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Croatian Rhapsody

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If anyone thought that somebody stacked a dozen books on a desk in Hope’s Peak’s library and abandoned them there, they would be wrong but the mistake would be understandable. Behind the barricade of books lay Touko Fukawa, her shoulders hunched as she scribbled in a small purple notebook. Her pen nib scratched against paper, paving a story word by word. The world around her faded away within the first few sentences, and all that mattered now was the fictional girl made of thoughts, paper and ink who recently transferred to a new school.

Much like Touko, herself.

While she had her own dorm here, where she could work and exist as she pleased, for her current project, she wanted to draw from her surroundings. For example, as she left her dorm, her eyes darted about the narrow corridors, where the cream flooring was polished so much that she could see her blurred reflection in it, and she noted the slight resistance from the wooden stair rail as she descended to the ground floor. Once outside, Touko listened to the hum of school life under a sky with clouds boasting grey stomachs, and she remembered the lazy tumble of an empty packet of crisps as she crossed a courtyard.

The library emitted a rich, booky smell, a blend of glue and aged must, with old books intermingling with newer ones, an aroma that Touko’s dorm hadn’t yet acquired since she moved in two weeks prior. In her pursusal of the library, she found books long out-of-print. When taking into account that the academy had been established hundreds of years old, that was to be expected. On opening a few books, just curious about their age, she discovered yellowing checkout cards, and she suspected several stamps had been pressed into them for people no longer alive, rotting in the ground somewhere.

Yes, Touko had been called morbid. A lot. One nickname of hers was ‘zombie’, and then there were others like ‘ugly’, ‘weird girl’, ‘four eyes’ and ‘Wednesday Addams’. However, at that moment, Touko existed only as a vessel for the character in her current work in progress. The girl was drinking in the sight of the old school building, gripping the handle of a secondhand suitcase that had a wheel that kept sticking, and her mouth hung open, tinged with the bitter tang of fear.

She was about to take the plunge and go inside when she exploded in a cloud of dust, blown away by a single spoken word.

“You.”

That wasn’t said by the girl, or anyone in the book, or even Touko. She jerked her head up at the blunt voice that shoved her out of her zone and placed her back in a dim, musky library.

A male student stared down at her, his lips twisted with disgust, an emotion that Touko was well acquainted with. Narrowed blue eyes watched her from behind a pair of white framed glasses. His hand rested on top of one of the piles of books that she amassed. Even though she wrote fiction, it had to have some basis in reality. She acquired them for research purposes, though one stack consisted of paper folders with notes and plans for this particular story.

Touko tried to swallow as quietly as possible.

“Can’t you see I’m busy?” she asked tightly.

“You’re certainly doing something,” he said. He craned his neck, trying to see into her notebook, and wrinkled his nose. “Are you writing one of your romances?”

She wrenched her notebook toward herself and hugged it against her chest.

“W-What’s it to you? Why do you need to know? Do I need a permit to write here?” she snapped.

He clucked his tongue.

“That sure is a persecution complex you’ve got there. You’re giving yourself too much credit. You enrolled as a high school literary girl, and as an avid reader, and because you happen to be here, I thought I would investigate,” he said.

“Investigate?” She raised in pitch. “What are you, a detective?”

“That’s a side hobby for me. I’ve even solved a few cold cases,” he told her. Touko eyed him, trying to place where she had seen him before, because she was fairly sure she had somewhere. He turned his head to one side but kept his gaze on her.

A few seconds passed, then it clicked.

“You sit in front of me in class,” she announced. Yes. She recognised his blond hair from the one day she went to class. They weren’t compulsory, and she was a genius, so she preferred to spend that time writing instead.

If she could help it, she kept her eyes down in class, but she had to look up occasionally, and with him right there, glimpsing him was inevitable, though she usually only saw the back of his head. And, of course, she saw his face while researching her classmates prior to starting at the academy, but after reading his title, Super High School Level Heir, she hadn’t lingered on him for much longer.

“The answer to a question I didn’t ask,” he remarked coldly. Up to this point, he hadn’t taken his hand off the pile of books, but he did now, pushing up his glasses that hadn’t slipped at all far down his slender nose.

He folded his arms over his chest and regarded her again.

“As I’m sure you have as well, I researched my classmates before coming here,” said Byakuya, and she shoved her thumb against her gritted teeth.

She just thought about that - she needed to make her face harder to read, but she couldn’t stop clenching her jaw and scowling.

“When I saw your title, I was interested to see what sort of things you wrote,” he continued. “For you to have been handpicked by Hope’s Peak, you must have talent at it. Imagine my disappointment when I saw your bibliography comprised of romance novels...”

Heat rose to her face and she balled her hands into fists.

“What, do you think an ugly fatty like me can’t write about romance?” she snarled. He didn’t even flinch.

“That’s irrelevant. Romance in real life is repulsive, and I can’t see why anyone would want to read about it,” he said.

Touko bristled. The nerve of this guy! She was ugly, smelly and a bunch of derogatory terms, but to dismiss her livelihood... she wouldn’t stand for it. For a while, she couldn’t even muster up any words, and she could only see white hot anger.

Finally, she looked up and said, “How-?”

He was gone. Touko choked on her saliva and tried to return to her writing, but her narrative came out stilted, repetitive. She gripped her pen tighter and screamed in her head, not with words but filling herself with an internal prolonged, frustrated wail. Even when she stopped attempting to think what to write next, a fizzling sound still ate away at her.

A stubbornly long time later, she slammed down her pen. The nerve! Touko left the library books where they were - she knew librarians preferred putting books away than having visitors try to. She collected her folders and stormed out of the library, her skirt swishing wildly.

Despite the fluorescent lighting in the corridors, night fell some time ago, but she didn’t have a curfew or anything to obey. If she wanted to be out past ten o’clock, then so be it. As she blitzed through various corridors, tinted various colours by the lighting depending on the area of the school, the few people straying around her had sense to avoid her.

When she entered her dorm, she let the door swing shut with a bang, and she tossed her folders onto a small round table. She stood still, gripping her hair, and her ragged breathing eventually tired her out. The room speckled in her exhaustion, and her limbs weighed down as she sauntered to her bed. Not bothering to take her uniform off, she flopped forward onto her mattress and whined into her pillow.

What a pomposh, self-important fool! He must have felt so smug, leering at her and taunting her about what she wrote. Just because he was rich and handsome, he thought that made him better than everyone else, but he couldn’t fool her. Touko had met too many handsome men and they all turned out to be vile. They pinned love confessions onto noticeboards, asked her out on dates on dares or told her that she was more mature than her classmates, after class when everyone else had gone home.

Yes, they were the same as each other, and in her experience, ended up dead.

Touko fell asleep, thinking of comebacks and retorts that she should have said at the time. In the morning, she woke up early for once. Rather than sleep in, she heaved herself out of bed, sprayed herself in cheap body spray instead of taking a shower, and she gathered her things for the day. As soon as she saw Byakuya, she would slice him to pieces with her tongue, brandishing her arguments and superior intelligence. After all, she was intelligent, and him? He was just an heir, which required no work, no extra effort. Just rich parents.

Yes, as soon as she got her notebook containing her novel, she would...

... she sorted through her folders...

... as soon...

She stopped.

Then wailed.

It wasn’t here. Her notebook wasn’t here. Touko must have left it at the library the previous night, and it was all Byakuya’s fault because he flustered her so much. She ran out of her dorm, her school bag thrashing against her as she sped over to the library, ignoring the concerned looks aimed her way.

When she arrived, she could barely breathe, not just because she was so unfit, not just because she was so out of breath, but because that notebook held her precious story. Panting loudly, she checked where she had been stationed the previous night. The books had been reshelved, but her own notebook was nowhere to be seen.

“Did you see a notebook here last night?” Touko asked the librarian, who had cautiously drawn closer upon seeing Touko burst in.

“No, sorry. Everything I put away belonged to the library,” said the woman. She tilted her head to one side, looking upward in thought. “The only person who has been here since after you left and before I tidied up was that Togami boy who comes here a lot. He left after you yesterday.”

Him! Touko growled and without bothering to say her thanks, she left the library, heading toward their homeroom. As usual, she had skipped breakfast, but her stomach had hardened rock solid so she didn’t feel hungry.

She opened the door forcefully and looked inside. No one else was here yet, not even the student attending for being an elite public morals committee member. Classes weren’t compulsory, but Touko didn’t know the location of Byakuya’s dorm, and in this sort of mood, she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on her writing anyway, so she stomped over to her desk in the back corner of the room and flumped down on her chair.

Five minutes later, Kiyotaka arrived, his shirt tucked in, tidy as an esteemed committee member should be. He took a few steps before noticing Touko and hesitated, then raised a hand.

“Good morning, Fukawa-kun!” he called out.

She glanced at him. To her dismay, he stared, expecting a greeting back. How bothersome.

“It’s nice that you’ve decided to attend today,” he added, breaking into a wide grin.

“I can’t say the same back,” she said. His face fell, and he left her alone now.

A few more students spilled into the classroom soon after, such as a girl who wore a paperclip in her hair and seemed to bounce as she walked. She approached Touko with a donut bundled in kitchen tissue, and she had the audacity to put it on Touko’s desk.

“What is this?” asked Touko, turning up her nose at it.

“I’m Aoi Asahina,” chirped the girl, and she cupped the back of her neck. “I, um, thought... you might get hungry, so...”

Touko cringed. “I don’t want... your bribery!”

“What? It’s not bribery,” said Aoi, adopting a frown. “I noticed you never come to the cafeteria in the morning, so thought I’d get you something. I was wondering if we could be friends.”

Exactly. Bribery.

“You can’t fool me. Leave me alone!” Touko sneered. “You probably hid razor blades in it.”

Like those girls in her middle school had done with a cake.

“That’s horrible!” Aoi said, widening her eyes. “I would never...”

But Touko had learned otherwise.

“You... You big-boobed piece of beef jerky!” Touko twisted her body away from Aoi. “Go away. Moo-ve away from me!”

Aoi gasped and then stalked off to her desk with a huff, as Touko intended, leaving the donut behind, not so much intended. More people arrived after. A girl with long blue hair and skin as smooth as a doll’s, walking in with a boy with brown messy hair. A girl with violet hair and a small braid on her left side, the headmaster’s daughter. Every time the door opened, Touko peeked up, and upon seeing that they weren’t Byakuya, she would lower her gaze again.

With five minutes to spare, the door opened, and this time, when Touko perked up her head, the sight of Byakuya greeted her. She tracked him as he strode over to his desk, wearing a dark brown shoulder bag that cost more than it should, and as soon as he slid onto his chair, she spoke up.

“You. Togami,” she said.

He gave a hum, and she thought for a moment that he wouldn’t even bother looking at her, but then he turned around and held out a small purple notebook.

Her notebook.

“You thief!” Touko hissed as she snatched it back.

Byakuya blinked calmly and made no attempt to stop her or steal it back.

“You left it behind in your haste last night. That’s your fault,” he said.

She glared at him. He retracted his hand and pushed up his glasses.

“I planned to return it to you after classes today, but you saved me the effort of chasing you down by coming here,” he added. “Which I thank you for, because I have better things to do. A lot of them.”

“L-Like what?” she jeered. “Smelling your own farts? Getting everything handed to you?”

For the first time, emotion flickered in his eyes. An ignition, a spark, a flame within a case of ice. His nostrils flared.

“Is that what you think of me?” he asked sharply. “That I am someone who has not had to work to get to where I am?”

Her heart beated faster, but she didn’t pay heed to its warning, to its plea that she back down against someone raising their voice, even slightly.

“An heir is born,” she said, digging her nails into her palms. She could feel herself shaking.

“Usually, but not in my case,” he said, trying to keep his tone even, but annoyance made the baseline crumble a bit. Still, he lowered his voice, so Touko could breathe easier. “I had to compete against my siblings to become the sole heir. I, the youngest child, battling against people who in cases were decades older than me, had to prove myself... to everyone. They thought I would lose, but my hard work, intelligence and cunning made me victorious.”

The way he talked about it made it sound like some kind of competition. She bit her lip, not knowing what to say. What to think.

He saved her the trouble.

“By the way, I read what you wrote in there,” he said casually, pointing at her notebook.

Touko twitched. “You what?” she squawked.

She could have bitten his head off. Reading one of her works in progress...! Without permission...! He may as well have read her thoughts, or peeped in on her while she showered or got undressed.

“I have said that I abhor romance, as a genre and I object to it in life too, but you have a reputation,” he told her. “One of your books made fishermen popular with young women, and another with butlers. Pennyworth couldn’t leave the house with me without being inundated with admirers for months.”

He inclined his head, very slightly, not breaking eye contact.

“I admit I have read some of your works prior to enrolling, and this story here... You have not just talent, but an almost magical way with words. A gift. You could accomplish great things if you didn’t waste your time on a subject like romance. I don’t know why you’re throwing away your talent on something like that.”

Touko processed what he said and jolted with a spike of anger. She opened her mouth to retort but at this point, an older adult came in who Touko didn’t recognise as their homeroom teacher. For starters, she remembered their homeroom teacher to be a man.

This woman carried a comically large net over her shoulder that seemed to be holding an actual human being, and she straightened as she spotted Touko.

“Ah, you must be Fukawa-kun!” the teacher said with a smile, like she hadn’t just been caught kidnapping someone. “You saved me the effort of having to go find you.”

Touko ignored her. The teacher didn’t pursue the conversation further and walked over to a desk. She emptied her net there. Indeed, a human being had been in it, a tubby boy clutching a manga with a chibi girl on it that Touko suspected had been used as bait.

After he sat down, the teacher left the room, and conversations popped up again. No one paid attention to the two in the corner. Byakuya stared at her. Touko breathed in, aware that her heart was racing, that her face had grown hot.

He complimented her writing. Yes, he was unkind and a massive jerk, but she knew that he didn’t say that to try to win her over. His only intention was to say the truth. She trusted him... at least for this.

It had been ages since she received a compliment she felt was genuine.

“I’m... I’m not wasting my time,” she said. Her tongue struggled to cooperate, and she didn’t know what had come over her. Words turned into a mass of feathers in her mouth, clumped together by saliva. “Happy people write shallow novels, but the downtrodden, like me, see the world in its full spectrum and can vividly imagine an ideal world, envisioned in true beauty. Romance... is pure. It’s a source of hope and power.”

He grimaced.

“It’s a weakness,” he said. “A weakness to be exploited by others. People betray. Other people can’t be trusted. It infects you, taints your judgment. It’s idiocy.”

Her skin tingled, like grazed by fire. His honesty... burned hot.

“Love... gives you hope,” she said, tensing her shoulders. “It gives you purpose. In a book, even people who are ugly, smelly and stupid can experience it.”

But what he said about it... wasn’t wrong.

“That sounds delusional.” His expression didn’t change, and her heart sank.

They both continued to face each other. Byakuya’s gaze made her skin itch. She fidgeted, and noticing the donut that Aoi left behind, she picked it up and held it out.

“Here. Take this,” she said, not meeting his eyes. “You returned my book... and now we’re even.”

He scoffed.

“I don’t want that thing,” he said. “You could have poisoned it.”

She nearly dropped the donut and ogled him. “I...”

“I’ve survived assassination attempts from people more dangerous than you. I’m not an idiot,” he said. “Don’t think I trust you. I’m constantly on guard, analysing others’ tones of voice, lines of sight, minute changes in expression, posture... No one can be trusted. Not my former siblings, not my father and mother, and certainly not any of you.”

Touko couldn’t take her eyes off him. Earlier, she had seen him as a guy born into this position, with a silver spoon in his mouth and everything and anything given to him. Now, however, she didn’t see a spoiled brat who knew nothing of hardships, but someone who could see the world as she did, who must have seen things, been through things that people their age shouldn’t, that no one should. A coldness existed in his eyes, as cold as the surface of a mirror, as the shiver down her spine when she heard her door back at home creak open in the middle of the night.

But she wasn’t scared, no matter how much she trembled. He didn’t hide behind darkness, not like him. He didn’t hide behind lies, not like them.

Too soon, he faced forward, and something in her chest shifted. She put the donut down. At the front of the class, the teacher from before clapped her hands, having returned without Touko realising.

“We’re all here! Awesome. Right, I’ll be replacing your old homeroom teacher,” she said warmly. “Kizakura-san sends his warmest regards.”

She was replacing a teacher who they could only have had for a few weeks. This teacher wore a white apron over her blue dress. Her orange hair was styled in a ponytail with white ribbon, and her green eyes shone with determination, bright and young - she couldn’t have been that much older than them.

“Alright, so my name is Chisa Yukizome, and I hope to get close to all of you. Now, let’s do roll call,” said their new homeroom teacher, Chisa Yukizome, clasping her hands together.

As she called out names, Touko studied the back of Byakuya’s head. With a small smile and a wringing knot in her chest, she decided she might start attending classes more regularly.

Chapter Text

Autumn could be just as pretty as spring, with its rich blend of red, orange and yellow on the trees and that crunched underfoot. The world boasted leaves ablaze with colour, and while they weren’t gentle cherry blossoms, cute and pink and dainty, they had their charm, their own unique shapes, like those from a ginkgo tree or maple leaves, and if one stopped to admire them, even if just for a minute, they could appreciate their earthy beauty before winter came around again.

When the coach pulled up at the ski resort, snow blanketed the ground underneath a sky almost as white as it. Touko only realised they arrived when the chatter in the coach shifted from a bubbling mess to sharp, excited noise prone to squawks. For most of the journey, Touko had been reading quietly with her holdall travel bag on the seat next to her. Across the aisle to her was Byakuya, who had also spent a lot of the journey reading rather than conversing, holding a small black book that she couldn’t read the cover of because his hand hid most of it from view.

His fingernails were neatly shaped.

“Oh, wow!” Aoi gushed in front of Touko, pressing her face against the window. What she said next came out somewhat muffled. “It’s beautiful.”

It, in this case, referred to the stretch of mountains lining the horizon, looking creased with blue-hued shadows. Next to Aoi, Sakura Oogami smiled. With her large build, usually stern features and title of ‘Super High School Level Fighter’, as well as scars no doubt received from battle, Sakura’s smile as she followed Aoi’s gaze did not set Touko at any ease.

Fortunately, they wouldn’t be sharing a cabin. Touko had been assigned to one with the idol girl, Sayaka Maizono, and a set of twins with different surnames.

“Alright, guys!” said Chisa, standing at the front of the coach in a pink puffer jacket. She had her hands on her hips. “We’re going to check in and then you’ll receive the keys to your cabin. In two hours...”

Chisa threw an arm forward, holding up two fingers.

“... we’ll meet up in the square in the cabin village. We’re all going to try everything at least once. Other than skiing, there’s also an ice rink, and...”

Touko stared out of the window, only half-listening. She had never been skiing, and the one time she went ice skating with her class in her old high school, she had been awful, forced to hang onto the edge as she tottered around while almost everyone else skated around effortlessly. Those who couldn’t skate like Touko had friends to support them, to lead them around so they wouldn’t be left out, and every time they passed Touko, their laughter rang out loudly.

Though Touko couldn’t prove it, she thought their laughter was aimed at her.

Everyone trooped off the coach and followed Chisa to a cabin that housed the reception for checking in. After that, they split into two groups, the guys in their class going with their former homeroom teacher, a man with hay-coloured hair, a silver flask and a lopsided grin, while everyone else trailed after Chisa.

As the class diverged, Touko lingered back to watch the other group leave. Their class contained eight guys, but it may as well have had only one for all the attention she paid. One person, who sat in front of her in classes, who had golden hair and sapphire eyes, who grimaced as he followed after their former homeroom teacher.

“Come on, Fukawa-chan!” Aoi tugged on Touko’s hand, causing her to stumble.

“G-Get off me!” Touko hissed, snatching her hand back, but she fell in line with the others.

In the village, as this area was called, small cabins were affixed either side of a single continuous road, and crossing this road from the entrance led to a wide passageway that opened up to the slopes and buildings hosting various activities. The male students headed left, while the other students walked right.

“This is a cute layout,” remarked Junko Enoshima, whose surname did not match her twin, Mukuro Ikusaba. Touko didn’t know what Junko meant by calling it ‘cute’, but she didn’t care enough to ask. “You know, if I had students coming over to an island for a school trip, I’d totally lay it out like this.”

Mukuro nodded in agreement, which she usually did whenever Junko said something, even though Junko usually said something weird or stupid like that. An idiot fashion girl and her idiot soldier sister, who idolised her and obeyed every order... Touko couldn’t be surprised at their hopelessness.

Chisa handed out a key to everyone. Touko examined hers. Attached to the key was a leather strap with a number on it, corresponding with a number on one of the cabins. In this case, four.

“Meet in the centre in an hour!” Chisa reminded everyone, and their group fractured further as they retreated to their cabins.

Everyone else had to share one, but Chisa had her own to herself. She disappeared into a cabin marked with the number ‘one’ on its door sign plate. The door shut behind her.

“Meet in the centre in an hour,” mimicked Junko, making her hand mime a mouth and sounding remarkably like Chisa. An ugly snort popped out of her.

Sayaka, walking abreast with Junko, turned her head toward her and touched a hand to her cheek.

“Wow, you sounded just like her!” Sayaka said.

Junko grinned and bumped her hip playfully against Sayaka’s, holding up a peace sign with one hand.

“Thanks!” said Junko. “I’ve been practicing!”

Touko pulled a face as she walked behind her three cabin mates. Two nights. She had two nights of this to look forward to.

The cabin that Touko would be keeping her stuff and staying in for the duration of the trip had four beds made up of two bunk beds. They took up a big portion of the room, one bunk bed either side of the door, tucked up against the nearest corners to the entrance. Touko took off her winter boots so she wouldn’t track snow onto the olive green flooring. Underneath the bottom bunks was a large enough space to stow away any suitcases or bags.

“Dibs on bottom!” Junko crowed. She abandoned her suitcase by the door and threw herself onto one of the beds, landing on her front. Then she rolled onto her back and pointed at the bed above her. “Muku-Muku, you go over me!”

“Okay, Junko-chan,” said Mukuro, and she walked over, carrying a black rubbish bag that she had brought her clothes in. Seriously. She set it down and pushed it under the bed.

While those two settled in, Sayaka slapped on a polite smile and turned to Touko.

“What would you rather have? I don’t mind either way,” said Sayaka.

She said that, but that didn’t mean she was telling the truth. Deep down, she probably had a preference. Still, she had given Touko the choice, and no one forced her to do that.

As for Touko, she weighed her options. On one hand, being on the bottom bunk gave her easier access to her bag underneath the bed, but that applied to Sayaka too. Also, she couldn’t sit up properly on the bottom bunk due to how low down the bunk above started. For the other hand, she could sit up straight on the top bunk, but what if her hair draped over the edge by accident, and someone cut it for a prank?

Though, if the bed collapsed in a freak accident, Touko would squash Sayaka, and not the other way around.

“I’ll have top bunk,” said Touko.

The beds had already been made, so until they were due to meet up with the rest of the class, they just had to get ready for today’s outdoor activities and if they so desired, unpack. They were only staying for two nights, so Touko didn’t think she had to take everything out of her bag or use the wardrobe that came with the room. She got out a coat, gloves and waterproof trousers. To put the last item on, she simply slid them on as normal and then pulled her skirt down after, showing more modesty than the other three, who took their skirts off first.

“So, have you guys ever been skiing before?” asked Sayaka as she stuffed her legs into a pair of woolen tights that she would be wearing under trousers.

“Nope!” went Junko, sitting on her bed.

“I have,” said Mukuro, sat on the floor as she laced up her boots.

Sayaka turned to Touko.

“What about you, Fukawa-san?” asked Sayaka.

Touko twitched and spluttered, “O-Of course not!”

“What do you mean of course not?” said Junko, her face puckered in a squint, and Touko squirmed under their accusatory stares which Touko totally didn’t just interpret them as being.

“You... You just want me to admit that I didn’t have friends to take me,” grumbled Touko. “And... s-stop talking to me in your underwear.”

Junko stood up and strutted over to Touko. She bent over and wiggled her shoulders. “Why, are these two distracting you?”

Heat rose to Touko’s face and she slapped her hands over her eyes. Touko heard Junko laugh and peeked out between her fingers just in time to see Junko straighten up.

“Maybe it’s not going to be so dull sharing a cabin with you after all,” mused Junko with a smirk. Nearby, Sayaka shot Touko a sympathetic look that Touko didn’t ask for, and Touko hardened the icy barrier around herself and grabbed a notebook from her bag to write in.

Less than an hour later, everyone gathered in the centre of the village as instructed, and though Touko wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of spending much of the day outside, to the best of the knowledge, skiing was a solo activity, so she would get a break from her pesky cabin mates even if she had to risk ruining her body with exercise to achieve this. She was a writer, not a muscle maniac like Aoi and Sakura. A swimmer and a fighter... what a tiring combination. No wonder they became best friends so quickly, but friends would inevitably fall out over a guy, or something, so it probably wouldn’t last long.

Friendships always fell apart somehow, or what was thought to be a friendship turned out to be a farce.

“Alright, everyone!” Chisa called out. The class continued nattering.  She turned to Kiyotaka, who was standing next to her.

“CAN I HAVE EVERYONE’S ATTENTION?” he shouted. His voice rumbled, and everyone looked at him. He wore a scruffy waterproof jacket and well-worn jogging bottoms. Not the image one would expect from a student attending Hope’s Peak.

Mondo Oowada pushed aside his earmuffs, stuck a finger in his ear and made a screwing motion. Due to the ridiculous size of his pompadour, he couldn’t fit a hat on his head.

“Geez, are you trying to start an avalanche or something?” asked Mondo.

Kiyotaka covered his mouth, like he believed that he could do that. Junko laughed loudly.

“So what’s up, Harry Hand-me-down?” she said, eyes twinkling, smile showing teeth.

Her question made Kiyotaka’s gaze sink to his feet, and he didn’t reply. Most of the class shot dirty looks at her. Mukuro winced.

Chisa was one of those who glanced reproachfully at Junko, but presumably not wanting to draw more attention to it in front of everyone, she beamed and held her hands together. “Thank you, Ishimaru-kun. Okay, class, I want everyone to buddy up for this. Everyone into pairs, please!”

Touko’s insides twisted, and she felt an ache all the way up to her throat. Chisa clapped twice and might as well have sentenced her to death. Forcing them into groups of two was bad enough, but unlike when they were assigned cabins, Chisa gave them the responsibility of forming these pairings by themselves.

Everyone around Touko drifted over to someone else, while Touko picked at her fingers. At previous schools, when this happened, either her teacher noticed or she would have to tell them that she didn’t have a group, and then she would either be put into a group by the teacher or offered the chance to work by herself. When possible, Touko opted for the latter.

In any case, going up to the teacher was a humiliating experience. One time, when her class went bowling, no one wanted Touko in their group, and she had to join her teachers.

She breathed shakily, as much as she could with her cramping chest, and she tried to will herself to embarrass herself in front of everyone by showing how she was a friendless loser. Sooner or later, she would have to.

“Ah, Fukawa-san!” Chisa pointed at her. “You can go together with Togami-kun.”

The tension in Touko intensified for a moment, and she felt a swooping sensation like she had missed a step on a staircase by accident, but as Touko turned to the other person Chisa named, the tension began dissolving.

Byakuya stood away from everyone else, much like her. He had his arms folded over his chest. Initially, he didn’t react, but after several seconds crawled by, he shifted his head, just a little, in acknowledgement.

“Is everyone paired up?” Chisa left a beat, counting everyone. “Excellent. Okay, everyone. Follow me.”

She gestured for them to follow.

They walked through the cabin village to a building where they all lined up to obtain skis and poles. Touko stood by Byakuya, and as they waited to reach the front of the line, she snuck a few looks at him. Each time, he wasn’t paying attention to her, his eyes trained forward, so she allowed her glances to last progressively longer. He barely moved, as if a marble statue painstakingly carved to perfection. Even the furrow in his brow, an undesirable wrinkle on most, added to his seriousness, deliberate but not unwelcome on his features.

“Someone of your upper echelon must have been skiing before,” said Touko.

Small talk. She never did small talk.

“A few times,” he said, still not looking at her.

Touko nodded and fidgeted again.

After everyone had been given their equipment, they made their way to the ski lifts, shuffling along in their skis. Their footsteps had crunched against the snow, and the skis were no different. The skis squeezed Touko’s boots, and she hadn’t totally got used to it by the time she sat down on the lift. Each seat could accommodate two people, and as they had all paired up prior, they sat with the same person.

Her heart thumped in her chest, and she could feel it in her head too as she and Byakuya slowly ascended the mountain. She stared down at her lap, swaying her legs back and forth and twiddling her fingers. Wind whistled into her ears and shocked her face cold.

In a movie or a cliché ridden fanfiction, the ski lift might have malfunctioned, leaving them dangling in the sky for hours. Then, they would be forced into conversation, or used the opportunity as an excuse to sit closer together for warmth. Touko licked her lips slowly. They might, even, after a heartfelt conversation, take each other’s hands and lean in, and -

The ski lift shunted as they arrived at the top of the slope. Byakuya slid off like a human being. She shrieked and fell face first into the snow, and she practically heard the grinding noise that Byakuya made as he rolled his eyes.

“Are you okay, Fukawa-chan?” came a voice that had to belong to Aoi, because she was the only person who called Touko that. Hands pawed at Touko and Touko’s blood ran cold, but before she could scream, or think to scream, she was on her own two feet again.

“That was quite the tumble!” Sayaka said, taking her hands away about the same time that Aoi did. Both of them had dashed over to help Touko up.

“You’re lucky that I’m not reporting you for sexual harassment and inappropriate touching,” growled Touko as she brushed snow off her legs. She spat out some snow.

Aoi creased her brow, but Sayaka just smiled.

“You’ve got a strange sense of humour, Fukawa-san!” said Sayaka brightly, and Touko was so taken aback that she couldn’t come up with a retort before Chisa addressed everyone.

“All right, everyone.” Chisa waved her arm. “Stay with your buddy and remember, french fries and pizza!”

She adopted the first stance, keeping her skis parallel to each other.

“French fries help you go faster, and point you in the right direction,” she explained.

Next, she pointed the toes of her skis inward, forming a wedge shape.

“Pizza helps you control your speed. The bigger the pizza, the more friction and the faster you’ll stop, but pizza too much too quickly and you’ll fall down!” Chisa positioned her skis parallel again and added, “Try to angle the pizza to the side. Oh, and don’t stare too much at your feet.”

Yasuhiro held his stomach and pouted. “I could do with some pizza and french fries...”

Something so idiotic was to be expected from a guy like him. For the first time since she met him, he wore boots instead of sandals, his arms through his jacket sleeves instead of on his shoulders, and he didn’t have that crystal ball of his out that he used when he tried to coax classmates into buying fortune readings for extortionate prices.

Also, he wore a bobble hat, only possible because he tied his dreadlocks into a ponytail rather than have them stick out of his head like the rays of the Sun in a child’s drawing, and she thought he looked stupid in it.

“We all know how to ski,” said Leon, unaware of Touko desperately making mental notes on what Chisa said.

Sure, Touko had done some research, but reading was one thing. Actually skiing meant something else entirely.

Leon grinned at Sayaka and cocked his thumb toward himself. “Hey, Sayaka-chan, make sure you watch me go down! I’m going to the advanced slopes.”

His shock of red hair would be hard to miss, and when he spoke, he tried to show off his tongue piercing as much as he could. He was the kind of guy who would add breasts to a snowman and with his baseball talent, fling snowballs at his classmates at an alarming rate.

“I’ll keep my eye out,” Sayaka promised him politely.

Chisa nodded at everyone.

“If you’re a beginner, you can go to the bunny slopes,” she informed them all. “Otherwise, feel free to check out the bigger slopes. Just stay with your partner at all times. Remember, you have to look after each other, or else I’ll handcuff you both together!”

She laughed heartily, but Touko couldn’t tell if she meant that last part as a joke or not. And with that, the class split up.

Without asking Touko which slope she would prefer, Byakuya headed toward a steep incline. It wasn’t the steepest one there, but it wasn’t flat, so that made it steep. Too steep.

“Don’t stray far behind,” Byakuya said, and to Touko’s horror, he bent his legs and readied his poles, like he intended them to ski down it. “I don’t care to hear Yukizome nag me about you.”

“B-But...” Touko stammered, but Byakuya took off down the slope, not looking back. He made it seem so easy. So effortless.

Touko didn’t chase after him. Endangering herself wasn’t worth staying off the bad side of a classmate. Even if said person spoke with such spine-chilling authority... and those crystal blue eyes of his... could pierce her heart and leave her weak at the knees... and -

“Fukawa-chan!”

The sound of Aoi’s voice made Touko jump, and the thought of having to socialise spurred her on. Endangering herself it was then. Touko’s skis rasped against the snow like a knife being sharpened as she pushed herself forward. She started down the slope and shrieked as she sped along, the mountain air whipping her face.

If she continued screaming, she didn’t know, because the rush of wind was louder. Her surroundings blurred past her, so even though Touko’s goggles kept her glasses in place, she could still barely see. Last time she lost her glasses, her mothers hadn’t been pleased, and Touko had to be their maid or else they would tell her father about it, they had threatened.

Touko tried to clench her jaw shut. The world jumbled together into a white mess with tree trunk brown streaks zipping through it. On the websites that she studied beforehand, some people described the sensation as flying, just without the danger of leaving the ground. However, rather than a bird, she felt like a fly trapped in a glass and that she was hitting against it over and over again.

Remembering Chisa’s advice, she tried to position her skis into a pizza shape. It was a beginner’s move, but one easier said than done. She tried, straining, focusing on her body, not her surroundings...

... which explained why she drove straight into the back of Byakuya.

In a story or a tv show, the scene might have cut there, to spare the watchers secondhand embarrassment from the spectacle. Unfortunately, this was real life, and Touko could not skip past how they both tumbled, losing various articles along the way, and finally stopped with their limbs tangled together.

For a while, neither of them moved, and Touko would have stayed down for longer had Byakuya not groaned and started wiggling.

“What the hell?” he said, slurring his words a little. His head rocked side to side as he raised it. He regained more thought capability and mustered up a sharp, “Get off me!”

Touko scrambled away from him. Her head throbbed. Her whole body throbbed.

“I’m sorry!” she squeaked, struggling to hear herself over the sound of white noise in her head. She didn’t have her poles anymore. Or her hat. Thankfully, she still had her glasses, though she could barely discern him because her head spun so much.

At least there was no blood. All she could taste was bile.

Her heart thrashed as she wrung her hands together, shaking them pleadingly at him. She couldn’t stop her teeth chattering, or the tremors in her body. “P-Please... d-don’t hit me! Or... let me get ready first... get in the right state of mind...”

Like let her imagine a dimly lit bedroom with candle, in the company of a man with a blank face.

“I’m not a barbarian,” said Byakuya as coldly as the snow around them. He clicked with his tongue and huffed. “Of all the people that I could have been paired with...”

Touko hugged her legs to her chest.

“We were the spares,” she said quietly.

Byakuya didn’t reply.

Her eyes burned more than they had when against the wind. She slumped her shoulders and choked on her words, holding herself tighter.

“I said that I couldn’t ski,” she mumbled, sniffling. “I said. T-They all probably booked this whole trip to highlight this and make a fool of me...”

And it worked. Byakuya pursed his lips.

“You’re not so important that this trip would be staged for you,” he told her, no longer struggling to speak. “Also, skiing isn’t really that important of a skill.

The rock hardness in Touko’s head cracked. Her face relaxed slightly, and she stared over at him.

Was he... trying to comfort her?

He stood up, shaking a bit, but otherwise seemed okay. Touko stayed cushioned n the snow and buried her fingers in her hair, retreating back into herself.

“I’m an idiot. An ugly, worthless idiot with no redeeming qualities,” she said, scrunching her eyes shut. “I’m too stupid to ski... not even someone like Togami could teach me...”

She felt her walls close in, surrounding her in an isolating darkness where she could only hear her own ragged breathing, her own taunting thoughts.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Byakuya sharply, and she flinched.

Her prison shattered. In the space of a few seconds, she had forgotten that he was still here.

He quirked his brow. “Are you challenging me?”

Touko cringed.

“No, I...”

“Because I could teach you to ski,” he said, and he cupped his chin. “Yes... even someone like you... could become competent if you were under my teaching.”

She blinked.

“... Eh?” she went.

“Come with me.”

Like when he hurtled down the slopes, he took off without her, only much slower this time and in the opposite direction, waddling up the slope most likely to retrieve their discarded belongings. Touko crawled, staggering to her feet, and followed after him, bewildered. At least obeying orders didn’t involve much thinking on her part.


 

Half an hour later, they commenced Touko’s first skiing session on the bunny slopes where they didn’t see anyone they recognised, though goggles, hats and bulky coats would help disguise them. Of their whole class, the only person they would be able to spot at a distance was Celes, a gothic gambler who always wore a loita dress.

Touko slid her skis back and forth but didn’t stray from her spot, just like Byakuya told her. The bunny slopes were almost horizontal, so she didn’t have to worry about zooming down into oblivion.

Still, she wobbled, and still, she bit on her chapped lips as she tried not to fall down. Their crash earlier hadn’t done any lasting damage, so there was that, at least. Her shaking was only caused by inexperience, not nerve damage.

“Touch your toes,” said Byakuya, in front of her.

She had to bend her knees, but she managed.

“Walk sideways.”

Touko did.

“In a circle.”

That too.

“Try walking.”

And that.

“Slide more,” he told her. “Use your poles for balance.”

Touko hesitated. Byakuya jutted out his chin and folded his arms over his chest, and with a start, she did as he commanded, maneuvering around slowly. He stood still and watched as she familiarised herself with what to do. She caught a glimpse of his face. His mouth curved faintly, slanting downward at the ends, and his goggles obscured his eyes. Her heart skipped and she turned her head away.

Under his guidance, she learned to ski at a competent level, and once he was satisfied with her progress, he grabbed his poles.

“Let’s try a slope,” he said. “Walk up it sideways. Don’t rush.”

Byakuya demonstrated, and she copied him, waddling The slope wasn’t long, maybe ten metres in length, with a flat surface at the top and at the bottom. He reached the top first, but she wasn’t far behind, and he turned himself around so he faced down the slope.

“Get into position. Don’t be passive. Angle yourself slightly forward. Flex your ankles, and your knees and your pelvis. Hold your hands away from the body at about hip level with your elbows slightly bent.”

She arranged herself as such and sucked in her cheeks. From up here, the slope looked higher than the impression she got at the bottom. But it wasn’t neverending like the previous slope. This one wouldn’t kill her. It shouldn’t.

“Good,” he said with a nod. “Now, ski down. You won’t have the chance to go particularly fast, so don’t worry.”

He told her not to worry! And he said that she had been ‘good’! Touko blushed and pushed herself forward with the poles. She glided down the slope. Like he claimed, she didn’t increase her speed to the same extent as before, and at the bottom, she successfully slowed to a stop with the use of the pizza stance.

Moments later, he skidded to a standstill beside her.

“Do it again,” said Byakuya. “Do it until you’re bored. Until you don’t have to think.”

She straightened sharply.

“Y-Yes, Togami-kun!” Touko said, and she hoisted herself back up the slope.

After the first half a dozen descents, she stopped counting how many times she skied down that slope. Just as Byakuya wanted, she found that she could ski without having to think too much about it. Her body went through all the right motions. That meant her mind could drift and ponder other matters, like her current novel about a girl starting at a new high school. Recently, the protagonist noticed another student who frequented the library, a tall, lean guy who came from a wealthy family but carried a dark secret.

Touko arrived at the bottom of the slope, and she had started climbing up again when they heard someone call out to them.

“There you are!” Chisa said, running over without her skis on. She stopped nearby and waved her arm. “Everyone is having hot chocolate, and then we’ll be skating after! Come on.”

Byakuya propelled himself over, while Touko stayed where she was.

“Is it that time already?” asked Touko with a flutter in her chest. It hadn’t felt like that long.

“Yuh huh. You must have lost track of time,” said Chisa, smiling. Touko stole a glance at Byakuya and smirked.

“I must have,” Touko said.

The class spent twenty more minutes relaxing after Touko and Byakuya arrived, sitting at tables in a cabin with horizontal panelling on the walls and polished wooden furnishing beneath their feet. A fire blazed, and some of them had dragged furniture over so they could sit near it, others reposing on rugs. Voices filled the cabin with noise, chatter and laughter, which Touko didn’t share in. Byakuya was the only one sat away from everyone else, reading the same book that he had on the drive over. This time, though, she could see the title - ‘Out’. As for her, she stood up with a mug of hot chocolate, positioned near his table. He didn’t tell her to go away, so she didn’t, and he didn’t tell her to stop looking at him, so she didn’t.

After everyone finished their beverages, they all headed over to an outdoor ice rink. As Touko put on her skates, she found herself missing the skis. Skates felt a lot more precarious.

Laced up, she hobbled after the others onto the ice. They spread out. Sayaka skated effortlessly, holding Makoto’s hand while he grinned, but his twitches betrayed his nerves. Mukuro skated laps, and every time she charged past Touko, even with the space between them, Touko cowered against the rail surrounding the rink.

When skiing, everyone had been separated, so no one but Byakuya had been witness to her inexperience. Here, in this confined space, outdoor though it was, she couldn’t hide from their beady eyes, but then she also discovered she wasn’t the only person who lacked confidence on the ice. Hifumi, Yasuhiro and Celes remained close to the rail, and Kiyotaka did too until Mondo grabbed his arm and pulled him away.

“W-What are you doing?” squawked Kiyotaka.

“Loosen up, you dork,” said Mondo with a smirk. “I’m gonna teach you to have fun.”

Nearby, Chihiro stayed in Sakura and Aoi’s care. Chihiro’s movements started stiff as they let the other two do most of the work, but as they got more used to the ice, Chihiro smiled more with that face that got them so much attention from admirers online. Even if they couldn’t programme computers as expertly as they did, their meek personality and resemblance to a bunny rabbit would still obtain them a following.

They weren’t Touko’s type at all, however, so she turned her attention elsewhere quite soon. To Touko’s surprise, Byakuya didn’t skate. He leaned against the rail with his back to it, watching the others. Touko skated around a few times at a snail’s pace, never letting go of the rail except to tread around him, and Byakuya barely moved in that whole time, his arms folded over his chest. Occasionally, he budged along, but he never went far from the rail.

In fact, he never lost contact with it. She had thought that after their collision,they had both just about recovered, but on the ice, he barely stirred, just watch.

By the end of the hour, everyone had grown tired and got off the ice. Byakuya would have been the penultimate one to do so, and she the last. Touko was on the other side of the rink to him when she noticed him march slowly toward the gate, and she reached out a hand.

“T-Togami-kun!” she called out.

He hesitated, standing in the exit, and turned. She tried to stride over to him, but halfway there, felt herself losing her balance. Try as she did, she was suspended between two possibilities, either teetering indefinitely and falling, and the inevitable could only be put off for so long.

And so she braced herself, and let herself fall.

Only, she didn’t hit the ice like she expected.

Touko slumped into something hard, but padded. Opening her eyes, she realised she landed in Byakuya’s arms, her face squashed against his chest.

Her mouth opened, but she could only vocalise what was best described as a mix between static and gargling.

“Do you not know how to walk?” he snapped. He grabbed her arms and set herself upright.

She peered up at him, bottom lip quivering.

“You saved me,” she said breathlessly, her cheeks tingling, and she wrapped her arms around herself. Byakuya adjusted his glasses with his eyes averted away from her.

“I ought to have let you fall. It might have taught you a lesson,” Byakuya said. He dusted off his coat and looked at her again. “However... I was assigned to be your partner and I won’t have my reputation tarnished because of your incompetence. Don’t read too into it. I would rather throw myself off a cliff than be handcuffed to the likes of you.”

Too late. Touko already had read into it. They were partners, yes, but that had been for skiing. She didn’t know if that partnership applied here too. Maybe he was mistaken. Maybe he was using it as an excuse.

“Why did you call my name?” he asked, tilting his head to one side. “What do you need me for? It better be important.”

She jerked her head back.

“Oh, I um...” Touko released herself from her hug and kneaded her fingers. Her shoulders hunched up. “I just... I noticed you weren’t skating, and I was worried that it was because I injured you.”

Byakuya raised his eyebrows but swiftly lowered them. He narrowed his eyes.

“You barely weigh anything,” he said in a dull tone. Touko blinked and placed a fist near her mouth.

“Then why weren’t you skating?” she asked him. “Were you too tired?”

He didn’t reply, not looking at her. She continued frowning at him, then realised.

“Can you not skate, Togami-kun?” she said, widening her eyes.

For a second time, he didn’t answer, but the way his eyes flickered and a muscle jumped in his cheek gave him away.

“It’s okay. I can’t either,” she admitted.

Byakuya squared his shoulders and glowered.

“Why should I be able to? It’s a worthless skill,” he said. He nudged up his glasses and turned up his nose, his other hand on his hip. “I have far more important things to do.”

Touko laced her fingers together, peering at him curiously. “Didn’t you ever go with your class?”

Trips to ski resorts seemed like the sort of thing a rich person would do.

“It was only an option on some school trips, one that I didn’t feel like choosing,” he explained. He looked away and surveyed their surroundings.

The afternoon sky had begun ebbing away but to combat the encroaching darkness, lamps around the rink had switched on, beaming brightly all around them, and the lights they emitted glowed on the ice in fuzzy reflections. They were the only two people in the vicinity. Byakuya curled his hands into fists.

“But... it can’t be hard, can it?” he said, more to himself than to her. “If the others can do it, then...”

He took a bold step forward and right away almost overbalanced. Touko yelped, springing into action, and tried to catch him. If he had been going to fall, he probably wouldn’t have had the strength to stop him, but as it was, he managed to stabilise himself. She kept her hands near him, so close to touching him. His face soured.

“The others who couldn’t skate held onto someone,” she pointed out.

Byakuya pinched his lips together in thought. His brows knitted, and she waited with bated breath. Finally, he turned his head toward her and simultaneously grabbed her hand. It sent a shock up her arm, that made her hairs stand on end.

“Let’s go,” he said. She gave a noise that sounded like she had gravel in her mouth. Even so, he kept hold of her hand and set off with her in tow.

They skated around together slowly, first staying near the edge but gradually spiraling toward the centre as they completed more laps, and the whole time, she could barely breathe. Barely believe it. The two of them were actually holding hands. Her, and him, who might shake hands with someone formally, but not hold hands with a classmate. With a girl.

Their skates stroked against the ice with a grinding sound, interspersed with hisses that grew less frequent as more time passed. His grip on her hand was firm, and she clung to him back. The more they skated, the quieter the grinding became, even if only by a little. Slowly but surely, they improved, and though Touko didn’t let go of him, she didn’t hold onto him because she feared toppling over.

By this time in the evening, temperatures dropped compared to the afternoon, but she couldn’t feel that.

“It’s not so difficult this way,” he remarked as they skated around a corner.

“Y-Yes, you’re right,” she said, cheeks flushed with warmth. She couldn’t stop smiling. “I support you... and you support me... we’re a team.”

It didn’t sound right, but it felt right.

After a few more laps, Byakuya led them to the edge and leaned his back against the rail. They let go of each other’s hands. She sidled up to him and clasped her hands together. Hope’s Peak sat in the middle of a city, so one would be lucky to see a handful of stars in the sky, but out in the mountains, they littered the sky. Staring upward, she picked out various constellations, imagining lines between them that when connected, conjured an image of what the constellation was meant to represent.

Byakuya lifted his hand and adjusted his scarf. Touko shivered and hugged herself.

“It’ll be spring soon,” she piped up. “And warmer. Cherry blossoms will decorate all the trees. It’s hard to believe that everything will become colourful again after a period of cold.”

She was babbling. Why was she babbling?

He shifted slightly.

“Yet it does come back,” he said. “The world carries on even after that period of idleness and decay, and it returns just as strong as last time.”

Byakuya’s lips drew into a smirk. That was as close to a smile as he seemed to ever get.

“It’s appropriate that I was born in spring,” he said.

Touko looked to him curiously. “So was I. When is your birthday, Togami-kun?”

“May fifth.”

Children’s Day, formerly known as Boys’ Day. She grinned widely.

“Mine is March third!” she said excitedly. “My birthday is on Girls’ Day, and yours used to be called Boys’ Day.”

“You’re right,” he said, like it was anything but fate. Destiny. “That’s most certainly a coincidence.”

Touko nodded. Byakuya didn’t reply, so they fell silent. He stared into space, and she soon did the same. Beyond the rink were cabins and coned trees scattered about on a blanket of snow that covered the ground as far as they could see. Further away, the number of cabins decreased, but the amount of trees grew larger, though from where she stood, they seemed tiny, even where there were a lot of them in one place.

She rubbed her hands together. The cold air stung her cheeks, but she didn’t feel any rush to go inside any time soon, and apparently neither did Byakuya. Despite how dark it had become, it couldn’t have been very late. Regardless, the night sky unnerved her, even with its pinpricks of stars.

“After spring, it’ll be summer,” she said.

“Indeed.”

“It gets dark later.”

“I’m not scared of the dark.”

“I am.”

Her breathing hitched at what she blurted out on impulse. Byakuya didn’t say anything, and she chanced a look at him. He seemed to be studying the mountains peaking in the far distance. She gazed at him, Byakuya, white night, and her, herself, named winter child.

One thing could be coincidence. But their birthdays, and their names...? This wasn’t a story. This was real life.

“Soon after we became acquainted with each other, you revealed that you assumed that I got my title as heir from merely being born,” said Byakuya all of a sudden.

She stiffened. Yes, she recalled him mentioning having to compete against his siblings to be chosen to be an heir.

“I remember,” she told him, in case he could be prompted to elaborate.

Byakuya stared up at the sky.

“I was pitted against my siblings,” he said. “Biologically, we are only half-siblings. My father supplied sperm, and the most high quality women were elected to be impregnated with it. So, I competed against more than one hundred people in a series of challenges.”

That couldn’t be right.

“O-One hundred?” she repeated.

“Indeed. After every challenge, the losers were killed.”

She gasped.

“Killed?” she choked out. He glanced at her.

“Well, expelled. Cast away. Stripped of their identities.” Byakuya said it like they meant the same thing. Now, as he spoke, he spoke with his gaze on her. “By the end, there were fifteen of us, and I came out top. In order to do that, I had to be intelligent. I had to be strong. I had to be perfect. I could not depend on anyone. I could not allow myself to feel fear. I would become prey if I showed any weakness. I was, and am, in absolute control of my emotions.”

Byakuya revealed this so casually to her. She blinked, at a loss for words for a moment. For as long as she could remember, she had been an only child. At the time of her birth, she had a half-sister, and even though she never got to meet her, she sometimes wondered what it would have been like if her sister survived. Meanwhile, Byakuya had living half-siblings. Many of them, in fact, that he had to purposely eliminate from a competition and send into exile so he wouldn’t share their fate. So he could continue to exist as himself.

“W-What sort of challenges were these?” she asked him, on the verge of biting on her thumb. “What did you have to do?”

He gave her a look that sent a chill down her on this already cold, cold night. She recognised it, especially in the eyes, when she had stared at her reflection after waking up with a new scar on her leg and another murder headlining the local newspapers.

“Whatever it took,” he simply said.

Touko swallowed. “H-How old were you?”

“Fourteen. I trained my whole life for this. It’s what I was created to do... to head the Togami Conglomerate.”

She stared at him, her fingers itching, and before she could lose her confidence, she grabbed his hand in hers and squeezed.

“You... You are more than that, Tog... Byakuya-sama,” she said.

Byakuya tensed, like he wasn’t used to being called that, and wrenched his hand from her and glared. He wiped his hand on his trouser leg and turned away.

“We should go back to the others now,” he said. “I don’t want to be bothered with their questions about where we were, and I have far better things to do than be with you, like anything else.”

Touko identified his hostility. Had felt it herself toward others trying to get close to her. She wanted to tell him about what she had gone through, but the words died in her throat, melted like snow on a hot day. Before she could speak, he had walked off and left the rink, and in time, she left the rink too.

The feel of his gloved hand during their fleeting touch lingered for a while. Even after it faded, Touko could still picture the scene, and she could clearly visualise his eyes that had her spellbound while he spoke to her. Recalling the sight of his eyes made her shudder, like she was outside in the cold with him again. Their image sat with her at her table at dinner, more worthy of her attention than the classmates that gathered around her with their meals, who all looked at each other mystified.

Aoi waved her hand in front of Touko’s vacant gaze.

“Do you think she got a concussion earlier?” asked Aoi.

Celes steepled her hands and smiled. “It would seem that way, hm?”

“You’re all wrong,” said Junko. She shooed Aoi’s hand away and leaned over the table, positioning her face in front of Touko’s.

The eyes that Touko were fixated on lasted a little longer before they mutated, changing shape and colour, as the upper lashes got longer and the irises became less saturated, greyer, but still tinted blue. They gleamed with mirth, like the fire burning in the fireplace.

Eventually, Junko’s eyes hung where Byakuya’s had been.

Touko came back to reality and jolted, nearly falling back off her chair.

“You have feelings for Togami-kun, don’t you?” asked Junko with a grin that Touko couldn’t quite read, different depending on the angle, how the light hit it.

With a jolt, Touko threw her head forward, nearly slamming it into her dinner that she had forgotten what it was until she saw it now and remembered it to be some kind of beef stew, then she sat up, flailed her arms and hissed, “S-Shut up!”

“Aw, that’s cute,” said Sayaka, holding her hands flat against each other and resting her cheek on them, like they were a pillow.

Aoi inclined her head to one side.

“He’s kind of a lemon, though, isn’t he?” said Aoi, and Touko turned her head sharply toward her.

“No, he’s not!” said Touko shrilly.

Celes’s shoulders shook as she laughed delicately behind one hand.

“He is, but then, doesn’t that make them an appropriate match?” asked Celes. “He’s rich too.”

Touko’s eyes darted over to Byakuya.

He didn’t seem to have heard them from across the room, sat by himself, and continued eating without breaking his pace.

“I’m not a gold digger!” Touko pulled on her braids. “U...wu...”

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Sakura chimed in. She rested a hand on Touko’s shoulder and in a kind tone, added, “With work, I think you could be a good coupling.”

“I’m not ashamed!” Touko snapped but she soon broke into a smile, and she didn’t try to shake Sakura’s hand off her. Instead, she placed her palms against her cheeks. Hot. Her face was hot. “Byakuya-sama... and me... huh?”

Touko Togami had a nice ring to it.

Chapter Text

The blond male gritted his teeth and tried to move his arms but the scissors impaling his wrists bound him firmly to the wall. Pain throbbed through his body, pulsing from where he had been stabbed. Not just his wrists but his ribs, the back of his neck and his feet. Custom made scissors had been left embedded in each wound.

Another, more feeble attempt to break free proved equally unsuccessful. Blood dripped, forming a puddle at his feet, staining his bedroom floor.

Presumably, the flooring was the same in every dorm at Hope’s Peak.

As his pherial vision turned red, it was ambiguous whether the colour was blood or just what everyone experienced if they died slowly and painfully.

Blood consumed him, as red as the eyes on the shadow standing in front of him.


“Hello, Fukawa-san!”

The bright greeting contrasted greatly with Touko’s recollections of her previous night’s dream. It wrenched her soul from the soon-to-be corpse in her grim daydream and plunked her back in her actual body, on a chair at a table in Hope’s Peak’s library.

Which, also, had dim lighting like the location in last night’s dream. Whenever she went to the library later in the day, she resorted to using a desk lamp from the backroom so she could see what she wrote more clearly. One would think an elite academy like this could fix the general lighting here.

Perhaps that was how someone managed to sneak up on her and startle her like that. Touko jerked her head up, instinctively pulling her notebook closer to herself and shielding it with one crooked arm. Surprise soon gave way to annoyance, and she glared up at the culprit, who was Makoto Naegi, one of her classmates and their class president.

He raised his hands with an apologetic look on his face.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. She huffed. His fingers curled in a bit and he retracted one hand to cup the back of his neck. “So, um, what are you up to?”

Touko pursed her lips.

“Milking a cow. What does it look like I’m doing?” she retorted. She squinted at him. “I should be the one asking you that, what with you creeping up on a young woman like that...”

Makoto tensed and took his hand off his neck.

“I didn’t really creep. You were preoccupied with whatever you’re writing and must have not realised until I spoke up,” he told her.

She eyed him. He peered past her arm at her notebook.

“You get really into your writing, don’t you?” he said in a light tone, like he was actually interested.

Touko dragged her arm toward her so it lay over her open notebook, rather than around it.

“We’ve been in the same class for half a year, and you’re just realising that about me?” she asked with a sneer.

What gave it away? Her title of ‘Super High School Literary Girl’?

He gave a vague shrug that barely shifted enough to constitute as one.

“Well, yeah, but we haven’t really spoken much before the past few weeks,” he said.

“And you think I don’t see that as suspicious? I’ve noticed that too. You must have a motive. Speak.” She clenched her teeth. “Or I’ll scream.”

Touko didn’t say that threat loudly, but it still caused Makoto to twitch like he touched a hot stove. He waved his hands frantically.

“I’m not scheming anything, honest! I just want to become better friends with you,” he promised.

Makoto may as well have poured icy water all over her. She jolted and threw back her head, staring. He blinked.

“You said it!” she said, wide-eyed. “The eff word! I don’t want to eff with you!”

Several people turned to face them. Most of them quirked their brows and most gave Makoto dirty looks.

“I said friends!” Makoto insisted, dispelling a few accustory glares. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t clear the grey cloud over Touko’s features. She scowled.

“I’m not an idiot,” she told him. “What initiation do I have to go through to be socially accepted as your ‘friend’? Steal? Run around nude?”

“None of those things,” he said quickly, breaking into a sweat. He scratched his cheek. “Um... how about we study together? Is that okay? We can even do it here, so... um... I can’t do anything bad without everyone seeing.”

“Everyone seeing wouldn’t undo anything bad you did,” Touko grumbled. She shuffled in her chair, scrunching her brow, and though her first thought was to dismiss him, she considered his offer.

While she didn’t need to study with him, and if she did require a study partner, an average guy like him wouldn’t rank high on her list of options, should he have been up to something then she would be more likely to figure it out with him in front of her rather than with him lurking in the background. He was the sort of simple person whose thoughts could be read on their face. Touko licked her lips, trying to show as little tongue as possible. Yes, that was how she would rationalise this.

“But... I suppose... I can let you share my table,” she conceded. She straightened and added, “Don’t distract me though, or try to flirt with me. I’ll know it’s a prank, and my heart belongs only to Byakuya-sama, so you’d just be wasting your time.”

Makoto nodded slowly, processing what she said, then sat down and placed his school bag on his lap. He got out a textbook, pencil case and notepad, tucked his school bag under the table and worked through their maths homework.

Touko returned to her notebook and began writing again. In her novel, the protagonist clashed with her mysterious classmate in the library, both of them keen writers but of completely different genres. One, mystery, and the protagonist, romance.

His blue eyes pulled the protagonist in, and as Touko went on to compare the density of the tension between them to wet clay, she remembered that the classmate was supposed to have green eyes.

As the day drew toward its end, people filtered in and out of the library. By the time night had got comfortable, other than Touko, only one other student was still in the library. Closing her notebook, she slunk over to a bookcase and poked her head out from behind it.

Her heart sang. There he was, sat at that table in the library. Touko had calculated that the likelihood of Byakuya sitting there was three fifths, unless someone already claimed that table, in which case he situated himself at one over there, or that one, depending on which tables were occupied. He preferred to sit alone.

As for how he sat, he was prone to crossing one leg over the other and holding his book with one hand. His other could pick up his cup of coffee at his leisure, and -

“Oi. You,” he said, looking right at her. From where he sat, he could only have seen her head, the rest of her body obscured by the shelving unit that she had been peeking around.

She jumped.

“You’ve been loitering here for a while... and you stink.” Byakuya wrinkled his nose. “Go douse yourself in water. You’re making this whole place reek... Begone with you.”

Touko trembled, then gave a nod, bit her lip and trudged out. As soon as she left the library, she hugged herself... and giggled.

He told her that she stunk, and that she should bathe... so he must have truly cared about her!

Right?

She hugged harder.

Right.


Her study session with Makoto turned out to be the first of a series of study sessions. At the start, they barely talked, apart from a few attempts when Makoto either asked for her help or commented on a topic that her one-word replies would stomp into the ground.

“It looks like it might rain,” he remarked in early spring, in regards to the grey sky outside.

“Hmph,” she went.

Touko absolutely was not attracted to him, but if anything, she appreciated his honesty. Over the course of these study sessions, she came to suss out that what she saw really was what he was: a young man from an ordinary high school, who only attended this academy for students with high-class talents because he won a lottery, randomly selected out of every high school student in Japan. For this, he had been bestowed the title of ‘Super High School Level Good Luck’.

Everyone else in the academy had a talent that they were outstanding at. Hers, for example, was ‘Literary Girl’, and as a writer whose works frequently released to become rapid best sellers, and who had read as much as she did, this title could fit no one more than it did her. Then there were others, like gambler, swimmer, soldier and doujin artist, and for her classmate, Byakuya Togami, there was heir.

But that title was misleading. While he had been born into the family, he had to earn the right to be heir, the right to exist as the next head of the family. That was what he had confided to her some time ago and since then, she had gravitated toward him. She didn’t always speak to him, but he must have known whenever she was hanging about but allowed her to, as there were times when he would say nothing. When he wanted her gone, he always said. Take a bath. You’re being an eyesore. Your breathing is too noisy.

“Your writing must keep you busy,” Makoto remarked. “I mean, if people all over the world read your work, there must be a high demand.”

She glanced up.

“I’m serialised, so I’m kept busy, yes,” she stated, and she lowered her gaze back to her notebook. “When I’m not writing, I’m reading or studying. I’m not an idiot like you.”

Touko was about to write again when she realised what she said and brought a thumb to her mouth. She looked up. He was frowning. A knot formed in her stomach.

“Ah, I said that without thinking,” she said, cringing. “Now, you’re going to pour orange juice through my shoe locker or lead a mob into tying me against gym equipment...”

Makoto gave a sheepish smile.

“I’m not going to do any of those things. Don’t worry, compared to you, I probably am sort of an idiot,” he admitted. He clasped his hands together on the table. “So, um, what about socialising? How do you find time to do that?”

She glared. “I don’t.”

And he didn’t have to ask why.

“Sorry.” He squirmed under her intense gaze. “Um... you must have to come up with a lot of ideas. When you write, how much of it do you base on your life? Do you have to make up a lot of it?”

Touko snarled, and he cowered a little. She gritted her teeth.

“Are you serious? All my writing... is based on fantasy!” Touko hissed, and she clutched her head. The library seemed to cave in on her. “Argh, now I’m remembering... bad experiences...”

“Fukawa-san, I didn’t mean to,” he claimed, and peeking at him, she saw his mouth hanging open, his brow creased pitifully.

Her fingers dug into her hair. She breathed loudly and gulped.

“Don’t get the wrong idea though,” she said with her gaze averted, still feeling on edge. “You know, even I have had romantic experience. A guy in another class in junior high asked me out on a date, and I took the responsibility of choosing the venue. Movies are a good first date, right?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Right?” Touko said, raising her voice.

Makoto blenched.

“R-Right!” he agreed. “That makes perfect sense.”

She placed her hands onto the table and focused on them. Her nails had been bitten short.

“Movies give you something to talk about afterwards, and we couldn’t just see a kid’s movie. We needed something action packed,” she carried on, fiddling absentmindedly with her pen. “So we decided to check out a Seijun Suzuki triple feature. Tokyo Drifter, Fighting Elegy, and my personal favourite, Branded to Kill. Any guy would love to watch those, right?”

Touko’s eyes flitted up to him. Makoto looked blank. She ogled him.

“You don't know who Seijun Suzuki is?” she blurted. He tilted his head, his slack expression unchanged. That said it all. “He’s one of cinema's greatest innovators! Known for his eccentric vision and unique aesthetic. You seriously don’t know him?”

Makoto blinked, then stooped his head in embarrassment.

“Those might be a bit too obscure for people our age,” he said with a goofy smile. Touko pressed her lips together tightly.

“If you’re going to be smug, get it over with now because he disappeared right in the middle of the first movie,” she ground out. She clenched her fists so hard that the whole of her arms tensed, and kind of hurt. “Then again, he had just lost a bet... and had to ask me out as his punishment... so I doubt he was ever interested at all.”

He sat back in his chair with a start.

“You did all that... and he left?” said Makoto with disbelief.

“Yes!” Touko raked her fingers through her hair, dishevelling her already bedraggled braids. “I spent three consecutive nights concocting that idea. Even my childhood friend, after I wrote him a love confession, pinned it to a noticeboard for everyone to ridicule.”

Makoto stared. “That’s awful!”

Touko already knew that. He didn’t have to tell Touko. Her chest twinged. She embraced herself roughly.

All these years later, she could still revisit those scenes like watching them on video. Their laughter swirled around her as she drowned in their noise, ringing in her ears. They tossed her about to each other like she was a ragdoll, and once bored, threw her in the mud and left her all alone until someone trampled on her.

“It’s all coming back to me... Argh, this is your fault!” She screwed her eyes up and shook her head. “Are you recording this secretly? Are you planning on turning me into a meme?”

He extended a hand toward her. “No, I-”

“Just... stop talking,” she said, trembling, and he did.


For as long as Touko could remember, she hadn’t eaten a meal with anyone. Not at school, where she either ate alone at her desk or in a secluded part of the school, and certainly not at home with her father, her mother and her mother. Hope’s Peak boasted a large cafeteria, run by professional chefs and the Super High School Level Cook.

Entering the cafeteria, she intended to get herself something to eat and bring it back with her to her room, rather than prepare herself something. A day had passed since her last study session with Makoto, during which time she had barely eaten, and now the pangs in her stomach had grown too uncomfortable to ignore.

She lined up, retrieved her meal, and was halfway across the cafeteria when she caught sight of Byakuya. Now, while seeing him wasn’t anything unusual for her, what was unusual was that he wasn’t alone, and that the person with him was one of the last people that she would expect Byakuya to associate with.

“Here’s your coffee, Togami-kun,” said someone who was not Touko but should have been. The speaker was Makoto, the same person who instigated their study sessions. “I did everything that you asked me to.”

Makoto passed a cup and saucer to Byakuya, who received it without giving thanks. After a moment’s hesitation, Makoto sat opposite him, even though there were a lot of other tables and a lot of chairs in the cafeteria. He pulled his bag onto his lap and got out a can of soda called Hetap.

“I didn’t expect a cup of coffee to require so much work,” said Makoto with a faint grin. His can hissed as he tweaked the tab to open it.

Touko sat at a nearby table and balled her hands into fists, turning her knuckles white. If that had been Touko sat opposite Byakuya, she wouldn’t have complained. She would have happy to brew him coffee to his liking.

“Brewing it on a saucepan elicits the best taste above all other methods,” said Byakuya. He took a sip, then smirked. “Perhaps, next time, when you volunteer your services, you will realise that it requires more than an empty gesture to satisfy me.”

“Services,” Makoto mouthed. If he actually said it, Touko didn’t hear, because the hum of voices in the cafeteria blocked him out. She heard what he said next though. “I wasn’t offering you my services. I offered to get us drinks because that’s what friends do.”

The noise in the cafeteria didn’t subside, but when Byakuya’s features darkened, it was like the world stopped for a moment.

“Friends? We’re not friends,” he scoffed. “As if I would be friends with someone like you, an ordinary, boring person who only attends this school because he won a lottery. Your only reason to exist is to act as comparison point to everyone else here.”

Makoto winced. “That’s... That’s not very nice.”

“I’m not trying to be nice. Listen closely. I don’t need friends,” said Byakuya. He set down his coffee. The contents sloshed, but didn’t spill out. “You’re wasting air that could be breathed by more worthwhile people, so stop talking. Or even stop breathing.”

Touko’s skin tingled.

“That’s... That’s unnecessarily harsh, Togami-kun!” Makoto cried out.

Byakuya pushed up his glasses, unmoved.

“I’m not here to make friends. As you can’t seem to shut up, then get lost,” said Byakuya, and he only glanced up once after Makoto had risen and heaved himself away.


The only other person Touko knew with a level of honesty like Makoto was their classmate, Byakuya. But it wasn’t the same. With Makoto, he came with a simplicity, an inability to deceive, or maybe a heart incapable of doing so. A rare thing. However, Byakuya, in Touko’s eyes, was far more multifaceted, with many layers to him. Like... Like an onion. And if one was to peel him back, they would discover more. If one was to take off his layers, like his shoes, tie, shirt, pants...s-socks... underwear-!

“Fukawa-san, you’re drooling,” said Makoto, a week after the scene in the cafeteria.

Touko stirred as the images of Byakuya in various states of undress dissolved and her plain-looking classmate appeared in front of her. Her wistful expression melted off her face as Byakuya’s blond hair crumbled away like sand.

She fluttered her lashes and looked down. A spot of drool stained an open page in her notebook, and Touko pulled up her jacket sleeve to cover most of her palm so she could dab at the damp patch.

Makoto rested his cheek in his palm, elbow on the table like a mannerless barbarian, and watched her with a small, restrained smile.

“You must have got to a riveting part of your story, huh?” he teased, and she flinched.

“W-Where did this burst of confidence come from?” she asked, shooting him a wary look.

He folded his arms against the table.

“Well, it’s natural. We’ve become closer as friends, right?” he said.

Touko inhaled sharply. The eff word again! It still caught her off-guard every time. She slouched and bit her lip, contorting the shape of her grimace.

“If you must know, I’ve been struggling to write lately,” she said. Her shoulders curled forward. “And... And it’s your fault.”

Makoto pointed at himself. “Me? How? What did I do?”

Touko straightened and wagged her finger at him.

“Ever since you reminded me... of those old wounds...!” she said, trailing off, but the fire in her eyes flickered on.

“You mean when that boy pinned your confession to a noticeboard?” said Makoto. “And when you were asked out on a dare?”

She wheezed and flailed her arms in front of her.

“Why are you saying it out loud?” she shrieked. A few people glanced, but by this point, most of them had grown used to it and seemed more annoyed that startled. “I told you in confidence, but yes! That! And.... it’s not just you. It’s everyone. Ever since that... school trip... you’ve all been on my mind. Now I can’t get into the right frame of mind... not when I’m happy.”

Makoto furrowed his brow. “So you’re upset about being happy?”

“Yes!” She clutched her cheeks, close to wailing. “I can’t write anymore... and besides, whenever I try to write a love interest, all I can think of is one person.”

And that person was Byakuya-sama. To think there had been a time when he just annoyed her, with his uppity attitude and good looks. After all, she had assumed, his handsome appearance must have been balanced out by a rotten personality. Some people would have agreed that they balanced after meeting him, but in her eyes, he had proven himself as incredible as he made himself out to be. When he had accused her of poisoning a dessert she offered him, it sparked something in her, and it had been like she glimpsed her reflection. Whatever he went through, exactly, that he hadn’t elaborated on to her, that meant he couldn’t trust anyone, that he could be nothing less than he was forced to be in order to survive, that must have taken great strength. Intelligence. Ability.

Byakuya had her hooked, well and truly, but he saw her as nothing more than a worm like how he saw the others in their class. He scorned romance, and other than conversations about books when he was in a neutral mood, she hadn’t shown him her potential, what she was capable of. All he could see was the outer layer of her onion self.

Touko whimpered and buried her head under her arms.

“All my works in progress... doomed!” she lamented. “I’ll have to retire. Become a hermit. And maybe one day, a boy with a monkey tail will visit me...”

“Don’t retire, Fukawa-san!” Makoto said from outside of her fortress of depression. “Your novels are amazing. Why don’t you think about what got you writing in the first place?”

She hesitated. Loneliness. Anger. Love. Despair. Hate.

Her life got her writing.


Over the next week, she wrote more than she had in the past month. She bled ink onto page upon page upon page, extracting her poison as she sat in her room, as she picked at her lunch, as she drove herself to exhaustion long after the sun had set. It became an addiction, and she barely looked up, even at Byakuya, which if she had, she may have noticed him glancing at her more than usual.

When she met up with Makoto again, he sat opposite her and watched her scribble, which she did with no pause, no waver. For a while, he didn’t say anything, until eventually he cleared his throat and shifted on his chair.

“Wow... You’re really inspired. Something exciting must be happening in your story,” he remarked.

She wrote a bit more before stopping, and frowned.

“It is my story, but not in the way you’re thinking,” she said. Makoto’s brow creased, and she explained, “This isn’t fiction... or romance.” Not yet. Maybe. “It’s... my I-Novel.”

His empty stare made her grit her teeth.

“It’s literature of a confessional nature, where the author has experienced the subject matter they’re writing about,” she told him. “The first of their kind are believed to be by Shimazaki Tōson and Tayama Katai in the early twentieth century. You might be more familiar with Naoya Shiga or Osamu Dazai.”

Judging by his face, he was not. He nodded anyway.

“So like an autobiography?” he said.

A beat passed.

“Sure,” she replied. She averted her gaze, fidgeting her hands. “It’s... not like my other novels. Those are built on delusions that only someone as downtrodden as me can visualise in true, full beauty. This is my very essence.”

Makoto watched her wordlessly. Touko stared down at her notebook. In the recesses of her mind, she could hear her class in elementary school laughing at the confession note that her sweetheart had pinned up for all to read and enjoy. She felt Makoto’s eyes bore into her, burning, and her hands shook.

With a deep breath, she hesitantly passed the green notebook that she had been writing it in to him.

“Here. Read it,” she said, eyes downcast. “I’ll trust you... as a friend, and you did inspire me to write it, so yeah.”

Touko waited and felt him take it from her grasp. After a few seconds, when she was sure that he was reading it, she lifted her gaze.

He read slowly, trudging through the prose, but not because he struggled to understand, or because he couldn’t concentrate. A minute later, he was still reading, his mouth ajar, and when he finally looked up, he had to tear his gaze away with great reluctance.

“That... was incredible,” he said in awe, seeming on the edge of laughing for lack of other reaction. “It flowed perfectly, and I could see everything... like I was there. I could hear every breath, smell my own sweat... reading it... makes my heart feel really heavy... but I can’t not!”

Makoto was trembling. Her lips twitched into a smirk.

“It's going to b-become a shocking masterpiece that'll change the face of the I-Novel f-forever!” she told him. She raised a fist, stars in her eyes. “My novel will be dissected... but... more importantly... there will be people who can understand my pain, and reading my journey... will be given hope and strength to carry on.”

“Wow, Fukawa-san... I don’t know what to say,” he said, saying something, but she appreciated the sentiment. He passed the notebook back. “You need to publish this. People need to read this. When it’s ready... and you’re ready, of course.”

Touko’s head tipped back down slowly, and the glimmer in her eyes collapsed into black holes. She hugged the notebook to her chest. Her heart skipped.

“But what if... people see that about me... and...?” she mumbled.

“To Hell with ‘what if’!” Makoto said, and the unexpected exclamation made her recoil in surprise. She stared at him, dumbfounded. “I’m sorry, Fukawa-san, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to hide any of this. Those who truly care about you won’t judge you harshly. Anyone who does is wrong, and you should forget about them.”

She digested his speech and swallowed. Then, she nodded and stood up, one fist raised.

“Right. I’m ugly... and I’m proud of it!” she announced loudly.

But as Makoto smiled at her, he saw her as anything but.

Hopefully Byakuya would be the same.


 

Touko continued to work on her I-Novel, spurred on by her determination and Makoto’s encouragement. This sort of thing must have been why the class voted for Makoto to be class president, a person who supported everyone, from Leon’s interest in music despite his talent being listed as baseball player to observing a fence holding competition between Kiyotaka and Mondo after they argued that Mondo had no discipline and Kiyotaka had no spine.

If they were to vote again, and Byakuya wasn’t running, Touko thought she would vote for Makoto, even if he didn’t have a talent like everyone else here.

She let herself not write for an evening and instead made a visit to the library with a cup in each hand. Soon after entering, she spotted Byakuya, and she walked over and carefully set down one of the saucers, so not to unsettle the dark brown coffee within the cup. Tiny bubbles dotted the amber perimeter of the drink’s surface.

Byakuya didn’t look up then, nor as she sat beside him with a cup of rosehip tea, which had required less stress to brew. Her first attempt at civet coffee boiled and tasted burnt, meaning she had to try again. There was little room for error when it came to taking it off the heat.

“Did you ever finish ‘Out’?” asked Touko. She held her cup in both hands.

“I did. It is a rather gruesome book, wouldn’t you say? For the most part, it was compelling, even if it lagged in places. Though there was no mystery, it kept up the suspense about what would happen next, and I was intrigued by it, but toward the end...”

He trailed off. Touko didn’t respond.

Her rosehip tea was brighter than his coffee.

“The scene between Matsuo and Satake left a sour taste in my mouth,” he said. “It was a graphic torture that one would expect a male writer to describe in such vivid detail, but the writer is a woman.”

She didn’t look up.

“It’s... sadomasochist, isn’t it?” she said quietly. Her thighs squeezed together. “Coming to feel pleasure... at such brutality...”

Byakuya’s chair creaked. He must have adjusted his position. Without having to check, she knew he leaned back, one leg crossed over the other.

“It devolves into torture porn by the resolution,” he said, dripping with disgust.

Touko lifted her head. His posture was just as she predicted.

“It’s a nauseating scene, and after Matsuo murders Satake, she comes to realise that they are both twisted, damaged individuals, and she feels a connection to him despite what he did,” said Touko, cradling her cup. Its surface was smooth. When she spoke again, it quivered. “However, she chooses not to continue on like him, but to travel around and find freedom. She does not let it become an obsession. There is debate on whether it is a feminist novel or not, but regardless, I believe its intended message to be that the actual difference between man and woman is the roles and expectations that society has placed on them, and that they can be equally depraved. It’s psychoanalysis.”

He shifted, putting down his cup and uncrossing his legs. Then he curved his back and rested his cheek in his hand, his elbow on the table.

“That is certainly an interpretation that one could make. I expect nothing less from someone of your talent,” he said, and she thought he was smiling, but if he was, it was very slight. “You’re interesting to talk to, Touko Fukawa. You had me fooled before.”

Her mind drained of all thought, and without realising, the ends of lips climbed up.

Byakuya lifted his head and fixed his glasses.

“I’ve seen photos of crime scenes, and this novel makes even the likes of Genocider Syo look tame,” he said, definitely not grinning anymore. “But, of course, unlike the characters in this book, he’s real.”

Touko’s smile dropped dead. Her blood turned to ice.

“G-Genocider Syo?” she stammered.

“At least, that’s the name given to him online. I don’t just read books, but also case files, and this case has piqued my interest, especially now that I have access to more information on it,” said Byakuya.

He set down his cup and folded his arms over his chest.

“The police have deduced that he spends a long time with his victim, torturing them as their life ebbs away slowly. He uses their own blood to write the message “BLOODSTAIN FEVER” nearby, and he seems to  arbitrarily attack people, but that is, it only seems random if you attribute unsolved murders to him. Some claim that his body count lies in the thousands, but I think it’s around thirty. All of his proven victims are male, and, only top-ranking officers know this, but he also crucifies his victims.”

His blue eyes pierced her.

“Did you know the murder weapons are always scissors?” he added.

She didn’t finish her tea.


The scissors glided against his neck, and blood emerged from the fresh wound just as quickly and smoothly, staining the surrounding skin. He let out a cry of pain, which broadened the shark-like grin of the shadow in front of him.

“You sound so cute,” said the shadow, with arms and legs like a human. “But a corpse is a corpse is a corpse... right?”

When he tried to speak, he just gargled.

“You want to speak in tongue?” The shadow cupped his cheek. “Sure thing! I can read braille!”

“Why...” He managed. “Why...?”

“Why? Why am I doing this? Because why does a baker bake? Why does a writer write?”

He stretched out his neck, heaving, and in a hoarse voice, said, “No. Why... are you crying?”

The shadow hesitated. “What?”

And the reflection in his eyes showed it to be true.


Touko rapped her knuckles against the door and then waited. She didn’t know if Byakuya was even in his dorm, but he hadn’t been in the library. Still, they had been in the same class for about a year now, and in that time, she had taken note of his favourite locations and mentally constructed a timetable of his day.

Her hard work paid off. The door finally opened, though only slightly, and Byakuya’s face emerged behind the modest crack.

“What is it?” he asked. She took a deep breath that rattled her bones.

“I... I want you to read this,” she said, showing him the notebook.

Byakuya glanced at it and narrowed his eyes at her. “Why would I want to read one of your romances? Be gone.”

She predicted that he planned to close the door, and she thrust out the book toward him. The door continued shutting, so she wedged her foot forward, and got it in there just in time.

“It’s not a romance,” she said. “I wrote... something else.”

“Oh?” he said, not sounding particularly interested. Touko latched on anyway.

“It’s an I-Novel. I haven’t finished it yet, but... I would like you to read it.”

When she tried pushing the door open wider with her foot, he didn’t stop her, gazing at her.

“And why should I be interested in your life? Do you have a sob story to tell? Do you expect me to pity you?” he asked.

She puffed out her chest and stood her ground. “Byakuya-sama, if... if this... doesn’t... exceed your expectations... then I will never talk to you again.”

Silence.

“Oh?” he said, again, but now with a note of intrigue. His eyebrows rose a little before he furrowed them again. “Fine. Give it to me...”

Touko didn’t breathe as she handed him the notebook. As they stood there, the two of them, both touching the notebook, thoughts swarmed in her head. Possible things to say, to blurt.

I want to get to know you better. I have feelings for you. I have another personality in me called Genocider Syo. She could kill you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.

He tugged on the book, which she now held with a grip that could choke someone.

“Let go of it,” he said.

She met his eyes, and whatever he saw made him freeze.

“I...” love you. “I...” share a body with Genocider Syo. “I hope you find it worth your time, Byakuya-sama.”

Touko smiled. He blinked.

“What’s wrong, Byakuya-sama?” she said, still smiling.

“I don’t understand. You’re smiling, but then... why are you crying?” he asked.

She raised a hand to her cheek. “What?”

And the reflection in his eyes showed it to be true. Touko let go of the notebook, bowed and then hurried away without looking back.


Even though both of them continued to attend classes for the next week, Byakuya didn’t bring up the I-Novel. Whenever her gaze so much as passed over him, the urge to ask him what he thought of it spiked in her, only to ooze and stick to her throat and settle in the pit of her stomach.

She had told him that if it didn’t surpass his expectations that she would never talk to him again, so perhaps that was what had happened. On the next Friday, after classes ended, she slipped out and hid away in her room, shutting the door behind herself. Completely and utterly alone, she dragged herself to her bed and teetered on the spot beside it for a few seconds.

Then she flopped facedown, shaking.

What happened shouldn’t have come across as a shock. After all, her first crush, way back in elementary school, had taken her love letter to him and just before he moved away, pinned it to the noticeboard for everyone for everyone to gawk and laugh at. That letter had been fueled by her love for her only childhood friend, and he went and did that. Broke her heart.

Consequently, he became Genocider Syo’s first victim.

Touko knew this would happen. If she had kept her mouth shut, this wouldn’t have happened.

At some point, she might have fallen asleep, and if she did, she didn’t dream. When she awoke, or at least broke out of her trance, darkness had fallen in her room, and she curled up into a ball.

Before she could fall back asleep, her doorbell rang. Touko jolted up. Not wanting to talk to anyone, she didn’t move, waiting, and enough time passed that she began to think she had imagined the sound, but then it rang again, two presses. She screamed in her head for whoever it was to go away, to let her rot.

“I know you’re in there,” said Byakuya, right outside of her dorm, and she took a moment to realise who it was.

Once she apprehended the reality, the velocity with which she shot up could have blasted her through solid concrete, and she stumbled over to the door. As she opened it, she half-expected to wake up in her bed, but there he was. Very real. Very alive.

Byakuya held up her notebook.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

Chapter Text

Hope’s Peak Academy sat right in the middle of a large city like the Sun in the solar system, and all the buildings and lots around it were planets or chunks of rock that had been pulled into orbit. However, due to the establishment’s location, light pollution was strongest here so to the naked eye, only the brightest stars could be seen at best, and so Touko wondered what Byakuya was looking at as he faced her dorm window.

Yes, that was right. Byakuya was in her dorm. He visited, voluntarily, and she let him in, voluntarily. Touko stood over by her coffee table and rubbed her wrist. If she had known, she would have tidied first. Stacks of books sat on top of her desk, around her desk, around her bed and crammed into bookcases. They occupied much of her floor, not just a handful but dozens of them, resembling a city with high-rise buildings. When Touko moved out of the house she rented while she attended her previous high school, she had brought her collection of books here with her. Every single one.

Her grip on her skirt increased as she nibbled on her lips. She should have sorted the place out. Spruced it up. Even though she hadn’t totally expected his visit, she still should have made her living arrangements presentable in case she hosted someone as esteemed as him.

Perhaps she should clean now, put on a maid outfit and spit shine his shoes too, but she didn’t know where she would get a maid outfit from. What a disaster.

In her daydreams, she imagined him here, with her, alive and well. At night, in her dreams, she imagined him here, with her, dead.

Byakuya finally turned away from the window, and she roused from her fretting. Even though she had memorised his face, could write every detail about it, to the shade of his blue eyes to the angles of his lips throughout various expressions, at this moment, she couldn’t read him. The best she could describe his countenance was with ‘thoughtful’, but she couldn’t tell what he was thinking except that it wasn’t an amusing thought.

He slowly raised a hand, which held the purple notebook that she gave him to read.

“Touko Fukawa,” he said, and she had to hold herself. Her name rolled in his mouth like a piece of hard candy. Byakuya gave the notebook a small shake.

She glanced at it but locked onto his face as her target, breathing loudly.

“I already knew that you are incredibly talented,” he said, staring back at her. “Even if I abhor romance as a concept and in real life, I would be lying if I said that your skill didn’t exist. However...”

Her panting snuffed out, held in. Suspended. She held her breath.

“... after reading your I-Novel...” Byakuya paused again, to adjust his glasses and choose his words, like taking steps through a pitch black room. “... I realise that your talent is on a whole other level to which I assumed.”

Touko widened her eyes and gasped, tucking her elbows into her sides. He lifted his chin but didn’t break eye contact.

“With your romance novels, you made fishermen more popular with women. You did the same with butlers, with teachers... using words. Reading this I-Novel, based on experiences on your life... stirred in me an emotion,” he told her, and she shivered.

“An... emotion?” she repeated, unable to process any thoughts of her own.

“Yes. It was dark.” His head shifted, and his glasses flashed as he did. “You described everything in vivid detail, and I read all of it in a single sitting. I am not a man that is easily affected by others. I have seen a lot of things that many people would have broken down at.”

He stopped talking. She couldn’t prompt him even if she tried. Her throat had closed up.

“... At the end of the competition to choose which sibling would be the sole heir of the conglomerate, there was a round where fifteen people were chosen,” he said, seeming to change the subject. “Despite my success in previous rounds, I was eliminated. During my research, I uncovered that a sibling had bribed those overseeing the competition and had been taken my spot. So, I found out where it was taking place and donned a disguise. Accompanied by a detective, we went to investigate...”

Touko nodded. She could do that. And her breathing had evened out, just about.

“The final round took place on an island. A challenge would have been set, but before one was given... one of the competitors died.”

His revelation shot a chill up her. She clasped her hands together. From how darkly he said it, the death didn’t sound natural. “Died?”

“Then another... and another,” he carried on. “It became clear that there was at least one murderer on the island. Soon, only a handful remained, and then...”

When he hesitated, his face didn’t contort, but he gritted his teeth and a spasm quivered once in his cheek that he couldn’t control.

“... two of the competitors, twins, set another competitor on fire. After that, a different competitor murdered the twins, and as the burnt competitor lay there, helpless, he attacked her.”

Touko visualised the scene, picturing twins with blue featureless skin, one with pigtails, one with a bob cut, who were cut up with an axe by a bigger blue humanoid. Once they were dead, it reared its head and set its eyes on its prey - a small, blue humanoid. At this point, everything fractured, crumbling away, and her toes curled in her shoes.

“Did... he...?” Touko mumbled.

“Yes. He wasn’t even a Togami by blood, it turned out.” Byakuya glared, not at her, but she felt its intensity, the heat of its glow, and cringed. “Instead, he was the adopted sibling of the competitor that he brutally assaulted, and he had been slotted into the last round of the competition... under my name!”

She flung a hand to her mouth and jolted.

“But...” Her head spun, and she could feel her heartbeat between her ears. “How did he bribe his way in? Surely, the conglomerate boasted such a vast amount of money that they wouldn’t be able to be swayed with money.”

“Exactly.” He folded his arms over his chest. “Apparently, he offered an incredibly rare creature, but I have never seen proof of its existence.”

Touko couldn’t bring herself to dwell or care about this supposed rare creature, at least for the moment.

“What happened next?” asked Touko, wishing this was like a book so she could skip ahead and find out.

And she hated it when people did that.

“Me, the detective and Pennyworth found the imposter as he was in the middle of... that,” said Byakuya. Her stomach knotted. He didn’t give anything away, speaking with an impartial tone, with smooth features. “There was a confrontation, and in the end, Pennyworth killed the imposter. Almost everyone was dead, but I had proven myself, so I shed off my disguise and claimed the right to be heir. Then my mother married my father - for formality’s sake, of course. Outside of public appearances together, they rarely talk unless it has to do with conglomerate business.”

She digested what he told her. The last scene he described played out in her head. Apart from Byakuya, everyone had blue skin, and she pictured him as a young teenager, surrounded by all that carnage, his features hardened as he stood, victorious. As the final image faded out, she swallowed thickly.

“What happened to the girl?” she asked, wringing her hands. “The one her brother assaulted? Or did she...?”

“Survived. The losers are usually expelled, but I decided to keep her around as my secretary. Most people who are sent into exile seem to die unusual deaths, anyway,” he said.

He drew closer to Touko, footsteps muted, movement fluid, and stopped a short distance in front of her. She peered up at him with her mouth hanging ajar.

“You might be wondering... why am I telling you all this?” he said. “It is because, Fukawa, even though I have gone through what I have, your prose still managed to fill me with an inescapable feeling of despair.”

Touko scratched at one end of her lips and wavered. “S-Sorry...?”

But he shook his head.

“I don’t care for an apology. I am praising you. Your writing ability is beyond anything that I have seen before. You could use it for incredible things, yet you waste it on your romance novels.”

At first, her chest had swelled with pride, but as he came to an end, she felt a flicker of offense. She clenched her fists.

“You’re wrong...”

His brow furrowed. “What did you say?”

“I’m not wasting my talent on it,” she said, tensing her shoulders. “My stories... provide escape. A channel. The feelings inside of me... my love... they aren’t a weakness. They are a source of my strength.”

Byakuya was quiet. She maintained her stance. After a while, he angled his body away slightly, opened the notebook, and leafed through it to a certain page.

“Toward the end, you mentioned your shadow,” he said, skimming through the notebook for a certain section. “At first, I thought you were being metaphorical. ‘Some fear what the darkness hides, but for some, that is where we hide. From my nook, I see blond cresses, slender fingers and eyes alive and blue. But where there is light, there must be shadow, so where there is me, there must be her.’ ”

She waited for him to elaborate for her.

“I’ve deduced that you’re referring to me, but who is the ‘her’ that you are referring to?” His eyes flitted from the notebook to her, flinty. “Is it you?”

“No,” Touko snapped, and Byakuya tilted his head a bit in surprise. She realised and softened her gaze, and as she stared up at him, his face hung like a full moon in a bleak sky.

His face glitched. For a moment, he had blood running down from one eye, scissors in his neck, but when she blinked, he returned to normal. Touko’s jaw shuddered, and she imagined her features glitching too. An eye narrowed, red where there should have been hazel-purple, and one end of her lips hiked up in half of a grin. In that moment, her tongue tried to seep out, thick and grotesque.

It didn’t really fill her mouth - that had been her imagination, but something made it harder for her to breathe.

“Byakuya-sama...” She couldn’t look at him anymore. “I...”

This time, he waited for her to elaborate. Touko forced the words out, scrunching up her face.

“... know who Genocider Syo is,” she said.

Silence reigned, and she looked up.

He didn’t react at first, staring, then he absorbed what she said and his eyebrows climbed.

“What?” he said softly.

She hunched her shoulders. Wrapped her arms around herself and squeezed.

“What you read... in that I-Novel... our society... smothered me, until the pressure at my core grew too hot, too dense, and all that emptiness compressed together, until I imploded and out came her.”

Her legs quaked but she didn’t let them buckle. She stayed on her feet, no matter how much the weight in her heart wanted to drag her down, how arms of ghosts extended from the blue carpet and tugged at her. In her vision, Byakuya hung like a floater in her eye, constant and out-of-focus.

“You mean...” His lips rustled, as if he was licking them because his mouth had gone dry, but she wouldn’t, couldn’t look up that high to confirm. “... you’re Genocider Syo?”

Touko winced at the swooping sensation in her gut.

“That name belongs to another personality in me,” explained Touko. Her voice was cracking. "An alter. Sadistic, murderous, assertive.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you, why?” said Byakuya, calm but bordering on a sneer. “Is this a joke?”

If only it could have been a joke, a sick joke in bad taste. Touko trembled as she hitched up her skirt, revealing her leather holster and all the scissors stored within. She passed one to him. He studied it, turning it over in his hands, caressing the metal with his slender fingers, until he finally looked up.

“Anyone who I have started to have feelings for, she has chased them down and murdered,” Touko told him. His face framed her vision and she thought he was so, too beautiful, even with his brow creased like that. “All... All except you.”

“For now,” he said tersely. He glanced at the door.

She grabbed his wrist. His eyes darted back to her.

Neither moved.

“What do you expect me to do?” he said. Touko felt him shift, but he didn’t try to remove himself from her grasp. “Do you think I can give it a kiss and you’ll be all better?”

Her heart skipped at the mention of a kiss, then sank as he finished the rest of his question.

“Since I’ve attended this school, she hasn’t killed anyone. I’ve been able to suppress her,” Touko said, and she increased her grip. “I think, with your help, that I could keep her at bay. N-No one else will die.”

“And you’re sure of that? Hm?” He bared his teeth. “Tell me why I shouldn’t inform the academy? Now that I know your secret, what position does that put me in? You’ve started a timer on my head, and it’s a matter of time until Syo awakens and kills me to silence me. Don’t you see? You let your emotions overcome you and blurted this out. This love of yours blinded you foolishly.”

She twisted her hold on him.

“I... I won’t let her!” she hissed. “If I can be with you... then I won’t let her! You can help me control her.”

Touko screwed up her eyes.

“I’m sure,” she said, shoulders heaving, and she said it again. “I’m sure.”

“But what makes me different to all your other victims?” asked Byakuya, his cool tone in stark contrast to hers.

She couldn’t answer that. Years ago, Syo tried to communicate with Touko using sticky notes left in places she thought Touko would stumble upon quickly. Bedside drawers. Replacing bookmarks. When it became clear that Touko had no interest in talking to her, they petered out.

“Byakuya-sama, you think that my emotions have made me weak, but please, let me prove you wrong. I’ll show you that they are the source of my strength,” said Touko, her face burning fiercely.

He didn’t reply, staring at her. Finally, he smirked and gave a hum, returning the scissors to her.

“Very well. Fukawa... if you think your feelings of love are as strong as you claim, then I would like you to show me,” he said, and her heart gave a leap.

Touko let out a laugh.

“T-Thank you, Byakuya-sama!” Her eyes stung with the threat of tears, but her heart felt lighter than it had for a long time. She jiggled his arm. “Let me show my... my love! Do you want some coffee? A massage? To use me as a footstool?”

His face darkened. He snatched his arm away, and with nothing to hold, she squeezed her hands together.

“Shut up. I didn’t plan on being here long. I have other things to do,” he said.

“Are you going to the library?”

“No. I’m going to my room. I’m going to sleep.”

“What about tomorrow... can we meet up tomorrow?” asked Touko. “Perhaps we could read a book... or see a movie?”

“A movie?” He thrust up his nose in scorn. “Do you mean a romance adapted from some book?”

“No! I hate movie adaptations! What sort of movies do you like?”

“I have a very refined taste. Some of my favourites are what are called cult classics,” he replied. “There is Branded to Kill, Tokyo Drifter...”

She broke into a grin.

“Ah! By Seijun Suzuki?” she said excitedly.

“Yes.” He quirked his brow. “You’ve heard of them then?”

“Of course! I’ve seen both of them. They’re stylised masterpieces! I haven’t seen them,” since that failure of a date, “for a while, but I could go on at length about them.”

Byakuya studied her, considering.

“If you can discuss them as well as you do with books, then... I suppose we could watch one of them together,” he conceded, then added curtly, “Tomorrow. In the AV room. In public.”

Now, he turned to leave. She reached a hand toward him.

“Please don’t tell anyone, Byakuya-sama,” she blurted.

He stopped and looked over his shoulder.

“Who would believe me?” he asked her. “No, I don’t intend to. I don’t wish to taint this school’s image, and by extension, the conglomerate’s image. Besides...”

Byakuya smiled slightly and pushed up his glasses.

“... you’ve intrigued me. I’m not finished with you just yet.”

With that said, he walked the rest of the way over to her door and left. Touko stayed still for a couple of moments, and then shuffled over to her bed. She collapsed onto it, physically exhausted but her mind buzzed, keeping her awake for a while longer.

Could this be a date with Byakuya? Even after she told him her secret? Despite the excitement bubbling in her, she eventually fell asleep. This time, when she dreamed, he didn’t die. They smiled and held each other’s faces, and then...! Then...!

When she woke up, early daylight poured in through the window, and she was alone.

But she didn’t feel alone anymore.

That had been her only good night for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

Being a fashion girl wasn’t just about putting on an outfit and posing in front of a camera. Well, it could be, but to be an elite Super High School Level Fashion Girl, a person needed to be more than that. They had to be born with a cute face and grow up cute. Sometimes, puberty could be a blessing, or it could be a nail in the forehead. On top of being cute and pretty and gorgeous, they had to have a quirky personality and not seem too smart but actually be really, really smart, like Junko.

That wasn’t enough though.

See, Junko possessed another Super High School Level ability that gave her an edge over everyone else. She had incredible analytical skills. Like, absolutely amazing analytical skills. Any upcoming fashion trends, she could see a mile away. Any useful contacts, she could adjust her personality accordingly and win them over within minutes. Any fashion events, she knew which to attend and which to ignore.

Such an awesome talent came with a downside, though.

Knowing how everything would turn out was boring. Really boring. Things always worked out how Junko expected, and so she despaired.

But not how she wanted to. No, the despair she wanted to experience could only come from one thing. Disorder. Chaos.

And that was why she orchestrated what she did.

“Muku-chan!” whined Junko, splayed out on her sofa with her feet resting on Mukuro’s lap.

Mukuro continued scrubbing Junko’s boots, which Junko was still wearing. “Yes, Junko-chan?”

Junko stretched her arms past her head and arched her back. Her face scrunched up momentarily, but when her body relaxed, so did her face, glowing with delight. A fire burned in her, small at first, but its smoke and warmth filled her. She couldn’t stop smiling and thrashed her legs, letting out a giggle.

“That was amazing,” Junko purred, and she crossed her arms over in front of her chest, gripping her shoulders, wiggling more. “Did you see their faces, Muku-chan?”

“I did,” said Mukuro with a wane smile, and she waited for Junko’s feet to steady before she resumed her attempt at cleaning her boots.

“They were filled... with such despair!” Junko said. “Absolutely... despair inducing!”

Mukuro didn’t reply. Junko panted, gulping noisily. She shuddered and her grin shone brightly.

“I want more, Muku-chan,” she said. “More, more, more! I want the whole world to experience such a wonderful, terrible thing!”

“I know you do,” said Mukuro softly.

Junko took a while to stop flailing. Mukuro returned to dealing with Junko’s boots. At first, Junko lay very still, and she looked very serious, but again, that didn’t last long either. A chuckle tickled Junko’s throat, and she burst out laughing again.

“I’ve got it, the most despair-inducing plan in the history of mankind!” said Junko, shaking all over. “Ah, just thinking about it... I think I need to take a shower almost as much as you do, Stinky-kuro!”

Mukuro stiffened with a pout. “I’m not stinky... I had a shower an hour ago.”

“Some people are born with fewer apocrine sweat glands than others, particularly East Asians,” Junko said. “However, you must have been born with a defect, so you’re naturally stinky!”

She pinched herself on the nose, and Mukuro huffed.

“Oh, if only you could realise how ugly, stinky and stupid you are”, bemoaned Junko, moving her hand to rest the back of it against her forehead. “You would be so full of despair! I’d probably kill myself in your shoes.”

Junko paused, then rolled off the couch and got to her feet. By stepping on the back of her boot, she pulled her foot out of it, and she did the same for her other. She left them by the couch and strode away, swishing her hips as she crossed over to the door to the bathroom.

When she got there, she didn’t enter, holding onto the door handle with a slack grip.

“What is the opposite of despair, Muku?” asked Junko, facing the door.

Her super duper perception skills told her that Mukuro had picked up her boots.

“Despair?” said Mukuro. “Um...”

“Too slow! You’re too slow.” Junko spun around and put her hands on her hips. Yep, Mukuro had. If she was close enough, she’d have rapped her knuckles on Mukuro’s empty skull. “It’s option C, hope! Hope is an expectation or desire for something to happen. The grounds for believing something good will transpire. And that’s totally boring! Since the moment we’re born, we’re told fairytales where everything ends happily ever after. For there to be despair, we need to have an absence of hope.”

Mukuro nodded. Junko stomped a foot.

“Don’t nod if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about!” she hissed, and Mukuro winced.

Pursing her lips, Junko placed a hand on her cheek. She got out a pair of glasses from her jacket pocket and put them on. Her eyes narrowed, very cool.

“If we want the whole world to brim with despair, we must remove all hope,” said Junko, “and that starts with the hope in our class.”

Like the inevitable tick of a clock, Mukuro lifted her head.

“You mean...?” Mukuro trailed off.

“Yes!” Junko tossed her glasses away and clapped her hands together, beaming from ear to ear. “If we remove that hope, then the void left will fill with despair... which we would have already done if you hadn’t lost his letter like a moron, though this could work out even better. But after our last stunt, I’m going to have to lay low for a while. I’ve always wanted to try being a redhead...”

She opened the bathroom door, but didn’t go in yet. Her eyes flitted over to Mukuro one last time and her smile shrunk, but it didn’t go completely.

“Ah, Muku-chan... don’t bother trying to get the blood out of those. I’m just going to get more on them, anyway. You’re like an intern rearranging an office file, or typing up a document from a PDF.”

Junko disappeared into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. Mukuro threw the boots onto the carpet and sighed.


A lot of events transpired in a few weeks and they weren’t all the sort that were to be expected at an educational establishment, even with as high prestige as Hope’s Peak. Ash had settled over everything afterwards, but in the way that ash settled after an active volcano erupted. There were two ways to look at it - an extraordinary thing occurred that might never happen again, or by happening, it showed that it was possible to happen so could happen again.

On a tranquil Saturday evening, Makoto sat at a table in the school library with two of his classmates. Byakuya and Touko were seated opposite him, both reading different books while Makoto positioned his book in a way that they wouldn’t spot the manga hidden inside of it. Originally, he and Byakuya had been seated together, but Makoto beckoned Touko over when he noticed her nearby.

Up to now, the day had been largely uneventful. Quiet. A lot of students travelled in packs these days, or made sure their routes included as many security cameras as possible. In this part of the library, they were the only people there, except a librarian lurking around somewhere.

Makoto’s eyelids grew heavy. Libraries had this effect on him. His head tipped slowly forward, but when Touko sneezed, he jerked his head back and dropped his book on the table with a thud.

The sound of her sneeze echoed. Byakuya barely furrowed his brow, while Makoto’s eyes darted over to her. She sat motionlessly with her head bent forward. A few seconds later, she raised her head sharply, blinking one eye, then the other.

“Huh?” Touko’s eyes flickered around the room. “Okay... Where the hell am I today?”

Byakuya lifted his gaze from his book, and seeing the face next to him, he tensed. The face resembled Touko’s greatly. They had the same pale violet eyes, the same circular framed glasses and the mole was even in the exact place. Their hair was styled in twin braids, and they wore the same school uniform, but their tongue hung out of their mouth and they didn’t tremble or fidget as they surveyed their surroundings.

Then there was the voice. It lacked any quavering, mumbles or stammers that Touko’s usually had, and it had a muffled huskiness that she didn’t usually, if ever, speak with.

“Fukawa-san?” said Makoto, confused.

The stranger fixed their eyes on him.

“Who the hell are you?” they snarled.

Makoto twitched back like she had tried to bite him and knitted his brows.

“You know who I am,” he said. They didn’t respond, didn’t move at all, staring back at him. “Are you feeling alright, Fukawa-san?”

Whoever they were, they tilted their head slowly from one side to the other, not once breaking eye contact with him.

“Hm... you’re not my type at all,” they said, and they glanced away. Catching sight of Byakuya, they swiveled around to face him instead.

The ends of their lips curved up.

“But you... you’re just my type!” they squealed, clutching their cheeks.

A loud, wheezy laugh burst out of them that sprayed saliva, and they jiggled excitedly in their chair. Makoto’s mouth hung open, rendered speechless by their sudden, erratic behaviour, but Byakuya seemed to have got over his initial surprise and now clenched his jaw.

“Oi, you. Be quiet,” Byakuya said without raising his voice, glaring at the stranger who resembled Touko.

If that had been Touko, she would have squeaked and apologised and slapped a hand over her mouth, but the stranger regarded Byakuya with a wide smile, their tongue writhing out in the open.

“Or what?” they asked, eyes twinkling. “You’ll spank me?”

Byakuya cringed, which only served to amuse the stranger more. They gave a snort and threw their head back, bursting out laughing again.

“Your face is so hot! I’m getting all fired up!” they crowed, holding their sides, and Byakuya hunched his shoulders with an even more sullen look on his face than before.

Makoto’s eyes flitted between the two. The Touko that he knew was more passive, and while she could get heated when it came to Byakuya, she never became so passionate, so noisy. To Makoto, who had gone out of his way to try to befriend all of his classmates, there was no question about it: this definitely wasn’t Touko Fukawa.

“What’s wrong with Fukawa-san?” he asked both of them.

The stranger finally turned their eyes back to him.

“You think I’m Gloomy?” they asked, their smile flattening until it almost disappeared entirely. Their brows squished together.

His chair grunted as he stood up. He stared at the stranger uneasily.

“We need to get her to the infirmary,” said Makoto. “Or... or to her room to lie down.”

“I’m fine!” they insisted, back to grinning again. They poked their index fingers against their cheeks, trying to appear cute, or something. “Better than fine! But let’s get out of this stuffy library, shall we? The three of us can go somewhere secluded... like I said,” this was directed at Makoto, and their face suddenly became more serious, “you’re not my type at all, but maybe if I pin you up next to this stud,” that was about Byakuya, and they brightened up, “then I can make an exception.”

Makoto froze, one hand on the surface of the table. The stranger reached under the table; though, using ‘stranger’ was not appropriate anymore. While Makoto no doubt had no clue what was going on, Byakuya knew the identity of the person who looked just like Touko and sat where she had been sitting.

Before Byakuya could react, the person revealed a pair of scissors from under the table, retrieved from the holster worn on their thigh, hidden by their long skirt. They pointed the scissors at Makoto’s neck. He stiffened. Any further, and the scissors would have pricked him and created a bead of blood.

Byakuya’s senses kicked in and he grabbed their wrist. Colour had drained from Makoto’s face, and his lips trembled but no words came out. The person made no attempt to bring the scissors any closer, though, and broke out into a fit of giggles.

“Your faces are priceless!” said the person, glowing. “I’m not going to kill you, dumb-dumb!”

Despite the reassurance, Makoto choked out, “What-?”

“I’m going to say this once,” Byakuya cut in with a low voice. He pushed up his glasses, eyes cold as he set them on Makoto. “The person that you see before you is not Touko Fukawa, though they share the same body. It is...”

“... Genocider Syo,” whimpered Makoto.

Indeed it was. Genocider Syo, the pseudonym of an unidentified serial killer active in Japan. Syo’s eyes lit up at the mention of her name.

“You know me?” she asked, retracting her hands so she could cradle her face. She rocked her head from side to side playfully.

Having the scissors away from his body helped Makoto breathe a bit easier, but his head was still reeling. When he tried to speak again, his voice gave a crack at the beginning and remained shaky throughout.

“Y-Yeah... you came up in a conversation in class... several times,” said Makoto. His arms shook as his hands pressed down on the table, but he didn’t sit again, doubled over the table with his head up so he could keep watching her. “The student council were murdered brutally, like some kind of occultish sacrifice... Fujisaki-kun suggested it could be you.”

That horrific, extraordinary incident had been the volcano of the school that spurted without warning. Their entire student council was killed in the same part of the school on the same night. Makoto’s chest panged. He should have been there, but he didn’t know they were meeting up, and he only found out later from friends of the deceased that they had all been issued a letter that he didn’t get for some reason. His must have got lost.

A stroke of bad luck had become a blessing, even though it didn’t feel that way to him. As absurd as it sounded, which was why he never said it out loud, he felt like he betrayed them by living. Yes, yes. Crazy talk. Makoto knew that, but he couldn’t shut out that niggling thought in how quiet moments.

Footage of the slaughter was available online, showing clips of dead bodies, of a shadowy figure slicing up some of the victims. Occasionally, hackers would make it play in classrooms without warning, or play the audio on loudspeakers. The devices had to be kept on in case of an emergency announcement, but as soon as they turned on to replay the killings, the teachers leaped over to shut them off.

Everyone always caught the first few seconds, at the least.

So, it made sense that the person behind this sickening incident was a serial killer who took pleasure in torturing their victims. Syo studied Makoto’s face attentively.

“Well... bzzt! Wrong!” Her tongue whipped the air. Makoto flinched. She straightened up, absentmindedly playing with her scissors with one hand, and kept her eyes on him. “I only kill with these scissors, handmade and polished with my juices, and I’m sure you’ll find that those guys are scissor-free.”

Byakuya adjusted his glasses, still seated.

“She’s right,” he said calmly.

Makoto turned to him, wide-eyed. He looked way too relaxed about the whole thing. “Togami-kun, you...?”

The frown on Byakuya’s face darkened.

“A while ago, Fukawa confided in me an interesting story,” explained Byakuya. “She said there’s a serial killer hiding in her, and unless she can find a way to control it, she will live in fear that it will kill again.”

Syo wagged her scissors at him. “You know my backstory? You slag!”

Byakuya eyed them but betrayed no emotion. Makoto ogled Byakuya, slack-jawed.

“You knew?” said Makoto, his eyes bulging, and Byakuya glanced at him.

“Yes,” said Byakuya. “For several months, actually. I’m interested to study them both. Besides, so long as she hasn’t killed anyone, then what’s the problem?”

Makoto threw up his arms.

“She’s a serial killer!” he reminded Byakuya, who continued staring back at him with indifference.

“Syo is. Fukawa is not,” Byakuya pointed out. He rose from his chair and peered down at Makoto, who didn’t even come up to Byakuya’s shoulders, even when both were standing straight. “Now, Naegi... we have a dilemma here, don’t we? We don’t want to have anyone telling on her.”

“You’re insane,” said Makoto, clenching his fists as he thought of those dead students and their families. The murder was right here, with them, humming to herself and watching them with amusement.

Or arousal. He hoped it was amusement.

Byakuya jutted out his chin, leering at Makoto. “Insane? Is that what you call things you don’t understand?”

They weren’t doing this.

“This is crazy.” Makoto shook his head. “She... Even if she didn’t kill the student council... she still murdered a bunch of people!”

“Chillax,” said Syo, patting the air with one hand hooked around a pair of scissors that she used to kill people. “I don’t plan on killing anyone. How would I get away with it? This school probably has cameras everywhere. ‘Sides, I can’t cheat on my darling.”

Makoto hesitated. “Your darling?”

She hugged Byakuya’s arm. Byakuya stiffened and blinked. Otherwise, he didn’t move. Those two did spend a lot of time together, and some of their classmates had wondered about the nature of this, but around others, Byakuya didn’t show Touko any kindness, treating her like anyone else in their class.

So could they really be...?

“Me and Gloomy share feelings, and she loves this guy!” Syo declared, nuzzling into Byakuya. “I’m not going to kill anyone so long as I can be with him.”

Disgust seeped onto Byakuya’s face. He curled his lip and wrenched his arm out of Syo’s hold. His expression didn’t change as he shifted his focus onto Makoto.

“Is that to be understood?” said Byakuya. “Not only will you feel the wrath of the school, you will feel mine too if you breathe a word of this to anyone.”

Makoto pinched his lips together bitterly, his fists clammy, but before he could answer, someone else spoke.

“He’s right,” came a voice that didn’t belong to any of the three around the table.

They whipped their heads toward the source. The librarian gazed at them coldly.

“Who is...?” asked Makoto hesitantly. Her brow tightened.

“Most of the faculty is aware of your classmate. We’re not just teachers, you know. We’re scientists too.” She eyed them with her hands on her hips, not wearing a labcoat like Makoto imagined scientists to wear but instead a grey suit. Her tortoiseshell glasses glinted. “I’m going to have to report this to the headmaster, but let me warn you now that if you think about telling anyone, we will be forced to take severe disciplinary action. But be assured that we are taking all precautions with her.”

Makoto’s heart sank. He squirmed, unable to escape her fierce gaze.

“A-Alright,” he conceded.

“Awesome!” In contrast, Syo beamed and clapped her hands together. “So, anyone up for a threesome?”

“No,” said Byakuya and Makoto at the same time. The librarian pursed her lips.

Syo slapped herself on the thigh. “Ah, worth a shot!”

“Come with me,” said the librarian, turning away, and the three of them followed her out.

None of them paid any attention to the girl with red hair, scribbling into a notebook in a shadow of the room.


 

The rain caused the male’s frantic footfalls to slap against the concrete pavement, though he most likely couldn’t hear it over his ragged breathing. Darkness had fallen a while ago, which didn’t help his tunnel vision, and few lamp posts gave him sufficient light to aid in his navigation.

He skidded to a stop by a fountain and tossed his head side to side, trying to decide which way to run.

However, just moments after he stopped, a thump sounded behind him.

His breathing hitched. Something cold pressed against his neck. Cold and hard. He choked, frozen, unable to flee, unable to move.

“P-P-Pl...” went the male. The pressure on his neck faded until it disappeared completely, but he did not, could not relax. Rain rapped at his jacket and flattened his hair against his head.

Then, without warning, pain exploded from his neck. He let out a scream, which was swiftly muffled by a gloved hand. His legs gave way and he slumped to the ground, convulsing. The world slowly began to blur until all he could see were dots of light and the silhouette of the person standing over him... if such a monster could be defined as a human.

Sure, they had two legs, two arms, and if shown a photograph of them, one might label them as a human being with no second thought, but that person hadn’t seen what he did. They wouldn’t have seen how his attacker bent down and gathered his blood on two fingers, or the lifeless eyes on the bunny mask that they wore over their face.

That was the last thing the male saw before his world turned white.

Next to his corpse, the attacker smeared blood onto the fountain, darting back and forth to collect more blood from their victim’s neck. Their other hand gripped their murder weapon, and once they finished writing what they wanted to onto the fountain, they shoved the murder weapon through their victim’s wrist. They reached into a holster on their belt, and one-by-one, inserted more similar weapons into their victim. Two in each wrist, some in their ribs, and a few in their neck.

The attacker adjusted the position of their victim’s limbs and studied their handywork. Not admired, but studied, and, satisfied, they broke into a sprint, shot up a tree and disappeared into the night with the agility of a superhuman soldier.

Or a Super High School Level Soldier.

Only when morning rose up could the writing be read.

A girl with lavender hair examined the message written in blood, and to herself, she murmured, “Bloodstain fever...”


A knocking sound broke the silence in Jin Kirigiri’s office.

“Come in,” he said. Until then, he had been reading a newspaper, and to an outsider, may have looked like he fell asleep at his desk, sitting up.

The door opened. Byakuya stepped inside, closing the door behind him. Behind Jin were wall high windows, where the sky glowed an eerie white between the straight frames. Dark purple curtains hung from the windows, full of vertical folds. Jin watched as Byakuya approached, thin eyebrows sitting upon serious, tired eyes.

They weren’t the only people in the room. The person standing next to the desk was Koichi Kizakura, Byakuya’s former homeroom teacher and a talent scout. He had been the one who met with Byakuya to formally invite him to attend the academy.

“Ah, Togami-kun,” Jin said in a lighter voice than his face hinted to. Byakuya stopped at the coffee table in front of Jin’s desk and folded his arms over his chest.

“I wish to talk to you,” said Byakuya.

“Please, take a seat,” replied Jin. He straightened and gestured forward, most likely to indicate that Byakuya could sit on either the square sofa or one of the armchairs on opposite sides of the coffee table.

However, Byakuya chose to remain standing and noticed that also in the room was Chisa, who sat hunched over a desk off to the side, working on some papers. Probably marking them.

Koichi tipped his fedora and sat on one of the armchairs. He quirked his brow at Byakuya, who ignored him.

Jin propped his chin on his hands, resting his elbows on the table, and dropped the casualness in his tone. “How can I help you, Togami-kun?”

Though, going by Byakuya’s expression, it couldn’t be anything simple. Or pleasant.

“I want to know what background checks you do on students prior to their enrollment,” said Byakuya.

Koichi blinked, then took a swig from his flask. This was a question for him. As he drank, he averted his gaze from Byakuya, and only after he lowered his flask did he set his eyes on Byakuya again.

“I have my sources on how I find out about potential candidates,” Koichi told him. “News, rumours... but I only search up enough to verify their achievements and don’t read too much about them until after I’ve met with them in person.”

He gave a lopsided grin and flicked his blond goatee.

“I try not to go in with too many conceptions, you see. It’s fun to see for myself what they’re like,” Koichi explained.

Jin narrowed his eyes at Byakuya.

“Why are you asking, Togami-kun?” asked Jin.

Byakuya inclined his head slightly. “Don’t you think that’s rather irresponsible? Surely you can’t extract every important bit of information from that single meeting.”

Koichi slapped on another smile and wiggled to get more comfortable. He gave a chuckle and flourished a hand.

“You’ll pop a blood vessel if you keep pulling that face,” remarked Koichi, lounging in the armchair, and he shook his flask. It had some alcohol left in it, which sloshed around. “I have the feeling that there’s something you specifically want to talk about, so instead of us walking around each other in the dark, why don’t you cut to the chase?”

They stared at each other silently for a moment. Then Byakuya spoke.

“Earlier this week, a student in the reserve course was murdered in the central plaza,” said Byakuya, and the other two tensed. Koichi eyed Byakuya with no trace of a smirk on his face anymore.

“Where did you hear that?” asked Jin, grimacing.

“Everyone in the school knows. It’s in the local papers.”

This prompted a small sigh from Jin. Of course, he already knew this. One of those very papers was on his desk.

“I was hoping that we could keep this contained,” said Jin. He pinched the divide between his brow.

Koichi sat up straighter and draped an arm over the back of the couch. Nearby, though Chisa didn’t turn around, the scratch of her pen became less frequent.

“The murder was committed by a student at this school, and evidence points toward it being Genocider Syo,” said Byakuya, and he pushed up his glasses, staring at Jin. “Next to the body was a message written in blood. It said ‘Bloodstain fever’, that message that Genocider Syo is known to leave at the crime scene of her victims. Also, the murder weapons were scissors matching those I have seen in her case file, and the way the body was propped up was reminiscent to crucifiction.”

No one said anything, neither an interruption or a question. Byakuya suspected that they didn’t want to prompt him, or give him any new information.

“Only top ranking officers knew about the crucifiction... and Genocider Syo herself,” he carried on. “So, the murder can only have been committed by Genocider Syo, or a student who read it in the files in the library... and only students enrolled under a Super High School Level have access to those.”

While Koichi’s squint could have been dismissed as confusion, Jin’s brow creased more, aging his youthful appearance, and he shifted around in his chair. The shadows on his face moved. Koichi’s eyes flickered between the two, settling on Byakuya.

“Only certain people were allowed to see the crime scene, and I don’t recall you being one of them,” said Koichi.

“I didn’t see the body in person, but Kirigiri answered some questions for me,” explained Byakuya, referring to Kyouko, not her father.

Kyouko was a detective who investigated bodies, while Jin seemed to be a person to covered them up. No wonder he had left behind a family of detectives to come to a place like this.

No wonder Kyouko never spoke highly of her father, when at all.

Koichi’s lips twisted in a reluctant smile.

“I thought Kyouko-chan was the one enrolled as a detective,” said Koichi. He chuckled. “Not bad.”

Jin cleared his throat with a tight frown.

“We have it under control,” he told Byakuya, squaring his shoulders. “Koichi, there’s no need for us to be opaque. Togami-kun is one of two students who are aware of Genocider Syo’s identity, and while she doesn’t attend under that name or title, she is enrolled here.

What Jin said next was directed at Byakuya, coupled with a steely edge to his eyes. That aspect he shared with his daughter, if anything.

“Togami-kun, what happened with the reserve course student and the student council were freak accidents. If you’re worried about your safety, you needn’t be. Measures will be put in place. Security will be increased so that it doesn’t happen again, and we have talked to said student about it.”

Byakuya studied him. What he was trying to read off Jin’s face, Jin didn’t know, but Jin kept his face blank.

“And what do you plan to do with her?” asked Byakuya.

Koichi pushed up the rim of his fedora. “I didn’t realise you were part of the faculty, Togami-kun.”

“I have a right to know, don’t I?” said Byakuya, shooting Koichi an icy look before returning to Jin. “Do you plan to expel her?”

Jin flexed his fingers on the desk, curling and uncurling them. He caught himself doing it and balled them into fists.

“... No,” admitted Jin, sagging slightly, but he spoke evenly. “She doesn’t have an official title, but her ability to murder is a talent... of sorts. This is a very rare case that we haven’t been able to study until now.”

Byakuya didn’t reply. Jin raised a hand and put on an awkward smile.

“Please, Togami-kun... Let’s keep this between us, alright?”

This earned a scoff from Byakuya.

“If the school’s reputation became damaged, the Togami name would be by association,” said Byakuya. “I don’t intend to divulge this, so long as I know that I won’t become a target.”

Jin nodded, rising from his chair, and said, “I promise that I will protect you and your classmates. I won’t let any harm come to you.”

His gaze was intense.

Byakuya’s stare lingered for a bit longer before he averted his eyes and gave a faint grin. “Then I am finished here. Goodbye, headmaster.”

He strode out of the room. Once the door closed beside him, Jin buried his face into his hands. Koichi noticed and walked over. He placed a hand on his shoulder and stooped his head.

“Perhaps it would be easier to subtly exclude her?” Koichi asked quietly.

Jin lifted his head by a small amount, revealing his eyes but still covering everything below that on his face with his hands.

“I can’t,” said Jin. “Fukawa-kun is a unique case... a person with two personalities, and two talents. We simply can’t pass this up. It may never happen again in my lifetime, or any others.”

Koichi sighed and squeezed Jin’s shoulder. “Your pursuit of understanding talent is commendable, but I wonder if this might be a poor decision.”

They looked at each other in silence. Nearby, Chisa finally stood up, and she walked straight to the door. When she got there, Jin raised his head and lowered his hands from his face. The shadows under his eyes only hinted at how tired he was.

“Yukizome, please continue to watch over your class diligently,” said Jin.

Chisa gave a nod and left the room. She marched purposefully through corridors, down stairs, into another corridor and into the women’s bathroom. Once she closed the door behind herself, she took off her orange wig and let her blonde pigtails bounce in the open.

This, of course, wasn’t actually Chisa.

“Don’t worry,” said Junko with a full smile, “I’ll take good care of them for you.”


Despite the unease that loomed over the academy due to recent events, the faculty were under strict instructions to carry on as if nothing was wrong. Chisa, the real Chisa, couldn’t bring back the dead no matter how much she cried at the memorial for the deceased and into her pillow at night. Wishing did nothing, and all she could do was act in the present for the sake of the future.

For the sake of her students. For them, she would be prepared to do anything. Make any sacrifice.

“Good morning, everyone!” Chisa said brightly. She clapped her hands, and the class replied in a low mumble.

At the start of the year, she was greeted by a chorus of youthful voices. ‘Good morning, Yukizome-sensei!’ Then she would talk about her breakfast, or an interesting-shaped leaf that she witnessed on the walk over, or recommend a perfume. But this was to be expected, wasn’t it? Since her first day on the job, a lot of things had happened.

She swept her gaze across the class, but then froze. One desk was unoccupied. A person could fall sick, or oversleep, but in all her time here, this desk had never been vacant.

“Does anyone know where Ishimaru-kun is?” she asked, keeping the corners of her lips upturned in an active effort.

Everyone turned toward his desk, as if they hadn’t noticed until she mentioned it, but they must have.

“Huh... He’s usually the first person here,” said Aoi, scratching above her ear.

“Maybe he overslept?” suggested Leon, leaning back in his chair with his hands cupping the back of head.

“No way,” said Mondo, his arms folded over his chest. He tipped his head to one side and pulled a face in thought. “I didn’t see him at breakfast either, now I think of it.”

The uptight public committees member, Kiyotaka, and the motorbike gang leader, Mondo, could hardly seem more different, and their beliefs and methods, one of debate and one of violence, had often led to them butting heads. But once they found common ground during a contest of who could hold onto a fence for the longest that lasted eight hours, not just because they stood on the same patch of soil but because they realised that both put extreme work into their passions, they became almost inseparable.

They must have spoken about other things during that time, but only Makoto was there to witness it, and he could only tell Chisa what he witnessed before he left after the fourth hour.

“Maybe he’s sick?” Chihiro piped up, fidgeting.

That made more sense.

Yasuhiro rose and lifted a hand. “I can go check on him.”

Hifumi gave a short laugh and pushed up his spectacles. Whenever Byakuya did it, he seemed like one of the cool anime boys with glasses who would serve as a love interest for a shoujo main character, while Hifumi looked more like a gag character.

“You just want to skip some of class,” Hifumi told Yasuhiro. He stroked his chin. “I volunteer myself, as much as I don’t want to... but someone must.”

“This is the pot calling the kettle black,” sneered Touko, and Hifumi pointed at her fiercely.

“I don’t need to hear this from someone who can’t appreciate the beauty of manga!”

“All manga is trash! B-Besides, you draw doujin, which is even more lowbrow...”

Chisa made a face as the pair locked each other in a staring contest. This could have gone on for a while, and had done on previous occasions.

Sayaka raised her hand.

“I think our class president should go,” said Sayaka, and everyone turned to Makoto, even Touko and Hifumi. Truly, Sayaka was an angel.

“Naegi-kun? Would you?” asked Chisa.

Makoto stood up slowly and rubbed the back of his neck. “Sure, I would-”

The door burst open. Kiyotaka stumbled in. Everyone stared. He always wore a carefully ironed uniform, his tie done up right to the top, all his buttons fastened. Light would gleam off his shoes that had been painstakingly polished, and not a hair would be out of place in his spiked hair.

When he fell into the room, his hair was matted and wet. His shirt was untucked, ripped, buttons missing, and his shoes scruffed. Dirt and blood grazed his white shirt, and his jacket was only half on. He managed a few more steps, clutching his middle, and collapsed.

“Ishimaru-kun!” Chisa cried out.

Chairs legs screeched. Necks craned. Mondo swooped down, dropping to his knees, and scooped Kiyotaka up into his arms. Touko cowered in her chair, averting her gaze. Blood. She couldn’t stand blood.

“Kyoudai!” Mondo said through gritted teeth. He shook Kiyotaka, and Chisa grabbed onto Mondo’s shoulders to try to get him to stop. “Who did this to you? I’ll kill them!”

Kiyotaka coughed. Blood ran down from his nose. Aoi knelt by them and held Kiyotaka’s hand.

“Outside,” groaned Kiyotaka. “There’s... a protest... central plaza.”

Mondo blinked. Chisa turned away with a frown and approached the window.

“A protest?” she asked. She couldn’t see anything outside, but they might have moved on.

Still, they couldn’t have gone far, and she couldn’t let someone who attacked one of her students get away with this.

Her brow furrowed and she turned back to the others. “Stay here, guys. I’ll go see what’s happening.”

Chisa started for the door.

“Attention,” said the speakers in the corner of the room, and she paused. “Everyone, please stay in your classroom until further instructions. There is a commotion outside but it will be dealt with. You are in no danger. Carry on with classes as normal.”

The clock on the wall ticked. All eyes fell on Chisa. She breathed.

“Alright,” she said quietly. “I guess... we’ll start with roll call.”

Despite what was going on in the school, Chisa stationed herself in front of her class and took attendance. Then she started a maths lesson. However, not even ten minutes in, they heard a distant rumble, and she cut herself off mid sentence, tensing. It grew progressively louder, coming from outside.

Those closest to the window turned toward it. Chisa drew closer to see for herself, her heart beating faster. The rabble originated from a crowd of people. They resembled a grey cloud, and as they approached the building, so did the storm. Dozens of people made up the group, and as they got closer, those in the classroom could discern that they were waving signs, and closer still, the text and images on their signs could be distinguished.

At this point, Touko let out a strangled gasp.

“Genocider Syo, has to go!” the people outside chanted. “Genocider Syo, has to go!”

One sign had a silhouette of a human with red eyes and clawed fingers. Others had their slogan written on it, and others bore photographs of Touko’s face. Rage contorted their faces as they shouted, over and over again.

“Is that... Fukawa-chan?” asked Aoi, screwing up her eyes as she examined the signs. She turned to Touko, who didn’t turn back to her.

No, Touko had her eyes set on Byakuya.

“Why?” croaked Touko.

Byakuya looked at her.

“Why... did you tell everyone?” said Touko, trying but failing to suppress the shakiness in her voice. She held up her fists, like she intended to fight, only to seize her head. “You promised you wouldn’t...”

Everyone except Kiyotaka gawked at them. Their eyes darted between the two, flickering between Touko’s trembling face and Byakuya’s blank stare.

“What are you talking about?” asked Yasuhiro with a grin not bright enough to reach his eyes. “Those people outside are wrong, right? Fukawa-chi can’t be Genocider Syo. That’s identity theft, and she can’t even stand blood.”

Touko didn’t respond, withdrawing into herself with a vacant look on her face, and Byakuya didn’t take his eyes off her, silently training his gaze on her. The air was thick and suffocating. Time crawled by, and with every passing second, Touko seemed to crumble away more and more.

Chisa hung her head.

“I’m sorry...” She couldn’t look at any of them. “But... it’s true... Touko Fukawa has DID, and her alter is a murderer called Genocider Syo.”

Her confession made her take the blunt of their staring now. Even though she was too cowardly to raise her head, she could feel their eyes burn into her skin.

“You knew?” asked Junko.

“Most of the faculty knows,” said Chisa. She winced. It felt like they were stabbing needles into her skin. “I’m sorry...”

Someone stomped a foot. Chisa guessed Junko.

“We have a serial killer in our class, and you didn’t tell us?” said Junko, louder, and Chisa couldn’t avoid their gazes forever, so she lifted her head.

Junko had a hand over her heart, another arm stretched out to her side, and Chisa could feel the pain in her students’ eyes. She felt it in her gut, like a knife being twisted inside of it. The only people without that excruciating glimmer in their eyes were Byakuya, who had gone dull and cold, Touko, whose head was bowed forward, and Junko, who stared at Chisa with large eyes that shone with a light more of... curiosity?

“Why, that’s like, totally uncool!” said Junko. Indignant voices sprouted up around her. Junko bent down, wiped her finger on one of Kiyotaka’s head wounds and as she stood up again, she held it up for all to see.

“Gross! Blood!” Junko said, crumpling her face.

Makoto widened his eyes then turned to Touko. She swayed on her feet, then collapsed onto the floor with a loud thump.

Everyone recoiled from her at the sudden sound, swivelling their heads toward the source of the noise.

For a few seconds, she lay very still. Then, her body shook, and Genocider Syo leaped to her feet.

Syo tilted her head back and sniffed.

“What’s that I smell?” She squinted and licked her lips. “... blood?”

There had been better introductions than this.

“My, what a sudden change in personality,” remarked Celes, placing a hand to her lips. “Could you be...?”

The noise outside distracted Syo. Ignoring Celes, Syo turned to the window instead.

“Huh?” She studied what was going outside for a moment, then, with incredible speed, she got out scissors from her holster and pointed them at Byakuya.

He could feel their point against his neck. The metal wasn’t cold, in fact, it was warm, but where the scissors touched him, an iciness spread to the rest of his body.

“What’s going on? Did you squeal?” she demanded in a tone as sharp as her scissors.

His breath tripped in his throat.

“No,” said Byakuya, unable to escape her gaze. It coiled around him, tightening around his neck, and he had never felt anything like this before.

“Can you prove it?” asked Syo. She turned her eyes to Makoto and entangled him instead. “Or was it you?”

“N-Never!” rasped Makoto, showing her his hands.

Syo continued staring. Outside, the protesters bellowed with no signs of backing off or leaving. Celes turned to the window solemnly, her pale face smooth, devoid of any lines.

“If they’re just upset because the murderer is here, why don’t we give her over?” she asked, placing a manicured hand flat against the glass.

Her suggestion didn’t sink in right away, with everyone’s minds clouded, as incoherent as the voices outside that overlapped and crashed into one another, but as it did, they all slowly turned to Syo, who readied a battle stance, scissors opening and closing.

Makoto got in front of her quickly, facing the others.

“Hold on, everyone!” he said, his heart racing. “I know it’s absurd to defend a serial killer...”

“You’re damn right,” said Mondo, cracking his knuckles.

“But...”

There it was. Everyone narrowed their eyes at him. Kiyotaka shifted on Mondo’s lap. Byakuya adjusted his glasses with a frown, but his was not directed at Makoto.

“... Genocider Syo hasn’t killed anyone since starting here,” Byakuya told them.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t dispel the hardened looks on their faces.

“What about the student council? And the reserve course student?” asked Aoi, waving her arm.

“Those weren’t me!” Syo said, peeking past Makoto’s shoulder. She brandished her scissors. “I only use my scissors for my art. Would you ask a butcher to perform surgery on you?”

Kyouko stepped forward. Makoto tensed, but Kyouko didn’t try to get past him, her eyes fixed on Syo simpering face.

“The reserve course student was found with your scissors,” said Kyouko. “Or at least, ones resembling yours.”

Syo sobered up immediately and bristled. “Those can’t be mine. Listen, I’ve killed a lot of people, what’s the use of me lying? I’m telling you, I’ve barely been out. I’ve not killed anyone in more than a year.”

“She’s right,” said Byakuya, glancing at Syo before setting his eyes on Kyouko. “I could see from the photographs... they were a decent forgery. I can confirm that Genocider Syo did not murder him, or anyone at this school. I know her case inside-out.”

Byakuya stretched himself out to his full height.

“From when Fukawa started at this school, she has tried to stop Syo from fronting,” Byakuya carried on. “Before then, in fact, since the first murder started years ago. Fukawa takes no pleasure in them being killed. She came to me, desperate to learn how to control it so that no one else would die. And if you hand her over to those people...”

He flung his arm out, motioning to the window.

“... then the case will be closed, and whoever it is killing people, right now, will be free to commit another murder,” said Byakuya.

Everyone exchanged uncomfortable looks.

Makoto braced himself. Took a deep breath.

“Please... I understand you guys,” he said. His voice faltered as he surveyed his friends’ faces. They were angry, yes, but also afraid. “I felt the same way, but to turn Fukawa-san over to the mob, when she has done nothing wrong... that’s not right. She needs our help. Fukawa-san is our friend. She can’t help it.”

The rest of the class wavered. No one said anything, processing what had been said, weighing their options.

Then, the door opened, and security guards swarmed in. At the front was Jin, dressed in a crisp suit.

“What’s going on?” asked Chisa, snapped out of her trance. Remembering her promise to herself to give her all for the future of her students, every single one of them, she looked around, but the best she could see nearby for a weapon was a duster. She picked it up anyway.

However, she wasn’t the only one inspired to take action. Makoto stayed in front of Syo, and the others roused. Sakura raised her fists and Leon reached into his bag for a baseball to throw. Mukuro extracted a knife from her belt.

Jin stared past them.

“Fukawa-kun,” he said to Syo in a harsh, cold tone. “You need to come with us. We’re going to take you somewhere else. You’re not safe here.”

Everyone hesitated. Syo adjusted her footing, poised with scissors firmly in her hands, but Byakuya grabbed her shoulder before she could pounce forward.

“I’ll come with you,” he said.

“Sorry, Togami-kun, but you’re wanted by someone else,” said Jin.

Byakuya cocked his head slightly. “By who?”

Jin gazed at him.

“Your father is waiting for you in my office,” he said.


 

The first time Byakuya saw his father in the flesh was only in passing, and Byakuya didn’t speak to him. Byakuya had been roughly ten, and his father’s eyes seemed to look through him as if Byakuya was translucent, or even transparent, during a visit that his father made to his mansion for a meeting that Byakuya wasn’t invited to. They next met when they shook hands after Byakuya became his heir, and the rest of their meetings were for mentoring or business reasons, or both.

Inside Jin’s office, Byakuya laid his eyes on his father, Kijou Togami, a man with thick eyebrows that arched slightly and silver hair streaked with wisps of dark hair.

Kijou turned his head toward the door in a fluid movement, his gaze like a winter night. He stood with his hands behind his back.

“Sit,” said Kijou.

Byakuya sat on one of the armchairs and faced forward, even as Kijou paced slowly, back and forth, behind him.

“Genocider Syo, huh?” he drawled, and Byakuya tightened his jaw, refusing to reply. Kijou stopped walking and thwacked something against something. Hand against paper. Papers.

Again, Byakuya didn’t so much as look at him, staring forward, and Kijou sauntered over to stand beside him. He half-threw, half-slammed a newspaper down on the coffee table.

In big, bold font, the headline roared ‘DEPRAVED KILLER IS A WOMAN’, and under the text were two images. One of a police sketch of a man with sunken features, and another a grainy photograph of Touko Fukawa.

“Have you forgotten to read, like you seem to have forgotten how to speak?” asked Kijou, his hot breath invading Byakuya’s ear. “Do you need me to read what it says to you?”

Byakuya shifted a little.

“I know what it says,” said Byakuya.

Kijou’s lips crackled as he stretched them out.

“In your class, for more than a year,” said Kijou, straining to keep his tone level, like a piece of paper about to rip.

“It was quite the coverup,” Byakuya replied dryly, and Kijou exhaled through his teeth.

“Don’t be smarmy with me,” sneered Kijou. There was rustling, and then he thrust another newspaper down on top of the previous one.

Byakuya intended to only glance at it.

However, as he began to read it, he widened his eyes and couldn’t look away.

This newspaper bore the title ‘SERIAL KILLER’S BILLIONAIRE SWEETHEART’ and underneath, featured a blown up photograph of Byakuya and Touko standing close in Byakuya’s dorm, holding hands, facing each other. From the angle, it must have been taken through the window, and as Byakuya’s dorm wasn’t on the first floor, it had to be a drone, unless someone actually scaled the building and lurked on the balcony without them realising.

If they captured that moment, then...

“Dated a month ago,” said Kijou, acid oozing through the hair thin lines fracturing his voice. “Tell me, Byakuya, when did you intend to inform me that you had chosen a candidate to birth you heirs?”

Byakuya’s hands twitched into fists. “We aren’t...”

“Don’t mutter, boy!” Kijou cut in at his loudest yet. His control on his tone crumbled the more he spoke. “Even ignoring how this filth is a serial killer, as ludicrous as that sounds, what the hell are you thinking? A romance writer, with her background? Her parents sold their stories to nationwide newspapers, though they’re certainly pieces of work themselves. Trashy pieces of scum. She’s a commoner. A faulty, worthless piece of-”

“Shut up!” Byakuya snarled.

Kijou did so out of surprise, not because he meant to carry out Byakuya’s request, and stepped back. Byakuya twisted around as he got to his feet, and his face burned in a heated glare.

“Fukawa is not filth,” he told Kijou, the muscles in his arms quivering. “I’m not courting her, but do you think I would associate with someone worthless? She is intelligent, talented and-”

“- a serial killer!” Kijou shouted. “For God’s sake, Byakuya, she killed a whole student council and another student here. How do you think that looks?”

“She didn’t commit those murders. The student council were killed by someone else. They didn’t even use her murder weapons.”

“So she used something else! Listen to yourself.” If Kijou clenched his jaw any harder, he could have cracked his teeth. “And what about that boy, hm? Those scissors of hers were used there. I read it in an article today.”

“That wasn’t her either. Those were fakes. And she couldn’t have done that, undeniably.”

“Really?” said Kijou, his shoulders shaking. He thrusted up his chin, eyes slits. “What’s your excuse? She only kills on a full moon? She has to do her groceries first? Or does she book every murder through you?”

“Because...” Pain shot up Byakuya’s arms from his fists, throbbing intensely. He remembered Touko’s smile, her short fingernails and the smell of her shampoo, but most importantly, how in that nausea he had felt, the happiness flickering within. “... she spent that night with me.”

A beat passed where nothing happened, then it all came crashing down. Kijou struck Byakuya’s cheek with his hand, sending Byakuya reeling. Byakuya struggled to keep his balance but managed not to fall over. He rested a hand on his cheek. It felt like it was on fire.

“Do you know what damage you’ve done, you foolish little boy?” roared Kijou, spraying spittle, and he limbered his neck as he approached again. “The stocks of the conglomerate... in ruins... our reputation down the toilet... our name, tarnished by your perverted games. You idiot! You disgrace!”

Kijou punched Byakuya but this time, Byakuya couldn’t save himself. He staggered and fell. His glasses clattered somewhere nearby.

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re no Togami. You’re dirt. Dust,” said Kijou, standing over him, and he spat.

Byakuya didn’t answer and swiped his knuckles against the corner of his eyes.

“Don’t tell me you’re crying... you truly are hopeless,” said Kijou, and Byakuya didn’t look up, listening to his father’s heavy-footed strides.

The door slammed.

Jin and his associates watched in silence.


 

After that, the sky was red. Red like the blood that stained many of the corridors. Red like the blood that spurted from the student council members on the television screens in each classroom, sporadic and unexplained but growing more frequent. Red like Kiyotaka’s eyes as he stared vacantly out of the window. Red like Celes’s eyes as she stared at the ‘Taeko Yasuhiro’ tattoo on her arm, made after some reserve course students pinned her down. Red like Junko Enoshima’s lipsticked smile.

Don’t worry, despite Junko’s countenance, she thought it appropriate to dress for the occasion. Junko had replaced her beige cardigan with a black one and the bow on her broach was black too. She even considered dying her hair black, but that would make her too similar to Mukuro, so she didn’t.

Even though her lips curved smoothly, subtly upward, the rest of the class gave off enough hopelessness to dampen the mood. Protests rumbled like thunder, only, it didn’t pass like thunder. At the beginning, it was only students from the prep school that roamed the academy grounds. A parade, that was what Jin referred to them as. Then others from outside of the school gathered from all across the country. They could be distinguished by the helmets that they wore, resembling a cartoon bear, the right half white and the left half black, like a mascot from a kids show.

Chisa sat perched on the edge of her desk, resting her register on her lap, but she didn’t show signs of getting ready to read from it.

Or any signs of living, really. But she was definitely alive, for now.

The classroom door opened. Sayaka came in, shaking, grasping a knife. A few people turned. None of their stony expressions cracked. She shuffled over to her desk. No one commented on her tear-streaked cheeks as she sat down.

“Just Naegi and Ikusaba left to get here now,” stated Mondo.

By the window, Touko barely stirred. Most of the others stayed silent.

“They should be back soon,” said Aoi tonelessly, gazing downward. “Ikusaba-chan left some time ago for him.”

Yasuhiro kneaded the back of his neck with his elbow on his desk, slouching forward. He looked up. “They’ll be okay, ‘right? Ikusaba-chi can put up a fight.”

Sayaka continued staring at her knife.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Chisa quietly but suddenly, breaking out of her stupor. She slapped on a determined smile and nodded at her class. “We need to have some more faith... and be a bit more optimistic, like Naegi-kun.”

Chisa stood up and hiked up a finger.

“I know that our situation seems hopeless, class, but it’s only hopeless if we decide that it is. As long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other, then we’re making progress.” She shrugged, keeping her head up, continuing to smile. “That’s what Naegi-kun would say, I think.”

As she surveyed the miserable faces in front of her, she decided she would double her efforts to be positive, and she stood up straighter.

“We must stay united as a class. So... how about we start roll call?” suggested Chisa.

So she did just that, calling out their names and hearing them mumble theirs back. Halfway through, the door opened, and everyone turned toward it.

Mukuro entered, alone.

“Where’s Naegi-kun?” asked Chihiro, their hand hovering close to their mouth, nails bitten to raw stubs.

She closed the door behind herself. “He wasn’t in his dorm.”

Everyone shifted in their seats, looking at each other. Leon tried phoning him, then frowned.

“Nothing,” he said, lowering his phone.

“We should go look for him,” said Sakura as she rose to her feet. “He might be in danger.”

But before she started to make her way to the door, Touko straightened off her seat. Her chair rasped back. The noise it made sounded like a groan of pain that came from the gut.

“H-Hey,” said Touko, facing the window. She pressed her finger against it. “W-What’s going on down there...?”

Everyone, including Chisa, gravitated toward the window. A large group of protesters stood around a pile of sticks. In the middle of it was a tall stake, driven into the ground. They surrounded it, but as a smaller group of them approached, carrying something swathed in layers of cloth, they made space for the new arrivals to walk through.

At first, the class couldn’t tell what it was they were carrying. Whatever it was, they brought it to the sticks, and only then did they unravel it.

Aoi screamed.

It was a body.

It was Makoto’s body.

The class could only watch in horror as the body was tied to the stake with rope. Someone lit a fire, and when they added petrol, the flames burned more intensely.

“Naegi!” the class screeched.

Chihiro and Kiyotaka threw up. Aoi shook her head, covering her mouth. Then the television in their classroom turned on, and a helmet-wearing man appeared on it against a black background.

“Attention, traitors of society. Last night, one of your kind tried to bribe us, exchanging one of your students for the life that your murderer stole from us. However, we do not do deals with your kind, and it is more than you harbouring Genocider Syo. Your school chose to recruit her. Your school chose to train a killer. Your school chose to hide deaths, not just of our brother but of your own council. They funded this with our money. They refuse to listen to us. Therefore, we will tell you who gave him to us. It was...”

Dramatic pause.

“... Chisa Yukizome.”

Her name was a dagger that lunged into their hearts straight on.

“W-What?” said Chisa, recoiling. She put a hand on her chest. “I...”

Footage played, depicting her dragging a body bag to a group of protesters, seemingly taking place at night. Chisa opened the bag enough to reveal the face, the undeniable face of their friend.

It cut off there.

Very slowly, everyone started turning toward her.

“Yukizome-sensei,” said Junko, raising her eyebrows.

“That isn’t me,” Chisa choked out. She stepped back. Then another time. “I would never do that.”

Celes’s wide eyes scrunched. Her doll-like face became contorted.

“Do you have a secret twin? Is it secretly a robot with artificial intelligence?” asked Celes. “Because it looks a lot like you.”

Leon bared his teeth and threw out his arm. His eyes shimmered. “You gave us that whole speech about hope and being like Naegi... and you traded him off?”

“Did he mean nothing to you?” said Kiyotaka, his eyes welling with tears. “He... He was what binded our class together! And you... you killed him, Yukizome-sensei.”

Chisa quaked, rendered speechless. She fumbled, draining of colour.

“No, I-”

Before she could get another word out, Sayaka lunged at her with the knife and thrusted it into Chisa’s heart. A toe-curling scream came out of Chisa, who crumpled to the ground. Sayaka extracted the knife, and kneeling on Chisa, stabbed her again, and again, and again, until Chisa was very dead.

It didn’t bring Makoto back.

Aoi cried into Sakura’s chest. Sakura embraced her tightly. Touko’s face puckered and she turned away.

“M-Maizono-chi,” said Yasuhiro, his eyes bulging. “You...”

“She killed Naegi-kun,” said Sayaka, splattered with blood. Her body shook, and she had to readjust her hold on the knife so it didn’t fall from her hands. “Because of her... he’s gone!”

Makoto Naegi was dead. Their class president was dead. Their friend was dead.

“There’s no use complaining,” said Celes, not unkindly as they all gazed down at Chisa’s corpse. “It can’t be undone. Yukizome-sensei is dead.”

Silence rang.

“You know whose fault this is?” said Hifumi eventually. No one else looked up. “It’s Fukawa Touko-dono. If we offer her to the prep school, like they wanted in the first place, then they may be pacified.”

Touko stiffened as everyone turned to her, but she didn’t look like she was going to object.

“But it’s not Fukawa-san’s fault, is it?” asked Junko. She twirled some hair around her finger and pushed her hips out to one side. “Have any of you like... even used google? A key feature of Dissociative Identity Disorder is a history of trauma.”

Junko gestured to the window.

“They created her,” she said. “This world created Genocider Syo, like it created Hope’s Peak and the people who killed our dear friend, Naegi-kun. It’s Hope’s Peak, and this world, that made us who we are. Genocider Syo only revealed how rotten the world is. She didn’t make it that way. Without her, we would be living in the same world... this world, none the wiser.”

Already, she had them entranced. Junko walked over to Sayaka and gripped her shoulders.

“Maizono-san, you wanted to inspire young girls. You wanted to make sure that no girl ever felt alone... but the idol industry is tainted. Your image... is used to trick impressionable girls. And this school... they stole your precious friend from you.”

Sayaka breathed loudly. Junko slunk around the classroom, placing her hands on different people’s shoulders. Who she spoke to and about depended on which of her classmates she had in her possession.

“Poor Ishimaru-kun... literally! Ever since your grandfather’s scandal, your family has been trying to pay back loans that he left behind... and though you try your best, society has never forgiven you. They bully you. Spit in your face. And it’s not even your fault.”

She slithered over to Kyouko.

“What has your father done, Kirigiri-san? First, he abandoned you, and now he has created this mess. People dying, with no punishment, no justice. He covered up so many crimes, isn’t that, like, the opposite of what a detective should do?”

Kyouko didn’t respond, staring into space. Junko brushed her arm against Kyouko’s cheek as she turned away. She made her way to everyone, whispering, touching, until she stopped by Byakuya’s and Touko’s desks.

With a small smile, she cupped Byakuya’s chin. He didn’t acknowledge her.

“Togami-kun... or what is it I should call you? Your family name is in tatters. You’ve been disowned. Nameless. But you’re more than the conglomerate, aren’t you? Remember in our last exam, when you wanted to show off the cold cases you solved, how many instruments you could play and how super talented you are? And they like, asked what that had to do with being an heir and just wanted to see how much money the conglomerate was making? That was awful! But you know what? Your conglomerate and this school are holding you back. Now... Now you can break out of your mould and show them who’s in power! Show them the influence and wrath of Byakuya!”

A furrow formed in Byakuya’s brow.

Junko released him and stroked Touko’s cheek. She could feel Touko tremble and smiled sweetly at her.

“Dear Fukawa-san, I’ve always considered you extra special. When I see you, I see the whole world. I see the reality of society, how cruel, dark and twisted it is, and how much delight it takes in that. Only people like you can envision an ideal world... now tell me, Fukawa-san, what must we do to create a perfect world?”

Touko lifted her head slightly. The colours in her eyes swirled.

“We need... despair,” said Touko. “Despair... will teach... humility... will let others feel our pain... and sympathise... and only then can we start again.”

With a grin almost wide enough to tear through her cheeks, Junko said, “Good girl.”


 

After a long day of work, Junko’s heels clicked loudly against the tiled flooring. Today had been the worst! All of her classmates driven to despair! People murdering family, friends, strangers! Should those be in a different order? Ah, who cared!? Who wanted to be predictable?

She flung open the door of the laboratory basement, because of course a seedy place like Hope’s Peak would have one. Ah, she remembered how Yusuke would work here with that scowl of his, and how his brow would wrinkle in such an adorable way.

“Muku-chan!” she called out, her cheery voice filling the high-tech room full of machinery that she didn’t know the names of.

This place totally didn’t suit a fashionable girl like her. Cute girls like her belonged in dressing rooms, and the only aspect in this laboratory like that was the orange wig on a wig stand and an outfit just like the one that Chisa wore to work everyday. Being a model had its perks. though she had the Super High School Level Cosplayer in a lower class to thank for the costume.

Further in the laboratory basement, Mukuro looked up from the knife she was sharpening, sitting on a desk chair that Yusuke used to sit on. Before he died. Before Junko killed him.

Where was a laugh track when you needed it?

“There’s no better way to fool dummies than with a dummy!” Junko announced. She marched over to Mukuro and pulled on her cheeks. “Right, dummy?”

Whatever Mukuro mumbled was incomprehensible, and Junko didn’t care what Mukuro said anyway. Junko let go of her and wrapped her arms around herself.

“Ah ha... I’m tingling all over! I’ll need a cigarette after I’ve ridden this despairlightful sensation out!” said Junko, and then she dissolved into a fit of giggles.

Mukuro rubbed her cheeks, wincing. However, Junko had lost interest in her. She left Mukuro and approached a glass pod. It had a wide surface to peer through and Junko pressed her face against the glass, squashing her nose into a snout.

“Sleep while you can, pudding. It’ll be time to wake up soon,” said Junko, and she threw her head back and laughed.

Inside the pod, a male floated, submerged in a green liquid. His short brown hair was now blonde, still with his ahoge, and when he opened his eyes, more notable than the shift in colour from hazel to spiraling blue was the lack of hope in them. All that was there was despair.

Junko hugged herself, and under her breath, went, “Upupupu...”

Chapter Text

A stream gushed through the mountain, part of it winding through woodland area. Nestled amongst trees, in a small clearing, was a wooden cabin. Its dark exterior was sleek and modern, from its wall panels to its gently sloping tiled roof that two solar panels sat upon. The inside of the house was rustic with earthy hues, plain and compact in design, containing a blend of Japanese and Northwestern European furnishing.

In the main area that was part-living room, part-kitchen, a man slouched on a weary sofa, punching a radio that kept losing signal.

“... Provisions were intercepted today by...”

“... It has been twenty days since Towa City was captured by the...”

“... Fifty people died today when the Remnant of Despair known as the Porcelain Widow went on a...”

The man fiddled with the dial but unable to get a decent signal, he gave up and tossed the radio onto the seat beside him. He heaved out a sigh and leaned back, staring up at the wooden beams overhead. In the ‘before times’, he would have lit a cigar or thrown himself into some work. Only, he didn’t have any more cigars, and as for work, the only work he had to do were things like gathering firewood, popping to the stream to retrieve more water or pottering about trying to find furniture to rearrange.

That sort of work should have been done by maids, people whose purpose in life was to carry out menial tasks for people with more important things to do and better things to contribute to society, but he didn’t have any servants anymore.

With a quiet grunt, he stood up and lumbered over to the kitchen area. The solar panels generated enough electricity for a small refrigerator, lighting and a stove. He poured water into a pot and placed it on the stove to heat. Because he had nothing better to do, he stood nearby, watching as it came to boil. Perhaps, later, he would write in his journal. Though a solitary man, in a situation like this, even he needed to pretend that he had someone to talk to.

When the first few bubbles emerged at the surface of the water, the front door yawned open. Two sets of footsteps sounded, thudding against the wooden flooring. They came from somewhere behind him, and if he turned, he would have seen them, but he didn’t turn yet.

Something hard and solid struck the floor.

“Is that how you greet your king?” someone drawled.

He recognised it. A chill shot through him, but when he faced the intruders, he forced himself to mask his emotions, keeping his features smooth and blank.

The one who spoke, the self-proclaimed king, grinned toothily. His blond hair met his shoulders and curved against them but weren’t much longer than that. Over a black business suit, he wore a cloak like a king, its colour a range of skin tones, and on his head sat a thorn crown. He trained his cold, blue eyes on the dark pair of the owner of the cabin.

“It’s you,” said the owner of the cabin curtly.

“You don’t sound too surprised, Daddy,” said the intruder. The owner of the cabin winced, and the intruder broadened his grin. He inclined his head slightly, maintaining eye contact, and gripped harder onto the orbed head of his cane, which he had hit against the floor earlier. “Or would you rather I call you by your name? Kijou.”

Standing opposite the intruder, the owner of the cabin, Kijou, squared his shoulders.

“That would be Togami-sama to you, though you don’t have a respectful bone in your body. I knew you would find me eventually,” said Kijou in a low voice. His knuckles turned white as his hands balled into fists. “It was only a matter of time. I can’t say that I’m happy to meet you.”

This brought out a pout on the other man.

“Not even your own son?” he asked, and Kijou didn’t answer.

“You should be honoured,” someone said from behind the self-proclaimed king. A young woman stepped aside, revealing herself. Though she had a buzzcut now, Kijou recalled from photographs and video footage that she once had long hair, styled into two braids. The circular glasses that she had worn were still there, and no doubt there was a mole below the left corner of her lips under the dust mask over the mouth.

Drawn on the dust mask was a curved pink line, a symbol of a smile. She reminded Kijou of a sukeban with her dark sailor uniform, the skirt reaching past her knees. It was torn, especially at the bottom, with a long slit down her left leg. In the past, she had scars on her thigh, a tally for every victim of Genocider Syo, but now those scars covered her entire body.

Her appearance had changed a lot since Kijou last saw an image of her, but he knew it was her. Only someone like this would be associated with someone like the traitor standing before him.

This woman went by two names. One was Touko Fukawa, and the other was Genocider Syo. She was Byakuya’s right hand woman and she killed whoever he asked her to kill as well as wrote propaganda for the Remnants of Despair. Rumour had it that she had written a book so depressing that anyone who read it would soon kill themselves.

“You have been blessed by a visit from the great Byakuya-sama,” crowed Touko or Syo, raising her arms. Honestly, Kijou didn’t care to differentiate between the two.

Kijou stared at Byakuya, and only Byakuya, gritting his teeth. Byakuya approached Kijou, who breathed in deeply but didn’t move. Despite Kijou’s calm exterior, his heart beated furiously in his chest, though Byakuya wouldn’t have known that. A strong person didn’t succumb to emotions. Weak people did, and Kijou wasn’t weak. He stood perfectly still, but when Byakuya positioned himself in front of him and lifted a hand, admittedly, Kijou flinched, prompting Byakuya’s eyes to widen momentarily.

Byakuya licked his lips, slowly in a full circle, inducing a crawling sensation in Kijou’s skin.

“What do you want?” asked Kijou, but he had an inkling. This was why he trembled slightly. He knew, and he wished Byakuya would hurry up and do it.

“Bow down to me,” said Byakuya.

That hadn’t been what Kijou anticipated.

Without so much as blinking, Kijou replied, “Never.”

Byakuya grabbed Kijou by the hair and tugged him down. A pained wheeze hissed out from Kijou, and when Byakuya slammed his head against the wall behind him, his vision flashed white and he choked out a pathetic noise.

His head pounded as he gazed up, and he saw the ice in Byakuya’s eyes start to crack. Behind the layer of coldness were murky pools that seemed to go on forever. He didn’t get chance to stare into them long before Byakuya shoved his head to the ground, forcing Kijou onto his knees. With Byakuya’s hand applying firm pressure against his head, Kijou couldn’t look up.

The force on his head lessened rapidly, but Kijou didn’t lift his head. Moments later, something else pressed against him. Kijou deduced that it was the cane that Byakuya wielded.

“You foolish boy,” murmured Byakuya.

There was a high-pitched rasp.

“You idiot,” said Byakuya.

It had been the sound of Byakuya unsheathing a sword.

“You disgrace,” said Byakuya.

The sword had been contained in the cane, and the case slid off Kijou’s head. His body shook. Wouldn’t stop shaking.

“You’re no Togami,” said Byakuya. “You’re dirt.”

Nothing was pinning Kijou down. Only pure terror bound him, shackled him to the ground. Seized him in an inescapable chokehold.

“Dust,” breathed Byakuya.

Though Kijou had resigned himself to this fate, when Byakuya raised his sword, Kijou let out a sob.

“P-Please,” said Kijou, clutching his hands together. “Don’t kill me. God, please don’t kill me.”

“God...” Byakuya wet his lips and smiled. “That’s right, I am your God.”

He swung the sword forward. Before it even penetrated, Kijou began screaming, and as Byakuya hacked away at him, the raw, animalistic wailing that wracked through Kijou came and went. Blood splattered everywhere, and long after Kijou had become not much more than a pile of pulp, Byakuya was still slashing him. Even that wasn’t enough, and he threw in stomps too.

Eventually, Byakuya slowed to a stop, panting loudly. Touko sidled up to him. The sight of blood didn’t disturb her anymore. Hard to believe, but there had been a time when even a papercut would make her feel woozy. Now, though, she grinned as she wrapped her hands around Byakuya’s arm.

“I’m a god,” said Byakuya, unclear who he was telling, if anyone.

“You are,” she purred, snuggling into him.

Byakuya planted his sword blade first into what had been his father. It shifted a bit, but stayed upright. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. Touko fished around in his other trouser pocket and got out a lighter, which she flicked beneath the cigarette that he cradled in his mouth.

They stood still as he took a drag and breathed out a tendril of smoke. She basked in his body’s warmth. The window gaped a starry night, and Touko remembered something from long ago. One time, she and Byakuya took a coach out of the city, and they had lain on a hill, side-by-side, and pointed out different constellations. In the city, they couldn’t see many stars, but there, they could. He knew all their names and so did she, and he had listened to her tell him every story behind them.

That had been before all this.

Touko squeezed his arm.

“Um, Byakuya-sama?” she said.

Byakuya gave a hum.

“Why don’t we stay here for the night?” she suggested. “We can leave in the morning, when it’s light out.”

He puffed out smoke and bent down to snuff out his cigarette on one of Kijou’s bones. While he was squatted down, he dipped his finger into the mess of flesh, and he smudged blood onto himself.

His eyes narrowed as he brought his finger to his mouth and tasted it. The blood had a metallic tang and was warm in his mouth.

“We may as well,” said Byakuya. He stood up.

In the small cabin were two bedrooms, each with one bed. More than one person likely lived here before Kijou took up residence. One room was dustier than the other, and they chose the cleaner room to sleep in. It only had one bed with a tatty duvet. Byakuya removed his crown and cloak and sat down on it.

She approached, stopping a few paces away, and held her breath as she waited, fidgeting her hands.

“Come here,” he instructed.

Touko’s face lit up and she closed the gap between them. He pulled her toward himself as she clamoured onto his lap. His hand cupped the back of her head, pushing as he guided her into a kiss. Electricity coursed through her body as their warmth melded together. Her eyes fluttered shut.

Byakuya prodded his tongue against her lips and she opened up. He hugged her closer, and she shuddered as he drove his tongue into her mouth. All of her body tingled, all over. Touko groaned, grinding against him, and he filled her with a noise of arousal. She felt his hands paw at her clothes and let him shed them off her, until she was only clad in her panties.

The sex they had on Byakuya’s dead father’s bed was incredible.

Afterwards, they lay together and Touko breathed loudly, gazing upward. They would have to make a small trek to their helicopter in the morning. Byakuya would want them to leave as early as possible, so she ought to have tried to get some sleep, but she couldn’t. Her head buzzed, and her eyelids wouldn’t stay down. She listened to the whisper of a stream, the hustle of a breeze and the occasional chirps of insects. An image of a stink bug came to her mind, and her heart clenched as she remembered how it had crumbled in her fist as she crushed it.

Judging by the lack of snoring, Byakuya hadn’t fallen asleep yet.

“Byakuya-sama,” she murmured, and if he didn’t acknowledge her, she would have left it at that. That would be what destiny decided for them.

“What is it?” he asked with his back to her, barely any louder.

She swallowed.

“What if we didn’t go back, and we just stayed here?” she said.

There was a pause.

“Why would we do that?” he asked slowly in a flat voice, like a calm sea before a storm was due to hit.

Touko cringed.

“I don’t know,” she said. Her stomach quivered, and she quickly added, “Good night.”

“No.” He sat up and turned to her. “Not good night. Why would you suggest that?”

Destiny must have had it out for her. His eyes bore into her.

“You would have us abandon our comrades? Our leader? And for what, a tiny cabin in the woods on a mountain?” he asked, gesturing around the room.

“We don’t have to stay here,” she said, her heart hammering away. God, with the moonlight framing him like that, he was irresistible. Her fingers curled into her hand. “As long as I’m with you... then I will go anywhere. Even a tiny cabin in the woods on a mountain.”

Nothing. He said nothing. Just glared.

“I’m sorry,” she said, feeling her throat tighten. “I’ll shut up.”

His face was cold.

“You can sleep on the floor,” he sneered.

Touko got off the bed and sat down where he indicated. He lay down again, and the bed creaked as he put more weight on it.

In the end, she got an hour sleep at most. The sky lightened outside, and he nudged her with his foot until she raised her head. Byakuya put his cloak and crown on while she dressed too, and she followed him down the stairs. He walked in front of her and opened the front door.

Almost instantly, he slammed it shut without leaving. A second later, the door let off three sharp thunks.

“We have company,” said Byakuya calmly, and he backed away from the door, drawing his sword from his cane. She stayed close to him.

Moments later, the door shuddered and after a few more thumps, it fell down. Standing in the doorway was a human with a large frame. Their business suit strained slightly over their muscles, and their facial features could not be determined due to the fact they wore a wrestling mask that resembled a cow’s head.

Byakuya held his weapon out in front of him.

An elderly man slipped past the wrestler, with upswept silver hair and amber eyes. His skin resembled a prune in texture and he walked with a marked hunch. The man was Kazuo Tengan, former headmaster of Hope’s Peak Academy, former advisor of Hope’s Peak Academy and current leader of Future Foundation.

He stopped just in front of the wrestler and smiled pleasantly at the other two.

“I thought we might find you here, Togami-kun. Fukawa-san,” he said. “This is quite the cosy little cottage, isn’t it?”

Neither Touko nor Byakuya replied. They leered at him. He tilted his head.

“Where is your father, Togami-kun?” he asked.

Byakuya eyed him.

“I don’t have a father,” Byakuya replied bluntly.

Kazuo quirked his brow, holding his hands behind his back. “Do you mean that because he disowned you, or because you killed him?”

The lack of response gave Kazuo a suspicion on what the answer was. He sniffed the air and strayed from the doorway, feeling Byakuya and Touko monitor his every movement. Because the kitchen area was in the same room, he soon wandered over to the mutilated corpse on the ground.

“Oh dear, the answer is ‘both’,” said Kazuo, peering down at it, then he lifted his head. Noting Byakuya’s expression, he adjusted his glasses. “Shall we get down to business? You have probably worked out why we’re here.”

“Yes,” said Byakuya. He raised his sword. “You came here to die.”

Byakuya propelled himself toward Kazuo, preparing to swing his sword at him, but before he could reach him, the wrestler shoved into him and Byakuya stumbled.

“I, Great Gozu, will not allow you to kill anyone anymore,” roared the wrestler.

Regaining his footing quickly, Byakuya aimed his next attack toward Great Gozu.

Small knives splattered against his blade, and Byakuya pulled back.

Now that Great Gozu no longer occupied the doorway, more people could come in. One was a lean man in a red trench coat, and the other was a woman with a grey complexion, who wore a purple respirator mask and a short dark jacket.

The knives had come from the man in the red trench coat. Byakuya remembered him vaguely from Hope’s Peak, a blacksmith by the name of Sonosuke, and the noise just after Byakuya had closed the door earlier had been from Sonosuke’s knives hitting against it, as they did against his sword just now.

Sonosuke stayed back and reached into his sleeve, presumably to whisk out more knives to throw.

Touko yanked up her skirt and grabbed a pair of scissors from the leather pouch on her right thigh. With a screech, she charged at Sonosuke, and she cut his cheek with her blades.

He let out a yell and lurched backward into the wall. She readied another attack.

Nearby, the woman with the respirator mask ingested some green pills, who Byakuya now remembered to be called Seiko Kimura, a pharmacist. The effect from the pills was immediate. Seiko bulked up, and her purple gloves tore as her hands enlarged. Her nails became claws, and her silver hair lengthed, thrashing like snakes. On her legs, her tights ripped. Veins popped out on her face and with fangs bared, she hurtled toward Touko on all fours.

Byakuya intercepted Seiko, and she only barely dodged his sword’s path. She twisted around and leaped toward him. He kicked out his leg, landing a blow on her face, but she didn’t rebound much, as if he just swatted lightly at her.

Seiko lunged at him again, but Byakuya fended her off with his sword. Blood sprayed and she staggered back with a howl.

Gozu appeared behind Byakuya and grappled him, wrapping his arms around his middle. Byakuya struggled but couldn’t break free. He gasped in pain.

Touko’s eyes widened. She jumped onto Gozu’s back and stabbed his shoulder with some scissors. The scissors belonged to her alter and were her trademark when it came to murders, and for a long time, Touko couldn’t stand them, only keeping them so Syo wouldn’t have to make more, as every time she did that, she risked being caught.

Now, though, Touko had come to appreciate them.

He shouted and his hold loosened enough for Byakuya to squirm free. When Byakuya got out of the way, Touko whipped out another set of scissors, as her other set were still embedded in Gozu, and she ran at him.

Before she got there, Kazuo aimed a stun gun at her and pressed the trigger. Kazuo hit her on the base of her neck. A rattling sound burst out, lasting for five seconds, which was how long he squeezed the trigger for. Touko’s muscles locked up and she fell down into a heap.

Byakuya’s eyes strained wider and he ran over, stopping near her unconscious form.

Sonosuke threw knives at him. They skimmed past Byakuya, grazing skin. Non-lethal. Intentional.

Kazuo raised a hand, showing his palm to Byakuya.

“Togami-kun, you’re a smart lad,” he said. “You know that you’re outnumbered. It’s impossible for you to take all of us down.”

“If you think you can kill me, you’re welcome to try,” said Byakuya, jutting out his chin. He held his sword in front of him. “I’m unkillable, however.”

“That guy’s really trying to test my patience,” said Sonosuke gruffly. Byakuya glanced at him.

“So you can speak,” said Byakuya dryly. Sonosuke flourished a knife.

Kazuo kept his hand up, speaking slowly.

“We don’t plan to kill you. I’d much prefer we be as less violent as possible.” He sighed. “If it was my way, we’d have a cup of tea and leave together without any more fighting.”

Byakuya watched him closely, gripping his sword firmly.

“If you don’t plan on killing us, what are you going to do?” asked Byakuya, and he jerked his head. “Take us to court? Put us on trial? Lock us away in your basement?”

“That’s to be decided,” said Kazuo. His brow furrowed. “This is a losing battle, Togami-kun. Your leader, Enoshima, died during her broadcast of a mutual killing scenario, as you are aware. And a few hours ago, we captured her right-hand man, Clover... or as he was once known as, Makoto Naegi.”

The name made Byakuya’s heart jolt.

“What?” said Byakuya sharply. His stomach rolled. “Makoto... Naegi?”

Their former classmate, who the prep course slaughtered. Who burned before their very eyes.

“What are you talking about?” snarled Byakuya. “Naegi’s dead. Clover is...”

“I believe you’ve been tricked by your deceased leader, Togami-kun,” said Kazuo evenly. “Although Naegi-kun does not remember his past life, tests have confirmed that he is, biologically, Makoto Naegi. According to him, Enoshima faked Naegi-kun’s death and using Matsuda-kun’s notes, changed him into a heartless monster.”

Byakuya stared. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not, but perhaps Naegi-kun isn’t telling the truth. We shall see.” Kazuo extended a hand unsmilingly. “But for now, Togami-kun, we’d like you both to come with us.”

To no one’s surprise, Byakuya didn’t take Kazuo’s hand. Instead, he flexed his grip on his sword and said, “The only thing that can kill God... is God.”

The next scene happened in slow motion. Byakuya lifted his sword, and he turned it over in his hands so the blade pointed toward him. He dropped to one knee. Sonosuke and Seiko stiffened, while Gozu moved toward him. Kazuo’s eyebrows rocketed up.

Then, Touko swept her leg under Byakuya, and time sped up to normal. Byakuya fell, dropping his sword, and banged his head against the floor. Only, when she ripped off her mouth mask and her long, pink tongue hung out of her mouth, it turned out it wasn’t actually Touko.

Her foot pressed down on Byakuya’s back.

Gozu froze.

Genocider Syo regarded them with tired, weary eyes.

“If you can save them,” she said, “then we’ll go with you.”

Chapter Text

The Sun smiled in the bright blue sky, peeking in through the window of Touko’s bedroom. Her eyes crept open and she forced herself to sit up. A small tear formed in her eye as she stretched out her arms. She yawned cutely. Today marked the start of another regular week, a typical Monday at Hope’s Peak Academy.

When she finished yawning, she grabbed her glasses from her bedside table and put them on. Still half-asleep, she picked up her phone, which had been beside her glasses, and checked the time.

Touko blinked.

“Eh?” she went.

Then she screeched.

She was late for class!

Leaping out of bed, she rushed over to her wardrobe and flung it open. Touko threw off her night dress, put on the first plain set of undergarments that she saw and hurriedly finished dressing herself, buttoning her shirt through the wrong holes and shoving her feet into the wrong shoe. With no time to spare, she picked up a slice of bread on the way out, not even slotting it into the toaster for a minute. She held her breakfast between her teeth and sprinted out of her dorm. Out of the building.

To sleep through her alarm... what a ditzy, scatterbrained thing to do!

Her shoes slapped loudly against the pavement. Not even thirty seconds could have passed, and she was already huffing and puffing and sweating.

Keeping this pace required so much effort that she started to develop tunnel vision. By now, everyone had already arrived in class, so one would assume that the chances of her crashing into anyone were almost nil.

One would assume.

But alas! Touko crashed into someone.

She shrieked and tumbled back, flailing her legs, and when she came to a stop in a sitting position, she could only see stars for a few seconds. The back of her head throbbed where it had hit the pavement, and the slice of bread that she had brought with her had been released into the abyss somewhere.

“W-Watch where you’re-!” she started with a snarl, only to trail off. Sat opposite her was a tall, lean, blond guy with long eyelashes and ocean blue eyes.

Though her lips continued moving, no sound came out. As she stared at him, pink bubbles floated behind him.

He rubbed his head and stood up. With a scowl, he pushed up his glasses and glared down at her.

“You’re the one who should watch where you’re going,” he said as he dusted himself off. “You ran straight into me.”

The bubbles behind him popped.

Touko scrunched her face, jumped up and waved her fists indignantly.

“I was going to class!” she spat. “What are you doing here, huh? Apart from knocking girls over and trying to get a flash of their panties?”

He fixed his glasses again.

“I’m on my way to class, actually,” he said coldly.

She curled her lips.

“Then you’re late,” she said.

“So are you.”

She howled at the sky.

“My brain cells are dying because of the frequency of your voice!” she announced, pulling on her hair, and she left the guy to his own devices.

After all, she had class to attend, and it wasn’t like she would see him again.

Touko entered the main school building through the front entrance and climbed all the necessary stairs until she arrived at the corridor containing her homeroom. Her shoes squeaked all the way to the door, which she pried open and peeked around.

At the front of the homeroom, her teacher, Chisa Yukizome, was writing equations on the interactive whiteboard. Upon hearing the door open, Chisa turned to it, and seeing who was there, she faced Touko completely, stuck out her chest and placed her hands onto her hips. The rest of the class followed her gaze.

“You are late, Fukawa-kun,” scolded Chisa.

Nearby, Kiyotaka slammed his hands against his desk, already crying.

“Fukawa-kun! You broke... the school rules! And... judging by how you’re breathing... you ran... in the school halls!” he said, tears and snot running down his face.

Lightning could have struck outside.

He cried louder. Next to him, Mondo threw his desk at the wall in rage, then he leaned over and squeezed Kiyotaka’s shoulder.

“Kyoudai, you’ve gotta fucking relax,” said Mondo, his pompadour like, ridiculously large. Kiyotaka turned to him.

“Kyoudai...” Kiyotaka said in a hushed tone back, and they continued gazing into each other’s eyes.

Pink bubbles surrounded them. Mondo tenderly wiped away Kiyotaka’s eyes, cradling Kiyotaka’s cheek in his oversized hand.

Chisa set her eyes on Touko.

“Don’t let this become a habit,” she said, wagging her finger at her.

Touko gave a noncommittal grunt and shuffled over to her desk at the back of the classroom by the window, feeling everyone’s eyes on her. If only the gloomy cloud following Touko could have been thicker. Then they wouldn’t have been able to see her through it. Chisa waited for her to sit down, then turned back to the whiteboard to teach.

The lesson resumed, and from the get-go, dragged on. While Chisa rambled on, Touko stared out at the sky. It was a brilliant, endless blue. A sporty person would have liked to be outside in it, where rays from the Sun would warm their skin and they wouldn’t have to worry about how it might rain. Touko, however, imagined her blouse clinging to her damp skin and her legs melting beneath her until she formed into a puddle on the ground.

On a day like this, she would have preferred to be in her dorm or the library, writing.

As Touko trained her eyes on the sky, she felt as if something was pressing against her lips from inside her mouth, like her tongue, only not her tongue. Like.. Like her soul. She felt like the sky was trying to suck her essence out of her. Something about the blue sky... felt so inviting...

Chisa scrawled arrows onto the whiteboard so various numbers pointed to others. Even though Touko specialised in writing - particularly fiction writing, she was also a genius girl, so she understood what Chisa was saying. Well, Touko would have if she had been paying attention. She didn’t even respond to the classroom door opening.

“Ah, you must be the new student,” said Chisa, turning to the door.

Touko was pulled out of her daydream and looked over to the doorway. She froze when she saw who it was. Of all the people that existed in this world, the new student was none other than the blond guy that she nearly flattened on the way here.

What a twist!

He walked into the room, passing Chisa, and sat at the only available desk. Which, believe it or not, was the desk in front of Touko and also the desk where the protagonist in an anime would often sit. Being by the window, near the back, the animators wouldn’t have to draw everyone behind him, but by having a row of desks behind him, it gave the viewer the impression that this was a full class.

Chisa frowned and tilted her head to one side.

“Are you going to introduce yourself?” she asked, staring over at him.

The guy pushed up his glasses, even though they weren’t out of place.

“I’m Byakuya Togami,” he said.

Silence.

“My self introduction is over,” he told them.

Chisa blinked and rubbed the back of her neck. “Um... okay.”

She returned to the interactive whiteboard, and Touko squinted at the back of his head. What sort of impression did he intend to set by turning up late to his first day at a new school? Also, what sort of name was Byakuya Togami? The nerve of this transfer student... and he acknowledged the class so coldly!

He bent down to reach into his satchel. Touko assumed that he was getting out a notebook and pen so he could take notes, but instead he extracted a laptop. Okay, so he could have wanted to type his notes instead. Fair enough. But then he booted up his laptop, and he opened up a webpage for the stock exchange market! So while Chisa explained differentiating the equation of a curve, he was making money!

Touko’s teeth ground together.

“Fukawa-kun!” said Chisa, and Touko snapped her head up.

Chisa frowned at Touko from the front of the classroom.

“Huh?” went Touko, and Chisa folded her arms over her chest.

“Can you answer my question?” she asked Touko, pursing her lips.

Touko fidgeted. Her skin prickled under her collar.

“Which is...?” mumbled Touko. Chisa lifted her chin.

“Do you make your personality dark and push people away just to keep them safe, or because you fear them rejecting the real you?” asked Chisa.

“W-What?”

“I said,” said Chisa in the same tone of voice as before, “by differentiating the equation of the curve, what are we left with?”

“The...” Touko swallowed. Fumbled. Her heart was still beating rapidly. “The gradient of the curve. You’re left with the gradient of the curve.”

Chisa narrowed her eyes, and after a beat of tense silence, broke into a grin.

“Yes, that’s right, Fukawa-kun!” Chisa said brightly, and she carried on with the lesson.

Touko barely paid attention before, but now all Touko heard when Chisa spoke was the hum of a fly, or the hum of an old computer’s fan whirling. For the rest of the lesson, she stared at the back of Byakuya’s head, and by the time lunch finally rolled around, she still didn’t feel quite with it. A knot formed in her gut, and all the way to the cafeteria, it bounced, tugging uncomfortably on her insides, and it festered as she waited in line to get her food.

In a lot of schools, a few students were assigned lunch duty and brought lunch to their classroom, but this school had a cafeteria. Just to throw it out there.

“Ah, Fukawa-san!” greeted a stout student on the other side of the counter. He was in another class and was called Teruteru. His special talent was being a chef or something.

Oh, right, everyone enrolled at this school had a super duper talent.

Teruteru stroked his chin. “What are you in the mood for? A sausage?”

He smirked. Touko didn’t respond, and the ends of his lips wilted at the lack of reaction.

“Are you in the mood for my sausage, Fukawa-san?” he asked, putting on more bravado.

She lifted her gaze. The anxiety manifesting in her started to become drowned out with anger, but before she could respond, a blur swooped out from above and sent Teruteru careening away with an almighty kick to the face.

When the blur stopped moving, which was right after, Touko discovered it to have been a student with wide shoulders and hair almost as pale as his pale skin. Under his jacket but over his shirt, he wore a green waistcoat with a red trim. He gave a wheezy laugh.

“Ah, sorry. I, Nagito Komaeda, must have slipped,” he said, but firstly, he didn’t sound sorry, and two, what sort of person slipped like that?

While he offered Teruteru his hand and helped him up to his feet, Touko served herself and brought her tray over to a small table with no one else on it. Today’s lunch consisted of a bowl of rice, a bowl of egg drop soup and a dish with two sections - one containing pickled vegetables, and the other a block of deep-fried tofu with oyster sauce.

Touko scooped up some of the soup and sipped it. The ginger, salt and pepper helped bring out the sweet eggy taste without overpowering it with a spicy flavour. She helped herself to some more. As she ate, people passed her table, some to get food, some to leave the cafeteria, and then a shadow fell upon her table.

“Hi, Fukawa-chan!” said someone. Touko looked up. It was Aoi Asahina, accompanied by Sakura Oogami.

According to the floating text annotating the arrow pointing to Aoi’s head, Aoi was Touko’s best friend in this, and the arrow pointing to Sakura indicated that Sakura was her other best friend in this. Presumably because it wouldn’t make sense to have Komaru Naegi be here.

Wait. This? In ‘this’? Why did Touko think to use that word? And who was Komaru Naegi? Anyway, ‘this’ was life. Without waiting to be asked to join, Aoi placed down her tray and took a seat. Sakura followed suit. Touko’s lips pinched.

“What do you want?” asked Touko, narrowing her eyes at them with suspicion, suspiciously.

“Isn’t this what best friends do?” said Aoi, tapping herself on the chin and answering with a question.

Touko hesitated. “I... suppose?”

Aoi beamed, and she and Sakura began their lunches. Theirs weren’t the same as Touko’s. For some reason, Aoi had a plate stacked with donuts, and Sakura had cans of protein drink and precisely one cup of tea on a saucer.

Initially, Aoi wolfed down the donuts, and Touko watched in disbelief, even if the sound of chomping wracked her eardrums. After a while, Aoi slowed down a bit and began to talk as she ate.

“So anyway, Kuwata asked Maizono-chan to the dance, right? But Maizono-chan skirted around it.” Eating. “You know? She said she was undecided on going, but I think she wants to see if a certain someone asks her out. Now, we think it’s Naegi, but Kirigiri-chan is also an option, or even Ikusaba-chan.”

More eating.

A lot more eating.

The donuts didn’t seem to ever end.

“But, like, Naegi could go with almost anyone!” Aoi gulped. “Kirigiri-chan’s the popular choice, but then there’s also Togami.”

Touko sucked in her cheeks like she just inhaled from a lemon. Speaking of Kyouko, she was standing in a shadowy corner, sneering at everyone. She lit a cigarette, took one puff, dropped it, snuffed it out with the heel of her boot and then resumed looking cool again.

Kyouko was very mysterious indeed. Also probably a tsundere, or maybe a yandere. It could go either way.

“But you know, Naegi’s very popular with the girls and most of the boys, so it’s too early to say,” said Aoi, shaking a finger at Touko.

Sakura nodded and folded her arms over her chest. She gave a grunt, smirked, and then said, “Indeed... heh.”

There was a round of applause.

Touko fed herself some rice. To think, of all the things that could have been happening to them in the world, she was listening to Aoi talk about an upcoming dance which Touko currently had no date for.

“I’m going with Sakura-chan,” piped up Aoi. “But we have a pact that if Naegi asks either of us out, we’ll either split or go as part of a harem.”

Aoi clapped her hands together and pointed her finger tips toward Touko, looking stern.

“Now, Fukawa-chan, your choices are rather limited,” said Aoi gravely.

A pause. Then Aoi grinned and splayed out her hands either side of her head.

“Actually, they’re not. Because I know you have a crush on Togami!” announced Aoi, and Touko choked on her milk. Some spurted out of her nose.

Sakura reached over and gave Touko a pat on the back. The force of impact sent Touko flying across the room, where she slammed into a wall on the other side of the cafeteria. As this was just a gag, though, only a few people looked at Touko for a little bit, and Touko returned to their table unharmed.

“I don’t!” Touko hissed through her teeth, picking up the conversation like nothing happened.

“I mean, for a nerdy white guy, you could do worse than Byakuya Togami (十神 白夜),” remarked Aoi, but Touko continued fuming and didn’t even notice that Aoi said his name twice for some reason.

“Do not be afraid of your love,” said Sakura, and the angle made it look like the ceiling light above her head was a halo. “As Ji Cun Xi once said, ‘I Only Know That The First Time Is Accidental, The Second Time Is Inevitable, And The Third Time Is By Fate’... heh.”

There was a round of applause.

Touko didn’t know what that had to do with her and Byakuya. This was his first day at the school and Touko had never met him before. He had also been obnoxious on their first meeting which therefore meant he was a piece of garbage forever. FOREVER.

“Oh, I just remembered something,” said Aoi. She scratched her chin. “Celes-chan planned on asking Togami to the dance, so you better be careful.”

Aoi and Sakura turned their heads at the same time, and Touko followed their gaze. Celes was seated with Byakuya at another table, and she was talking animatedly and giggling about something while Byakuya stared broodingly into space.

Even though Touko totally didn’t like Byakuya, seeing Celes trying to get close to him made her blood boil. For some unknown, mysterious reason.

“Fukawa-chan,” said Aoi suddenly, and Touko turned to her. Aoi’s face was serious. “Does your masochism stem from how you’ve tried to cope with the sexual abuse from your father?”

Touko’s stomach lurched. “What?”

“I said, what are you going to wear to the dance tonight?” asked Aoi, with the same, serious expression.

It hadn’t sounded like that. As Touko stared down at her lunch, she didn’t feel hungry anymore.

“Oh... I don’t know?” mumbled Touko.

“Then we’ll all just have to give you a makeover!” Aoi said, and she scoffed the rest of her donuts down. With her mouth full, she added, “Straight after classes, okay? We’ll go to Enoshima-chan’s room.”

That name sent a chill through Touko, but Touko couldn’t pinpoint why. Junko was one of their classmates, a blond girl who specialised in modelling with a valley girl accent despite being Japanese. Her existence and what she stood for went against the lifestyle of a bookish nerd author like Touko, so that could have been why Touko felt such revulsion at the sound of her name. Always accompanying Junko was Mukuro, who just stood in the background and blowed bubblegum.

After thinking all that, she almost forgot about the whole makeup thing, but she hadn’t forgotten and shuddered. Hopefully, they would forget and she could escape to her room as soon as class ended.

They returned to class and Touko settled back at her desk. The next lesson started, but unable to focus, Touko doodled in her notebook while teachers came and went for every lesson. She couldn’t concentrate, not really because her mind’s focus lay elsewhere, but because her head seemed to be filled with fluff that made it hard to fit a thought in there, and she didn’t put much stock in this, but she spent most of the next couple of hours boring her eyes into the back of Byakuya’s head.

For some unknown, mysterious reason.

“And that’s why you should always make suwe you have a fiwewall wunning,” concluded Usami, a large white rabbit with feathery wings and a pink bow by her right ear. She wore a pink bib and a pink and white layered, ruffled dress. “Now... hey!”

Touko jerked her head up at the sharpness of Usami’s tone. Usami marched over to Chihiro and snatched a note of paper from Chihiro, who jumped when it left Chihiro’s grip.

“Awe you passing notes while I’m teaching?” she groused, blowing out her cheeks.

“I-It’s n-not f-from m-me,” said Chihiro with large, doleful eyes.

Ignoring Chihiro, Usami unfolded the piece of paper, cleared her throat and read aloud from it.

“Touko Fukawa
Only you light up my world
Get me feeling light-hearted
All I want is you, who makes my toes curled
Me and You
I am too shy to share my true feelings
So I pretend to hate you
Do you feel the same way about me, whose love reaches past ceilings?
I wish I could tell you how much you mean to me
Castle walls border my heart
Killing me by starving me, by the way the castle walls are really a metaphor
Parkour.”

Usami waved the love letter and stomped her feet. Steam blew out of her ears. “Alwight, who wwote this?”

No one said anything. They just stared at Touko, who melted into her seat.

“Well, whoevew wwote this poem is cleawly vewy talented, but we have to get back to ouw lesson,” said Usami. She put the love letter away in a desk drawer. “Computew secuwity is vewy impowtant! You don’t know when someone will bwing a viwus into a simulation and make you kill each othew.”

For the rest of the lesson, Touko wondered who had written that incredibly heartfelt love letter to her. All her life, she thought herself ugly, stupid and other things that a woman’s worth was measured with. However, try as she might, she drew a blank. The writer would most likely remain a mystery for the rest of her life. Or until like... the last chapter or something.

By the time the last lesson concluded, Touko had actually forgotten about Aoi’s plans for her, and outside of the classroom, Touko started for the library.

“Hey!” Aoi caught up and grabbed her by the arm. “Wrong way! We’ve got to like, get ready for the school dance tonight!”

Touko struggled but Aoi could crush a watermelon between her thighs, so Touko had no chance of breaking free.

“But I don’t have a date,” said Touko, whining as Aoi dragged her away.

Aoi kept a firm hold of Touko all the way to the dorms. Several people stared at them as the pair passed by, but none of them thought to rescue Touko.

They arrived outside of Junko’s dorm, and Aoi rung the bell. Ten or so seconds later, Junko opened it.

“Hi!” Junko greeted with no evil undertones. She stepped aside, letting them in.

Walls painted white enclosed the room, and white furniture sat upon dark wooden flooring. Pink accented many of the furnishing, such as a pink cushion on a chair and a pink couch frame with white seat cushions. All the girls in their class had gathered here already. Mukuro sat perfectly still next to Kyouko on the couch. Celes stood in the background, wearing her black loita dress, Sakura flexed nearby and Sayaka enveloped Touko in a big hug.

“Fukawa-san!” Sayaka greeted. “I’m so glad you’re here!”

Touko didn’t know what to do during hugs so just held her arms at different angles until Sayaka finally stepped back.

“Okay, we’ve got work to do!” Junko said, one hand holding a hairbrush, one hand holding a hairdryer and her third arm clutching a mascara wand. “The dance starts in two hours, and we have a lot of work to do. Which I just said, but like... nya!”

That sounded like an insult. Not the bit with the nya, but the bit about having a lot of work to do. However, as Touko drew in breath to come out with the best retort ever to be written in print, Junko thrust a dress into Touko’s arms, nearly bowling her over.

“Put this on first,” instructed Junko, and she shoved Touko into the bathroom.

Silence rang as soon as the door slammed shut. Touko held out the dress and examined it. The dress consisted of bright pink lace applique with a floral pattern and a short puffy skirt. There was a divide at the cleavage, and the two halves at the front came together around the belly button area.

Against her reservations, Touko changed into the dress and studied her reflection in the mirror above the sink. Seeing herself, she felt like a fairy from a video game that lived in a secret fountain and blessed whatever elven warriors visited.

“Come out, Fukawa-san!” Sayaka called.

Touko took a deep breath and emerged back into the main room.

No one said anything for a while, staring at Touko with wide eyes.

Then...

Then...!

“Wow, you look amazing!” Sayaka said, and the other girls commented their agreement, causing Touko to blush and wiggle, embarrassed.

Junko flourished a hairdryer. “All right, Fukawa-san, now we’ve just got to do your hair and makeup, and then you’ll be ready to go to the dance!”

She marched Touko over to the vanity and plopped her down. Time seemed to go on forever as Junko loosened her braids, tugged a brush through her hair and then finally sprayed glitter into it. Once Touko’s hair was done, Sayaka did Touko’s makeup, highlighting her eyelids with pink and applying coral pink lipstick.

With just minutes to spare, Touko was ready for the dance.

The other girls still had to get ready, so Touko took off for the dance alone. She descended the stairs and opened the door to outside. To her horror, while they had been inside, it had started raining, and even though Junko’s dorm had windows, Touko hadn’t realised until right now.

A tear rolled down Touko’s cheek, but it didn’t ruin her makeup. Her heart ached. After all that effort, all that build-up, she wouldn’t be able to go to the dance. If she went out in the rain, it would ruin her whole outfit, and she would be a laughing stock.

Just as she started to turn away and go back to her dorm, someone held out an umbrella toward her. She stopped and turned back.

“Here,” said Byakuya, dressed in a dark green pinstripe suit with a dollar symbol pattern all over it. He pressed the umbrella into her hands. “I’m only giving this to you because it’s too heavy for me to carry. Not because I like you or anything...”

Byakuya turned his head away and added,

“B-Baka.”

Piano music tinkled as Touko stared at him. She would have stared at him for longer if Celes hadn’t barged past her and hooked her arm around Byakuya’s arm.

“Bonjour, Master-sama! It’s time to for us to go win prom king and prom queen,” said Celes with a simper, giggling, and the pair walked to the main building together, all the hot air in Celes making the rain evaporate before it could get near them.

Touko hunched her shoulders and set off with the umbrella.

The dance was in full swing when Touko arrived as part of the pack of girls in her class, who had all managed to get ready themselves in less than a minute, dress, hair, makeup and all, as well as catch up to Touko. She stayed back while everyone else went their separate ways.

Sakura and Aoi held each other’s hands and danced together on the dance floor, which was made up of different panels that flashed a fluorescent independently. Celes, wearing the same loita dress that she wore every single moment of her life, sidled up to Byakuya, who was too busy counting the money in his wallet to notice her existence, and Kyouko walked over to the punch bowl.

Kyouko poured herself a glass of punch and frowned at the contents. She held up her glass.

“All right, who put razor blades in my drink?” asked Kyouko.

Everyone gasped, but Sayaka gasped loudest.

“Oh, no, who would do something like that?” said Sayaka sweetly, placing a hand against her cheek.

“Whoever it was, they’re totally a backstabbing skank that doesn’t deserve Naegi-kun,” said Nagito, who wasn’t even in their class.

Sayaka narrowed her eyes at him.

Aoi stopped dancing for a moment and looked around. “Hey, where is Naegi, anyway? Shouldn’t he be at the dance by now?”

Everyone else looked around too.

“Uh, maybe he got lost on the way here, ‘right? Like in the Bermuda Triangle or something, man,” suggested Yasuhiro, holding a blunt in one hand and a sign in his other hand with Hifumi’s face drawn on it.

“Indeed,” said Hifumi, sounding like Yasuhiro but higher-pitched. Yasuhiro bobbed the sign up and down as ‘Hifumi’ spoke. “Mayhaps the gentleman thought the dance was in another academy, like Otonokizaka Academy?”

The suspense was thick as everyone wondered where Makoto could be. They were still pondering about his possible current whereabouts when the door to the school gym burst open. All eyes flitted to the doorway.

A silhouette was framed by the light of outside. Celes’s skin burned where the light touched her and she scampered into the darkness. In the doorway stood none other than Makoto, wearing a black suit with his hoodie on underneath the jacket.

He swept his gaze across the hall, where everyone had stopped to marvel at him. One-by-one, as soon as his handsome eyes passed over a different classmate, they wandered over to him. All except Touko, who remained at the side of the room, and Byakuya, who was too busy making sure no one tried to steal any money from his wallet to pay attention.

Mukuro bowed in front of Makoto, going down onto her hands and knees. Celes stood behind Mukuro, and Aoi and Nagito dropped to one knee either side of him. Makoto sat on Mukuro, using Nagito and Sayaka as armrests and Celes as the back of his human throne.

Everyone waited with baited breath.

Finally, Makoto lifted a finger, pointing.

“... You,” he said in a deep, manly voice.

His finger was aimed at Kyouko, who blushed and gestured weakly to herself.

“Me?” she said.

He nodded, got off his seat and linked arms with her. Kyouko giggled and fanned her face with her other hand which had no scars whatsoever. The pair walked over to the dance floor together.

A harpoon sailed through the air where Kyouko’s head had been moments before.

“Dammit!” said Sayaka, stamping her foot and cradling a harpoon gun.

After Makoto’s entrance, the dance slowly returned to normal. Aoi and Sakura paired up together again, Makoto and Kyouko danced shyly together, and after they signed Chihiro’s adoption papers, Mondo swung Kiyotaka around like he was a ragdoll. Mukuro and Sayaka gazed longingly at Makoto.

Leon shuffled over to them and cleared his throat.

“You want to dance?” he asked Sayaka.

“Sure,” said Sayaka with a shrug, and she went off with him. They started headbanging together.

As for everyone else, they didn’t have anyone to be paired off with specifically so weren’t worth mentioning. Touko sighed and wrapped her arms around herself. Everyone else seemed to have someone to dance with except her.

She heaved a sigh.

But then, someone held out a hand, and she looked up.

It was Byakuya.

“Do you want to dance with me?” he asked. He blushed. “You pig baka.”

Touko blinked, uncertain if she heard him right. As she stared into her eyes, her heart skipped. She must have heard him right.

“S-Sure,” she said, taking his hand, and they both glided onto the dancefloor together.

Across the hall, Celes noticed and began gnawing her teeth angrily against a log of wood. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Yasuhiro holding the sign with Hifumi on it, and she stomped over to them.

“Give me that,” she hissed, snatching Hifumi off him, and she thundered away.

Yasuhiro continued smiling stupidly into space.

Touko glanced at Yasuhiro and then turned back to Byakuya. The rest of the hall faded away, until all that was there, all that mattered, were Touko and Byakuya, lit up by the tiles underneath their feet. Byakuya gazed at her, not wearing his glasses, and her glasses were gone too. His chin was incredibly big and well-defined and his shirt’s top buttons had come undone.

He cupped her cheek with a hand bigger than her head and smiled.

“Fukawa,” he said in a husky voice. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

“Uh huh?” she replied, leaning into his touch.

“Do you really believe only miserable people can imagine a perfect world?”

She frowned a bit. “... Huh?”

“I said, I wrote you that letter in class,” said Byakuya. “Fukawa, I love you. It’s not like I have been raised to think otherwise or have any internal conflict about it. No... I definitely love you.”

Her eyes widened. Her breathing hitched. Her body quivered.

“Attention!” shouted the headmaster, Jin, standing on a stage. The world phased back, and Touko and Byakuya were on a dancefloor once more surrounded by hormonal teenagers... or around about. “I am now going to announce the Prom King and Prom Queen.”

“Oh, it’s totally going to be me,” said Celes smugly, rubbing her knuckles against her titty.

“Sorry, Celes-san, but my intuitions tell me it will me and Naegi-kun,” said Sayaka, her hands clasped together.

They smiled at each other with their eyes shut and both of them set aflame, but it was an emotional flame, so it didn’t burn them or anyone nearby.

Jin tore open an envelope and read aloud from it. “The Prom King and Prom Queen... is Byakuya Togami and Touko Fukawa.”

A spotlight shone down on the winners. Byakuya and Touko looked at each other, then took each other’s hands and climbed up onto the stage. Chisa placed a crown on both of their heads.

“Speech!” Leon yelled, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, and the rest of the class began to chant what he said, pumping their fists in time with their shouts.

“Speech! Speech! Speech!”

Touko shivered, surveying the hall. They had chosen her to be Prom Queen... her! Celes glowered at her, but everyone else smiled and clapped. She continued looking at them, trying to think what to say, and then her eyes fell onto Nagito, who was gripping the handle of a plunger detonator...

Wait.

He pressed down on it, and the stage collapsed. Multiple explosions billowed out around them. Touko screamed as she felt herself begin to plummet, and she grabbed onto the nearest solid thing to her.

Byakuya.

Their surroundings turned black as they fell, falling further... and further... and further? They kept falling, to the point when she became used to it and it felt like she wasn’t falling, but rather that she and Byakuya were suspended in midair.

The only thing she could see was Byakuya.

The only thing she could hear was Byakuya.

“Fukawa,” he said, gripping her hands tightly back.

“W-What?” she said, tensing.

Byakuya gazed into her eyes.

“This will sound unreal and outlandish,” he said, “but none of this is real. This is all a virtual simulation created by a resistance group called Future Foundation, meant to reprogramme us.”

Her heart jolted. She ogled him. “What?”

“After a series of events, Enoshima manipulated us and brainwashed us into becoming her elite squad for spreading despair,” Byakuya explained. “By now, our classmates have completed the simulation and come out, all except you.”

Touko let go of one of Byakuya’s hands and placed her hand against her head, wincing. That sounded crazy. It couldn’t be possible.

“I managed to get into the program just now, overriding the file that represented me in here.” He loosened his hold for a moment, then squeezed her hand. His eyes searched hers for something. “I want to know... if you will leave this virtual world, for the real one?”

She bit her lip. It was coming back to her now. In the other world, tally marks covered her body, and under his suit, Byakuya had patches of Junko Enoshima’s skin sewn onto him. Their surroundings went from black to cyber blue, full of ones and zeroes.

“Leave... here?” she mumbled. Leave behind this happy world where everyone lived, where the only problems that she had to face involved school festivals and love triangles? And instead, go to a world where despair had feasted on the world, where she had to face the reality of her actions...

... and a world where Byakuya did not love her.

“I... I don’t know,” she admitted. Her chest fluttered.

He plucked her hand off her head and squeezed that one too.

“Fukawa...” Byakuya looked away for a moment, but then he made himself look at her again. “I can’t force you to come with me, but... I would like you to.”

She inhaled sharply. Her face warmed. “Y-Y-?”

“Yes.” He gripped harder. “Long ago, you told me... that love isn’t a weakness, and can make you stronger. I thought you were wrong, but I’ve thought it over. Your love... that you channel into your writing, that surfaced when Syo stopped me from killing myself... that had you stay by my side, and fight as well as you did... that made you repress Syo’s urges to kill... and be willing to leave despair so we could be together... has made me think I should reconsider my stance. After all, you are not a weak person. Not at all.”

Byakuya gazed into her eyes, blushing. While he had blushed during their dance, ignoring the fact that the Byakuya there had been a fake, the colour on his face here meant more than anything that imposter could have said or done.

“If you come back with me, I would like to investigate, and find out more about it,” he said, his voice cracking at the end. “Together.”

Her heart thrashed.

“I...”

She furrowed her brow.

“I’m scared, Byakuya-sama... but... if I’m with you, the real you, I think...” Touko stared up at him, shaking. “I think I’m strong enough to face the world.”

The real Byakuya was who she had fell in love with, after all.

“Okay,” she said, choking up. Smiling even though she was crying too. “I will go with you.”

He smiled, and as they leaned in toward each other, the simulation turned black.