slamming his palms into his desk. “Clearly the defendant is guilty! What is this nonsense about foreknowledge and secret meetings with the victim when the murder weapon was hidden in a drink that only the defendant could have made?”

“Oh my! Are you frustrated, Sir Prosecutor, because I did not illegally agree to serve your insipid drivel on a shiny, silver platter for the rest of the courtroom to lap at like idiotic pets?”

Celestia politely folded her hands over her chest, awaiting the wide-eyed prosecution's reply.

Shaking his blotchy head, Prosecutor Togami said, “Of course not. Your testimony is simply invalid.”

“And you witnessed the murder, Sir Prosecutor?” Celestia's grin was sharp enough to draw blood.

“I don't think it's invalid!” added the Judge. “Maybe you're just out of practice, Prosecutor Togami. It has been a number of months since you last underwent a trial by yourself.”

Prosecutor Togami was positively inflamed. “That's preposterous!” He jammed a finger at Kiyotaka—“The defense is insignificant, and the case is clear! All this... fluff doesn't go out of its way to prove the defendant isn't still the murderer!”

Celestia's smile enlarged, as if her personal enjoyment fed off of the misery of those around her. “Au contraire, Sir Prosecutor: If you let the cross-examination prove the legitimacy of my claims, then you may possibly learn more about the trial than your faulty detective could puzzle out on her own.”

The prosecution snarled. “What use is a fabricated tale about a Hi-C antidote when the victim is still dead from a Hi-C poisoning?!”

Ah.

Kiyotaka cleared his throat, the excitement pouring through his veins.

“OBJECTION!”

He raised up the pill bottle. He had never before been so grateful for a prescription. “This bottle may have been unmarked, but...” He glanced over to the analysis he had received of it. Yes—On the second page, an incredibly dedicated forensics scientist (who had initialed their work E.S.) had located the original records of this antidote, which found it had been purchased roughly two weeks ago by one Sakura Oogami. Not only that, but her fingerprints were all over it.

Shaking the bottle, Kiyotaka continued. “It was clearly bought by Ms. Oogami prior to the murder! I... I'm not sure what this means for the crime scene, but this bottle was tracked back to a purchase by Ms. Oogami, which means she definitely had access to this antidote yesterday.”

Aoi, from her shell-shocked position at the bench, let out a bloodcurdling gasp. The same confusion fell awash upon her as it had him.

Mondo, glancing between the polite witness, agonizing prosecution, and interested judge, clapped Kiyotaka at the shoulder. “Nice one! I didn't even think to break in when that argument was going on.”

Kiyotaka managed a grin to his partner. Then he refocused on the procession at large. “I pose that Miss Celestia's testimony just now hereby verifies Ms. Oogami's purchase and provides a reason for her to have known about Ms. Oogami prior to the trial. N-Now, as Prosecutor Togami ordained, could we move back to discussing the murder? We haven't reached a definitive answer on when that letter was placed in the restroom. And... we're still very confused as to what caused Sakura's... demise.”

Saying it aloud caused his throat to pinch.

Prosecutor Togami, clearly disgusted, raised a fist and jammed his finger at the witness. “Please, let us continue this disastrous campaign. Ludenberg, go ahead and stick to the facts of the murder scene, would you?”

Celestia bowed. As she prepared her latest testimony, a door broke open, and in came the soft footfalls of a fast-walking young man.

“Hi! So sorry I'm late!” Makoto rushed up to the prosecution's side, taking up the stack of files at his desk and resorting them as if by habit. “Please pay me no mind, Miss Witness, and continue your testimony at your own pace!”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but notice the new ease that had slackened the prosecutor's stiff stance upon Makoto's re-entry. Finally Togami's cheeks cooled, and he smoothed his ever so slightly rumpled hair.

“Oh, it is no worry,” Celestia said, batting a hand at Makoto. “My, you are so cute and innocent. If it would please you, I can summarize everything I have said up until this point.”

Makoto's pink cheeks darkened to a magenta. “O-Oh! You don't have to trouble yourself so far!”

Celestia's lashes fluttered. “Why, I insist. It would be of no hassle for me to—”

“O-OBJECTION.” Prosecutor Togami slapped a hand to his desk, his arm locking around Makoto. “THAT WILL NOT BE NECESSARY.”

Makoto glanced up to his prosecutor and giggled. Togami tore his gaze from Makoto, hands falling into his pockets.

Mondo whistled low. “I was not expecting this sexual tension in the courtroom today.”

It went right over Kiyotaka's head.

Frantically Togami pounded his desk once more. “Witness. Continue with your testimony.”

Celestia inclined her head.

Testify: “The Postscript of the Beautiful Sapphic”

“If I am to be completely honest...” A sweet smile tugged up her crimson-lined lips. “I did not realize that letter was on my establishment. I suppose Miss Sakura must have already placed it before speaking with me. How sneaky!”

(Kiyotaka and Mondo understood that Celestia prefacing her testimony as honest was incredibly suspicious, but nothing specifically incriminating jumped out at them.)

“She must have written it much prior to the events of yesterday, as they so clearly contradict what occurred.”

(Aoi's gaze lurched up to the goth witness's veil.)

“My my, how could she let the poison terminate her when she had the antidote at hand? Perhaps she died in another way, before she had the chance to take the antidote!

“But how could this be?”

With a catlike smile, Celestia bowed her head, and the entire courtroom let out a collective sigh.

Kiyotaka pounded a fist at his desk, teeth grinding together. “Wh-What..?” He glanced desperately up at Mondo. “What does that mean..?”

“Fuck...” Mondo clambered through their evidence and tore into their autopsy report. “Is this fuckin' thing outdated? Or is it impossible to tell, now, what other wounds may have finished her off?” With Kiyotaka peeking over his shoulder, he leafed through the contents, muttering under his breath.

Prosecutor Togami had told them that, other than the poison in her veins, the body had been too mangled for it to be clear if any other wounds had punctured Sakura's body. The autopsy report appeared to corroborate this. Whatever Celestia had had in her drink, it must have made a strong flammable when combined with lit match. Kiyotaka glanced across the courtroom at the prosecution; Makoto stalled, eyes glazed, mouth agape, while his prosecutor fumed and scrabbled at his desk.

The prosecutor's innate dislike for Celestia was making Kiyotaka apprehensive. He couldn't tell whether he should similarly watch out for Celestia, or if every last word from her mouth was actually building up his case... which would only make the prosecution angrier. Which meant she was on his side?!

And he should believe her?!

But so much about her testimony was so baffling Kiyotaka couldn't help but cringe as he searched through his evidence. The Judge signaled Kiyotaka, and, shaking himself, he went over Celestia's testimony.

“H-HOLD IT!” He couldn't shake the anxiety that spawned out of cross-examining the goth. “You k-keep posing questions for us! M-M-Miss Celestia, don't you know anything about how Ms. Oogami could have died, since she collapsed almost directly in front of you?”

Celestia made a polite curtsy. She rose from it slowly. Mondo's gaze followed her the entire time, eyes narrowed. “I am afraid not, Sir Attorney. Perhaps she accrued her wound prior to visiting my humble establishment?”

“OBJECTION!”

All eyes leapt to the prosecution stand. Togami, cheeks blustering red, had fisted his list of evidence. “Your attempts to dissuade this case are futile, witness. The victim drank the poisoned protein shake and was incapacitated before she could take her... concealed antidote that you insist was there.” A sneer had broken out across his complexion, big and nasty.

Kiyotaka's throat tightened. “OBJECTION!” he cried in return, and the prosecutor stiffened, a faint light flickering upon the lens of his glasses. “How can you prove without a doubt that no other wounds could have been inflicted onto Ms. Oogami?”

Prosecutor Togami rolled his eyes. “This is ridiculous. Tell them, Naegi.”

Makoto opened his mouth to speak and immediately faltered.

His hazel eyes darted up to Prosecutor Togami, and he whispered, “B-Byakuya... I thought we were on a first name basis...”

The prosecutor froze.

Makoto, pouting, wouldn't begin his rebuttal. He was nervously staring up at Prosecutor Togami, awaiting—something. Something that wasn't the nothing he was currently receiving.

Squeezing his eyes shut, Makoto mumbled, head lowered, “I've been a bad boyfriend to you, too, haven't I...”

WHAT?!

How many people was Makoto dating, exactly—?

Kiyotaka glanced to Mondo for clarification, but the biker just shrugged. “Hey, don't look at me like that. It's your own fault if you couldn't read the tension oozing from the prosecution.”

Well. He hadn't really been looking for sexual tension in the courthouse today. One of his best friends was dead, and the other one was on trial for the alleged murder of her. He hadn't the brain space to worry about Makoto's convoluted dating life at this time.

With a scowl, Togami straightened, his glare cutting into Celestia like a sapphire blade. “As I was saying... I interviewed the defendant last evening when she was brought into the Detention Center.” Aoi cringed. “The defendant told us everything about the crime scene that she could recall last night, likely to try and persuade us that she hasn't killed Ms. Oogami.” Aoi's hands, encircling her legs, formed into fists. “She did not mention any other wounds on Ms. Oogami's body.”

“And why would I tell you if there were, asshole?”

Suddenly Aoi was on her feet. She rushed at the prosecution stand, fists bared, and socked Prosecutor Togami in the face.

As quickly as she'd done it, the shock of her actions paled her complexion, and she teetered back to her seat. Gently, she opened up her tightened fists. Kiyotaka waved at her. She, smiling, waved back. “That made me feel a lot better,” she said.

The Judge, watching the prosecution pull himself back up—a hand at his reddened cheek—nodded solemnly. “Overruled. Mr. Ishimaru”—he posed, turning back to the defense—“do you have any evidence that Ms. Oogami could have been killed in a way other than the poisoning?”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open. “U-Uh! L-L-Let me...” He rummaged through his meager evidence like it would somehow conjure a miracle.

A calloused hand grabbed him by the shoulder. Mondo was tilting them closer to better obscure their shared frustration from the gallery. “The fuck is going on?” He allowed one sharp glance at Celestia, then bared his teeth. “Fuckin' hate this.”

Kiyotaka exhaled into his sleeve, his breaths coming out as a whine. “Are we supposed to have evidence that proves Sakura died in another way..?”

“But we don't have any!” Growling, Mondo tore back into the autopsy report. Then his eyes widened.

Gently patting Kiyotaka's shoulder, he sort of inclined his head at the Judge. Catching his question, Kiyotaka nodded, uttered, “Go ahead.”

He realized, heart thundering, that he trusted Mondo. More than he'd ever trusted anyone before.

“Udgey, I'd like to pose a new question to the court.” Mondo's voice, a low, gruff rumble, was now the only sound in the building. Everyone was looking at him, and not a single voice dared shatter his words. “At this time, I don't think the defense can prove either way whether Sakura was killed by the poison or another weapon. It's too possible that a concealed blade was hidden away by a true killer—especially when the poison no longer seems likely—for me to claim either way for sure.

“So instead, I'd like to ask the witness a new question, something we can prove.” His eyes locked with Celestia. For the first time since he'd ever known her, Kiyotaka glimpsed her smile waning. “Celeste, did Aoi kill her girlfriend? And do you have any evidence?”

Celestia's lashes fluttered. She was toying with her lacy white handkerchief. She said promptly “No, she did not,” before accidentally dropping it, and, begging the courtroom's pardon, crouched down to retrieve it.

Prosecutor Togami's scowl had wrenched through his face like an earthquake. Through his gritted teeth, he growled, “Please testify to the court about this claim of yours, Ludenberg.”

When her head poked back over the witness stand, she offered a brilliant smile to the prosecution. “My pleasure.”

As she readied her testimony, Kiyotaka whispered, “Thank you.”

A sudden smile seized Mondo's face.

“Course. I'm your partner. I gotta be of use to you somehow.”

Kiyotaka, blushing, looked at the ground. “I-I know, but... really, thank you. I didn't know what to do there. You just saved our case.”

Mondo laughed softly. Kiyotaka's heart pounded. He wished he could somehow save that laugh for the moments Mondo couldn't be physically here to support him. He'd just have to commit it to memory.

Testify: “The Likely Homophobic Murderer”

(“What kind of title—?” Kiyotaka squeaked, but Mondo cut him off with a whisper: “I'm fuckin' here for this.”)

“My, my,” Celestia mused, running a gloved hand along the edge of the witness stand. “Please tell me, Sir Prosecutor, how you speculate Miss Aoi could have even thought of harming the one she loved most?

“That is correct. There is no way.” She smiled sweetly. Togami's evidence crinkled in his fist. “The evidence lies firsthand within their love for one another, you cretin.

“Of course, this begs the question—Who killed Miss Sakura? Clearly there was a botched murder attempt, what with the poisoned protein shake, that went unfounded.

“Did the murderer realize that Miss Sakura had planned ahead in that regard, and grew... testy?

“I recall the letter in my establishment's restroom. Perhaps the murderer found her in there and struck a blow that did not immediately kill, giving her the time to seek me out prior to her final moments.

“I wish I could tell you more, but I am afraid I lack access to the weapons that likely terminated her.”

Kiyotaka sighed. Once again, he wasn't sure where to go with this.

“Hey.” Mondo tapped him. He held Mondo's lilac gaze. “This helps our case. If we can't contradict anything in it, that's a good sign. Honestly, this testimony seems to put him more on the spot than us. If we just wait here, he'll prob—"

“OBJECTION!”

Mondo pointed out the sputtering prosecution. “See? Doin' our work for us.”

Prosecutor Togami slammed both fists into his desk. He'd destroyed the majority of his paper evidence. “This testimony is preposterous! Just how much conjecture was that? Preposterous!” As he yelled, he punctuated his sentences with a fist. “Now you're making up killers for your own fun!”

Celestia curteyed. “I apologize. I was not expecting to hurt your feelings quite this much.”

“SHUT UP!” All sound in the courthouse was sucked away. “IT'S YOU, ISN'T IT?”

Kiyotaka gasped. He saw Aoi cover her face with her hands. She was shivering.

He didn't know how he hadn't noticed before, but Kiyotaka realized he couldn't find Makoto at the prosecution stand. Where had he gone? But as he glanced around the room, he found he couldn't locate the secretary anywhere.

To Celestia's lack of response, Togami remembered himself. His blustery complexion began to calm, returning to its usual condescension, and he deposited his hands into his pockets. “The prosecution would like to indict Celestia Ludenberg as the true murderer of Sakura Oogami. Today's trial more than proves that the detective arrested the wrong suspect, and I now would like to remedy that.”

Celestia had yet to speak, but her smile had extended, a jagged tear up her face.

“What is this you speak of?” she asked, then politely flashed a rude hand gesture at the prosecution. The talon-shaped ring on her middle finger glistened.

The Judge slammed down his gavel. “No rude hand gestures! How many times do I have to say it?”

“Ah. My apologies.” Celestia's pointer and ring fingers rose up alongside her middle finger. “Read between the lines, dipshit.”

“What? Are you angry I discovered the truth in your pitiful cavalcade of lies?” Prosecutor Togami smirked.

“Have you a single brain cell up in that swelled head of yours?” She tapped the side of her temple. “You fucking imbecile, you wouldn't know the truth if it shat on your head.”

Even Togami looked uneasy now. “Vulgar,” he muttered, straightening his tie. “It proves your guilty conscience. You're not very good at hiding your feelings.”

The veil ripped up Celestia's face as if claimed by a gust of wind, and she screeched:

“I AM CELESTIA LUDENBERG! I BELIEVE I KNOW MORE ABOUT HIDING MY FEELINGS THAN YOU, YOU MOTHERFUCKING WET BLANKET.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open. Where had Celestia's accent gone?

Mondo just rolled his eyes. “Yeah, that makes sense. I kinda figured she was hiding her identity.”

“But...” Kiyotaka sputtered. “The murderer?”

“I dunno.” Mondo shook his head, his wavy hair framing his rugged face.

Before Kiyotaka could respond, Prosecutor Togami yelled, “OBJECTION!”

He pulled a strange pile of documents out from his briefcase. “I've been waiting for the opportunity to reveal this.” He cleared his throat. “Celestia Ludenberg is a farce. Your real name,” the smirk sharpened, “is Taeko—”

“NO! IT ISN'T—”

“Yasuhiro.” Togami allowed a wry laugh. “Taeko Yasuhiro, I accuse you of killing Sakura Oogami on account of your consistent lying in the courtroom. You seek to cover up the poison that you tricked Oogami into taking.”

“NOOOOOOOO!”

Her argument deflowered, Celestia howled, pounding away at the witness stand. Tears flowed freely from her eyes, diluting the white makeup she had carefully made up her face with, and blotting her mascara. Beneath the white powder peeked olive, freckled skin.

As she regained her senses, her hands fluttered to her face, struggling to hide.

But her persona had already been peered through. The demonic gambling queen, Celestia Ludenberg, existed no more.

Her shoulders had slumped. She knew it too.

The Judge watched her quaver in place and sighed. “It breaks my heart to do this—Well, not this. It gladdens me to say that”—he pounded his gavel—“Ms. Aoi Asahina is declared...

“NOT GUILTY.”

Then he sighed again. “But I am afraid we must take in Miss Celestia for questioning. At a later date, we will try her for the murder of Ms. Oogami.”


As soon as Kiyotaka finished packing up his evidence and made his way out of the courtroom, he rushed to meet Aoi.

She was still surrounded by a small horde of policemen, but they let her go ahead and speak with him.

“I did it!” he said. “I proved—”

“Kiyo, you have to defend for Miss Celestia!”

Even Mondo, at his shoulder, stalled. “He does?”

Aoi, eyes wide, cried, “YES! She can't be the murderer of Sakura! D-Didn't you see how well she defended me? If she was the murderer, why would she defend me, the suspect?” She grabbed Kiyotaka by the shoulders. “Don't you see? We still have no idea what actually happened to Sakura! You have to, have to promise me.” Her fingers dug into his suit. “You have to promise me to take up Miss Celestia's case and find out the true killer!”

Kiyotaka had really wanted to go home and take a colossal nap, but now he thought back to Togami's crude questioning and realized that somewhere deep in him, he'd known this trial was far from over.

They still had no idea what the murder weapon was. And what about Sakura's missing bracelet?

Even so, he whimpered, leaning into Mondo for support. Somehow he was gonna have to find the energy to do this all over again...

After extracting his promise to visit the new defendant at the Detention Center, Aoi left with the policemen to finish up her paperwork. Kiyotaka sighed into Mondo's arm. “How am I going to...”

Mondo nudged him. “Let's go get some fuckin' food first. I heard there was like a cafeteria in the courthouse?”

“No! No no no, not anymore! Not after the food got poisoned this one time!” Kiyotaka reached for Mondo's sleeve, and, forgetting Mondo wasn't wearing his jacket, found their hands connecting.

And now he was holding Mondo's hand.

It felt different when it wasn't for comfort during a trial.

A blush exploded across his face. He squeaked, “H-Here, let's, um, I know this place where, uhh, we can, we can... we...” and ran out of air.

Mondo chuckled, gently patting his head with his free hand. “You're so fuckin' cute. How about we go get a pizza or—”

“PLEASE, WAIT!”

Immediately their hands leapt apart. Mondo folded his arms across his chest, looking in one direction, and Kiyotaka threw his fists into his pockets, looking in the other.

To his surprise, he found the spiky-haired secretary rushing after them. Upon reaching them, Makoto broke into a pant, his cheeks bright pink.

“There you are! Oh, I'm so happy I found you before you'd left...”

He met Kiyotaka's eyes. “Please, I need your help. Byakuya... That Byakuya wasn't acting anything like the Byakuya I know. I think Kyoko's original testimony is clouding his judgment. I... I need to find the truth and prove to him that he got it wrong.”

Makoto bowed his head to the defense team.

“Would you please work with me?”


To Be Continued...

 

Chapter Text

Makoto crashed their date at the nearby mall's food court. He kept switching between throwing apologetic glances Kiyotaka's way and commenting on how yummy the pizza was. A tiny part of Kiyotaka couldn't release that angry twinge in him about having almost achieved another sort of kind of outing with just Mondo, but then he saw the exhaustion in Makoto's worn out expression, and the anger sadly dwindled into guilt.

“So, um...” Makoto tucked a hand into his overcoat and pulled out an entire manilla file. He looked both ways before passing it across the table. “I secreted this away for you both.”

Mondo's mouth fell open. “You. You?

Makoto's round cheeks glistened pink. He ducked his head, his ahoge bobbing. “It was important! Kyoko and Byakuya were being bullies, so it's only fair. Plus, Byakuya said that the new trial will be tomorrow, s-so I have to help make this fairer somehow!” He creased the file on the table and tugged out the small stack of papers within. “Let me tell you about the evidence they found.

“This is the—er, the previous defendant's testimony.” He handed the bulk of the papers, barely held together with a staple, to Kiyotaka. “She seemed to trust you, so maybe check with her to corroborate her claims. I don't think she told us everything.” He worried his lip as Kiyotaka scanned over its contents and sighed.

Makoto's worries were an understatement. Most of the prosecution's questions were spat back in their face. Aoi's few answers were vague. Togami kept asking, again and again, why she did it, and all she would say was “You tell me.” Kiyotaka blew out a breath and set the interview aside. He'd have to ask Aoi about it later.

He nodded to Makoto, and the secretary fanned out his remaining evidence. “I guess we didn't end up having much of a chance to present anything today. What a weird trial...” He pointed out a small list. “Not that we found much. The witness—I mean, the new defendant's wine glass was picked up, but there weren't any prints on it. There was a residue of a very strong alcohol in it, however—like the stuff used to treat wounds. Other than that, I think the glass matched up with the bar in the gambling den.”

Makoto let out a sigh. “I don't think we got anything else, honestly. We confiscated Ms. Asahina's belongings, but there wasn't anything of interest in there, nor implicating messages on her phone. No wonder, huh?” His laugh was low, sardonic. It didn't fit with his soft complexion. “I... I can't believe Kyoko convinced me into that verdict. I-It was so obviously fabricated..! I just, I'm not used to her doing anything like that.”

“Yeah, today seemed a bit much even for her,” Mondo muttered. He'd stolen Kiyotaka's untouched pizza crusts and was currently munching on them. It took all of Kiyotaka's focus to wrench his thoughts away from trying to parse what this might mean about the status of their relationship.

“I know, Mondo. I told her that she should be excited to work with you, Taka!” Makoto buried his head in his squishy pink hands. “She's just mad because her father's your mentor. It's making her desperate to prove you wrong. And Byakuya...” Apparently there were no words to describe that one. Makoto just stared out the window over their heads.

Mondo snorted. “Togami's a real fucker.”

“No, he's not!” Makoto squeaked. “He's tired of the courthouse, that's all. He's tired of all the petty cases he keeps getting assigned. Um—No offense to you, Taka. I mean, I don't really care if they're petty or not petty. They're still important, right?”

“What makes a case petty?” Kiyotaka asked. He kind of figured if someone's life was on the line, they were pretty important.

Makoto blinked. “Oh! I don't know. Byakuya's picky, I guess. He likes more important trials. Things with stakes, with world-changing verdicts. This, um, feels like a waste of his time.”

Mondo rolled his eyes. “What did I say? Fucker.”

Kiyotaka struggled to keep up. “Why do you—”

“See,” Mondo said, leering at his partner, “that guy got dangerously close to putting me in debt to a loser who hit me!” He pointed to a particular scar on his shoulder. “This? From the trial. No, not the car accident.” Kiyotaka gaped at him. “The witness fucked me up with a pen, tryna keep me silent. Togami saw the whole thing happen and wanted to tell the court it was all my fault. God! I'd hate him less if he was at least consistent, but he kissed up my ass the whole time I was his witness. Whaddaya see in him, Makoto?”

Makoto blushed. “He... He's not as selfish as he likes to think he is. He relies on Kyoko's insights, and he gets nervous if he's in the courtroom without me. He's...” He tucked a strand of hair behind his ear, smiling idly at their leftover pizza. “He can be really sweet.”

“I'll believe it when I fuckin' see it.” After giving a final once-over to Makoto's evidence, Mondo's gaze settled on his partner. “You got all that down? We should probably head over to the precinct, let that chick know she's got an attorney if she wants it.”

“Right, right.” Makoto bowed his head. “Thank you for listening to me! I'll see what I can do on my end, too. I think you've at least gotten through to Kyoko.”

Kiyotaka was surprised to feel the tension in his chest ease just the slightest bit. “You mean it?”

“Yeah. I don't know what you told her, or however it was you looked at her earlier, but she's been doing a lot of rethinking about the case. I have something like 30 unread texts from her about it.” With a cheeky grin, Makoto got up. “Well, I should go check on those. Here's to hoping we find the truth in court tomorrow.”

Kiyotaka found himself shaking hands with the enemy.

As Makoto walked out, a man in the back of the food court turned around to watch the skipping suit-wearing secretary wander his way home, and, sighing, said, “What a hopeful young man...”


The air outside was biting, albeit fresh.

Mondo's bike gushed through puddles on their way to the Detention Center. Their white-infused breaths raced from their mouths and floundered behind them. Despite the pervading chill, Mondo kept the slicker about his waist, its pink arms whistling through the wind. Kiyotaka held close. His heart stumbled into the biker's back with each revving start.

They parked quickly and ran into Aoi on their way in, only flanked by one officer this time. A beam launched across her face as she darted over to Kiyotaka, instinctively grabbing his hand.

“I'm so sorry, Kiyo—I forgot to thank you for everything today!”

She didn't look as bad as this morning. She'd tied up her hair into its usual wave-like shape, and she moved with regained energy, her steps bouncy, buoyant.

“I'm just happy you're okay, Aoi,” he replied, then, shuffling through his files, added, “So about that interview with the prosecution...”

She slapped her free hand over her mouth. “Oh! Uh! I didn't know you'd see that!” Her eyes scrunched shut.

“What actually happened to you yesterday? I'm guessing Prosecutor Togami won't call you into court tomorrow, since—”

“Yeaaaaah, since I punched him in the face.” She released Kiyotaka's hand to swing at an imaginary prosecutor. “Man, that felt so great! I love punching guys who totally earned it!” Mondo looked away, nodding nervously. “But—Sure! Here, gimme that fat packet of yours.”

She took the interview with Togami and an extra pen, and began furiously scribbling into the margins of her testimony. “Yeah, so,” she was explaining as she wrote, tongue sticking out, “I kinda gave him teeny hints here and there? But he didn't get any of them, clearly, since he's dumb. I wonder how stupid people pass the bar! Cuz you're so smart, Kiyo, I never even thought someone that excruciatingly moronic could make it all the way to a courtroom!”

Kiyotaka missed the rest of everything Aoi said due to the staggering amount of white noise suddenly blaring through his skull.

His brain reconnected when the packet landed in his hands. Aoi met his eyes. “I'm not sure how much use it'll be, though, since that scary detective told you about everything I saw already. Sakura and I went in, then I sat down at the bar top... and then... and then she...” Aoi pouted. Shook her head. “I know that Miss Celestia was lying about the order of events earlier, but... she must've had a reason! S-So I couldn't say it in court today... Hnnnn, you'll figure it out, right, Kiyo?”

Then her whirlpool eyes, deep and blue, were full of him.

Kiyotaka jolted. He glanced over Aoi's scrawl—still as messy as ever—and, ensuring he could read it well enough, nodded to her. “I have to. So... So I will!”

“Aren't you cheery.” Mondo laid a hand at his shoulder. Kiyotaka turned to look at him—and saw, in the corner of his eye, Aoi's brows jump.

After they separated, he felt his phone buzz. He checked it quickly, turning it off as soon as Mondo glanced over.

Aoi had texted him, u kissed yet??? He had no idea how she found a way to be that ridiculously cheerful after everything that had happened to her. Maybe her next plan was to live through Kiyotaka's lack of a love life, just like college—just like back before she and Sakura were dating.

It made him feel both better and worse.


He had to double-check to make sure they were in the right room. The woman before him was much smaller than he'd been expecting. But she still wore the same floor-length crimson gown, draped in elegant lace, and the same bright red eyes met his upon his entry.

She'd wiped away the rest of her makeup, allowing her olive, freckled skin to reclaim her face. Her past-the-waist midnight hair draped down her figure.

She held his gaze and made a small curtsy when he reached the glass partition separating them. “Good afternoon, Sir Attorney.” She spoke in a sensitive, sharp tone, her accent obsolete.

“What do you want me to call you?” he asked. She was so much quieter now, and he found himself lowering his voice to keep on level with her.

“Celestia Ludenberg no longer exists.” Her sweet smile wavered, and she bowed a moment to dab at her eyes with her smudged handkerchief. “Sir Attorney... Do my parents know?”

“Do your..?”

He didn't know what to say. To his confusion, Taeko paled. “I suppose not. Perhaps we can keep it that way?”

Mondo, at his shoulder, broke in. “Taeko, how old are you?”

She squeezed her handkerchief. “Sixteen.”

The two stared at their client.

“I did a great job, did I not?” She toyed with a strand of her long straight hair. “Nobody figured me out for two entire years. I learned a lot from my parents—by what they didn't tell me, that is.” Her eyes vacant, she said softly, “They disowned me when I was fourteen.”

This was moving quickly.

Kiyotaka gasped. “Why?”

“I brought my girlfriend home. They did not approve. They told me to get fixed. I said I would not. They told me to get out.” She laughed, then, low and elegant. “My girlfriend broke up with me. She said it was too much for her to bear, like they were her parents, not mine.

“I learned so much on the streets. I learned how to make everyone fear me the way I had come to fear them. If they feared me, they could not hurt me. Taeko was no longer necessary, and so Taeko ceased to exist. But now I have become Taeko once more... I am Taeko, and I am afraid I am powerless.”

Her testimony came awash over him. Instinctively Kiyotaka's hand reached for his jade katana. Yet again he couldn't tell how much of Taeko's latest monologue was true. So much as his empathy desperately vied for him to believe her without doubt, he had to remind himself that as the owner of a gambling den, Taeko had become well-versed in the art of lying.

...a skill she could have also picked up on the streets after having been disowned by her parents. Seething, Kiyotaka clenched his charm and scrutinized the shivering young woman before him.

She gave off an energy entirely unlike Detective Kirigiri's. Kirigiri had emanated her stubborn, unbreakable testimony—Here, Taeko's lay vulnerable before him. Swallowing the tight lump in his throat, Kiyotaka realized she no longer had reason to put up walls of lies. She needed them as much as they needed to be able to trust her.

Her crimson gaze faltered onto Kiyotaka's. Red on red. “Are you here to defend me, Sir Attorney?” Her eyes fractured, blurry with firmly held-in tears.

How had a kid been ensnared by the prosecution and pinned as the murderer of his friend?

But then he remembered—Taeko's entire tactic had been to feign agelessness. But—No. Prosecutor Togami knew her age, knew her secret identity. He had chosen to push her, to publicly humiliate her facade. He was fully aware that he had been borderline verbally harassing a minor.

Judging by his performance in court today, Kiyotaka felt comfortable inferring that Togami had learned this truth from the detective, not via his own means. Detective Kirigiri must have run a hardcore background check to have somehow washed out Taeko's false persona.

Kiyotaka shivered.

The truth... so she was capable of finding it, too.

As if sensing his discomfort, Mondo's welcome, gruff tone clipped his ear. “You think we can trust her?”

“Yes. Here—” He awkwardly floundered for Mondo's hand and directed his tough, gnarled fingers around the little jade trinket. “D-Do you feel that?”

“Your heart's pounding really fast, Taka. You might wanna get that checked out—”

“N-NOT THAT!” He bit his tongue, cheeks expelling rouge stains. “The—The katana! While you were asleep, I figured out how it works.” Mondo nodded, recalling his conversation in court with Aoi. “It sort of... shows me a person's conviction. It seems to show me their version of the truth.

“Now, see Taeko?” He kept his voice low, worried she would hear him (though, knowing her, she probably did anyways). “There's no way this is another elaborate lie.”

Mondo blew out a long breath. “Holy fuckin' shit, man.” He plunked his quavering hand into a pocket of his too-large rumpled black pants. “Fuck...” His gaze fell to Taeko. “So that's why you felt so familiar.”

Taeko blinked rapidly, dabbing at her cheeks.

“I mean—I, uh...” The rugged animosity in his complexion was drained away, leaving behind pallid cheeks and tense, tightened skin. His sigh was curt. “I was there, kid. I lost everyone when I was—when I was fourteen.”

The way Taeko clapped her hands over her mouth was too quick, too instinctive a motion for her recent deluge to have been merely another lie. Her fingers rattled. Her head bowed, casting a shadow over what little of her face they could make out.

“Taka, we gotta defend her.”

Kiyotaka jolted. “I'd been planning on it!”

“Okay, yeah, but you're leaving her in suspense. Fuckin' say something.”

Shaking himself, Kiyotaka rested his hands on the glass partition. “If you need an attorney, Taeko... I'll defend you!” He wished he could condemn Togami for revealing her secrets to the court, but he knew too well why Togami had done it. The prosecution couldn't figure out what had happened at the crime scene, and so he'd latched upon the most suspicious figure confirmed to have been there. Kiyotaka had wondered the same when he'd first met the goth, but her enthusiastic aide to Aoi simply made her too unlikely to be the secret killer.

Her aide to Aoi... Oh. A chill flew up his spine.

“You look up to Aoi,” he whispered. “That's why you stood up for her.” And Taeko faced him, allowing her tiny smile to peek through.

“She has everything I want, yes. Or, she did.” Taeko blew out a breath. “I cannot believe the prosecution thought...” Shook her head.

“As... my attorney, Sir, uh—”

“Kiyotaka is fine,” he said, and Mondo cut in—

“You can call me whatever! You're kinda like the little demented sister I never had, so if you want, you could—”

“Yes, of course, thank you,” Taeko curtseyed, “Kiyotaka and his accessory.” Mondo about collapsed.

“So, um, Taeko,” Kiyotaka posed, redirecting their attention to the crime, “how much of your testimony was the truth? We need to know what actually happened if we're going to defend you. Was... there someone else at the crime scene who killed Sakura? Someone we don't yet know about?”

Taeko's gaze grew glassy, reflecting back her anxious attorney. She peered just over his shoulder. “No,” she finally said. “I do not believe so.” As she spoke, the light returned to her face, and her cheeks regained color. Seeing Taeko without her proud powdery armor—emoting actual human emotion—was still difficult to comprehend. “No, I think... I think... I think I know what happened.”

She bit her lip, and, as if in preparation for whatever ugly truth had just overcome her, made a cross sign with her pinkie.

Kiyotaka sensed his katana jolt by his heart.

“I am afraid most of my belongings were confiscated, but there is still one thing I pilfered that I think will give you much more use than anything else besides.” On her own, she located and opened up the small hatch that could pass items over to his side of the Detention Center. The policeman at the back sort of started over to her, perhaps to make sure something hazardous wasn't being shared, when Taeko turned back and threw the most dastardly glare, stopping him in his tracks.

Kiyotaka checked the opening and found, to his chagrin, a bejeweled little black bell.

Offering one last sweet smile, Taeko said, “Servant will help you with my case.”


Detective Kirigiri had sent what appeared to be an entire fleet of policemen to swarm the gambling den, and Kiyotaka couldn't even make it up the front steps to the door. With an anxious sigh, he jingled the bell from where he stood in the parking lot, feeling lousy about his situation.

Mondo kept track of the nearby patrolling officers. They didn't engage with the defense so long as the defense made no efforts to approach the crime scene, and so they were left to do whatever little investigating they could on their own.

Even with Mondo watching their periphery, neither caught sight of the horrific cat-onesied Yamada until the portly, bespectacled man was directly in front of them. Letting out a yelp, Kiyotaka threw the bell into his pocket and stumbled into Mondo, who caught him and glared down at the little man before them.

“Servant at your services! Servant was informed by Miss Amazing World-Ending Celestia that—”

“Okay, okay, cut the crap. How do we get in?” Mondo growled.

Yamada placed one—hand?—paw?—to his lips, then took them in the opposite direction of Praying Stars. He led them to a manhole hidden under a well-planted bush and ushered them in first, following after and shutting the manhole as soon as they were down. Once they were left in complete darkness, Yamada clapped his pawed hands around the bell at his neck, and it exuded a light that allowed them to make out the grimy passageway ahead of them.

Yamada, already panting, said, “Servant usually has to carry Miss Perfection Queen of All Eternal Celestia through here, so he's a little bit relieved not to see her for right now! But only for right now!” As if in warning, his collar beeped.

Kiyotaka grabbed his partner by the arm and hissed, “Do you think she's watching or hearing everything through that—?”

“Oh, definitely. She's smart. Thank fucking god she's on our side in this trial.” Mondo leered a weak grin.

“Do you think...” Kiyotaka gingerly touched his katana. It still prickled with the unease he had sensed toward the end of their discussion with Taeko. “Do you think she knows what actually happened?”

Mondo drew silent. He gazed after the glowing man in the cat onesie and, slowing down, letting him overcome them just enough to put him out of earshot, he whispered, “That chick's hard to read as fuck. I kind of, kind of got an idea of what she was saying in the trial today, but...” His fist clenched.

“Why?” Kiyotaka squeaked. “For what reason would she have to lie to us? Sh-She'll be convicted if we can't contradict the prosecution's claims against her tomorrow..!”

“Either she's figured out the identity of the murderer and will do anything in her power to keep everyone, including her attorney, from discovering it, or... or maybe she's just nervous, I don't fuckin' know. If I was in her place, I'd be so damn scared. I...”

He drew off, breaths pained. “Mondo?” Kiyotaka asked. Instinctively he reached out, resting his hand against his partner's arm. His muscles flexed beneath Kiyotaka's palm.

“Sorry, sorry,” he murmured. “Just old baggage.” He shook himself, patted Kiyotaka's hand, then moved out of his reach. “Let's go catch up to that fuckin' loser before he sets something else on fire.”

“Mondo,” he called, softer. The biker flinched. “You said to Taeko that you'd lost everything too, didn't you? I...” Shoot—He didn't mean to pressure Mondo into opening up. He'd sounded mighty uncomfortable even relaying to Taeko that he understood her. Frantically Kiyotaka backpedaled. “I want you to know I'm here, if you need, um...”

Ah, what was he saying? Mondo wasn't fourteen anymore. His trauma had come and passed years ago. Kiyotaka's words were too few and far too late.

But Mondo turned to face him all the same, gave him a tentative smile. “You're sweet, Taka. Don't worry about it, alright? We've got an entire fucking murder to solve.” His expression sobered. “You don't gotta fret for my sake on top of that.”

But Kiyotaka wanted to. He opened his mouth to speak, only to realize he couldn't make out Mondo's face any longer. Yamada had gotten so far ahead that they stood in the ashes of his collar's light, squinting through the dim murky shadows at one another.

“Fuck. Let's go.” Mondo eased a hand by his shoulder, ready to catch him if he stumbled. Kiyotaka tried desperately not to think about “accidentally” tripping himself up.

The tunnel evened out, then abruptly halted at a creaky old cellar door. Yamada extracted a hole-punched key card that was tied to his collar and swiped it through the door's lock mechanism, then ushered the attorney and his accessory through. They hustled up a short, stumpy set of wooden stairs that approached a small but grand parlor area with ridiculously majestic stained-glass windows.

Yamada, eyeing one set of windows, let out a sigh. “Servant wanted to break a window to let you in shorter and quicker, but Queen High Owner Celestia said no.” Was... Was the bespectacled man pouting?

“Where are we?” Mondo asked, ever alert. He glared into one of the windows whose design mirrored a pearly orange fire, then snagged Kiyotaka's wrist. “Is this room still underground?”

Yamada didn't answer, just kept meandering forward. His barefoot feet begged Kiyotaka to look away.

The parlor had a lovely fireplace bedecked in crimson silks—was that a fire hazard? A few chairs surrounded the fireplace, and a comely desk was situated in a corner of the room. All calmness and airs, the chubby cat-suited man approached the fireplace. Then he pressed a button at his collar that caused the back of the fireplace to careen inward.

“In here,” he said, gesturing toward the sooty opening.

Kiyotaka cringed. In his white suit?

Already Mondo's hands were at his waist, unwrapping the pink rain slicker and foisting it about the attorney's shoulders. “Here. It should help with the worst of it.”

Maybe Mondo's kindness will kill him here and now!

Hardly able to croak out his thanks, Kiyotaka made his way over to the fireplace. “What's in here?” he asked Yamada, who stood nonchalantly at the fireplace's edge.

Yamada shrugged. “Servant is not allowed entry.”

...so they were investigating a location not even Yamada had access to? Either Taeko was putting a great deal of trust in them... or she had set up an ulterior plan. Both, he would've liked to think, but he recalled what Mondo had said about how afraid Taeko must have been feeling the moment Prosecutor Togami indicted her.

A sixteen-year-old girl standing trial... Of course, Taeko Yasuhiro was no ordinary teenager, but he couldn't imagine even she stood bravely against the threatening noose that could very well become her reality, did Kiyotaka fail to protect her.

Protect her... He had to protect her.

Shouldering the rain slicker, Kiyotaka launched into the fireplace and crawled his way through. The soot piled up at his hands, creating smoldery dust clouds—and he heard Mondo coughing behind him. He tried to move slowly, carefully, as to keep his only suit clean, each step a potential hazard.

A faint red light gleamed from the opening at the edge of the secret passageway within secret passageways. Kiyotaka scrambled toward the exit, and, upon reaching solid cobblestone ground, collapsed in a heap of relief. Too bad he'd have to do the whole thing again on their way out.

Mondo stepped over him. When Kiyotaka looked up, he found a rough hand extended to him. Gratefully Kiyotaka took it, and, upon finding his footing, took a cursory glance about the ever tinier chamber. One massive stack of files sat at the behemoth of a desk taking up the entire back wall of the room. Its wood was a glossy, pristine ebony. Two odd lights shaped like rubies gleamed from back corners of the room. A small roll-up cot hid by the front of the desk, and shelves ran along the side walls, reaching up to the ceiling.

“Holy shit,” Mondo muttered as he took in the red-dyed room. “This is just secrets in secrets in... in secrets!” Laughing incredulously, he shook his head. Then, after he peered around the room once more, he sat on top of the desk. “Hey, Taka. Think this is a good time to check over your friend's testimony?”

Kiyotaka nervously took his place beside Mondo. “Good idea. Let's examine that first.” He unrolled the stapled sheets and scanned over its new additions. Aoi had crossed out much of her original testimony, leaving only a few broken statements here and there peering out of the scribbles. After examining each statement, Kiyotaka took out his court record and jotted down his summations. Mondo read it aloud over his shoulder. He tried to say it in his best Prosecutor Togami impression—stuck-up, vaguely nasally.

“Ms. Asahina reported nothing of note occurring prior to her entry at Praying Stars. She had never visited the establishment prior to the day of the murder, and she could not recall Ms. Oogami ever mentioning it to her before that day. Ms. Asahina thinks it likely Ms. Oogami has once before visited the gambling den's owner without her knowledge.

“Ms. Oogami did not immediately die.” Kiyotaka broke off from his writing to gasp, and Mondo, startled, lost the snide edge to his tone. They had unadulterated proof of it now. “She... M-Ms. Asahina recalled Ms. Oogami visiting the restroom first, an action she had not originally remembered due to its mundanity.”

So Taeko had spoken at least one truth at the witness stand.

Kiyotaka broke off to cry, “But how does..!” He frantically skimmed through the rest of his notes—Sakura had asked Aoi to wait, though they usually visited the restroom together, an old habit—she'd approached Aoi at the bar top before collapsing—she didn't witness Sakura drink from the poison, but due to the Hi-C discovered in her veins, it was indisputable that she did.

He released a sharp breath. “That d-doesn't make any sense...”

Mondo rested an arm around Kiyotaka's back, muttered, “Did someone spike the protein shake while she wasn't looking..? But, fuck, that could be any single witness in the gambling den.”

Kiyotaka bit his lip. “She could also have been stabbed or s-something that left her unable to take her antidote. Taeko testified to having a conversation with Sakura, so she's still the most suspicious candidate...” Not to mention her generally shady nature doing her next to no favors.

“Well it does tell us that your friend took a leak on the day of her death, so she must've planted the letter then.”

“Her?” Kiyotaka sputtered. “But that implies that she knew she was going to die. And that...”

That wasn't a possibility Kiyotaka could bear considering.

He hid his head in Mondo's shoulder. “This is impossible!” He hated the quavering in his voice, the raw uncertainty that clenched him at the throat. His blood had chilled to ice, and he huddled in his partner's warmth, still shivering.

Mondo, patting his side once, then got up from the desk. The unaware Kiyotaka, now lacking a support, tilted over. “Mondo!” he squeaked.

“Oh. Sorry. I was just—I was...” Mondo's hands rested at his hips. Kiyotaka pulled himself to his feet and stood beside him. “I was thinkin'.”

Kiyotaka waited for him to explain. No such luck. “About?” he prompted.

It appeared Mondo hadn't heard him. The biker had wandered over to one of the shelf caddies decorating the side walls of the cramped space, and, sifting around a few maniacal dresses that screamed of a vampiric inspiration, he located a small pair of dusty photo frames. They had been glinting from the back of the shelf, and somehow Mondo's eye for detail had dug them up.

A younger Taeko smiled and waved at the camera. Her freckles stood out, summer kisses. Her fashion taste wasn't quite as intense—a black tank top with one of those glittery broken hearts on it, and a lacy white skirt. White, huh.

The other people in the photo had had their heads unceremoniously snipped out of frame. Upon noticing, the picture jumbled out of Mondo's hands and smacked onto the floor. Mondo cringed. “Fuck, fuck, did I...” Gingerly he toed it, then scooped it back up. The frame had shattered. Numerous glass fragments remained on the floor. “Fuck!” Instinctively he reached out and pushed Kiyotaka out of the way. “Don't walk over here. I don't want you getting hurt.”

Kiyotaka glanced at his knee-high boots. “Sure.” He reveled in Mondo's unnecessary kindness.

“Wait, wait...” Mondo was still lost in the photo. He tilted it one way, and the picture fluttered right out. “Shit! I'm a fuckin' disaster today!”

But Kiyotaka gaped, rushing across the glass-laden ground to point out the frame. “D-Do you see this, Mondo?” A single sticker: $250.

Mondo's mouth fell open. “Don't you fucking tell me she bought this piece of shit for two hundred and fifty dollars!”

“W-Well, it proves without a doubt she couldn't have a motive for money.”

“Yeah, but she already has all her stupid crazy dresses, not to mention her building. Though...” Mondo drew off. “Guess this means she couldn't be hiding a secret debt either. Jin's had some fucky cases like that. If Taeko was, she'd start gathering up and selling shit like this first.” Thoroughly disgusted with the frame, Mondo crammed the crinkled photo back into it and scooted it face-down into the back of the shelf. “Hopefully she won't notice,” was his consolation.

They were in a room not even Taeko's servant had access to. Kiyotaka had a bad feeling their names were all over any accidents that occurred.

As if in ominous agreement, a low creak emitted from the very ceiling. A cringe broke out across Kiyotaka's face, and he grabbed his partner's hand for comfort. Smirking just a little, Mondo squeezed once, then released.

“Well, okay, anyways.” His companion shuffled back to the ebony desk. “There's gotta be something useful in here, something that'll help with the case, or Taeko wouldn't have let us in.” As he babbled, staring around the room, Kiyotaka made a hasty note about the frame. Just in case Prosecutor Togami had something ridiculous to say that could easily be contradicted by it.

Like it was his best plan, Mondo just started pawing up documents from the desk and skimming through them. “Damn, mostly just bills and shit. And—” He drew deathly silent. “Someone sent an assassin after her? What the fuck?!” Mondo unsteadily moved on. “Shit, this girl's crazy...

“OH MY GOD, SHE KILLED SAKURA?”

Kiyotaka jolted. He rushed to Mondo's side, peering over his shoulder. Mondo had found a hit list signed and dated by a signature he couldn't recognize set for last week. Taeko had somehow come in possession of a dead body. The document wasn't clear enough—purposefully, he figured—for either to puzzle out whether Taeko had signed for a hit, or if she was signing off someone else's murder, or—something about coming to take care of a deceased person who had come to pass at her den.

The relief came awash over his face. A flare of heat passed through his body, sweltering his chills. “That's not her.” He pointed at the paper-clipped photo of the victim. Their physique was similar to Sakura's—same brown skin tone and muscular form, though they weren't quite as strong as her—but the hair was black, and their face was totally wrong.

“Oh.” Mondo visibly relaxed. “Fuckin' scared myself silly. Sorry, Taka.” He set the signed hit aside.

“It...” Kiyotaka paused a moment, taking in the victim's form. “It does oddly match her.”

Mondo shrugged. “I guess, but the timing's wrong too. A week ago. Hey, wait,” he murmured, bursting into laughter, “you should take that with us to court tomorrow! Tell Togami he got the wrong fuckin' murderer, cuz Taeko... Taeko...” He threw back his head and guffawed.

“That doesn't seem morally sound!” Kiyotaka snapped. He was about to shuffle the hit into Mondo's pile of discarded files when the biker snagged his hand.

“Nah, wait, I'm thinkin'... You should still use it. You could, like, flush out the murderer. Tell 'em it's Oogami. Be like, see? Perfectly accurate. They'd be like, no, that's not her face at all! Call 'emselves out. Fuckin' Loony Tunes their ass.”

“N-No,” Kiyotaka growled. “That's still reprehensible.”

“Just—Just hang onto it, though. It could be really useful if we get stuck in a bind.” Mondo's eyes had glazed over, surely imagining all of the hijinks he might cause with this evidence.

Kiyotaka let out a long breath. He was coming to realize that Mondo was far too excited by the potential tomfoolery of this ridiculous document to listen to reason. They'd get out of here faster if Kiyotaka just shut up, took the document, and never used it. This way he could also ensure Mondo didn't pocket it and present it himself at an inopportune moment. “Fine,” he finally said.

Mondo beamed before turning back to the other files. Kiyotaka's gaze wandered. The room was so cramped he had to clamber on top of the desk to get to its other side. He couldn't imagine prim, elegant Taeko doing that every single time she needed to reach it. Supposedly nobody knew of this room—and Kiyotaka wondered if that parlor posed as her “real” secret office to throw off any potential visitors—so nobody saw her scrambling around this tight, albeit tidy space.

She'd worked hard to craft her image. Kiyotaka shivered instinctively, wrapping the pink slicker tighter around himself. She'd worked so hard, and all it took was an all-nighter via Detective Kirigiri to cause it all to come crumbling down.

Feeling a little guilty, Kiyotaka started checking through the drawers of Taeko's desk. He had to keep reminding himself that this was to save her life—any sort of clue could prove her innocence. He hoped he wouldn't stumble upon a bloodied knife in here anywhere with the killer's fingerprints clearly marked.

Taeko had padded her drawers' interiors with a frilly red lace that got all tangled up in his fingers. He found a heavy palette of makeup that looked to be from a Hot Topic bargain bin in the first, and a a wild array of spiked accessories—chokers, earrings, rings for places Kiyotaka wasn't too sure about, a lacy headband—in a second. His blood froze when he opened up and promptly slammed shut the drawer of silken undergarments, jamming four of his fingers in the process. He bit into his cheek in some masochistic attempt to keep himself from screaming.

As he shook out his hand, Mondo kept dutifully rifling through the documents. “Man, these're fuckin' boring now. Electricity bills. Wow. You find anything good?” He took in Kiyotaka's blotchy face and the blooming bruises along the knuckles of his four fingers. “What's up?”

Kiyotaka silently shook his head. He wished he could unsee what he had seen.

“Aight.” Mondo returned to his pile, then promptly paused. “I dunno what the fuck this is. League of Lesbians? The hell? This some superhero rip-off?”

“Wh-What?” Kiyotaka forgot his woes and got up to peer over Mondo's shoulder. “What is it?”

“This weird-ass sign up sheet thing. She's got a bunch of phone numbers, too. Hey, isn't that Makoto's last name?” He rested the sheet under Kiyotaka's chin, thumb beneath a Komaru Naegi. “A daughter? Mom? Sister? Coincidence?” There were no ages, just names and phone numbers. Kiyotaka wondered idly how in the world Taeko had gotten this list in the first place.

Few as of yet populated the surprisingly long, empty list. Underneath the Naegi girl was a Toko Fukawa, and underneath that was a “Genocide Jill”. And under that—

Kiyotaka gasped. “S-Sakura?” She'd written her number down and everything.

How? How had Taeko gotten a hold of her? And what did it mean about their relationship?

Mondo swallowed tightly. “Well now it's indisputable. It's documented that they've spoken to each other. I mean—That matches her handwriting, doesn't it?”

Kiyotaka hadn't even thought to check, but of course it matched. He glanced over it now as his fingers shook. League of Lesbians... hadn't sounded frightening on its own...

His partner handed over the document. Kiyotaka secreted it away with his manilla folder for safekeeping.

Neither of them spoke as Mondo finished searching through Taeko's papers and Kiyotaka peered into the rest of her drawers. One was empty, save for an indecent amount of lace, and the final—

No.

A bracelet. A handmade pink bracelet.

“How?” His gasp was more a pinch of reluctant breath squeezed from his clenched lungs.

He was so tired. He just wanted this case to make sense. He just wanted his friend to rest without regrets—and for her surviving girlfriend to find a truth that allowed her peace.

Why...

Sakura never took off her bracelet, not even to shower. It had gotten a little nasty with age, but it had always held strong and sure to her wrist. That bracelet had been carefully untied and laid to rest in the drawer, innocuously lacking the rest of Sakura.

Sensing Kiyotaka's shock, Mondo slid across the desk to grab the evidence in the open drawer. “Huh! Taka, didn't you say Oogami never parted with this thing? That's sure weird.” He was already thinking ahead, lavender gaze narrowed. “Why would Taeko have it in her possession?”

The nicest answer was she'd seen it, she'd liked it, she'd pilfered it. Or even, having the foreknowledge she would later burn the corpse, she took the bracelet as a nice keepsake of the now-scorched Sakura.

He felt sick.

The worst, of course, being that she had killed Sakura herself and for some indiscernible reason had decided to pocket a prize from her victim.

Kiyotaka's head rushed into his hands. He recognized the panic attack before it had fully set in and fought with his collapsing lungs, but the air kept receding—and now his vision was blurry—and he was drowning, drowning, drowning.

A dreadful pounding erupted from the ceiling, like Taeko's secret hideaway might just cave in on them. Or maybe that was in his head too. Kiyotaka couldn't tell, hadn't the strength to puzzle through the pulsations racing through his skull. He couldn't think, let alone breathe.

Rugged hands addressed his shoulders, then gently—tentatively—reached around his back, taking him in. A voice brushed by his ear, but he couldn't make out the words—and he couldn't make out the words—and finally he heard what sounded like his name. Somehow his breaths caught up, and he was somewhere warm and safe, and his head was pillowed against someone's comfortable—and bare—chest.

Abruptly Mondo's scent—exhaust and cologne—came back to him. Between breaths he could make out Mondo's strained tone.

“Taka, you alright?” One of his calloused hands rested protectively at the back of Kiyotaka's head.

He didn't trust his own voice and remained silent.

Mondo let out a slow breath.

“You're too sweet for this trade. You shouldn't be—”

And all too soon his voice came back to him. “Th-That's not true! I have to pursue the truth, so... so...”

He glanced up, saw Mondo frowning. “Dammit... That's what I'm saying. There's so many scumbags all wrapped up in the law. Taking advantage of shit.” His frown snapped apart, a jagged cut across his lips. “And it's obvious, after the trial today, that we're already hurting you. Fuckin' pisses me off.”

“But I have to.” Kiyotaka spoke quietly, but his tone didn't waver. “That's the whole point. If I don't stop the scumbags, maybe nobody will.” And then people like Sakura, like Aoi, like everyone he's ever cared about would keep getting caught in the cross-fire.

He pouted. “And what do you mean, we?”

“Uh.” Mondo blinked. “Did I say that?”

He didn't even notice? Well, no matter.

Kiyotaka clambered out of his partner's arms and crashed back the ground as soon as he thought he'd found sure footing, falling just short of Mondo's outstretched hand.

Upon helping Kiyotaka back up, Mondo muttered, “Hey, stay close to me. I think we've found about everything we're gonna find in this room.” And I want to get you out of here, his face all but said.

“We,” Kiyotaka breathed, voice raspy, “we need to go talk to Taeko about—”

Mondo's eyes widened. “You know... I think... I think what you need is to go sit down somewhere quiet. Let's worry about Taeko's testimony tomorrow, alright?”

So much as he wanted to refute Mondo's point, he sensed deep within him that the aching had started up all over again. Would he even know what to believe if he spoke with Taeko again right now? In court, at least she'd be pressured between himself and Prosecutor Togami, not to mention the detective.

Mondo was right. He couldn't stomach the thought of struggling with Taeko's shifty testimony one more time today.

Mondo's gentle voice at his ear—

“I, uh, I don't mean to invite myself over, but can I crash at your place again? I don't... I don't wanna leave you alone tonight.”

Kiyotaka found himself sobbing before he even knew what was happening. He nodded into Mondo's chest. The biker gently helped him back over the ebony desk before leading them out of the hideaway.

He thought he heard the snap of footsteps overhead as they passed, but shook himself and moved on. How likely was it that Taeko had a second hideaway sequestered in the first?

(Now was not the time to fear the truth of its likelihood.)


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kiyotaka sagged into his couch. He leaned back against his pillows and exhaled, long and slow. So much as he wanted to sleep, to let his exhaustion drag him out of this hellish nightmare, closing his eyes merely conjured his fears. His thoughts spun around in useless, idle circles.

“Hey.” Mondo's voice bloomed at his ear. He sat down at Kiyotaka's side, his weight sinking into the cushions.

He'd made a quick pit stop at his place, this weird converted halfway-house sort of gig full of biker rebels and kids without a home of their own, to freshen up prior to their reconvening in Kiyotaka's apartment.

The kids had all rushed up to Mondo and asked him about his day, clearly trying to get it over with so that they could blubber about whatever adventures they had gone on. So that was why Mondo kept staying at his place rather than inviting him over. As it was, a couple kids ran up to him and accused him of taking their “big bro” away from them. Their leader of sorts had rushed over to remind them that he was helping Kiyotaka out with some very important lawyerly things, so they should shut up.

Watching his companion stay back and talk with the kids on their level caused Kiyotaka to see Mondo's association with Taeko in a new light. He couldn't help but relate to her—to feel compulsed to help her in whatever way he could. He'd practically made it his job to protect reject children.

By the time were able to leave, Mondo had grabbed his arm, muttered, “Don't be too hard on them. I know they're little shitheads, but they're doin' their best. Life hasn't been fair to them.”

Kiyotaka had glanced back at him, smiled. “You're really kind, Mondo.”

He lived for those moments where he got Mondo to blush instead.

Mondo had traded out his ill-fitting tank top for a worn out black hoodie even larger than him, and his baggy pants for a golden-fringed pair of biker shorts that revealed all too much of his sleek, muscular thighs. Kiyotaka politely folded his hands between his legs in an attempt to keep them from thoughtlessly roaming anywhere.

Now they were back at his apartment, and the pressing reality of the morning's trial was too much to ignore.

He'd tried to put himself at ease—lit a few vanilla-scented candles, changed into his blue-and-white striped pajamas and the bunny slippers—but of course each of his efforts were futile.

Though they shared no words, Mondo sat, resolute, beside him, and shared his tumultuous silence. He watched for some time the exhaustion play out over Kiyotaka's shadowed face, then released a sharp breath. “How do I get this shit off your mind for all of two seconds...”

Kiyotaka started. “That's not necessary! You don't have to—”

“Taka, you saw Kirigiri this morning. Hell, you saw me this morning. I know this time you're not defending your buddy, but still... you gotta be in good shape before a trial.”

He didn't know what to say, let his gaze slide away from his partner. Mondo was right—of course he was right. But his mind refused to shut off. Taeko's voice kept circulating through his head like a bout of smoke. Could he trust her, or had everything she'd told them been a terribly elaborate lie? So badly as he'd wanted to rush at the Detention Center after their investigation, Mondo had known he wasn't in the right state of mind to interrogate her.

But that just meant another mystery left to untangle tomorrow...

“I...” Mondo again, his rough hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder. “Lemme tell you about my first trial.” Kiyotaka glimpsed him, met concerned, lavender eyes. “I was fourteen when it happened. My first time meeting Jin, too. I was a little shithead brat, and nobody wanted to defend my case, but he... bothered to listen. Even when I made his life a fuckin' nightmare, he kept searching for the truth.”

Mondo ducked his head, his soft hair obscuring his face. “My brother...” His hands leaped to his hoodie, fisted the fabric. “My older brother had died in a nasty car accident. I... I was one of the only witnesses, and I remember the prosecution screaming so loud at me...

“I couldn't even hear myself think. They wound up pinning the whole thing on me—said... said Daiya's kid brother got in the way, said he was illegally driving—and they're right, I was. I shouldn't have been on the road at all. I made a mistake and—and then that truck swerved around me—and then it crashed into one of those big nasty eighteen-wheelers—and then... and...

His breathing slowed down. Mondo shut his eyes, counting softly under his breath. Finally he said, “I'm really lucky Jin took me in. I didn't have any family but my brother. If he hadn't made a legal nightmare out of the case—citing all sorts of shit I couldn't spit back at you—I'd have gone to juvie. I'd... who knows, maybe I'd still be in prison today. I...

“I grew up okay, til my parents died. Then it was just me and Daiya against the world. He started up a gang, gathering all the rejects like us, and as his kid brother, everyone gave me too little flack. I let that stupid attention get to my head, and...”

Gently Kiyotaka reached out and took hold of Mondo's hand, unraveling his fist. He didn't bother saying anything.

There were no words.

“I became the gang's leader after we lost Daiya. You saw a couple of 'em back at home. They don't all stay there, just the ones who need a place to lay low. We all chip in to take care of it—one of my accidents actually help paid for most of it.”

He let out a breath. “Back then, though, I almost dropped out of school entirely. But Jin started being an asshole—checking up on me, making sure I ate real fucking food. What a shit.” A small, nostalgic smile had budded at his lip. “And Chi...”

“Chi?” Mondo had drawn off. Kiyotaka couldn't help but exude his curiosity.

Mondo blinked, releasing his hand. “Oh, just—never mind.” Shook his head. “Fuck! I was tryna comfort you! How the hell did...”

But Kiyotaka wasn't ready to redirect the conversation toward himself. “I didn't realize Mr. Jin had... practically raised you!”

“Yeah. Weird, isn't it? He has an entire daughter, and I hardly know her.” Mondo shrugged. “I think she grew up with her grandparents. Jin got, like, banished, after he dropped out of detective school or whatever it's called.”

Kiyotaka gaped. “Banished? For becoming a defense attorney?”

“Right?” Mondo chuckled. “Must be a huge dishonor on the family to ditch the so-called neutral party and join a biased side of the court. I think that's how they see it? Makes sense, since Kirigiri practically tried to rip you a new one.”

“But she seemed perfectly happy to work with Prosecutor Togami and Makoto!” Kiyotaka pouted. “I don't think she's—”

Mondo smirked. “Definitely not. Apparently she's using her better judgment by helping out the 'more unbiased' side, whatever the hell that means. I dunno. Jin followed her trials some. Had a bunch of fancy words for her, uh, court decisions.”

“Huh...”

The conversation dwindled. Mondo sort of gave him a look.

“So why'd you become an attorney, huh?”

Kiyotaka blushed. “Oh—Well...” He grabbed one of the pillows on his couch and hugged it close to himself, resting his chin on top of it. “Nothing so incredible as Mr. Jin's reason.

“My grandfather used to be prime minister of Japanifornia.” Mondo made eye contact when he shared, and he found himself getting flustered, hurrying through his story without thinking too hard about how many details of his life were escaping. “You've heard the name Toranosuke Ishimaru, yes?” Mondo made a vague nod. He clearly hadn't studied in history class. Not that it mattered. “Politics... aren't really my place, but I don't believe it was merit that allowed him to ascend to office.

“A number of scandals tarnished his name, but due to sheer influence, power and money, he managed to keep his little throne for years. By the time another politician had finally outed his largest political machine, my family's name was in shambles, and my father grew up ashamed of his lineage.”

Due to the way he was raised, he hadn't a very strong connection to his family, so repeating his past caused an odd chill to seize him. Their ghosts still haunted him. Despite how much power they'd had in swaying his career path, it had been quite a while since he'd allowed his thoughts to dwell upon them.

“My father died when I was young. He worked himself to death, actually. My mother found him unconscious at his desk. I think it was a heart attack. I...” Kiyotaka released a weak breath. Opening up the metaphysical shoebox of his childhood memories was overwhelming him. “I was raised by my mother and her parents. Even after she saw my father die the way he had, I think she was desperate to retain some of him in me, knowing it could cause my health to deteriorate in the way his had. Not only that, but we suffered on the edge of poverty due to the sullied Ishimaru name, and... on top of my college loans, there are other debts my mother will need my help in repaying.

“S-So I wanted to become an attorney for the monetary gain, yes, but what fueled me most was my desire to stop corrupt political leaders such as my grandfather from ever claiming the footholds that allow them to pollute our home.”

Aoi resurfaced, a warm bubble, in the dark whirlpool of his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut a moment. “I was supposed to devote myself fully to my studies, so I didn't really have any friends—until I met Sakura at my college's gym. And then Aoi of course inserted herself into my life. At first we just trained together, but quickly enough they were inviting me to study, to catch meals with them, to visit...

“Without my mother over my shoulder, I learned how much healthier it is to spend time away from work—with people I genuinely enjoy. Without them, I...”

...he had to unravel the mystery surrounding Sakura's death. He had to, for his friends who had changed his life for the better.

Mondo's mouth had fallen open. He blinked, said, “God damn. So we're both traumatized! What are the fucking odds...”

Kiyotaka managed a nervous laugh. “They say trauma loves company.”

“Damn straight it does.” Tentative, Mondo reached out, then—flushing—asked, “Can I, uh... can... fuck! Can I—Taka, uh...”

The smile overcame Kiyotaka's face. “Yes?”

Mondo sobbed into his hands. “I wanna fuckin' hug you but I don't know how to ask without making it awkward... and now it's awkward anyways...”

“Oh!” Kiyotaka burned pink.

He shadowed over Mondo and gently laid his arms around his friend's back. Mondo resurfaced, throwing Kiyotaka into him, and hugged fiercely. He hid his head in Mondo's neck. Mondo's comforting scent rushed through him.

Trauma sure did love company—especially this one's.

The chills that had pervaded Kiyotaka could do little but melt when confronted with Mondo. His strong arms held him secure, and for once the foreboding voices in his head had silenced. All he could hear was Mondo softly breathing, head on his shoulder, and the subtle pulsing of his heart. As he filled with Mondo's warmth, he wondered if now he could finally sleep, and—guiltily—hoped that Mondo wouldn't mind hugging him again in the future, if he needed it.

He had a way of dissolving Kiyotaka's anxieties just by taking him into his arms.

Kiyotaka didn't know how long they embraced for. Eventually Mondo got up, complaining about stiff legs. Kiyotaka tried to convince him to watch a movie with him, or solve a puzzle, or play a board game—something, anything to keep this sweet closeness alive—but Mondo looked him dead in the eye and said, “Taka, we have a case in like six hours. I'm going to fuckin' bed. Good night.”

And he was right, but he didn't have to say it with such little remorse!

Chapter Text


Evidence Updated:

 

-Jade Katana

Kiyotaka's ~special~ lawyer trinket. Helps him get through to people whose versions of the truth don't align with his, as well as visualize a more well-rounded perspective of the case as as whole.

 

-Sakura's Bracelet

Was missing until Kiyotaka located it in a drawer within Taeko's secret hideaway. How did it end up there? Is Taeko still hiding what she knows about the Sakura's death?

 

-Protein Shake

Verified to have held the Hi-C poison at the scene of the crime. Poison residue on the lip of the cup proves that Sakura did indeed take a sip of the deadly concoction.

 

-Hi-C Antidote Bottle

Located in Sakura's purse. Records indicate that Sakura bought it roughly 2 weeks ago. Taeko reportedly advised her to buy it. If Sakura had access to the antidote, did she die before she could take it? Or was she killed in a manner entirely separate that made her unable to ingest the antidote after being poisoned?

 

-Pale Yellow Letter

Written in Sakura's handwriting multiple days before the crime. An apology to Aoi that had been hidden in the gambling den's restroom. Taeko apparently did not know of its existence.

 

-Autopsy Report

Incomplete. Sakura died between 6:30 and 6:50PM on the day of the murder. The Hi-C poison was found in her veins, but her body was so wracked with flames from a postmortem accident caused by Taeko and her servant that it is difficult to tell if she suffered any other wounds.

 

-Aoi's Testimony

Records of an interrogation by Prosecutor Togami detailing Aoi's account of the crime, gifted by Makoto. Largely inaccurate. Aoi herself wrote over her testimony to corroborate what she actually experienced: She and Sakura entered Praying Stars; Sakura excused herself to the restroom; Sakura returned, then died in front of Aoi's eyes. What happened when she was in the restroom?

 

-Bedazzled Black Bell

Used to call for Taeko's “Servant” Hifumi Yamada.

 

-Expensive Picture Frame

Worth $250. Contained a photo of Taeko prior to Mondo breaking it. The faces of the other people in the frame have been cut out.

 

-Body Repossession Sheet

Taeko apparently received ownership a corpse. It is difficult to make out what circumstances surrounded her coming to own it. The body vaguely resembles Sakura's, but the faces are all wrong.

 

-“League of Lesbians” Sign-Up Sheet

Found in Taeko's secret hideaway. Only four names are on it: Komaru Naegi, Toko Fukawa, Genocide Jill, and Sakura Oogami.

 

Profiling Updated:

 

Taeko Yasuhiro (16)

Formerly known as “Celestia Ludenberg”. The owner of Praying Stars and the latest defendant for the murder of Sakura Oogami. Was disowned at 14 and became a runaway. The survival skills she picked up on the street helped her create the gambling queen persona she had donned until Prosecutor Togami revealed her true name.

How much of what she's revealed to Kiyotaka is the truth? Can he trust her, or has her entire life story been a manufactured lie to appeal to Kiyotaka's sympathies?


“Court is now in session for the trial of Miss Celestia Luden—”

“OBJECTION!”

Prosecutor Togami snidely straightened his crisp white tie. “Her real name is Taeko Yasuhiro, Your Honor.”

The Judge blinked. “Oh, that's right.”

“He didn't have to cut in like that,” Mondo muttered, rolling his eyes. “Asswipe.”

It was too bad Prosecutor Togami couldn't hear Mondo's insults from across the room.

The Judge cleared his throat and began anew. “Court is now in session for the trial of Miss Taeko Yasuhiro. Oh,” he started, “how funny! Wasn't that the name of that man you defended in the last trial, Mr. Ishimaru? Do you think they're related?”

“N-No.” Kiyotaka gawked. “My first defendant's first name was Yasuhiro, not his—”

“Oh, you kids and your first names and your surnames.” The Judge waved him off with his gavel. “You've become a real man once you've forsaken both.” To the utter silence of the gallery, he unabashedly rapped his gavel once. “Is the defense ready?”

Kiyotaka was nudged by his partner. “Yes! Yes, the defense is ready, Your Honor!” He was ready, as long as he didn't think too hard about the mess of a trial looming before them. He still hadn't spoken with Taeko since his visit to her hideaway, and he could feel her needle-like crimson eyes sluicing him from the defendant's bench. He knew she had every intent to corner him as soon as she could pounce upon her first opportunity.

And oh how he feared that moment. The thought of it sent icicle daggers slashing into his veins.

Even after managing some sleep, Kiyotaka still couldn't tell what to think of Taeko. So badly as he wanted to trust her, the bracelet—and the body accumulation—and the documented truth that she had conversed with Sakura prior to the trial—seemed to play directly against her assertion that she would never harm the victim. Not only that, but her final proposal to the court, that someone had mortally wounded Sakura before she could take her antidote, had no evidence to substantiate it. So it was still highly likely that the poison and the—failed?—antidote had caused Sakura's demise.

The ever-beckoning impossible-to-answer why? pervaded the testy courthouse.

After offering Kiyotaka an unreasonably friendly smile, the Judge turned toward the other side of the court. “And the prosecution?”

The sweat was cascading down Makoto's forehead. He glanced up at Togami, gaze pinched, and tensed when the prosecutor smacked his hand flat against their desk. He pounded once more with a fist, then coolly replied, “Yes, Your Honor. And we intend to make this case quick.”

Makoto met Kiyotaka's eyes and mouthed NO, I DON'T, frantically shaking his head and pointing at himself. His brown spines of hair shuddered.

Mondo had to cover his snicker with his hand.

Before the Judge could prompt him, Togami said, raising his smarmy voice, “The prosecution would like to bring Detective Kirigiri to the stand.”

The laughter drained from Mondo's eyes. “Shit,” he hissed.

Kiyotaka wondered idly how she was planning on flipping her perspective of the case so wholly as to indict a completely separate person after having been so confident on Aoi's guiltiness. A part of him was oddly excited to witness it. Or perhaps it was the exhaustion kicking in.

Upon hearing her name called, Detective Kirigiri approached to the witness stand. She passed the prosecution—purposely?—on the way and whispered some indiscreet advice over Makoto's head. Prosecutor Togami, seething, said hotly, “I don't require your pithy apology, Kyoko.”

So much as he hadn't sensed the sexual tension behind the prosecution's desk yesterday, Kiyotaka could do little but swelter in the uncomfortable heat that had developed between the prosecutor and detective. Makoto, ever the soft in-between, kept staring at the wall just by Kiyotaka's head, maybe pretending this wasn't happening as the sweat trickled down his cheek.

“This'll be interesting,” Mondo whispered. “Hopefully they'll sabotage each other.”

“I worry you're being a little too hopeful. They're both logical adults. W-Well. Kirigiri is a logical adult.” Kiyotaka fisted his hands and steeled himself for whatever the detective's next onslaught of a testimony would provide.

“How lovely!” said the Judge. “I do adore watching the three of you work together.” He waved a hand toward the storm brewing about the prosecution and detective, Makoto awkwardly positioned in between them. Their glares cut like swords through the room, their ever-squishy boyfriend all that kept them from tearing the other into bloody pieces. “Detective, please enlighten us as to your latest theory of the crime, now that we have the added clarification of the more likely suspect.”

Detective Kirigiri's frosty gaze glided across the courtroom, hovering at the prosecution. She had left her trench coat at home and stood in a sheer sleeveless violet dress that clung to her curves and ended just at the thigh. Her thigh-high boots clacked against the floor as she paced in front of the witness stand. Her hair was down, and it blustered about her furious movements.

She served another reminder as to why Kiyotaka would never in his life date a woman. He feared her with every aching bone in his body.

“Right,” she finally said, coming to a halt. She had been holding a manilla folder that she now stretched out and opened. After sifting through its files, she plucked one specific page from its midsection and stared out at the gallery over the paper. Her fury was immeasurable.

“I will begin my testimony now, Your Honor.”

The Judge nodded amiably, the only one in the room not rendered frozen by the intensity of Kirigiri's frigid tone. “Go ahead!”

Testify: “The New Murderer”

“So we have a new murderer now,” she said smoothly, straightening her notes, “just like that. I suppose the last murderer decided she no longer felt very murderous, and now we've just had to slide the evidence that specifically incriminated her under a rug.”

The pen in Togami's hand crunched. One splat of ink landed on Makoto's cheek.

“Let's see,” she hummed. Hummed. She'd allowed one cursory glance to roll over Taeko. “Miss Taeko Yasuhiro, the daughter of a prodigious oil tycoon and a middle-eastern immigrant. You ran away from home at fourteen when your parents disowned you for having a girlfriend. Now you stand before us as the murderer of a woman of more than three times your muscle mass.

“The murderer of a woman who in fact identifies as a lesbian. How odd. It almost seems like something that would never befit your character.”

Taeko shivered. She wore the same clothes as yesterday—the ridiculous crimson gown, her hair a massive floor-length stream. The blank shock in her face told Kiyotaka the detective had found information on her that not even she knew the source of.

Kyoko cleared her throat, said, “But we can't have that, now can we? The prosecution indicted you; therefore you must be suspicious.” She peered at her notes for effect.

“Ah, the poison. There were bottles upon bottles of Hi-C discovered in your building's bar-top shelving units. Perhaps you accidentally slipped some of it to the unaware Ms. Oogami.”

Rolling her eyes, she gestured at Kiyotaka. “Go ahead, cross-examine me.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open.

Mondo sputtered, “That's... huh...”

The courtroom had gone silent.

The Judge raised his gavel. “Go ahead, Mr. Ishimaru. Detective Kirigiri asked so nicely, after all.”

Kiyotaka blew out a long breath.

His “OBJECTION!” felt particularly lacking of energy. “Detective Kirigiri, I have here, uh”—he held up the Hi-C antidote, as well as Sakura's drink cup—“two pieces of evidence that contradict with your idea of how—”

She didn't bother to let him finish. “Oh, how odd. It appears that it is incredibly unlikely the defendant was the murderer!” Casting another glare at the prosecution's side, she returned to her folder, and out came a deluge of paperwork.

Togami's eye twitched, his hands instinctively fisting around air. Makoto was pretending to be dead.

Kirigiri cleared her throat. “Your Honor, may I testify about my own theory of the crime scene?”

The prosecutor's mouth clenched shut with such force Kiyotaka worried he may have bitten his tongue off.

The Judge blinked. “Why, of course! That's what the detective is supposed to do, yes?”

Detective Kirigiri didn't bother answering. Kiyotaka nervously reached for Mondo's hand for support; Mondo took it, muttered, “This is the scariest shit I've ever seen. And let me tell you, I've seen some fucked up trials.” He blew out a breath, eyes trained on Detective Kirigiri.

Taeko, at least, seemed relieved. From out of—well, somewhere—she had procured a bottle of blood-red nail polish, and was busying herself with painting her nails. She had laid her white gloves on her lap. Her hands were covered in freckles.

There was an odd twinge in Kiyotaka's gut as he watched her. He could sense this loneliness emanating from her—could tell she'd covered her hands in gloves for the same reason she had painted up her face with makeup. While he still couldn't construe for himself what had happened at the scene of the crime—and he knew Taeko had to still be hiding something—he couldn't help but feel a little bad for her.

Her name would be all over the news now. He already knew she was terrified of her parents finding her again. Perhaps, as they had disowned her, they would not care, but it didn't negate the shame that must have overcome her.

He asked softly to Mondo, “Do you think she's actually the murderer? I...”

“I don't know, bud.” Mondo had followed his gaze, and the same concern Kiyotaka had felt now came awash upon his face. “Hopefully Togami will get her back on the stand soon. I feel like that's our best bet at puzzling out whatever it is she's got going on.”

There was nothing else to say. Kiyotaka's gut pinched.

Then Detective Kirigiri cleared her throat, having thoroughly searched through her notes and plastered the witness stand in evidence and testimonies linked with red string, and began anew.

Testify: “The Victim's True Cause of Death”

“I ordered a deep-cleaning of the gambling den yesterday afternoon. My team searched every last corner of the crime scene, even venturing into areas not explicitly connected with the murder as to better enhance our perspective of what had truly occurred two days ago.”

(Which of course brought Kiyotaka's question to the forefront: Had she found the secret hideaway?)

“I was even shown a secret passageway by the defendant's servant that led to the defendant's hidden parlor.”

(Kiyotaka gaped. She hadn't. Yamada had likely shown her the fake secret office—the one with the fireplace that led to the real hideaway—to throw her off her tracks. Taeko—a sixteen-year-old who was currently under arrest—had outplayed the detective.)

“I believe what I have discovered contains the most accurate depiction of the crime scene possible.

“The defendant committed an elaborate suicide attempt.”

(Kiyotaka's blood ran cold. He saw Taeko stiffen out of the corner of his eye, her usual easygoing smile smeared into a disgusted scowl.)

“This is the only explanation I can think of that would explain why the victim didn't use her antidote if she had access to it, perhaps as a means of escaping her decision if she went back on it, and why she wrote the letter to her partner in advance. I couldn't find more evidence at the gambling den, but I did at her house.”

She pulled out an entire journal from her manilla folder. Its cover was watercolor pink and decorated with lovely orange-and-purple butterflies.

“The victim's diary. In here alone did she write about her concerns.”

This was all too much to take in; sensing this, Detective Kirigiri paused. Togami continued to seethe in his corner. His hands flexed at his sides, but he yet made no move to counter the detective's testimony.

Her gaze fell on Kiyotaka. Her face seemed to taunt him: Go ahead, Press on my statements.

Nothing else to do about it. “HOLD IT!” he cried; then, “Please relay to the court what you learned from Ms. Oogami's diary!”

He knew Aoi was in the gallery, and he knew if it wasn't illegal she would've run down and stolen the diary back. This wasn't right. This wasn't right. Sakura's private thoughts were about to be unveiled to perhaps hundreds of people, thousands if their court proceedings aired on television. Perhaps even more than that. The thought of all those people being privy to his deceased best friend's diary—which likely held secrets she hadn't even wanted to yet tell Aoi about—was staggering.

...but apparently it offered a new perspective of what had occurred. And it might show them the truth. So he—So he had to Press.

This diary apparently was Detective Kirigiri's trump card. She'd already revealed to them that she'd learned next to nothing else about the crime.

Mondo reassuringly squeezed his hand. His pinched eyes reflected back Kiyotaka's discomfort.

He refocused back on Detective Kirigiri, who flashed a focused grin. “Yes, of course.” She flipped through the diary's pages without another thought of it. Kiyotaka could make out tight, overly neat handwriting in red ink all over the book's careful penciled-in entries. “Just over three weeks ago, Ms. Oogami made her first important note: 'I think I am being followed on my walk home.'”

...what?

She knew—She knew she had the entire court's unbridled attention now. Not even she could stifle her hiked-up smirk. “The victim added, 'It is only on nights when I walk by myself to the grocery store, or spare Aoi a trip. And it is not every night. But I saw the silhouette of a person trailing after me on my walk today, and the glint of metal in their hand on the edge of a streetlight. It could have been a knife, a sword, a gun. It matters not.

“'I must do something to protect Aoi. My greatest fear is of her suffering.'”

“OBJECTION!”

Kiyotaka froze. From across the courtroom, Togami was pointing straight at the detective, his smarmy grin smeared into a furious snarl.

“This has nothing to do with the defendant's guilt! You are going out of your way to ignore the obvious conclusion: that the defendant was—”

“SILENCE.”

The sweat cooled at Kiyotaka's cheeks. Detective Kirigiri had whipped her head aside to sneer at the prosecution. “I am not done yet, Prosecutor. Why don't you shut your mouth for a minute so that I may finish my testimony?”

Togami clenched evidence files with his clawed hands. His face was profuse with magenta.

Allowing a moment of silence, Kirigiri cleared her throat once more and knocked her hair over her shoulder. No other objections tore through her self-imposed quietude. “The next important clue came two entries later—'I met an incredible young woman today. While it could have been risky to trust her, I sensed I could relay to her my fears of being followed. She took them very seriously and fretted that someone might be scoping me out. Hopefully we will create a countermeasure soon.'

“Then the very next entry, 'We have a plan. I am sorry, Aoi. I wish I could tell you, but I fear your knowledge could spread to my pursuer and catalyze their actions.'”

Kiyotaka covered his mouth with his hand. His eyes were wet with horror.

Mondo squeezed his other hand. His rough expression had tightened, his mouth set in a grim line.

There was nothing they could say, nothing they could do but let this horrid barrage rain down on them.

“She made no mention of this plan until the day of her death, to which she said: 'I may have compromised our plan. I think Aoi knows. Does she know, or did my pursuer find out? Perhaps these very pages are giving me away. I will have to think ahead of them.'

“This was Ms. Oogami's final entry.” Detective Kirigiri released a sharp exhale. “She must have doubted the success whatever plan she had concocted and decided to take the safest measure that would keep her partner what she had hoped to be out of harm's way.”

Kiyotaka couldn't stop it from flying out of his mouth—

“OBJECTION!”

Detective Kirigiri flinched. “What do you mean, ob—”

“Sakura knew better than that!” He'd slipped out of his courtroom etiquette and couldn't bring himself to care. He released Mondo's hand to pound his fists into the desk. His hands ached with rage. “Aoi would not be unharmed if Sakura... i-if she ended her life! Wh-Wh-What are you talking about?”

Instinctively Kirigiri's gaze leapt at Makoto, whose soft hazel eyes had sought out hers. Her cheeks colored, but she remained silent.

“D-Detective Kirigiri, what you're suggesting is no better a solution than if Sakura's pursuer had gotten to her! That can't possibly be what—”

“Then you tell me!” she shouted back, her hair whipping about her when she turned to face Kiyotaka. “Prove me wrong, Ishimaru! Show me the evidence that proves Ms. Oogami didn't commit suicide!”

Togami's mouth opened; without turning around, Kirigiri fired back at him: “Don't, Prosecutor. Unless you've a better argument than the one you kept throwing at me last night.” His mouth snapped shut. “Ruined our evening with Makoto,” she muttered to herself.

Kiyotaka frantically turned to his own evidence. His hand instinctively reached for Sakura's bracelet—

—It was so carefully undone... as if its owner had untied it knowing it could be besmirched, coated in blood, ripped apart or otherwise come to harm if she had worn it to her final outing...

...no, no no no...

Hurriedly he flipped back to Aoi's testimony, fighting to outpace the chills of dread that buckled his hands. Swallowing tightly, he grasped the document and shouted, “Ms. Asahina, the witness to Ms. Oogami's death, reported a strange occurrence that could be hiding the truth of the murder before us in her testimony!” Surprisingly, Detective Kirigiri grew still. She scrutinized the attorney with a new, foreign fierceness that she hadn't bothered to use on him yesterday.

Kiyotaka continued, his heartbeat spiking up his throat. “We're missing the crucial moment of Ms. Oogami's incapacitation: What happened when she entered the restroom? Since there, w-well, there are no cameras, it's impossible to tell if Ms. Oogami actually took the poison when she was in there by herself, or if someone hurt her first!”

He realized, skin crawling, that he was utilizing Taeko's testimony from the day before. He glanced over to her, and—her eyes had widened—she knew it too. A big grateful smile had seized her face.

Detective Kirigiri puzzled over his evidence. “But I don't believe we found any signs of violence in that restroom.” Her brow furrowed. “If there is no evidence displaying Ms. Oogami's struggle with an unknown assailant... is it even likely she was assailed whatsoever?”

Togami coughed into his fist. Everybody ignored him.

...this line of questioning had dried up. There was no way to prove or disprove what might have occurred in the restroom, unless Taeko's new plan of testimony included her meeting Sakura there. But that couldn't be right—she reportedly hadn't noticed the yellow letter, which meant she hadn't seen Sakura place it there. Due to timing constraints, it all depended on if there were some surprise witness who had seen Sakura in the restroom—or even a surprise murderer who had expertly hidden their crime.

Kiyotaka stood there like an idiot for a second.

But of course there wasn't a surprise witness!

He almost smacked himself. How could he hope for something that fruitless?

Swallowing tightly, he said, “I'm not sure. I'll have to return to your previous testimony.”

Detective Kirigiri's brows raised, but she did not comment and even dutifully repeated it.

About halfway through, Kiyotaka cried, “HOLD IT! Detective Kirigiri, are you sure your depiction of the crime scene isn't missing any—”

An entire vial of deep red nail polish splattered across his suit. The words died at his lips.

Blinking furiously, he turned in the direction of Taeko's apologetic gasp. He already knew it was staged.

“Oh my! I am so sorry, Kiyotaka! I cannot believe I upended all of my nail polish on top of you! How clumsy of me!”

His suit... His white suit...

Even Mondo was peeved. “What the fuck, Taeko? What was that all—”

“Your Honor!” squeaked Taeko, trampling over Mondo's voice. “Your Honor, may I please escort my attorney to the restroom? I have nail polish remover in my pocket that I would like to try on his suit, please! I am so very sorry for this inexcusable misdeed!” She made a deep curtsy, her head fully bowed.

Togami broke in once more. “OBJECTION!” With all eyes trained on him, he drummed a fist upon his desk. “Clearly we cannot trust this—”

“Really?” Kirigiri's hands crested her hips. She rolled her eyes over the prosecution. “Are you still going on about this?”

“O-Of course!” Togami's cheeks seared a violent crimson. “Nobody else could have—”

“Did you listen to any of my testimony, Prosecutor?”

“It could have been staged, Detective—”

Makoto had disappeared under the prosecution's desk with a high-pitched “Not this again!”

Between their squabbles, Taeko raised her hand and waved. Her nail polish flashed under the lights, returning the Judge's gaze to their side of the courtroom. “Well...” Their grizzled overseer thought about Taeko's request for a long moment. “Oh, all right. You're just so cute, how could I refuse?”

Mondo cringed. “Really, Udgey?”

The Judge shrugged. “She reminds me of my granddaughter. How could I say no to that face?”

“Oh. Okay. I guess that's better.” While Mondo babbled, Taeko linked Kiyotaka's arm with hers and rushed him toward the exit. “H-Hey! Wait! I'm coming too!” The biker's big clonking footsteps chased after them.

As soon as they'd passed through the hallway and into—they bickered a moment before choosing—the nearest men's restroom, Kiyotaka screamed, “TAEKO! DO YOU EVEN KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY I SPENT ON—"

She'd turned on the sink faucet and filled her hands with water as he yelled. She now splashed his face with her handful, shutting him up. “Kiyotaka, I wax money. Just by existing, men and women alike pay me copious amounts.”

Kiyotaka, sputtering, squeaked, “But your gambling den's under—”

Taeko happily shook her head. “My onlyfans does very well, I will have you know.”

“TAEKO! Y-YOU'RE SIXTEEN!”

Taeko frowned. “Goodness, your mind is dirty, Kiyotaka! People pay me for my imaginative and, may I add, fully clothed dress-up outfits.” She shook her head. “But no matter. I will buy you a new suit, worry not.” She cringed. “A better one, too. This one is so... plain.”

Kiyotaka's head was so full of volcanic rage that for a second there he was too steamed to get any words out. Did he really have to explain to her that some people actually preferred a plainer suit?!

He was so focused on his clothing that he didn't notice she had backed toward the door until she was lodging one of her ridiculous high heels into its looped handle as to forcibly jam it shut. Then, testing the door—it jiggled, couldn't open—she folded her newly-painted fingers over her midsection and brandished an all-too-big smile.

“What evidence did you find in my private dwellings, Kiyotaka?” She kicked off her other high heel and stood in her socked feet on the restroom floor without even recoiling. Sans heels, she was actually shorter than Kiyotaka by a few inches.

He opened his mouth—to say something—when a voice erupted from behind the restroom door.

“Taka? Taeko? Are you in here? Uhhhhh... or are you in the ladies' room..?!”

Mondo.

Taeko stared up at Kiyotaka, eyes unnervingly wide.

Kiyotaka rolled his eyes, whispered, “Just let him in.”

She made a silent sigh, then struggled with the shoe lodged in the door handle. Eventually she got the heel out and ushered Mondo in before painstakingly working at the door again and finally, after a couple laborious minutes, managed to jam it shut again.

She should have realized in all the time it took to jam the door that if Kiyotaka and Mondo had felt all that threatened about her attempts to lock them in, they could have easily overpowered her and taken her makeshift weapons away. By the time she was done, Kiyotaka had carefully removed and folded up his soiled outer coat, then draped it over Mondo's generous shoulder. Mondo eyed his lavender undershirt—it complemented his deep blue-violet tie—and murmured, “Damn. Still crisp as fuck.”

Now was not the time to blush, and yet Kiyotaka's cheeks defied him.

“Now,” Taeko said, straightening, “please relay to me what you discovered in my private chamber, both of you.” It would have felt a great deal more intimidating had she not spent the last two minutes cramming her high heel into the restroom door's handle.

Kiyotaka set aside the brewing argument in his head concerning his suit. Sakura's murderer was still unknown, and that took the highest precedence. “I was about to relay testimony that would have furthered the argument and created an opportunity to present exactly what I saw, Taeko. You didn't have to—”

“Tell me.” Her voice raised an octave. “Tell me now.”

“Shit, Taeko,” Mondo muttered. He placed a protective hand at Kiyotaka's shoulder. “Taka just told you he's gonna get to it in a couple seconds. Calm dow—”

What did you see?” Her breathing had gone erratic, her cheeks flushed. “Wh-What did you see of me? Tell me now!”

She lunged at Kiyotaka, the claw-shaped ring on her middle finger gleaming—

—when Mondo's strong arms shackled at her wrists, holding her in place. “Taeko, relax! What's going on?” She wouldn't speak, just started struggling. “Hey! You're the one who gave us access in there anyways! Don't you know what we would've seen?”

Big gloppy tears had formed at the edges of her eyes. She kept struggling, mouth clamped shut. Surely she knew that Mondo was stronger than her.

Mondo let out a breath. He met Kiyotaka's eyes over her head. “Can I...” To Kiyotaka's nod, he relaxed his grip. As soon as she wrenched her hands free, Taeko rushed back at the restroom's entrance, guarding the door with her body. “Hey, you're alright. You're our client, aren'cha?” He held out his hands to show he wasn't hiding anything. “But if we're gonna trust you, you have to trust us too.”

“Yes, w-w-well...” Taeko folded her arms across her chest. “S-So what? You don't trust me anyways. I am untrustworthy.”

Kiyotaka scowled. She wasn't wrong... but she didn't have to be. He stepped in front of Mondo, said, “Then give us a reason to trust you. Please. Taeko, we really, really want to help you.” The things she'd told him yesterday as the tears ran down her face came back in starbursts. “You... You didn't kill Sakura, did you?”

She bit her lip, staring into a corner of the restroom. Her mouth wobbled, but she wouldn't let any words come out.

Mondo broke in. “I don't think so. But there's gotta be a reason why you're too scared to tell us.” He drew out a tense breath, then stepped back, giving Taeko space, and dumped his hands into his hoodie's front pocket. “We don't wanna freak you out, kid. We're tryna figure out what actually happened so you don't go to fuckin' jail for a crime you didn't even commit!”

Her gaze darted between them. She knew, she knew if she kept quiet she could risk her own life. Yet she still didn't dare speak.

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly, asked, “Is it the pursuer?”

“I-Is..?” she echoed.

He'd gotten her voice to return. That was as good a sign as any. “Is that why you're afraid, Taeko?”

She stared at the ground, then nodded almost imperceptibly.

Okay. She felt threatened in some way by their mysterious—assassin?—murderer?

“Taeko,” he prodded, keeping his voice soft, low, “do you know anything about the pursuer?”

She stifled a whine. “No...” Kicked her discarded shoe. “B-B-But they were going to hurt Miss Sakura... And I—And I had to stop them...”

Mondo opened his mouth—Kiyotaka squeezed him by the wrist, hissed, “Wait.” Catching his intent, Mondo drew silent.

As if recognizing what she'd almost revealed on her own, Taeko ducked her head, exhaled sharply. “J-Just tell me what you saw, Kiyotaka. What did you find?”

His heart twinged. They should have spoken with her yesterday after their investigation. He could just feel Taeko staying up, waiting, waiting for them to come back. The mounting fear that must have paralyzed her when they didn't return and provide her an opportunity to explain the evidence they had collected from her private quarters...

Kiyotaka bowed his head. “I'm sorry, Taeko.” He heard her gasp softly. “I should have trusted you with our findings. I—I'm afraid my own presumptions caused me to assume the worst about you. I... I'm supposed to believe in you, but I didn't yesterday. I'm truly sorry.”

He heard her crying again... and it was his fault. His blood ran cold.

With a blast of alacrity he recalled that picture frame Mondo had dropped. The photo in it—Taeko, with her companions' faces all cropped out—proved her claims yesterday. She... She was all alone, wasn't she?

He needed to make this right.

“I'll show you what we found, Taeko. So please trust us too. We need your help to save you from the prosecution.”

Mondo broke in. “God, let's just request a fuckin' recess from Udgey. This place stinks.”

Taeko paled, as if recalling where she had attempted to corner them from. She furtively wiped the wet streaks from her cheeks. “Yes, you m-men sure do stink.” She went about recollecting her shoes, strapping the one on the floor to her foot, then struggling with the one still jammed in the door handle.

She fiddled with it for a long minute, then hissed “shit.” Hands raw, she stepped back a second to stare at her stuck shoe.

“Here.” Mondo surged ahead and knocked it free. “There you go.” He handed it over to Taeko.

Her nose wrinkled. “Thank you, accessory.” She quickly strapped it to her foot. “After you.” Her eyes were trained on Kiyotaka, and something like—something like appreciation had softened her complexion.


Upon their return, the Judge granted Kiyotaka's request for a ten-minute recess to help prepare Taeko for her upcoming testimony, as Detective Kirigiri had left the stand shortly after her dispute with the prosecution had escalated. Kiyotaka could only imagine how bad it had been, having caused Makoto's cheeks to drain of color, his hair razzled, gaze unfocused. That poor boy really was powerless between his overwhelming partners.

They found one of those courtroom couches by the edge of the hallway and plopped themselves down with their evidence.

Taeko remained silent as they showed off and explained each piece they found. Her fingers curled at the sight of Mondo's ridiculous fail-safe, the repossession of that corpse that vaguely resembled Sakura, but she didn't speak up until after Kiyotaka had finished showing her the bracelet, their last piece.

Then he asked, “How did you come into possession of this, Taeko?”

“Oh,” she said softly. “In case our plan went poorly, Miss Sakura asked me to hold it for her. She did not want it to be destroyed.”

Oh.

Oh, the answer had been right there all along...

Kiyotaka broke into an exasperated laugh. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed out all that anxiety. “I can't believe how badly I misread the circumstances...”

“Hey.” Mondo's hand rested at his thigh. “She was your best friend. Course your emotions're high. Plus, we didn't know about Oogami's diary when we found it.”

Taeko gaped. “That is what confounded you? A bracelet?” She scowled. “Really, Kiyotaka?”

“W-Well! Sakura would never take it off of her own volition! She never took it off! So if it wasn't on her wrist, and someone killed her... I just”—he shook himself—“I made the worst assumption. I'm sorry. Can we move on?”

Taeko thought about it. “Fine, I suppose. I will have to keep careful guard over the rest of my bracelets now, in case I lose one and you assume someone has fucking murdered me in cold blood.”

The color sucked out of Kiyotaka's face.

“It was one time!” he cried.

Mondo burst into laughter, and Taeko giggled behind her hand, her colored nails shining under the courtroom lights.

She'd calmed down once she knew what they had. Now she considered their options, and, musing, finally said, “I created the sign-up sheet a few weeks ago. What with my network of informants, I had gained a great swath over San Fransokyo, so I decided to use my new influence to seek out other, um, women who had inclinations similar to my own. I just... I wanted to see lesbians who were happy.

“I made a group chat for us. We do not speak often, but it just helps to know there are other women like me out there, living incredible lives. That is how I came to know Miss Sakura, and how she came to trust me with her plight.”

“Did she know about your past?” Kiyotaka asked.

Taeko shook her head. “She likely assumed I was a capable adult, as I believe you did when we first met.”

Mondo snickered. “You scared the shit out of us. Taka thought you were a fuckin' demon.”

“I am pleased to hear it.” She self-consciously tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, her smile brilliant.

Kiyotaka hated to steer the conversation away, but they still did have a murder on their hands. “Taeko, what about—I just... I need to know. What is this?” He held the corpse repossession paper in front of her.

She opened, then shut, then reopened her mouth. “It is exactly what it appears to be.”

Kiyotaka tensed. “Did you—”

“I simply claimed possession of this body.” She nonchalantly twirled her hair with a finger. “You never know when a dead body will come in use.”

Kiyotaka decided not to question this line of thinking any further.

He redirected the conversation once more. “Can you tell us what actually happened to Sakura? Do you know how she died?”

She pressed her lips tightly together, then said, slow, “I thought about it for a long time, and I... I have decided that I do not know how she died.”

Hurriedly Kiyotaka grasped his katana—but there was nothing, no sense of any ulterior motives. She did not know how Sakura died.

“So you weren't in the restroom,” he clarified. She shook her head. “You really believe that she was killed by someone in the restroom?”

She paused. Squinted. “I think... I think that if anything caused her death, it would have to be a third party working from the restroom without my foreknowledge. And... there is one person who would know how to reach the restroom without arising suspicion...”

Kiyotaka and Mondo both gasped. “Who?”

“Servant, of course.” Taeko glanced away. “But that does not make any sense! I would never request Servant to kill Miss Sakura.”

Yamada... tried to kill... no... That was simply too insane to be true. How could he even do that? Ignoring the strange power balance between him and Taeko, he was a portly man in a cat onesie theoretically up against the strongest person Kiyotaka knew.

Unfortunately, Makoto materialized before they could get any more out of this conversation. “Hey, guys. Mr. Judge wanted me to let you know the recess has been over for the last five minutes.”

Kiyotaka gaped. He pulled out his phone, and surely enough, they had gone over time. “My apologies!”

Mondo shrugged. “Eh, it happens.”

Makoto glanced between the three of them. “Were you able to get the stain out of Taka's suit?”

Kiyotaka's face flushed deep red. He glared over at Taeko, who offered an incongruous smile. “I am afraid red refuses to come out of white fabric! I will have to purchase my attorney a new suit.” She side-eyed Mondo. “Accessory could also use a suit. I do not think golden-fringed biker shorts go very well in a court of law.”

“Hey!” Mondo flushed too. “These are great! Comfortable and easy to wear. They work for any old occasion!”

“I don't know...” Makoto mumbled. “We are in a court of law...”

Taeko nodded to herself. “If the suit is black with golden fringe, will you wear it?”

Mondo's eyes lit up. “Yeah, sure. If you're paying.”

Taeko happily clapped her hands together.

Kiyotaka got up to start filing away all their evidence. Mondo helped shuffle things into folders, whispering curses when he crinkled them by accident.

Taeko hovered by Kiyotaka's side. When a police officer approached her, she attached herself to the attorney, linking his arm with hers. He dropped his folder in shock, and with Taeko stuck on his arm, he couldn't reach it. “Taeko,” he hissed, before Mondo stepped in to pick it up for him.

She glanced between the officer and her attorney, and she said, “No thank you, Sir Officer. Kiyotaka will escort me to the stand.”

He closed his eyes, sighed. He supposed he would.


Prosecutor Togami threw a fit when they returned.

Taeko excused herself to the witness stand. Mondo and Kiyotaka returned to their desk and resorted their evidence. So badly as Kiyotaka would have preferred to focus on the evidence before them, Togami was doing a terrible job at keeping his voice low.

As soon as Makoto reached the prosecution stand, he growled, “Where have you been?” There was a quiet, hurried response from his secretary. “I need you here. Why do you keep associating with the other side?” Another mumbled reply. “You don't have to say anything. Just... Just stand here. You don't even have to do anything. I'm not paying you to do anything but just not... leave.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but glance up at the prosecution. Togami was flustered, running his hands through his disheveled dirty blonde hair. Makoto wasn't quite meeting his eyes, just bobbling his head and apologizing here and there.

The Judge raised his gavel once their chit-chat dwindled. “Detective Kirigiri posed a most interesting argument before the break: Did the defendant take her own life?” A chilling silence proceeded. Kiyotaka grabbed her bracelet, stared at it. She wouldn't. Right? She couldn't.

“As it stands,” the Judge continued, “we lack conclusive evidence that proves Ms. Oogami was the cause of her death. The likeliest candidate is still, though I hate to admit it, Miss Taeko.”

“Correct,” interjected Prosecutor Togami. “The prosecution will now question the defendant once again. Yesterday she proved to be completely useless.” Taeko mimed Togami's words with her right hand as she stared up at the ceiling. Kiyotaka had to stop himself from laughing. “We hope that today she will actually submit to the truth.”

Taeko met the prosecution's eyes, then said, “If you intend not to be a little bitch today, then I would love to comply.”

Togami scowled, cheeks blustering red. “If you intend to be reasonable today, then perhaps you won't be found guilty of murder. Unless, of course”—his glasses flashed—“your lies are all a terrible camouflage for your cold-blooded crime.

“Defendant. Testify to the court about how you think the murder occurred. I want to know your thoughts of it.”

Taeko bristled. “Had I not already given you my testimony yesterday?”

“Do it again.” Togami drummed his fingers along his desk. Makoto glanced feverishly between his prosecutor and the defendant. He looked about as helpful as an egg. “I intend to pick apart your lies this time, and fashion them into stepping-stones toward the truth behind your actions. I am ready.”

“Oh?” Her dark brows raised. “We shall see in due time, Sir Prosecutor.”

The Judge pounded his gavel, and she began.

Testify: “An Impossible Crime and Impossible Murderer”

“I believe I already relayed to you that I could not have been in the restroom at the time of Miss Sakura's unfortunate incident. Else I would have known about her letter.

“Sir Prosecutor”—she turned to Togami—“how could I have poisoned her, marred her, hurt her or otherwise if I was not physically present at the necessary place?”

She paused a moment; Togami opened his mouth—and she then raised her hand, said softly, “Well, could anyone have entered the restroom without leaving a single speck of evidence? And if so, was their form of leaving evidence the choice to place the letter as bait in the restroom, to lead a foolhardy procession to presume she had ended her own life?”

(Wait... Kiyotaka was having trouble keeping up. What was she trying to say here? That Sakura... couldn't have been her own murderer?)

“But then where are their fingerprints? A bloodstain? A weapon? Your detective scoured my gambling den all afternoon, did she not? Then where is the evidence that I—or anyone else—entered the restroom with Miss Sakura?”

She turned and looked directly at her attorney.

“It is surely impossible for anyone to have snuck into the restroom without arising suspicion.”

And she winked.

Mondo froze. “She's tellin' us something.”

“Really? You think?” Kiyotaka muttered. So much fun as she had prodding the prosecution, that last snippet of testimony had certainly been meant for them.

...was she implying...

Oh no—

Before he had the chance to question Taeko's judgment, the prosecution launched an “OBJECTION!” her way. Prosecutor Togami straightened, then delicately tugged the topmost slip of paper off his stack of files. “Clearly you poisoned her drink, defendant.”

Kiyotaka opened his mouth—but Taeko raised her hand toward him. “Please, Sir Prosecutor, enlighten me as to how I could have sequestered a poison into her private drinking cup without her—or her loving girlfriend—noticing."

Togami was fuming. Her grin hiking up a notch, Taeko added, “Didn't Madam Detective just make that claim earlier today so that Kiyotaka could easily prove its contradiction? My, my, are you slow!”

Makoto was hiding a cheeky grin with his hand. He nudged Togami and whispered something to him. The prosecution's face blurted red. “I—I'm certain of it! You had to have poisoned her!”

“Are you accusing me of murdering Miss Sakura because I am a lesbian?” Taeko gasped. “Are you homophobic, Sir Prosecutor?” She clapped her hands over her cheeks, her mouth stretched into a gaping smile.

“O-Of course not!” Now his ears were burning. “There's just—You're so—You have to be the murderer!”

Taeko pouted. “Why? Because I am smarter than you? Are you trying to put me in prison because I intimidate you?”

“N-NO!” Togami slammed his fisted hands into his desk, and his glasses slid askew. “BECAUSE... YOU DID IT!”

Makoto very gently laid a hand on the prosecutor's forearm. He flinched a second—as if to swat it away—then hesitated.

Kiyotaka decided now would be a good time to step in. “Prosecutor Togami, do you have any other evidence that gives you cause to think that Taeko committed this crime? Because if not, I'd like to get back to my cross-examination.”

“You're working with her,” Togami seethed.

Kiyotaka blinked. “She's my client! Why wouldn't I work with her?”

This caught the prosecutor off guard.

Mondo sniggered, clapping a hand on Kiyotaka's shoulder. “God, what an asshole. Too bad he can't hide behind his detective anymore.”

Even the Judge had something to say. “Mr. Togami, is everything alright? Usually you work so much better with Makoto—”

Togami shot a glare at the Judge, then settled his frigid gaze upon Kiyotaka. “You should know better than to listen to her. She's a living lie! Aren't you an attorney? Isn't your job to find the truth of what happened? The victim was your friend, Ishimaru. And you're letting this insolent child dictate how we see the events of Oogami's death?”

His blood chilled.

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly.

He knew that there was something Taeko still wasn't sure about—or... was hiding from them.

Her voice surged over him—I do not know how she died.

Then why did she now suggest that Yamada, who knew the secret entrances to all the rooms in her building, could have had access to the restroom that Sakura was in, even if Taeko did not?

...Yamada wore that collar. She could pick up on voices through it.

That would mean that she would have known what had happened in the restroom, if she was going to imply that Yamada could have been there at that time. And Yamada was crafty—He'd set Sakura's body on fire under Detective Kirigiri's nose, and not even she had been capable of stopping him.

She knew. That meant Taeko knew. Whatever happened in that restroom, she knew.

But she'd said she did not know how Sakura had died.

...Slowly Kiyotaka began turning over his evidence from yesterday, witnessing it alter under a new light. Aoi's testimony of Sakura dying wearing the bracelet. The bracelet that Sakura had apparently given to Taeko for safe-keeping. The photograph that illustrated just how alone the teenager was—and her ridiculous “League of Lesbians” as some sort of means to fill that gap.

The body repossession.

...The body repossession.

He recalled that between Sakura's death—Aoi running away—the other detective ditching the crime scene—himself and Mondo inspecting the bathrooms—and Detective Kirigiri having been tripped up by Yamada... there cropped up windows of time in which only Taeko was in the room with the corpse.

His shaking hands went numb. There was no way.

And yet... and yet it was the only way all of Taeko's patchwork testimony and strange remnants of evidence all fit together.

“OBJECTION!”

When he met her eyes, she flinched.

She knew that he had figured it out, and the fear had pulverized her. Her hand tried to reach out to him, but she stole it back and squeezed her fingers together, her bright crimson eyes fixated upon him.

He had the power to ruin everything she had been laboring to mask. And she knew she couldn't stop him if he did.

His lips parted. He said, “I was speaking with Taeko during the recess about what may have occurred in the restroom. There is only one person who could have snuck in after Sakura, one person who could have witnessed the event—who had the power to kill her.

He met Togami's eyes and, hoisting Taeko's stupid sequined bell, said:

“I call Hifumi Yamada to the witness stand.”

Taeko collapsed. He darted over to his client, and she grabbed his hand, squeezing fitfully. She leaned into him for support, grappled his shoulder, tilted him close enough to rasp, “You understand.”

Across the room, Prosecutor Togami had begun to walk toward the exit. “This is ridiculous,” he said, when his secretary rushed after him, grabbing him by the hand.

“Byakuya, wait!” Makoto pleaded. “I think... I think we're really on to something! I know you don't like that witness, but Taka might've just figured it out!”

And he had... and he had...

Kiyotaka whispered, “You said you didn't know how Sakura could have died.” Swallowing tightly, Taeko nodded. She knew where this was going.

Since she couldn't know how Sakura had died if Sakura had not died at all.

Mondo blundered over to them. “Taeko, you okay?” he asked even as the young lady picked herself up and out of Kiyotaka's arms, rebalancing on her heels.

She glanced at Kiyotaka and smiled sweetly. “Yes, I will be. Thank you for trusting me. I am happy we are in agreement that Servant holds the rest of this case's answers.” She held her attorney's gaze, knowing fully well that he had just protected her deepest secret and even helped her shift the trial in the opposite direction as to better mask the truth.

He was still quaking a little on the inside. He couldn't believe he had looked right in Prosecutor Togami's eyes and essentially lied in return. The Kiyotaka of two weeks ago would have been appalled and possibly died on the spot.

...but this case had displayed very quickly to him the nasty underside of the law.

And lying about the truth in this moment might be the only thing keeping his best friend alive.

He shivered as he relived the pounding he had heard over Taeko's secret hideaway. The pounding of footsteps—footsteps that could only belong to one person, hidden within the secret hideaway... within the secret hideaway.

Someone who was pretending to be dead for the sake of her survival.


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

The Judge proposed a recess while Bill Bailiff hunted down the elusive cat-onesied witness. However, Kiyotaka jingled his bell one time, and within the minute, a huffing, puffing, disastrous man covered in sweaty ribbons burst through the front doors of the courtroom, crying, “SERVANT IS HERE TO FULFILL MISS GODLIKE CELESTIA'S EVERY BIDDING!” before crashing into the carpet face-first.

And so the trial went on undeterred.

Taeko reluctantly returned to her place at the defendant's bench, but her gaze remained on Kiyotaka. He looked over to her, once, twice, to make sure she was alright, and he found her staring after him each time. And when he asked Mondo to check, his partner murmured, “Yeah, she's still lookin' at you.”

Somehow he had won the favor(?) of the teenage gambling queen. It was too bad Kiyotaka had no idea what to do with this new power.

When the witness had dragged himself over to the stand and propped himself up against it with trembling elbows, a sneer slashed across Prosecutor Togami's face. His eyes pinched at the edges. Makoto nudged him, said, “We can do this. There's just a little bit more for us to figure out.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but notice how Makoto's left hand and Togami's right had disappeared beneath their desk. His own hand craved to reach out to Mondo's, but he had so much swirling about in his head that it felt—it felt wrong to ask for comfort when he still couldn't decide if or how to relay his discovery to his partner.

If he said it aloud, someone could overhear. If he wrote it down or texted it, the information could be tracked back to them. And with Taeko's eyes so sharply following him, he doubted he could manage a clandestine conveyance of this information without her knowing.

...Was Sakura's pursuer in the gallery today? Were they also trying to parse how their hit had “terminated,” ruining their opportunity to steal her life themselves?

And were they on the verge of reaching the same conclusion as Kiyotaka?

...how did he go about keeping Sakura safe? His heart throbbed, threatening to tear out of his chest. He still didn't know.

For now, he had to trust Taeko's judgment and allow her servant to take the stand.

The Judge's gavel came down. “Well, how timely you are, witness!”

Togami peered at the bespectacled witness. “Name and occupation.” His free hand had tightened on a sheet of evidence. Kiyotaka wished he could tell what was running through the prosecution's mind. Surely he had come nowhere near the conclusion now causing havoc in Kiyotaka's mind, but was he closer than Kiyotaka realized?

...It felt as if the entire courthouse had become a bomb, and any moment could set it off.

“Oh! Name?” Yamada finally met the prosecutor's eyes, cocking his head. “Servant forsook his mortal form's true name long ago.”

Togami closed his eyes, teeth gritted. “What is your name , witness?”

Mondo's hand clenched gently at Kiyotaka's arm. “As tempted as I am to tell him, I think we should let him struggle.” He covered his snicker with his free hand. Despite the tension pulsing through Kiyotaka's body, a wavering smirk passed along his lips. At least Mondo was here to cheer him up a little.

“Servant has no name. He is merely Servant.”

Oh my god just tell me your—”

“Servant! Servant already told you five times now.”

Togami's hands raised to his head. He had already disheveled his so carefully restyled hairdo. “Servant is not your legal name!”

“Hmm,” Taeko mused, “Perhaps I should change that.”

Mondo broke down, his heaves of laughter so great they knocked him over their desk.

Order!” The Judge's gavel resounded. “Goodness, Mondo. I can't hear anything over your raucous voice.” He rapped it a couple more times until Mondo managed to regain control over his vocal cords, and, intaking a deep breath, straightened. His cheeks were flushed with mirth, his fluffy hair all fluttery about his warm, tan face.

Kiyotaka feverishly looked away when he realized he was staring.

The courtroom had drawn silent. Makoto gently cleared his throat and knocked his fist against the desk. “Um, Kyoko wrote his name down somewhere, I think...”

From across the way, Taeko met her servant's eyes and imparted an unreadable look upon him.

Immediately the witness pounded his sweaty paws on the stand. “Servant used to go by Hifumi Yamada. Used to!”

Mondo's lips parted. He let out a low whistle.

“You saw that?” Kiyotaka whispered to him.

Soundlessly his partner nodded.

Yamada was Taeko's perfect puppet for the case. Whatever she wished to convey could be imprinted upon him first. She was toying with Togami yet again.

His palms broke into a sweat. What was she going to testify through Yamada?

After releasing an exhausted breath, Togami asked, voice strained, “And your occupation, Yamada?”

“For forty hours of the work-week, Servant is the usual everyday office worker of a boring, discreet office building. However, he undergoes a magical transformation when Miss Fantastical Queen of the Universe Celestia rings her special bell of calling.” Yamada indicated the bell on Kiyotaka's desk. “Servant used to worry about missing work, but Miss Overlord Incredible World-Ending Celestia reassured Servant that she had everything in control, so Servant doesn't think about things she said not to.”

...Kiyotaka couldn't possibly comprehend this new information. “He's just a normal fuckin' guy?” Mondo hissed. “But how does..?” As he drew off, pondering this conundrum, Kiyotaka supposed this reveal did explain for one thing: Taeko let this strange man flank her on his off hours. It made sense in a way that Taeko wouldn't want to spend her money on keeping Yamada afloat, and that was... that was sure an explanation for it.

Evidently Togami had come to a similar conclusion. “Fantastic. Now let's get this inane testimony over with. Witness,” he punctuated his words with a snap, then pointed straight at the onesied businessman, “what occurred in the restroom on the day of the murder of Sakura Oogami?”

Yamada looked directly at Taeko, awaiting her nonverbal signal. Then he said, “Servant killed her.”

There was an uneasy silence. Makoto glanced anxiously between the defendant and witness, the sweat gliding down his forehead.

Togami's bored sneer did not taper. “That is not a testimony, witness. How did you kill her? With what?” He peered at the witness as if imagining him getting eviscerated. “This is a waste of ti—”

“Oh, Servant will tell you! Just a moment—” Out from one of the onesie's pockets came a wrinkled assortment of grimy index cards. Yamada now lined them up at the front of the witness stand.

Written in a clumsy, childlike script, they read:

Servant Testify: The Incredible Servant!

Then followed a bad drawing of a cat on two legs posing like a superhero, with a cape flying off his shoulders. His glasses flashed in the rays of a corner sun on the edge of the final index card. The corner sun was wearing sunglasses. A speech bubble pointed from the sun that read, “Go, Servant!”

As Yamada was setting up, he kept his beady black gaze focused on the prim defendant, who now cupped half of her face as to hide it from the defense's side. She knew they knew. She also knew that Togami couldn't tell.

But why hide it from them?—So they couldn't trace which thoughts exactly she planted into Yamada's head?

Before Kiyotaka could decide whether this was something he should be concerned about, Yamada broke into testimony.

“Servant was checking the gambling den's restrooms, doing his rounds through the ventilation system!”

(Now was not the time to question any of those words.)

Servant saw Miss Sakura in the restroom. She was staring very intently at her very very beautiful reflection.” Servant paused. “Beautiful, like, she is beautiful, not like Servant is trying to flirt with a dead woman. Miss Wonderful Celestia already broke it to Servant that he is not allowed to like women anymore, especially not lesbians like herself or Miss Sakura.”

(Okay... okay... this was getting really difficult to follow... Even Mondo's brow was lined with confusion.)

“Then Servant killed Miss Sakura.”

And his mouth shut, leaving behind a stupefied courtroom.

The Judge warily banged his gavel, glancing to Kiyotaka. “I sure hope you can glean some amount of meaning from this testimony, Mr. Ishimaru.”

Kiyotaka willed for the same. He found himself shocked by Taeko's deceptively simple plan:

Blame everything on her servant.

His throat tightened. But Yamada hadn't killed Sakura. Nobody had killed Sakura. That was the big secret of this trial, the whole reason Taeko had created such misleading testimonies and now tidily heaped her blame onto Yamada.

If he knew he was running headfirst to his death, Yamada did not show it.

Hey,” Mondo murmured, hand at Kiyotaka's wrist. “Do you think he's telling the truth or..?” Let out a breath. “Shit. Of course not. But then who the fuck...”

Kiyotaka sensed his entire body chilling. Mondo peered at him. “You don't look so hot. What's wrong?”

How... How did he communicate his findings to Mondo? He felt Taeko's gaze jump to him. He didn't trust himself to outsmart her. If he tried to give a single morsel of information to Mondo, she'd know before the words even left his lips.

...and he couldn't break her trust so soon after finally repairing it.

But Yamada was an innocent man. And Kiyotaka couldn't possibly send an innocent man to prison—to certain death—for a murder that simply did not exist.

There was nothing else to do. He had to somehow cross-examine the witness and prove... prove what? His innocence? The impossibility of this crime? The potential for Sakura's survival?

He didn't know. But if he just stood here and quaked, Togami would take over.

He shook off Mondo's hand, the guilt crashing down over him, and mumbled, “It's nothing.”

Quickly he pounded his fist into his desk. “HOLD IT!” he cried, settling for the easiest piece of Yamada's testimony to Press. “Y-Yamada, you say that you killed Ms. Oogami. What was the murder weapon?”

Yamada held his gaze. “A shank.”

A-A what?” he squeaked.

“A shank,” Yamada repeated, like it somehow made his testimony clearer. He mimed picking up something and sharpening it. “Servant found it on the floor of the restroom. Servant thought, finders keepers! Then he killed Sakura.”

H-HOLD IT!” The sweat was arcing down his forehead in frigid rivulets. “Why? Why did you kill Ms. Oogami? Isn't she the last person your, um, master would want you to harm?”

Yamada considered this for a moment. Then he said, “For fun.”

Mondo lost it. “For fun ! What the fuck , dude?”

Yamada shrugged. “It was very fun.”

A searing “OBJECTION!” leaped from the prosecution. Togami's sneer hiked up a notch. “Witness, I would love nothing more than to take your motive at face value—as, no doubt, your ridiculous appearance matches your claims—but I am afraid this is much too far.” He tapped his glasses, and the light reflected off of them.

“There was no 'shank' discovered at the crime scene. I had a very good detective comb the entire premises, and—”

“Did you check the toilet? Servant flushed it down the toilet.”

Togami's hand crunched into a fist. “No,” he admitted, voice thick with rage, “we did not check the toilet drainage system.”

“W-Wait,” Kiyotaka broke in, “HOLD IT!” Togami glared at him. “I, um...” He started frantically flipping through his inventory of evidence, then grappled Aoi's testimony. “How did you, uh, attack Ms. Oogami? Ms. Asahina didn't report any bleeding from Ms. Oogami, and there wasn't any bloodstains on the ground, eith—”

“Her back,” said Yamada. “Behind all her hair.” He mimed a large swathe of hair coming to rest by the middle of his spine. “The hair staunched the bleeding.”

Kiyotaka had been at the crime scene, and he didn't recall seeing—on the corpse that had been present—any sort of blood flow. He's almost turned Sakura, or “Sakura” over, too, so he felt like...

Well, of course all of this was staged, but Togami didn't know that. Taeko's entire operation hinged on keeping Togami—as well as the rest of the entire courthouse—from discovering the truth.

With a jolt Kiyotaka realized he could silence this entire line of questioning if he presented Taeko's Leage of Lesbians sheet. Taeko would have kicked him out of her den if he killed a lesbian, especially one in her special group chat.

What was Taeko thinking..? The holes in her testimony were multiplying by the moment—

He glanced over to the defendant—she'd dropped her hands—and saw the same terrified exhaustion mirrored in her gaze. Her fingers were all knotted together.

They needed to speak—right now.

From across the way, he could see Prosecutor Togami reviewing his evidence of the crime scene—saw a map of the building, a detailed background check of the defendant, and a briefing by Detective Kirigiri. He figured in the next few moments Togami would have his own objections, and soon Yamada's testimony would unravel.

...and Taeko was still on trial for Sakura's death.

His heart seized. His eyes slid off of Togami and stumbled onto Makoto. The softhearted secretary tensed, easily bypassing Kiyotaka's defenses and peeking straight into his squirming soul. Makoto's mouth fell open; he took in Kiyotaka's notes, Taeko's terrified expression, then slapped his hands onto his desk.

“PLEASE, WAIT!”

Togami, surprised, dropped his latest sheet of evidence. He shook himself. “What in the world is it?”

“I... I...” Oh no, he couldn't figure out what to say. Kiyotaka's mind churned.

“The fuck's going on?” Mondo muttered. He peered at his partner. “There's something you're not telling me.” Kiyotaka jolted. “You're awful at hiding things, Taka. What is it?”

Makoto raised his wavering voice. “I think that this witness... um... is taking this case in circles?”

“Finally,” Togami scowled, rolling his eyes, “somebody understands.”

“How rude,” Taeko muttered. Even with her life on the line, she managed to find moments to sass out the prosecution. This was certainly not helping her case.

“Y-Yes, well,” Makoto stumbled back in, “because this witness is being very difficult, I think... I think it might be helpful to take a... a recess!”

Even the Judge gawked down on the blushing secretary. “Whatever do you mean, Makoto?”

Togami's brows raised. “You've ceased to make sense.” Then, quieter, “Do you need to take a break?”

Kiyotaka figured this was his big chance, regardless of how excruciatingly poor it was, as well as how awkwardly it had been set up—

“LISTEN HERE!” Even Mondo drew silent, the questions that swirled in his gaze waiting patiently their turn. “I believe it's become clear that the defendant and the witness are working together in some manner.” Taeko glared at him. But—She realized this was to try to save her life, right? “I pose that we question their testimony separately before determining whether to continue Yamada's testimony.”

The Judge's fuzzy brows popped up his forehead. “What an interesting proposition! I don't think even my strangest defense attorney has ever dreamed up a request that weird.” Kiyotaka couldn't tell if this was a compliment or an insult. Decided to remain silent. He'd laid his hands across his desk and stared at them now as they shook involuntarily. “However, I do believe the defense is on something with separating these two.

“All right, I will grant a ten-minute recess. Mr. Togami, you're in charge of prepping the witness. Mr. Ishimaru, go ahead and question your client one more time about her role in the murder. If my memory serves correct, I don't think we've gotten a single corroborated testimony from her on her timing.” And for once, the Judge's memory was not wrong.

“But I'm warning you, Mr. Ishimaru... if this proves to be a waste of time, it will become evidence that Mr. Togami was right all along, and our client may be stringing us along a tiresome tirade of lies. And if that is the truth... then it may be time to put down my verdict.”

Kiyotaka's blood iced over.

He had ten minutes. Ten minutes to somehow come up with a solution that would save Taeko's life, prevent Yamada from needlessly throwing away his own, and ensure Sakura's safety.

And he couldn't even question Yamada himself. Why had he posed to question them separately? He was making this harder on himself now...

But Taeko couldn't be left alone with Prosecutor Togami. Just the thought of it caused Kiyotaka to shudder. 

So these arrangements would have to be made serviceable.


Mondo cornered him before they reached the makeshift questioning room set up for them and Taeko. “What the hell is going on, Taka?”

His lungs squeezed tight. He whispered, “I think I figured out what happened.”

“Yeah, and now you're being as tight-lipped as our fucking defendant!” Mondo threw up his hands, teeth gritted.

“I'm sorry.” Kiyotaka winced. “We have reason to believe the truth could...” Nervously he eyed the members of the gallery that milled about them, talking up the trial's twists. “The truth could put us in danger.”

...but without the truth, it was growing more and more likely Taeko would die for Sakura's sake.

He grabbed Mondo's arm, gently tugged him. “We need to speak with Taeko first.”

Mondo blew out a breath. He hesitated, then inclined his head, muttered, “Let's get this over with.”

Kiyotaka's heart throbbed with guilt as they made their way toward the empty courtroom that had been renamed as their little questioning chamber. A couple of officers flanked the entrance. Kiyotaka rushed past them to meet Taeko, who leaned against the Judge's podium.

She wouldn't meet his eyes.

“Taeko,” he said softly. She shuddered. “I need you to trust me. I...” He had an idea. An inkling of a plan. “I want to keep anyone else from getting hurt, too, but that includes you.” Taeko froze. “And I don't think we can get you out of this trial without help.”

She bit her lip. “But I don't want...” Uselessly she toyed with her fingers, unable to say it aloud.

Mondo's eyes jumped between them, utterly bewildered. He took Kiyotaka's soiled suit off his shoulder to wipe his sweating forehead, then rehung it.

“Do you trust me?” Kiyotaka asked.

Taeko's cheeks burned. She seethed in place. “There must be a better solution.”

“We have ten minutes.” Kiyotaka checked the clock over their heads. His stomach curdled. “Six.”

Taeko drew silent, lips smeared together. She had to feel the seconds coming down like cold needles over them. Each lost moment was adding up, was becoming a weight that soon enough would become too heavy to surmount. They needed every second they had left—and Taeko knew that.

Hissing, she whispered, “Fine. I trust you.” Then she turned around and covered her ears.

He turned to Mondo. He hadn't the time to apologize—not even to explain his plan to her. “We need to find Makoto.”

“Uh, okay.”

By the time they'd reached the courtroom's entrance, Makoto was already waiting for them, his ahoge jiggling with anticipation. He gasped in relief upon their opening the door. “Oh, th-thank goodness! What's going on, Taka?”

Kiyotaka's entire body was emanating with relief, the worst of his chills wearing away. All this pressure was liquefying his head.

“Makoto, I need to borrow your phone.”

Sweet, unsuspecting Makoto handed it right over. “Thank you,” he mumbled, scrolling quickly through Makoto's contacts list. It took him a horrible, heart-stopping minute to find the name because Makoto had polluted it with heart emojis that took it out of alphabetical order. Hurriedly he clicked it and brought the phone to his ear.

Mondo hovered at his shoulder, his brow furrowed. Makoto waited patiently.

One ring—She pulled through quickly. “Makoto? Tell me what's going on in the—”

“D-Detective Kirigiri.” She shut up fast. “This is Kiyotaka Ishimaru. Please don't hang up.” Somehow, miraculously, she didn't. “I need you to listen to what I have to say very carefully.” He swallowed sharply. “There's some evidence at the crime scene I think you didn't find, that I need you to locate for me.

“You missed a room in the gambling den.” He met Mondo's eyes. “My assistant knows where it is. He can show you.” Mondo, pouting, begrudgingly nodded. “But it is paramount that you meet him there as quickly as possible.” In the background he could hear doors shutting, then a car revving to life. She was fast.

He gently shoved Mondo, hissed, “Please meet Kirigiri.” Mondo sort of glared at him before giving a reluctant thumbs-up and rushing to the front of the courthouse.

“Detective, there's evidence in that room that I missed. Evidence that leads to another secret. I-I don't know how to access it, but if anyone can figure it out—”

“Of course.” Kirigiri's cool tone cut in. “I will come bring the definitive evidence.” She sighed, muttered, “I knew it was a suicide...” and hung up.

...was she in for a surprise!

Kiyotaka handed Makoto's phone back to him. The secretary peered up at him. “You... don't think Kyoko knows the whole truth, do you?”

He managed a shaky laugh. Shook his head.

He was already turning back to the doors of the spare courtroom when they opened in his face, revealing a quaking Taeko. She grabbed his arm and attached herself to his side, glaring back at the policemen who had been tailing her.

“I thought you were mad at—” Kiyotaka squeaked, voice easily usurped by the sulking defendant.

“And I am, but you are the lesser of evils.”

She peeked back at Makoto and extracted one arm from Kiyotaka's side to wave a little at him. Makoto waved back. “I don't think you're the murderer,” he said, “even though my prosecutor does.”

Taeko gave him a sweet smile. “Thank you, Sir Secretary.”

“M-Makoto is fine!”

“You are too kind. How lovely it is to learn that at least one person here trusts me.”

“I'm right here!” Kiyotaka shouted. “And you're still on my—”

“Yes, yes, but you do not count,” replied Taeko.

He was too exhausted from the entire rest of the trial to even try to parse out what she meant by that. Some of this case's mysteries were not worth his efforts.

Makoto checked his phone before returning it to his pocket. “We have a minute left. We should probably head back.”

They moved in the direction of their courtroom. “Oh—How was questioning Yamada?” Kiyotaka asked.

Makoto broke into a laugh. “Awful, if I'm honest. Byakuya started yelling at him, but he just made up even bigger stories about what actually happened. Well—On that account, it was pretty funny, but Byakuya looked really hurt when I laughed, so I had to pretend it wasn't.”

“What a good servant,” Taeko said, giggling. “He really is the murderer, you know.”

“Uhhhh, right,” said Makoto. His awkward expression blatantly gave away how little he believed Taeko's assertion. “Gosh—This trial is so hard. I'm beginning to think Kyoko was right all along, and the victim actually was the murderer—”

No,” hissed Taeko. “How could you say something so cruel? Miss Sakura would never wish to hurt Miss Aoi!”

Makoto blinked. “But Ms. Oogami was the one who died, not—”

“Miss Aoi would have to live without her beloved for the rest of her life if Miss Sakura took her own life! Yes, it would hurt her!”

“...but then how did Ms. Oogami die?” murmured Makoto. He drew off, staring at the walls.

Taeko gaped, cheeks pinking, She seemed to have recognized that Kiyotaka had argued the very same thing in the trial this morning. She sort of nudged him, mumbled, “I am beginning to see how much trouble you had with my testimonies... I am not mad anymore.”

One more layer of tension evaporated. Taeko had linked their arms, and she now struggled to locate his hand and squeeze it reassuringly. The usual malice in her grin was nowhere to be found.

Somehow, they were going to pull themselves out of this hole. They were so close... They just needed to hang in until Mondo and Detective Kirigiri made it back.

All too soon, they reached their courtroom's front doors. Kiyotaka hesitated, glanced over, said to Makoto, “Thank you for helping me back there.”

“Oh, of course!” A big, bright smile broke out like dawn across Makoto's gentle complexion. “I had to! I could tell something was off, just... not quite what! I see we still have a couple more mysteries to untangle, so here's to hoping we're able to finish them out soon.” He bowed his head to Kiyotaka before scampering back to his side of the courtroom.

Once again, Togami was glaring at Kiyotaka. What, did he think Kiyotaka would kidnap his secretary? And what in the world would he do with Makoto if he nabbed him? Just keep him around for positive reinforcement?

He supposed if anyone would willfully let themselves be kidnapped, it was in fact Makoto Naegi.

Taeko extracted herself from her attorney's side to take the stand. She gazed upon him, long and hard, before whispering, “I hope your plan doesn't disappoint, Kiyotaka.”

“Don't you want to know what—”

She shook her head. “I will start to doubt it as soon as you tell me. Just let it be a surprise.” She laughed nervously. “I already feel like such a failure on my own.”

Taeko...” Kiyotaka frowned. “This shouldn't have been your responsibility. It's incredible what you managed to do with this trial, but—”

“This wasn't supposed to be a trial,” she hissed back. “I made it an unsolvable murder that indicted no one, that passed seamlessly through a courthouse if it even managed to become tangled up in one.” She was trying, and failing, to keep her face clear of distress.

He sighed. “This still isn't something you should blame yourself for.”

Gosh, she was sixteen. She was sixteen and she was blaming herself for not perfectly hiding an entire faked murder from a court of law.

She wasn't responding, just staring aimlessly at the ground. Kiyotaka took her by the shoulder, gently shook her. “I'm on your side, Taeko. Okay?” She nodded a little distractedly.

But it was something. And now the Judge was pounding his gavel, and Kiyotaka darted over to his desk. And he was struck by how empty it had become without Mondo's presence. No encouragements, no high-fives, no dumbfounded remarks or cursing out the prosecution under his breath.

He shook himself. Mondo was undergoing an integral mission right now. They'd—They'd be reunited again soon enough.

Togami sneered from his side of the room. Off to a great start. “That witness had little to no interest in telling us anything of note about the crime scene. As soon as the defendant was out of the room, he acted like a broken record.” He sniffed, staring down at the defense. Kiyotaka glanced to his right, only to remember nobody was there. He turned and faced Togami head-on. “That witness was a waste of our—”

“OBJECTION!” he shot back. Togami's mouth downturned into a jagged scowl. “What evidence leads you to think Yamada's testimony is entirely fabricated? We have no way of proving that—”

“OBJECTION!” Togami pounded the wall of the gallery behind him. Makoto swiveled out of the way, his eyes leaping rapidly between the defense and prosecution. “I have here a written report of the witness's meaningless drivel.” Out came a thin stack of files. Togami adjusted his glasses and glared down at his papers. “Useless,” he muttered.

Was... he not going to read them aloud?

While Togami was revisiting his interrogation of Yamada, Kiyotaka all but panicked. He needed to throw something out there, something, anything that would help prolong this trial—

“H-HOLD IT!” he shrieked. Togami didn't bother looking, but Makoto gave him a helpful thumbs-up. The Judge trained an interested eye on the defense. “We still have no idea why the defendant would kill Ms. Oogami! There's no motive!”

Togami rolled his eyes. “Does there need to be one?” he muttered into his papers. “She obviously would fabricate her lack of one if we gave her the opportunity to testify yet again.”

Taeko stood very still at the witness stand. Her head had ducked, her smattering of black bangs obscuring her expression. Kiyotaka's heart panged for her.

“Well...” Kiyotaka cleared his throat. Togami would not glance in his direction. “OBJECTION!” Still nothing from the prosecution. He pulled up the sleeves of his purple shirt to the elbow. “Let her testimony be the proof of that. If there is evidence to contradict with her motive, then it will come up.”

“Whatever will convince you to cease your aimless chatter,” said Togami. Kiyotaka glanced directly at his secretary and wondered how in the world Makoto was attracted to this smarmy, self-indulgent, utterly painstaking man.

The Judge blinked. “You bring up a good point, Mr. Ishimaru! Why would the defendant harm the victim?”

“And how?” posed Kiyotaka. “Do you have any ideas, Prosecutor Togami?”

Togami seethed in place. “I'm beginning to wonder if the defendant hid her true murder weapon from us.”

“OBJECTION!” cried Kiyotaka. “That's pointless conjecture, Prosecu—”

“So? Your point also reeks of conjecture.” His condescending tone was accented with a snide grin. “Haven't you any proof that the defendant's hands are not stained with the victim's blood?”

Taeko's crimson nails sparkled under the harsh lighting. Togami smirked, eyeing her hands like he had made up some particularly clever figurative language.

Kiyotaka exhaled sharply. He pounded one fist into his desk. “We've sufficiently proved that we are at a standstill on this point, Prosecutor Togami.” The idea struck him like a comet. “Perhaps the trial should be extended one more day in order t—”

“OBJECTION!” Togami sneered. “My detective scoured the entire premises of that gambling den, not to mention the victim's household. There is nothing else to find, Ishimaru. With what fragmented evidence we have found, we can only get this over with now.”

...right. Kiyotaka's palms prickled with uncomfortably cold sweat.

Well he still had one direction he could point this trial in.

“M-May the defendant please testify about any potential motive she could have for the murder of Ms. Oogami?”

He glanced to Taeko. She raised her head to meet his eyes. The smile plastered to her face poorly hid her nerves. That ill argument had stormed over her head, and now her cheeks were stiff with pallor, her gaze shifty. “Kiyotaka,” she whispered. Her voice crackled.

Finally the Judge's old, grizzled voice resounded over them. “That sounds like a splendid idea, Mr. Ishimaru. I'm afraid I'll have to agree with Mr. Togami in that this trial likely won't take... much longer...” His beady gaze skirted over the shivering defendant. “But this is one mystery I wonder if we'll be able to solve.”

He gestured with his gavel for Taeko to begin speaking. She procured her filthy handkerchief—just to hold—and squeezed it tightly. Her lips quavered with the weight of her next testimony.

Testify: “Yes, Of Course, It Was Me”

(Kiyotaka winced.)

She faced the prosecution. Makoto's eyes were wide and weighted with oncoming tears. Togami purposely glanced over her head at an incongruous mark on the wall.

“Who else, right? C-Certainly not my Servant, who just testified that he was able to sneak his way into the restroom and m-m-murder Miss Sakura without my knowing.

“It is already clear I couldn't have been in the restroom. I did not even know that letter was in there.” She tried for a smile and lost it to nerves. “B-But you wanted to hear my motive, yes..? My motive, as a runaway lesbian, for killing another of my kind...

“Money is always a clear candidate, as I am a minor on the run. Not like I have an entire business keeping me well-acquainted with affluence.”

(Not like she'd promised to buy new suits for both Kiyotaka and his “accessory” with her own funds.)

“Perhaps because I was afraid, yes? Afraid of the pursuer... so I d-did their work for them.” She hissed a laugh. “None of this makes any sense.

“What do you want me to say, Sir Prosecutor? How am I supposed to convince you that it was not me?”

She shut her shuddering mouth and folded her arms around herself.

Even the Judge was uneasy. He gestured to Kiyotaka, whose voice was already raw with the prodding he didn't want to commit.

Slowly he let out a breath.

“HOLD IT!”

Taeko continued staring at a particularly interesting tile on the floor.

“W-Well, Prosecutor Togami?” He dragged his gaze to the prosecutor. Still wouldn't look his way. “What do you think?”

Togami thought about it, then murmured, “About this pursuer...” Taeko flinched. “Do we know it even exists? Have we even proof the defendant and the victim's pursuer are not one and the same?”

What little color remained in Taeko's face had drained. “Wh-Wh-Wha—” she squeaked—

“OBJECTION!” cried Kiyotaka. “Ms. Oogami reportedly created her plan with another person roughly two weeks prior to the day of her death. She also bought the Hi-C antidote at around this time. Another corroborating bit of evidence is”—he shuffled through papers, located the League of Lesbians—“this sign-up sheet she had hidden in her—in her... office.”

Togami peered at his interesting bit of wall. “I don't recall my detective finding anything of the—”

“Because I found it!” Kiyotaka gritted his teeth. “Confiscate her phone and check, if you must! Taeko had contact with Ms. Oogami—she was trying to help her!”

Togami's brows raised ever so slightly. “Then perhaps her plan failed.”

Taeko shut her eyes, lips pressed tightly together. Even she didn't appear to believe in herself.

“OBJECTION!” Kiyotaka frantically pounded his desk. He had no idea what to say next, but he'd gained a few seconds to think as the courtroom's eyes all trained upon him.

“C-Can...” He swallowed tightly. “Can you prove, Prosecutor Togami, that Taeko killed Ms. Oogami, rather than Ms. Oogami dying by her own means?”

He hated to use Detective Kirigiri's argument, knowing that Aoi would hear it, that it would sound like he believed in something so, so awful as Sakura... Sakura—

He shook himself. He was just trying to stall.

Thoughtlessly his fingers trailed his katana charm, but... what would happen if he tried to use it while simultaneously hiding his own evidence? Would it be revealed to Togami?

But he couldn't stall with it, anyways. The last time he'd used it, he had opened his eyes as if the actions within the jade mindscape had taken little more than a moment. Not nearly enough time.

He just had to keep dragging this ailing conversation onward.

Togami's turquoise gaze cut over to him. His face was composed, a trained neutrality. “No, but how could Oogami gain access to the poison herself if the one who helped her find the antidote was also the defendant? Everything goes back to her.

“The scene of the crime.” He fisted his heavily-inked map. “Orchestrated by the defendant. The murder's timing is suspicious as well. Too perfect. Even if she had no access to the restroom, what could stop the defendant from sequestering the victim in some other corner of her establishment?

“Even that disastrous servant was under her thumb. She's been conning us this entire time, Ishimaru.” Togami's hand flashed as it pounded rapidly into the desk. Makoto flinched. “She is a liar and untrustworthy. How many murders has she possibly orchestrated in the unseemly depths of her gambling den, do you think?”

“N-NONE!” shouted Kiyotaka. “The gambling queen Celestia Ludenberg was a persona, Prosecutor Togami! She wanted others to fear her, so she created a terrifying facade to scare people into listening to her. That doesn't mean that Taeko herself was doing all of the terrible things that her persona seemed capable of!”

He plucked his notes concerning her secret hideaway. “My partner and I also located a”—he released a breath, gazed at Taeko a moment—“a photo frame of the defendant's from before she ran away. She had cut the heads of the other people in the photo out. Her estranged family—and perhaps estranged friends, as well.

“She's alone, Prosecutor Togami. She is alone, and Sakura was one of the only people she could rely on. This little group chat of hers demonstrates just how few people she had in her life that she could even trust, when this was the extent she went at in order to seek human connection.”

This was far too personal information for a courtroom. Kiyotaka's throat clenched guiltily.

But what else could he say? There wasn't anything. He had to—somehow—he had to reach Togami's sense of reason.

His heart dropped when Togami glanced over him, his cocky grin returning. “That doesn't change the entire rest of this trial, Ishimaru. Doesn't change how implicating each of Taeko's—or Celestia's actions are. You are spewing ridiculous conjecture in the vain hopes of dislodging the truth from my mind.

“And I am about ready to bring this trial to an end.”

No..!

“O-OBJECT—”

“Denied,” said the Judge, gavel knocking. “Please continue, Mr. Togami.”

His entire body went numb. It couldn't end. It couldn't—not like this...

Prosecutor Togami cleared his throat once. His awfully smarmy face exuded an air of I-told-you-so. “Nobody is more suspicious than your defendant. The evidence is all stacked against her. Conjecture ceases to be conjecture when it exists in such profuse abundance, and is so overwhelmingly in the defendant's disfavor.

“Even if I cannot prove precisely how she killed Oogami, I believe it is safe to say that she did. An accident, was it? Did you fail to protect her from her pursuer... or was that on purpose, you little wretch?” His fist came down, and its resounding slam echoed throughout the too-cold chamber.

The tears ran freely down Taeko's freckled cheeks. She didn't bother to speak, just fought to stifle the sounds of her sobs.

It couldn't end like this. It couldn't. It couldn't!

Hurriedly Kiyotaka began shuffling through his evidence. There had to be something, anything, anything that he hadn't yet presented to the court. Anything that might distract Togami from the Judge's impending verdict. Anything at all...

“PLEASE, WAIT!”

Makoto. For a second his heart relaxed. Then he realized—no—Makoto was generating time for him. He redoubled on his efforts. All these papers, all these forms and broken staples and weird pieces of evidence—Sakura's bracelet—no, that would make her look very, very bad. That was exactly what made Kiyotaka think she had killed Sakura... now was not the time for that...

Makoto was babbling something to his prosecutor. Kiyotaka couldn't make it out and didn't bother trying. It was likely more of Makoto's boundless cheer, struggling, flailing, to steer Togami's vision of the truth away from the doomed destination ofTaeko.

He flipped over one other piece and froze when he locked eyes with a photo of Sakura—

Oh. The body repossession sheet.

What had Mondo said? It might fake out the prosecution?

Well! He had absolutely no other leads.

His “OBJECTION!” launched over Makoto's stumbling squeaks, and the secretary flashed a reassuring grin his way. Togami snarled back at him.

“What possibly could you have—”

“L-Look at this!” shrieked Kiyotaka.

Togami didn't even ask what it was, just took it in and blanched. “What the hell is that?” Byakuya Togami, a man who did not leave his side of the courtroom, came bounding over to Kiyotaka's desk to snatch that dastard bit of evidence out of Kiyotaka's hands. He began poring over it and visibly paled. “An assass—what?!”

A momentary triumphant grin surfaced upon his face. “My god, she killed her! No wonder you hid this the entire trial!” Then he got into the fine details of the contract, and his mouth hung open. Even the illustrious Prosecutor Togami had trouble combing through its legal jargon. “No... she didn't? Wait... but who's...” His gaze leapt to the face of the deceased in the corner of the page.

“But that's her, isn't it?”

Kiyotaka stalled, realized—Togami had never seen Sakura's face prior to—wait.

Togami had never seen Sakura's face. Merely the mangled corpse pretending to be her.

In fact, this was a photo of the very person whose corpse had so helpfully feigned Sakura when Taeko switched them out.

…what a good thing the prosecution never got a hold of this paper.

Kiyotaka said softly, “That's not Sakura. That's not what she looks like.”

Togami smirked. “Really? Is this your new argument?”

He opened his mouth to reply and—

“I OBJECT.”

That voice...

That was not his voice...

Its low, regal tones poured over Kiyotaka's head. Low but with a feminine lilt, and a thick Japanifornian accent.

He glanced up to the figure who had taken the stand beside Taeko. A deep dark green cloak obscured their head and body from the court, until one muscular arm reached out to remove the hood. Luscious white locks of hair spilled outward when she shook her head, and a tough, scarred, brown face of unearthly beauty met the courthouse.

The body repossession form fell from Togami's quavering hand. Makoto, mouth hanging open, had collapsed into the prosecution's stand.

Kiyotaka felt a familiar hand ease up by his shoulder, and warm lilac eyes met his. Mondo said, “You couldn't have fuckin' told me the evidence wouldn't fit on the back of my motorcycle? I had to trail Kirigiri the whole way here...”

The very detective had materialized at the other end, her hand brushing over Makoto's back. He jumped up to embrace her, exclaiming, “Wow! You found Taka's evidence! A-An entire human being?!”

The elegant figure at the front of the courthouse spoke once more. “Sakura Oogami is not dead. Therefore nobody shall be sent to their death in exchange for hers.”

Taeko stared in abject horror at the woman beside her. She pushed herself out of the way, then blundered straight into Kiyotaka. He managed to steady her, and—wasn't sure what to do—should he push her away—when Taeko buried her face in his shoulder and wailed.

Taeko...

He glared at Togami and locked his arms protectively around the shivering girl. Togami was already backing away from them, his gaze unable to settle between the woman at the witness stand, the sobbing defendant, and the evidence scattered across Kiyotaka's desk. His head kept whipping around, his hair mussed.

A cry broke out from the gallery. Within moments a young woman had vaulted over the seats and leapt at the cloaked woman, burying her head into her chest. Aoi.

Sakura rested one arm around her girlfriend's waist, then glanced over the procession. “Do not rule Miss Taeko Yasuhiro as guilty.”

As if in a trance, the Judge blinked, and his gavel slipped from his hand, crashing into his podium. “Oh! Oh my! But this is—What is—How did this..? How is this possible?!”

Kiyotaka straightened. He kept one arm around Taeko, using his free hand to gesture to his evidence.

“As...” He swallowed sharply. Sakura glanced to him, and, smiling warmly, nodded him on. “As Sakura's diary showed us, she had made a plan with Taeko in order to throw off her pursuer.” His heart pulsed rapidly. He glanced amongst the gallery—but he couldn't tell, would never be able to tell if any of them were Sakura's intended killer.

He could only hope, now that Sakura was surrounded by policemen and people of the law, her pursuer wouldn't dare attack her in such an open public space.

“Their plan began with the Hi-C antidote. Sakura lanced her own drink with some poison, likely borrowed from Taeko, and went about her day with her girlfriend. When they reached the gambling den, she excused herself to the restroom, having already taken a sip of her protein shake...

“And hid the letter in the restroom.”

Sakura broke in. “Yes. That was my mistake.”

Taeko froze. “Y-Your..?” She glanced over to the “victim”. “B-But it was my...”

“No, Taeko.” Sakura bowed her head to the petite goth. “It was my fault. I should have trusted your plan, but I was afraid something would go awry. Or—Even if it did not—I had no idea when I would ever hear from Aoi again. That letter must have ruined your testimony.” She swallowed sharply, whispered, “But I had wanted to give Aoi hope...”

Kiyotaka blinked sharply, sifting through his evidence—locating the letter. There, at the end, it read, “Please understand, I had a reason to do this, one I trust will unveil itself to you soon.” The trial. The pursuer. Sakura's own hopes that she would soon be able to explain to Aoi herself why she had faked her death. “Please know I love you, and I have faith we will meet again in a safer world.”

Again—Now. In a safer world—one in which Sakura no longer needed to fear her pursuer.

...It was all right there.

He shook himself, then continued. “Sakura must have come close to dying when she collapsed in front of Aoi. Aoi ran away when Sakura lost consciousness, but her antidote had been hidden in her purse, and I think it's likely Taeko herself gave the antidote to her. After ensuring Sakura would revive, she...” He peered at his frozen defendant. “After Aoi had run away, and the other detective—Lang?—had gone missing from the scene of the crime, she had a window of time before Detective Kirigiri would return, in which she”—he fisted the body repossession sheet, and Mondo's eyes gleamed with excitement—“swapped these bodies.” (“Oh my god, I knew it,” whispered Mondo.) “It's likely a wig was also placed on the other corpse's head to better resemble Sakura's hair, and the body, after being redressed in Sakura's attire, was left face-down.

“So someone such as myself wouldn't recognize immediately that Sakura was not in fact the victim.” Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. His body was wracked with chills, even as Taeko clutched him. “Then Taeko later burned the corpse in a staged accident so that it would be even harder to discern the dissimilarities between Sakura and this body.”

Togami—of course—broke in. “OBJECTION!” He hid his shaking hands in his pockets. “Then the defendant killed this other—

“TAKE THAT!”

Kiyotaka unwrinkled the sheet, and, scrutinizing its legal jargon, said proudly, “All it says here is that Taeko came in possession of this body. It may have been found in her gambling den, or perhaps she had some, ah, other means of finding it... but she did not kill this person.”

Togami's hurt frown sent a surge of adrenaline through Kiyotaka's veins.

“After that, she still had time, between Detective Kirigiri being stalled by Yamada and misleading myself and Mondo to aimlessly wander the gambling den for evidence she didn't think was present, in order to hide Sakura. She likely told Sakura about her secret hideaway and sent her off on a secret route to it after hiding her somewhere behind her bar top when Mondo and I entered the gambling den.”

Detective Kirigiri kept a remarkably cool face. “She was above the ceiling of Yasuhiro's hideaway. A hidden lever brought down the stairway into this attic space, revealing Oogami.”

Mondo nudged Kiyotaka, whispered, “She fucking lost it when we walked into that room and someone fuckin' spoke at us from above the ceiling. It was incredible. I mean, I was scared shitless, but you don't often see Kirigiri thrown off during an investigation.”

He allowed a moment to chuckle, imagining Kirigiri's expression upon hearing, and then seeing, a presumed ghost.

“Finally,” Kiyotaka said, searching for one last piece of evidence, “Sakura entrusted a very important trinket to Taeko for safe-keeping.” He revealed the bracelet and held it out to Sakura. She moved to take it from him. Aoi grabbed it and began dutifully tying it around Sakura's wrist. “This was also found in Taeko's hideaway.”

Kiyotaka blew out a long, exhausted breath.

“Thus concludes the faked death of Sakura Oogami.”

Mondo hummed. “Damn, I should've recorded all that. Feel like it would've made a really banger comic book for some reason.”

“What are you talking about?” Kiyotaka squeaked, but he couldn't quite cull the laughter from his voice.

“I dunno. You just explained the whole case so well right there. It just—would've made a great comic book.”

His smile tugged through. “Sure, Mondo.”

“Don't believe me?” Mondo chuckled, nudging him. “Fine, but when I make millions, you don't get any of it. Maybe while I'm at it I'll turn this fucking nightmare into a video game. You think people'd be interested even if nobody actually died?”

The Judge rapped his gavel, tearing through Mondo's words. “I do believe that wraps up this trial. Non-trial? I'm not really sure...” He blinked. “Either way, it seems the rest of Mr. Ishimaru's evidence has neatly tied together the last mysteries of this case. Oh, how exciting! I've always wondered if one of the victims of these trials had really faked their death.

“Well, I see no reason to keep us all here when it's evidently clear that, in the case of Taeko Yasuhiro, I have no choice but to rule...

“NOT GUILTY.”


Taeko had refused to be pried from Kiyotaka until Detective Kirigiri herself had promised that she would reside a team of detectives, including herself, over Sakura's stalker situation. It was likely whoever had planned to kill, hurt, or otherwise harm Sakura—whether by attacking Aoi, herself, or someone else dear to her—would give up their pursuit now that the case had come to its alarming conclusion. Kirigiri surmised that its surprise ending would draw the trial to national news, and Sakura's pursuer would hunt for easier prey.

But if they did not, Kirigiri appeared to think she could catch them first.

She hovered awkwardly before Kiyotaka after the termination of the trial. Makoto was at her side, but he moved to high-five the defense team. She blinked, once, eyes struggling over her kind boyfriend, as if seeing and yet unable to quite believe it.

Hurriedly Kirigiri bowed her head, not for longer than a second, then said, “I... was proven wrong today.” Her cheeks colored. Her gaze refused to meet his. “I will have to take this into account in the future.”

Kiyotaka managed a small smile. “I wouldn't have found the truth today if not for you. You pushed me to discover it for myself.”

Makoto happily nodded his approval, his spiny hair bobbling.

Kirigiri didn't smile, but the initial ferocity of her gaze had dampened. “You will not win again, Ishimaru.” She paused. “Or... Perhaps you will.” She ducked her head. “My attitude is holding me back.”

She did not end the conversation, merely walked off, letting her words hang in the newly-empty space. Makoto offered a thumbs-up before retreating with her.

Kiyotaka's final glimpse of Prosecutor Togami—similarly to Detective Kirigiri—was of his back as he whisked away, his evidence dumped into Makoto's arms.

Reassured that Sakura would not face certain death now that she was out of her hiding place, Taeko relaxed her grip on her attorney. She had four remaining adults gawking over her, between Kiyotaka, Mondo, Sakura, and Aoi.

Finally Sakura said, “I do not want you living by yourself, Taeko. You have been alone for far too long.”

Aoi still warily eyed the teen. So much as she had rallied for Taeko's defense yesterday, now that she knew Sakura had trusted Taeko with her life rather than telling Aoi the truth, the tension between them was inexplicable and undeniably awkward.

But she said softly, “If you need a place to stay, Taeko... Sakura and I have a guest bedroom in our home. “We just bought it, so... it's nice and new and everything.”

Taeko couldn't meet Sakura's gaze. Her hands shook when she even tried to face her. She sort of peeked at Mondo, who, chuckling, said, “I wouldn't feel safe if you came and stayed with me, kiddo. There's so many rowdy boys in my home. I mean—At least half of them are probably gay, but—”

Taeko politely shook her head. “No, thank you. I wouldn't want to live with so many rowdy boys anyways.” Then she turned on Kiyotaka.

“What?” he asked. “I'm another rowdy boy, aren't I?”

She nibbled on her lip, then, quietly, asked, “What are your living arrangements, Kiyotaka?”

Him? When the lesbian couple was right there?

But he'd noticed her trepidation toward them. He'd sensed the guilt that flooded through her when she even tried to look at Sakura, the way she tensed up when Aoi spoke.

She still blamed herself, even now.

Kiyotaka made an apologetic smile. “I'm sorry, Taeko, but I don't really have the space in my apartment for another person. I wouldn't want you sleeping on my couch—and, well, I wouldn't want to sleep on the couch every night, either... Besides, you've known me for all of three days, and—”

“Wh-What if I bought a two-bedroom apartment?”

Surely he didn't just hear what he just heard.

“Taeko, really, that's not necess—”

“I have money!” Her tears had started anew. “I have a lot of money! I could buy a really nice one!” She grappled Kiyotaka's hands and furiously jumped in place. “A-A-And you could pretend I am not even there! I could be really quiet, if you would like! B-But please, please, Kiyotaka—”

“You've known me for three days, Taeko!” he cried. “At least Sakura's been in your life for a few weeks—T-Taeko, what about your safety? How do you even know you can trust me?”

She drew quiet between hiccups, and, beyond her tears, beamed the greatest, brightest smile he'd ever seen from her. “You just saved my life, did you not? Again and again, you protected me from those mean prosecutors, even when you did not know yourself whether I was lying to you.”

His heart slowed. In... Well, in a way, she wasn't wrong... but...

He chuckled weakly, asked, “Are you sure you'd want to stay with someone who isn't a lesbian?”

“Oh my...” She broke into a bubbly laugh. “I suppose I shall make one exception.”

If that was what Taeko wanted... he couldn't bring himself to refuse her a second time.


Before they'd all finished packing up, Mondo stopped him once more. “Hey, uh...” He took the soiled white jacket off his shoulder. “You still want this?”

Kiyotaka blinked, registering his overcoat. It had somehow clung to its precarious perch, resolute in its tenacity, even after Mondo's drive to the gambling den and back, still awaiting its owner. He cringed. That—indecent red splotch... Oh, it was so tacky! The plainness of his suit that he had cherished upon buying it had been utterly ruined.

Sighing, the attorney shook his head. “It's not the same anymore...”

Mondo gently patted his sleeve. “Aw, that's alright, Taka. Lemme get it out of your face. I'll see if one of my kids wants it. We'll make a fashion statement.”

He was seized with a relieved smile. “Great. You keep it, for your boys.” The weight of his poor suit evaporated off his shoulders, and finally, finally it felt like this trial was over. Mondo was clearly trying to hide his smirk.

With that out of the way, his hand passed gently over Kiyotaka's shoulder. “ Hey. We did good today. I'm proud of us, you know?”

...his heart shimmered. There weren't words his tired brain could conjure that would do the blooming warmth deep within him justice.

“Yes. I am too, Mondo.”

Chapter Text

“Kiyotaka! Come look, come look!”

He begrudgingly put down the box he'd been carrying. Down the hall and through their adjoining living area, he meandered into the airy space Taeko had claimed as her bedroom. She had shuffled atop her four-poster bed—fully outfitted in a black canopy he had spent half an hour fighting to attach—to better affix her deep blushing purple curtains to her window. Happily she shut the curtains and flopped onto her bed, watching her pink glow-in-the-dark bats light up all across the walls.

Her chamber was a far cry from the cramped sleeping cot he'd found in her former gambling den's secret hideaway. He still wasn't sure how Taeko had managed to sell it to a customer even shadier than her (what was their name? “Shadi Smith”?) after it had come out that she was literally a minor and simply could not possibly be in possession of an entire gambling den. Not only that, but her existence broke the rules of her own building—not to allow minors entry. And he did not want to know how much money she'd received for it—an amount she'd hinted was nearly as great as the funds she'd made off of the establishment itself.

“Looks great,” he said. She huffed, getting up to rush over and bump against him.

“It looks marvelous, you mean!” She giggled. “If my parents saw any of this, they would probably hate me even more.” Then she doubled over, dangerously close to choking on her laughter.

Kiyotaka glanced over her room. She'd attached a couple of bejeweled hangers to affix her many dresses, and a pair of ebony dressers could barely fit the rest of her clothing. That dark wood shelf Mondo had painstakingly nailed to the wall held a few strange trinkets—a plush pink bat, assorted empty photo frames, and a couple of poetry books. She'd placed a pair of creepy dolls on top of one dresser, and her bed was overflowing with lacy black sheets and massive, fluffy pillows that shook with their girth. A few suggestive cut-out posters of scantily-clad women decked her walls, but Kiyotaka tried not to look at those.

“That is not all!” added Taeko. She grabbed his hand and dragged him over to her little connected restroom. “See?” She pointed at the barrage of glow-in-the-dark planets, vampires, bats and flowers that made up an odd little scene, like a séance or maybe something worse, at the back wall, leaving the room in an unearthly purple glow. Their feet sank into her plush black carpet. Kiyotaka reached over to flick on the light, illuminating his new roommate.

Taeko had tied up her hair with two crimson ribbons. Her flushed, freckled face was bright. She wore a charcoal tee shirt with a skull and crossbones across the front, and her frilly gray skirt vaguely peeked out from beneath it. Her red-and-gray thigh-high socks brought her outfit together.

She practically jumped in place, tugging again at Kiyotaka. “What, are you afraid of the dark?” A mischievous grin stole across her lips.

Their eyes met through the mirror. Kiyotaka grimaced. “No!”

“I think you are lying~”

...He was. Just a little.

“Why are you scaaaaared, Kiyotaka?”

Kiyotaka glared back at her. “I don't know how many repossessed bodies you've got lying around in here!”

“Pfffff—” Taeko broke into a laugh. “That was a one-time thing, Kiyotaka! To save Miss Sakura's life!”

“That's what you say for now,” he replied. She giggled, rolling her eyes, and he couldn't hold back his reluctant smile any longer.

Her gaze settled upon his. She said softly, “We look a little similar. You see?” She pointed to her eyes, to her hair. “Same color.” Her hand fumbled. “I wish...” She bit her lip. Pouted.

“Taeko?”

“I wish...” She squeezed her eyes shut. “...Things would have been a lot easier if you were actually my brother.”

His heart slowed. Taeko...

Shook his head. “It's only been a week, still. You're—”

“S-So?” She folded her arms over her chest, head ducked. Her bangs obscured her expression.“You are easily the kindest person I have ever met. And I like... and I like that you are so strict, about following your rules, upholding your ideals. Even though I am not so much like that.” She glanced up, her lips fumbling a shy smile. “I feel like we work well together. And I... well, I feel much safer here, with you, than when I was on my own. Safer here than I ever did with my parents, too...”

She turned to him. “I wouldn't have this lovely room if not for you. I... Thank you, Kiyotaka.” She couldn't quite meet his eyes and stared at her rug, bowing her head.

She'd needed someplace to go, someone to support her—and if he was to be that person, then so be it.

“Of course,” he murmured.

He reached out to Taeko, and she jumped at him, folding herself into his arms. She tucked her head under his chin, hugged tightly.

...he hadn't expected to meet two people who preferred him as he was, for all his faults and insecurities, in such a short amount of time. First Mondo, and now Taeko, too.

He'd grown up an only child—Taeko had told him she was the same—and he'd spent so much of his life alone that this new kinship baffled him. He simply knew he was going to do everything in his power to protect Taeko now, in the ways that she had been neglected in her childhood. And—he admitted to himself—in the ways he too had lacked growing up.

“Let me know,” he said softly, “if you ever feel uncomfortable here.”

Taeko giggled into him. “Let me know if you ever feel uncomfortable, Kiyotaka.”

“What do you—”

“You know,” she continued, struggling to speak through her laughter, “in case—in case my more... let us say, detailed cosplays frighten you.”

“Your...” His mind couldn't even begin to conjure what that might entail.

Taeko shrugged around him. “Like my vampire getups! I use a lot of red makeup.”

Oh. Ohhh...

Kiyotaka pretended this did not make him extremely nervous. “Just, uh, please let me know when you're up to that.”

Taeko kindly let him keep up his facade. “Right, right. So you do not think I am dying before your eyes.”

How in the world had he managed to befriend this woman.

He released her when a familiar gruff voice reverberated through his house. “Hey, Takaaaaa? The hell'd you goooo? I'm carrying like five fuckin' boxes here!”

“Oh! Sorry! Coming!” He patted Taeko's shoulder once before rushing back to the entryway of his apartment. Sure enough, the biker was valiantly balancing an entire cavalcade of cardboard. He stood in his biker jacket and stretched-out tank top, but he'd put on a new pair of overly-revealing hot pink biker shorts. He'd somehow managed to get his tower of boxes through the door and now wobbled with them, his head poking through a small window between a couple to glare at Kiyotaka.

“Here, here, this way.” He rushed ahead to lead Mondo toward his room, opening doors and holding them open for Mondo as he went. Finally his partner collapsed, carefully setting down his crooked tower, when he reached the carpet flooring of Kiyotaka's room.

Most of their efforts had gone into settling Taeko's space first, so Kiyotaka had little of note set up in his bedchamber. His sleek white bed frame was missing the mattress, and a couple pale blue curtains fluttered at his windows, but his shelves and drawers were all empty. Kiyotaka had thrown on what little clothing he could locate that morning—a sleeved white button-up tucked into a pair of cottony pastel blue shorts that cut off just above the knee.

Mondo glanced up, pushing a box out of the way. His gaze kept lingering at Kiyotaka, and Kiyotaka was running out of internal explanations as to why that might be. “What's all in here again?” Mondo asked. He stood up and pushed away his hair. He'd tied it back in a loose braid and Kiyotaka was having trouble looking away from him. It really should be illegal for Mondo to be that attractive, and yet. His ridiculous shorts didn't match the rest of his outfit, and it didn't even matter.

Kiyotaka kept almost, almost mentioning how nice Mondo looked and last-second stopping himself from saying it. He was having trouble guessing how terribly embarrassing it would be to tell him. But he wanted Mondo to know, so Mondo would maybe dress like that again... decisions, decisions...

The thought of complimenting him kept making his heart flutter in this unending circle of incredible, mind-consuming anxiety that sent heat rushing to his face before slowly ebbing away as his latest opportunity passed. Each chance caused his nerves to extrapolate—he worried any next attempt might just melt the brain cells out of his head.

“Taka?”

“Oh—Sorry, sorry.” He dragged a hand through his cropped black hair. “Hopefully the rest of my clothing. I think my mattress is crammed inside one of those, too.” Yamada had generously offered to transport their items from Kiyotaka's home to the new apartment via the limousine Taeko had bought for him. In response, Kiyotaka had painstakingly jammed everything into cardboard, even the things that really didn't want to fit, as soon as he'd considered those sweaty cat onesied paws coming into contact with his personal items. Just imagine the smell of Yamada staining his bedding...

Mondo was already cracking boxes open. His gaze sort of flickered between Kiyotaka's revealed clothing and the man standing in front of him. Voice throaty, he sputtered, “You—Uh, d-damn, you always dress so nice.”

Wh—

His heart about exploded. “Oh, it's just—it's just—” he couldn't meet Mondo's eyes and fell onto his knees, busying himself with opening up his boxes—“th-these are the only things I could find this morning. P-Probably the worst outfit I have..!”

Mondo hummed. “Well if even your worst outfit's bangin', then that says something stellar about the rest of your wardrobe.”

He was going to die—he was going to freaking die—and it had absolutely nothing to do with Sakura's trial.

He unearthed one of his bedsheets and hid his face behind it. Mumbled, “Y-You look nice too, Mondo..! Your hair's, um... it's good!”

He heard Mondo's intake, heard the smile through his voice. “Aww. Thanks, Taka. Normy wanted to braid it, and, well, I couldn't stop him. Maybe I'll have to ask him to do it again.” Normy was the thirteen-year-old from Mondo's gang who had volunteered to help them with the move. He was a sprightly kid with a stocky build, tanned skin, and this incredible ginger hair that he'd let grow past his shoulders. He had yet to say a single word to Kiyotaka, but when he dropped off boxes, he'd tug Mondo's sleeve and whisper something to him that made the biker chuckle.

Kiyotaka pretended that sorting through his personal items was the most interesting thing in the world. Once or twice he'd reach over to a box that Mondo had already opened up, and their hands would brush, and Kiyotaka would snatch his hand away, choking out an apology, as Mondo paused and stared after him for a long moment.

They were so inefficient that before long he heard Taeko's socked feet sliding into his room. She stuck her head in and asked, “Really, Kiyotaka? I already finished setting up my bedroom!” Then she happily sat down beside him and proceeded to make fun of his interior decoration style while letting him guide where to put and how to fold his things.

While Kiyotaka's back was turned—he'd found his mattress and was finally getting some sheets onto it, after Mondo helped shove it into its frame—he heard another box ripping open, then a gasp from his companions.

“Oh my god, Taka. What the fuck is this?”

His blood iced. What did they find—?

He turned rapidly to see Taeko and Mondo ogling the top box of his set of board games. “My god, I've never fuckin' heard of this one. What about you, Taeko?”

Her eyes skimmed over it, and she cheerfully read: “'Hey Pa! There's a Goat on the Roof!'” She clapped a hand onto her mouth, but her laugh streamed through. “Kiyotaka, please enlighten us.”

Oh, of all board games to leave on top...

He reluctantly sat down between them. “It's an old set from my grandparents.”

“That does not nearly tell me enough.” Taeko was already grabbing the box and—against Kiyotaka's outbursts—carefully pulling off the top. The game was well-loved, its outerwear papery with age. The unearthed board featured a meandering yellow line that dragged itself through numerous plastic appendages atop a hand-drawn farm. One appendage resembled a stone wall, another a pile of logs, and yet another suggested a big red barn with a yellow roof. Taeko gasped. “The titular roof!” She hurriedly grabbed one of the game's goat pieces—opting for the brown one closest to black—and placed it atop the barn.

Kiyotaka chuckled, taking off the piece. He returned it to the red pen at the start of the board game. “No, no, that's what you do at the end. And you can't possibly go there right now.” He picked up a crude red game piece roughly in the shape of a man and placed it in front of the barn. “See, the farmer's out. He won't let you onto the roof.”

Mondo grabbed the piece. “The fuck is that?” He pointed at this weird red part just sort of sticking out of the farmer's chest. “He fuckin' impaled?”

“No!” Kiyotaka flushed, snatching the farmer back and returning him to his barn. “He's, uh... I think he's holding a gun. To keep the goats from getting on the roof!”

“Well, I think it looks like he was impaled by a broom,” Taeko said. “If he is dead, does that mean I can put all the goats on the roof now?”

No!” Kiyotaka glared at her. “He's not dead! The whole point is to get on the roof when the farmer's not looking! The game's tension is lost if he's dead!”

Taeko muttered, “But what if the goats already murdered him? That way, they can get on the roof whenever they want.”

“Yeah, ditto,” Mondo unhelpfully added.

Kiyotaka's head was in his hands. “That's not how you play the game!” He could hear his horrible friends already debating as to whether they could have free goat reign. “Okay—Fine! Let's play it. I'll show you how it works.”

A giddiness had overtaken Taeko and Mondo's eyes. “Hell yeah,” his partner said. Taeko nodded excitedly.

He got them to choose their goat pieces—Taeko stole her “almost goth” one, Mondo picked out the orange one (he called it friendly), and Kiyotaka settled for the white one. Taeko eyed it, said, “It looks like your old suit.” Kiyotaka protectively folded his hands around it so Taeko wouldn't get any ideas and go “spilling” her nail polish “by accident” all over it.

They used the board's built-in spinner to pick who went first. Taeko had a lot of fun messing with it, seeing how quickly she could flick it and yank her hand out of the way in time not to be smacked by the whiplash. As soon as Mondo found out moving backwards was allowed, he completely lost focus of the game and made his only goal to leap-frog over as many of the plastic inclines, especially the little yellow chicken coop. He bullied those poor fictional chickens, slamming his goat's hooves all over the roof of the thatch. The friendly orange goat, indeed.

The point of the game was to jump on as many weird plastic appendages as possible in order to earn cans, and then reach the barn's roof first to get a hefty can bonus, but of course nobody was paying any attention to getting onto the roof except for Kiyotaka. Whenever he landed on a space that let him ring the bell—sending the farmer back into his barn, and granting the opportunity to actually reach the roof—Taeko would target another bell space as to make him come back out.

She'd made it her mission to harangue and gaslight the farmer. Whenever Kiyotaka moved him into the barn, Taeko would hurriedly dump all the leftover goat pieces onto the roof. He'd give her a look, and she'd throw the biggest, cheekiest grin back. As soon as the farmer came back out, Taeko knocked the goats onto the ground and cried, “Look, you stupid fucking farmer! You are imagining it!” Then she rolled on the floor, cackling. “What an incel!”

They needed to have a talk about her language, but as it was, Kiyotaka had to look away and clear his throat to disguise his chuckles.

They'd made so little progress on reaching the game's roof that by the time Yamada and Normy came back with the rest of the packages, they were able to join in on the game without hardly missing anything important. As Kiyotaka caught them up on the very important rules, Taeko attempted to convince Yamada into joining her alliance—“You just need to give me all of your cans, okay, Servant? You will be a good Servant for me, yes?” all batting her eyelashes like Yamada wasn't going to just do whatever she told him to.

He'd almost thrown away his life for her without even considering the consequences. Kiyotaka figured a bunch of toy cans meant less than nothing to him.

“Taeko,” he shook his finger at her, “don't cheat. Let Yamada have even a chance at—”

“No! No no no.” Taeko patted the portly, bespectacled man on the hood of his cat onesie. Everyone pretended that that strange rumbling cough was not Yamada attempting to purr. “He agrees! See?” And he nodded convincingly.

“Well, fuck,” Mondo said. “Taka, your goat's gotta fuckin' join me in this goat conquest, then!” He glanced over to his crestfallen little buddy. “Oh, and Normy too, course.” The kid perked up a little at that. Kiyotaka scooted over to join them, and Mondo reached out to high-five him. Their hands lingered together a moment before hastily pulling apart.

Somewhere along the way, “Hey Pa! There's a Goat on the Roof” became an all-out massacre. Goat pieces were capsized, drowning in tin cans and piles of cards. The bell had ended up on the farmer's head, and the game's titular roof was utterly barren of goats.

Kiyotaka didn't remember how he'd gotten squished between Taeko and Mondo, but his head was on Mondo's shoulder, his arm trapped around Taeko, and his stomach ached from laughter.

Normy had run off to finish bringing in the boxes, bless his selfless heart, and Yamada had left (apparently it was past his bedtime. Or perhaps that was just what Taeko told him to get him to leave her alone). Mondo started when he saw Kiyotaka sit up and check the time on his phone. “Fuck, fuck, I told the kids I'd—fuuuuuck...” Shook himself, got to his feet, started aimlessly looking around.

Taeko had fallen asleep, and he carefully maneuvered around her as to not disturb her. “Mondo, what's up?” he whispered.

“Meant to get back earlier. It's already past eight. I was gonna order 'em all somethin' from McDonald's... they're probably hungry now...” He hurriedly located his own phone, which had somehow gotten lost in one of the moving boxes, and typed out a few furious text messages. “Shit, shit...” Drew out a sigh.

Kiyotaka stepped over to him, gently rested a hand at his arm. Mondo subconsciously leaned into his touch. His heart stumbled up his throat. “I'm sorry we distracted you,” he said. “I didn't realize you—”

“No. No no. Don't be.” Mondo had grabbed his wrist and dragged him out of the room. They rushed through the front door and hurtled down the stairway—indoor now, very fancy and carpeted—before exiting the complex's glass doors. There by Mondo's parked motorcycle stood Normy, patiently awaiting his big bro Mondo to take him back home.

Mondo glanced feverishly between his ride and Kiyotaka. Then he shifted, paused, took Kiyotaka's hands into his own. “Don't be sorry, alright? I had a lot of fun. That was... That was...” There weren't any words to describe it, but his mouth had spread into a fond grin. “You'll have to show me the other wacky board games you got in your...

“Fuck! I meant to finish helping you unpack! Oh my god...” He took his hands back and groaned into one of them. “I'm so sorry! God, I'm such a mess today.”

“No—Mondo...” Kiyotaka touched his shoulder. Mondo stilled. “You still helped so much. Thank you, really. You didn't have to do any of that, but—”

“Whaddaya mean?” The edges of his lilac eyes crinkled. “I owed you one, didn't I?” He paused when Kiyotaka's brow tightened. “Hey, but... I mean, I would've probably come anyways, even if I hadn't fallen asleep during the trial like a fuckin' lunatic.” His smile softened, tender. “I had a great time with you today.”

Mondo blinked. Panic set in. “And—Taeko! And—uh—and”—he pointed back at his bike—“and Normy! Yeah, that was fun! Yeah! Yeah...” He shook himself. Another strand came loose from his braid.

Kiyotaka reached out and tucked the flyaway behind Mondo's ear before he even knew what he was doing.

Their eyes met, and they froze.

The heat that rushed through his face was suddenly chased down by a torrential downpour of chills.

A weak laugh escaped him. Mondo stumbled back, his cheeks ruddy, and awkwardly waved.

“U-Um.” Kiyotaka swallowed sharply. “Have a good night! And—And drive home safe!”

“Yeah—Th-Thanks!” Mondo was already turning around. “See ya!” Normy had covered his blushing face with his hands.

So quickly his partner disappeared into the night. Soon Kiyotaka was waving at a shadow. He hurried back into the apartment—his apartment, now—and tried to focus on making his legs move up the steps without buckling. By the time he'd reached his apartment, an idiotic smile was stretched across his face, and he collapsed into his half-furnished couch. It was missing a cushion, but it was enough for Kiyotaka to sink into and stare listlessly at the ceiling.

He didn't realize Taeko had woken up until her voice shattered his daydreaming. “Kiyotaka has a cruuuuush!”

He shook himself, distractedly, and saw her leering over the couch. “Huh? Who?”

She giggled and sat down beside him. They had to squeeze to make the one couch cushion fit. “On accessory! Am I right? Oh, I must be. I chose that name knowingly.”

Kiyotaka blinked a few times. The worst of his infatuation was clearing. “I—I don't know about...” But his words escaped him as he let his mind roam—Did he like Mondo that much? Did he...

The warmth he had felt when his body was up against him came back to Kiyotaka with aplomb. His heart staggered as he relived the sensation of Mondo's calloused hand brushing over his skin. Mondo's enthusiasm carrying him through each arduous trial. Mondo's laughter, grizzled and tough and lovely, coming awash over him.

Mondo's soft hair flickering through his fingers as he tucked it behind his ear, eyes full of him—

Kiyotaka hid his head in his hands. Taeko was squealing. “You must tell him, Kiyotaka! I bet he likes you back!” She kept bouncing in place, dangerously shaking the loosely-attached couch cushion.

This wasn't the same easy, unbridled attraction that had first punched him in the face when he met Mondo during Hiro's trial. This was, this was... this was...

That preliminary kick of adrenaline that had burst through him the first time Mondo took him on his bike. Then the anxious, tenacious pulsing in his wrists that kept him holding on, head tucked in Mondo's shoulder—hoping they'd make it home safe. Believing in him.

He saw Mondo through his mind's eye, sensed the phantom of his body enveloping his own. The longing threatened to upend him.

He sank into his couch and wheezed out a breath. “I'll think about it, Taeko.”

She sort of smiled at him, nudged him by the shoulder.

He blinked, sighed again. “Oh, I almost forgot about all those boxes—”

“Ehhh,” Taeko said, “just leave them for tomorrow! You finished up with your trial paperwork, right? Nothing better to do in the morning!” She grappled his arm, locking him onto the couch beside her. “Let's watch a movie! A horror movie!”

“Why?” He cringed.

Taeko gave him a harmless, innocent smile. “Because I want to see you scared fucking shitless.”

Kiyotaka hadn't the voice to scream at her and wordlessly gawked her way, his tired, bloodshot eyes doing the talking for him.

Taeko seemed to take this the wrong way. Hurriedly she got up and started plugging in things in the dark. “Oh, I think this is the television cord! Oh—There's the microwave! You like popcorn, don't you? Well—I do, so I'm making some whether you like it or not.”

He fell into a murky sleep by the time she'd returned and only woke momentarily when the first jump scare caused her to let out a raucous scream, struggling to hide herself in his shoulder.

Chapter Text

The next few months flowed by in a comforting quietude, the sort of solace the Ishimaru Law Firm needed after their all too exciting prior trial. Still lacking a suit, Kiyotaka kept a relatively low profile, hoping to stall Taeko's plans to buy him a new one for as long as he possibly could.

He'd recently become invested in civil cases, most of which didn't even require him to meet his client in public, let alone attend a day in court, so he spent his mornings filing paperwork and afternoons building cases in his pajamas with Mondo over bowls of cereal.

His feelings for his partner had taken root deep within him, and he sensed—and feared—their growth, though he yet lacked the courage to speak them aloud. These months with Mondo had only continued to show him that he was in far, far too deep.

Mondo had even been the one to suggest he rename their law firm. “Jin's fucking butts nowhere, up in Antarctica for all we know. It's basically your office anyways, pal,” was his eloquent reasoning. And so the Ishimaru Law Firm was born—still a sub-category of Kirigiri Offices, but the only bustling section of the company, equipped with its optimistic attorney, his loudmouthed partner, and their smugly lesbian assistant.

Sometimes Taeko helped out with their paper trials, usually when she was bored or wanted attention, often both. Kiyotaka had gone ahead and crammed a third chair up to his desk at Kirigiri Offices for when she felt like tagging along. Ideally they did not need to force three chairs behind the desk, since Mondo always sat on top of it, but he insisted on having his own chair to utilize as a footrest.

Their civil cases hadn't the same wild, exuberant energies as Kiyotaka's first two trials—both unabashed murders, although Sakura's turned out to be staged—and Kiyotaka found himself missing, strangely, the aura those times had held. While they had wrecked his nervous system and robbed him of sleep for the days he'd slaved over them, he knew he'd made a difference, and he thought often of how he—he—had saved Hiro from condemning himself as a murderer, had shown Kuwata the truth, had found a way to protect Sakura and Taeko from a certain death.

While there still lacked conclusive evidence surrounding the pursuer who had nearly killed his best friend, Kiyotaka dreamed that his efforts to pinpoint their existence may scaffold future evidence that could possibly one day uncover the assassin's identity. As it was, they had evidently removed Sakura from their hit list, as Detective Kirigiri reported no sightings of the pursuer proceeding the conclusion of the trial.

This wasn't yet the amount of change he had been hoping to make to even out the corruption his grandfather had caused upon Japanifornia two generations ago, but he had to admit it was a strong start.

Little did he know that soon his wish would come true and cause him to question his sanity for wanting such a terrifically exhausting lifestyle for himself!


As summer's heat came rushing through Japanifornia, browning lawns and driving Taeko's fashion style to dare reveal inches of her freckled skin, Kiyotaka heard her timid knock at his bedroom door one stuffy morning.

“Kiyotaka? Do you have any terribly droll cases to solve today?”

He stared at his dresser, still debating as to whether he would bother to get out of his striped pajamas today. “Nothing that can't be moved to tomorrow. What is it?”

She knocked a little harder. “May I come in?”

“Go ahead.”

Despite her clingy, teasing nature, she had her own discipline, and she only now peeked into his room. Taeko strolled up to his bed in her socks and hopped down beside him. She had dressed in a black denim tank dress paired with a thin crimson long sleeve beneath whose sleeves draped over her hands. How she wasn't sweating was a great mystery. Her dark hair was done up in a pair of french braids, and for once in her life, she had risked not donning high socks or leggings, allowing her legs to breathe.

“Hello!” she said, kicking her feet.

“Good morning?” He blinked. “What is it, Taeko?”

“Nothing!” Her smile was too large, too tight.

“Taeko, just tell me.” She'd lately been struggling to keep up her poker face around him, and, to her disappointment, had discovered her abilities to lie around Kiyotaka had been dwindling.

“Fiiiine.” She leaned back and spread her arms over his bed sheets. “There is a pop-up carnival off the highway by that one turn today, and I think... that, um...” She chewed her lip. “You and accessory should go!”

Yet still she blushed. Kiyotaka peered down at her. “What, am I taking too long for you?”

“Yesssss!” she wailed. “Just tell himmmmmmm! Why is it so haarrrrd? You should have kissed him months agooooo! So now”—she got up to face him and poked his nose—“now you should ask him to go on a lovely outing with you to the carnival! It is the perfect first date.”

She couldn't quite meet his gaze. Something was bothering her. It couldn't possibly be his confusing relationship with Mondo—not to this extent, so much as she teased him for it.

He wondered how he might coax it out of her. Testing, he said, “Sure, I suppose.” He had never actually gone to a carnival before and experienced a momentary panic concerning what in the world he had just committed to.

He recognized the same anxious pause in Taeko's face—and asked, “Would you like to come with us?”

Her mouth flew open. “Uh! Umm! I mean! No!” Her cheeks swelled pink. “That is ridiculous! I would never dream of attending a fun, outdoor activity with people I care about whose company I greatly enjoy! I would, um...” She chewed her lip. “O-Only if you ask very nicely!”

Kiyotaka choked on his smirk. “Taeko, would you please help me take Mondo on a date?”

“Who is Mondo?” She played coy, eyes unnaturally wide, as she twirled one of her braids.

He rolled his eyes. “Would you please help me ask my accessory out? Taeko?”

“Goodness gracious, Kiyotaka. He is your accessory. Is it really that difficult for you to ask him yourself?”

To his glower, she giggled, bouncing on his pillows. “Okay, okay, I will ask him!”

She then proceeded to call Mondo and insist that he meet them at once in the nearby vacant parking lot. She almost convinced an oblivious Kiyotaka into staging a fake kidnapping before he realized what she was trying to do and had to snag the phone and shut his horrible pseudo-sister's plans down.


Mondo was already at the balloon-adorned front gates when they arrived. He about jumped up at the sight of them and came galumphing over, wrapping one arm around Kiyotaka as the other gingerly tapped Taeko's shoulder. “God, I can't wait to get fuckin' punked by those rigged prize games! Taka, we gotta go get in line for one of those chunky pikachus.”

He was already herding Kiyotaka toward one of the money-sucking booths. Taeko lagged behind, a simpering shadow that clung to Kiyotaka's free arm. Once he'd successfully hustled Kiyotaka into the barren line, a depressed looking pink-haired carny guy started opening up the packages at the front of his booth.

“Why don't you got the fuckin' game set up?” shouted Mondo. He pounded his fists onto the still empty booth for effect.

The carny recoiled. He was wearing this ludicrous lime green pair of overalls that poorly covered his bare chest. “This game's shit! Most people have the sense not to play it!” His voice was whiny and broken up by cracks.

Mondo jumped, barreling his palms into the sleek velvet atop the booth. “We are doing the god-damn bottle toss, and you are going to fucking open it!” If not for the giant grin across his face, the biker would have looked terrifying looming over the poorly set up attraction.

Today he had gone without the sleazy tank top altogether (“Too hot,” he'd complained) and leaned over the booth in a ripped up black vest that proudly bared his tanned, muscular chest. The vest was bedazzled with rhinestones like stars. It matched his sparkly sandals. He'd flared up his outfit with none other than his magenta biker shorts that ended a little too high up on his thighs, because surely the rhinestone vest and the sandals weren't enough on their own.

Kiyotaka looked as if he should be standing the furthest away from this man, not practically attached to him by one of Mondo's massive arms. He'd (reluctantly) switched his pajamas with a button up white tee and incongruous pale yellow pants. Taeko threw a fit about him wearing such “boring colors” that led him to request he hold her purse for her today. He had to ensure she hadn't hidden any loose bottles of crimson nail polish in there, for his own peace of mind.

There they were, all crammed up in the bottle toss booth, the only people insane enough to stand under the hot sun and swelter in the parking lot as the carny inefficiently set up the bottles, then proceeded to trip over them and fall on his butt at least five times.

Miraculously they hadn't died of heatstroke by the time the bottles were ready. Mondo plucked the metal ring from the carny and started lobbing it at the bottles like a bowling ball. “What are you doing?” Kiyotaka shrieked, only to realize partway through that Mondo genuinely was trying his hardest. He had horrendous aim.

After he ran out of tries, Mondo sat there and smiled fondly at the bottle toss. “I love this shitty game. It reminds me that I'm imperfect and I'll never be good at everything.” He pointed out one of the bottles at random. “My brother and I used to fuckin' practice for these. They're rigged to hell and back.” He let out a loving sigh, head falling into his hand. “Memories.”

The carny gave him a weird look.

Taeko tapped Mondo by the shoulder, and he got out of the way for her. She handed a $100 bill to the carny so she could watch him painstakingly count out her change as she swung about in place, letting him know his taste in clothing was horrific and suggesting he try wearing a shirt under his overalls next time.

Then she swung and perfectly landed her ring atop a bottle with the precision of a sharpshooter. The carny fainted on the spot. He was too unconscious to notice when Taeko untied the hair-thin wire she had slung up to the booth's support beams and attached to her ring while she had waited for him to count out her change.

Taeko happily claimed a ginormous stuffed black cat as her prize. “He is so ugly! I will love him forever.” She instructed Mondo to carry it for her, a conversation which devolved into the two bickering over who got to name the cat.

They eventually compromised on “Midnight Fucker,” an elegant combination of their choices.

Once they joined the sea of sweating families that filled out the expanse of blacktop, Kiyotaka lost sight of his assistant in the crowd. He felt it the moment she was swallowed up and rushed into the swarming masses to cry, “HOLD IT!”

The entire throng drew still enough for him to espy her. She'd somehow gotten herself between two emo high school students in matching school uniforms, one holding way too many sharp objects, and the other with an inexplicable container of pills in their arms.

He nabbed Taeko before that kid with the bad attitude and the entire sword could swat at her. He could hear the brewing of a teenaged drama behind them.

“Watch out, Kimura,” said the boy with the three daggers strapped to his back. “It's not my fault if you lose an eye to my shoulder pad.” He was in fact sporting a shoulder pad with spines attached to it. It was difficult to make out at first, partially hidden behind the crimson hood of the boy's hoodie, but it glistened malevolently beneath the sun's heavy rays.

“Whatever, loser.” Then Kimura tensed, her eyes widening. “Wait—For once I didn't mean that. Izayoi—Hey—Wait, you little shit! I have something to... say to... fuck.”

The boy had already been swallowed up by the crowd, and she now stood alone. Her gaze traveled to Taeko, who had stared intensely after the spat, and Kimura glowered at her before stalking away.

As she dispersed, Taeko murmured, “I wonder if she is a lesbian.”

“How would you know?” squeaked Kiyotaka. “You hardly saw her.”

“It is a feeling. In here.” Taeko addressed her chest.

“I'unno, Taeko.” Mondo, having finally caught up to them, hefted Midnight Fucker over his shoulder. “You can't just superimpose your sexuality onto every single person you meet, you know?”

“Shut up, accessory. You cannot stop me.”

“I am not a lesbian!” he shouted back, which garnered odd looks from passerby.

Taeko shrugged. “Perspective. Women are called gay all the time. You may as well be a gay lesbian for all I care, for there is no escaping my label.”

“You're so... fuckin'... I...” Mondo's face screwed up. “I'm pretty sure that's not an insult, but with you, I can't tell at all.”

Kiyotaka broke in before another squabble started up between them. “Hey! Let's check out the duck pond!” The duck pond was nice and quiet, or so the internet had told him. What kind of person could be made to yell at a plastic duck, right?

He should have known that his suggestion would only result with Mondo upended into the duck pond's plastic pool.

After they were banned from the duck pond, Taeko decided she had had enough of men for one day and took Midnight Fucker to ride the dinky train encircling the parking lot. It was to be understood that Midnight Fucker did not count as a man.

And so it took Kiyotaka all of two minutes to notice that he and Mondo now walked alone together, and as soon as he noticed it he couldn't not.

His hand would accidentally brush Mondo's pinkie and he'd explode internally. The crowd would jostle him into Mondo's chest and he'd all but die. His entire body flinched when Mondo's voice teased at his ear—“Alright, what next? I kinda ruined that last one, so you should pick again, Taka.”

The questionable duck pond water dribbled down Mondo's cheek. He'd thrown his hair up with a scrunchie, and flyaways framed the edges of his rough face, a deep brown curtain that drew out the paleness of his violet eyes.

His head was so close to Kiyotaka's, and he—his heart—he had to move away, but making space between them was impossible in this crowd. His gaze skirted back to examine what else the amusement park offered, leaping past scammy prize games and the rattly old roller coaster that looked about ready to take a kid off to their premature grave. There were the spinning tea cups, and the go karts, and all these other safety violations that, Kiyotaka realized, he didn't think he actually wanted to attend.

What in the world was he supposed to do here? None of this... looked fun. Just—dangerous, sleazy. A part of him honestly wished he could take Mondo home with him and solve that new 500 piece puzzle he'd recently splurged on.

Then he caught the crest of metal over the horizon, as if a great machine swooning overhead.

There, looming over the rest of the paltry carnival rides, he caught the regal Ferris wheel. On another day, in another time, he would have refused this safety hazard as well, but Taeko had prepped him. She'd told him this one was really important for him to go on. For some reason. She wouldn't tell him why, just that he had to cram himself and Mondo into it.

And what was he if not hopeful? And an idiot who blindly, happily listened to his liar of an assistant?

He began to point out the Ferris wheel to Mondo when an odd sound veered through the parking lot, dragging his vision down to one of the scam booths. The pale yellow tented booth stood out as a soothing color among the flapping waves of heinous neon draperies. But what drew his eye was that sound, a sharp whistle through the stiff, heady air.

In a fateful second the tent's mellow, lovely color was wrenched with garish orange spots.


Day 1: Investigation: Part 1


“Oh my god. Taka, did you see—?” Already Mondo was surging ahead of him, protecting Kiyotaka with his strong frame from the sudden onslaught of retreating pedestrians. He held Kiyotaka's hand carefully but with enough force to help steer him through the gawking on-lookers. Soon they had approached the booth, and Kiyotaka caught the deadly glint of small, sharp weapons stuck into the back wall of the tent.

Already he was blustering with questions. Mondo squeezed his hand. “What kinda fucking coincidence,” he muttered. Kiyotaka peered at the slick objects sticking out the wall and saw that they had merely been a part of the balloon popping attraction. He breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone knew the balloon darts were too dull to even pop a measly balloon, let alone scratch a human being.

But then—he glanced back—

—and the unnatural tilt of the body consumed his vision. Its torso was slammed across the front of the booth, the legs dangling precariously over the ground in a manner so stiff, so rubbery that there couldn't possibly be any life left in them. They peeked beneath a lovely sky-blue skirt that brushed over the ground, and flecks of blood dotted the upper edge of the skirt, where fabric tapered to reveal a blushing midriff. What showed of the crisp white shirt was spotted a dull pink.

Two wide-eyed men stood before the body. One was still holding its limp hand. He was a straight-backed alabaster man in a crisp white suit and with blinding white hair. Slowly, slowly, a fragmented gasp escaped him, alongside a name. “Chisa.

His companion wore a matching white suit, but he'd tastefully chosen to dismember its sleeves and leave his hefty brown arms exposed. His wavy dark turquoise hair cast shadows over his brooding face, and it contrasted heavily with his outstretched scream: “FUCK!”

The woman lay silent and unmoving between them. So gently the pristine white man drew her limp form to him, struggling to straighten what could not be undone. In the back of her head, around swathes of her long, peachy orange hair, was embedded an articulate silvery knife. Sounds without sense escaped the man as his brown-skinned companion punched the booth wall.

“That looks a helluva lot like a weapon that kid we saw would own,” Mondo helpfully pointed out. The kid with the shoulder pad, and the emo eyes. Had he taken out his teenage angst on this poor woman?!

The men now shielding the body had apparently come to the same conclusion. The white one gingerly squeezed the bejeweled hilt of the embedded knife. “This... This couldn't be Sohnosuke's..!”

“The apprentice kills the master's girl,” growled his companion. His hands instinctively fisted. “C'mon, Munakata. Let's go beat the shit out of—”

“S-Stop. Sakakura. Cease.” Surprisingly, the beefy Sakakura obliged. “W-We don't know that. Sohnosuke... Sohnosuke wouldn't... h-his own teacher..?”

Sakakura moved to stand in front of his friend, shadowing Munakata's body with his own as he stared out over the vacated parking lot. Few had dared inch closer to the scene of the crime. Few had balls like Mondo's.

For a moment Sakakura stared down at the bare-chested biker, but once he'd peeked behind him to notice Kiyotaka, Sakakura shrugged and turned back to his companion. “I can't tell who killed her.”

“Sakakura, it takes a lot more than—”

“Yeah, but, you'd think a killer would be a lot easier to recognize!” Sakakura glared out at the receding throngs of families and friends. “Who the fuck... Who the fuck killed our best friend?” He let out a breath like a bellow and laid a hand across Munakata's back—only to flinch and grab it back. “I... shit! I just wanna punch someone!”

In a tired, practiced tone, Munakata replied, “You can't just go around punching people who make you mad or confused. The world isn't your personal boxing ring.”

Sakakura fumed. “You don't know that. It's not like there's a television show or anime or some shit out there where someone like me did that and it cost them their life.”

As the on-lookers thinned out and the last of the frat boys finished taking selfies from afar with the corpse, Kiyotaka found himself gripping his court record so tightly his knuckles had gone white. The moment he let himself, he was jotting down details of the case thus far.

A bedazzled silver knife was embedded in the back of the victim's head. However, the entry point was small, and Kiyotaka was already wondering if that had been the true cause of death when he had seen so much—more blood drench the booth's surrounding tent. He could make out from what little he saw of the victim's cradled body a blood-drenched front, and he wished he had Mondo's courage to edge any closer.

It didn't appear that any of the balloon darts were besmirched with blood, so Kiyotaka figured he could assume they had not been involved in the crime (how could a dart pop a person's skull when it struggled to puncture a balloon?) though he wondered if the murderer had chosen this booth to strike for any particular reason. Perhaps they had even hidden this knife in with the darts prior to the murder.

Mondo watched him furiously jot down his notes. “Damn, Taka. We ain't even in this trial.”

“M-Maybe we will be.” Kiyotaka's ambition was getting a little ahead of him. They hadn't had a murder trial in close to three months now, and he didn't know how to admit that he was a little morbidly excited to sleuth out this next one.

Kiyotaka could not possibly describe what happened next in words, so his pen laid useless in his hand. He witnessed what appeared to be a man with spiky hair in a suit—of sorts—chasing down and promptly ordering some black-clad men to corner the very boy he had seen earlier. The boy had been standing just beyond the crime scene, half watching it, as goth kids were wont to be attracted to dead bodies.

The suited men... they did something that sounded an awful lot like a howl—an action which scared the emo kid so badly he froze in place, giving the men a chance to handcuff and lead him off.

He stared after the boy and his odd, somewhat official looking procession. Munakata gasped and reluctantly released the victim's body, murmuring a word of apology, before rushing after the defendant and brandishing an entire platinum sword that came breadths away from slicing Kiyotaka's cheek. Sakakura, as if on orders, folded his massive arms across his chest and stared after the body.

The man with the spiked brown hair approached Sakakura, extending a hand. His suit was even harder to describe up close. Something like a dragon was stretched out across it, and it wasn't fully buttoned, leaving a peek at the man's chest.

Mondo pushed Kiyotaka closer to the men in some shameless attempt to eavesdrop. Whether or not they noticed, the two didn't call Mondo out.

“Detective Shi-Long Lang. I'm a sigma wolf.”

Sakakura reluctantly shook the man's outstretched hand. “Juzo Sakakura. My best friend just got murdered.” With his free hand, he pointed at the too-still woman Chisa.

Detective Lang's hands slid into his pockets. “Damn, I hate it when that happens. Feels like being in the business makes you more likely to lose a loved one, uh? Y'know, I've been doing a study on it, actually—in my free time? Yeah, there's like this prosecutor who had three murders occur in his vicinity within a day. I'd look out if I were you. My current theory is that we're trapped in a video game.”

Somehow Sakakura took all of this in stride.

At Kiyotaka's shoulder, Mondo muttered, “Oh, I don't like him. Not a fuckin' video game. There's no way.” His fingers worried Kiyotaka's sleeve as he mumbled to himself.

Lang gazed after the receding forms of his men, the arrested boy, and the sword-wielding Munakata. He breathed out a slow sigh. “Always gets like this after a murder. See, they all expect me to pick out the murderer, but I don't know what the heck I'm doing, so I just kinda choose the first person I see? And well, anyways, I chose the kid, because he gave me bad voodoo energy, but I also don't trust courts of law, so basically, I have no idea what's about to go down.”

With a great dopey fanged smile across his face, Lang sidled up against the booth with the murder victim on his right. He had an oddly contented look upon his face, as if someone who had blinded himself staring into dumpster fires he himself had set over the years and now watched the bleakness spread through his eyes as the borderline senile grin firmly set his mouth into place.

He pulled out a couple pairs of sunglasses, dropped one set across his face, and set the other over the victim's vacant gaze. Kiyotaka almost confused them for eye patches—just two eye patches strapped to his head—because they had this very confusing plastic addition that made an x over Lang's massive forehead.

Then Lang kicked back to enjoy the blistering early afternoon sunshine. “Well, my work is done. Time to take a nap.”

Sakakura took a good look at the half-asleep detective. “I think he's got it covered.” The brutish witness gazed after his lost friend before breaking into a sprint, yowling, “I WILL FIND THE MURDERER OF CHISA YUKIZOME!"

Mondo finally let go of Kiyotaka's sleeve to gape after the wreck. “Shit. I think we've got our work cut out for us.” He rested his hand at the attorney's back. “We gonna go hunt down the defendant, or..?”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but perk up. “Yes! Let's!”


The bagel-munching cop at the back of the precinct warned Kiyotaka it'd be difficult to get a word in with the defendant.

He did not realize that the cop was referring to the external cacophony within the metal box of a room, not the defendant's own sour nature, though that was well and accounted for.

Upon entering the visitation chamber, nobody bothered to notice Kiyotaka and Mondo's additions. The defendant was too busy having a screaming match with none other than a man wearing an entire bull mask over his face. Alongside the mask, he wore a crisp white button-down and clean jeans, with a pair of cowboy boots. His waist-length brown hair billowed down his back.

Kiyotaka came to accept that extremely little about this case was going to make sense.

Then the masked man howled down on the cramped visiting area.

“YOU TELL ME HERE AND YOU TELL ME NOW, BOY. DID YOU KILL YOUR TEACHER?”

The defendant peered up at the masked man—muscles bulging at his crisp shirt—and stuck out his tongue, tipping his red hood overhead. “Go away.”

“THAT IS NOT AN ANSWER! ANSWER ME NOW, BOY.”

“Yeah, try screaming some more. Hopefully you'll blow out your dipshit lungs.”

“I AM THE GREAT GOZU, AND I HAVE WON FIVE WWES. MY SON WILL LISTEN TO ME WHEN I ASK HIM A QUESTION!”

Kiyotaka's brows raised. He hurriedly jotted down notes.

“You're not my real dad.”

“I'M MORE A FATHER THAN THE CRETINS WHO LEFT YOU IN THAT DUMPSTER!” The Great Gozu stopped a moment to catch his breath and plant his meaty fists to his hips. “Though I'm starting to question whether they had the right idea.”

The defendant flicked down his sleeve to point a rude hand gesture at his adoptive father. Kiyotaka's entire face flushed red. Mondo choked on a laugh.

Snorting and growling, Gozu pounded a foot into the concrete. He didn't even stop to grimace. “Sohnosuke Izayoi, you will tell me why your knife was found embedded in the skull of your own teacher on your summer field trip!”

“Because fuck you, that's why.”

“BOYYYYYYYYYY..!”

Kiyotaka figured he'd better jump in before his defendant was profoundly screamed to death. “HOLD IT!” he cried, and—somehow—Gozu located the patience to shut his mouth. “What's going on here?”

Izayoi snapped first. “Stay out of this, gramps!”

How old did he think Kiyotaka was?

“Excuse his attitude.” Gozu cleared his throat, extended a hand. Kiyotaka reluctantly took it and winced at the crunch in the wrestler's firm handshake. “Call me Gozu. I'm the sorry bastard responsible for this kid. I was supposed to chaperone his school's annual summer trip, but one thing led to another, and now my boy's been arrested for murdering his own teacher.” Gozu snorted, muttered, “His mentor about had a heart attack.”

His mentor, Kiyotaka took it, was Munakata, that man who'd been slinging about the sword. In fact, now that he considered it, what he had seen of Munakata's blade resembled the gilded nature of Izayoi's other assorted weaponry.

“Where is his mentor now?” Kiyotaka asked.

Gozu paused a moment. “Why do you ask, kid?” Kiyotaka flushed. “You don't have anything to do with this case, do you?”

Hurriedly Kiyotaka unpinned his lawyer badge from his shirt. He pinned it on every day, just in case an opportunity such as this arose. “I'm actually a defense attorney. I was hoping to take your son as a client—i-if you'd be willing to accept.”

Again, Gozu paused. Kiyotaka figured emotions were playing across the discouraged father's complexion, but of course that was all hidden behind his elaborate bull's mask. “I'd be honored, sport. Honestly, I didn't think it'd be this easy to find someone so... so earnest to take on such a problematic child's' case.”

Izayoi pounded a fist against the glass. Kiyotaka glanced over to witness the kid blowing a raspberry at him. “I don't give a shit who you think you are, geezer. I say no.”

“BOY, YOU LISTEN AND YOU LISTEN GOOD—”

“HEY, HEY—SHUT THE FUCK UP A MOMENT, WON'T YOU!”

The chamber grew eerily silent. Kiyotaka's heart pinged at the arrival of that comforting tone.

Mondo stepped out from his partner's shadow to hurriedly shake Gozu's hand. “Hi. Mondo Owada. I'm sort of an adopter of random stray kids, mostly misguided queer and or questioning boys with too much anger and not enough food in their bellies. I, uhhh...” Mondo threw his wet hair back, blowing out an anxious breath. “Don't think yelling your kid's brains out's gonna get him to listen. I'm sensing some, I don't know... misdirected anger here?”

“Huh.” Gozu stalled, taking in the biker. “Now that you mention it, I'm not sure if it's anger, exactly. It's... ah, it's difficult to express.” He waved about his calloused hands. Mondo nodded, brow furrowed. “It's manifesting as anger, as you can see, but maybe it's more... worry? Worry for my son's life?”

Mondo hummed and took Gozu by the shoulder, gently shoving him out of Kiyotaka's way. “Yeah, yeah. Let's simmer on that, pal. Worry cuz he's been accused of murder, right? But do you actually think he killed his teacher?” His warm gruff tone drifted off as he expertly cleared Kiyotaka's path to the surly defendant.

Swallowing tightly, he faced Izayoi. The boy hardly glanced up at the attorney and bunched up his shoulders, casting a gleam across the marbled surface of his spiny shoulder pad. He had a sling affixed to his back that, now barren, must have carried his daggers and other assorted weapons earlier.

As it was, Kiyotaka sensed more than saw the glisten of dangerous metallic weaponry hidden in Izayoi's baggy clothes and menacing sneer.

How in the world was he going to get this literal arms dealer to listen to him..?

Wait—No. Kiyotaka straightened, reminding himself that he had somehow convinced the greatest mafia boss of their time to entrust him with an incredible secret. If just being himself had gotten Taeko to want to live in a house with him, then... s-surely he could reason with this kid..!

He faced Izayoi, said, “My name is Kiyotaka Ishimaru, and I would be honored to take up the responsibili—”

“Fuck responsibilities. Scram, old man.”

Izayoi proceeded to scrounge up the detention center's singular chair—a dingy little stool—prop himself up on it, and smack his grimy high top sneakers on the counter top, shoving his shoes into Kiyotaka's face.

Kiyotaka blanched. New tactic.

“Izayoi, this is a very serious situation you're in. You need an attorney, or you could—”

“Ehh. Don't care. Fuck you.”

...what?!

A gush of heat billowed up Kiyotaka's face. He crunched an entire fist in his pocket, his arm locked in place and vibrating to keep from shoving screams down this little snot-nosed gremlin's throat.

Well, talking wasn't going to work.

Kiyotaka exhaled slowly, then brushed his fingertips over the other item he always kept pinned to his shirt.

The jade katana charm rippled with an unspoken power. Kiyotaka blinked, and the world came crashing through his eyes, rebuilt within an unearthly green tinge.

Even the aloof Izayoi started out of his seat and crashed upon the ground. He scrambled to his feet and dove at Kiyotaka, finding the glass partition that had separated them now missing.

Out came a triad of blades that Izayoi seamlessly held with his two hands. He could poke and stab with one while his left hand, hoisting the other two, served simultaneously as a defensive shield-like pincer maneuver and an offensive swing.

Kiyotaka stumbled back, the wounds peppering his skin. They left behind a transparent green glow that partially blinded him.

Seething, he rose to his feet and swung out his katana, clipping Izayoi across his—

—at the last second Izayoi's gangly teen boy shoulder rose, and the jade blade bounced harmlessly off of his shoulder pad. He swung again and Izayoi's two-bladed hand caught it, locking and tearing the weapon out of Kiyotaka's grip. Kiyotaka's arm buckled, wrenched out of place.

He scrambled to regain his weapon as Izayoi's sharp pointed daggers struck at him blow after blow, each one claiming another stripe across his back. He grabbed his katana—from the wrong angle—cutting up his hands in the process. Kiyotaka hissed in pain, flattening himself as he struggled to pick at the hilt while overpowering throbs rocked over his palms.

He could hardly think through all the stings and bruises and—agony—Izayoi was putting him through. The kid refused to speak, just launched himself at Kiyotaka and in as many seconds as he had breaths in his lungs had disarmed and pinned Kiyotaka to the ground.

A sneer broke across Izayoi's pubescent face. “Hehe, deez nuts.”

Kiyotaka's frustration and pain was momentarily put on hold by the sheer confusion. “Wh—”

“Gotem.”

He then plucked one of the daggers in Kiyotaka's leg and stuck it between his eyes.

Kiyotaka woke with aplomb, gasping for breath, blinking away the greenish residue of the jade mindscape. He hurriedly located and dabbed at his face with his handkerchief—crimson, in case of accidents.

Although sore, it appeared he hadn't sustained any long-lasting wounds from that humiliating showdown.

Gosh, now what? He'd been bested verbally and in physical combat.

...was there any way of convincing this kid..?

He grimaced as his gaze flickered over Izayoi, awaiting a snide comeback that did not arrive. In fact, the kid stared up at him with a new strange awe. His hoodie fluttered down his back, and his mouth was agape. He even brushed back the dirty blonde bangs that had obscured his silvery eyes.

“I have no idea what just happened, but all of a sudden I think you'd be a killer homie.”

Kiyotaka blinked.

Izayoi smirked, added, “You should train with me sometime. Somethin' tells me you're rusty.”

“I—Hey! You—”

“No, no.” Izayoi raised a finger to his lips and shushed. “I've been doing this since I was a fucking toddler. Don't even try to deny it. I am legally insane. It's the only reason I got enrolled in Weird Kid Academy.”

Growing more bewildered by the second, Kiyotaka took out his court record and began frantically taking notes as Izayoi calmly spilled an uncomfortable amount of personal information.

“Yeah, so, it's called the Ultimate Talent Academy, but we all know better. It's where the crazy kids get shipped off to, the ones with like, fifty mental illnesses that usually manifest in super weird abilities. Like me—I'm fifteen, and I'm a fucking registered blacksmith. My girl, Ruru, too. She can rot your teeth with her sweets. She bakes instead of, like, going outside.

“Our teachers mostly come from the Academy too, and they try to, like, incorporate us in society with these stupid field trips every so often, but they never work, because we're all wacked up and we know it.” Shrugging, Izayoi blew a strand of hair from his eyes. “And now one of my daggers is in Miss Chisa's brain tissue.”

Kiyotaka found his chance to cut in and nabbed it. “How do you think it landed in her skull, Izayoi?”

“Hey. Hey. The guys I deal to call me Noski.” Noski?! “Please, my guy, feel free to do the same.” Kiyotaka decided to promptly forget that nickname. “Now about that dagger... You know, I got no clue. I kind of just shed weapons like a typical housecat sheds fur in the summer? Because, like, I'm clinically insane and just can't stop making and tending to my weapons?” He raised his hands to reveal a makeshift shank out of one of the screws that likely held up the glass partition. It was impossible to tell how Izayoi had dislodged it. “So like, anyone I've ever been in contact with is suspect.”

Kiyotaka frowned, fingers tapping at the counter. “Now that can't be right. There must be some sort of clue...” Izayoi shrugged, dumping his hands into his hoodie's pockets. “Who do you recall speaking with today?”

“Uhhhhh.” Izayoi began scrawling a crude heart into the counter top as the bagel cop looked on, wincing with each metallic shriek. “Miss Chisa, my dead teacher. She asked me to please hand over my weapons before we left the hotel this morning. Who else...” He slumped over, thinking.

“Doesn't that mean Miss Chisa's bag holds all of the weapons the suspect could've had access to, then?” Kiyotaka posed.

Izayoi rolled his eyes. “You think I keep track of all this bullshit up my sleeves? Hell no. I gave her the two swords on my scabbard and called it a fucking day.” He hummed as his eyes rolled to the ceiling. “I walked around with Ruru in the morning—my girl. She's mine though, okay? So don't get any ideas."

Surprisingly, Kiyotaka hadn't a single one.

“We made out on the Ferris wheel for like, an hour. Then she went off to go hijack a bakery or something. Uhh, who else. Oh—Fuck! I know who killed Miss Chisa!”

“You do?” Kiyotaka gasped. Wow—That was fast.

“Yeah, man! It was Seiko Kimura! She's bad news, so it was definitely her.”

Ah. This evidence was in fact the opposite of definitive, but Kiyotaka figured he'd better chase this trail to be certain. “Did you have any contact with Kimura today?”

Actually...” Izayoi gaped. “Yeah! I did! She totally ran into me at the carnival! I bet she stole one of my daggers, made it look like an accident and everything! Man, what a shit. Probably nabbed my dagger knowing I'd look super sus if it was in Miss Chisa's skull.”

Kiyotaka starred the name in his notes. He'd have to interrogate this Kimura girl. In fact—He swore he'd already heard that name today...

TAEKO ! It came to him like a resounding bolt of thunder. Taeko had wondered if she was a lesbian! The girl with the face mask and the too much jewelry and all those pills tucked under her arm. Those pills likely had something to do with the talent that had landed her in the academy.

His heart hammered. He hadn't expected to find a lead so soon—a potentially credible one, as well. His palms positively vibrated with some strange, sinister mixture of excitement and extreme nervousness.

Anyone else?” he prompted.

Izayoi finished scrawling his crude heart, cramming N&R in the margins. Kiyotaka stared at it a moment—not “I” for Izayoi or “S” for Sohno... Noski. He gagged. “Nope! Nobody else. I actually hate talking to people, being a clinically insane person and also an introvert, and all. ADHD, too. Does it show?” Kiyotaka had no idea how to respond to that. “My dad—not Gozu, my other dad—got me some meds for it, and I think they're working? But I'm so fucking trapped in my thick skull that I actually don't know at all. Ruru said I was getting better at listening to her, though.”

Oh— Oh. Kiyotaka understood.

The reason Izayoi spoke so easily with him now was the link they'd made in swordsmanship. It didn't even matter that Kiyotaka lacked all of the boy's frightening expertise. They shared an interest, so Izayoi no longer felt threatened by his presence.

Kiyotaka let out a huge breath, bowing his head. “Right. Thank you, Izayoi—”

Hey! I said it's Noski, dude. Call me Noski!”

He blew out another sigh. “Thank you, Noski , for your testimony. Is there anything else you can tell me about the murder before I investigate on my own?”

Izayoi hesitated. He dragged his gaze over his next scrawled drawing, a stumpy stick figure with poofy long hair and a billowing skirt.

Uh, just—um. Yeah.” He found the contraption to pass evidence between them and placed the shank in it. “Can you give that to Mr. Kyosuke? Or, um, Kyosuke Munakata. He's my mentor.” He glanced up, looked away. “Tell him I said hi or something.”

Of course,” Kiyotaka said softly. He carefully picked up the sharpened screw, adding it to his court record.

Now to somehow extract Mondo from the incredibly emotional conversation he was having with Gozu out in the hallway. Kiyotaka couldn't make out much of it outside of the horrendous sobbing going on out there, and he cringed at the realization that he'd have to wade through it in order to exit the detention center.


I'll meet you tonight at your place,” Mondo hissed around Gozu's emotional outbursts as Kiyotaka tiptoed through the hall. “We'll reconvene, make a plan.” Kiyotaka threw him a thumbs-up on his way out.

He all but ran into a man wandering aimlessly in the waiting room at the front and caught himself before he crashed to the ground. Shaking himself, he glanced up and met the eyes of a man so tortured he actually did fall.

The man didn't offer his hand and simply stared on as Kiyotaka picked himself back up. With a jolt he recognized him—the white-suited mentor of Izayoi, Kyosuke Munakata.

Munakata's foot snapped to the ground, and he brushed back the white hair from his eyes. His hand leapt to the hilt at his belt.

Slowly he stared down Kiyotaka before hissing, “You,” his tone venomous. “You and your platitudes...”

A sudden wind picked up in the small building. Kiyotaka shivered under Munakata's frigid stare as the sword exited its scabbard and pitched into his throat.


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Kiyotaka gingerly stepped backwards as to relieve the sword from his throat. He checked with his finger and found that, thankfully, there had yet been no cut left. For a moment there he'd really thought this strange, grieving man had intended to skewer him.

Munakata... This was Izayoi's mentor, right? He certainly had the same imposing swordsmanship. Kiyotaka carefully took the kid's shank out of his pocket and extended it to the imposing teacher. “Your apprentice wanted me to give this to you.”

Munakata's piercing blue-violet gaze hardened. His entire face tightened. He accepted the screw hesitantly, wrapping a napkin tight about the all too sharp object. “You... are on Sohnosuke's side?”

He bobbed his head. “I'll be his attorney.”

“Then—Please come with me.”

Did he really have to, though? Already Kiyotaka was trying to figure out how to get around this loose cannon of an individual when Munakata rapped his sword against the floor, forcing a jarring shriek to echo across the building.

“I must discover the true cause of Chisa's death. You must defend my apprentice. Our goals align.”

Sure, but this man reeked of emotional instability. Kiyotaka glanced feebly back down the hall where he could hear Mondo speaking in a gruff but gentle tone with the defendant's distraught father. He couldn't just interrupt that—but to investigate with this grieving individual under ownership of a massive gilded sword that he swung about without any clear motive?


The five minute car ride with Munakata in his sleek, silver Honda was so ominous, so soul-sucking that he wished he could forget it. The man didn't bother to fill their silence with words, and Kiyotaka just sat there staring out the window, futilely willing time to move faster.

However, Munakata's sword had proved instrumental in Kiyotaka's decision-making process, and so he was stuck here.

Upon returning to the pop-up carnival, Kiyotaka was forced to buy a second ticket in order to reenter the lot. He didn't know where his first ticket had gone, and in the rush of the murder, he'd completely forgotten to get his hand stamped to show he'd been in earlier that day. He should've thought that far ahead, perhaps, but also, he had trouble stomaching the fact that as soon as the crime scene had been cordoned off, the carnival's manager had racked up the entry fees and put up signs boasting of the murder in order to generate more revenue.

The worst part was that it worked. The parking lot was packed with merrymakers, both returning and new. The lines for the booths not splattered in blood snaked around them, and the ones that had been cordoned for the crime scene demanded attention from curious civilians. Kiyotaka imagined that if only Detective Kirigiri had been on this case, she would have—at the very least—barred the public from returning to the scene.

As if thinking her name had summoned her, he swore—up in the crowd—he saw someone with waist length white hair... Speak of the devil—

As the throngs surged, he lost sight of Munakata for a blessed moment and rushed ahead, all too curious not to check. Already she had stopped—like she read minds—and once he'd approached he could make out Makoto's smaller frame beside her, his spiny hair barely sticking up among the crammed lines of people bustling about them.

“Makoto!” he called, and the prosecutor's secretary froze, a great smile leaping onto his face.

“Hello, Taka! How lovely to see you again, and on a day as fine as this!” Makoto bobbed his head, nudging the detective to comment.

Her frigid violet gaze settled on the attorney. “Yes, hello.” Was he just imagining, or had he heard a speck of warmth in her tone?

“Are you here for the murder case?” he asked the couple.

Makoto shook his head, firmly grabbing his girlfriend's hand. “It's Kyoko's day off, so... no investigating allowed!” The detective actually grimaced, but her tension eased as she squeezed Makoto's soft fingers. “Byakuya even said I could have the day off too! He was supposed to come with us, but then that murder happened, and he just happened to get picked up for the case, so, um...”

“It's just us today,” Kyoko supplied. It was odd seeing them in casual wear—Makoto's green tee and khaki shorts, Kyoko's slim but elegant skirt and summery yellow top. Kyoko had even put up her hair in little pigtails and it—it was disturbing how almost-cute she looked. Kiyotaka kept searching and failing to find her usual intimidating traits—a sneer, a glare, a deadpan tone.

“Are you prepping for the trial today?” Makoto asked.

Kiyotaka nodded. “I just received the defendant's blessing to take his case.”

“Wow! You haven't been in court for awhile, have you?” Makoto struggled with a pout. “That's too bad that the day you finally come back is Kyoko's day off. I was really looking forward to working with you again...” He shook himself. “Well, Byakuya will get to have all the fun, I guess.”

That was right... Prosecutor Togami would be once again acting as prosecutor. He likely was already making his own investigation, since he couldn't rely on Detective Kirigiri for hers this time around. Somehow he knew Togami wouldn't find much use in this case's detective.

Glancing beyond his friends, Makoto's eye caught on some faraway booth. “Kyoko, look! They have cotton candy! Let's go get one!” He started to gently drag her away, waving goodbye to Kiyotaka.

“I'll be right there,” she said, pushing him back. Once some distance had formed between them, the usual hardness to her gaze returned, and she fished a thin notepad from her skirt's waistband. “Here.” She all but forced it into his hand. “I can't give it to Byakuya, or he'd know I broke Makoto's promise. I—I couldn't help it. Take these, and—this”—she carefully extracted a dangerous-looking bit of shrapnel from her bra strap—“this, too.

For a moment her gaze lingered over his. “You better not have gotten rusty over the past couple months.” Kiyotaka could sense the threat in her tone. “If I have to cancel my time off with Makoto to clean up after this trial...”

The malice in her face caused his blood to freeze.

Quickly he asked, “Why can't you ask Prosecutor Tog—”

“He's become soft. Too reliant on me.” She hesitated, winced. “I suppose I have similarly grown soft over the ease of our arrangements.”

So she had to rely on Kiyotaka.

Detective Kyoko Kirigiri, the smartest person in the courthouse, was trusting him with her work so that she could spend a little more time with Makoto.

He had to table these thoughts momentarily. It was a little too much to bear. Not to mention this newfound pressure to discover the truth so that she wouldn't come in and be disappointed with him.

Goodness, if Taeko had become his snobby pseudo younger sister, then Kyoko was his all too efficient elder.

She hurriedly pushed Kiyotaka away. “Pretend this never happened,” she hissed, snapping at him to stuff the evidence into a pocket.

Makoto had returned, hand extended. “What are you two talking about?” he asked. His gaze lingered between them. “Kyoko, were you thinking of expanding our—”

“No, of course not. Makoto, do you think this man has ever looked at a woman heterosexually a single time in his life?” Drawn into silence, Makoto bashfully shrugged. “Just... making sure he goes easy on Byakuya in their trial tomorrow,” she corrected. Her cheeks didn't even color.

“Oh! Awww! Kyoko, that's so considerate of you!” Makoto positively glowed. Once her hand linked with his, he happily led his girlfriend off to the cotton candy stand in the distance. It gleamed under the peachy mid-afternoon sun.

He let enough distance gather between them before stooping under the shadow of a booth and flipping through Kirigiri's little notepad. She had already drawn a diagram of the murder. The victim's body lay in front of the yellow-tented booth, flanked by two stick figures she had labeled intent witnesses. They must have represented her two friends, those other Academy teachers. It would have been difficult to sneak a murder weapon into Yukizome's body with those two men directly beside her.

Kirigiri had illustrated a set of angles at which she determined the blade from beyond had met Yukizome's skull. It appeared it had to have been directly straight, which placed the opposing booth—specifically someone sitting atop it—under suspicion for housing an accomplice, if not the murderer. She, too, hadn't the chance to examine the victim's front, but she had written in bold AUTOPSY ASAP. He would have to pester Detective Lang about that, had it not already been conducted. Or... perhaps relegate his own. Could he trust the detective..?

He'd have to examine that opposing booth next for clues—as well as the victim's corpse.

And this bit of shrapnel... He wrapped it in his handkerchief as not to prick a finger on it, but he was having a great deal of trouble distinguishing what it was. It was—black, and solid, and it gleamed under the sun like a bit of machinery, but for what, Kiyotaka couldn't tell.

Kirigiri had also made a list of the item's qualities, stating she had found it under the victim's foot. Kiyotaka did not question how she had come to obtain it. However, it appeared Kiyotaka would have to search for other broken pieces that matched the qualities of this shrapnel. Would it even be possible to piece it back together..?

While he fumed over Kirigiri's evidence, finding himself only stuck in a deeper hole, he about jolted at the sound of Munakata's sharp tone—“What have you found? You must show me.”

He almost snapped back—when, blood chilling, he recalled the frustration coupled with the loss he had experienced just a couple of months ago, at what he'd thought was Sakura's death.

Kiyotaka himself had surely been this disagreeable after he almost lost her, too. He would have done anything to frantically piece together the truth as quickly as possible as to figure out who justly deserved his righteous rage.

And it turned out to be the girl who was now living with him, but that was a whole other issue.

“Mr. Munakata,” he posed, clearing his throat, “I had a—a coworker find this evidence and draw out a diagram of the crime scene. Can you tell me any details of the crime that aren't covered here?”

Munakata blinked, stupefied. “Why... y-yes, I...” He peered down at the shrapnel in Kiyotaka's hand. “I... I'm afraid I do not recognize that, but I... I wonder if Chisa's bag would hold any other pieces, if you say that your coworker found that first one underfoot.” He went to grab an invisible bag at his side and froze. “I-I was just holding it. Before Chisa... Chisa...”

His face paled at an alarming rate. “I must have dropped it when she... out of shock, I... o-oh dear... the police surely confiscated it...”

“P-Prosecutor Togami!” Kiyotaka squeaked. “He might have already found it..!”

And if Prosecutor Togami had it, who knew when he would inconveniently present it in court tomorrow. And two of Izayoi's swords were in there—Togami would likely try and forge a case out of them, declaring the young blacksmith a madman on the verge of committing a murder.

Gosh, why couldn't he have a less predictable and overall infuriating prosecutor as a rival..!

“Perhaps they haven't yet found it,” mumbled Munakata. “We must at least check, attorney.”

Kiyotaka couldn't argue with that. Besides, there had to be other pieces of evidence to uncover still. And hopefully, Togami wasn't all that fast. He might not even be at the crime scene yet. Perhaps he was—he was off seething about how Makoto and Detective Kirigiri both had the day off and he didn't! Perhaps he wasn't even doing his job correctly! Perhaps—Kiyotaka would have the entire crime scene all to himself!

Unfortunately it turned out all of this was mere conjecture. Kiyotaka could make out his tall, smarmy rival of sorts once he reached the yellow-turned-orange booth that hosted the crime scene. He could also see somebody else by the booth—snoring. Ah, Detective Lang, still at his nap. How he hadn't woken was a great mystery.

As he approached, Togami turned, his ridiculously beautiful hair fluttering in the breeze.

He had a purse over his shoulder. It was sky blue and simple, but well taken care of. Far too inexpensive to be one of Togami's own.

Kiyotaka's gaze jolted onto the purse. As he entered the cordoned-off crime scene, he asked, “Prosecutor Togami, is that—”

My purse?” the prosecutor broke in, his snobbish nose hanging high in the air. “Why yes, it is my purse.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open. “Well—Did you happen to see one at the crime sc—”

“Yes, and I found it, so it's mine now. Finders keepers.” Togami patted the purse. He'd snapped it shut, and Kiyotaka could only use his imagination to wonder what evidence was held within.

He had to receive access to that purse. If he didn't... who knew when Prosecutor Togami would reveal its contents to the court tomorrow. Possibly never.

“Please, Prosecutor Togami!” Kiyotaka even bowed. “Is there any way you could share that one piece of evidence with me?”

Surprisingly, the prosecutor thought about it. Kiyotaka had been expecting a quick, flippant no. Finally he said, “How about you share your court record with me, first? Then I'll share my evidence with you.”

...could he trust Togami's word? Wait—Could he even share his own evidence? Oh, no—he'd already added Kirigiri's notes to the court record. If Togami saw that raw evidence, he'd figure out that Kirigiri had helped him—and not Togami. Not only that, but he'd realize Kirigiri had broken her promise to Makoto.

Would Kiyotaka rather access this evidence... or not make Kirigiri cross with him..?

He didn't want to cause another dispute between Makoto's partners... that last case had been so unbelievably awkward. He had no idea how the three had eventually made up, but he honestly didn't want to know.

He couldn't be the one to sabotage their relationship. Sighing, Kiyotaka shook his head. “I'm afraid we'll both have to wait until tomorrow.”

Togami disguised his flash of—disappointment?—with a sneer. “What, does your evidence help my case? Don't tamper it now.”

Kiyotaka gasped, appalled. “I would never! What possible reward could I receive in muddying the truth?”

“Winning the trial?” Togami posed.

“Winning the..?” Kiyotaka stared at him. “You can win the truth? I thought we just—you know—we see if the chosen defendant is the murder, and then they usually aren't—their suspicions were just surface-level, and so that brings up the opportunity to parse out the truth of the matter... and then one of the witnesses who's already here tends to be the actual killer. I don't know why they always come to court...”

Togami blinked slowly, struggling around his confused half-sneer, half-pout. “What do you mean, you can win? You won last time. Both Asahina and Yasuhiro weren't the murderers.”

“How do you expect to win when Detective Lang told me himself that he chose the suspect based on negative energies?” His gaze traveled over the heavy sleeper, snoring through his name.

Togami evidently had not yet thought this far ahead. “I don't like the way you think,” he snapped. “You're not... You're not doing this right. You have to dislike me, because we're fighting for opposing ideals.”

“If I'm fighting for the truth...” Kiyotaka had to think about it. “Are you fighting for perjury?”

“Wh-What? Of course not! I'm fighting for the truth! You're fighting for... your little defendant fan club!”

“But they've all been aligned with the truth so far,” Kiyotaka pointed out.

It appeared he had short-circuited the prosecutor. “I—Well—I...” Scowling, Togami punched the booth with a fist. How nostalgic. “I'll present the truth of the matter tomorrow! You can't convince me that that manic teenager didn't kill his teacher when I've already found thirteen of his weapons lying about the carnival!”

Thirteen?!

At his side, Munakata spoke for the first time since discovering Prosecutor Togami. “Yes, I'm very proud of that boy. He is incredibly skilled.”

Even Togami sneered. “He is incredibly in need of a get-out-of-jail free pass. Too bad this is real life.”

“You play board games?” Kiyotaka blurted. He couldn't help but ask.

“I—Well... sometimes. When Makoto wants to. I don't like them. All that much.” He'd looked away. Embarrassed, likely.

Kiyotaka didn't know how to take this knowledge that he shared an interest with his smarmy rival. This felt like forbidden information.

“I am going to investigate elsewhere now.” Togami sauntered off, the little coattails of his fancy suit breezing after him. “I already found everything useful here.”

Which meant that he'd probably overlooked at least one important detail that Kiyotaka could hopefully glean. He bolted over to the victim, relieved that her body had yet to be removed. Likely, Togami had wanted to enact his own investigation first since he wouldn't trust a professional to make an autopsy.

Yukizome had been turned and placed on the hot parking lot asphault. White chalk on the booth marked out where she had laid upon the moment of her death, but from where she was moved, she had been left-face up.

And her front was coated in blood.

Kiyotaka winced. Munakata had followed him, but here he froze and squeezed his eyes shut. Kiyotaka couldn't blame him—if this was someone he held dear... his stomach clenched at the thought.

Still, his duty called. He crouched onto his knees and scrutinized what he could of the corpse. The blood had dried by now, he noticed. It must have been fresh when he witnessed the murder. Yukizome's eyes were shut, almost as if she'd anticipated whatever had come for her. He couldn't make out any wounds along her skirt, but as he traversed up her body, he saw a gaping wound down the middle. As he led up the line that began as a scratchy glob at her stomach, he discovered an identically grating knot of deep cuts at her neck, connected to her stomach by one long, eerily straight line.

Not only that, but her eyes—what he could make out beneath them—appeared to have been leaking blood by the time of her death. Kiyotaka shuddered. She must have been in an inordinate amount of pain as she died.

No wonder Togami was convinced the resident arms dealer had killed her. He had access to all the tools he'd need to slice her open—but, he reasoned, had Izayoi dropped as many weapons as Togami had said, then anyone who was here could have killed her, too.

Oddly enough, the amount of weapons he'd left all over the park actually helped Izayoi's case. But how in the world was Kiyotaka going to find the murderer..?

Perhaps Togami had taken the weapons that had been lodged in or near Yukizome's body, as Kiyotaka couldn't see them now. He was about to get up when—in the corner of his eye—he saw something glint in the bloodied hole at Yukizome's throat.

Was he about to—

He had to. He had to.

Hastily he grabbed his handkerchief—hadn't expected to get this much use out of it—and folded an unused corner to grab whatever he had seen in Yukizome's torn throat. He bit his lip as he shakily removed—something hard and thin, and he about dropped to the ground when he saw it to be a tiny blade, about twice the size of his fingernail.

He turned to Munakata. “Wh-What is this?”

Munakata's face had lost what little color it held. His gaze warily took in the blade, and his tired eyes crunched shut when he whispered, “I have no idea.”

“I-I found it in her body,” Kiyotaka said. “I don't know how, but it must be very sharp...” to cut straight through her skin like measly thread.

Munakata could but nod.

This weapon was so tiny, even smaller than that screw-shank Izayoi had given Kiyotaka, that he had trouble telling if it was one of Izayoi's creations. Upon asking Munakata, the man blanched. “I've never seen him craft a weapon so small. He prefers broadswords, actually, great big hulking weaponry, so this is about as far from his comfort zone as he could get.”

So he wouldn't want make one of those blades on his own, if he even had forged it.

Kiyotaka took another sweeping glance about the orange-tainted booth, but he couldn't find anything out of the norm—dull balloon darts and mostly unpopped balloons, sad and deflated and trapped on the dart board. No carny in sight. Lang still asleep. Kiyotaka figured the least he could do was let him continue to snooze. Besides, something told him he wouldn't be much help during the trial.

He fast-walked over to the booth on the opposing end. Kirigiri's notes seemed to suspect that the weapon in the back of Yukizome's head could have been thrown from a person standing behind or sitting atop the booth, depending on their height. So it was possible, even probable that evidence of a real suspect could be littered in—

“Hiya, spiky-hair!”

A girl had leapt out of the booth, all but sending Kiyotaka's heart into cardiac arrest.

Munakata froze at the attorney's side. “Ruruka! What are you doing hiding in Miss Chisa's crime scene?”

Ruruka was a pasty white girl with choppy orange hair and pale blue eyes. She wore a school uniform matching Izayoi's—a black blazer and a pleated red skirt with this adorable white fringe. She also had on a pink cardigan atop her blazer, and a matching pink beanie, and this confusing puffy scarf or ruff of sorts around her neck. She'd painted her nails pink as if somehow she wasn't wearing enough. She was perhaps something a person who was attracted to women would call cute.

Kiyotaka sort of cringed as she spoke. She had this insufferably high-pitched voice that he had already begun to suspect was fake. “Why, hello, Mr. Munakata! Fancy seeing you here, also at the crime scene of Miss Chisa! Why—I was simply so distressed at her death that I had to see it for myself!”

Wait—Ruruka... Ruru. Izayoi's girlfriend.

“Y-You had to see it..?” Munakata scowled. “Ruruka, this is a murder. Come along—We should go back to the hotel. The others have already congregated there.”

He reached out to Ruruka, only for the girl to dart over to Kiyotaka and snag his arm. “Hello! Who are you? Let's get to know each other far away from here!”

“Let go of my arm!” he shouted, yanking it back.

Ruruka pouted. “How could you say that to me? I am an adorable girl! You should be delighted to—”

“NO!”

She blinked, apparently stupefied. “Okay, how about this?” She pulled a macaroon out of her front pocket. It was liberally coated in edible glitter. Hopefully edible. Kiyotaka didn't want to find out. “Eat this! It's yours!”

No thank you!”

Something deep within him told him he should never trust this woman. He couldn't figure out what it was, maybe his innate fear of women who wanted him to think they were cute, but his very skin prickled with discomfort.

“J-Just eat it!” she hissed. “It's really good, I promise!”

If Mondo was here, he likely would've already swallowed it and... for a moment, Kiyotaka was relieved that his friend hadn't come with him.

“Ruruka! You can't force people to eat your sweets whenever you want them to.” Kiyotaka blinked, astounded at the new responsibility that had filled Munakata's tone and straightened his shoulders. “You don't know if this person has an allergy to your food, or if they simply aren't hungry. What did I tell you about force-feeding people who don't want to be fed?”

For a moment there—Kiyotaka realized—Munakata was attractive?! He had this incredible older brother energy or perhaps it was just this protective vibe, but it was undeniably powerful and he needed—he needed to sit down.

Ruruka's head lolled. She whined, “You said, not to feed people who don't want to be fed...” folding her arms over her chest.

“That's right.”

She peeked up at her teacher. “Mr. Munakata, will you eat it?”

Munakata let out a small sigh of laughter. “Sure, Ruruka. If it'll make you feel better.” He accepted her giddy outstretched hand and popped the macaroon into his mouth. Kiyotaka kept waiting for him to explode and was surprised each passing second to see that he hadn't.

Finally, Ruruka said, “Okay, Mr. Munakata! I'm going to talk with your friend now! I'll meet you later at the hotel!”

Munakata blinked. “Yes, that sounds good.”

“You're going to the hotel, right? To check on the other kids?”

“Yes, I should.”

He turned abruptly and sauntered away.

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open. He would never eat a single morsel of food offered by this woman.

He considered running away from her when she turned to him and he caught—at the edge of her fluffy white ruff—a speck of something red.

...blood.

Ruruka faced him, her gaze pinched. “Hiya. I'm Ruruka Ando, a first year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. I'm very, very good at baking.” Her hands folded politely over her front. “Who are you, and why were you hanging out with my teacher?”

He couldn't make any sudden movements. Stiffly bowing his head, he said, “Kiyotaka Ishimaru. Defense attorney. I'm defending your boyfriend in court tomorrow.” So please don't kill me, he stopped himself from adding.

“O-Oh! You're defending my sweet Yoi?” She gaped. His time with Taeko allowed him to parse that she wasn't putting up an act. “That's wonderful! I know lots of things about my sweet Yoi that could help him in his trial! You must come with me!”

His eyes were stained with the pinpricks of blood on her scarf. When he blinked, they multiplied.

But—Why would Izayoi's girlfriend kill someone and then proceed to frame him as the murderer? That didn't make any sense. Frantically he touched his katana, but he couldn't yet sense any malice from the short confectioner.

But the blood... The blood on her clothing... He couldn't unsee it.

Shakily he said, “S-Sure. We can talk.”

“Yay! Let's go somewhere less, um, murder-y, okay?”

She led him off to the spinning teacups where nobody in their right mind was in line. They dove behind another side booth, and she turned and promptly crammed a piece of chocolate against his—

“S-STOP THAT!” He jolted back, spitting away the candy. “I'm not eating anything you throw at me. If you don't actually want to tell me anything, I'll go. I have a case to solve.”

“O-Oh... No! Please don't leave!” Her breaths hitched, and an immaculate stream of tears dripped down her cheeks. “D-Don't leave me alone..!”

“Then don't feed me any of your weird candy! I saw what you did to your teacher!”

Her head perked up. “You saw that? Every time he catches on, I feed him another, and he never figures it out! Isn't it nifty?”

Terrifying, more like. Kiyotaka had almost lost access to his mind twice now, in the span of as many minutes.

He exhaled slowly. “Ando—”

“Call me Ruruka! Ando makes me feel old!”

Whatever. Fine. “Ruruka, did you see the murder of your teacher?”

Her eyes slowly widened. She nodded.

“What happened to her?”

“Ummm...” She made a little shrug. “I was, like, behind her, so I don't know. I just saw her body snap forwards and fall down and stuff. Oh, and the blade thingy too. That was pretty scary.”

“You saw the blade hit her in the back of the head?” he prompted.

Her eyes fluttered. Tentatively she nodded. “It was real spooky, let me tell you, seeing my own teacher get stabbed with my own boyfriend's blade? Well—She's actually Yoi's teacher, not mine, but we share everything, so we basically share teachers too.”

“Ruruka.” He needed her to focus. “Did you see who stabbed her?”

“Ummmmm. Lemme think, really hard.” She sort of stomped in place. “Ummm... I didn't, like, see the person? But I did kinda? But not really!”

“What does that mean? Did you see them stab her or not?”

Ruruka stuck out her tongue. “Nooooo?”

What was this girl's deal. “Ruruka. I need an honest answer. Your boyfriend's life is at stake.”

Her cheeks gushed pink. “A-At stake? Whatever do you mean? I thought he'd just, like, go to juvie for a few years or something. Come back, like, all hot and brooding and in need of fixing.”

Kiyotaka grimaced. “A guilty murderer dies as justice for committing the irredeemable act. It does take a few years, due to the amount of people in line before them, but they will give their life once they've been found guilty."

Her tears began anew. Even her hands shook. “No! No no no that can't be! That's s-s-s-stupid! I'd never be-believe that... th-th-that...”

...why was she so afraid? Did she truly love Izayoi that much?

Well, whether or not it was stupid, it was the truth. Kiyotaka cleared his throat. “A cry for self-defense or temporary insanity can save a guilty person from the gallows, but it will ruin their life. That mark of murder stays on their permanent record.”

Ruruka hiccuped. “L-Like if you fail a class?”

Kiyotaka nodded severely. “Like if you fail a class.”

“Oh my god... Y-Yoi...” She shivered into herself. “Well, d-do you think you could make him plea for self-defense?”

“I suppose I could, but if he didn't actually kill his teacher, then I would be condemning his life to a struggle for any job, any apartment listing—anything. People wouldn't want to trust him.”

And he didn't think Izayoi had killed his teacher.

Though he was starting to wonder who, in fact, had.

“W-W-Wait, let me... let me catch my...” Ruruka took in a deep shuddering breath. “That can't be true! I-In video games, that n-n-never happens...”

Actually—No, he didn't have the heart to correct her. “I'm sorry, Ruruka. But I am going to prove your boyfriend was innocent. I don't think he killed Miss Chisa.”

Was that relief or fear that paled her cheeks now? “Okay, Mr. Ishimaru...”

As she stood there sniffling, his gut pinched. What now?

“Is there anything else you can tell me about the crime scene? Anything at all? That you saw, that you heard..? Remember—This is to help your boyfriend.”

“Um... uh... ummm... a-a-actually, yeah, one thing.” She bit her lip, then scooted close to Kiyotaka to whisper, “I saw Seiko Kimura stab Miss Chisa with the knife.”

His heart jolted.

“You did?” he hissed back.

She frantically nodded. “I-I-I didn't wanna say so, because she's like my friend and all, but I definitely saw her do it. It was her.”

His heart was beating so quickly he could hardly feel his body. “Thank you for trusting me, Ruruka.” She made an uneasy smile. “I know it must have been difficult to do, but this testimony could save Izayoi's life."

He added Ruruka's statement to the court record.

As she led him back toward the entrance—he'd gotten too turned around by the case's facts to see straight—they almost bumped into another student with a matching Academy uniform.

“Oh! Mitarai! What are you still doing here?”

The boy—flushed cheeks, all anxious glances and curtains of brown hair—froze. “I... um... d-don't tell Miss Chisa, but I got distracted drawing again...”

Ruruka's mouth fell open. “Mitarai, I don't think you have to worry about Miss Chisa finding out.”

Kiyotaka decided to leave the two kids to it—Ruruka reassured him that she knew the way to their hotel—and went off to search for his own teenaged menace.


“Taeko! There you are!”

She about ran at him, dropping Midnight Fucker to hug him with both arms. “K-Kiyotaka! I went on the Ferris wheel three times in a row, and d-did not see you a single time! I even—I even broke it on purpose while I was at the top so I could stare out over all the people to search for you while I waited for them to fix it...”

He winced, hugged her close. “I'm so sorry. I—I'd completely meant to take him, but... there was a murder.”

She gasped, throwing herself out of his arms to go looking. “There was? And I did not know?!”

He couldn't help but chuckle. “That's a solid alibi, Taeko. I guess that means you didn't kill anyone this time.”

“This time!” She snickered. “Soooo, are you the attorney?” He nodded. She beamed. “I am so very proud of you! Hopefully Mondo will let you hold his hand more when you get nervous, like last time!”

He blushed ferociously. That hadn't been on his mind before—but oh, now it was.

Shaking himself, he said, “I'm nearly done with my investigation for the day.” He peered after the sparkling late-afternoon sun. “I just need to speak with one more person. Have you seen the girl Seiko Kimura around? The one with the face mask?”

Taeko gasped. “The goth girl who might be a lesbian?” She squealed. “You need me to find the lesbian? Oh, I am honored to assist! Let us be off!” She hooked her arm around his, grabbing Midnight Fucker with her free hand, and dragged him off to go searching.

He'd fretted internally that Kimura may have already gone to the hotel with the rest of the students. But after Ruruka effortlessly thwarted her teacher's attempts to corral her, and that one kid—Mitarai—had gotten so hopelessly lost that he didn't even hear about the murder, he had a feeling she might still be nearby. He twirled her spat with Izayoi in his head—she'd seemed to give up on warning him about something.

About the murder he and Ruruka were convinced she had taken part in?

Or something else entirely?

Taeko took him over to the aisle of crane games, the cruelest of the money-suckers for their tantalizing eye-candy. Even Kiyotaka had wasted spare change on these at the grocery store a few times. As he ogled the wares—out-of-country figures that shouldn't have been in Japanifornia and cheap, plastic-looking stuffed animals—he froze as one bold person came in with a quarter and artfully snagged a box touting one of those figures. Their hands pounded the plastic exterior in anticipation, waiting, waiting—when at the very last second the crane itself twisted apart, ejecting the figure one tiny breadth too short to reach the chute.

The person stared at the crane. Very slowly their hand came up, and they rapped their exposed thumb and index fingers against their chin.

Even Taeko didn't know what it meant. “Is that a new curse word I need to learn?” she hissed.

Kiyotaka glared back at her. “If I catch you making it, you still have to give an offering to the swear jar.”

Taeko stuck out her tongue.

The person before them had soft aqua hair to the shoulders and a pair of pale red earmuffs atop their head. The bottom half of their face was wrapped in a snug black scarf. They wore the girl's outfit at the Ultimate Talent Academy, and they—she—decked it out with a pair of slippers.

Kiyotaka stared her down. So there were in fact more escaped students loitering the grounds still.

Taeko rushed ahead of him, her lesbian senses likely tingling. “Hellooo! I am Taeko Yasuhiro! What is your name? And is it weird to ask your sexuality right now?”

No response. The girl didn't even look at her.

Even Taeko was stunned to a halt. “Umm, do you have airpods in? Hello?” She dared nudge a little closer to the girl—

—when the girl jolted in place and met Taeko's eyes. Her hands rose up in front of her like a shield. Taeko blushed, bewildered. “Sorry, I did not mean to scare you! I used to be a very scary person, but I am trying to not be so scary these days.” She bowed her head and made a curtsy to the schoolgirl. “I suppose sometimes I am still scary.”

Warily the girl brought a hand to her side and drew out a pen and pad. Kiyotaka approached them to see her write shakily across the page, Hi. I am deaf. Can we write on here?

Taeko gasped and carefully accepted the paper. Hello! I am Taeko! Who are you?

My name is Miaya. You look to be my age. What school do you go to?

Taeko paused. “What do I say,” she muttered.

“The truth,” Kiyotaka offered.

She cringed. No school right now. I am going through quite the bad girl phase.

To their surprise—the girl's shoulders bunched into a silent giggle. I like bad girls! I bet my girlfriend would like you too.

Taeko about fainted on the spot. MAY I MEET HER?!

Yes! She's nearby. I just got distracted by this machine here. I was hoping to win, but...

She made a little pout with her eyes at the crane game, from which her figure still dangled precariously at the edge of the chute.

Taeko, the bad girl she declared herself to be, sidled up to the crane game and expertly elbowed it. The figure toppled down through the chute.

Miaya jumped up and down in place. She had to force herself to still to write, Thank you, Taeko!

Taeko beamed and handed the boxed figure—some anime girl with long azure hair—to Miaya. Over her shoulder she whispered to Kiyotaka, “Do you think she will maybe be my friend now?”

As he watched her bashfully continue her paper conversation with Miaya, this strange warm contentment had taken hold in him. How many times had Taeko wanted and failed to make friendship due to her own fears? He recalled that lesbian sign-up sheet he'd uncovered from the last case, that group chat she'd made up from the random lesbians she'd met due to her “influence” as she'd put it. He'd no idea how old those women had been, but Sakura and Aoi certainly hadn't been in her age range.

He wondered how far Miaya and the other students at the Ultimate Talent Academy lived from here. Perhaps it wasn't such a long drive.

He refocused to hear Taeko giggling over some joke she'd made with her new friend. Hurriedly she pointed to her cat prize and wrote, This is Midnight Fucker! He is my cat. I won him today. I could probably win more prizes for you too!

That's okay. I think the fair is ending soon. My girlfriend and I were supposed to go back to the hotel hours ago. But she wanted to sneak out, and, well... I'm easily convinced.

As they wrote, and Kiyotaka did this sort of half-watching, half pretending he wasn't watching because it felt wrong, they didn't notice their added companion until the girl had wrapped her arm around Miaya and gently took a step back. She nudged the deaf girl and signed to her in rapid hand-flashes, which Miaya responded to just as quickly.

Taeko stared after them, whispered, “Whoa. They could be saying anything.”

Kiyotaka stared after the newcomer. “Wait—That's Kimura!”

“Oh! It is!”

Kimura broke mid-sign to glare at them. “The hell do you want with me? How do you know my name?”

She in fact did scream bad girl. She'd—poorly—dyed the Academy's red skirt in black splotches, and ripped the sleeves off of her blazer. Her black face mask and thick combat boots matched with the rest of her goth aesthetic, and she had wispy white hair that curled about her face, an elegant frame.

Taeko swooned at his side. “She's so cool,” she whispered.

Kimura either didn't hear or pretended she hadn't.

He figured it was time to break in. “My name is Kiyotaka Ishimaru, and I'm a defense attorney. I'm looking for clues to—”

“Ohhh, fuck no. I'm not helping you out.”

His mouth hung open. “Why not?”

“Because fuck you, that's why.”

He couldn't help but be reminded of Izayoi. Shook himself. “That's not an answer! This is a matter of life and death for the defendant, and—”

“Yeah, and he's dating the shittiest person in the world, so that doesn't say anything good about himself. Let him fuckin' rot.”

Miaya cringed. She elbowed Kimura and signed frantically at her. Kimura scowled, opened and closed her thumb, index and middle finger.

...Why would she say that about Ruruka?

How was he supposed to maneuver this one...

Taeko, bless her heart, jumped in. “Please, Miss Kimura! I am no liker of men, but if you think that boy did not kill your teacher, then we need to work together to figure out who did!”

Kimura rolled her eyes. “He probably did.”

Wh—What?!

Who was he supposed to trust..? He had two students accusing Kimura of killing Yukizome, and now Kimura declared them both to be frauds. By majority, he should be suspecting her, but...

While Taeko still gazed after her with such awe, it was difficult to completely discount her testimony, even though it contradicted Ruruka's.

“Do you really think he killed her?” Kiyotaka asked.

Kimura graced him with a glance. “Nah, I dunno. It could've been any of us, I guess. Wasn't me, though—obviously. Miss Chisa was the best teacher I ever had. I would've fucking killed for her. This is... This is...”

She turned to Miaya and signed to her. Miaya winced, took her into a hug.

Taeko covered her face. “Women,” she gasped.

Kiyotaka supposed that that was all he'd learn from Kimura. That they didn't know. That perhaps nobody knew.

His blood chilled. Had Izayoi killed his own teacher, whether intentionally or otherwise? Or had somebody else entirely? Were there still students loitering around with key evidence that he had yet to meet?

Taeko tugged his hand. “Kiyotakaaaaa, it is getting late. I want to go home.”

He sighed. “Alright. Let's go.” The carnival was supposed to close soon anyways, now that the sun was going down. He didn't want to accidentally trip over any of Izayoi's weaponry in the dark, either. “But if we run into any other students, we have to speak with them first."

“You mean interrogate them?” She rolled her eyes, but she nodded assent, hefting Midnight Fucker with her free hand.


After rounding up Mondo from the detention center, they all congregated at the apartment. Taeko rooted the pantry for snacks, and as Kiyotaka sat on the couch, Mondo leaped across it, his legs landing on his friend's lap.

Kiyotaka had trouble clearing his mind from then on. Mondo—so warm—cozy—oh gosh..!

Seeing the couch had been claimed by most of Mondo's torso, Taeko perched on the armrest.

“So... What did we all learn today?” Kiyotaka started.

“Well, I heard too much information about our defendant's childhood,” Mondo said. “Actually, it feels kind of forbidden. I guess the fathers of our defendants usually aren't there to info-dump on us like that?”

“Anything useful?” Taeko corrected between mouthfuls of ridiculously large marshmallows.

They both sort of stared at her before Mondo continued. “Uhhh. Izayoi likes broadswords?”

“Oddly enough,” Kiyotaka added, “I also came across that particular information.”

“Yeah...” Mondo blinked. “Fuckin' weird. Kid just sits in his room and makes fucking swords all day? He needs another hobby. Or to like, lay in some grass or something.”

“Hey, if that is what he likes to do, then we should respect it,” Taeko said. “You should not dunk on somebody else's hyperfixation!”

Mondo ducked his head. “Sorry, sorry. I should know better. I take care of how many disowned kids?”

They all were silent. Mondo said, “That's a genuine question. I don't keep very good count. They're like stray cats.”

Kiyotaka snorted. “You're getting off topic.”

“Fuck. Children! There are so many fucking children in this case!”

“Not children!” Taeko squeaked. “I am no child!”

“Taeko, you're sixteen,” Kiyotaka reminded her. She beaned him with a marshmallow.

Mondo.” The attorney returned to his point. “Any relevant evidence on Izayoi that might be useful?”

“Well, his dad said the kid doesn't like big crowds or loud places, so it'd be really weird if he'd gotten mixed up in the murder, since it did happen to be in a fat crowd. Just seems unusual. I don't think anybody knows exactly where the kids were during the murder, so that puts all of them under suspicion.”

Izayoi included...

Ah, there were so many moving parts in this case. The last one, he'd the chance to narrow down his likeliest suspects until he managed to figure out that nobody had in fact been killed. Here... he didn't know what to think. And he still couldn't be sure that even the people who cared about the victim hadn't accidentally been the cause of her death, what with the sheer number of weaponry Izayoi had left lying around. For all he knew, Yukizome herself had tripped over one of them, causing it to dislodge into her body and effectively gut her.

...how was he supposed to find the truth? It seemed like this case would rely overly on testimony between witnessing parties. As far as he knew, there weren't any cameras or convenient photographs to catch key moments of the case.

Testimony... so he would have to make a final decision on who he could trust.

Izayoi... Ruruka... Seiko.

If only Miaya was more integral to the case, because she had to be the one Academy student he'd trust with his life.

Taeko nudged him. “You look rather perturbed, Kiyotaka.”

“I am rather perturbed,” he replied. She giggled. “We have all these—daggers, and swords, and weird bits of evidence that I still can't figure out...” He sighed. “This case is a mess.”

“My case was just so perfectly executed in comparison, right?” Taeko said.

He and Mondo both broke into raucous laughter.

“Yeah, sure!” Mondo cried, wiping tears from his eyes.

Kiyotaka returned to his court record. So much violent weaponry to dig through...

“I wonder if any of these have fingerprints on them,” he murmured, “fingerprints outside of their creator's.”

Mondo peered over his shoulder to get a good look at his record. “Oh, hey! Is that Kyoko's handwriting? Damn, how'd you get that from her?”

Kiyotaka sagged. “Long story.” He shook himself. “What's important is that... well...” His brow furrowed. “I feel like this is a case all about timing. Who did what and when. If we can start narrowing down possibilities tomorrow, then hopefully we'll begin to whittle likely candidates.”

That would have to do.

He still had no idea how he was going to piece together who the true murderer was. Perhaps a key eyewitness would emerge in court tomorrow, or some of these odd bits of evidence would locate a context.

He bade Taeko and Mondo goodnight, accepting his fate of tossing and turning in bed. He didn't know how he could sleep with the conscience of an unknown murderer resting within him.

Chapter Text

Evidence:

 

-Silver Knife

 

Found embedded in the back of the victim's skull. One of multiple deadly weapons left in the victim's body. Has the defendant's blacksmith insignia on its hilt.

 

-Miniature Blade

 

Discovered wedged in the victim's throat. The second possible murder weapon.

 

-Kirigiri's Diagram

 

A hasty depiction of how Detective Kyoko Kirigiri read the crime scene. The victim lay across the carnival's balloon dart booth, head drooped forward. By her trajectory estimates, whomever stabbed the victim from behind was located at the opposite booth and threw the knife.

 

-Kirigiri's Evidence

 

A shard of black machinery, gifted by Kirigiri. Allegedly found under the victim's feet. Kiyotaka has yet to find what was attached to this shard.

 

-Screw Shank

 

Made by the defendant while in the detention center. A testament to Izayoi's skill in blacksmithing and proof of his devotion to his mentor.

 

-Ruruka's Scarf

 

A speck of blood rests on its surface.

 

-Ruruka's Chocolate

 

A testament to Ruruka's skill in confectionery. Her chocolate is capable of brainwashing other people to her bidding.

 

-Ruruka's Testimony

 

“Seiko Kimura stabbed Miss Chisa with the knife found in the back of her head.”

 

-Gozu's Testimony

 

“Izayoi tends to avoid crowds and loud places.”

 

Profiles:

 

Kiyotaka Ishimaru (24)

Our resident defense attorney. Suffering from about two hours of sleep. Not entirely confident in the defendant this time around.

 

Mondo Owada (23)

The attorney's now-official partner. He got his name on a placard a couple weeks ago, and he still won't shut up about it. Apparently also an unofficial parental therapist.

 

Taeko Yasuhiro (16)

The new unofficial assistant, and Kiyotaka's roommate. She recently forged an adoption certificate that “legally” makes her Kiyotaka's younger sister. Her latest secret project was almost interrupted last night when Kiyotaka wasn't quite asleep enough for her to finish taking his measurements.

 

Shi-Long Lang (???)

This trial's detective. He certainly gives off vibes much different from Detective Kirigiri's. Somehow it feels like he doesn't quite belong in this world.

 

Chisa Yukizome (27)

The victim. A beloved teacher at the Ultimate Talent Academy and dear friend of her fellow associates, Kyosuke Munakata and Juzo Sakakura. She was the teacher of the second-year class. Her cause of death is still unknown, due to the multiple wounds she suffered at the time of her death.

 

Sohnosuke Izayoi (15)

The defendant. A second-year at the Ultimate Talent Academy, enrolled as an unreasonably skilled blacksmith. Surly and non-communicative on the surface, he's enthusiastic when he opens up.

 

The Great Gozu (48)

The defendant's adoptive father. Frustrated by his poor communicative skills with his son.

 

Ruruka Ando (14)

The defendant's girlfriend, and a first-year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. A confectioner whose sweets should not, under any circumstances, be consumed. She loves her boyfriend a great deal and is terrified for his sake. Doesn't seem to understand how courts of law work.

 

Seiko Kimura (16)

A second-year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. Her skill lies in pharmacy, and she creates her own medicine. She would have been incredibly helpful in Kiyotaka's last trial, but for this one her skill kind of falls out of notice. She seems to hate Izayoi and Ruruka for an undisclosed reason.

 

Miaya Gekkogahara (18)

A third-year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. Her skills are therapy and cybernetics, which she intends to use to help people with trauma that could not otherwise be helped. Deaf since birth, she can't read lips and needs either a translator or written document to understand other people. Because of this, she has trouble getting to know others—as despite her attempts, she is easily ignored. She is very protective over her girlfriend, Seiko.

 

Ryota Mitarai (14)

A first-year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. He's obsessed with art, specifically animation. His passion goes so far, it even makes the other Academy students nervous.

 

Kyosuke Munakata (28)

The teacher of the first-years at the Ultimate Talent Academy. He cares a great deal about his students, as a graduated alum, and still keeps in touch with some of the ones who resonated with him. He's in shock over the death of his best friend and the arrest of his favorite student. Has trouble showing his true emotions.

 

Juzo Sakakura (27)

The teacher of the third-years at the Ultimate Talent Academy. Not all that good at teaching, but by the time the students get to him, they've been conditioned by Chisa and Kyosuke well enough that it doesn't matter all that much. Struggling with his feelings for Kyosuke, which he worries are no longer platonic. Has been MIA since yesterday.

 

Byakuya Togami (27)

This case's prosecutor. Still as smarmy as ever, though without Detective Kirigiri to hide behind, he may have less hot air in his brain today.


Kiyotaka adjusted the cuffs of his stiff coat. He couldn't believe Taeko.

At the very least, she'd respected his wishes for another white suit. This one, while made of an expensively sleek fabric that shimmered with his movements, had the base color he'd requested. However, he could've done without the golden floral embellishments that coiled up the right side of his suit and ended at the start of his outer coat's right sleeve, which was all gold. The pants, thankfully, were plain white—Taeko had said something about too much detail being distracting—but she hadn't needed to buy him a new pair of knee-high boots while she was at it. Dark violet boots.

He wouldn't have worn them had his usual black pair not suspiciously gone missing that morning. Had he time, he would've conducted a mini-trial and condemned his roommate for ruining his wardrobe.

As he stood, he could feel the gallery's eyes drawn to him, like carrion to a shiny speck of junk. They passed him on their way into the courtroom while he waited for Mondo. His partner had rushed off to the restroom, despite the fact that Kiyotaka had asked him if he had to go before they left and Mondo evidently hadn't been listening.

He stilled as a few familiar faces approached him. The white-suited Kyosuke Munakata was flanked by a stream of Academy students; he recognized frantic Ruruka, grouchy Kimura, bashful Miaya, and the distant Mitarai in the throng. Kimura sort of waved, and Miaya went over to say hi to him and Taeko, and the moment Taeko saw her, her entire face lit up.

She brought her own notepad from her purse and struck up a conversation with her friend. They huddled over her words, sharing silent, shoulder-shaking giggles.

Kiyotaka's heart softened. He came to Taeko's side and asked softly, “Do you want to sit with them?”

Taeko glanced over to him, her crimson eyes widening. “I-I can? But what about you? Don't you need my help today?”

She'd dressed herself in a sparkling red dress for today's trial that ended at the knee, matching with her rhinestone-adorned shoes. Her hair was splayed down her back, and she took great care to make sure it glistened.

“How about you come help me if I look like I'm struggling.” He silently glanced toward Miaya. “Go with them.”

She bit into her lip, then threw him into a hug. “Okay! But as soon as the victim is about to be declared guilty, I will vault down the gallery and cry, HOLD IT!” She jumped back to point her right arm straight into his face. “And I will... I will subvert a few laws to help you out.”

The smile reached his eyes. “Thanks, Taeko. But don't break any laws. Then I'll have to defend you all over again.”

“Fiiiiiine.” She rolled her eyes. “I will think of something else, just for you.” Nudging Miaya, she wrote quickly into her pad, and Miaya nodded, beaming, and led her into the pack of Academy kids.

Once Munakata finished herding them toward a certain section of the gallery, he stepped back to acknowledge the attorney. “Good morning. I wish you luck in today's trial. We...” He looked over the kids. “Well, a few of us have been selected as witnesses, so I decided to make a field trip out of it.” He blew out a sigh. “With Sakakura missing”—missing?!—“and... Chisa...” He shook his head. There were shadows under his tight eyes. “And our only chaperone not in a state fit to monitor the others... The principal is supposed to come by at some point today, but until then, I must protect everyone myself.”

The intimidating gleam in his gaze and the already-familiar sharpness of his complexion had evaporated, leaving behind the exhaustion that had wracked his body.

He came off as uptight, but he really would run himself ragged for his students. Kiyotaka was impressed.

But where in the world had Sakakura run off to? The last he'd heard of the other teacher, he'd been yelling about finding Yukizome's true killer. Where could that have taken him..?

Munakata looked about to ask Kiyotaka something when his gaze tilted beyond him, and he froze. “You... I feel like I know you.”

Kiyotaka craned his neck to glimpse a certain prosecutor's secretary bumbling his way toward them, his arms—as always—overflowing with Togami's evidence. “Oh! Good morning, Taka!” He bustled over to his attorney friend. “Byakuya is already inside, I think. I brought the things he forgot. Here's to a good trial today!”

“A good trial?” Munakata broke in. Kiyotaka's mouth hung agape, the words stuck in his throat. “How could you call it a good trial? Someone I cared about deeply was murdered, and you—you're the notorious Byakuya Togami's secretary—your duty is to prove that my disciple killed her! Your disgusting, vile platitudes end here, Makoto Naegi!”

...his platitudes?

Makoto's entire face was drained of all color. He stared up at Munakata, his mouth frozen in a quavering open-mouthed smile. “U-Uh?” he finally squeaked.

“You heard me!” Munakata sneered. “My disciple is at times a scatterbrained idiot, but he would never kill Chisa! Everything—Everything you stand for is a blatant perjury of the truth! You twist and malform reality just to satisfy your own greed for another win! How can you win when you're sending innocent people—innocent children—to their deaths?!”

Makoto's hands had begun to shake. The top of his wobbling pile of evidence was coming undone—pieces of paper sliding down onto the floor, that ridiculous purse tipping over, each other piece shifting in different ways, threatening to slide out of Makoto's grip.

“Mr. Munakata,” Kiyotaka spoke up, “Makoto's just doing his job. He doesn't usually think the wrongly accused defendants were the murderers, and I doubt he's convinced that Izayoi was the murderer this time—”

This time,” the teacher hissed, “but what about the times before that? Ishimaru, you may be a talented attorney”—Kiyotaka found himself ridiculously blushing and had to cover his face—“but you cannot convince me that Prosecutor Togami and his idiot secretary haven't at least once—

“OBJECTION!”

The voice boomed through the hallway. The clack of heeled boots accompanied it up the stair from the gallery. Prosecutor Togami himself—crisp in his black suit and green accents—stepped in front of his secretary to confront Munataka.

“Don't speak to him like that.” A new deadly lilt had deepened his voice. “Makoto expertly juggles the tasks assigned to him and goes above and beyond his job description to parse for himself whether he thinks a defendant was properly accused. He was awake past three in the morning this last night trying to piece together the crime scene with what little conclusive evidence our investigation found when he was supposed to have all of yesterday off.

“You have no idea how much effort goes into each trial for him, nor how carefully he interrogates the witnesses beforehand. He is instrumental to uncovering the truth in the trials he monitors. I will not have you slandering his name.”

Leering at Munakata, he gave him a look like, shoo, and, surprisingly, the man scowled and turned heel.

Immediately Byakuya was at his boyfriend's side. What little evidence hadn't trembled out of Makoto's arms he took now, and he knelt onto the floor to recover the rest. With that safely sequestered into his grip, he freed one hand to take Makoto's, bowed his head, and kissed it.

Kiyotaka frantically looked away.

He heard Togami murmur, “I don't like the way that man spoke to you. He was a key eyewitness to the trial, however... I...” He sensed Togami moving, wrapping his free arm around Makoto as he stood. “Go home. I'll do the trial today. I don't want that man anywhere near you.”

A sob lingered in Makoto's voice. “A-Are you sure? B-B-But this isn't Kyoko's case... It-It'd just be you... That's no fair to you...”

“It's okay,” he hushed Makoto. “I'll take care of it. And besides, Ishimaru's here too. He won't let me get very far on my own anyways.” Kiyotaka jolted in place and awkwardly took a few steps back.

Unfortunately, he could still hear them clearly. “You're right,” Makoto giggled, then raised his voice. “Make sure Byakuya gets the right verdict, okay, Taka?”

Kiyotaka covered his face with his hands. Of all times for Mondo to be stuck in the restroom..!

He heard Togami lead his boyfriend down the hall, on the way out of the building. As their footsteps dispersed, he drew out a sigh and let his hands fall into his pockets. The trial hadn't even begun yet, and he was ready to melt into the floor—

—when a voice, warm and grizzled, reached out to him. “Taka! Check it out!”

Kiyotaka turned, and his mouth fell open.

Before him stood his partner in a matching suit. While Kiyotaka's was white, Mondo's was this ornate onyx. His gold trim traveled up the left of his suit, his left arm gilded, and he had the same deep violet accents in his tie and his biker boots. How Taeko had found and procured such a shade of sleek, almost-passable biker shoes was an incredible mystery.

He must've braided his hair himself while in the restroom, because Kiyotaka swore it'd been down beforehand. Also because his heartbeat just spiked and he was—he was—he was pretty sure he hadn't had this much trouble breathing on their way here.

Mondo took to his side, and Kiyotaka made his way down to the courtroom in a haze.


“Court is now in session for the trial of Mr. Soh...Sohno...”

The Judge blinked. “Sohnosuke!” He sounded out each syllable carefully. “Wow, that's a tricky name. Mr. Sohnosuke Izayoi. Here in Japanifornia, you don't see a name like that often.”

Togami was already glaring up at the Judge.

“Is the defense ready?” he posed.

Before he could speak, Mondo took him by the shoulder and turned him so they faced one another. He drew in close enough that their foreheads bumped. Kiyotaka was stupefied by—by his closeness. He could smell Mondo's lavender shampoo. Could feel his breaths chasing his own. His warmth was so overpowering that Kiyotaka found himself unable to move.

Mondo uttered, “I know that there's a lot we still haven't figured out, but we're gonna get to the bottom of this. I know we can do it.”

And that was when tears bubbled down Kiyotaka's cheeks.

“H-Hey, what's wrong?” Mondo squeaked. “Y-You don't gotta cry! I just said we'll figure it out! Taka!”

There weren't enough words in the universe for Kiyotaka to have the capacity to explain to Mondo why exactly he was sobbing. It was not, in fact, the trial, nor the strange defendant they had taken. Mostly, it was Mondo. He was so—He was so... so...

So much. And being this close to him was everything and more.

Mondo, thoroughly razzled, took Kiyotaka into his arms and mumbled, “It's okay. You're okay. We've got this.” He gently rubbed one of his hands down Kiyotaka's back and tried at one of his warm, crooked smiles.

Kiyotaka's heart was shot through.

When he met Mondo's eyes—soft, pale violet—some new powerful emotion surged through him, and he squeezed Mondo, and he said through sniffles, “Th-There's something I have to tell...”

...wait. Wait, wait wait wait wait.

They were about to begin a murder trial. What the heck was he doing? He couldn't confess here! Was there a more terrible timing he could have?! A woman had died, and he was going to confess his feelings to Mondo over her corpse?

Kiyotaka shook himself. He released Mondo enough to wipe away his tears. Some of the glitter of his suit had gotten into his eyes and caused his tears to rain down harder.

...when was he going to tell Mondo? He felt it pulsing deep within him—and if he was gonna keep having outbursts like these when Mondo approached him, then he'd have to. Soon.

After the trial. Once Izayoi was (hopefully) declared innocent and they'd discovered the murderer, Kiyotaka would tell him. He promised himself then and there that he'd do it.

Now to just get this trial started. The sooner it was over... the sooner he could let these feelings come free.

Pounding a fist into his desk, Kiyotaka pulled forth all the determination within him to cry, “The defense is ready, Your Honor!”

He frantically wiped away the last of his tears with Mondo's free sleeve.

The Judge sort of glanced over them like he wasn't so sure about it. “I'll assume the benefit of the doubt. Is the prosecution ready?”

All eyes fell upon Prosecutor Togami. He looked so—lonely—standing there by himself. Taking in his opposition, a proud smirk etched across his preening complexion. “The prosecution has been prepared ever since it walked into the building. It appears the defense still has much to learn.”

Mondo rolled his eyes, muttered, “Asshole. He's only saying that because he doesn't actually have any emotions. Fuckin' robot prosecution.”

Kiyotaka, who had just watched him defend Makoto from verbal harassment and literally drop everything to implore his secretary to go home as to avoid the eyewitness who had hurt him, could not bring himself to laugh at this joke.

On this one, Togami was simply correct.

“No Makoto today?” asked the Judge. “Is he feeling alright?”

Togami glanced out over the gallery. He had to be searching for Munakata. “No, not today. He's more than earned some time off, so I told him to go home.” His sneer hitched up a notch—he must've found Munakata. The prosecutor's cold chipped-ice gaze screamed FUCK YOU.

Mondo stared after him. “...The fuck happened?”

Kiyotaka rested a head in his hand. He didn't want to explain the whole ordeal.

“Well,” the Judge continued, “it would appear we are all prepared, then.” His voice had this uncertain edge to it. “Prosecutor Togami, your opening statement?”

Togami stood up straight, adjusting his already perfect glasses just so he could catch a gleam off of them and appear that little bit more imposing. “I found thirteen separate weapons on the grounds of the crime scene. All of them were made in the defendant's personal craftsmanship. Thus, they all carry his fingerprints.

“One of these weapons was discovered in the back of the victim's skull. I think we can all agree that he was the murderer.”

“OBJECTION!” Kiyotaka jolted to find the words taken from his mouth—an irate Mondo had already gotten to it. “That doesn't mean the kid killed her! If all his weapons were hanging out on the floor, then literally anyone could've picked 'em up!”

Togami rolled his eyes. “The defendant also carried a few specific weapons on his person at all times. This smaller, lighter knife was one of them. He wears a strap under his jacket to hold them, and there was an open slot that perfectly fit the knife.”

Mondo scowled. “Well, maybe he just dropped it!”

“Okay, okay,” Kiyotaka patted his shoulder. “I know we hate him, but you can't just make up conjecture so you can tell him he's wrong.”

“Ugh. Fuckin'... I know...” Mondo growled and glared at the prosecutor. “His face is just so punchable. I can't help it.”

Kiyotaka took over, slamming his hands onto his desk. “Do you have proof, Prosecutor Togami, that Izayoi was the one to stab Ms. Yukizome?”

Togami stilled. “Yes. I shall call my first witness now.” An odd scowl broke out across his lips. “As to... follow the expected proceedings of court, I summon the detective of this trial first,” he lowered his voice as if in preemptive regret, “Shi-Long Lang.”

A howl broke out from somewhere down the hall. More followed. Then came the rush of footsteps—more sets than one—and Lang's black-suited underlings rushed in on all fours. They continued to howl until, with a swaggering gait, the detective followed them in, and he called them off.

Lang stretched as he approached the witness stand. “Hey there, Udgey. Long time no see. Haven't been in one of these Japanifornian courtrooms since... uh...” Lang blinked. “Since, y'know.”

“Yes, of course.” The Judge bobbed his head. “Do you have a statement prepared on the crime scene as it was first discovered yesterday?”

“I... am... about to.” His tongue poked out from between his sharp teeth as he shuffled around some papers and scribbled down some other nonsense. “Yeah. That should do it. Alright, I'm ready.”

Togami didn't even bother to acknowledge the detective. He was reorganizing his evidence and had stacked an impressive tower of Izayoi's collected weaponry on one end of the desk. At the base of the stack was a mace. As soon as he noticed, Kiyotaka couldn't take his eyes away from it.

An entire mace...

Lang cleared his throat. “Haven't actually presented to a real live court of law in a sec, so uh... here goes.”

Testify: “Oh Wow, I Still Get a Little Title Thingy? This Is Neat”

“The victim was killed at about 12 noon.

“At this time, there were lots of hungry people walking around looking for the food stall, which, as I found out, was way in the back, like, hiding behind something? Like how the milk's at the back of the grocery store. Not cool!

“So, because of the extra-packed crowd, the defendant would've had an easy time sliding right behind the victim and poking that there blade into her skull.

“It's his knife and all, so he obviously did it. Probably. Maybe?”

Lang closed his mouth, twirling a strand of his spiky brown hair. He kept eyeing Togami, and his face would bunch up. Some poorly-hidden animosity?

The Judge signaled to Kiyotaka, and he glossed over the detective's statements in his mind.

“HOLD IT!” he started. “You state that the defendant waded through the crowd to kill the victim. Have you even spoken with the defendant before the trial? This would be rather out-of-character for him.”

Lang shrugged. “Uh? I'm not actually used to doing all this arguing here. Usually my buddy and I see a murder? And then, we, like, we sort of argue about who we think did it, and we run around finding evidence, and then he usually proves me wrong. He's like a prosecutor, but not really? Because we're not even in a trial? Yeah, so, this is out-of-character for me.”

Kiyotaka blinked. “What does that have to do with the defendant?”

“I'unno. Just putting things into perspective.” Lang sort of side-eyed the prosecution. “I tried to get him to argue with me about it, but he didn't wanna talk, so I just went back to sleep. Like, what am I supposed to do after I call out a defendant if the prosecution doesn't wanna have a mini impromptu trial with me?”

This was all too much to comprehend.

Togami himself stepped in, smacking his fist into the desk. His stack of weapons wobbled like a Jenga tower. Kiyotaka eyed it warily. “That's not a part of your job description! What kind of detective tries to do an illegal version of the trial before the real trial?” His face pinched. “And what sort of idiot prosecutor would allow it to happen?”

“Hey, hey, don't call him an idiot. He's hot. Also I'm like... trying to, like, start something with him? But I can't get a read on if he's seeing someone, or if he's into open relationships?” Lang shook his head. “Either way, don't insult him.”

Togami scowled. “My bad,” he muttered through gritted teeth.

“H-Hello?” Kiyotaka shook himself, pounded his fists. “WE'RE IN A TRIAL!” Lang hardly looked his way. He glared up at the ceiling. “Detective Lang, if you don't want to answer, then I'll redirect my question. Prosecutor Togami, the defendant's father himself told us that the defendant purposely avoids crowds. He wouldn't feel comfortable entering one—so how could he use it as cover for a murder?”

Despite the fact that he was making eye contact with Togami, Detective Lang thought this would be a great moment to say, “Maybe he lied about hating crowds in preparation for a moment like this one..?”

“He lied to his family and everyone he cared about in order to set up for a murder he wouldn't commit until he was fifteen years old and on a very specific high school field trip?”

“Okay, okay.” Lang raised his arms. “I'll admit, I'm not actually sure what happened.”

“THEN HOW COULD YOU TESTIFY?” Kiyotaka shrieked.

“I'm just—you know? I'm just putting it all out there. Giving the prosecution a chance to set me straight.”

Togami's head was in his hands. “Why is that my job?”

“What, you're just gonna let me say whatever I want?”

I WON'T!” Kiyotaka shouted. “WHICH IS WHY I'M TRYING TO QUESTION YOU!”

Lang wasn't quite looking at him. Did... Did he just not feel like speaking with him, or..?

Slowly, finally Lang's eyes scrolled over to him thrugh the courtroom's chilly silence. He asked, “Why are you here, exactly? I thought it was just supposed to be me and the prosecution.”

...WHAT?!

There weren't words. There weren't words...

Dumbfounded, Kiyotaka stared over the trial's proceedings. So far, he had had a strange and confused detective ramble to him about a crime scene he had little to no bearings of, and he expected Togami to correct him and lead him toward... the truth? A better lie that would support Togami's claims that Izayoi was the murderer?

...while Kiyotaka just stood here?

His cheeks angrily flushed. He pulled out Kirigiri's diagram, and, smoothing it out, cried, “HOLD IT!” He stared down at it, committed it to memory, put it away. The last thing he wanted was for Togami to see it and a whole other argument between them that had nothing to do with the murder to erupt. “I'm not sure where you got your facts of the crime scene, Detective Lang—”

“I just sort of eyeballed it,” Lang confirmed.

Kiyotaka nodded acknowledgment. He'd figured as much. “But I'm afraid you have your trajectory estimates wrong. By the speed and lack of precision with which Ms. Yukizome was incapacitated, it is more likely that the knife entered her skull from a distance.”

Prosecutor Togami gawked at him. “Since when did you know a single thing about the physics of a murder scene?”

He stared back. “I—I'll admit to having a little help, but if you examined Ms. Yukizome's head wound, you would encounter similar findings.”

“Huh,” Izayoi interceded out of nowhere from his position on the defendant's bench, “that's so weird! That's what I was thinking! Her skull wound was all wobbled and—it wasn't a clean cut, that's for sure.”

Kiyotaka took in his client for the first time today. He'd scrawled the bench with disfigured drawings made from a pocket knife he'd procured via mysterious means. Kiyotaka hadn't had the chance to speak with Izayoi beforehand due to the overprotective nature of his father, but it was good to see him... keeping his spirits up in the only way he could.

Finally Kiyotaka said, “Thank you, defendant.” Then he turned to Detective Lang. “See? Your assessment of the crime is incorrect.”

“Huh. Go figure. Why am I not surprised...” Lang seemed to mumble mostly for his own sake.

Kiyotaka could corroborate the crowd of people that had bunched around the area, having witnessed the crime himself, but, as he thought about it, he really wasn't sure how that knife had entered Yukizome. If there were so many people, how did the murderer point it so that it only hit Yukizome without harming any of the passerby—including Kiyotaka himself?

...and what of the other weaponry found lodged in her body..?

He shook himself. One step at a time. They had to solve this mystery knife first. Whoever threw it must have had a good eye and incredibly steady hand. That, or they weren't actually standing at the opposite booth like Kirigiri had predicted... but where could they be that would still allow distance to separate them, enough to make the wound inflicted just sloppy enough for a professional like Izayoi to tell?

It felt so wrong calling the fifteen-year-old a professional, but if he wasn't a professional then Kiyotaka had no idea what made a blacksmith one.

Togami leaned back and knocked his fist into the wall. The mutterings of the courthouse drew silent as all eyes fell upon the scowling prosecutor. With his free hand, he straightened his oh-so-slightly dislocated tie, then said, “Detective Lang, I believe we learned everything we could by your estimate of the crime. May I please—”

“Hey, wait, wait.” Lang, Kiyotaka realized with a jolt, was peering right at the defense's side. “I'm starting to wonder if I had the idea of a courthouse wrong to begin with. Defense attorneys? Kinda got it together. Maybe that's what I'm supposed to like, since I hate prosecutors and all. Huh. Guess I chose the wrong job.”

Somehow Kiyotaka had the feeling that Lang would not make all that good of an attorney. Maybe it was his delusional conjecture, or the fact that his remarkable deduction of the murder included choosing a suspect at random and proceeding to sleep for the rest of the day, but something about him just didn't quite scream, I will defend you to my very last breath. It just—not quite.

Togami started to speak again when Lang cut over him. “Hey, Udgey? Can I testify one more time with the info I gathered from the defense?”

“I don't see why not!”

The Judge rapped his gavel, and Togami pounded his fists, then head, into his desk. His pile of weapons shuddered, and an axe slid off the top of the heap, the blade landing directly between his wrists.

Mondo gaped. “Oh my god. Someone needs to take those away from him.”

Izayoi was stupefied. “Damn. Hardcore.”

Lang hadn't even noticed, he was getting so riled up about his second chance to deliver some fresh new testimony.

Testify: “The Real Crime Scene, Maybe”

“So we're all in agreement that she died at noon, right? Alright. She died at noon, and there was a big crowd.

“If the defendant isn't all that into crowds, then obviously something isn't adding up here.

“How could he kill someone from a distance? I dunno, maybe he was hiding in the booth opposite from the one the victim was standing at, and perfectly timed a moment to shoot it at her?

“He's a blacksmith, and all. Blacksmiths are good at using their swords, right?”

Lang shrugged into his crumpled documents, shutting his mouth.

Kiyotaka stared down at his own evidence. How in the world was he..?

He jumped at the rap of the Judge's gavel.

Mondo shot him a reassuring smile. His heart squeezed, and when he reached out, Mondo instinctively took his hand. “We got this,” he murmured. “See? We're already making progress.”

It was impossible not to smile back at him.

Kiyotaka turned to their witness of sorts. “HOLD IT! What makes you think the defendant actually knows how to use his weapons?”

Now that he considered it, he had no actual proof that Izayoi could wield his creations. Yes, the crime scene was littered with his handiwork, but if he couldn't figure out an effective way to swing the mace, then it was almost like the mace wasn't even there. In Izayoi's case, at least.

He noticed that Izayoi had gone quiet, head hidden in the crook of his arms. What was his client thinking..?

“You know, now that you mention it, I got no idea,” Lang admitted. Then he beamed. “Hey, I like working with you! We got this—this banter! It's like with Edge—I mean...” Out of nowhere, Lang blushed and drew silent.

Kiyotaka hadn't the time to question whatever the detective was babbling about now. “Then do we even have any proof that Izayoi knows a single thing about using even one of the murder weapons?”

“A good question.” The Judge eyed the prosecution and the defense respectively. “Do either of you hold any evidence that the defendant could have known how to wield the murder weapon? If not, this trial may be over quickly.”

Togami furiously snapped up and began shuffling through his evidence, careful not to disturb his deadly Jenga tower. As piles of documents unfolded before him, the—the dread—the frustration came in splotchy reds on his cheeks.

Kiyotaka gave his court record a once-over as well, refreshing his mind on some of the evidence he didn't have directly on hand.

As the terse silence of the courtroom lengthened, Kiyotaka could sense Togami's hands shaking as he sifted for evidence he seemed to know he did not have.

Had... Had he already..?

Kiyotaka paused as his finger addressed something he'd completely forgotten about writing down. But, wait—if this implied what he thought it did, then...

“OBJECTION!” he shouted. “This proves... that...”

He slapped his hand over his mouth.

He'd just ruined Izayoi's chance of being tried not guilty.

Wh-What sort of defense attorney..!

He stared in horror at the shank evidence that Izayoi had handed to him, that he had faithfully handed back over to his mentor—a man who clearly knew his way around a sword. A man who Izayoi looked up to, as if to a teacher.

A man who most certainly was teaching Izayoi how to wield a blade.

“Mr. Ishimaru?” posed the Judge. “Did you have an objection?”

Togami stared, startled, at the defense.

Swallowing tightly, Kiyotaka nodded. If he ignored this contradiction, he could jeopardize the truth. “I-I'm sorry, Izayoi.”

This didn't mean the kid was the murderer. But he had to follow this evidence—because it would give him a chance to search deeper for what had truly occurred at Yukizome's death.

“I have evidence that Izayoi is learning how to fight with a sword, if no other weapon.” He indicated the screw shank. “I... was asked to give a keepsake to Mr. Munakata, Izayoi's mentor. Munakata has displayed his swordsmanship to me already, and, due to the nature of Izayoi's skill as a blacksmith, I am led to presume that what Mr. Munakata is teaching him has to do with swordplay.”

Not to mention Munakata's sword, which held the familiar insignia that Izayoi gave to most if not all of his weaponry.

Izayoi's head slumped into his arms. Kiyotaka winced.

Mondo's hand, at his shoulder. “Damn. That was ballsy of you. I hope it helps us out in the end,” he murmured.

Kiyotaka sighed, nodded.

He couldn't believe he'd just... he'd just done that..!

“Why?” Kiyotaka blinked, turning to face the shaken prosecutor. “Why would you help my case?”

“I'm not trying to help your case,” Kiyotaka replied. “I'm trying to find out who killed Ms. Chisa Yukizome so her family and loved ones can seek justice. I don't believe her own student killed her, but first we have to discover what truly occurred and untangle the facts of her mysterious death before we can discount him.”

“Wow.” This gasp came from Lang. “I am in the wrong place. I don't know where I need to be, but I don't care nearly as much as you. I should really go and reevaluate my entire life mission.”

With that, the detective took his leave, not even awaiting Togami's halfhearted, last-second, “Detective, you're dismissed.”

The prosecution and defense stared at one another. Kiyotaka couldn't begin to comprehend this new, strange energy between them. Shook himself. “Your Honor, who is our next witness?”

“Ah, yes, great question!” The Judge waggled his gavel in Togami's direction. Who is our next witness, Mr. Togami?”

The thought of a new witness considerably brightened the prosecutor's stiff, spoiled expression. “Yes. Our first witness. Let me call them.”


Togami's thunderous scowl returned when he brought out the witness. He must have gotten the order mixed up, as surely he wouldn't have been so excited to call this one.

Before them stood Izayoi's mentor himself, the pristine, white-suited Munakata.

“He's almost attractive,” Mondo mumbled. “Like, almost. If he just knew how to smile. His face is so... so fuckin' cold. Nobody wants to see that when they come home after a long day. You need, like... cheer. Solace. Not... that.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but giggle and whisper back, “Is that what you look for in a life partner, Mondo?”

“Hmmmmm.” Then he shrugged. “I got no idea. I try not to let my thoughts go that far, actually. Me and, uh, romance... uhhh... don't really work out too well.”

Ah. That was decidedly not what Kiyotaka wanted to hear.

But he swore he heard a faint longing in Mondo's tone there. Was that what he wanted, secretly—someone who supported him through the everyday exhaustion and mundanity of life?

Kiyotaka wondered if he could... well...

Though, he supposed, in some ways, he already did that for Mondo.

...It was time to stop thinking about how bad he had it for his partner.

Through gritted teeth, Togami hissed, “Name and profession, witness.”

The witness did not seem to notice his animosity. “Kyosuke Munakata. Schoolteacher.”

Mondo of all people perked up at this. “Oh hey, that's kinda neat. I really respect teachers, since they don't get paid at all for basically doing what I do. I mean, I don't get paid either, but, y'know.”

Kiyotaka stared after him. No, he didn't know, but he really needed to focus on Munakata's testimony right now.

“Witness,” Togami continued, voice low, knotted, “please testify about what you saw at the victim's termination.”

“Termination makes it sound so... stiff,” Mondo mumbled under his breath.

Kiyotaka elbowed him. “Will you focus?”

“Oh! Heh.” His partner snickered, blushed. “Sorry.”

He couldn't hold onto his anger when Mondo was just that frustratingly cute...

As they settled down, Munakata took to the stand. His arms tightened over the wooden surface. He stared out over the arranged gallery, gaze flickering toward the back, where a couple rows of Academy students sat. Most of them weren't actually paying attention—half-listening while they worked on whatever it was they were known for that had gotten them into the school. An oddly somber look entered his face as he gazed over his students.

Then he drew to attention and nodded to the student before him, still carving that S everyone draws onto the desk in front of him.

“I will speak of the truth of the matter,” he said plainly.

Testify: “These Memories Will Haunt Me Forever”

“It was myself, Chisa—the victim, I mean—and our friend Sakakura. Chisa had wanted to try out the balloon pop booth at the carnival.

“We ran into a few of students on the way. Seiko Kimura, Ryota Mitarai, and Ruruka Ando.

“Seiko wanted to know where my apprentice was. I had not known then, and I still do not. Ryota had simply wanted to say hello to Chisa. He's... attached to her, although he is my student.

“Ruruka wanted to give us some of her sweets again. Sakakura didn't take any, but Chisa and I both accepted a few.

“She also insisted on giving us each a balloon she had won from a booth. She had too many to easily hold, as I recall.

“It was moments after we stopped at the booth that Chisa suddenly... she...” Munakata took in a weak breath. “She drew still. Her face was profuse with red—and she coughed up blood.

“And the knife was in the back of her head. And she collapsed.”

He was shaking. His mouth was firmly pressed shut.

Even Togami lost some of his smarmy veneer. His cheeks had taken to an odd pallor. Perhaps he was thinking about how Makoto—and Kirigiri—had been at that very same carnival, and, had the murderer's aim been slightly off...

The Judge rapped his gavel. Kiyotaka blinked, steeled himself.

Already he was on the witness's testimony. “HOLD IT! Mr. Munakata, did anyone else besides you and your two friends know where you were headed?”

Munakata cocked his head. “I don't believe so, other than the three who saw us on our way there. Nobody I noticed, at least. And they were all wearing their uniforms at my request so I could keep a better eye on them."

“I see. That leads into my second question.” He was hurriedly writing this information down over Kirigiri's diagram, frantically trying to piece together the scene of the crime. “Would you say that these three moments with your students would serve as sturdy alibis—or were they spaced out enough that one of them could have had an opportunity to, knowing your location, stage Ms. Yukizome's death?”

Munakata drew deathly still. “How dare you accuse one of our students of killing her..!”

“Then prove it to me!” Kiyotaka cried. “Show me evidence that conclusively proves that none of your students could have killed Ms. Yukizome!”

“I...” He bit his lip. He knew. He knew he couldn't prove that. There were too many moving parts—too many suspicious moments for Munakata to conclusively say that none of his students had had anything to do with Yukizome's death.

They simply had to unearth a motive.

Munakata's forehead bunched. He dragged a shivering hand through his soft white hair. “I... I can't say that any of these students have a perfect alibi. I-I think they do, but they are also the only students who knew our whereabouts, unless they told anyone else.”

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. “I have one other question.” Munakata gave a curt nod. “I'm sorry to ask, but... when you say that Ms. Yukizome's face was 'profuse with red,' do you mean flush or...” He bit his tongue. “O-Or blood?”

He hated asking. He hated how important the distinction was.

Munakata stilled. “The moment is seared into my memory. Her face did redden, at first, but as she started to cough, her... her face did begin to splotch with blood. I'm not sure if it was from the coughing or some other means of—of cruelty enacted upon her.”

Was that when the blade entered the back of her skull..? Or was that something else entirely?

It seemed multiple wounds ravaged Ms. Yukizome's body at adjacent times. He didn't think Munakata would know how to distinct which potential weapon caused what, and when—nor which came first.

He would have to accept that this testimony merely gave him a clearer view of the crime scene—as well as a wider pool of potential witnesses, or suspects.

“Thank you, Mr. Munakata,” Kiyotaka said, bowing his head.

“You are dism—”

Kiyotaka hurriedly cut off the prosecutor. “May I ask you to testify once more on another matter?”

Silently Togami punched his fists onto his desk. His Jenga tower wobbled menacingly. The teetering ice pick on the very top of the pile —longer than the knife murder weapon—rotated in a perfect circle, coming breadths away from skewering the prosecution's brain.

When Munataka nodded, Kiyotaka checked the Judge. “Is it okay if I request more testimony to better understand the context of this trial?”

The Judge shrugged. “Sure! I'm curious as well! For some reason, I get the feeling that that detective didn't help us all that much when it came to depicting the crime scene.”

Hmmm, what a curious thought. Lang didn't prepare them for the trial? What a surprise.

While Togami fumed at his desk and threw his little temper tantrum, other choice weapons nearly pricking his side, Kiyotaka refocused on their only present eyewitness. “Could you explain a little to me about your Academy? It... It seems different from a regular school, and I want to account for that as I examine those involved. I would also like to know about the relationship between the defendant and victim.”

Munakata's eyes widened. He saw what this opportunity granted him. “Of course.”

Testify: “The Ultimate Academy: A Secret Asylum”

(Mondo's mouth fell open. “A what?” he whispered.)

“The Ultimate Academy was created some twenty or thirty years ago by our principal. He desired to gather the most “talented” high schoolers he could find and offer them a place to stay at his school.

“The students all live at the Academy. They are...” A sudden scowl broke across Munakata's face. “They are supposed to focus on the skill or skills that Principal Tengan scouted them for. That is the purpose of their stay at the Academy, to perfect their craft.

“...Most of the students who are scouted tend to have a hyperfixation on their skill, and a host of mental illnesses, neurodivergence, or other physical causes that have forced them to place their focus all in one place. I worry that the Academy does not properly serve in well-rounding our students, nor show them how to live an honest life outside of the Academy's walls.

“As for my apprentice, I have trained with him since he was my own student last year. His work in blacksmithing piqued my interest, as I have a penchant for swordplay.

“Chisa was one of my dearest friends. Chisa was his teacher. There is no simply no reason for him to ever harm her.”

A chilly silence befell the courtroom.

“The fuck,” Mondo whispered.

“Was that what the field trip was for?” Kiyotaka wondered aloud. “An excuse to bring the students into the real world, and try to show them how life really...” He drew off as he recalled his bewildering conversation with Ruruka from yesterday. She hadn't seemed to understand how even the court of law worked.

These students were expected to work on their singular skill—and their singular skill alone.

Wh-What kind of school...

Munakata, sensing Kiyotaka's confusion, spoke up. “The students don't usually need more than what their skills give them, as they are scouted by their fields after graduation due to their immense prowess. They do not require more than what they already have.”

His eyes reached up to the rows of his students, fidgeting in their seats.

Kiyotaka blew out a long breath. “Y-Your Honor, I have no objections.”

“Alrighty.” It appeared that this entire testimony had flown right over the Judge's head. He happily pounded his gavel to signal the end of the nonexistent cross-examination, and Togami sprung back in.

“Witness! You are dismissed.”

Munakata left without complaint.

Hurriedly Kiyotaka grabbed Mondo's arm as support. “What did we just learn,” he mumbled.

“That the Academy kids all need therapy? And maybe a new school, if their old schools didn't already kick 'em out or weren't helping them succeed?”

Kiyotaka wanted to go home and sleep off this horrendous headache that had sprouted up during Munakata's testimony.

However, he still had an overly eager prosecution to deal with. Togami had already jumped up to cry, “I request to send in my next witness!” Kiyotaka didn't have to be a detective to guess that Togami's next witness had some hard evidence on his defendant.

“Mondo, since you slept last trial, do you mind if—”

“Bud, I'm gonna be real here. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. If you fall asleep, this trial's gonna fly off the rails. You might get your attorney's badge revoked purely for letting me reign free.”

Kiyotaka snorted. “You just want my company.”

“Heh. Maybe.” Mondo chuckled, then shyly reached out to poke his cheek.

His heart pulsed rapidly. He smiled to himself when he pushed his hand toward his partner and Mondo dutifully took it once more.

He let himself enjoy—for a moment—Mondo's presence, before daring glance back at the witness stand. A certain girl in a face mask, proudly slouching in her punk-ified school uniform, stood before them.

A prideful smile had seized Togami's face. “Name and profession.”

“Seiko Kimura. Fuckin' high schooler and medical practitioner. Over half of Japanifornia's got my pills in their pharmacies.”

Had he the energy, Kiyotaka may have reacted with shock. Instead he came up against a dull discomfort. He couldn't imagine what fire Kimura could add to this already-flaming trial.

“Witness,” Togami posed, “please testify to the court about what you saw at the scene of the crime.”

“Yup. I gotcha.”

Her hands came up. She quickly made a few signs—to let Miaya know what was happening, Kiyotaka guessed.

Testify: “I Saw the Murderer”

She signed as she spoke.

“Izayoi threw the knife.”

Then she pulled down her mask, offered a braces-filled beam, and slapped it back over her face.

Cold sweat prickled all over Kiyotaka's frozen body, just moments before the monsoon of voices careened down over them.

“WHAT THE FUCK!”    “I called it I KNEW IT I FREAKING KNEW IT!”    “Damn!”    “HE WOULD NEVER! MY APPRENTICE WOULD NEV—”    “NOT HIM NO NOT HIM I KNOW HE WOUL—”    “NOOOOOOOO!”    “No that can't be right, I thought I killed the—”    “MISS CHISA... M-MISS CHISA...”

It took multiple punches of the Judge's gavel before the cacophony died down enough for him to yell, “ORDER! I will have order!”

In the split second he'd stopped to catch his breath, the screaming broke out anew.

Eventually the Judge gave up, and, turning to the prosecution and defense, mouthed, TEN MINUTE RECESS, holding out the ten fingers on his hands.


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Mondo sat him down at the couch furthest from the courtroom. For the first time in five minutes, Kiyotaka could hear a single thought in his head, one that begged for him to go home and hide under some blankets.

With no blankets at his disposal, he had to settle for Mondo's generous chest.

Mondo's head ducked over his. “What's up?” His voice was soft, more breath than sound, and it trickled over his skin.

He sighed, letting Mondo's warmth wash over him. “There's so much to keep up with. Last trial, we could pinpoint a few likely suspects or causes. This one...” Gosh, he couldn't even count all the potential witnesses and involved parties on his two hands, there were so many of them.

“Well,” his partner murmured, “we can at least start to deduce some stuff. I mean, Noski probably didn't do it, cuz he has literally no motive.”

“Who's Nosk—” then he remembered and groaned. “That stupid nickname...”

“Noski,” Mondo reiterated, “is low on the suspect list. Then who's above him?”

Kiyotaka sighed, considering the evidence off the top of his head. “Kimura. We have testimony from Ruruka that she was actually the one to stab Yukizome, and I don't yet see a reason that contradicts that. She also would know where Yukizome was going and could have coordinated off of that. Plus, she ran into Izayoi, and could have potentially stolen one of his special weapons then.”

He didn't like accusing one of Taeko's lesbian hyperfixations, but he couldn't ignore the facts of the case, either.

“Right,” Mondo replied. “So, Seiko. She's up there. She'll be testifying as soon as all the neurodivergents shut up.”

“What even was that?” Kiyotaka moaned.

“Oh, you don't hang out with rejects like me. You wouldn't get it. See, I have this whole thing mapped out—it's like a neurodivergent hierarchy. The one with the most power cuts you off the fastest at even the slightest split-second pause in your speaking—even if you're mid-sentence. And it goes on from there. Kind of impressive, actually. I've just learned to either speak without pausing around my kids or accept that it'll take awhile for me to get my words out.”

Kiyotaka closed his eyes. He was too tired to think any harder about it.

Mondo continued. “So, anyone else we should be looking out for?”

“Ruruka,” he replied. “There was blood on her scarf yesterday. She was there, whether or not she stabbed Yukizome. And she has access to all of Izayoi's weaponry, being his girlfriend. I had a confirmation from him that they saw each other at the carnival as well.”

Mondo let out a shuddering exhale. With his head on Mondo's chest, he eased into the comforting rise and fall of his partner's breaths. “Fuckin' damn. Well, we'll have to get her up on the witness stand, too. Anyone else right now?”

“Not... at the moment. I don't think my current evidence indicts anyone else.” Kiyotaka bit his lip. “But we might be able to piece together which of the two of them stabbed her today.”

Perhaps they had enough evidence to indict the true murderer from what they'd found so far...

Mondo hummed. “I guess we'll see.” He wrapped an arm around Kiyotaka's side.

If only they could stay like that. With his eyes closed, Kiyotaka could almost forget that there even was a trial...

...when a sickly sweet aroma passed him by. Immediately his body tensed, and he squinted at the courtroom lobby. There—Walking towards them, acting like she was wandering around aimlessly, was Ruruka herself. She'd switched to another ruff—this one pinker than yesterday's—and her arms were overflowing with glassy magenta trays of sweets.

As she approached them, Kiyotaka grabbed Mondo by the wrist and said, “Whatever you do, don't—”

“Would you like some?” Ruruka barged in, breathless. She'd sprinted the last couple steps to make it in before Kiyotaka could—wait—

Frantically he sat up to knock away her trays or—

—but, too late, he saw Mondo already stuffing himself with puffy macaroons. “Wow, these're good! Taka, try one!”

“No!” he yelled back. “Mondo, you idiot!”

“Hmm.” Mondo swallowed his latest mouthful, an odd pinch crossing his brow. “All of a sudden, I feel like Ruruka definitely wasn't the murderer. Taka, take her off the list.”

Kiyotaka's head collapsed in his hands. A dry sob escaped him.

Ruruka evidently took the hint and didn't bother badgering Kiyotaka for a third time. He heard her clicking footsteps as she went off to—he glimpsed her through the slits between his fingers—go feed her boyfriend more of her candy. It had to pass through a guard first, but, once declared harmless, Izayoi was allowed access to them.

Good for him. Kiyotaka scowled.

He scooted away, awkwardly unwrapping Mondo's arm from around his waist. It felt... It felt wrong, now that he knew that Mondo's brain wasn't fully his. He wondered at how long the brainwashing lasted. And how many doses did Mondo have if he ate fistfuls of macaroons..?

Maybe he could snap him out of it, somehow. He just had to think of something...

As he sat there brooding, a familiar hand brushed over his shoulder. He looked up and—couldn't help but beam. “Taeko! There you are.” While he had her attention, he pointed out Ruruka and said carefully, “Do not eat any of her candy.”

Taeko blinked, head cocked. “What does it do to you?”

He turned to face Mondo. “Is Ruruka the murderer, Mondo?”

“Nah, not in a million years. Seiko, though? Pretty sketchy. I bet it was her.”

Taeko's mouth fell agape. “Impressive!”

“Taeko!” Kiyotaka hissed. “Don't take notes! This is sinister and cruel!”

“And kind of cool,” she admitted, “but worry not, Seiko and Miaya already warned me about her. She used to be Seiko's best friend in middle school, until she turned out to be a fucking backstabbing bitch.”

He'd have to remind her after the trial that that was two for the swear jar. He really needed to carry the jar on him at all times. “Is that so?”

“Yup. Seiko cannot eat her sweets due to a lethal dairy allergy, but Ruruka tried to force-feed her one. She had to be rushed to the hospital! She should have really just made some candy without dairy in it, but I guess she does not like sweets without milk or egg or... whatnot.”

...what was wrong with these Academy kids?

“Hey now, that can't be right.” Mondo, of all people, tried to defend her. “Ruru's like the nicest person in the world. She wouldn't send someone to the hospital.”

Taeko coughed into her handkerchief, flashing Kiyotaka a look. She pulled out her phone and quickly typed out a text. Kiyotaka's beeped—He went to look at it.

Want me to replace him?

Kiyotaka sighed and dutifully responded. Seems like you'll have to.

“I will be right back,” Taeko said. “I was going to, um, skip on the trial and go to Starbucks, maybe, with Miaya, but it appears that I will be necessary.” She turned heel, her dress cascading sparkles.

Of course she had been. Though, to be fair, he and Mondo had had it covered up until now.

He gave his partner a long look. “You don't look like you're feeling so good,” he said softly. “Do you need me to take you home?”

“Huh? What're you talking about? I'm fine.”

And he sounded fine, but the fact that Kiyotaka knew he wasn't just frustrated him all the more.

He gently rested a hand at Mondo's shoulder. “Are you sure? You don't have to stay if you don't think you're up for it.”

“Taka, what the hell are you talking about?” He laid his hand over Kiyotaka's. “I can't leave you—especially not after I screwed up so badly last trial. I'm here for you. Always.” He coughed. “I mean—reasonably. Most of the time.”

...was he blushing?

Mondo shook himself. “So I'm not going anywhere, alright? You don't gotta worry about me.”

Even when his brain was being controlled by a manic witness, Mondo still cared about him... How sweet, if counterproductive to the rest of the trial.

“Okay, but just so you know, I think Ruruka might be the murderer.”

“I'll just have to convince you otherwise,” Mondo replied, “even though I have no fucking idea why I'm saying that.”

...maybe the effects of the candy would wear off soon. Hopefully.


With the courtroom quieted, the Judge breathed out a great sigh of relief. “Well, now that that's over, why don't we continue with the trial—” he began, when he caught sight of the napkin carefully laid across his desk, bearing a single piece of chocolate. “Oh my! Don't mind if I do.”

Kiyotaka's head fell into his hands. He didn't want to watch their so-called voice of reason as he forfeited his last scraps of logical thinking.

From across the way, he saw Togami through the gaps between his fingers. He, too, had been left a single chocolate, which he now batted with one of Izayoi's many swords. Once he'd swung the candy off his desk and watched it crumple to the floor, he heaved a breath and returned the sword to his Jenga tower.

The way he shoved it in sent the whole structure off-kilter. He didn't seem to notice, but Kiyotaka watched with wide, horrified eyes as the tower shuddered and teetered about until—miraculously—it located a new center of balance. For now, Togami was spared.

So only he, Togami, and Taeko had the sense not to let Ruruka's chocolate pass their lips. Kiyotaka nudged his only trustworthy partner of the afternoon, and she duly noted Togami's decision. “He just did it because he saw me dispose of the one on our desk,” she said.

“I don't think he's as stupid as you want him to be,” Kiyotaka replied. Giggling, Taeko shrugged. Her crimson dress shimmered.

“Mm!” said the Judge. “What delightful candy. I really should have known better, what with the sorts of folks we've dealt with in the past, but since that last murder trial had had poison as the murder weapon, I just went ahead and assumed that this murderer wouldn't bother cramping on the last case's style.”

He... Kiyotaka massaged his throbbing forehead. He needed to power through this somehow.

“Now that we have restored order,” the Judge continued, “let us resume the cross-examination of Miss Seiko Kimura. Mr. Ishimaru, if you would?”

He pounded his gavel. Kiyotaka's heart tightened.

With a fisted hand, he pounded his desk. “HOLD IT!” he shouted, and Seiko squinted at him from the witness stand. “Can't you describe to me what happened in more detail?”

Seiko shrugged. She was already signing before she spoke. “Nope. Izayoi stabbed her. I saw it.”

“How? From where?” Kiyotaka posed.

“The hell do you mean, how?” She momentarily stopped signing to make a rude hand gesture. The Judge couldn't appear to distinguish it from the rest of Seiko's sign language, as he didn't call her out on it. “He stabbed her. That's how. With his hands?” She aggressively waggled her hands at the defense.

“Well—From where did he stab her? We've already confirmed that—”

“Blaahhh blah, yeah. That you couldn't have stabbed her from close range, or whatever. Sure. I dunno where the hell I saw him, but in the corner of my eye I caught the flash of his ridiculous shoulder pad, and the red sleeve of his coat came out, and then out flew the knife. Isn't that proof enough?”

Kiyotaka decided to test Seiko's request. “OBJECTION!” he unleashed, and the spindly, silvery-haired student cringed. “I have a key piece of evidence that directly contradicts your claim!”

“You... Uh, you do?” Seiko's hands rushed to her face, where she pinched the sides of her head with her thumb and forefinger, then pointed her fingers into Ls around her head. She proceeded to stare at him like he'd peed in her cereal that morning.

“Yes.” Even Togami was miffed. “I have testimony from one Ruruka Ando that claims that you, Seiko, were the one to throw the knife.”

“Oh fucking boohoo.” Seiko rolled her eyes. “Give me a goddamn break. That piece of shit'd say anything to make me look like the murderer so her sweet bastard lover Izayoi can get off the hook.” She rapidly signed something for Miaya.

Taeko nudged him. “I have been learning a tiny bit of sign language.”

“When?” he asked.

“Um. Very recently!”

So basically ever since she met a deaf lesbian.

“What is she saying?” Kiyotaka asked.

“Ummmm... I see the sign for murderer. And the sign for angry. But I... I am wondering if she is giving Miaya extra information that none of us could possibly follow up on...”

...like what?

Key evidence could be floating around directly in front of them without their notice. Kiyotaka seethed, gritting his teeth.

Frustrated, he broke into Seiko's signing—“Do you have any evidence that it was Izayoi, and not anybody else, who threw the knife?”

“Um. Hello? My eyeballs? Which watched him throw it?” Seiko huffed, rapidly signing.

How was he supposed to make a distinction between Seiko's testimony and Ruruka's? Ruruka had gone to him first, had begged for him to listen, had been the one to actually give him testimony. Seiko had scorned him and said she wasn't sure who the real murderer was yesterday.

And yet, today, she worked with Togami. Had... Had that always been her plan? Had she just been keeping it a secret?

If she was working with Togami... and he was trying to rely on Ruruka—Ruruka, who had his defendant's best interests at heart... then he was supposed to trust Ruruka, wasn't he?

He'd been taught by his mentor—and the defense attorney he had looked up to since he was little—to always believe in his client. Well—Except for that one time, but everyone seemed to pretend that one time hadn't happened after it was over, like it was some otherworldly phenomenon.

And what kind of defense attorney was he if he couldn't believe in his client..?

“I need conclusive proof,” Kiyotaka said, smacking his hand palm-first onto his desk. He glared at Seiko, then shifted his gaze to account for Togami as well. “Without proof, how do I know you're not lying either?”

“What the fuck. I swore to only say the truth. How fucking dare you!” Seiko drew in a tight breath. “I knew I couldn't trust you.”

That was why. That was why she'd refused to tell him her truth yesterday, whatever it had actually been.

Kiyotaka's heart seized. What had he done wrong? Suddenly his breaths were coming in too fast.

He sensed someone shadowing over him—then Mondo's calloused hand at his shoulder. He managed to catch his breath.

His eye caught Taeko. “What do you think?” he uttered.

Taeko was staring ahead, her face drained of color. “I... I... I think, um...” Her nails tapped incessantly against the desk. “I-I-I don't know. I thought I should trust Seiko, b-being lesbian and all, but, I mean, you could not trust me at first, and I am lesbian too, and... and... o-oh, I don't know! Why the hell did you choose this career, Kiyotaka?”

He should have realized that Taeko was much better at breaking the law rather than trying to uphold it.

His gaze caught onto his court record. Did he have any evidence that might apply, though weakly, to Seiko's testimony, that might somehow shed a light onto his struggle to identify who had actually killed Yukizome..?

As suspicious as Ruruka's candies were, he didn't think they automatically proved the confectioner had killed her boyfriend's teacher. None of the weapons necessarily applied here. All these testimonies he had scribbled down... and Kirigiri's notes... ah, but these went outside of what her notes provided..!

And he couldn't just rely on Kirigiri anyways, especially since she wasn't even physically here...

Well. Well, there was one thing he could think to present here, and it didn't really work with everything else, but—but it was direction. And it could become the push he needed to discover who had actually stabbed Yukizome with the knife.

“While I'm still unsure as to the circumstances of the knife being thrown—or who actually threw it, I do know this: Ruruk—”

“NOOOOOOOO!”

The entire courtroom froze as high-heeled feet came clacking rapidly down from the gallery's stair. One strawberry blonde with a puffy pink ruff adorning her Ultimate Talent Academy uniform and a matching beanie atop her head streamed into the room and grabbed the witness stand, all but shoving Seiko aside.

She huffed and puffed in place before crying, “Yoi didn't do it! Yoi didn't kill anybody!”

Seiko took one look at her and squinted. “Yeah, and you're the most trustworthy person in this fucking room, huh?”

“Well—” the Judge, of all people, broke in.

“I dunno, she kind of is though?” Mondo added. Then he blinked as his eyes landed on Kiyotaka. “I-I-I mean! After you! Obviously! Or, wait, maybe, uhhhh...” As the confusion colored his cheeks, he stumbled over his own words and all but collapsed against their desk.

Taeko daintily covered her hands over her mouth. She turned to Kiyotaka, brows raised.

Kiyotaka was honored to see that not even brainwashing could convince Mondo to believe in the brainwashing's target more than his partner.

“God,” Seiko hissed, “you're all playing into her hand!” She pulled down her mask to sneer. Some comments, Kiyotaka supposed, required a facial response.

“Wh-Whatever do you mean?” squeaked Ruruka. “They are acting of their own free will!”

Seiko shoved Ruruka out of the way. “Yeah, and I'm heterosexual.” She stomped on Ruruka's foot for good measure.

Ruruka squealed. “O-Owwww! That hurt! Seiko, you're so mean!”

“Oh, I'm mean?” Seiko thundered back. “Who ruined my middle school life? Who sabotaged our friend group so they'd all hate me and flock to your side? Who fed them all the one thing I can't eat, your fucking dogshit candy?”

“That... That was...” Ruruka, panicking, slapped Seiko aside. “Th-That was necessary! If you don't eat my candy, how can I trust that you actually like me?”

Izayoi looked away, as if guilty.

“You're such a bitch!” Seiko screamed. Tears had formed in her eyes. “The one time I tried, I almost d-died!”

Ruruka sniffed. “Maybe there's a reason why?”

The noise Seiko made was so—jagged, grieving—that it left Kiyotaka winded.

Taeko winced, covering her face. “Kiyotaka, do something!” she hissed. “Stop making lesbians cry!”

“H-How is this one my fault?” Kiyotaka whispered back.

“Just present something! Make them stop fighting!”

Because that was his job?

He scowled over his evidence. From across the way, Togami's mouth had shut. It appeared he was simply refusing to participate in any manner. Was... Was it not that he'd hated Taeko in the last trial, but he actually feared women—or teenage girls—in general? Now that Kiyotaka thought about it, did Togami even speak to women outside of Kirigiri? Was... Was he okay?

Kiyotaka shook himself. He had to end Seiko and Ruruka's squabble before Taeko started crying too.

“HOLD IT!” he cried.

A sub-zero hush chilled the courtroom. Kiyotaka cringed as he sensed all eyes pricking onto him. Even the witnesses had paused, mid-tussle, to stare agape his way.

Slowly he opened his hand to reveal a smudged piece of Ruruka's chocolate—the one she'd nearly force-fed him last night.

“Seiko's right. You're trying to brainwash this court into believing whatever you will them, Ruruka.”

Grateful tears clawed down Seiko's cheeks. She hurriedly untangled herself from Ruruka to forge distance between them. As she moved away, a certain aqua-haired girl clad in a scarf and earmuffs rushed in to latch herself onto her.

Taeko, blushing, waved to the sudden Miaya.

“But—” Ruruka sputtered, followed by creepily well-timed interjections via Mondo and the Judge.

“Please let me finish, Your Honor,” Kiyotaka said. Surprisingly, the Judge nodded assent. A bit of a pushover, wasn't he? “Seiko, I want to believe you, but with what little evidence I've found of the crime scene, I just can't tell if your testimony alone can confirm Izayoi was the murderer. Please understand, I can't ignore all of this evidence in favor of one testimony and let Izayoi behind bars if we still don't know exactly how the victim died, nor who caused it.”

Seiko folded her arms across her chest, leaning into her girlfriend. “But I know what I saw!” she yelled back. “He fucking did it! Maybe it wasn't on purpose, but nobody wears getup as gaudy as his! And nobody throws a knife as well as him, besides Mr. Munakata, who obviously didn't kill Miss Chisa. He's too much a simp for that, if you ask me.”

Ruruka looked about to oppose her, but at the word “simp,” she paled, mumbled, “Yeah, I can't argue with that...”

Kiyotaka blinked. He nudged Taeko. “What's a simp?”

Taeko choked on a laugh. “You.”

“M-Me?”

“Yes, for accessory.”

Oh, it was some kid lingo for pining, then.

The Judge, staring down at the witnesses, tentatively rapped his gavel. “I guess that about sums it up, then. Miss Ruruka obviously didn't kill the victim, so that leaves Miss Kimura's assertion that the defendant was the murderer all along.”

Kiyotaka stared blankly up at the Judge. “Your Honor, may I please cross-examine our other witness before we take Seiko's beliefs at face value?”

“YES,” broke in Togami, voice frantically high-pitched. He smacked his palms flat against his desk. Another threatening wobble from the Jenga tower of death ensued. “Please. The prosecution summons Miss Ruruka Ando to the witness stand.”

The Judge blinked. “Oh, sure! But don't you want to have your favorite witness testify some more, Prosecutor Togami?”

Togami—Prosecutor Togami—the illustrious winner of more trials than Kiyotaka could name—cringed.

Seiko trained her eyes onto the ground and said firmly, “I have nothing else to say. I told you what I saw already.”

Miaya hugged her closer. She must have had no idea what was going on, but through the sensation of her girlfriend's turmoil, simply continued to stay and support her.

Dutifully, Kiyotaka added Seiko's testimony to the court record.

Whether or not she'd actually witnessed the murder, he appreciated her brevity. She told them exactly what she wanted them to hear and politely took her leave.

Before she left with Miaya, she turned to Taeko and slowly raised her hand, palm up, to her chin. She touched her chin with her fingertips before lowering her hand to Kiyotaka's assistant.

Taeko started, flushed. “O-Oh, um...” She repeated the gesture twice in return, then blew out a sigh as the girls exited the courtroom. “I guess that means we are not on bad terms...”

“What was that?” Kiyotaka asked.

“She said thank you. So I, um, I said you're welcome.”

Kiyotaka stared after the blank space Seiko had left behind.


Without Seiko to absorb half the court's attention, Ruruka sweated under the watchful gallery's great eye. Hands wobbling, she brought out one last platter of assorted candies—macaroons, chocolates, cake pops, inexplicable balls of color that were coated in glitter and Oreo crumbs and sprinkles. Kiyotaka's teeth ached just looking at them.

“A-Anyone want some?” she squeaked.

Before Mondo could reach out and grab any, Kiyotaka snatched his wrist. “Don't,” he hissed, “if you meant what you said about trusting me, don't.”

Pouting, Mondo broke Kiyotaka's grip on his wrist to take his hand. “Fine. But I'm hungry.”

“We always eat after the trial!” Kiyotaka squeaked. “You know that!”

“We do?” Taeko gasped. “Can I choose where we eat?”

“Sure,” Kiyotaka said in the same breath Mondo growled, “But I wanna go back to the cat café.”

Taeko's entire face lit up. “Cat café..?”

“Great. We're in agreement,” Kiyotaka snapped. “Now no more candy, Mondo!”

Lacking any takers—other than the Judge, who requested a couple—Ruruka reluctantly hefted her tray and handed the rest of her goodies over to the defendant. “Here, Yoi. I made your favorites! You can have the rest!”

“Oh, uh. Thanks, babe.” Izayoi poked one glittery ball of flavor with a finger. It appeared his voracious appetite for Ruruka's candy that morning had all but evaporated. “Um... these don't, like, actually brainwash people, right?”

“Wh-What? Why would you s-s-say that? Of c-course not! Seiko was just being mean, like she a-a-always is!” Ruruka's smile hitched up her face, borderline hysteric.

“Yeah. That'd be crazy...” he chuckled, voice weak, then pointedly set the candies aside. “I'm, um, not hungry right now. Probably because of being accused of murdering Miss Chisa and all. I'll eat them... later.”

“Oh,” Ruruka said, visibly deflating. “U-Um, okay. But maybe you'll feel better if you eat them right now?”

Izayoi bit his lip. “I'm okay, Ruru. Like I said, maybe later.”

His eyes had taken an odd, nervous edge. He couldn't meet his girlfriend's doting gaze and instead stared at his attorney, his face ashen.

Kiyotaka winced. Izayoi had been so devoted to his girlfriend that he hadn't bothered to consider if the kid knew the secret of her candy.

Ruruka took her time as she made her way back to the witness stand. She all but sank into its surface. Her trembling had increased tenfold.As Togami opened his mouth, she cried, “I-I'm not sure I should actually be here, I think..! I'm, um, I have nothing to do with this case, and all! Like, it wasn't even my teacher who died!”

Togami stared at her, mouth agape. From over her head, he met Kiyotaka's eyes, brows raised. Kiyotaka stared back, and, appalled, watched as the prosecutor banged his fist into the back wall. “We will be the ones to decide whether you were or were not integral to this trial. Now, witness, testify about your experience of the day of the murder. Did you see it? Did you see anything suspicious just before or after it occurred?”

Ruruka, huddling into the witness stand, gave a surprisingly valiant nod. She put on the bravest face she could muster, eyes crinkling at the edges, and opened her mouth.

Testify: “I Wasn't Even a Witness!”

“S-So sorry to be of no help here, but I don't actually remember anything about yesterday.

“I was just so freaked out when I learned that Miss Chisa was killed! My memories, they're all, like, spotty!

“But of course I wasn't at the crime scene! I-I'd remember that!”

Frantically she snapped her lips shut and stared in terror at the defense.

The Judge signaled to Kiyotaka. “But go easy on her, will you?” he asked. “As she said, she had nothing to do with the crime!”

“Yeah, Taka,” Mondo added. “She had nothing to do with it. For some reason.”

Kiyotaka blew out a long breath. Right.

“OBJECTION!” he cried, fisting his court record. “Ruruka, the very scarf you're wearing gives away the truth!”

“Wh-What?” she squealed. Her hands clutched at her pink ruff, digging into its fabric.

“That ruff... It was white yesterday.”

“S-So? I have multiple! You don't know anything about my wardrobe!”

Kiyotaka nodded assent. “So you do. But the one you wore yesterday had an odd detail to it that reminds me of this one.”

Ruruka stared at him, eyes giant snowglobes. Frigid tension crackled through them.

“Yesterday, when I first met you, I noticed that a speck of blood adorned your scarf. Now, I don't know if this scarf was turned pink by the wash when you tried to get it out, or if it's already been disposed of, but—”

“NOOOO!” she screeched. “NO, NO NO! THAT'S NOT TRUE! THIS ISN'T THE SAME SCARF!”

Her hand happened to cover the very spot that Kiyotaka recalled first noticing the bloodstain. In fact, in the moments her hand approached the spot, he swore he saw a slightly deeper pink stain along the scarf.

...she was making his job quite easy.

“Ruruka, please remove your hand from your scarf,” he said.

“TH-THAT'S NOT LEGAL! YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”

“Um,” the Judge interceded, “while that's true, dear, it looks doubly suspicious if you try to cover it up like so. I hate to admit it to you, but—”

“Show us, witness,” snapped Togami. “Don't think you can try to obscure evidence from us.”

Kiyotaka's heart pummeled. Togami... helping him?

Whining and stomping in place, Ruruka dropped her hands and folded them in front of her. There in fact remained the faint imprint of the bloodstain over her now-pink ruff. Why Ruruka had thought it would be a good idea to wear key evidence that indicted her as a witness—if not worse—to the trial was an incredible mystery.

Mondo asked for him. “Uhhh, Ruru, why the hell'd you wear that today?”

Ruruka blushed. “Because I thought I did a pretty good job dyeing it pink... I thought it looked really good in pink, so I had to wear it today...”

She... She really didn't have to, though...

Togami cleared his throat. His telltale sneer resurfaced. “Witness, would you testify about what you saw when you witnessed the murder of Chisa Yukizome? As you so aptly put it, you said yourself that you would, in fact, recall if you had seen the crime occur.”

“O-Oh! Um! S-S-Sure!” Ruruka shakily placed her hands at the witness stand and fashioned a wobbly smile at the gallery. “Let's d-do that now!”

Testify: “I Saw the Murder, But Not Very Well!”

“You see, it was obscured! By, um, by the balloons!

“I'd given Mr. Munakata, Mr. Juzo, and Miss Chisa some balloons earlier! And I was holding so many that, plus their balloons, I could barely see them at all!

So, um, so sorry, but I guess that means I don't remember the crime scene whatsoever!”

...how many testimonies could she conjure about missing the events of the actual murder?

Kiyotaka opened his mouth to Press the witness—and hopefully, finally crack her—when a booming “OBJECTION” resounded from the opposite end of the room.

Prosecutor Togami plucked a singular piece of evidence from his desk—the petal-yellow remains of a rubber balloon, speckled with red stains that had to be blood. “I'm sorry to steal your precious cross-examination, Ishimaru, but I would like to save a little time.”

Ruruka froze as her gaze settled upon the balloon.

“Witness, surely you would also recognize this balloon, then? This balloon, curiously popped, that I found pinned to the victim's neck by the murder weapon?”

Ruruka opened and closed her mouth.

Togami straightened. His usual swagger was returning. “Surely, once this balloon was popped, the murder would not have been obscured at all for you, would it have been? So surely you watched as the knife entered the victim's skull? Wouldn't you, standing close enough to have been flecked by droplets of the victim's blood, have had a perfect view of the one who threw the knife?”

“U-U-U-U-Uhhhh...” Her quavering hands tightened at the witness stand. “N-N-No! I wasn't looking! I was looking at the ground!”

“Why the hell were you looking at the ground?” Togami sneered.

“Because, um, because... because... because I saw a penny!”

A sudden ferocious POP slammed through the courtroom. Kiyotaka froze—Mondo wrapped an arm around him, another around Taeko—Taeko shrieked, cowering half-behind Kiyotaka.

Togami had conjured a second yellow balloon, and, plucking the bloodied knife from his pile of evidence, casually pricked the balloon with the blade's edge.

“Well, would you look at that,” he stated, meeting Ruruka's widened gaze. “You aren't looking at the ground now, are you? You can't tell me that a noise that loud didn't gather your attention.”

Ruruka's mouth fell open, the tears spilling down her cheeks.

“Now would you please testify about what you saw during the crime?”

The witness bowed her head.

Testify: “How Miss Chisa Met Her Demise”

“O-Okay, you're right... I saw Miss Chisa die. As soon as that b-b-balloon popped”—Ruruka seized into a fearful shudder as she recalled it—“I saw her face... covered in blood!

“But I don't kn-know how the blood got there if she was stabbed from behind... a-and I didn't even see the knife go through!

“She was turned toward me! I didn't see the knife so maybe it wasn't actually there!

“M-Miss Chisa just collapsed on her own, that's all! The knife came in like an afterthought!”

Shivering into herself, Ruruka's head fell to her hands.

Kiyotaka's heart twinged. Whether or not she'd bungled her testimony once again to salvage herself, or her boyfriend, or she truly couldn't remember clearly due to her own rampant terror, she now had an entire courtroom skeptical of her and unwilling to trust her.

He shook his head. With the Judge's cue, he returned to Ruruka. He couldn't yet see what hinges of her testimony were busted this time, so it was time to Press once more.

“HOLD IT!” His voice had taken on a new husky grit from the numerous times he'd raised his voice in this one trial. “You said her face was covered in blood. Can you tell me why you think this is so?”

Ruruka's wide fish-bowl-sized eyes met his. “N-N-No.”

He peered at the witness. “Are you telling me the truth, Ruruka? Can you remember a single scrap of—a wound, a cause—that might have coated your teacher's face in blood?”

“NO!” she screamed in return. “No, I c-can't! B-But it was going down her cheeks like tears...”

He didn't think he could get anymore information out of that statement and shuddered to himself. Like tears... shook his head. Moved to another statement. “How are you certain that your teacher collapsed before the knife entered the back of her head if you just testified that you weren't looking at the back of her head?”

Ruruka stared at him, her face blank.

“Please, Ruruka. We need to know—to protect you and Yoi.”

He didn't notice until now that he'd forcibly lowered his voice in some attempt to comfort her. Taeko muttered, “You're too soft. She deserves to be yelled at. Little bitch.”

Kiyotaka glared back and elbowed his sassy companion.

Slowly Ruruka came to a conclusion. “I didn't s-see the knife. When I looked up at Miss Chisa, th-the balloon hadn't been popped yet.”

Togami sighed and snapped his fingers. “OBJECTION. You just testified that you were staring at the ground until you heard the balloon pop.”

“Th-The balloon popped on its own!”

Togami sneered at the witness. “That makes no sense when factored in with your prior testimony, witness.”

“YOI DIDN'T DO IT!” she screeched. “HE DIDN'T HURT ANYBODY! N-NOBODY KILLED HER! SHE JUST... NO, WAIT, IT WAS SEIKO! SEIKO DID IT!”

Kiyotaka blinked, astounded, as the courtroom unleashed into a battleground between the smarmy prosecution—a new serious edge darkening his features—and the terrified witness.

If Ruruka was so insistent that Izayoi hadn't done it... then what happened..? He let the screaming match become a backdrop for his thoughts.

They'd already declared that the murderer—whomever it was—couldn't have thrown the knife from the booth, due to all the people in the way. But it couldn't have been in the crowd, either, as not only would more people have witnessed the knife being thrown, but it would have been so much easier to hit the wrong person or at least have nicked somebody from afar. And the closer the murderer drew to the victim, the more impossible their stance became.

So where could they have stood that would have retained a similar distance as from the booth..?

Kiyotaka envisioned that booth across from where the victim had taken her last breaths. He'd never looked into it far enough to see its hosted games, but he recalled giant stuffed animals nailed to the ceiling and Ruruka peeking out from within.

He ruled out Ruruka. Her hands shook far too much—she lacked precision.

But where could a murderer have been located, if the booth itself...

Kiyotaka let his mind rove higher, and he froze when he noticed the top of the booth.

“THE ROOF!” he cried, and even Togami ceased his bickering to gape at the defense.

Mondo, who'd lost all ability to reason, stared at him. Taeko gasped, hands clapping over her cheeks. “WAIT! THE ROOF! I SHOULD HAVE THOUGHT OF THAT!” She whined, jumping in place. “What a good place to commit a murder..!”

Taeko's questionable assertion aside, Kiyotaka turned to face the witness. “RURUKA! If you were facing the victim at her time of death, then surely you had a good view of the opposite booth's roof. Who was sitting on the roof? Who had a perfect view of your boyfriend's teacher and took a chance shot directly at her head?”

...or at the balloon beside her head, the blade so sharp it cut through and sung straight into her skull?

Ruruka stilled. “U-Um, let me try to remember... um... it was... w-well, they had the Academy uniform, heh, th-that's for sure... but do I...”

She trailed off, staring at the floor.

Togami opened his mouth to fire back when another voice erupted, shattering the courtroom's eerie silence—

“IT WAS ME.”

The red-hoodied Izayoi had stood up from his chair and now faced the defense. His cheeks had lost all color, his gaze unfocused. “I... I-I killed her. Oh my god. I killed her...”

“I-Izayoi?” squeaked Kiyotaka. “What are you—”

Izayoi cut through his attorney's split-second pause. “I didn't wanna deal with the crowds and stuff, so I sat on the roof. I... I couldn't really see any of the games, though. Ruru said...” A new horror widened his already-white face as he took in his girlfriend. “Ruru said she'd move some balloons outside for me. So I could participate in a game, too. And I already had my knife, a-and I'm a pretty good aim, so I didn't think I'd need any of the darts they give you, o-or whatever...

“Ruru... Ruru, why did you give Miss Chisa the balloon..? Why did you have her hold it behind her like that s-so I wouldn't notice when I... when I... when...”

The dagger he'd procured now fell from his hands and snapped into pieces as it struck the marbled floor.

“You gave her that candy, Ruru. D-Didn't you? You gave her the balloon and told her to hold it behind her back. Mr. Juzo didn't eat any, and I remember s-seeing his face. And Mr. Munakata, too, he didn't hold his balloon behind, like... he...”

Choked up, Izayoi slumped back into his chair. He buried his face in his arms, his breaths hot, jagged.

“WHY?!” His voice, while muffled, still came through. “WHY WOULD YOU MAKE ME KILL HER..? SHE'S THE ONLY GOOD TEACHER I EVER HAD, RURU...H-HER AND MR. MUNAKATA...”

Resounding footsteps flashed down the stairs and in rushed pristine, angelic Munakata. He shadowed over his apprentice and gently laid a hand over his back. The shock was mirrored in his eyes, but he whispered something to the boy, and the boy sobbed.

Ruruka stared after them. She giggled weakly, said, “You c-can't prove that, Yoi. And you... y-y-you said you wouldn't tell anyone what I told you..! You said you'd keep what I did for you a secret..! H-How could you tell all these people..!”

Izayoi's head popped up from his sleeved barricade to gaze through tears at the glassy-eyed girl he'd spent months dating. “Ruruka, I'm going to fucking die for killing someone I liked. And it's all your fault. You think I fucking care if the entire world found out your secrets, let alone one measly courthouse?”

The hurt first downturned her brows, then smothered her mouth. “YOI! N-NO IT'S..!” Exhaling frantically, she squeaked, “You seem so stressed! H-Here, I left those candies out for you—eat one and calm—”

Her voice was drowned out by the shattering of glass as Izayoi knocked the entire platter of sweets to the floor.

Mondo's mouth fell open. “God damn.”

Taeko's eyes jumped between the teens. “This is kind of exciting.”

Kiyotaka blew out a breath.

His eyes dove to his evidence.

...was that it? Izayoi... Izayoi had—

No. No, that wasn't it at all.

The Judge, in his stupor, grabbed his gavel and said, “I suppose that calls the end of—”

“OBJECTION!”

All eyes turned on him. Pained, paternal Munakata. Quietly crying Izayoi. White-faced Ruruka. Curious, brow-raised Togami. His eye seemed to follow him, as if to say, go on.

Kiyotaka carefully unwrapped his crimson handkerchief.

“I still have evidence that places Izayoi's position as the murderer of Ms. Yukizome into question.”

The relief broke across Munakata's face. Izayoi froze, sniffling, the confusion wrecking like a tsunami across his wet, bleary eyes.

As he plucked the miniature dagger, he heard another voice come after his to say, “I, as well, have procured evidence that proves the same.”

Togami. Togami?!

Kiyotaka stared agape after the prosecutor as he provided the same tiny weapon from his own side, safely secured in a ziploc bag. “A blade so small it is hardly larger than a fingernail. This weapon, albeit tiny, appeared to be instrumental in the death of Ms. Yukizome. With the detective asleep, I ran my own autopsy of the victim, and located this in her stomach.”

Raising his copy, Kiyotaka said, “I found this one in her throat.”

“Now how could that be?” posed Togami, his gaze dragging across the courthouse, daring the gallery, the Judge, and the witnesses alike to reason with him. “Such tiny, tiny weapons. How could they have been embedded in the victim? Well, I thought it rather odd that the one I'd found had wound up in her stomach, of all places.

“I hate to be so vulgar, but I must in my pursuit of the victim's true cause of death. I had the contents of her stomach examined in order to see how this weapon had found its way there, and I saw, to my surprise, naught but three pieces of hand-made chocolate.”

Kiyotaka was rendered speechless. It couldn't... It couldn't be that...

His head snapped to Ruruka. She didn't seem to realize, at first, what the prosecution had posited, until she felt the courthouse turn in one snarling motion to her. Then she screamed.

“IT WASN'T ME! IT COULDN'T HAVE BEEN ME! IT... IT WAS... IT...” Her gaze shot through her boyfriend. “YOI! YOI KILLED HER!”

Izayoi drew a sleeve across his face, catching the worst of his tears. He stood up straight, leaning into Munakata's support, and said, “I wonder how long you've had me under your control, Ruru. Was it ever since I first ate your candy? Is that when we started dating—when you got me addicted to your chocolates?

“Were you always planning this, Ruru?” She gazed at him, as if under a spell, unable to cut off her boyfriend's voice. “Were you always planning on using me as a prop for your murder? Or did you keep me around because you just wanted to have a boyfriend without all the hard work of getting to know him first? You just wanted someone with a face you liked who...”

He cut himself off, then hissed, “You just wanted easy access to my weaponry! That's right—You asked me to make those tiny blades for you! What the fuck, Ruruka! Y-You... You...” His breaths grew rapid. “You make me sick!”

“H-How could you say that?” she sobbed back, “I love you!”

“And you think I fucking feel the same?” He broke into a dark chuckle. “After you forced me to help your little fucked up murder plot? After it turns out—without any of your narcotics in my system—I don't remember a thing about you? What the fuck, Ruru? Why'd you wanna kill my teacher? What the hell did Miss Chisa ever do to anyone? Who... Who are you..?”

“She... She... She...”

Ruruka's head collapsed into her hands.

“SHE WAS GETTING IN THE WAY!”

Taeko covered her face with her sleeves. Mondo, it appeared, had finally recovered from the narcotics himself, because he stared now with his usual confusion rather than his obstinate Ruruka-didn't-do-it confusion.

Even Togami appeared taken aback.

With nobody to talk over her, Ruruka stood up straight and sneered at her teacher. “Miss Chisa w-was getting in between you and me, Yoi. Sh-She's a beautiful woman, and you kept spending after hours with her, and... and I couldn't have that c-come between us!”

“Ruruka... what the fuck.” Izayoi supported his head with a hand. “I needed tutoring. Miss Chisa insisted on having us follow a regular high school curriculum in addition to our talents, and I fucking hate math! And English! And... goddammit, all of it! I haven't gone to a regular school in years. My dad doesn't know how to help me out, so I've been, I...”

He cowered against Munakata, who stared in disgust after Ruruka.

Izayoi mumbled, “I'm an idiot, okay? I'm bad at this shit. I don't know how to function when I'm not making weapons, but I'm... I'm trying! Unlike you—you just keep brainwashing Mr. Munakata into thinking you did his assignments."

(Munakata blanched. "She has..?")

“What the hell is wrong with you, Ruru?”

Ruruka collapsed against the witness stand.

Kiyotaka had gone cold, the sweat sticking to his body in sheets. Gently pushing Taeko out of the way, Mondo brushed against his partner to hiss, “Straights, am I right?”

“Mondo... right now?” Kiyotaka whispered back.

Mondo shrugged. “They're all lunatics.”

“I agree,” Taeko popped in. “It appears that Miss Ruruka here follows a strange case of heteronormativity, in which she sees another woman spending time with her boyfriend and handles it so badly that she decides to kill the woman to keep her boyfriend, ehm, untainted. How odd! How ludicrous! How heterosexual!”

Kiyotaka hid his head in his hands. He hated his partners.

Faintly he heard Izayoi still questioning Ruruka through the pounding in his skull. “Then why drag me into this? If you love me?”

“S-So you can go to juvie... and come back broken, and I can fix you... and it was gonna be r-r-r-really romantic, like in the books I read...”

The hard clap of Togami's hand hitting wood shattered their voices.

It was followed by a shriek of metal—and Kiyotaka's eyes sprung open. Togami rushed aside as his tower, finally knocked askew, imploded.

He hurriedly took his place at the very edge of his desk and cleared his throat, reclaiming the court's attention. He had somehow survived the encounter unscathed, save for a nasty scratch across his cheek.

“Your Honor, by my calculations, I still am unsure as to whether the victim died from the blades in her stomach or the one in her skull.” He spent nary a second searching for the bloody knife in his heap of weaponry before abruptly giving up. “As we all know, Japanifornia's legal system cares most about who actually struck the killing blow, so I fear we shall require one more day to investigate the crime before I can tell without a doubt whether the defendant truly was the cause—or if his weapon struck a dead body.”

“My oh my..!” The Judge marveled at the scene before him. “I suppose you're correct, Mr. Togami! We really can't tell which of these two killed their teacher, can we? Well... while we yet lack conclusive evidence that the defendant wasn't the killer, we will keep him under custody.”

Togami sneered, adding, “We should also keep Ando under custody. She is far too dangerous to let roam free.”

“Oh! Yes, I suppose so. They will each remain under custody. You got that, Bill Bailiff?”

Bill Bailiff, not actually a bailiff, dutifully nodded all the same.

“Court is adjourned for today. I put out these remaining questions to the defense and prosecution teams. Think of it like homework!”

“I hate homework,” Mondo muttered.

“Did you even do yours?” Kiyotaka asked.

Mondo rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Chi made me. I would've flunked out of the ninth grade my first chance if she hadn't been there.”

Chi... the one who made Mondo soften without even realizing.

Now wasn't the time to ask—but even here he saw his friend hover over the name, like his tongue still tasted it.

They settled down as the Judge finished thinking up his questions. “Who is the true killer of Ms. Yukizome? Did either of these two schoolchildren commit it? And what other evidence remains unresolved concerning this case? We'd do best to wrap those up, too.”

Kiyotaka found himself staring, once more, at the strange black shard Kirigiri had given him. He still didn't know what it belonged to, nor why Kirigiri had felt it so important to the case.

And—Hey! Togami never presented Yukizome's purse! He still didn't know what was in it! That... smarmy..!


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Taeko incorporated her incredible powers of persuasion to drag the prosecutor into their lunch break.

“Sir Prosecutor? We are all going to lunch now. I think I heard that Sir Secretary Makoto was also planning to meet us where we are going, so you should come with us!”

The fool, he didn't even think to text Makoto and see.

By the time they'd sequestered themselves a booth at RYOMEOW's, Togami came to realize the error of his ways and stood awkwardly by the entrance. Kiyotaka was delegated to get up and ask the prosecutor to join them.

Reluctantly—and without looking anywhere near his face—Togami bowed his head and mumbled assent.

Of course, nobody wanted to be the one to sit right next to the prosecutor, so all three of them squished into one booth seat. Kiyotaka was practically in Mondo's lap, and he really didn't want to consider the implications of that right now.

As they waited in an anxious silence for their food, Kiyotaka sighed and spoke up. “Thank you, Togami, for your assistance today. Without the autopsy you'd conducted... I don't think we could've proven there was a second potential murderer.”

“Ah, that was... you see, that is...” Togami tucked one stray strand of hair behind his ear. “I simply was following my own pursuit of the truth. It would have been—well—blasphemous to continually assert the defendant was the murderer when other indicting evidence had cropped up, that being the chocolates.”

Taeko gave the prosecutor a long, hard look. Togami all but squirmed.

Mondo was half-listening as he attempted to pet a cat that had hidden itself underneath the table.

“If possible,” Kiyotaka continued, shooting Taeko a warning glance, “I wanted to see if you would now be willing to share any of your evidence with us that had yet to be covered in court. I only have one piece, myself, but—I'll share it first.”

He drew out a breath, then pulled out the black shard. “Here,” he said, voice low. “I don't know what it goes to, but it looks to be important.”

Togami blinked. “No, it doesn't. How is that important? It doesn't look like anything.”

...he had to tell him.

“Because Detective Kirigiri herself told me.”

The punch of surprise at Kirigiri's name was all but drowned out by the oncoming sneer. “She told... you.”

“Yes.” Kiyotaka winced.

“And not me.”

“Th-That's right.”

“Do you realize how suspicious you sound? Kyoko isn't even on this case. She has no reason to—”

“I know,” Kiyotaka said tersely, “but she did tell me. And why would I show you a random piece of evidence if I didn't think it was important? The problem is that I still can't figure it out...”

Togami bit his lip. His gaze roved between the defense and his two assistants, painfully aware of his own lack of partners in this trial.

Then with a crashing sigh he smacked the purse onto the table. “Fine,” he muttered, and began leafing through it, pulling out Izayoi's two swords, a wallet—with Yukizome's photo peeking through the plastic top cover—a phone, and what appeared to be half of a tablet.

Togami aligned the tablet to Kiyotaka's shard and blinked in surprise when the shard snapped into place, completing the torn-off corner of the broken tablet. However, a great chunk of the screen was still missing.

A tablet...

“There must be—”

“I know.” Togami cut off the attorney. “There must be key evidence on this strange, piecemeal thing. But this tablet is still missing at least one other fragment, and I doubt it would turn on if we even snapped the rest of it together. This... machinery is...” He drew off, peering into the cracks where the rest of the tablet had gone missing.

Then he held it out to Kiyotaka. He took it carefully, his fingers hardly feeling the evidence that Prosecutor Togami himself had just handed to him of his own volition. While the screen remained dead, he couldn't help but peek at the metalwork within—and the tablet had been torn beyond recognition.

They couldn't fix it... could they..? Certainly not in time for tomorrow. And Kiyotaka didn't happen to know any mechanics or coding geniuses offhand. As far as he knew, none of the Academy students were skilled in that regard either.

“Prosecutor Togami, could I... um...” Shoot. He bit his lip. “I've been investigating with some of the Academy students. Would you mind if I borrowed this to see if any of them know anything about it?”

He awaited his snappy refusal, and stilled as Togami considered it.

“You may borrow it, so long as you report to me with whatever you learn from it, and return it to me by the end of today.”

...what was happening?!

Prosecutor Togami... allowing him to borrow evidence? Showing him evidence at all? Helping him in the trial today? This couldn't be the same man from Taeko's trial.

Kiyotaka squeaked out a thanks and folded an extra napkin around the tablet. He stored the evidence in one of his suit's meticulously large pockets. Taeko had even kitted out their clothes to be able to store evidence more easily. How thoughtful of her. The golden glitter was really starting to get on his nerves, though.

With that little evidence share out of the way, they evidently had little else to talk about. An awkward silence befell the group as they waited for Mr. Ryoma to fry all the extra pancakes Mondo had ordered, as well as Taeko's ridiculously modified crepe. She'd practically made up her own item from the menu's offerings.

He was surprised to hear Togami speak up first. “So... uh... why did you become a defense attorney? I don't usually... see types like you.”

“Putting it simply, to end the corruption of the court of law. My...” Kiyotaka sighed. “My grandfather was once prime minister of—”

“Ah. That's why I recognized your surname,” Togami said. “To think I'd come to face the notoriously powerful Toranosuke Ishimaru's grandson...” He blinked, resting his chin on a fist. “There is a resemblance, albeit slight.”

Kiyotaka looked away. He didn't know how to say that he was trying to pretend the resemblance wasn't there. “Yes—Well—I'm trying to undo the damage he caused to my family name, as well as to Japanifornia.”

“A lofty goal,” Togami hummed. “I am surprised to see that you're already on your way to completing it.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but blush. Praise... from Togami?

“What? I am simply acknowledging your prowess. Not only did you prove myself and Kyoko wrong in the last trial, you're also making great strides in this one. I worried you would have taken the whole stage yourself had I not interjected in what moments I'd stolen from you.” Togami's chuckle was quiet, muted, stilted. But laughter it still was. “I worry I have grown complacent...”

“S-Surely not! Without your objections in court today, we may not have made it as far as we had.”

“I don't know about that,” Togami murmured. “You seemed fully capable on your own.”

...he didn't know what to say.

“What... What made you want to prosecute, Togami?” he finally asked. “Is it just because of your family name?”

Only an ignorant fool of an attorney would go into law without having heard of the Togami empire. A Togami had ruled in the courthouse for generations that went so far back Kiyotaka wasn't sure where it ended—with minstrels, hundreds of years ago, who had overseen the kings and queens of old...

Togami sniffed. “I'll have you know I fought tooth and nail for this position. Out of dozens of us—bastard children and legitimate heirs alike—I am the one who succeeded. We all had access to the same renowned scholars, tutors and the unending library at my father's mansion, and every single heir aside from myself was disgraced and disowned after my ascendance.”

...so it hadn't just been handed to him. Kiyotaka was surprised to find a newfound respect for the prosecutor bubbling within him.

Mondo broke in, curiosity piqued, or perhaps having given up on the cat, to say, “You were one of the bastard kids, weren't you?”

“What? How dare—”

“It's like a vibe. I can feel it. You had nothing to lose and everything to gain. You were desperate.” Mondo tittered. “I see so many kids like you in the gutter.”

Togami's mouth fell open. “With a... single glance... you can tell?”

“Ehh. Call it a gift, call it a weird curse from living as one of 'em.” Mondo shrugged. “You've come a hell of a long way.”

“I still have so far to go.” Togami glanced away. “My father has stepped down, but I have yet to retake his position as the prime minister's right hand prosecutor. I... was reluctant to start at such a high position—and my hesitance cost me the job.” His gaze glittered with—relief. He released a long breath. “And so I found myself in this unremarkable city, working at a less-than-stellar prosecutor's firm with a frustrating detective barely out of high school and her ridiculous sidekick who only took the job as my secretary because nobody else had applied and he wanted to work in the same firm as his girlfriend.

“I had made the fault of asking him to dinner before realizing he was already, in fact, seeing somebody else.”

“How couldn't you tell?” Kiyotaka blurted, too curious not to ask.

“They...” Togami flushed. “They don't hold hands! They don't kiss, they don't—nothing! They hardly interact in the workplace! Kyoko prefers to keep her distance—so how was I supposed to tell that they were seeing one another?”

Ah. That seemed in line with Kirigiri.

The memories clouded his features now, softened the hard-edged Togami. “But Makoto couldn't seem to forget me, that kindhearted man. He... worked out some sort of deal with his girlfriend and said if I... if I wanted, I...

“And now I don't know if I still want the coveted position as the greatest prosecutor in this country. Working with the prime minister, I... I won't see them as much. I'd have nary a day off to spend with them. I...”

Togami had undergone a transformation. As he dreamed of Makoto—his life shared with Makoto and Kirigiri—he no longer was the sullen, stilted, scoffing prosecutor. He was boy charmed by hope and happiness and a life he never thought he deserved to experience.

What broke their reveries was the delivery of their food. The trial's taxing events had left them all utterly drained, and there was no room for more conversation between frantic bites of cakes, pastries, and the odd salad Togami had ordered.

Mr. Ryoma, the polite (and bored) owner, waited for an opportunity to pester Kiyotaka. “What trial has you up and at 'em now?” He gestured to Kiyotaka's glittering suit, and curiously indicated Mondo's similarly shiny outfit.

Kiyotaka drew out a long breath and whispered, “I've told you about Taeko, right? Well—She thought this would be a great idea.” He leaned back, adding, “Currently we're investigating a murder at the pop-up carnival down the highway.”

“At a carnival? One of the carnies finally snap?”

Mondo snorted. “Nah, currently we got two high-schoolers in custody cuz it looks equally plausible that they killed their teacher.”

Ryoma gaped at him.

“You're kidding.”

“I wish,” Kiyotaka said, sighing at the ceiling. “So we're trying to figure out who murdered her.”

“And I should get back to that.” Togami pushed out of the way, looking about ready to get up and leave and pretend none of this had ever happened.

Kiyotaka had no idea what he was doing until he found himself stumbling after the pompous prosecutor. “T-Togami, wait!”

Togami took another step before pausing, head tilted back just enough to catch the glint of cold glasses in the dim lighting of the café. Upon reaching Togami, he bowed his head, intaking a nervous breath.

“Thank you. I'm... not sure how this evidence will help us in the trial tomorrow, but somehow I have the feeling that it will show us something integral to the murder. So—Thank you again for your help, Prosecutor Togami.”

When he straightened, he half expected Togami to have already stepped out the door, and found himself blushing when the prosecutor trained his gaze upon him, scrutinizing him with a precision he'd never considered Kiyotaka by before.

Finally his lips parted, and he uttered, “Byakuya... is fine. A friend of Makoto's,” he hesitated, extended a hand, “is a friend of mine.”

The white noise in his brain was overwhelming.

He saw himself shaking Tog—Bya... the prosecutor's hand and did not feel it at all. Then so suddenly he was turning away and exiting the restaurant, and the slightest smile had quirked at his lip.

That did not just happen.

He shakily returned to his seat and collapsed at Mondo's side. “Did you see that?”

Mondo glanced between him and the empty space where he and Toga... the prosecutor had stood. “Nope. That wasn't real. Didn't fuckin' happen.”

“I am going to murder that man in his sleep,” Taeko added.

Kiyotaka had to think before he asked, “For what reason this time?”

“All of them, still,” she supplied. “Fuck him!”

“Weird to think he's got a heart under all that ice,” Mondo said, slumped into his last pancake. He had a very strange way of eating pancakes in that he attacked them from the middle and tended to eat around the edges. It was about the funniest thing Kiyotaka had seen all day.

Ryoma, still at their side, blinked. “Ah, I think he forgot to pay before his dramatic exit.”

Kiyotaka drew out a long sigh. “I'll cover it.”

As they were getting up and leaving, Taeko snuck up behind her attorney to whisper, “Why have you never taken me here before? Accessory acts like he has come to the café all the time! No fair!”

Kiyotaka didn't know how to respond to that one. It's not like he meant to exclude Taeko—he never could do that—but... with Mondo, he, well... they...

As his awkward silence lengthened, the awkwardness extrapolating, Taeko gasped, her face awash with understanding. “This is your secret date spot. This is where you go when you take the afternoon to work on cases with accessory!”

“K-Keep your voice down,” Kiyotaka hissed. Mondo was too focused on finishing the last couple fragments of Kiyotaka's sandwich to hear them, but that didn't mean Kiyotaka wasn't on extremely high alert.

“My apologies, Kiyotaka. I will not pester you for going out with accessory anymore. But, take me sometimes too. Or bring me food back. Maybe a cat or two as well.”

“These cats are Mr. Ryoma's,” Kiyotaka snapped.

“We can share,” Taeko said. “I will trade them out. Like a library, except with cats.”

“I'm pretty sure our apartment doesn't allow pets,” he returned.

“Why the hell do they have to know what I keep in my private quarters?”

“For legal reasons!”

Here, Mondo tuned back in. “What're we arguing about now?”

“Taeko wants to kidnap Mr. Ryoma's cats!” Kiyotaka shouted.

Not kidnap!” she corrected, seething. “Just borrow them for undisclosed periods of time!”

Kiyotaka felt the familiar stab of Mr. Ryoma's eyes rolling over them.

Mondo glared at the sixteen-year-old menace. “Taeko, how can you say that?” His disappointment built up like a great shadowy thunderstorm until he broke with a booming voice—“Are you just gonna forget about Midnight Fucker like that?”

It was impossible to keep a straight face with them sandwiched around him.

Not that he wanted to be a chief prosecutor, but he could understand how Byakuya felt. He wouldn't trade these two for the world.


“NOT SO FAST!”

Upon their hasty return to the crime scene, Kiyotaka was already being picked out by one of the strange witnesses of their case.

“Can I borrow the defense attorney for a quick minute?”

Mondo's hand crested over his shoulder. “Just him?” Kiyotaka's cheeks pinked.

It was none other than Detective Shi-Long Lang who vied for the attorney's attention. Plopping his hands into his suit's pockets, Lang gave this look that passed between dopey and nervous. “Uh, yeah? Is that fine? I just wanted to show him something I found.”

“And you can't do that without anyone else being present?”

Lang made a nervous chuckle. “No? Like, legally, no.”

Taeko glanced between the detective and Kiyotaka's accessory, as she so affectionately referred to him. “Could you show me instead?” She—Oh—She was trying to get them alone again. How... kind(?) of her.

“Nah, I need Ishimaru,” he coolly returned. “Please? It'll be quick, I promise. Or, as quick as it can be.”

He was being awfully polite—head bowed, voice low, hands folded in front of him.

“If... it'll be quick, sure,” Kiyotaka said, stepping just that little bit ahead of Mondo. “I'll be right back, okay? This could be important.”

“Yeah, right,” Mondo muttered under his breath. Was he pouting? “Just... return quick.”

He turned back a moment to take Mondo's hands. “I will.”

This moment passed—where their breaths were shared and the warmth clasped in their hands so great he couldn't tell where his fingers ended and Mondo's began—and he—and he was so close, and the concern in his soft lilac eyes had overcome him.

Frantically he pulled himself away, shaking his head. This infatuation was going to kill him.

“Worry not, Kiyotaka,” he heard at his back, “for I shall watch over accessory while you are gone!”

He couldn't help but smile as he followed after Detective Lang, but quickly he lost himself in the sprawling mini-village of tents and questionable carny behavior. Lang took him through the booming carnival, its coffers glutted after the first day of the trial by curious on-lookers vying for a glimpse of where the murder occurred.

They halted at the foot of the glistening Ferris Wheel, its metallic appendages gleaming in the hot afternoon sun like shooting stars in the daytime. Kiyotaka imagined that accidentally touching the beast while it slumbered in this heat would burn immensely.

Lucky for them, the line was short, likely due to the weather. Who wanted to sit in a big metal box and slowly wheel into the stuffy afternoon sky on a day like this? Lang, apparently. He herded Kiyotaka into the first open box and even paid their combined fare—how sweet of him.

Kiyotaka saw that the size limit was two people, which explained the legality of why Lang could only take one other person.

He sat gingerly on the plastic seat, wincing as the sweaty surface attempted to meld into his pants. He nervously folded his hands into his lap and waited as Lang dumped himself into the opposite seat.

Here he was, on the ride he'd been hoping to take with Mondo...

He cringed as the Ferris Wheel creaked to an eager start, slowly, slowly dragging upwards. He reached out—stopped himself last-second from snagging a blistering metal support beam, and sank into place. Why, again, did Taeko want him to drag Mondo onto this little death trap?

“Okay, okay,” Lang said, sitting up enough to peer through their window. “It's gonna—you'll see. See? It's like the greatest map.” He tried to get up and stumbled into Kiyotaka's side, jumping up and abruptly apologizing.

He was so polite?!

Kiyotaka shook the flush from his cheeks. “The greatest map?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lang caught his footing and carefully wobbled to the edge of the Ferris Wheel. Kiyotaka steeled himself for certain death and—to his great relief—saw that Lang's terrible attempt at unbalancing the Wheel had not sent them careening down on the fastest way to the ground.

“Yeah! Like—Look here.” Lang took one hand off the Wheel's support beam to point out below and beyond them, and—peering past the detective—Kiyotaka found himself breathless.

The little patchwork town of tents and booths shimmered before them under the sun's ruthless rays. He could make out the cordoned-off section of the carnival where Yukizome had met her end, and—to the left of her chalk line—he saw, on the roof of the opposing booth, some scuffed footprints.

Izayoi's. They had to be. There were even sword hilts in the grooves of his footsteps. He gaped in some squishy, frigid place between shock and horror at this blatant proof verifying what he had discovered that morning during the trial.

Lang pulled out his banged-up flip phone and snapped a photo of the area. Then he threw back his head to let out an enormous howl.

With his head thrown back, spiky hair framing his sharp, wolfish face, gaze bright with exhilaration, Kiyotaka was bothered to find Shi-Long Lang almost—kind of?—cute. He was a certified idiot and a poor detective, but his earnestness and his devotion to his little clan of furry employees was admirable, and this indescribable way he carried himself—a mix between man of power and unabashed fool—It was... It was just that little bit alluring.

But it shouldn't have been. It really shouldn't have been.

Lang slumped back into his chair when he was done and returned to his broken flip phone. “Hey, what's your number? Lemme send this picture to you. You can use it as, like, a map of the crime.”

“Sure—Um, here.” Kiyotaka read out his phone number, and Lang dutifully copied it down before texting him the photograph. The quality left a bit to be desired, as Lang's phone was, in fact, a dinosaur, but it held intact the most important props of the carnival. The Ferris Wheel peered over the entirety of it, as it loomed at the back of the scene, and from this vantage point, Kiyotaka could piece together all the clues he'd received thus far of the murder.

He saw where Izayoi and Seiko had butted heads—where Seiko had tried to warn him of... something. Ruruka? He'd have to ask her later, if she felt safe enough near him.

He saw the crime scene, or what remained of it, and the colorful attractions in between. He noticed, in particular, an odd conjuncture before the balloon pop booth, like a hidey-hole, and took note of it.

His heart shook. This could provide another hidden alley for evidence—or for the true murder weapon to reveal itself. He recalled the multiple testimonies that Yukizome's face had been coated in blood and wondered if a third knife had somehow come into play between Ruruka's deadly sweets and Izayoi's unfortunate balloon-popping incident.

As their feet returned to the ground, Kiyotaka bowed his head to Lang. “Thank you for this revelation. This... This actually helped a lot.”

Lang sort of side-eyed him in some poor attempt to cover his flushed cheeks. “Y-Yeah, no problem.” He forged distance between them quickly, but Kiyotaka still caught his muttered, “What is it about smart men that make me so... aiiiiiya...”

Kiyotaka reminded himself to delete that last part from his memories before rushing after his next lead, grabbing his discarded friends along the way.


They disappeared between the balloon-pop and bean bag toss booths. “It was this—like an alleyway,” he explained along the way, “that I couldn't have seen unless I was on the Ferris Wheel and purposely searching for a place that people would skip over. Right here.”

“This is weird as fuck,” Mondo hissed.

“I wish I found this place first,” Taeko said.

“Why? You tryna kill someone?” Mondo asked.

Taeko hummed. “Perhaps my opportunity will arise once we enter this mysterious hidey-hole..!”

“Taeko, you're freaking me the fuck out. Please don't plan a murder just because you can.” Mondo's voice hitched. “I'm not ready to die?”

She merely snickered and mimed striking Mondo with some invisible weapon.

Behind the booth proved to be, in fact, a strange little hidey-hole of sorts. A number of other booths' backs also faced off in this small clearing, allowing an eerie sort of privacy in the eye of the public parking lot. Someone had even gone out of their way to pitch up some tarps over the area, making a great humid pillow fort. A second one, out of blankets, slumped in the midst of this sweaty den, fit with a few stuffed animals and an entire video game system. What it hooked to was a great question—its extension cord was so long that Kiyotaka couldn't see where it snaked off to in the dimness.

As he glanced about, he noticed papers littering the earth and a scrawl of frantic handwriting, as well as bits and pieces of—evidence? A red string tied together certain pieces, and Kiyotaka had to watch his footing as to not trip.

From just behind him, he heard Mondo tearing off his jacket and tying it around his waist. He glanced back once and—flushed—turned away, having forgotten that Mondo had decided against wearing a shirt underneath his suit.

He didn't realize someone else was here, lurking in the great pillow fort's shadows, until he knocked over an item, and, cringing, moved his boot aside to check it. A balled up bit of paper, his boot print freshly affixed atop it.

When he accidentally stepped on his second piece of evidence—a swatch of fabric coated in blood—a great fisted hand snatched his. Kiyotaka was expertly pinned down and—his breath caught—he couldn't move—squirmed—no breaking this steel hold—

In a panic he struggled and failed to take his hands back—to break out, to—to—to escape this massive bulk that had crashed him onto the ground.

Couldn't.

He tried to cry out and a meaty hand plastered over his mouth, effectively cutting him off. In the split second his pursuer's grip shifted over his wrists, he snatched a hand back and grabbed—grabbed—the pendant pinned over his heart.

Fear had somehow dictated him to claim this rather than the multiple knives in his court record's repertoire. When he blinked the jade mindscape came resounding over him, the blankets and pillows and pieces of evidence glowing an ethereal green hue. In the split-second of his pursuer's instinctive shock, he tore himself out of their grip and swung his katana down at them.

He saw a mop of turquoise hair and a powerful brown-skinned frame, and—as the man looked up to face him—bright, liquid eyes.

...So this was where Sakakura had been hiding.

He had no time to question why. Even as he panted, holding out his katana, the man was on him, all bare fists and calloused hands. He moved with undeniable prowess, easily deflecting Kiyotaka's blade and disarming him in one fluid motion.

Kiyotaka scrambled after his weapon and snatched it back up, keeping it close to his side. He'd have to adjust his style yet again. None of these battles... none of them made any sense.

Shook himself. He was wary of Sakakura's strength. Perhaps he should question the teacher's disappearance after all. “Why are you here?”

Sakakura stared at him a long moment, his heavy hands quivering. “I... I don't remember.”

Didn't remember..?

“Where do your memories end?” he asked instead.

“I'm... trying to... I...” His head fell to his hands, and he let out a pained breath. “Kyosuke... I remember Kyosu—Chisa. Chisa died. Chisa died, and I said I was going to find the killer... and then I...”

Letting out a primal roar, Sakakura lunged, and Kiyotaka sprinted out of the way. Sweat was slick on his cheeks. His heart kept throwing itself at his ribcage. He—He—Somehow this was so much scarier than Kirigiri with a gun. At least he had an idea as to what she wanted to do with it.

With his back turned, he missed when Sakakura expertly redirected. Hands pummeled his back and he went down hard. Gripping his sword, he swung around as he fell, the grit and rocks from the ground tearing into his back.

Sakakura had caught the blade with his hand. Grunting, Kiyotaka fought with the handle, struggling to wrench it from the man's terrifying grip—but the harder he fought, the more pressure Sakakura put to it. Suddenly Kiyotaka weakened his hold on it, his breaths borderline panicked, and waited, and—Sakakura let down his guard—NOW—

He yanked it back and picked himself up, sprinting to forge distance between them. Between rasping breaths, he asked, “What do you remember after that? Anything at all could be”—he gasped—“integral to Chisa's murder.”

His questions seemed to catch the wrestler off-guard. He paused, his fisted hands releasing, and took in great, heaving breaths. “No, it's—it's all s-slipping... fuck... I remember—rage—I remember, I remember Kyosuke's tears, the way he looked so... fragile, like he was going to splinter into millions of pieces if I so much as touched him.

“I had to help him, but I couldn't... I couldn't get too close. Would he even cry if I had been the one to die..? D-Dammit, what the hell am I thinking? That doesn't matter—and yet...”

He'd rendered Sakakura almost senseless.

But he'd at least uncovered one clue: Munakata was the key to unlocking the rest of Sakakura's lost day.

He was about to end this, raising his katana to deal the finishing blow, when a strange light entered Sakakura's eyes, and his gaze glistened, and he uttered, “You understand. I can feel it.”

Kiyotaka's mouth fell open, the katana dropping from his hand.

He what?

“You're the same as me,” Sakakura continued, rendering Kiyotaka evermore bewildered. He fell onto his knees to search for his lost katana. It sort of blended in to the jade background. “You're too scared to tell him, too. You make up excuses. You postpone it. Because what if it makes everything... different? What if you lose what you already had, and then you can't even call him your friend anymore? These fears, they make me... they've made me do so many stupid things.

“Chisa said we should try and confess to him together—to let him choose for himself... but now she's lost her chance... it feels wrong to use mine... and I don't—I don't know how to act around him. What does he need, now that she's gone..? What can I possibly do to make up for her loss?”

...ah. What a complicated situation. Kiyotaka would tell him to wait and store these feelings for later, after they'd figured out who had freaking murdered his best friend—but it seemed this impediment would continue to keep Sakakura from approaching Munakata until he'd figured it out for himself.

And Kiyotaka wasn't sure he could shake testimony or evidence out of Sakakura while he lay in this perpetually lost state. He couldn't explain what had caused Sakakura's memories to fizzle, but... there had to be a way to find out what had happened.

It appeared this, unfortunately, was not the way.

Breathing out a slow sigh, he squeezed the hilt of his recovered katana and plunged it into Sakakura's skull.

When he next blinked, the ethereal greens of the mindscape had evaporated, the little blanket fort coated in its usual shadow.

As his senses returned, Mondo's familiar warmth pulsed at his side. “What the hell just happened?” Already he was angling himself in front of Kiyotaka. “Did that guy just... attack you..?”

“It's alright, Mondo. We—um—we worked it out.” Sort of. He'd identified the underlying cause of Sakakura's confusing state, at the least.

As Sakakura blinked away the remnants of the jade mindscape, he faced Kiyotaka with a new light. His entire complexion brightened. “So you'll help me, right?”

Kiyotaka found himself nodding despite the fact that he had no idea what Sakakura thought they were agreeing to.

“Oh—Great! Thank goodness! Here, this way. I think I know where to go.” One muscular hand shackled about Kiyotaka's wrist, and before he knew it he'd left all of Sakakura's unbelievable evidence behind him.

He managed to look back once—to catch a snickering Taeko, hands covering her face, and a Mondo so flabbergasted he'd crashed to the earth.


Sakakura was strange about personal space. Yes, he'd yanked up Kiyotaka, but he let go almost as soon as he did it, and he didn't bother touching him again. Kiyotaka recalled him using a similar treatment with Munakata, a man he'd known for what appeared to be much of his life.

He did not dare bring any of this up, however. He didn't think it was a conversation he'd like to be having with this strange, emotionally-stunted, possibly touch starved individual.

The way was familiar, and soon Kiyotaka recognized the detention center looming before them. Sakakura nervously pointed for him to go in first, so—releasing a sigh—he did.

He still needed to speak again with Izayoi after that explosive trial today. The cops let him into the questioning chamber, where he found—Kyosuke Munakata himself had taken up the stool on the visitation side, and was in deep conversation with the defendant.

He cut off mid-sentence and glanced back to accommodate for the arrival of his student's attorney. “Ishimaru. Good afternoon. Have you uncovered anything yet concerning Sohnosuke's likelihood of being the murderer?”

Kiyotaka approached the glass partition and, gazing after the distraught student, let out a long sigh. “Not quite. I thought I found a lead, but that lead has yet to produce any evidence.”

“What lead—” Munakata began, when his head snapped back at the sound of the door creaking back open. “Who's...” His voice cracked, the relief pouring forth. “Juzo..! Where have you been?”

He stood abruptly to face his companion. Sakakura shifted nervously on his feet, suddenly aware of the inexplicable grass stains on his suit and twigs in his hair. “I'm... I'm still not sure. My memories—They're all hazy.”

Sakakura started to reach out to him, only to dump his hands into his pockets at the last moment. He kept glancing at Kiyotaka like Kiyotaka, a man with little to no relationship experience, was supposed to know what to do in this situation. He just sort of tried to give Sakakura a little thumbs-up in the hopes that it would bolster his confidence.

Munakata ducked his head, voice lowered. He was nary inches shorter than Sakakura. “We just ended the first day of Sohnosuke's trial. It's... It doesn't look good, J-Juzo.” He kept clinging to the man's first name like it was all he could do to hear it aloud. “He might have been tricked into unintentionally dealing the killing blow on Chisa. But not only that—”

Kiyotaka awkwardly stood around while they exchanged, in hushed tones, the current state of the trial. He couldn't leave while he suspected Sakakura to hold important testimony or evidence for him, but he had no idea what to do with himself in the meantime...

Wait—While they caught each other back up, he turned to his defendant. He'd just kind of been sitting there too. It was—It was weird how the homoerotic tension filled the room and yet neither of the men causing it seemed aware of it whatsoever.

“I'm sorry about what happened today, Iza—”

“It's fine,” the boy muttered. “It's my fault, anyways. I... god... I feel putrid. I just don't... there's nothing else to...” He drew off, blinking too fast.

Kiyotaka tensed. “There's still a chance that you didn't cause her death. I have yet to find evidence that proves irrevocably what happened to your teacher. And I've heard multiple accounts now about her face being colored by more blood than there should have been, had her only wounds been caused by swallowing the knives and taking another to the back of the head. Especially from her eyes. I have a feeling there's something left for us to uncover—something that might finally tell us the true cause of Ms. Yukizome's demise.”

“I don't...” Izayoi looked away uneasily. “I don't want there to be another cause, though. I mean... i-it'd suck to be the reason she died, but... she was the coolest teacher I ever had. You don't get it, Mr. Ishimaru. She worried about us forgetting to eat and brought us snacks. She created an entire curriculum from the ground up just to ensure that we had a well-rounded education. For weeks she'd tutor me after school—or just let me use her as a soundboard while I planned my next pieces.

“I don't want there to be one other person out there trying to kill her... I... What kind of world would that be, one where the good people don't get to survive and live happy lives?”

Kiyotaka's heart twinged. There wasn't anything he could say for his client, except a quiet, “I'm sorry,” and, “I know.”

He'd lost family too. And Mondo—Mondo had lost so much. Taeko... Gosh, they all had. He supposed that was what had brought them all to one another. The need for comfort, for solace.

Before he left Izayoi to himself, he pulled out the tablet his prosecutor had lent him. “I know there's not much else for you to help me with, but I have to ask... do you recognize this?”

Izayoi peered down at it. “Yeah, actually. I've definitely seen it at the Academy.”

Someone owned it, then. Someone that he had to hunt down by the end of today.

“Do you know who?”

Izayoi shrugged. “Not off the top of my head.”

“That's okay. Thank you.”

The student managed a nod. Then, slowly, while Kiyotaka watched, he carved a 3x3 grid with an inexplicable ice pick into the wood grain. “Wanna play tic-tac-toe while you wait for them,” he whispered.

He had nothing better to do while he tried to kill time. Keeping the teachers in the corner of his vision, Kiyotaka nodded his assent. He let Izayoi pick Os and go first. Faintly he could hear that Munakata had just finished explaining the surprise of what Ruruka had done to Yukizome, and why.

Sakakura slowly shook his head. “This is... God, we just wanna do something nice for them, and this is what...”

Munakata drew still. He was staring into a corner of the room when he said, “It's growing more and more likely that one of our students killed her. One of our own murdered her, J-Juzo...” His breaths drew choppy, the pallor of his cheeks somehow paler than his usual fair complexion.

Izayoi had done that thing where you manage to make two tic-tac-toes possible in one turn. Seething, Kiyotaka forfeited. “Okay, okay, let's try this.” Izayoi promptly created a 4x4. “You ever play four-way tic-tac-toe?”

Instinctively Sakakura's arms reached out once more—and this time he hesitated, hands outstretched. Munakata didn't seem to notice at first, so wholly focused on the incongruous floor, until his head sharply turned to take in his friend. He gasped, voice a weak flutter, and made a tentative step toward his years-long companion. Sakakura's arms passed carefully around him, and for the first time since Kiyotaka had met him, the strict, stiff, put-together Munakata allowed himself to sag into another's weight.

He flushed and let his gaze glance off of them. From where he sat, Izayoi had discarded his ice pick to peek through his fingers at his teachers. “This feels forbidden, but like, good for them,” their student mumbled.

After suffering a tragic loss in four-way tic-tac-toe, Izayoi created a tiny 5x5 grid. He was running out of wood that hadn't previously been marred by his craftsmanship.

“Five-way tic-tac-toe?” Kiyotaka hissed. Was that even possible? He somehow had a feeling this was just going to devolve into connect four.

He heard Sakakura's lumbering breaths, tightening before he dared speak and break the oddly comforting silence that had enveloped them. “Chisa and I had been... p-planning to confess to you. We were going to do it on this trip. We... We both, u-um...”

Still he couldn't say it aloud.

“I-I love both of you!”

Kiyotaka jolted. Munakata had raised his voice, his arms seizing around Sakakura in the corner of his eye. He was somehow managing to lose at five-way tic-tac-toe.

Sakakura's heavy whisper. “You do?”

“Of course I do! We chose this school because it had three openings—had there only been two, I never would have insisted so heavily for us to take the opportunity... I—I... If only I had been so honest with myself, and with each of you...” A weak sniffle. “I would have accepted you both...”

“R-R-Really? Damn, what were we so scared of?”

“Me,” Munakata said. “I've built such a terrific wall about myself that it appears I know not how to let it down for the people I care most deeply for. G-Goodness, I'm just as deprived as our students from our experiences at this wretched Academy...”

He heard sweet murmurs from Sakakura and decided this was the time that he should leave. After suffering a travesty of a loss at five-way tic-tac-toe, he no longer wanted to play with Izayoi. Also, Izayoi was running out of space to make crudely-drawn games.

Tapping Izayoi's glass to get his attention one last time, he asked, “Could you make sure Mr. Sakakura contacts Prosecutor Togami to provide testimony? He might be able to save you. I myself don't know what he saw, but I...” He cringed at the thought of breaking up their emotional reunion.

Izayoi sucked in his cheeks. “Yeah, yeah. They're so sappy. Ugh. We all knew they were pining, too, goddammit. Our teachers are fucking idiots.” He cut himself off, peeking once more after them. “Somehow I get the feeling that it took some really special circumstances for them to finally admit it. I dunno how to describe it. Like, if all things went as they normally do, those fools never would've told each other the truth.”

Kiyotaka laughed weakly. “What, like this is an alternate timeline or loophole or something?”

“Like one of those crossover AUs I read on fanfiction.net until two in the morning. You know the vibe?”

Kiyotaka in fact did not, but he hadn't the heart to spoil Izayoi's fun.

“How are you holding up?” he asked. He wished he had some sort of solace to offer the kid.

“I mean, it's pretty awkward watching my teachers come out to each other while I'm sitting here detained because the police think I'm a fucking murderer, but other than that, pretty okay I guess. It's kinda weird? That they're gay? I mean! I mean—I'm an ally! I'm just totally straight.”

The way he peeked at them begged to differ. Closeted bisexual?

Blushing, Izayoi mumbled, “Also, fuckin' destroying you at tic-tac-toe made me feel better, so uh, thanks for being a good sport, Mr. Ishimaru.”

He found he couldn't help but smile. “That's good to hear. I'll see you in the morning, okay?”

“Yeah...” Izayoi took in a deep breath. “Fuck. I really—I really hope I didn't kill Miss Chisa. I-Is that selfish of me, Mr. Ishimaru? Is it... s-selfish of me to hope that somebody else—even if it was Ruruka—g-got to her first..? I just... I don't... I don't want these hands to be the hands that took her l-life...”

Kiyotaka's heart twisted violently. He watched as Izayoi stared at his open palms, his trembling pale fingers.

Then quietly he said, “I'll do everything in my power to prove it wasn't you.”

“Yeah. Y-Yeah...”

He wished Mondo was here. Mondo would know what to say to a crestfallen kid. Kiyotaka could only offer so much. He shook with regrets and the fragments of things he maybe should have said but didn't know how to.

At least the kid still had his mentor and Sakakura here. They wouldn't walk out on him—and with the way Izayoi's eyes clung to them, Kiyotaka reasoned they made better supports for him than Kiyotaka, anyways.

On his way around the tender whispered voices of Sakakura and Munakata, he froze as a sudden hand reached out to grab him. “Wait—Wait!”

Before he could go, Sakakura made sure to hand off to him a bit of smashed-up machinery. A controller pad sat on one end, and a stylus was tucked into a corner.

“I dunno what the fuck this goes to, but it looks important somehow. Probably cuz it's coated in blood.” It was in fact coated in blood. “My memories... are still struggling, but they're starting to come back a little, and I know this had something to do with it. So, uh, take it. And thanks.”

Kiyotaka had to kick himself to try and chase away the stabbing rush of jealousy that now launched itself through his very soul.

He'd have his moment. He just had to protect his client's potential innocence first.


When he went to request the detention center to bring out one Ruruka Ando for questioning, he found, to his surprise, that someone else was already with her. Steeling himself for his prosecutor, he all but dropped to the floor with shock when he saw naught but an elderly man. He teetered atop his stool and leaned over to Ruruka as he spoke in a whisper with her.

Her pale blue eyes had lost much of their color, and they had reddened faintly with what had to be hours of crying. Her face was blotchy, her strawberry blonde hair sticking up in places. She'd taken off her scarf, or perhaps a cop had confiscated it as evidence.

She immediately looked up when she heard footsteps approaching. “A-Ah! M-M-Mr. Ishimaru! Hello again! I... d-didn't expect to see you here!”

The old man did not startle, but he turned. His face was gnarled by age, and his back had been set by years of bending over desks and finely printed writing. His whitened hair was in this confusing gelled bob atop his head that was not appealing whatsoever. He wore a gray suit with white sleeves and a white tie—his nametag read Kazuo Tengan—Principal.

Munakata hadn't lied. The Principal of the Ultimate Talent Acadmy had arrived.

Kiyotaka's heart squeezed. He didn't know why, but a sudden chill had filled the room.

...why hadn't he dragged Mondo with him? He kept glancing back, hoping his companion would materialize, only to recall again and again with frigid alacrity that he had left Mondo behind when Sakakura dragged him over here to be his wingman of sorts.

But now he lacked Mondo—and he lacked Taeko—and the emptiness beside him was blindingly cold.

Blinking rapidly, Kiyotaka bowed his head to the old man. “Kiyotaka Ishimaru. Sohnosuke Izayoi is my client in the trial concerning the murder of Ms. Chisa Yukizome.”

Tengan bobbed his head, his face crinkling like a piece of aluminum in a child's hands. “So you are the one who put poor Ruru behind bars?” Despite his age, his withered tone had a strange steely quality to it, like he dared Kiyotaka to cut through his words.

“Well—Um”—Kiyotaka couldn't meet Ruruka's stare—“I suppose it is partly my fault, but the evidence proved her guilt. She'd laced her chocolates with knives and... handed them over to Yukizome..!”

Ruruka sniffled. She didn't open her mouth.

“Yes, I cannot deny that that act was of her own volition. Ruru, would you like to share with Mr. Ishimaru here why you tried to kill one of our astute teachers?”

She glared at her hands. “Mr. Ishimaru knows why. They all know why.”

“No, not that. What did we discuss?”

Her mouth tightened. What they had... discussed..?

“It was an accident.” She spoke with a robotic slowness. “A complete and total accident. So I shouldn't be prosecuted if it comes out that I killed Miss Chisa, because I did not know what I was doing. I-I plead in-in...” She bit her lip. “Temporary insanity.”

...temporary insanity. One of the taboo claims of the court. Claiming it would effectively ruin the rest of Ruruka's life—especially if she claimed it before she'd even been proved guilty and underwent that trial first.

Her aspirations of becoming a great confectioner would all blow away like powdered sugar in the air. People would avoid her in the streets. She wouldn't be able to work a regular job ever again.

And her principal wanted her to plead it... now?

Tengan cleared his throat. “So don't worry about Ruru here, Mr. Ishimaru. She'll be in good hands. Why, you won't even have to participate in the trial tomorrow at all. We've already agreed to schedule hers. I was just about to let the prosecutor know.”

Immediately the words flew up his throat: “HOLD IT!”

Tengan jolted. “My, my, you have a surprisingly loud voice!”

“D-Don't do that! We don't even know who the murderer was yet! I-It may not have even been Ruruka!”

Ruruka stared after him, her mouth agape. “B-But if I plead temporary insanity, then Yoi's freed—right now. This is a g-good thing! P-P-Plus, I... I definitely... I...”

She covered her face with her hands, her sobs quivering from within.

...as horrible as her actions had been, she really hadn't seemed to understand what she was doing at the time.

Kiyotaka's gaze settled on the principal of the Ultimate Talent Academy. He couldn't help but partly blame him for Ruruka's actions. “Don't reschedule the trial. Please. I'm not ready yet to—”

“Oh, don't worry about it, young man. Here. I'll go tell that prosecutor right now.” Tengan stood up with a creak in his step and wandered over to the door. “Very nice to meet you, Mr. Ishimaru. Thanks for protecting Sohnosuke from those legal dogs. That poor boy wouldn't hurt a fly, let alone Miss Chisa.”

And he was gone.

Ruruka's sobs multiplied as the room grew emptier.

Hurriedly Kiyotaka sat in front of her. “What did he tell you to do?” he asked. He couldn't help but pound the wood in front of him with a fist.

Between tears, Ruruka whispered, “He said, he said, he”—she hiccupped—“it's the only chance I have l-l-left to stay alive...”

...if she was the murderer of Chisa Yukizome, that could very well be the case. A separate trial would be conducted with her as the defendant if he proved her guilty, but if she avoided that hassle and claimed temporary insanity now, that could save her both time and severity of punishment. Kiyotaka didn't know how that worked when she pleaded temporary insanity rather than guilty, but—perhaps it didn't leave quite as large of a blight upon her name.

But Kiyotaka knew there was still something wrong with this trial. As he sat in front of Ruruka, he recovered the piece of machinery Sakakura had handed to him and took the rest of the tablet out of his pocket. He saw that—though the pieces were all jumbled—they should snap together, with some repairs.

He needed to find a mechanic. He needed one right now.

Ruruka stared through reddened, glassy eyes as he fought with the tablet, so close to fitting and yet so far. She said, sniffling, “Hey, that's M-Mitarai's... Why've you got it..?”

Kiyotaka's eyes widened. “Do you know what's on it? I've been told by multiple accounts now that it's integral to the crime.”

“Umm... drawings? And art stuff?”

...had he drawn something that involved the crime? Had he captured a key moment of the crime scene on his tablet?

Or was another suspect on here—a suspect that could explain why Yukizome's eyes had leaked blood?

“Ruruka.” He pounded the glass partition. It wobbled between them. She couldn't help but laugh, weakly. “You can't plead temporary insanity—not right now. You can't. There's something left about Miss Chisa's death that not even I have fully figured out yet. You hear me? Don't let your principal tell you what to do! He thinks he's helping you, but this could destroy your life if the evidence on this tablet could prove that you weren't Miss Chisa's killer, either!”

Ruruka gasped, covering her mouth with her hands. “You... You... You m-m-mean it..?”

He nodded. “I haven't lied to anyone in this trial. Why would I make an effort only to lie to you?”

Her eyes squeezed together. “H-H-How can I trust you..? You're just... You just want to watch me s-s-s-suffer because I made your case harder... and almost got s-sweet Yoi indicted...”

“No! That's not true at all!” Tears bit the edges of his cheeks. “I want to discover the truth of what happened to Miss Chisa, and bring her true killer to justice! And if that killer wasn't you, then I need tomorrow to uncover who actually killed her! Why would I want you to suffer, Ruruka? You're a minor—and you clearly had little comprehension of your actions.” As—As horrible as they were, what she did, what she could have caused Izayoi to do, if Ruruka wasn't even the murderer then he needed her to help him get this time back.

“Please, Ruruka. Promise me you won't go through with this plea of temporary insanity.”

She sniffled, considering.

“Izayoi needs to know what truly happened, too.”

This won her over. Whimpering, she squeaked, “O-O-Okay! Fine! I won't!”

“Thank you! Thank you, Ruruka! This might save your life—and Yoi's—and it will bring Miss Chisa's killer to justice, I promise you!”

She stared at him through her tears and blinked slowly. As he got up, shouting his thanks, she gaped. “Wait... Wait, are you going to leave me a-alone now..?”

“I have to investigate,” he started to say, when she reached out, hands slick against the glass.

Before she could cry out to him, a cop had materialized just behind her. He held a bagel in one hand and broke off half of it, handing the piece to her.

Kiyotaka let out a relieved breath. The bagel cop was there for her. She'd be okay.


On his way out of the detention center, he ran straight into a gangly figure and collapsed. Hurriedly he scooped up the pieces of the tablet and was about to push himself past the figure when—wait—he looked back—green accents on a black suit...

“P-Prosecutor!” he exclaimed.

Togami's brows raised as he turned. “The attorney?”

As he gasped for breath, he cried, “Don't let her plead temporary insanity!”

“Um?” Togami turned heel to face the elderly man who had previously been badgering him. “I had already been planning on it. How is it going to help my case if Ishimaru here's defendant gets off perfectly free without the remainder of the trial to prosecute him? You truly reveal yourself to be a plebian, Old Man.”

Tengan sputtered, bowing his head. “There is no need to prosecute the boy! He was not the murderer.”

“I'll be the one who decides that,” sneered Togami. “And I'm still thinking about it.”

Okay. Great. Tengan wasn't getting what he wanted so easily. The relieved sweat pooled in his boots.

“B-Byakuya!” He grabbed the prosecutor. “Please come with me! We have to find a mechanic!”

“A mechanic?” Scoffing, he peered out the detention center's window. “It's almost sundown. How the hell are we going to find one at this hour?”

“I-I don't know! But we need to!”

Maybe there was one at the carnival still? One who had to sit around in case a ride broke while people were still there? And—he was sure Mondo and Taeko hadn't just ditched him. If they were still there, then perhaps a mechanic was.

“Please! It's about the tablet!”

Byakuya's eyes glittered. “Alright, I'm coming.” He shot one last sneer at the old man for good measure before taking after Kiyotaka.


By the time they reached the carnival's parking lot, the sky had been blanketed with deep lilac curtains. Pale oranges and greens peeked out from amongst the swollen dark clouds, allowing through little rays of bright light that strung along the two as they searched through the parking lot for a mechanic.

Along the way, they picked up Kiyotaka's confused partners, who had killed time playing corny games that shucked their money. Taeko had reunited with her two new favorite lesbians, and they nodded assent to seeing the prosecution and defense come together for one thing.

At the very front of the carnival, to Mondo's bellow of “Heeeeey, mechaaaaniiiiic! Where aaaaaareeee youuuuu!” they finally received a voice in return.

“Go away!”

This proved promising.

They all huddled around the first booth of the lot, the old bottle toss. A man with bright pink hair stuffed into a beanie and those loud green overalls—the same carny as before—cowered beneath them.

“Please! You're a mechanic, right?” Kiyotaka frantically pulled out the pieces of Mitarai's broken tablet. “Please tell me you can fix this!”

The pink-haired man stared dejectedly down at the pile of scraps. “If I say I can't, will you leave me alone?” he whimpered. He had a pathetic voice and oddly sharp teeth.

Taeko scooted in after him to declare, “Hell no. If you are the reason my attorney loses the trial tomorrow, I will fucking hunt you down. You hear me? I will use my onlyfans' followers and my great many resources to track you, locate you, and skin you alive, you piece of shit.”

Byakuya stared at her for a long moment. “And I will present forged evidence so that she doesn't go to jail for it.”

Taeko's mouth fell open. “Wow! You will? Wow! I have never felt so important in my entire life!”

“But only this time. Because I refuse to win tomorrow's trial unfairly.”

“Aww, how sweet.” Taeko glared up at the prosecutor. “I hate you less now, but only marginally.”

With this threat hanging over his head, the man whined in place. “Fine! I'll fix your stupid machine! Just... don't tell anyone, okay? I'm kinda trying to keep it a secret.”

“Keep what a—” Kiyotaka had started saying only for the man to abruptly hand back the tablet—all in one piece, gleaming magnificently.

...what.

He was already done?!

And—um—and,” the man wobbled in place, gazing up at the prosecutor, “I'm still trying to finish college right now, but, but, you'll keep me in mind, right? For a spot in the prosecutors' office?”

Byakuya visibly blanched. “For you?”

The man squeaked. “I'll break it! I'll break it and I won't fix it again! Please please please lemme in once I finish college!”

“Whatever. I won't outright refuse you.”

The carny slunk to the ground, weeping.

With that out of the way, they all found a spot to huddle around the tablet in Byakuya's hands in front of an empty booth. Kiyotaka sat next to him, Mondo claiming the seat by him. Their knees brushed together. On Byakuya's other side, Seiko slunk in, Miaya beside her, and Taeko squeezed in next to them.

They all stared intensely as the prosecutor fumbled with the on switch and sifted through the tablet. “No password?” he commented. “What a fool.”

The tablet was already open on one drawing—a graphic depiction of Yukizome's... corpse. The blood ran profusely down her cheeks first, her face outstretched in a horridly vivid display of the immense amount of pain she must have been going through—

Hurriedly Byakuya switched out of it, visibly shivering. “That... was...” Shook his head. “What else do we have here...”

The pictures saved on here prior to the day of the crime appeared not to have any use, mostly sketches of cartoon characters or short animations. However, there was one video saved on the day of the murder, as well as three drawings—

One drawing of the three teachers walking together, a red dot placed at the back of each one's head.

The one of Yukizome, her eyes wet with bloodied tears.

And one—poorly configured—of Juzo Sakakura, hands outstretched and all-consuming, his vengeful gaze black with dread and shadow.

Even Byakuya let out a nervous sound at that. “W-Well, let's go ahead and check out the video,” he said, switching away from that last drawing.

He clicked on it. Everyone held their breath.

A person waltzed across the blank black screen, someone with large skirts and gilded hair and bright eyes. The lighting blanketed them, sheer crimson, and—

The tablet abruptly fell to the ground before it was seized by a shuddering Miaya. She placed it aside and signed, in big strokes, moving her hand—palm up—to her chin, tapping it with her fingers, and smacking it aside. Again and again she signed it, wide eyes locked onto Seiko.

Seiko gaped. “Evil..?”

Miaya nodded her head, scooping up the tablet and holding it tight to her chest. She signed, shakily, with one hand, and let Seiko embrace her.

“She doesn't want us to watch the rest of it,” Seiko declared. “She doesn't know what it is, but it should be analyzed and put somewhere safe. Where other people can't see it.”

Kiyotaka asked, “How does she know?”

Miaya hid her head in Seiko's shoulder. Seiko sighed before saying, “It's her weird therapy thing. She can just—she can sense when something's gonna be really harmful for somebody else's psyche. It's weird, yeah, but it's legit. Whatever this video thing is... it's bad.”

Hurriedly he took out his court record and conveyed all of this, taking note of each picture and Miaya's findings of the video.

Somehow... Somehow, this would have to be enough.

Miaya signed to her girlfriend, and Seiko translated. “We're gonna go hand this off to the detective. With careful instructions. So uh, goodnight.” She bowed her head to Togami—

“WAIT, HOLD IT!” Kiyotaka squeaked.

Surprisingly, the goth student paused. “What..? What else do we have to discuss?” She released Miaya enough to sign as she spoke, as to keep her girlfriend from feeling left out.

“I had a few quick questions for you, before the trial tomorrow,” he said. “Is that okay?”

Seiko's eyes traveled up to the prosecutor. “Um. I guess it is.” Byakuya watched, curious, as the attorney took in a breath.

“Do you know where Mitarai is right now?”

Throughout the day, he'd yet to catch the first-year student. With his tablet in custody, he needed the kid's testimony, but he had no idea how to locate him.

Seiko shrugged, snorting. “The hell should I know? He's in the grade below me, and I've never spoken to that kid a single time. The only person I ever saw him hold a conversation with was Miss Chisa, and she's dead now, soooo...”

...so he could be anywhere. And it was already growing late... Kiyotaka would have to accept that this was one mystery that'd have to wait until he could pin Mitarai in court tomorrow.

“Okay—One other question. I still don't understand, Seiko. Why did you try to get Izayoi's attention prior to the murder yesterday?”

Seiko blinked, eyes wide. “Oh... that's right. You saw that little spat, didn't you?” She shrugged to herself. “I had a bad feeling, is all. Ruruka was being... well, she's always been atrocious at hiding things, but it was even worse yesterday. I knew something was up. I've tried to warn him, here and there, that his girl's a slimy snake, but...

“Must've been the candy, huh? I saw the way he looked when he found out what she does with it. Guess he never knew.” She hesitated, then said softly, “Poor guy.”

Ah.

This trial truly must have been a brutal awakening for Izayoi.

With those resolved, Seiko cocked her head. “Anything else?”

“That was it. Thank you, Seiko.”

She pinched the edge of her mask and drew it down. A small, hesitant smile awaited.

“Sorry about calling you untrustworthy. You don't seem all that bad. Just kind of socially awkward, maybe.”

Bobbing her head, she returned her mask to her face and linked arms with Miaya before heading out.

Byakuya let out a slow breath. “I suppose I shall take my leave as well. We'll see tomorrow what your findings have uncovered for us, Ishimaru.” And off he went, his heeled shoes clicking over the pavement.

“Then that's our cue,” Mondo said. “Let's go.” He addressed Kiyotaka's back with a hand, and, as the three of them adjusted their gaits, accompanying one another, he asked, “So what the hell happened with that Juzo guy?”

“Yes,” Taeko added, “it was very boring playing the games with accessory alone, Kiyotaka! He is too dumb for my liking.”

Mondo growled a warning. “I'm doing my best!”

“Your best is dogshit,” Taeko said, smiling sweetly.

“Taeko,” Kiyotaka snapped, “you have at least four for the swear jar today.”

She giggled, fluffing her dress's skirt. “I take great pride in this mighty achievement.”

He rolled his eyes. With their arguments cooling down, he began to explain on their way home how he had unintentionally become a witness's wingman and almost lost the entire trial to an eerie old man.


To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, but he hadn't prepared for it to be this—terrible. The sheets were all knotted up in his arms as he tossed and turned and fought for sleep to take him, knowing it didn't work like that, wishing it did.

Eventually he couldn't take it anymore. He sat up, shaking out his rumpled hair, and glared at his alarm clock. One in the morning. Great. He still had seven hours to kill before he actually needed to be awake.

He stumbled to the edge of his bed and took a blanket with him as he stood. His bare feet carefully worked their way from the bed to the hall, and he fumbled with the door at first, almost crashing into it head-first.

As he crept through his home, he slowed himself. Mondo had taken his usual spot on the couch for the night—and the last thing he wanted to do was wake him up. He just needed some air, he decided. If he just got a moment outdoors and counted the stars until his head was bleary with exhaustion, he could sleep. Or so he told himself, desperate.

He wandered through the glass doors at the back wall and onto the ridiculous balcony. So much of this still didn't feel real, maybe never would. He'd grown up in borderline poverty due to his family's debts, and despite how relentlessly hard they worked, that glut never seemed to eat its fill. Even after he'd moved out and gotten his own place, he kept it small—tidy—simple.

Who'd thought a gold-encrusted railing would be a good idea? And it was totally studded with turquoise gems. He had to be careful where he held the balcony as to not cut his soft hands.

Taeko... he laughed, softly, to himself. As weird and unpredictable as his unlikely roommate was, he couldn't deny that—when he got over the unnecessary affluence of the apartment—he appreciated her company. He really had been alone for so long—if not avoiding his parents, then on his own at college, his love life totally pathetic and—one could say nonexistent to spare his embarrassing attempts.

He let out a joyous sigh. He really had been blessed with such remarkable company.

The stars, at least, were the same no matter where he stood, whether by his window at home or off of this bougie balcony. They twinkled faintly behind the light pollution of the night, brighter than they had been a few hours ago, though they still swam furiously through the fluorescence of party-goers' midnight revelries.

So lost in his thoughts, he didn't hear the glass door click open and gently shut, nor the accompanying footsteps. Didn't notice, not until a familiar hand brushed by his shoulder. “You too?”

Kiyotaka's head snapped up. He blinked through the sleep crust in his eyes to peer at—a similarly disheveled Mondo. His fluffy hair shrouded his tanned, tired face. His lilac eyes were barely open, more like almost closed. It was odd seeing them without their customary eyeliner.

He wore the pajamas he kept in one of Kiyotaka's drawers for their trial nights—a baggy graphic tee with some pink circle-shaped character on it and plaid pajama pants. Gosh, he looked so cozy.

“Damn, it's colder than I was expecting,” Mondo muttered. “Can you spare a little of that?”

Kiyotaka giggled. He shifted around under the blanket to share half with his partner. Mondo gratefully shuffled beneath it and let out a contented sigh. “Thanks, bud.”

“I'm just...” Kiyotaka drew out a sigh that strained at the edge of a yawn. “Last time, the problem was figuring out what happened to Sakura. But I thought—I'd thought she was already gone, so it didn't quite feel this... pressing.” His breaths dragged. “But this time? If we don't figure out who killed Yukizome... or if we indict the wrong person...” His mind kept flashing back to Ruruka. If it really was her, that was one thing, but if it wasn't and they couldn't find anymore conclusive evidence..? And she still had to claim temporary insanity...

Or what if Izayoi's knife was what caused her death? They still didn't definitively know how Yukizome had passed away. There were no photographs, no videos that expertly captured the moment she stopped breathing. And he didn't have Aoi to rely on, someone he knew he could trust. Just this exhausting speculation and testimony.

And he'd really been hoping that the tablet's evidence would prove integral... Maybe it still could, but he couldn't yet figure out how.

“Hey.” Mondo's voice, soft with sleep deprivation. “You figured it out last time. Man, even I couldn't get that one. And you figured out the first one, too. You got this. I know you do. Plus, seems like Byakuya's helpin' us out this time, so that's a real plus. Hopefully he found more evidence than just that kid's tablet, stuff that'll push the trial forward in the morning. Tomorrow? Today? Fuck...” He shrugged against his companion, teetering.

Kiyotaka snorted. “How do you switch to his first name so easily?”

“Ehhh. Enough people call him Togami. I like watching him squirm a tiny bit.”

He stumbled into laughter, taking to Mondo's side. “I really like the way you think.”

“Oh! Uh... um...” Mondo distractedly twirled a strand of his dirty blonde hair. “Thanks, Taka. You really... You're a really good person, you know? The fact that you care so much—and it's forcing Byakuya and Kirigiri and them to care, too, um. That's pretty neat.”

“Heh.” His lips stole a grin. “I couldn't do it without you.”

“You did when I was under that chocolate's wacky spell. And when I fell asleep that one time...”

Kiyotaka huffed. “Not because I wanted to.”

“Awww.” Mondo sighed. “I appreciate it.” His eyes roved to the sky, the faintly-blinking stars.

“Mondo?” he ventured.

“Yeah, what's up?” His immediate reply and attention.

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. He gathered up the blanket around his shoulders, as if somehow he could hide from his insecurities. “I wanted to... um... I really—I feel like, with you—we—well...” Shoot. This was hard. He bit his lip. “I've never felt this understood before, I guess. D-Does that make any sense?”

Mondo stilled. Slowly he turned back to his partner, an easy smile stretching across his soft lips. “Yeah. It does. It's... It's been awhile for me too. I dunno if it's quite the same feeling, but...” His arm flexed as it poked through the blankets and grasped the railing. There lay that ring on his pinkie, twinkling in the faint light.

Mondo watched as his eyes fell upon it. His friend hesitated, then said, voice husky, “Chi saved me. I was in a real bad place when we met—fuckin' high school, the biggest, swampiest nightmare in the world. I told you about my brother, right? Well, let's just say I wasn't doing much algebra during that time.”

Kiyotaka made a weak laugh. He reached out to his friend, and Mondo took his hand, squeezing it as his breathing tapered. “Chi's the only reason I graduated. Not that I ended up doin' much with the degree, but I guess it makes a good doormat.” He chuckled as Kiyotaka's laughter rebounded. “She—Oh, she identified with she/they pronouns, so like, kinda like a roulette, they said—They... fuck, I dunno what the hell they saw in me.

“I'm so stupid, y'know? And she was so fucking smart! Like, goddamn, going to Ivy University, getting all the scholarships... real shit! And then they graduated in like, fuckin' two years or however long it was. I can't count anymore, now that I don't take any math classes, so, y'know. Who the hell thinks about math for fun. Besides Chi...

“They had so many plans, Taka... They were gonna change the world for the better. I—Gosh, she was amazing.”

Kiyotaka's heart twinged. “What happened?” he whispered.

Mondo let out a sharp breath. “She was killed.”

His mouth fell open. “Oh my goodness. Mondo, I'm so...”

“I-I know, right?” Mondo let out a weak, strained laugh. “First Daiya, now Chi. It's like... It's like I'm just destined to...”

For a moment his gaze fluttered, seeking Kiyotaka, and the piercing, pale fear that had sucked the color from his face caused Kiyotaka to freeze.

He opened up his arms, and Mondo crashed into them, his breathing frantic.

They didn't speak for a long moment. He tried to imagine if he'd heard of this case before—a successful youth killed in some incredible unfortunate incident...

“Ch-Chihiro Fujisaki?” he blurted, and Mondo tensed, nodding into his neck.

Kiyotaka took this as a sign to continue. “I've heard of that trial. We studied it in law school when it was... when it became a stalemate. W-We all had theories, but they all were disproved by the trial.”

And so it sat, still unsolved, its evidence rotting in some cold office. A relic of an impossible mystery.

He hadn't recognized Mondo at first, but he realized now that his friend must have been one of the witnesses on trial. Vaguely he could recall his testimony—emotionally charged, raw, the words coming in spurts with no attention to how sentences form.

Kiyotaka tightened his grip on Mondo, murmuring into him, “Maybe one day we'll be able to figure it out. You never know. New evidence could surface.”

“Y-Yeah. Yeah... You're right...” A strange shiver had entered his voice, but he held Kiyotaka just as fiercely.

Gently—Haltingly—He drew one hand up from Mondo's back, teasing his fingers over Mondo's wavy hair. His partner let out a soft breath and shifted against him, inviting his touch. Kiyotaka reached a little higher, let his fingers tangle in those lavender-scented locks. Mondo's exhales weakened, little purrs, and his hands moved in circles down Kiyotaka's back. His head was tucked against Kiyotaka's, his chin over his shoulder. Their cheeks brushed, and Kiyotaka was momentarily astounded by the incredible warmth of his partner's body.

He couldn't dare break their hold. Mondo had enveloped him, his arms securely locked about him, so that as little space as possible separated them. Faintly—faintly—he sensed Mondo's heart trembling over his own.

And he knew in that moment he wouldn't hesitate to risk everything for Mondo.

Slowly Mondo's breaths traced his neck—drawing sharp as he recovered. “Damn... you're always soothing me, Taka.”

“Because you deserve to be soothed,” Kiyotaka returned, letting his grip relax, sensing Mondo's squirm to get free.

“Yeah, well,” Mondo said, stepping back enough to make just a little space between them, “we got bigger problems right now. Like this fucking disaster case. I dunno about you, but I'm set on Ruruka. I couldn't even tell her candy had brainwashed me! That shit's scary!”

Kiyotaka chuckled, nodding. “Watching you praise her without even realizing you had lost control of your mind... I was worried you'd never recover.”

“Heh. Why didn't you warn me?”

“What do you mean?” Kiyotaka snapped. “I did warn you! You were eating her candy as I tried to!”

“Ohhh. Fuck. I'm so dumb.”

“It's okay. At least you're aware.”

Their laughter punctuated their speculation.

Kiyotaka continued. “I suppose Ruruka still stands as our likeliest candidate. But... But I hope Mitarai's drawings will help shed more light on the case. There's certainly more going on than we yet know.”

That drawing of Yukizome, eyes drowning in blood... He squirmed in place.

“Taka, I wanna go inside. My feet are fuckin' icicles.”

Rolling his eyes, Kiyotaka snickered. “Fine. But I want to get under my covers.”

“Uhhh. Fuck. I thought we were gonna, like, talk about the..?”

“Oh!” Kiyotaka blushed. “F-Feel free to sit with me. Surely there's space f-f-for the both of us.”

Mondo sort of stared at him a moment. His cheeks had tinged. “Sure. Let's do that.”

Needless to say they woke up mid-argument in Kiyotaka's bed, practically draped over one another, to Taeko's yelling—“Wake up, sleepy head!”—followed by Taeko's squeal.

She wasn't convinced when Kiyotaka frantically assured her that nothing, absolutely nothing had happened last night. He had to pull down the collar of his button-up nightshirt and reveal his unblemished neck to get her to shut up so they could all get ready for the trial.

Chapter Text

Evidence Updated:

 

-Map of the Carnival

A somewhat blurry photograph taken by Detective Lang's busted old flip phone. Reveals a hidden section of the carnival that was not previously investigated.

 

-Ryota Mitarai's Broken Tablet

A drawing tablet, originally broken into three pieces—One found under Yukizome's feet by Kirigiri, one held in her purse by Byakuya, and one handed over by Sakakura.

 

Four key pieces of evidence are saved on this tablet.

      1. A drawing of the three teachers at the Ultimate Talent Academy from the back—Juzo Sakakura, Chisa Yukizome, and Kyosuke Munakata. A strange red dot has been drawn at the back of their heads.

      2. A portrait of Chisa Yukizome. Her eyes are stained red with blood.

      3. An abstract sketch of Juzo Sakakura. His face is distorted and covered in shadow, and his arms are outstretched as if about to attack the viewer.

      4. A video, mostly unwatched by the defense and prosecution. Miaya declared it to be “evil” for their psyches.

 

Profiling Updated:

 

Kazuo Tengan (72)

AKA “The Old Man,” as Byakuya refuses to learn his name. The principal and founder of the Ultimate Talent Academy. Personally invited most if not all of the students in attendance. Strives to develop a personal relationship with each of them, which is why he is so worried about Ruruka's decision not to claim temporary insanity.

He must not hold a lot of faith in her. Then again, this was Ruruka. It was a challenge to hold any.


“Court is now resumed for the trial of Mr. Sohnosuke Izayoi. Oh—I got the name right this time!” The Judge proudly cleared his throat. “Is the defense ready?”

Kiyotaka's eyes swam as he stared down at his court record. He'd circled his two new pieces of evidence something like ten times each in red pen, all but smothering the rest of his written accounts.

He didn't think the other pieces would be necessary, now that he had conclusively proven the events of yesterday—that Ruruka struck first, and Izayoi second—but he couldn't help but sweat in place as he worried.

Mondo had to tap his arm before he snapped up to cry, “Yes! Yes, we're ready!”

Mondo grimaced. “Don't worry, Udgey. He's just jittery.” How Mondo could say this with a straight face while his outstretched hands shook before him indicated great restraint, or perhaps willful ignorance. Their sleep last night had been fitful, and they'd drunk copious mugs of coffee prior to the trial. Mondo had suggested they pace themselves, but Kiyotaka would not let him bring any coffee into the courtroom (what if they spilled it? onto their evidence?!) so they had to down it all beforehand.

Casting a dubious look over the defense, the Judge turned to the other side of the courtroom. “And is the prosecution ready?”

Byakuya stubbornly straightened, preening once more over the sweating defense. “Of course, Your Honor. I would never enter the courtroom unprepared.”

Taeko sneered, pounding a fist into the desk. She had decided to join them again today, what with how they looked about ready to collapse at any given moment. “OBJECTION!” All eyes turned to her; she blushed excitedly. “You almost got me a guilty verdict to a crime that was never committed! Fuck you and your big fat fucking lies!”

His face blurted red. “That... I was as prepared as I could be!” he shouted back. “You lied, so I based my evidence off of an attempt to catch your lies!” Snarling, he leered up at the Judge. “This woman should not be on the defense's team! She does not belong in a court of law!”

The Judge took in Taeko and shrugged. “I don't see any problem with it. She's just another weirdly underage female assistant. At least this one doesn't also claim to be a master in psychology.”

“OBJECTION! Your Honor, she staged the entire trial for Ms. Sakura Ogami's fake death!”

“Yes, and how impressive it was!” The Judge allowed a moment of applause for the giggling Taeko. “I am honored that she's made the decision to grace us with her presence once more!”

Scowling, Byakuya backed off. Taeko waved at him, then gave him a piece of sign language that roughly translated to “read between the lines”.

“Now, Prosecutor Togami. Your opening statement?”

“Right,” the prosecution huffed. He drew out a single manilla folder and fanned his hot face with it. “I had a second autopsy performed after the shocks revealed yesterday. My source confirmed that the victim suffered three wounds in particular—two great cuts down the front of her body, and the skull-piercing knife to the back. Other than these three wounds, no other physical trauma has appeared to surface on the victim.”

No other surprise wounds, then.

Kiyotaka raised his hand. “HOLD IT! I have a question about this autopsy, Prosecutor.”

“Yes?” Byakuya's eye twinkled.

Somehow, in the tension that traveled between the two of them, he could physically sense that Byakuya had received a certain detective's help in the autopsy, for it to be so accurate. A detective who was supposed to be off duty.

“Does the examiner have a reason for why the victim appeared to cry blood?”

“Ah...” Byakuya hesitated. “Not... as of yet. It does not appear that the victim suffered any concussions or other head injuries that would have caused this phenomenon, nor was she wounded in her eyes prior to her death. It may have been a trick of the eye to those who reportedly saw it, from when she coughed up blood.”

Kiyotaka drew in a sharp breath. He needed to get this answered by the end of today's trial. If—somehow—Yukizome faced a fourth wound that caused her to cry blood, and this wound came before the others... or before they caused her collapse... it was possible it had killed her first. But what with her having swallowed Ruruka's candies, she was on a timer up until the tiny internal knives had cut her open—not to mention Izayoi's knife in her skull.

The defendant's bench had gained a second chair to make room for Ruruka today. The defendant and the in-custody-not-quite-defendant sat as far away from each other as they could. Ruruka kept trying to whisper to him, which caused Izayoi to dump his hoodie over his head and pretend to be asleep.

Glancing over the sorry lot, Kiyotaka winced. If he could just prove the possibility, then perhaps... perhaps another entry point would surface for Yukizome's time of death—and for a third potential murderer.

His thoughts gasped for air in his head, on the verge of drowning in all this information. Three potential murderers...

Byakuya cleared his throat. “I would like to call my first witness to the stand. This witness has not yet appeared in court for this trial, so... here is my hope that new and integral evidence shall be disclosed shortly.”

Ah. This must be...


Surely enough, a familiar wrestler approached the stand. He stood tentatively, arms seizing the support before him. When the wood cracked, threatening to splinter, he jumped back.

He'd changed out of his grass-stained clothes, having switched to a comfortable baggy jacket and pants not unlike something out of Mondo's wardrobe. A similarly sagging tank top peeked out from under his long-sleeve's zipper, which left on display much of Juzo Sakakura's brown-skinned chest.

From behind him came the gasp of a voice: “Juzo—Wait.” Then followed the pristine, white-suited Munakata, who clung to his side like a snowy shadow.

Sakakura's momentary nerves evaporated, and he wrapped an arm around his companion.

The Judge gaped. “Have we two witnesses at the price of one?”

“I—Uh.” Sakakura blinked, blushing. “I'm the one testifying.”

Munakata cleared his throat. “You understand, don't you, Your Honor? After this... After the horrible occasion that has brought us all together, I don't want to be separated from him. May I stay?”

The Judge himself blushed gazing down at the embarrassed couple. “Of course you can! Oh, this brings back such wonderful memories of when my husband would visit me in court. I could never take that from you.”

Byakuya sputtered. “Th-Then I suppose we have two witnesses.” He recovered quickly. “Please—Names and occupations.” His gaze listed over the place Makoto would have stood had he joined them. He must have been relieved he hadn't brought Makoto today, either, with the return of Munakata.

Kiyotaka himself didn't understand what Munakata had against Makoto and his... and his “platitudes,” but it was likely for the best Makoto sit out the rest of this trial, just to keep Munakata's inexplicable hackles from raising.

“Juzo Sakakura,” indicated the wrestler, “and this is Kyosuke Munakata. We teach at the Ultimate Talent Academy.” He hesitated, mumbled, “But I don't really know what the future for us'll look like, now that a third of our staff is gone.”

He had this piercing dark gaze that scrolled across the gallery as he spoke. With his ridiculous muscular form, permanent scowl, and edgy black jacket, Sakakura would have given off an incredibly intimidating vibe were the softer Munakata not affixed to his side.

“Excellent.” Byakuya had carefully resorted and arranged the evidence he intended to use for today. Mitarai's tablet had been placed at the top of his documents, and Kiyotaka noted the blatant lack of weaponry lying about his desk. It was for the best. He cringed at the bandage on Byakuya's cheek. “Now, would you testify to us about the murder of your colleague? I believe you are our second eyewitness.”

Sakakura's brow furrowed. “I'll do my best. I've, uh, been told I can be pretty stupid, so...”

“It's alright.” Munakata took his hand. “I'll be here with you.”

Just about everyone within their immediate vicinity flushed. Kiyotaka covered his face with his hands. He willed them to just go on with their testimony already...

Testify: “Chisa Turned to Me as She Was Dying”

(Mondo scooted over to him. “Why am I already so anxious?” he muttered, letting their shoulders touch.)

Sakakura stared out upon the courtroom. His eyes were these great black holes. “Her face was caked with blood. I—I panicked. It was all coming in streams down her cheeks, her mouth—everywhere!

“I was looking around like an idiot, trying to figure out what to do, when her throat split open.

“She was already sinking to the ground when I heard this nasty popping sound, and the balloon behind her head had deflated—and she slammed into the booth in front of us. I remember our carny backed up and fainted.

“And then... and then I was running, desperate to find the monster who... no, wait, no...

“She was chasing me. Taunting me. Juzo, give up. You know you're nothing compared to me. Shit like that. Her voice was all destroyed, but it hissed out mercilessly.

“I don't know for how long I ran until my body shut down on its own.”

Jaw quivering, Sakakura forcibly shut his mouth.

The Judge blinked. “How... creative!”

Kiyotaka winced. “What does that mean?” he hissed to Mondo.

“I dunno. I'm worried about that too. Sounds like he's still not all the way here.” Mondo drummed his fingers over their desk—their considerably sparser desk that merely held Kiyotaka's notes of of the tablet and a printout of Lang's grainy map.

At any moment, Byakuya could come in with some crazy evidence he couldn't have possibly predicted... but he swallowed and straightened. He'd have to be prepared to take it.

This was his only opportunity to chase the truth of what had actually happened at the scene of the crime. It was possible that Juzo's lucid memories contained secrets that none of the others could have possibly revealed.

...Sucking down a long breath, Kiyotaka pounded a fist onto his desk. “HOLD IT!” he cried. Mondo gently patted his shoulder. “Please explain your fifth statement to me in greater detail. How did Ms. Yukizome begin to... run after you? And do you recall her doing anything to you after you collapsed?”

He hated asking to clarify what sounded like a vivid nightmare—but he didn't know if the rest of his testimony, already corroborated by yesterday, could be of any further use.

He swallowed tightly. This was necessary, he reminded himself. These students... they were children. Misguided children committing the obscene and inexorable, but children all the same. He had to know for himself whether Ruruka or Izayoi had had any chance not of being the murderer.

Juzo's gaze settled on the defense's side. “How did she..?” He drew off, chewing his lip. “Y'know, I never actually considered that part. I guess that's not possible, huh, since she was supposed to be dead...”

A dread-filled pallor had whitened Munakata's strained cheeks.

“Um, I don't know how to describe it. I just remember her—launching out at me. The most notable part of it was her eyes, though. That's where it all started.”

“Where what started?” Kiyotaka pressed. Taeko's head snapped between the witness and defense with giddy excitement.

“Where... everything started.” Juzo cleared his throat. “I mean—that's when she first started speaking to me.”

“Are you saying she spoke to you while she was dying?”

“Ye—Umm...” He glanced at the opposite bench. Izayoi was still pretending to be asleep. Ruruka made a pathetic attempt at a smile.

Juzo appeared to recognize that his testimony was carefully sorting out which murder attempts came when. He glanced between the two defendants, rethinking what he'd already said.

“W-Wait,” Kiyotaka squeaked. “Before you confirm or deny this, I need to know. Did the blood pool in Ms. Yukizome's face before the wounds of her chocolates had set in, or prior to the knife tha—”

Yes, before the knife,” he confirmed. “About the chocolates, well... that one's a little trickier to tell. It almost was like they happened at the same time. But that can't be... Let me... Let me, uh...” As he drifted, Munakata squeezed his hand. They huddled against one another, insufferably sweet. “No, no, her eyes were first. Before the coughing. I know because the first thing she said to me wasn't hard to understand.”

Kiyotaka blew out a breath. “What did she say to you?”

“She said...” Juzo's breaths came in heavy. “She begged for me to go check on Kyosuke's students. I didn't understand—why his? Why right then? But now I'm starting to...”

Munakata's students. Excepting that Izayoi was a special case, the suspicion on him was beginning to lessen. Kiyotaka would say he could breathe easier if he only could piece together what this infuriating conversation Juzo had had with the victim meant for the rest of her murder.

“I think she knew,” Juzo declared, “who killed her.”

Byakuya smacked the back wall. “Then what did she say? Stop floundering in circles, and testify about this crucial piece of information!”

Juzo looked down at his fisted hands.

Testify: “Chisa's Suspect”

“She said... She said...” Juzo squeezed his eyes shut. “She said that they didn't know what they were doing.

“She kept—trying not to reveal who it was, being really vague. It must've been someone she really cared about.

“They didn't understand what they were doing because this school's so shit at teaching our students anything outside of pursuing their fancy ultimate talents, or whatever the hell.

“She seemed to think that something else had brought them to murder—not their own convictions.”

Kiyotaka gaped after the witness.

Mondo stole his “HOLD IT! How the fuck did she say all those things in the span of a few bloodied seconds?”

Juzo blinked. “I don't know.”

“Y-You don't know?” Munakata gripped him. “Juzo, are you still hallucinating some of these statements?”

“N-No...” The witness stilled. “I don't... think so. I hear her voice saying all that. I mean, that's something she'd say, right?” He glanced to Munakata for confirmation.

His companion slowly, haltingly nodded. “She's too selfless for her own good. But—To think that she'd be fully aware of her murderer and still implore you to take care of them, I... Wh-Why was she talking to you, anyways? What about—”

“I think the second the blood came down her face, you sorta shut down, Kyosuke. I know you pride yourself in having a better memory than mine, and all, but not even you could handle what happened. You've known her for longer, so it... it hit you harder.”

“Ah.” Munakata bit his lip. When he let himself appear this vulnerable—and those edges dulled—and like a window, one could peek into his psyche—he really gave off this pleasant, almost alluring demeanor. Mondo seemed to notice as well by the way his brows rose.

While his brain swam, struggling to pick apart Juzo's testimony, Taeko grabbed him at the arm. “This is going around in circles! How do we know whether anything that weird big man is saying is true or not?”

“That's cross-examination,” Kiyotaka said. “I try to poke holes into his testimony. What doesn't hold wasn't the truth.”

“His brain is full of holes!” Taeko shrieked. “I don't like this at all. Is Sir Prosecutor hiring a replacement? Because I am getting bored, and he looks quite lonely over there.”

Byakuya did in fact look rather lonely just sort of standing there without an assistant to bicker with.

“W-Wait—You'd turncoat us?” Kiyotaka returned, cheeks coloring. “Taeko!”

“Not... turncoat! Just devil's advocate. It looks like it is more fun giving you a hard time, Kiyotaka.”

Of course it did. Of course it did.

Kiyotaka's head fell into his hands. On top of Taeko's shenanigans, he really was having trouble figuring out what in the world was the truth. Juzo just sort of said things without much rhythm or reason to them, but there was nobody else who could verify this conversation. It appeared Munakata hadn't heard it whatsoever—but that could be chalked up to a total hallucination on Juzo's part, if they only had proof that Juzo had suffered some sort of hallucination.

Proof that he'd spoken with Yukizome would have sufficed, as well... but they had nothing. Only Juzo and his infuriating testimony somersaults.

He sensed a fist pound into their desk. Mondo's gruff tone filled the restless courtroom. “So do you have any idea who killed your friend, Juzo? From the context clues she's given you?”

“Um... It sounds like someone she cared about. And it wasn't me. And it wasn't Kyosuke.” Kiyotaka spent all of one useless second trying to figure out if this was a lie only to shake himself and drop it. As ludicrous as this case had become, he didn't want to entertain the thought that a man without any evidence to his name had rushed in to kill his best friend.

Someone Yukizome appeared to care about... And she had allegedly said something about checking in on one of Munakata's students—so it was a first year.

This had occurred prior to Ruruka's chocolates setting in, so she hadn't yet realized she had swallowed two deadly weapons.

If he couldn't disprove Juzo's fever-dream statements—and it appeared Byakuya couldn't, either, by the furious frown on his face—then he would take them at face value. If nothing else, it appeared to have revealed another witness for them to question.

Juzo seemed to realize it as he did. “That's right! We still need to get—”

Abruptly his voice cut off. The wrestler's proud, tough head tilted, then dropped. Beady red droplets slunk down his cheeks.

His dark eyes had overflowed with vivid crimson.

His body pitched forward. His legs slammed into the ground, his head rushing to meet the witness stand.

Munakata froze, his mouth stretched wide in a soundless cry.

“Bailiff!” the Judge shouted. “Call an ambulance!”


The defense team sat on their usual courtroom lobby couch. Even Taeko had drawn silent, letting her thick black hair smother her face. The people of the gallery milled about them, talking up this new sickening twist. Kiyotaka's stomach knotted.

A recess had been called while Juzo was rushed to the hospital. Whoever had tried to stifle the witness had been unsuccessful, as Kiyotaka had come to the same conclusion to hunt down Ryota Mitarai. A part of him wondered whether his own eyes would have erupted with blood had he spoken up first.

He nudged Mondo now. “What's up?” his friend murmured. Their shoulders were hunched together, legs almost overlapping.

“Why... Why do you think that happened?” Kiyotaka whispered. “First Ms. Yukizome, now Mr. Sakakura. Why were they both targeted? I—How were they both targeted?”

What kind of weapon—something invisible to even the courthouse cameras—could activate from afar so seamlessly, shutting down a person's motor functions in such a manner? And the only way of knowing was the bleeding from the eyes... what sort of ruthless weapon were they up against..?

Whomever had used it, they'd done it in the middle of a trial. They clearly had no qualms with disrupting the law. Had... Had they thought nobody would be able to trace it?

“How they were both targeted...” Mondo drew a taut sigh. “We don't have anything that might show—I dunno—some sorta correlation between the two of them, do we?”

Kiyotaka scowled. “We have hardly any evidence that hasn't already proven something else!”

“Maybe flip something over?” Mondo suggested. “You never know when a conclusive piece of evidence is hiding right in plain sight, and you just—you just gotta get out your stylus and use the touch screen to—”

“Mondo, what are you talking about?”

Mondo shut up. “I have no clue.” He made a poor attempt of a laugh. “Sorry, I shouldn't joke at a time like this.”

Taeko still trembled at Kiyotaka's right side. He gently addressed her shoulder with his hand. “Taeko, are you okay? Do you need to talk about it?”

She shrunk further into herself. “I... I do not like things that I cannot understand,” she finally said. “I cannot understand the murderer. I do not know how their weapon works. What targets the eyes...”

“Maybe it has to do with the brain, or something?” Mondo interjected. “Can blowing up someone's brain make their eyes get all—like that?”

“Head trauma could cause it,” Kiyotaka murmured, “but I... I've never seen it this severe—and following up after a person collapses, no less.”

He seethed in place. Was there going to be a second victim? Would it be followed by a third—a fourth? The speed with which even someone as strong as Juzo had been incapacitated was crippling.

They needed to find out who had murdered Yukizome as soon as possible. This next witnesses would have to give them something that could take them to the end of this. Kiyotaka's one big piece of evidence revolved around him—so here was hoping blindly that their reveal would bring them any closer.

He took Mondo and Taeko's hands in his. “If either of you wants to step out now, you can. I don't want you to do anything that feels too much to handle.”

They'd witnessed what could have been a murder right before their eyes. Kiyotaka would forge through this alone if he had to, but he wouldn't drag his friends along, especially not when it could end their lives in the process.

“No,” Mondo said softly, his lips at Kiyotaka's ear, “I'm with you all the way. You think I'm gonna fuckin' let you take on this murderer by yourself?”

He couldn't help but smile to himself. “Thanks, Mondo. But”—turning now—“Taeko, if you don't—”

“Kiyotaka! No! Maybe I am scared, but I do not want to leave you! G-Goodness gracious, you are... silly!” Pouting, she wrapped her arms around him and stuffed her head into his shoulder. “We just have to be very, very, very careful. I-I know we can do it...”

He didn't call her out for the way she shook, or how her eyes couldn't quite meet his.

He knew. He was scared too. But he couldn't leave this pursuit of the truth behind simply because of that fear. He had to use it—to let it push him forward so that he worked faster, harder, until they could ensure that murderer wouldn't take any other lives.

Mondo attacked him from the left, and they devolved into a messy, tangled, laughing hug.

If they couldn't do this, who would?


They met an empty prosecutor's bench on their way back into the trial.

The Judge coughed into his sleeve, tapping his gavel gingerly. “It appears that Prosecutor Togami has gone missing...”

They gave him the benefit of the doubt and a minute or so to gather himself back up.

In the silence that followed, the Judge cleared his throat. “By default, the defense—”

“OBJECTION!”

In the split second offered to her, Taeko had sprinted over to Byakuya's bench. “I am filling in! Do not prematurely end this trial, Sir Judge!”

The Judge blinked. “But Miss Taeko, you don't even have a lawyer's badge! Were you at least certified to be a defense attorney, I'd likely overlook this—legality, and all—but... this?”

Taeko bravely pounded her freckled fists into Byakuya's evidence file. “You let Sir Makoto prosecute by himself all the time! I am simply filling in for Sir Makoto, who would be filling in for Sir Prosecutor if he were present! See? It is perfectly legal!”

The Judge's brow furrowed. “I don't believe I can argue with that logic. Let the trial resume!” He cleared his throat as Taeko shot a beam at her partners. “Miss Taeko, have you a new witness to call?”

Oh, gosh. Out of necessity, Kiyotaka understood what she was doing, but it was starting to get on his nerves just how excited she looked. She was jumping in place just a little bit, and her smile only kept expanding.

“Yes, I have a witness to call! U-Um...” She bit her lip.

Byakuya had to be searching for Mitarai at this time. Kiyotaka could only presume that that was why he'd missed the end of the recess.

So she couldn't call Mitarai, the only witness they had yet to cross-examine. In the drought that followed, the gallery's heated gazes swam over them.

Who could she call that would actively further the trial without obviously stalling? They didn't have any other witnesses left—everyone important save Miaya had already testified, and Miaya hadn't actually witnessed anything, as far as... as far as they knew.

Wait.

Taeko had reached the same conclusion. Proudly she squared her shoulders and cried, “I call Miss Miaya Gekkogahara to the stand, please! And—And Miss Seiko Kimura as translator, too!”

“Sure,” said the Judge, “I don't see why not.”

It was honestly impossible that the oblivious Judge could've realized how last-minute this setup was.

Her friends dutifully approached the court. Seiko squeezed her girlfriend's hand one last time before stepping aside to let her take the space at the witness stand. Miaya stood carefully, her eyes roving about the area while keeping Seiko close by. When Taeko started speaking, Seiko pointed to her before signing.

“Witness, name and profession, please!”

Miaya steadily began signing in return. She closed her eyes while she signed, and it helped keep her hands from shaking.

Seiko spoke for her. “This is Miaya Gekkogahara—third year at the Ultimate Talent Academy. She's also a part-time online therapist.”

Miaya's azure gaze snapped open again when she'd finished, awaiting Seiko's signal.

“Miss Miaya,” Taeko resumed, “please testify to us about the day of the crime. What did you see or—” she bit her tongue before she accidentally said hear.

Miaya squared up her shoulders. Shaking our her lovely blue hair, she turned to face the gallery. An odd tension had crackled between her brows.

Testify: “I Saw No Murder”

(Momentarily Kiyotaka was speechless. They had definitively picked the wrong witness to split-second cross-examine.)

Shoulders bunching, Miaya shook her head and quickly began to sign. Seiko rushed to translate. “But I saw other important things! So I'm going to just start testifying about that instead!”

(Taeko giggled and nodded approval. The mauve pantsuit she'd chosen for today fit her role as prosecutor perfectly.)

“I saw Seiko try to stop Izayoi, but he ran away. When she lost sight of him, she went searching, but I was bored. I wanted to play the bad crane games and win stuffed animals.

“No stuffed animals for me.” Seiko took off her mask to frown in sympathy for her girlfriend. “But I watched Ryota Mitarai win multiple. I wanted to ask for pointers, but he disappeared when I offered him a pen and pad.

“I am unsure where he could have gone. I looked a little, but I couldn't find him for the rest of the carnival.”

When Miaya finished signing, Seiko quickly added, “I was trying to find Izayoi because I was the one who saw Ruruka—and I had a really bad feeling. Turns out I was right, to nobody's surprise. But I only found him as he was throwing the knife, as we all know.”

“Shut up, Kimura,” muttered the defendant. “I get it. You don't have to keep rubbing it in.”

Ruruka stared at the space that separated her from her ex and all but withered.

“I really do, though,” continued Seiko, “because she deserves it and I feel bad that, like, you were totally under her control? But also—”

“SHUT UP!” squeaked Taeko. “Let Kiyotaka cross-examine you already!” The goth blushed around her mask.

Kiyotaka breathed a sigh of relief when the Judge seized the moment to signal for him. He nudged Mondo as he thought over Miaya's testimony. Mondo appeared just as confused.

He'd have to trust that Seiko had faithfully spoken everything, since they had literally no other way of knowing. This was all last-second, so he hoped the girls hadn't the time to stitch great lies for them to stumble through.

Then again, Seiko hadn't lied before, so there was no reason for her to lie now... right?

Evidence... Did he have anything—anything at all—that might somehow link Miaya's statements to something else...

“HOLD IT!” he shouted. Seiko pointed to him, catching her girlfriend's attention. He tried to speak a little slower to accommodate for her signing. “Miaya, you are the only person in the building who saw Ryota Mitarai on the day of the crime. Where did he go? What was he doing?”

Miaya's brow furrowed. Her signs came haltingly.

“I don't know. He didn't want to be near any other people, it seemed.”

Didn't want to be—

“Please add that to your testimony!” he squeaked, and, confused, Miaya turned and shrugged at her girlfriend. She made two thumbs-up with her hands and brushed the knuckles together, turning her thumbs away from each other.

Seiko snorted. “Just... here.” She signed back rapidly. “You just gotta appease him, alright? He said add it to your testimony, so just stick it between two statements or something.”

Oh, her eyes seemed to say. She thought about it, then appropriately stuck her testimony between two other statements.

Her last statement became, “I am unsure where he could have gone. I couldn't find him, maybe because he didn't want to be near any other people.”

Mondo hummed thoughtfully. “Wait, wait, how the fuck do you go to a carnival and not be near any people?”

“Well, with Izayoi,” Kiyotaka replied, “he decided to sit on a booth's roof... so, where else could Mitarai have hid to avoid other people...”

“Man.” Mondo dragged a hand through his hair. “What idiot brought a bunch of neurodivergent introverts to a carnival? They really should've seen the whole murder thing coming. That's like, the last place you're gonna wanna bring these poor kids.”

“Unfortunately, you were not their teacher.”

Mondo actually paused at that, his brows furrowing. “Is it hard to become a teacher?”

“Four years of college.”

Damn. Who the hell got that kinda money? Certainly not the fucking teachers. They get paid shit, don't they? What clown made the system work like that? That just seems totally counterproductive.”

Kiyotaka couldn't help but break a smile. Mondo's gaze alighted upon him, and, cheeks pink, he grinned in return.

The attorney added, “Just have Taeko forge a graduation certificate for you.” It was truly unfortunate that she would not charge nearly as much as four years of university. How did Mondo even exist? He just wanted to provide for children and give unnervingly accurate therapy to their parents. But the way life was built, that option just wasn't there.

“Nah, it's alright.” Mondo's fingers addressed his shoulder. “When I'm working here with you, I get more than enough chances to do what I would've done if I had money, time, resources, uh, less mental health problems. So it kinda evens out. Plus, I get to spend my days with... uh...” He conspicuously turned away as his ears were inflamed red.

Kiyotaka blinked as he noticed how quiet the rest of the courthouse had become. In fact, the eyes of the gallery, the defendants, the witnesses, and even the Judge had been drawn to them. Taeko politely glanced off, but she had that knowing smile on her face like she'd concocted this whole trial so that she could get them trapped in moments such as these.

Blushing, he shook himself and pounded each fist onto his desk. “HOLD IT!”

Seiko pointed to Miaya and said, “Again? Dude, you're really confusing her.”

“I'm confused myself! If we already examined the booths' roofs, where else could Mitarai have snuck off to? Do you think he left the carnival?”

Miaya's scarf bunched up around her face. She shut her eyes again to sign more clearly.

“She thinks he must've. She looked really hard for him. She didn't wanna really make it clear since that's kind of embarrassing, but she was desperate for this stuffed bunny in one of the crane games and Mitarai was kind of her only hope.”

Taeko pouted. “Seiko! Tell her I said I could help her! And I still will!”

Seiko signed, and Miaya blushed, shaking her head. “She said it's okay. You already got her that figure.”

“No! I would love to assist you further! Those asshole carnies had it coming!” She pounded her fists into Byakuya's desk, reveling in the power it granted her.

Kiyotaka all but forgot about the evidence he had on top of everything else when his eyes skittered over his map and he froze.

Mitarai was...

Juzo hadn't been the only one there, had he? Kiyotaka almost smacked himself. Of course! There were stuffed animals in that blanket fort!

“OBJECTION!” he shouted, and the mutterings of the courtroom drew silent. “There is one place at the carnival I believe Mitarai could've been hiding in when he hadn't wanted to be seen. I don't yet understand why he was there, but I did locate some stuffed animals in this hidden corner.”

He offered his map to the court. “This spot here, in the middle, is blocked off by other booths in the center, but their backs all face one another, creating a small clearing. There's a gap between the balloon pop booth—the scene of the crime—and the one before it that would allow someone to sneak in. I propose that Ryota Mitarai went here while he was missing!”

The gallery bubbled with theories, but there was no Ryota Mitarai present, he realized, to contradict him. Where was Byakuya?

He didn't have the prosecutor's number, either. No way of contact.

But Byakuya wouldn't just evaporate during a trial... he wouldn't leave unless he had a reason.

“Well,” the Judge spoke through the chilly silence, “I don't believe Ryota Mitarai is currently here for us to cross-examine this statement, and Miss Gekkogahara has already confirmed that she doesn't know where this potential witness disappeared to, so we will have to table this theory of the defense's for now.”

Mondo blew out a sigh. “You're getting really good at this, Taka. But—Fuck, what do we do now...”

He leaned into his partner. He... He didn't know. They couldn't just wait around for Mitarai to show up, especially not if the boy had gone missing after all. There had to be something else they could do...

“Oh!” Seiko spoke up. “Mi says she wants to testify about another matter that she thinks is important to make clear.”

Taeko smiled brilliantly. “Yes! Go ahead! Testify about whatever you want!”

She was both the best and the worst prosecutor Kiyotaka had ever worked with. Then again, Taeko wasn't even a prosecutor, legally or otherwise.

Miaya jumped in place, readying herself.

Testify: “The Video”

(The video... Kiyotaka swallowed tightly.)

“I can't describe it, but I know it was evil. We found it on Mitarai's drawing tablet yesterday.

“Didn't watch enough to see whether he had drawn it, or maybe downloaded it, or it was malware, but it emanated a tremendously malevolent energy.

“Scared for the others, I wouldn't let them watch it, so we—”

“NOT SO FAST!”

The sheer tonal whiplash of a certain detective's wolfish howl knocked even the signs out of Miaya's hands. While she couldn't hear Lang, he had strode in front of her, his coat flapping behind him like a majestic cape, and whether or not she continued to sign, Seiko couldn't see them with Lang so securely standing in front of the witness stand.

“Hi,” he said. Then he waved. “Detective Shi-Long Lang. Sigma wolf. Menace to all prosecutors, defense attorneys pending. Deliverer of key information, for once in my entire life.” He snapped his fingers, plopped his double eye patch shaped sunglasses onto his face, and continued.

“I am the one who analyzed this key piece of evidence, after the girl standing behind me so kindly let me borrow it.” For effect, Lang produced the chipped and blood-coated tablet. “I didn't watch the video myself, but I had a computer simulation run it, and the computer actually exploded, so that taught us as much as we needed to know about the video's contents. This scar?” He pointed at a nicked spot on his chin. “From the computer exploding.

“I got this way too enthusiastic forensics expert lady to help me analyze the video in every other way, and she managed to figure out that it's connected to uh, to this thing, what's it called...” He put down the tablet to look at some scribbled handwriting on his palm. “Blue... Blue... fangs? Bluefangs? What is that, a rival faction to my own?”

Kiyotaka cupped his hands and hissed to Lang, “Bluetooth.”

“Ohhhhh.” Lang whispered a thanks in return. Mondo gave Kiyotaka this weirdly violated look. “Bluetooth. Yeah, apparently the video was bluetoothed to three sources. One connection had failed, but right before my eyes, another one shut off today!”

...another one shut off today. And one was already disconnected.

Three in total.

Three in total...

Kiyotaka felt his eyes swiveling as they landed upon the three images he had found on Mitarai's tablet, one of which had indicated a red dot at the back of each Academy teacher's head. That—He swallowed tightly—That did in fact make three sources.

And he had no other leads so far of what had caused the transmission that shut down Yukizome's mind... nor the one that had sent Juzo to his knees...

...and there had to be a reason why nobody else appeared to be affected—why the murderer had only taken out two teachers rather than the surprisingly competent detective, or the attorney, or the pros—

...the prosecution. Where was Byakuya? Was he... Had he been..?

But—No. This evidence, if it was to be believed, proved that Byakuya couldn't possibly be incapacitated in this manner.

If this proved what is appeared to be supporting...

Shaking, Kiyotaka pounded a fist. “Detective Lang! This evidence is crucial. And I... And I think there's only one way to find out what it means.”

Lang, clearly befuddled, stared back at him with the same dopey expression as always. And as always, it was inexplicably endearing.

“One of the witnesses was recently incapacitated. It may be because this dangerous video that demolished a computer is hooked up to—to his body. Would you visit the hospital and check to see if there happens to be—a chip, a speaker, something—connected to him?”

“AIIIIYA!” Lang leaped to attention. “A patrol! Sure!” He whistled, and various howls broke out across the gallery. “C'mon, boys. We gotta go do a thing for Ishimaru.”

Taeko's mouth fell open as the detective and his lackeys rushed out of the room, leaving a bewildered Miaya in their wake. Seeing that he'd forgotten the tablet, Kiyotaka went over to pocket it. Mondo blinked, then hissed as he returned, “What the hell was that? Why's he so—trusting of you?”

Kiyotaka shrugged. It was one of those things that couldn't be explained.

“Oh my!” exclaimed the Judge once all that excitement had whirled itself out of the room. “What a bombastic trial! Not only has our prosecutor been replaced, but for once, it appears the defense attorney is calling the shots. That never happens. It's probably not legal, but it's rather exciting, so I'll okay it for now.

“Mr. Ishimaru, should we hold a recess to give Detective Lang time to report back with his findings? I couldn't exactly follow what makes these blue teeth so important to the trial for myself.”

“Yes!” broke in Kiyotaka. “Yes—These findings are integral. We should wait and see what they reveal.”

“Alrighty, then. I assume thirty minutes will be enough time.”

Thirty minutes. They had thirty minutes to locate Byakuya—and hopefully Mitarai as well.

Lang had thirty minutes, too... Kiyotaka hoped he'd make it back shortly.

Chapter Text

“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...

Chapter Text

When he came home alone, Taeko was on him in seconds. She opened her mouth to barrage him with teasing, prying questions when he broke down in front of her, and she stopped everything and hugged him.

Then she badgered him into binging television with her, well into the night.

The next few days passed in a blurry tirade that lacked form, definition. Without Mondo to fill his time, Kiyotaka found that he had no idea what to do with himself. It was as if the man he had been prior to meeting Mondo no longer existed.

He'd already tried calling him twice, but he kept reliving Mondo's final words to him. This is goodbye. And then his phantom passed him by, shutting down his mind, and he couldn't do it. He couldn't bring himself to ask why.

He'd just lay on the couch and stare up at the ceiling and wonder what, what, what he did wrong. Taeko was trying to convince him that he hadn't, that it was all accessory's fault (and that she needed to break some accessory kneecaps), but it just kept revolving through his head.

Too soon? Had he come on too strong?

On Taeko's insistence he get out of the house, he eventually found the courage to relay his last few days to Sakura and Aoi, the latter all but dragging him to his favorite shops. Aoi's babbling chatter was a nice distraction, but only that. A distraction.

Everything: a distraction. He roved as if a ghost.

As the days crept on, his self-pity malformed into something deeper, something that crawled under his skin. He had this—feeling—that something was going on with Mondo, something bad, but he had no proof. And the next time he called—just to check in, just so see—there was still no voice at the other side.

So badly as he wanted to check on Mondo's little halfway house and see for himself, he had to respect his friend's—once friend? no, that hurt too much to consider—boundaries. Mondo had said that that was goodbye...

He couldn't even handle himself anymore.

So frustrated with his own inability to function, he managed to get out of his pajamas one afternoon and took himself outside, seeking the fresh, hot air. Anything other than the dark ambiance and curtains Taeko insisted on keeping their apartment locked in—a swampy preternatural darkness. Like a vampire's brood.

He all but tripped over a boy on his way down the front steps. Then—Looked back—Froze.

He knew this boy. What was his name... He'd seen him before—

When he'd moved here! That was right, this kid helped them.

“Normy!” he exclaimed. One of Mondo's little buddies.

The kid looked up through his long orange hair at him. His mottled gaze wobbled, tight with emotion, his pudgy kid face shuddering.

Kiyotaka blinked. “Normy?” he asked, softer. “What's wrong?”

He got up abruptly, his flip-flops slapping across concrete. He rushed over to Kiyotaka, his kid-fists quavering with held-in ferocity. “B-Big bro said don't come, said... said don't tell Mr. Taka what happened... but, but but... but...”

Normy hurriedly swiped his wet cheek. “But big bro only has one more d-day...”

“Wh-What?! Normy, what's—”

“Big bro Mondo's in jail... he's—he said it's okay, but it's definitely n-n-not..!”

In... jail..? Kiyotaka was getting lightheaded. Mondo—in jail?!

“Normy, why's he—”

“There's only one more day, and it's looking really really bad! Big bro Mondo—Big bro Mondo's gonna d-die..!”

Kiyotaka laid a hand on the quaking boy's shoulder. “What did he do, Normy? Why's big bro Mondo in jail?”

Normy let out a little sob. “He says he's a bad guy...”

Kiyotaka's heart twinged. He didn't think he could get anything else from the kid.

“Thank you. I'll be right there, okay? Do... Do you want to come with me?”

Reality came back into focus for the kid as his wish was granted. Hurriedly he stumbled back, shaking his head. “Going... um... Going now. Bye bye!” And he ran off into the streets.

Kiyotaka would have rushed after him were he not one of Mondo's kids. He knew Normy could take care of himself, even as he cringed watching the street swallow him up.

He ran up the stairs of the apartment and hurtled into Taeko's room. “TAEKO! WE'RE GOING TO THE DETENTION CENTER!”

“What? Why the hell are—”

She shut up when she wandered out of her room and met the fire in his eyes.


Day 1: Investigation


They took the bus. It wasn't nearly as cool as Mondo's motorcycle.

The heady afternoon sun glistened overhead, causing even the frightening Taeko Ishimaru (she got huffy if he ignored the forged adoption certificate) to wilt. She's done her hair back in a pair of buns, today's outfit consisting of a purple-and-red tank dress with little strawberries patterned across it, accompanied by a pair of flowery lilac sandals.

Kiyotaka felt woefully underdressed beside her in a white tee and pale green shorts. As always, he had his katana charm and attorney's badge pinned to his breast. Just in case.

They slouched in their bus seats as they waited. Taeko kept almost starting to ask him something, but then she'd look at him, and her cheeks would pink, and she ultimately would not.

She proceeded to drag them through the sun once they'd reached their bus stop, crying for air conditioning.

But as soon as the familiar steely gray of the detention center settled around them, a leaden dread filled his stomach. He all but sprinted down the hall, overpassing his companion. Where—His heartbeat spiked up his throat—where?—rushing past delinquents and witnesses in custody and cops alike until—

There. The door marked for him.

Kiyotaka took in a deep, long breath, his eyes shut. He leaned his forehead against the metal door, trying to cool his mind and thoughts.

His heart labored. His hands formed fists, and he squeezed them tightly.

Then in creaked the door, and he let himself through.

The hunched figure on the other side didn't register him at first. His hood fell back, and glistening violet eyes met his—and there was a sharp exhale, something like relief—

Then Mondo cringed, the shadows crossing his face. “What the hell are you doing here? Get out.”

His heart—ached. “Mondo,” he rasped, savoring the sound of his name. He moved slowly, approaching the man behind the glass wall.

Mondo stood. “G-Get out!” His hair, matted from sleepless nights and lack of attention, shrouded the snarl in his complexion. “You're not my attorney. Y-You need to go!”

“Who's defending you?” he asked. “Let me talk to them. I need t—”

NO! I have an attorney, and it's fuckin' not you! Get out of my face!”

“O-Okay, fine!” he thundered back. “But can't I see you? You haven't spoken with me since—”

“Because we have nothing to talk about! Dammit, Taka—Go away!”

He'd nearly reached Mondo's side, but here his footsteps stalled. He couldn't keep pretending this wasn't ripping him apart retort by retort—and Mondo's face warped as the tears blurred his gaze, rushing down his cheeks.

He managed to choke out a word. “Why?”

He could no longer see Mondo, but he heard his breaths come out pitched, ragged. Slowly Mondo's soft, gruff voice unspooled. “Because I'm a murderer. I'm not...” A hitch of breath. “I'm not the person you thought I was. And I'm just gonna keep hurting you more if you try to stay.”

His heart pummeled him. Swallowing around a whimper, he said, “That's not true. You're Mondo Owada, th-the adopter of orphans and disowned kids. And it doesn't stop th—”

“That doesn't fucking matter! Taka, I killed someone! Please, j-just leave!”

“It doesn't stop there!” he returned, forcing his voice higher. “Be-Because you helped me, t-too..! You saved me, from—from—” The memories had overwhelmed him, the words too numerous to fit through his mouth.

“I'm done talking to you!” Mondo roared. “Leave me alone!”

He realized, sniffling, that he was incapable of changing Mondo's mind. Mondo wasn't going to talk to him.

Not... Not here, anyways.

Already his hand was reaching for the charm, and he squeezed the katana, and the world reverberated as it spun, overtaken by green. The mindscape's jade hue enveloped the cramped interrogation chamber, and Kiyotaka momentarily was dazzled by the gleam of his blade. It entered his hands, and his wary gaze traveled over to Mondo.

His fingers trembled around the hilt. As he fidgeted, his heart spiked up his throat. Mondo stared him down.

The katana fell from his hands, clattering against the ground. He couldn't hurt Mondo.

He couldn't hurt Mondo...

When his weapon left his grip, Mondo—Mondo came surging through the partition—physical barriers didn't exist here—Mondo rushing to meet him—Mondo grabbing him by the shoulder and bracing him against the wall—

—and then the lithe flicker of silver, the cold tongue of blade at his throat.

A pocket knife. Of—Of course, a pocket knife, of course the leader of a biker gang would always keep something easy hidden on him, just in case.

Mondo's chest was pressed against his own. He surrounded Kiyotaka, his scent—sharper, metallic. The way Mondo had curved the knife forced Kiyotaka's chin to raise, and their eyes met. Any one too-frantic inhale could send him out of the jade mindscape—could ruin his only chance at coaxing Mondo to let him in.

He could hear Mondo's breathing. Could feel it chasing his lips. At first it was tight, pronounced, focused, but as they stood, ensnared by one another's bodies, locked in their standstill, Mondo's breaths weakened. Jagged, they cut off, then spiraled out of his control, the blade shuddering at Kiyotaka's throat. Mondo's gaze paled with horror—and he pulled himself back—and his head crashed into his hands—and he whispered, “I can't lose you too..!”

Kiyotaka swallowed tightly. His throat pinched. The questions were bubbling in his mind, but he quelled them for now, pressing his mouth shut. He gazed after Mondo—through the exhaustion caking his face and the wildness of his eyes and the firm snarl at his lip—to the man he'd come to care so deeply for.

He was still there. He was always there. As confusing and hurtful and cruel as this felt, he could still see Mondo quivering before him, peeking between his fingers at him.

When he reached out to Mondo, his partner backed off, and he let his hand fall.“You don't understand, Taka,” he finally dared speak. “Everyone I've ever loved was killed by my hand. I told you about my brother—about the accident. W-W-Well, I finally broke down and told the police th-that it was me. I killed Chi.”

The resignation that had claimed him... the exhaustion, the years-long regrets, the acceptance...

“S-So you need to get away from me. I'm sorry. I know this is all my fault.” Mondo had slunk to the concrete floor, wrapping his arms around his legs. His chin rested over his knees. “I should've cut things off sooner. But I... I couldn't help it. That's a terrible excuse, I fucking know it, but even after you stopped needing my help, I... I wanted to be near you...”

He hid his head in his arms, his hair obscuring all but the first trickle of his tears.

“Mondo,” he breathed, sitting down beside him. “Mondo, what do you mean?” The words had amassed within him, and he fought to get them out before they strangled him. “I never stopped needing you.”

Mondo's voice was muffled, strained. “That's not true. I have no fucking clue what I'm doing when I go to court with you. You don't—”

“Yes, I do!” Angrily he grabbed Mondo's shoulders and gripped him, feeling the pseudo-warmth of his psyche. “You don't get to decide whether or not I need you, Mondo! Th-Th-That's not your decision to make!”

Because he did. And he felt it pulsing within him, and it had stolen his breath away, and he did, and he did, and he did, so desperately.

Mondo let out a poorly-stifled whimper. Kiyotaka lowered his hands, wrapping his arms snugly around his back. A pair of strong arms snuck around Kiyotaka and clutched him with everything he had, hands fisting his shirt. “Goddammit.” Mondo straightened, mumbling into his chest. “You wear the same fucking white shirt every day. Why is it so cute.”

“I-It's not the same shirt,” Kiyotaka squeaked. “I just own fourteen pairs of them.”

“God, what are you, a cartoon character?” Mondo broke into a chuckle, hugging him tighter. “I shouldn't feel this way.” His grip slackened abruptly. “I shouldn't be this happy. Wait—I—Fuck, fuck fuck—” Already he was scooting back, his arms returning to his—

“Mondo.” Kiyotaka took his hands. Mondo couldn't find the strength to tear away from him. “I... have a proposition for you.”

Mondo stared at him, eyes wide and wet and threatening to upend a storm of pain.

“Listen to me,” Kiyotaka murmured. His thumbs stroked the backs of Mondo's hands. “I'm going to defend you tomorrow. I-If your attorney's okay with that—I'm going to ask to take over your case. And... I'm going to prove you didn't kill Chi.

“And that will mean you don't have to be scared of being near me. Because it means you don't kill everyone you care about.”

These words that escaped him... his heart trembled. He had no evidence at this time—absolutely no proof that Mondo hadn't killed Chi those three years ago. What he was making was essentially a gigantic bluff.

...but this was Mondo. Mondo had loved Chi. Mondo had cared so deeply for them. Mondo would never kill her.

So... whatever had happened... somehow, somehow, somehow someone or something else must have caused her demise.

Kiyotaka took Mondo into his arms and held him close. He tucked his head into Mondo's neck and tried to focus on the indescribable comfort that enveloped him when Mondo reciprocated the gesture, holding him in return. He ran his fingers along Mondo's back, savoring the sweetness of his body.

He'd save him. He would. He would.

When he next opened his eyes, he found himself standing at the glass partition that separated him from Mondo. His hand was outstretched, the glass cool against his skin.

Mondo, gaze alighting, raised his hand, too, and their fingers overlapped, if only Kiyotaka could feel his warmth.

Sniffling, his partner said, “I don't know if I believe in you, b-but I'm gonna try.”

Kiyotaka closed his eyes, breathing out slowly. He sensed the weight of Mondo's trust settling across his shoulders.

He turned to face his partner. “Thank you. I'll prove you wrong, I promise.”

They stared at each other a long moment.

“So,” Kiyotaka broke in, “who was your first attorney?”

“Oh, don't worry about that.”

Kiyotaka blinked. “Did... you have an attorney?”

“Uhhh.” Mondo sort of shrugged. “Attorney is a word. For it. Sort of.”

Mondo, you cannot legally—”

“Yeah well fucking Taeko can't legally be a prosecutor but she sure goddamn tried last week! Don't worry about it. It'll sort itself out.”

...what were the last two days of Mondo's trial like..?

With that obscene answer out of the way, Kiyotaka brought up his more pressing matter. “What happened three years ago? What... What made you confess to it now? I'm sorry”—he winced at the icy terror in Mondo's eyes—“I know, I know you don't want to talk about it anymore... but if you don't tell me then we'll never find out the truth.”

Mondo wouldn't look at him. His mouth set in a grim line. “I had my suspicions, but I was a coward. So I... I didn't say anything. I-I dunno. After you—After you said those things to me, um, at the carnival, I just... I couldn't let you be near someone who might kill you, but I couldn't just say that, either, so... now we're here.”

...his confession scared Mondo into confessing murder? In another world perhaps he'd laugh.

But now his stomach clenched. “What do you mean, your suspicions? E-Either you did it or you didn't.”

“It's not that simple.” Mondo stared at the distance between them—through it. His hand formed a fist, and he pounded it into the thick glass. “I... You don't understand... I was so upset, and then—and then her blood—god, Taka, her blood... I just didn't wanna believe it was them until I had no other choice.”

“What happened?” he whispered. “Mondo, please tell me.”

His lilac gaze flickered. “We were all moved into their building. See—They'd gotten this big fat grant for being a smart genius, so I was helping her move and get used to it and stuff. They kept tryna get me to stay with 'em, and I...” A nostalgic softness curved his features. “I finally gave in. I had to explain to my boys that I wouldn't be sleeping at the house anymore. They were all freakin' out at first, but somehow we managed to calm everyone down. Heh—For awhile, they hated Chi for that.

“It was...” Mondo's breaths had weakened, ragged. “It was nice.” He swallowed. Pressed his lips tight. “She was real sweet. You... You would've liked them, Taka. I-I think, at least.” He kept fidgeting, stalling. “But we were—getting settled in. We were getting settled in. And then—a few weeks in—we'd been preparing for a night out. It was gonna be all cute-like. Chi had on this adorable little dress and, and I...”

The tears rent down his cheeks. “I... don't remember what color it was. I just see the blood. God... God, god, god... Chi, I—Chi...” His head heaved into his hands, and he fought to breathe. “Fucking—I'm sorry, I'm tryna explain...”

Kiyotaka shuddered. Mondo was so close, and yet—and yet—this infuriating glass wall held them separate. He could see everything and yet he was powerless to comfort the one he cared for so deeply.

He discreetly wiped at his cheeks when Mondo looked back up. His client bit his lip but didn't comment on it. “Hey, I didn't... I didn't even tell my other attorney this.” He made a furtive peek at Kiyotaka through the shrouding of his hair. “But I... I d-didn't believe it at first, cuz it's been so long, but it's the only logical answer.

“I had another...” The shame drained the color from his face, cast his gaze to the ground. “I had another rage spell. I—I used to get them a lot after Daiya died, b-but it'd been years since my last one, so I thought—so I thought it couldn't be possible. But I lost it and all I saw was red and then Chi was... Chi was...”

His breaths came out too fast. He was gasping for air. “I must've been reminded of him somehow. I dunno. It's... It's been so long since I've had one—other than that one—that I'm just—god—even thinking about it makes me all fucking jittery. It's... Taka, it's relentless. You lose all control. You don't know what's going on. Must've been a side effect of how I grew up, all that toxic masculinity coupled with the grief, but... goddamn, I thought I was moving on...”

“Mondo,” he uttered, and rapidly his friend shut his mouth. “If you don't physically recall killing her, then maybe—”

“Stop,” he whispered, “please don't give me hope.”

Kiyotaka gazed after him.

Mondo sniffled, continuing. “Chi's head hit the counter top by the sink—by the knives and cutlery. She must've been trying to protect herself, Taka. And then I... god, I...” Shook his head. “I've had these before. I know exactly how they go, how to gather up the evidence left and piece together what the hell happened while I... w-wasn't myself.”

“Unless someone left you the wrong—”

“There were no fingerprints, goddammit! None but my own and Chi's! No fucking security cameras from her bougie grant patrons showed anyone out of the ordinary. No broken windows, no footprints covered in soot from the chimney—nothing! We got a mistrial because I was so fuckin' broken up about it that not even the prosecution could convince anyone I did it. I was clearly too distraught to've had an ulterior motive.

“And I have no motive...” His hands held up his drooping head. “I have no motive, but that doesn't mean I didn't do it. Man... the only weird thing is that Chi's body was all caught up in these wires that'd like, strung them up? And like, I dunno why the fuck my subconscious would do that, maybe they just got caught in them or something, but that's literally the only suspicious thing. I mean besides... besides Chi being dead at all.”

So he had no proof. Nothing—There was nothing that drew suspicion to a single other party.

While Kiyotaka thought furiously about what he knew so far, he all but collapsed at the creak of the door opening. Turning, he gasped in relief at the sight of none other than Taeko.

She sprinted through the interrogation chamber, rushing up to the glass to throw one big middle finger in Mondo's face. “You piece of shit! How dare you kill someone and ruin all of my shipping fantasies!”

“Taeko,” Kiyotaka hissed, “don't ship real people.”

“Oh no, just you and accessory.” She scowled at the attorney. “I was trying to give you some privacy, but then everything got all quiet and huffy, so I decided to try and help improve the mood a tiny bit with my presence.”

He couldn't help but smile, if slightly.

Mondo scowled up at the teenage menace. “Man, you too? I can't get a break.”

“Then maybe try not killing people!”

“I—” Hurt, Mondo glanced away. “I didn't mean to! Dammit, Taeko, we aren't all as fucking perfectly coordinated as you.”

Taeko rolled her eyes and nudged her partner. “”People don't have to be coordinated to just not commit murder,” she muttered. “Kiyotaka, I was eavesdropping a tiny bit, so let me make sure I got the details of the murder straight.” She then proceeded to depict the entire conversation he'd had with Mondo prior to her arrival, the jade mindscape segment outstanding. Even without its inclusion, she didn't bother questioning how he'd gotten Mondo to break down—she likely assumed Mondo couldn't help it.

And he couldn't, in a sense.

“Now, now,” Taeko returned, tittering, “you insinuate, Mondo, that the murder weapon was a counter?”

Mondo shrugged. “That's where the blood was.”

“Was there blood anywhere else?”

“Uhh. No? I mean, splatters, probably, but—”

“Kiyotaka, I have a fun and exciting adventure for us to embark upon!” She grabbed his arm—

“Taeko! I'm not done questioning him yet! Give me a moment!”

She pouted. “Fine, but I get to choose where we go next.”

He didn't bother trying to argue with her.

Returning to Mondo, he asked, “Did anything strange happen that day—prior to your planned night with Chi? Could anyone have slipped you a drug or sleeping agent, or visited, or—”

“I've scrutinized this day harder than any other fucking day in my entire life.” Mondo let out a gnarly groan. “Nothing, Taka. If it wasn't me, then I guess the murderer's just straight up perfect because there was not a single thing out of place. Again—The only weird thing was the wires, cuz like... why would I do that. I guess I've done weirder things when I'm that angry, though...” He hummed to himself. “I dunno. That's the only thing.”

“She was... strung up?” Kiyotaka asked, just to make sure Mondo meant something normal and not utterly ridiculous.

“Yeah. Their body was all like, tied up in the air. It was pretty articulate. And there were like, scissors? Stuck to her arms? I must've been really mad to make something that, uh, artistic out of the... materials I had on me.” He managed a strained laugh. “I wish I remember what happened. Chi used to tell me, when I switched into those moods. They got really bad in high school. Honestly, something as small as a math test I thought I was gonna pass could rile me up.

“She was always there for me. I mean—I tried to be there for her, too, but they never failed to comfort me. I just wish I knew what'd gotten me so upset. Maybe they said something that made me snap. I don't...” A sigh. “I'll never know.”

Kiyotaka's heart squeezed. Slowly, mechanically he took out his court record—of course he always had it on hand—and jotted down some notes about Mondo's testimony.

His rage spell in particular sounded integral. Depending on the timing, if Mondo really had lost control, then he wouldn't remember if someone had somehow gotten into the room. Somehow... somehow. He had to believe that there was an opportunity for another murderer to arise—he couldn't possibly entertain the truth that threatened to overtake his mind. Mondo's version of the truth.

He stilled. He didn't have any other questions for Mondo, he realized. Taeko was tugging at his arm, vying after his attention.

He should go.

He couldn't go.

He stared at Mondo, the thought of leaving him alone with his trauma unbearable.

Mondo caught his gaze and flickered a ghostly smile. “Hey. It's okay. Go conduct your investigation. I'm telling you, staying here with me ain't gonna get me out of prison tomorrow. My memories are biased as shit, and I passed high school off the skin of my teeth. I bet you've already come up with fifty theories that're gonna bust me out if you just find the evidence for 'em.”

In spite of his misgivings, in spite of his conviction that he was the murderer, Mondo's eyes twinkled. “Go on, Taka. I'll be waiting.”

“Our cue,” Taeko hissed, all but dragging him out the door.

If Mondo broke down afterwards, he held his front bravely up until the door had firmly shut.


Taeko had already called Yamada with the limo for their trip to, as he came to learn, the Police Department. Taeko was chirruping about stealing all the three-year-old evidence and going on a rampage through the Criminal Affairs section like they owned the place. Kiyotaka couldn't find it in him to ask her why she knew the layout of the Police Department this obscenely well. She wouldn't give him a straight answer, anyways.

The worst part was walking up to the sleek parked vehicle. It had these annoying glittery cat ears Taeko had glued to the top and the license plate LIKENYA? squeezed in. But it was when Taeko hooked her arm around his and dragged him to her ludicrous car, and every single passing human being stared after them, that he came closest to regretting his selfless choices during his second trial.

He entered quickly and glared out the window, daring time to move faster. The sun, having furthered its descent, had struck its golden hour, rendering the streets, the towering skyscrapers, the people shimmering. He could hardly sit still as the limo strode on, feeling the seconds oozing by as Mondo sat in that cell and feared his hope of being proven wrong more with nobody there to refute him.

Once they'd maneuvered through rush hour traffic and reached the department, Kiyotaka sprung from the car and rent through the doors—smacking straight into the detective on the other side.

An entire file of papers sputtered from their grip. Flushing all over, Kiyotaka ducked to the ground and started helping gather everything up, when a familiar cold tone caused him to freeze. “Ishimaru, what are you doing here?”

He looked up. Winced. Detective Kirigiri.

He shakily handed back the detective's report. “I'm... taking over for the trial of Mondo Owada. I hope that won't be a problem?”

As she stared him down, Taeko slunk in and took to his side. She glowered at the detective. “Kiyotaka, why did you have to run into her? I was planning on breaking and entering.” She scoffed. “Now we have to do things the normal way.”

Kirigiri didn't bother acknowledging her. “No, I don't believe it will be a problem.” He almost asked her why when she cut him off. “I presume you require access to the evidence room. Go ahead and tell the presiding detective that you have my consent. They'll let you in.”

Then she strode off, arms full of crinkled evidence.

Taeko whistled. “Busy woman. If only she was less, ehh, lawful, and straight...”

Kiyotaka batted her. “Come on. Not every woman has to be a lesbi—”

“Whatever,” Taeko muttered, suddenly defensive. “Let's go.”

The presiding detective gave them an incredulous look when they declared Kirigiri had given them permission to enter the evidence room, but they did still allow entry. Kiyotaka and his assistant began the arduous process of scouring the labyrinth of evidence lockers. The room was kept at a biting cold temperature to keep certain pieces from spoiling. Neither of them had dressed for it and shivered their miserable way through the winding corridors, until finally Taeko located the locker whose code name matched the tag on their key—DL-7.

She popped in the key, and they dutifully began pulling out the remaining pieces of evidence from the stalemate trial of three years ago.

“I wonder why it's all here,” Kiyotaka murmured. “You'd think that the prosecution or Mondo's last defense attorney would've pocketed it.”

Taeko discovered a sheet of paper that had a list of all the evidence from the trial. At the top it was listed that the Chief of Police herself, Ms. Mukuro Ikusaba, had investigated the crime. “It appears we are missing a couple of things. Umm... a pair of bloody wires, some scissors, and a photograph of the crime scene. How peculiar.” She sifted through the remaining goodies. “But we do have access to a swatch of bloody fabric—how exciting—and... oooooh! Look look look! Kiyotaka!”

Jumping up and down, Taeko snagged a blue-glowing sheet. “This is what I was hoping for! See, see?” She was pointing so rapidly at the paper that he couldn't read a thing on it. “It's a luminol test!”

“A... what?” he squeaked.

Luminol! It is my very favorite thing, Kiyotaka! I use it a lot as a prop for my onlyfans!”

“You... T-Taeko?” The fear was trickling into his tone. He really didn't want to know what she did with her luminol prop.

“Oh, do not look so worried! It reveals bloodstains! For... many years!” Somehow her jumps had increased in length and number. “One time I saw this Internet article about somebody who used it in dirt, like, six years after a bloodstain had lain there, and it still did the thing! The glowy thing!”

Kiyotaka gawked at her. Finally he dared ask, “And why is this—”

“Because, look!” She straightened the sheet. There on it glowed a few segments of blue intermixed with the red of dried blood, creating an odd purple hue. Some blue glows were sprinkled further out from the original obvious shows of blood, suggesting a trail. The scene depicted a small kitchenette—counter top liberally encrusted with blood—and a corridor on the left that led to an undisturbed bedroom.

The crime scene.

“Oh, hey.” Taeko returned to the evidence list. “There is a video here too. Wanna watch it?”

Kiyotaka cringed. “Not... really.” He let out a reluctant breath. “But we should.”

“Oooh! Instructions. It says that you have to connect to the wifi and access the Police Department Cloud to watch it. How exciting!”

She grabbed Kiyotaka's phone and broke into the wifi in question. “Ah—Here we go.” She found access to a video under the “DL-7” tag and clicked it.

On the screen stood a man with short fluffy hair that cut off around the chin and shining bright lilac eyes.

His heart stopped. “I-I don't know. Taeko, this is...”

“What?” She glanced to him. “We have to, for the truth, or whatever. Right?”

He was having trouble breathing. “I just—I don't—It wouldn't feel right, to... um...”

Taeko gave him a long look. “Accessory himself wouldn't want you to ignore this video just because it could be deeply personal to him. Kiyotaka, this is about saving his life.”

“I-I know... I know...” But when he stared into his phone and saw that Mondo—that Mondo he would never know, that Mondo of three years ago who had died—he began to tremble, and his mind kicked up in speed and his vision blurred and he could hardly hear, and he couldn't, and he couldn't. And he couldn't.

Taeko gently patted his shoulder. “Fine, fine. I'll just leave it on your phone for you.” She skipped the illegal jargon and used some back route to download the evidence onto his phone.

“Thanks,” he said.

He'd have to watch it eventually, but... right now just felt...

Swallowing tightly, he turned back to the locker. “I don't think I see anything else.”

So the murder weapon was a counter, huh? He added that to his court record. Glancing over the rest of their gathered evidence, he took note of the luminol and the bloodied fabric. It... must have been a sample of Chi's.

Even holding the zip-loc that stored it caused him to shudder. Mondo's past lover... What had Chi been like? Did... he remind Mondo of Chi? Did that reminder ever hurt Mondo?

He knew they'd gone through high school together, and had kept in touch during and after Chi's blindingly fast trip through university. Years. They'd known one another for years of their lives, had shared hardships and fights and long, sleepless nights with nothing but the trauma and the solace of one another to keep them going.

He bit his lip. It felt—wrong—to come sauntering into Mondo's life after that. No wonder Mondo had laughed at Hiro's cheesy fortune—of course he wouldn't fall in love, and he didn't want to think about being a murderer, so he made fun of the anime boy prediction.

Drawing out a sharp breath, Kiyotaka fought the bite of tears in his eyes. He blinked rapidly. He had evidence now, evidence that might lead them towards—something. Something that proved Mondo wasn't the murderer. Right now, he needed to focus on that and that only.

Taeko tugged his sleeve. “Kiyotakaaaaa, I wanna go to the crime scene.”

“But it's three years old,” he replied. “That building is probably repurposed, or shut down.”

Taeko had already input the building's address—as the scene of the crime, it had been jotted onto her evidence list—into her GPS. “Hmm. I believe it is... still vacant!” She giggled. “Haunted!”

“D-Don't laugh at that!”

“What?” She bumped into him. “Scared of the ghoooooosts?”

“The ghost of Mondo's lover, yes!” he yelped.

Taeko burst into a laugh, crashing against his side. “Why? He's so smitten with you, it hurts to watch. If Chi really loved him, she would have wanted him to be happy again, anyways. Goodness, Kiyotaka. You are stringent on the silliest of things.”

He blushed, cheeks puffing out. He had no idea how to dispute that.

“Let's go, let's go. I want to speak with the ghosts!”

He let her drag him back to the limousine.


They broke in through the emergency stairs, whose wires Yamada had already tripped for their purposes. Kiyotaka was convinced they would get arrested, but Taeko reassured him that any cameras once set up in the building had already been disconnected.

At that, he stilled. “Where were the cameras, do you think? Could there have been any blind spots?”

Taeko gaped. “Maybe! Ooooh! Now I need to know!” She rang her bell, and her servant dutifully huffed and puffed up the four flights of stairs they had already climbed to reach Chi's penthouse. “Servant! Do some research for me. Please figure out how many cameras were connected to this building three years ago, and if there were any blind spots that could have been abused!”

Giving his young master a thumbs up, Yamada proceeded to roll all the way down the four landings.

“Good, good.” Taeko clapped her hands. “With that settled, we shall investigate!” She took out of her dress pocket a single white bottle with a massive Q-tip and began coating the floor, square by square, in the powdery contents of her bottle.

He watched over her for a moment. “Is that your luminol?”

“Yes. Now please, let me work.”

He backed off respectfully.

With Taeko coating the landing in front of the penthouse, Kiyotaka nervously entered the abandoned chambers on his own. His face landed in a spider's intricate web and he all but tripped over himself trying to get it off.

The living area matched his luminol picture. A small open space with a television and some fluffy chairs. He wondered, idly, why nobody had come to pick up these furnishings. Chi's parents or relatives, friends, even Mondo—why hadn't anybody taken them?

He could imagine the dread that Mondo would have to face to reenter this room. But what about the other people Chi knew..? She wasn't disowned too, was she? Or had they simply not kept in contact with relatives? Or... had nobody wanted to take their things?

Questions, questions, questions...

His footsteps left marks in the considerable layer of dust on the floor. He had to breathe carefully. Cobwebs decorated the walls and ceiling, yet the furnishings were lain akimbo—chairs half pushed out from under tables, cutlery left in the sink, doors ajar, as if to imply the tenants would be back at any minute.

Kiyotaka shivered. Was it really haunted..?

Or... did somebody want to keep this building vacant? And why?

If there was some strange connection between a potential accomplice and this aged crime scene, he needed to find it. Daring brave the musty halls, Kiyotaka rolled up his sleeves and began his search.

The little penthouse wasn't nearly as expensive as he might've guessed. Thrifted upholstery, floors worn by love and use. The lights didn't flicker on when he tested the switch, so he had to make use with his phone flashlight. The deeper he strode, the darker the hallways became, and he lost count of how many spiders he found in the lurking shadows.

There was one bedroom—Mondo must've shared it with...

Shook his head. Steeled himself. Came in through the creaking door.

Who had kept these chambers so eerily preserved, despite all the dust? He would have guessed someone had been squatting here if it weren't so nasty. On the nightstand sat a crusty little frame. It held a photograph of a young person with shaggy brown hair and a bright smile. Kiyotaka's heart stabbed at the sight of their companion—a grizzled man, all fluffy hair and bright eyes and soft lips.

So that was Chi. Chi and Mondo.

Kiyotaka gently turned the photograph around. He couldn't bring himself to keep looking at it.

Something about it—Something about all of this...

A few personal items—a missed pair of two of shirts, a comb, a thick science-fiction novel about the future of technology—littered the room. Kiyotaka felt as if he could dash the sheets from the bed and there Chi would be, awaiting Mondo.

He needed out.

When he exited the bedroom, he saw the hallway roved just a little farther on, ending at a white door. Cautiously he crept over and tested the knob, peeking behind the door to find none other than—a restroom.

And a pair of accompanying footprints in front of the toilet seat. No movement—no steps in any other direction. But the white tile floor was laden with dust save for in that exact position.

Kiyotaka stared at those footprints—smaller than his—for a long, bewildered moment. Then he held out his phone and snapped a picture.

Once he assured himself he'd managed a clean photo that clearly portrayed the footprints, he backtracked, stumbling through the devoid halls. He only stopped once he'd found Taeko, and he collapsed at her side.

“What?” She allowed him a single glance. She had finished the entryway and was now coating the living area's floor in luminol.

“I just... wanted to make sure you were still here,” he said, breathless.

Taeko squinted at him. “Where else would I be?”

He sighed. “I don't know. It was just a feeling. This place... it's—”

“Haunted!”

He closed his eyes. “Sure.” By living people, it seemed.

He waited dutifully for Taeko to finish her little project, welcoming the monotony of sitting and whiling away time with meaningless conversation. By the time she was satisfied, she'd discovered an entire two blotches of ghostly blue glowing bloodstains that didn't align with what had already been discovered at the crime scene. Upon marking her discovery on the previous evidence sheet, Taeko exclaimed, “My hard work pays off!” happily bestowing the photograph to her attorney.

Kiyotaka circled her new markings with his red pen. They were far enough from the victim's place of death that they appeared notably out of place. If only they could run a test on bloodstains that no longer physically existed... but a new confidence still poured through his veins. Herein lay concrete proof that something was off with this crime.

Yamada returned with his own findings shortly thereafter. “Servant has made an incredible discovery! Are you proud, Miss Overlord Queen Ruler Lady Celes—”

“Okay, okay, just tell me what it is!” Taeko squeaked, cheeks pinking.

Out of his onesie suit's pocket came a crumpled piece of paper. Yamada meticulously straightened it, showing off his poor handwriting in the shape of a diagram about the building. “See here? A gap!” He pointed between two cameras. “You sneak in, and then you do that maneuver, and then? The big drop. Nobody sees!” He was more mumbling to Taeko than anyone, who appeared to follow.

His master's brows raised, and she daintily clapped her hands. “Good job, Servant! Now take us home.”

“Wait.” Kiyotaka spoke up. Yamada's head swiveled. “No—Thank you for this evidence. It's crucial.” His heart pounded. Potentially life-saving. “But I wanted to speak with you first, Taeko.” She blinked, turning to him, and awkwardly pointed a finger at her face. “I... I'd feel safer if we stayed elsewhere tonight. If Chi's murderer is still at large, and they know Mondo is currently on trial, and they somehow figure out that we're currently investigating the murder at great enough lengths to potentially disclose their identity...”

Taeko's gaze grew glassy, her mouth falling open. “Oh my god,” she whispered. “Y-Y-You really think..?”

“M-Maybe not!” he clarified. “I could just—be really anxious.” It didn't help that during his last trial a man had nearly died before his eyes just to keep the murderer's identity as a witness secret. “But I'd feel safer if we had company.”

“Oh... um.” Taeko pouted. “Okay. But we have to stop at home first. I am not going to court tomorrow in anything less than my Sunday best, Kiyotaka.”

“I'd never expect anything else from you.”

Gosh, what would he do without her?


Kiyotaka held in a long breath before daring stab the doorbell. He didn't know what it was. Anxiety? Not usually going to other people's houses? Something about doorbells just freaked him out.

He cringed as its blaring chime resounded within the house. Its lights were on—he could see through the windows—casting beams through the harsh night. Immediately the door sprung outward. The sunshiney Aoi Asahina extended a hand, crying, “Yes! Yes! Do come in! Ohh Kiyo, we haven't had a sleepover in soooo long!” She excitedly started grabbing their overnight bags, stacking Taeko's makeup sets and dress boxes like they were nothing, then shepherded them in.

Aoi ran off to go set up her guest room, tagging out with Sakura. She fondly met her friend's eyes, taking in his shy assistant with a gentle glance, and asked if they'd yet eaten that night.

Taeko gasped. “I knew we forgot something!”

“I—Uh”—Kiyotaka flushed—“I suppose we got so distracted by the investigation that we...”

In his defense. In his defense. The defendant did happen to be the only crush he'd ever have come so close to becoming a fully-fledged relationship. Something more than an awkward first date or unfulfilling one night stand... he didn't know, at first, if he could imagine something so—reciprocated.

But his mind rolled to Mondo and his heart inflamed. Mondo...

Aoi abruptly clapped her hands in front of his face, having made her valiant return while he spaced out. “Hey! You're not doing nothing tomorrow if you straight up pass out like you did that one time in your pre-law class!”

Having friends was horrible. They just wouldn't let some things go, would they?

“That was one time, Aoi,” he groaned.

“Yeah, well, that one time, you almost ended up failing the class! Then what? Goodbye, dreams! Goodbye, future with hot biker sidekick!”

Taeko broke in, snickering. “Oh, that last one is already in jeopardy. You heard, yes? That he is on trial?”

The heaping platter of food fell from Sakura's hands.

She caught it—perfect coordination and all—but she glared down Kiyotaka. “You did not tell us about that.”

A low wince formed in Kiyotaka's throat.

Taeko shoved him. “You didn't tell them?”

“W-Well—I just—I was just—I don't know, it's sort of embarrassing how—”

“—your romantic endeavors keep hysterically flopping?” Aoi finished for him, giggling. “Yeah, that's rough. But hey! Does this one like you, at least?”

He stared back at her. He had no idea.

“Ummmm.” Taeko snorted. “He does. I answer the question for him. He definitely does. So we have to win the trial tomorrow, or else Kiyotaka's going to become an old cat lady.”

“I thought you didn't like cats?” Aoi cocked her head.

“Oh, it is not up to him.” Taeko tapped the side of her forehead. “I'm planning a campaign. It involves borrowing cats. Like with a library, except instead of books it is cats. And I am the only one who can use it.”

Aoi stared at her a long moment, then proceeded to clap. “Kiyo, I like this one! Good choice in adopting her!”

That actually wasn't his choice, but he didn't feel like bringing it up.

As they all settled down at the Asahina-Oogami dinner table, renovated with extra chairs for their sudden guests Sakura spoke up again. She didn't speak often, content to express through her babbling girlfriend or nonverbals, but here her pale blue eyes fell on Kiyotaka. Her regal tone washed over him. “You sounded nervous over