Too many memories, two many occupants
Description: The game is over, and someone has to answer for how it played out. Tsumugi's the obvious answer, as perfectly so as her cosplay. Features VR AU and postgame spoilers.
Word Count: 3591
Read on AO3 here
Chapter 1: Beyond Notice
During the trial it had been a lot easier. Having an opposition, having a role, having a part to stick to. There was the audience, there were the fans. There were her brilliant cosplays!
There was the vote.
She had known what she’d press.
She knew where it would get her.
Waving her last, she knew what it really meant.
But something within her still grew quiet.
The triumphant grin of despair wouldn’t surface, no matter how hard she tried.
Her contestants. Her classmates. Her victims. Her cast.
They had sentenced her… themselves… to this.
Even though she knew better, she felt numb.
Her feet were heavy, rooted to the spot. The others were out of sight. Her executioner flew around above, raining his destruction down on them while she retreated inwards, her vision narrowing.
Waving, as her cosplay fell away, as the school crumbled, she should feel the heat of the explosions, but none of that reached her.
She saw the rock. She made no move.
Part of her was ready. Part of her was resigned.
It went dark.
Even though Tsumugi knew better she was almost relieved.
Until it was time to wake up.
Coming to feels hazy, disorienting. Her limbs jerk awkwardly, as if starting awake from a nightmare, eyes still seeing darkness but hands brushing against cords, glass and consoles. A pair of hands brush her cheek as they remove her headset, and she flinches involuntarily. One of her own hands goes to her face, tugging at its electrical tethers, still taped to her in various nerve points.
She’s not wearing her glasses. Panic washes over her just as the blinding light of the room that refuses to adjust for her does, and her other hand frantically reaches around the pod for where they must have fallen. She’d never leave her glasses. Without her glasses she’s not… she’s…
The light becomes less intense as she blinks, and she can make out the blurry silhouettes of three people in front of her, standing at attention, waiting patiently. One holds a hand outstretched with something silver clasped in it.
Shakily she takes it, unfolding the arms and sliding them carefully onto her face. The unfocused world comes back into sharp clarity. She half recognizes the faces of those who are in front of her. The silence remains. Is she supposed to say something? Eventually the one who returned her glasses clears her throat, and gestures to the others. They begin to remove the wires quickly and efficiently. Tsumugi crosses her arms and rubs at them idly as the rest are secured, feeling like this should be a more private process. As the last wire is removed the one who’s clearly in charge clears her throat again and nods to her.
“The Board would like to see you.”
Slowly, Tsumugi pushes herself out of the seat, wobbling on her feet as she does so, gripping the side of the chair shaped pod, carefully avoiding the lit LCD consoles lining the edges. The trio before her make no moves to help, nor does she request it. The legs beneath her quiver a few times, threatening to fold before her knees lock with some promise of support. Her hand gripping the side betrays the truth though, trembling with effort.
“Alright, take me to them.”
They aren’t happy.
There’s some general gratitude that an ending was guaranteed through her actions, but thanks for it are brisk and short lived. There are bigger problems now.
Lost footage was bad enough, but a protest live on air? Sure, there were tons of supportive fans out there with a continued commitment to the brand, but the vocal few were making themselves heard. Sponsors were pulling their funding. Team DanganRonpa needed to make a statement. They refused to take fault, they had the consent waivers, despite the impassioned display on screen. They needed a scapegoat to take the fall, and who better than the face of the disaster? It was for the good of their franchise, and their only chance to hang onto enough profit to keep the company running.
They are firing her.
The show must go on, but they would make a good faith decision to change their methods for the next season. With a brand new production team.They were advancing their technologies still and R&D was indispensable right now, so the focus went towards the writing talent. It was her failure, anyways, they posited. The simulation hadn’t flickered once, even when the jig was up.
Tsumugi is silent and numb as she is told this.
Turmoil brews as a debate begins around her about when to release the announcement.
How dare they do this to me? I worked so hard for them!
Without me this season would have never got off the ground!
Who else had the brilliant idea to move into a space epic? To introduce new worlds for the future of the story?
Who risked their life to bring down every last obstacle?
Who gave up their classmates? Was chased down for this mad show and they care more about sponsors?
How dare they place the blame on a highschooler, when I-
Wait, no, she’s not…
She runs her fingers over her temples gingerly, swaying slightly on her feet.
The discussion in front of her ebbs, attention back on her, and some expressions exchanged before they agree to resume once she’s more aware. Perhaps they were too prompt in calling her here, but they had assumed she wouldn’t need long to adjust, since she knew the truth.
They didn’t realize knowing the truth was the crux of her dilemma.
Deleting memories when a consciousness was plugged directly into a simulation was very simple. The centers of the brain known to store them were easily targeted without physical intervention, leaving common sense and learned skills. Untethered knowledge, learned without recalling how. The amnesia effect here was valuable. Recalling this knowledge caused a disconnect, and when memories were implanted the brain would do something extraordinary. It would map a route from the presented memory to the knowledge, all on it’s own. Connecting the neural dots and repairing the damage as though it were never there, without guidance or supervision. The human mind was a brilliantly sophisticated device.
Every cast member had been selected with some semblance of knowledge or aptitude for their assigned talent, even if it was utterly average. The knowledge was filled out for each, with painstaking researchers drafting long memories of ancient tomes, infidelity cases, star charts, blueprints, masked faces, island maps and coastal vistas. They filled in as much as possible, but even if they missed something, the mind was resilient, and would work out the holes on its own.
It wasn’t the same for her however.
There was a perk to being the ringleader for the whole affair. The person in charge had to know some of the infrastructure that was keeping them there, some of the motivations. Lest the show fall apart, or even worse be boring. So the game master went into the simulation without memory deletion.
That wasn’t to say that there weren’t memories implanted. That would be too simple.
They had to provide some true evidence of their talent to back up the enhancement of their skills and knowledge. Without a sturdy foundation built on confidence any additions would crumble and refuse to attach. Having worked in the costume department for a few seasons before her promotion, her suggestion of cosplayer had been approved almost instantly. Soon the research team was looking up Cosplay Masquerade winners from years past and the details of every prized piece of workmanship, photography and character acting they could find, and drafting it into a light for her as well. Tsumugi had been excited, and had even helped pick her absolute favourites to be remembered as costumes she made.
Ideally, this booster pack of memories for her talent would supplement her own enough to use to her fullest if the time came in game. Her script outline didn’t even call for her reveal, but having been behind the scenes a few seasons, she knew a lot more was up to chance than Team Danganronpa liked to let the media know. She wanted a strong backup at her disposal, should the need arise.
However, when the game began, something hadn’t been quite right.
Backstory memories were implanted as planned, but the talents were yet to be placed. Already in the simulation, she couldn’t ask The Board if this was deliberate. It could be a marketing scheme to boost audition rates for the next round. But already her concern grew.
The human mind is a fascinating thing.
The others spoke of being grabbed and taken here. The dots were already connecting, firing on all cylinders, looking for solutions to lost memories that didn’t need answering. It wasn’t as though they erased everything of course, it was impossible to work with a blank slate, so the bits remaining were playing havoc with their reactions. She alone had none missing, and merely nodded along. With the arrival of the talent light, she had an inward sigh of relief. Soon it wouldn’t matter, this would overwrite any unintended connections left by this stunt.
They received the memories.
Tsumugi had never expected them to feel so real.
Every costume she had lovingly picked out, from footage and articles, she could feel in her hands, as though she touched the fabric and threaded the seams.
Every pose she had seen a cosplayer photographed in, she was viewing outwardly, seeing the cameramen she never even imagined existing prior, while holding her position with careful grace.
Every character, be they dramatic, loud, shy, soft or brash, came to her in vivid detail. Their tales, their backstories, their struggles, their gestures and voices.
And it clashed against her memories of Danganronpa.
All these characters, all these series, they were not the ones she grew up on. They were new and relevant, often references classics, selected for memorability, for the audience. And yet now they were intimately hers.
They crowded for attention, buzzing and vying for a place as her favourite.
Her true favourites, the reason for her years of work and devotion, were shoved to the very back, not forgotten, but duller. Flatter.
The Ultimate Cosplayer was vibrant! Though plain outwardly her skills were undeniable!
She wasn’t some drop-out made-seamstress made-scenario writer.
Why would she ever want to be?
Therefore, it couldn’t be that surprising how lost in thought she was at her introductions, she spent far too long trying to remember the lines she had written to poke a reference to the show. There were a lot more than 52 killing games to think back on now. She regretted not stocking the A/V Room with more of these shows...
With an escort, she goes to her office to clear it out. Memorabilia lines the desk and walls, from seasons past. She looks them over passively as she is handed a box, and begins to take each thing down one by one. Every character, name, and mascot was familiar. Security waits at the door, and she wonders why. What could she possibly do here to harm them anymore than she supposedly already had? She had not been allowed online yet to confirm anything told to her, but she had resolved that when they spoke to her again she’d make it a condition before her termination. They couldn’t plainly believe she’d take their word on it when they put her… no that wasn’t right…
They didn’t put her anywhere, she put herself somewhere.
She shakes her head slowly a moment, the numbness in her hands having returned. Before she can react the snowglobe in her grasp slips out of her clumsy unfeeling fingers and shatters on the floor. Water and glitter splash the floor as tiny Monokumas skitter outwards past her feet across the room, freed from their little round prison. Security whirls around to face her at the sharp sound she doesn’t hear. She stands there staring at the base of the glass bauble, dumbfounded.
She vaguely recollects that that had been special. A collector’s item, given to her by someone perhaps? Limited edition? But she felt nothing staring down at the wet shards remaining, her arm hanging limp at her side. Whatever it was before, it was trash now.
Tsumugi is ushered out with her box half packed, with no mention of if she could come back for the rest. Part of her wants to scream to get the rest and cling to it all! It took so long to amass! Without it, what is there to prove her efforts? A larger part of her was happy for it to be out of sight.
She unceremoniously leaves the box in the corner of her recovery room. Not one of her own things is taken out to put anywhere. She likes the room bare and plain. Like her. Just like the girl she thinks she is.
Unlike before the game, when the research team and writers had meetings, strategy plans and long discussions, the classroom where Tsumugi stood with the Game Master interface was lonely and cold. There were no intricacies to any of the selections, they were mere branching paths. Sure, she recalled some of the writing details for each from before the season launch, especially the ones she had chosen as her outlined route, but how simply the screen stated them to her was troubling.
The talent had been supposed to be this simple too, but it had depth she hadn’t expected.
The selection hovered over the Ultimate Hunt and the mass funeral choices, the ones her writing team had OK’d. She wondered what depth she’d feel seeing fake people mourn her. Would they seem fake?
She pressed the button and waited for the light to pop out of the locker, adjusting her glasses idly and looking out the dark wire barred windows. She thought about her ‘classmates’, who had nothing in their heads remaining to help them deny these. It really was a perfect system. For them.
There was a thud in the locker. Tsumugi returned to her task, like so many all nights she’d pulled before, both real and fictional. She walked over to retrieve it, carefully tucking it into the interior pocket on her coat. Once it was placed that was their plot, no rewrites, no erasing anything. Living the story was a lot more nerve wracking than writing it.
Tsumugi knows her way around the building without help, but that doesn’t stop security from falling into step and walking with her whenever she leaves her room. She supposes it’s not to help her, anyways, so it’s not an issue. There’s no regimented schedule for her during recovery, though doctors have visited her room a few times and there was one impromptu check-up with an actual CT scan.
She tells them all she feels fine. Everything is fine. She’s readjusting just fine, thank you for asking. No, no abnormalities. No numbness. No confusion. She does admit to being very tired. That one is a safe answer, it usually makes them leave faster so she can rest.
They aren’t very good doctors, she thinks.
She wonders if they are just as poorly attentive to the other patients’ issues and lies.
Without a schedule, Tsumugi avoids the cafeteria at what she guesses would be the busier times, but even doing so she has caught glimpses of her cast.
A girl sitting with an untouched meal laid out before her. Her hands clasped in front of her in her lap, eyes hidden behind loose grey hair.
A tall silent boy gazing out one of the few windows into the courtyard. He traces his no longer ringed fingers along the surface.
A coughing bout in the hallway followed by the rush of feet and a familiar loud voice shouting them off.
Echoes of their more vibrant selves, haunting the halls.
She walks into the cafeteria and stops. There are voices but she’s already through the door before she realizes it, eyes darting to the table to the right of the door. Sitting there in what sounded like a disagreement were Shuichi and Maki, with Himiko sitting idly beside the latter cheek resting on the heel of her hand while gazing at the door. The other two don’t notice her but the small redhead locks eyes with her instantly. Her posture stiffens as her eyes widen. The two girls stare at each other for a moment, the conversation a buzz in the background as the air thickens. Shuichi, who’s back is to the door must have noticed because he stops mid-sentence and glances over his shoulder. He freezes.
It’s Maki who stands, nudging Himiko behind her, taking on that intimidating stance. She’s glaring daggers across the room at her, and Tsumugi backs up involuntarily, right into the security guard who was following her into the room. Clumsily, she stumbles forwards to step out of his way and adjusts her glasses, the other three’s eyes still locked on her. Not wanting to leave, but unsure of what to do with herself, Tsumugi steps forwards to the adjacent table and quietly takes a seat.
The eyes on her and the silence are wrong. She’s not someone who gets stared at, at least not when she’s not trying to… this isn’t what she should… what should she…
A placid smile spreads on her face and she nods her head to them.
“Good morning, Harukawa-san, Yumeno-san, Saihara-kun.”
Her eyes squint almost closed in the forced smile, her cheeks pushing upwards under her glasses that help mask the dark bags.
Practiced. Placating. A face both of her make.
“What do you want?”
Himiko isn’t who anyone expects to talk clearly, Shuichi turning to look at her. Maki squares her shoulders, trying to seem bigger. But the smallest of them narrows her eyes and waits.
“Nothing in particular, really,” Tsumugi drawls, folding her hands in her lap. Out of sight as they clench and fidget.
“Oh sure, your goons won’t give us a moment alone, but you don’t want anything. Like we’d believe that,” Maki says before Himiko can continue, venom in every word. Himiko’s mouth hangs open in the interruption, closing again with a pout.
“My goons,” Tsumugi repeats, noting the pointed look at the security detail that followed her in. “Fortunately, they should have provided you all with your contracts by now, and you can see your rights there. Please do use them to your benefit.”
“Oh right. The contracts we don’t even remember signing,” Himiko mutters.
“That is outlined in them as well.”
“This lack of contact with the outside was not, though,” Shuichi cuts in. The sureness there is from someone who clearly read the contract over more than once. Someone looking for loopholes. The memories he received must still be working overtime. She wonders if he’s as glad to have them as he was when he was when the process was explained? Probably not.
“That’s not my area, I’m afraid the simulation and preparations were my purview, Saihara-kun. Feel free to exert your rights in your contract, though. The company has to uphold it.” The strained smile slides into a more natural one as she continues to speak. It’s easier when it’s not about her.
Shuichi raises a brow. Perhaps he had expected resistance? “So they’re breaking their agreement then, holding us here?” he continues, as if to clarify.
“If that’s what the contract promises, then I suppose that’s the case,” Tsumugi answers. They should feel fortunate they got the opportunity to sign those at all, she thinks. Her hands clench tighter. They are fortunate they don’t remember.
“Like we trust you to keep promises,” Maki spat.
“You don’t have to,” she tuts, “Just use the contract, it’s your tool.”
Maki moves so quickly that thankfully Tsumugi doesn’t have the time to flinch. Himiko grabs her by the crook of the elbow before she’s rounded the table towards her.
“Stop it, let’s just talk somewhere else.”
Himiko stands, and moments later Shuichi follows suit. Maki’s expression doesn’t show any agreement, but she leaves with them nonetheless, glaring back over her shoulder on the way out. The security officers never stray from their posts. As soon as she’s sure they’re gone, Tsumugi lets out a held breath. A few moments pass, and she finally goes to get her meal.
She hopes that they really heard her. Their contracts are so much more flexible than her own. They hadn’t bequeath their identities, their citizenships, they weren’t intellectual property of the company no matter how some of the creative team liked to spin it.Their participation was a limited matter, and she was sure her classmates could argue their way through with that fine print at their disposal. She knew that much. She’d seen them face harder things than legal jargon together of course!
...Her classmates? No. Her cast. Her co-stars. A grimace grows on her face as she returns to sit. They never once had a class together, and the game could hardly be called one… not now. Not with her. Together they could bond in their ignorance. Her contract wasn’t flexible. Her consent was different than theirs. She wasn’t new, or at least not all new.
And she couldn’t leave until they decided the best way for them to kick her out. She takes a bite of her food thoughtfully.
If they can kick me out.
Welcome to the New Age
[TAPP AU Masterpost]
The following fic goes into descriptions of canon character death and resulting Angst; reader discretion is advised. NDRV3 spoilers ahead!
Your eyes have pried themselves open three times now, wide, still seeing nothing.
The green-grey lights clouding the hangar feel scalding hot on still-clammy skin. You know you should be cold; freezing, in fact, but the Strike-Nine curled back a finger of the monkey’s paw on your behalf. You wonder if your gentle exhales fog the underside of the metal slab looming over you from this distance. It’s not as though you can check.
The smell of motor oil, sawdust, and far too much copper will probably never leave your lungs.
You find yourself wishing you had control of your hands. The lid of the press has been descending for ages. A mechanical whirrrr of struggling gears loops over and over, notes discordant with themselves in a canon, yet it never actually gets any closer. Deep down, you know it never will. Misery is kind of the point of punishment.
There’s little else to do but figure that much out. Your back has adhered to the spot where you lie (and lie, and lie-and-lie-and-lie), bleeding through Kaito’s borrowed jacket that will invariably see much worse. Stuck. Stationary. You can’t even fidget, let alone etch an epitaph in the gummy-rubber texture of the hangar floor. It’s nearly enough to make you consider whether Yonaga really was right.
… You miss Angie, really.
You miss a lot of people.
At least they aren’t here, echoes the thought through the barren room.
You briefly indulge the thought of cyan light streaking in through a rising garage door, the sound of footsteps smacking dents into soft, dirt-encrusted polyurethane with urgency. The shift of fabric against fabric of a suit as the detective drops to his knees at your side. He would be within arm’s reach, if your arm would move. Of course you can’t comfort him now that you want to.
Misery. What part of ‘punishment’ do you not understand?
What’s worse is the ghost of his hand over the side of the metal slab. It doesn’t adhere to logical geometry anymore; it is simultaneously still lowering, and hovering just above the tip of your nose, and snapped as a trap over your still-lying form. You are both the scattered remnants of a human being and perfectly fine, whole, all of your vitals approximately where they’re supposed to be. Hell is a quantum state where everything is both true and false simultaneously, and you cannot open the box from the inside.
His hand ghosts over your press (it’s part of you, now, as much of you smeared on its hidden surface as lying beneath), and you want to force it open. Not to show him your last neat parlor trick, but to knock him flat on his ass and get him away from you. The world cannot be yours, but this hangar is. You’ve carved out the territory in your own blood. Get your own headstone, you cheap bastards.
You want to laugh. You do, because if you aren’t laughing you’re crying, and if you have to hear your own strangled voice resound up over the catwalks and metal beams to the high ceiling and back you will start a one-man riot.
Then you are reminded that you can’t laugh, because you lack any control at all of this body you’re locked in, and you loathe that you’re being kept from the keys.
If you didn’t know better, you’d swear Shuichi just said something. That’s a lie, of course, because Shuichi is alive, and outside, and even if he isn’t he’s certainly not headed wherever it is you are now. You are never going to see Saihara again, and the ghosts you hear pounding on the inert slab with a calloused metal CLANG! are simply the demons here to torment you. They’re mean. Saihara-chan is so mean.
As is Momota-chan, and the two of them together gathered around gawking at your punctured chrysalis are twice as bad as either alone.
“I know you’ll pull through this! I believe in you!” Liar.
“You aren’t alone. I’m sorry.” Liar.
“Do you want to die?”
You do not know what is keeping the wraith from reaching through and grabbing you by the throat. You’d welcome the change of pace, at this point, dizzy with the anticipation, sick to your stomach without recourse. You know better, really, but part of you is certain you can feel cranial fluid leaking from your ears and sizzling on this oversized hotplate. You’re tired.
You are tired, and vaguely aware you’ll never wake up.
(Momota-chan is mean, but it’s a lie to call him cruel. If he really wanted you to suffer, he wouldn’t have taken that third bolt. It should have lodged in your heart. If he only wanted to avoid Harukawa’s condemnation he could have just shoved you away, but he took the shot for you instead. At the last minute, he’s won your game: he’s cemented a space in your thoughts, for what little life you had left and for eternity afterward.)
Here you lie at the start of a little journey through forever, and you are already sick of it. So much for your willpower, your determination, any conceivable quality that would make you anything beyond a piss-poor leader; DICE wouldn’t take you back.
You can’t even remember their faces anymore.
(Did you ever know them in the first place?)
You have eons upon eons here to lay by yourself— unbothered at last, no intervening idiocy to be found, you did it, you pushed everyone away. Isn’t this what you wanted at the end? Eons to ruminate and reflect on every bad thing you have ever done.
At least it keeps you busy.
(Did they ever have faces for you to know?)
The killing game becomes a blur. You find yourself pausing and re-playing the memories like an old scratched-up DVD of a movie lovingly, clumsily cobbled together by a clueless hand with all the default settings enabled. Fond memories of fifteen classmates crowded around a long breakfast table project onto the metal sheet above you in rough camcorder quality. Trembling, home video taken with unsteady hands where all ten pixels slide in mesmerizing array, you took a long sip of grape soda and nobody spoke to you. It feels correct. Disappointing, maybe, but this is the way things are.
They offered you a plate. You, as usual, try to quietly refuse (because you are a burdensome child, because everything they try to get you to eat makes you feel more nausea than not eating at all, because you are unreasonable, because good children cannot taste the consistency of something more than its flavor, because you make problems on purpose but never in a fun way) and are swiftly overturned. You know your place is not to make demands. Some people need to have their hand held through life, and you had the fortune to have one extended to you before you became un-salvageable. You know better than to reach out for it now. There is no point even twitching your fingers anymore; that gracious hand never reaches back these days.
You aren’t sure why you brought your camcorder to such a scattered excuse for a family dinner. The sheen of novelty still hasn’t worn off. It was a birthday present, after all, and even if neither it nor you are capable of making anything worthwhile the idea that you might drives you to preserve the memory. It keeps you busy. Everyone in the house takes dinner to a separate space. Yours is currently sitting on your corner cushion with an opaque water bottle secretly filled to the brim with gas-station soda. You’ve grown to hate the lingering syrup stuck to your tongue, but it keeps you awake and you can always drown it out with another swig. After a long day, it hits. Not good or well, but precisely where it needs to.
(One in the upper right arm, one in the center of your back, and one …?)
Where is everyone?
Where are you?
You can imagine the pound of footsteps one-after-another launching you up the staircase, pulling the door too-softly shut behind you. You have nothing worth hiding, of course, but you can’t very well have anyone seeing your work-in-progress; it has to be perfect. You can almost feel the button cave in beneath your fingertip as you release the USB-A to plug your little toy into the computer. The spring seems crunchy today. You aren’t sure why you shiver; it’s still the tail-end of June.
This is going to be the one. Maybe the footage isn’t much, but if anyone can spice it up, it’ll be you! You have an eye for making things engaging, so you’ve been told (and never shown by anyone under the age of whatever-impossible-age-teachers-are, sixteen at least, right?) but this one, this one will be the one to really grab attention, and people will like it, and if you’re lucky they might even talk to you. All according to plan.
You say this every time you invent a new magnum opus, sure, but you have a good feeling this time. First, you show your classmates your movie. They’ll watch it, be so impressed they just have to gush to you about it, and you can keep them on the hook long enough to start to get to know them. That’s when you hit them with the promise of friendship, and you all can do all kinds of things from there. Hangout spots in big trees in the park (one of them has to be tall enough to help you climb, you’re quick but your upper-body strength isn’t enough to get you beyond the first couple branches yet), codenames, secret handshakes; you can play games together! You can wear matching outfits, and make movies, and make more friends, and they’ll all look at you and you’ll hold them all together, because if there’s one thing you’re good at it’s clinging to your status quo in the face of overwhelming odds. It’ll be incredible, you just know it. Maybe if you do well enough, there will be enough of you to play Werewolf, or Mysterium, or Coup, or maybe you’ll put together a full party—
The d20 you’ve been stimming with, idly smoothing over between the fingers of your right hand, comes down with a clatter and bounces across your desk. Huh. Strange.
Of all the shiny math rocks in your collection, you don’t remember any bright magenta dice.
Flecks of hot pink slough off on each impact with the hard surface. Plink, plink, plink.
You try to blink the encroaching color out of your vision.
You can feel the stress limit of your bones down to the fourth decimal place. You tense up, attempting to brace for impact, but absolutely nothing is touching you while it rends you limb-from-limb and keeps going. The white-hot agony you feel as splinters of you break free, each cell another part of you desperate to roll out from under here and get-out-get-out-get-out, even if they can’t do it together, supersedes the temptation to pretend someone is outside waiting for you.
No. You may be angry with them, or disappointed, or at the very least uncertain what it is you feel for them, but you even hope Momota is well out of the splash-zone. Off of that awful catwalk and its CLANGK-ker-kCLANGs. Off with his sidekicks, somewhere. Maybe they’re sitting in a courtyard, and Kaito helps Shuichi into a tree (Maki had beaten them both to it and decided to watch them figure out the logistics) and they watch the stars move overhead together, breathing in the crisp night air in late August, and pretty soon you’ll have that new project of yours in a state to show off….
You find you take refuge in the idea of stars. They’re cosmic happenstance, ambivalent the same way as the rest of the universe, distant and impersonal, but even a static image is still new to you. You were always too busy looking at other people to look up. The only way you could survive out there was to meticulously study the fine details of an expression in your every conversation. You streamlined the tricks and tells that passed for signals into your muscle memory because, unlike for most, they were never innate for you; you had to be certain to echo emotional information to people in a way they were certain to understand. It had to be perfect. Why would you ever waste the time to look up at a universe that did not have an opinion for you to care about?
Now it’s all you can do. Lying on your back, eyes open, or shut, or both-and-neither, you stare unseeing. Somewhere past the hydraulic press, beyond the high ceiling, beyond the LCD-sky, there are stars. You’re looking their way now. Forever. The survivors will see them for you.
You do not care if it is a lie. You choose, against your better instinct, to believe it.
The remains of your nerves seem to have gone supernova; what was the worst pain you ever knew melts away into nothing. You don’t feel anything at all. Not relief. Not floating. Just the absence of sensation.
Before you have a chance to fully process your new state of non-being, blissfully, it seems your tenacity has finally run out. You are surrounded by a bright, white light.
Kaito Momota never thought he would be a killer.
Most people tend not to, certainly, though Kaito is well aware he tends to pick more fights than average. It was always a far-flung possibility, technically any young man fit enough to be an astronaut can generate the force vector required to do something everyone involved will regret, but if you had asked him. Well. Within the first minute of uploading to TAPP, during which “Kaito Momota” Began, he would likely have been too dazed to respond with much other than confusion. And the second minute after being uploaded to TAPP, during which significant alterations to the code finished uploading and “Kaito Momota” as he is known today Began, he never would have thought himself morally capable of it.
But it was, by strictly literal definition, a murder. A murder he committed. Successfully.
Though, also in a strictly literal sense, that murder saved his victim’s life. Had Kokichi gone much longer without dying, the likelihood his data would reflect the symptoms of blood loss and poison damage in the physical world (or worse yet corrupt irretrievably) would have risen dramatically by the second. 'If anything,’ Momota mutters under his breath, 'you should be thanking me.’
But Kaito didn’t know that at the time. Kokichi still doesn’t, and it was his idea.
The irreverent young man kicks his feet up onto the folding chair in front of him. A mass of sheets and blankets threaten to swallow the still-breathing shape in the hospital bed whole. Ouma practically blends in, already ghastly pale on a good day, the only color to his face a deep, bruised purple under the eyes.
Rantaro will be happy (or, at least, interested) to know Kokichi’s eyes are open. Again. For the third time in as many weeks, the kid remains almost entirely unresponsive save for a blank stare at the ceiling. After the second false alarm, Kaito has steadily been… no. No, the improbable is possible, even if it’s hard to keep spirits high. There’s still a chance these little fits indicate the Ultimate Pain-in-the-Ass is at least a little closer to waking up. He has half a mind to gently coax those violet eyes closed because it would really suck to wake up to a horrible case of dry-eye, right? himself. Then it looks like he’s just sleeping for once in his life. Kaito can hardly fault him for that.
Granted, he has to mentally prepare himself to do it; Kokichi is alive, his heart monitor is right there, and yet still Kaito searches for the slow rise and fall of his chest. It’s not like touching a dead body. In fact, can’t you just hear him insist you’re flirting with him, screwing up the oxygen mask laughing, ‘nishishishishi’….
Kaito is no longer afraid he will be haunted by Kokichi. He already is.
“Only a grade-a bastard can make you miss a sound that irritating, so you gotta get back here and atone. Got it?”
He does not expect a reply. He leaves room for one anyway.
“… Do you do this on purpose,” Kaito asks the smattering of abstract brushstrokes hanging in a frame on the opposite wall. Ouma is… too fragile, like this. The thought ambles forward. Nothing good comes of saying it out loud, he knows, but there is no-one around to hear but the boy who can’t. "I swear, Ouma, if you found a way to lie about this too,"
… Then what? What will you do, Kaito? Would you get your hands dirty, again, this time for keeps? Is that the kind of person you are? Is it who you’ve become, or is some degree of violence-as-problem-solving innate within you? So deeply ingrained that the person you used to be was willing to be replaced for an opportunity to be something he could be proud of…
Kaito scrolls through a custom RSS feed on his phone. It keeps his line of sight away from the center of the room and blocks out the thoughts he’d rather not consider with an unending wall of text. He mindlessly flicks his finger over the glass, ignoring three-then-four message notifications flashing at the top. It’s no secret where you are. You have come here almost every morning since the rest of you emerged from TAPP and plunged back into society. All of us make it out means all of us, no matter what.
He still believes that. He still curses his previous self, though, for promising it. It took him a good five minutes on the staircase to get up to the second floor, and every step hammered in the thought that much more: if you can’t do this, what else can’t you do anymore? You can’t, be the, SHSL Astronaut if, you stop part, partway up the stairs to breathe. You’re making terrible time leaning on the rail like that. Thing is, doubling down, makes it worse and. Hh. It took a puff of his inhaler to smooth out his breathing. God, if you can’t do this then what do you honestly expect to do for anyone else?
Besides, when on-record has anyone managed to tell Kokichi Ouma what to do?
Most of the class has accepted that Ouma is going to die. It makes the most sense. Even the school is questioning what to do with him. Something about an inability to track down a next-of-kin, for reasons that are certainly none of his business (Kaito will definitely be listening out for). But he has a vice grip on hope. The impossible is possible, after all!
(… Even if that’s only a lie you tell to yourself to keep going.)
If there’s one thing you know about Kokichi, it’s that the guy does not know when to quit.
Besides, it’s nice to have somewhere to go in the mornings. Kaito still insists on getting moving at oh-too-early, so used to exercise drills he may-or-may-not have ever actually had to do that he naturally wakes an hour or two before sunrise. The distinct feeling of his chest being scraped out with a wire brush has only barely deterred him from insisting on a morning jog. Even then, it only worked in combination with a couple trips to Tsumiki’s and the persistent chastising from his sidek–
They’ve always been his friends, of course. But crashing back to Earth, the real Earth, and landing in a strange translucent pod, meeting the concerned eyes of curiously spectating-specters he watched die makes a man feel significantly less in-control of a situation, you know?
(You had just killed a child. And it reminded you, strapped in for one last ride, that you were also a child. You all were.
You weren’t sure what exactly you expected would happen once you finally succumbed to the itch ingrained in your lungs, but ‘blearily sit up to see a room of your walking, chattering dead classmates and your unconscious very not-dead sidekicks, then Angie cheerfully beckoning everyone to crowd around you and help you stand before they cash in on their bets’ was not on your bingo card. It also clarified absolutely nothing. Ryoma? Kaede?
… Why was everyone passing whatever they’re trading to Miu?
“Where’s 'kichi?” You asked the clowder of teens before you really registered I am both alive and can speak without spitting up my own blood. Nobody else seemed quite as confounded by that information as you were. They were all far too busy looking at one another in dead silence, expressions morphing with slow-encroaching horror.
Kaede stepped up to break the tension.
“We thought you were the victim.”)
Friends. Not sidekicks. He has to keep reminding himself.
His best friends keep chastising him for jogging when he really shouldn’t, but a little common sense never kept Kaito Momota, Luminary of the Stars sedentary for long! The infirmary isn’t even that far from the dorms, allowing for a reasonable, he swears, leisurely walk over. He even gets to pass through the courtyard garden, taking in the fresh air.
The heavy, humid late-summer air.
They can’t all be winners.
Most mornings, his routine starts early. The kind of early where:
About 4:30 AM, to the minute without an alarm clock, he jolts awake and rushes to get acceptably dressed, hurrying down the stairs. All the while, he checks his pockets meticulously for his phone-wallet-keys, in that order.
5:05 AM he opens the door of the dorm complex and realizes that it is raining today, and he is wearing slippers.
5:11 AM he comes back up to the interior welcome mat of the building in shoes less likely to fall apart in this weather (now that their uniforms are, presumably, not infinitely re-stocked) and with the foresight to grab an umbrella on the way out and under the jet-black pre-dawn sky.
5:15 AM Kaito is reminded that the rest of humanity sure does still exist, huh, because some part of it has deemed it perfectly acceptable to spit out their gum on the sidewalk instead of an inch over in the grass like a marginally more reasonable person. Incredible what a lack of the looming threat of death as punishment for basically any infraction does to your manners.
He does not think of how Ouma would probably do the same thing with clear glue in the most highly-trafficked spots on campus, seeding it in intersections like flypaper and letting foot traffic carry the adhesive to every part of the school by lunch. Kaito does not snicker to himself imagining how quickly that kid would convince the upperclassmen not to even try messing with Class 79, characterizing the caliber of shenanigans they’d invite immediately. Those fireworks would absolutely not be any fun to watch.
5:17 AM he faintly recalls he’d intended to grab a granola bar from the kitchen on his way out, and resigns to just picking up breakfast at a vending machine instead.
At 5:23 AM he knocks his forehead gently into the plexiglass, realizing why Kiibo hated these things so much. It’s spit the same note back at him at least five times, now, and he is not about to try and ask it for change. Instead, he picks up an energy bar for the receptionist who opens the door for him and a Panta with everything else. Just in case. (Shit, they’re out of purple. What’s second place? Peach? Fuck it, he’s lucky you’re too invested to ditch the machine all together)
Culminating in arriving at the hospital at 5:30 AM, setting the energy bar on the front desk as he heads directly for the stairs. He could take the elevator, sure, but he’ll cite the blinding-brightness of the fluorescence compared with the lamp-lit path he just came from (and really mean that no, I can’t, because I still have some pride, damn it, let me have this)
Something like that, at least.
Physical therapy doesn’t start until 6:00, so the extra half-hour he’s free to do as he likes. He’d like to hang out with a friend, but he has the misfortune of being the only morning-person in a band of night-owls. Thus, if he wants familiarity, he has to head up to talk at Kokichi. The peace and quiet up there (and soft beep-ing of a heart monitor that proves what Kaito has been trying to tell himself since the moment he woke up) is soothing enough to take a nap in the visitor’s chair. If Ouma minds, he hasn’t said anything about it.
So, until he can fall asleep, Kaito scrolls through a feed full of space news and photography. He’s taken to reading the horoscopes posted in the ‘for fun’ section of his favorite astronomy blog out loud first. “Because it’s supposedly space-related and also complete horseshit, so it’s perfect,” Kaito said to the pockmarked ceiling. In reality, it’d initially been a mis-click on account of his still-shaking hands. He’d been preoccupied trying to banish the memory of condensation on a painted steel handrail slicking his palms with either his or Kokichi’s blood, probably both.
It made him laugh.
“I have no idea when your birthday is. You know that? You could be any of these if it’d get you free ice cream, huh? So we’ll cover the bases. And if you don’t like it, just tell me to stop.”
He’s not sure whether or not he really believes Kokichi might hear him. But if funerals are for the living, so is cracking the kind of joke you think a distant friend might like. One of these days, he might be able to laugh with you about it. He’s read down the list every morning since. Something in the routine of it is grounding; a signal that the day really has started.
This particular day, Kaito leans back in the chair and reads off the horoscopes between bites of granola. The unopened soda bottle rests at the foot of Kokichi’s bed.
“Big changes are coming for you this fall, Gemini. As tempting as it might be to reminisce about times gone by, the slow pace of the dog days of summer are a perfect time to start planning ahead. This week, things snap into focus. Work on strengthening your connections– you have more of them than you think.”
“Jeez, Kichi, I think I could probably write this shit. There’s an Ultimate Programmer a year ahead of us, do you think anyone would notice if they set up a bot?” he half-laughs, looking over toward the bed. It hardly seems restful, hooked up to so many machines, but Kokichi looks like he needs any scrap of sleep he can g—
Didn’t you close his eyes already?
Kaito sits up straight, stretching, shaking the drowsy haze from his head before standing up. You’ve got to keep better track of these things. He strides to the side of the bed, a careful hand blotting out the harsh light overhead as the other reaches to carefully
Shut. His, eyes?
But they’re already closed.
The heart monitor picks up pace, a thudding beep-beep-beep-beep startling the SHSL Astronaut back a step or two. Remember your training. Keep a level head, Kaito, he might be having some kind of seizure. That can happen, right? You just need to call in the nurse. Probably nothing they haven’t seen before.
That thought evaporates almost instantly.
As Kaito presses the call button, he’s met with a desperate, terrified shriek. It’s a little muffled through the respirator and after weeks of silence, but the plea is unmistakable.