For years, Towa City was left to fester in its Despair, isolated from the mainland. In a slowly recovering world, it remained an island of Despair where the Future Foundation was unable to gain a foothold. Without Monaca Towa and the Warriors of Hope to rule it, Towa City slowly achieved its own unique post-apocalyptic culture of anarchy; a new normal in which vandalism and looting were commonplace, factions were tight-knit and territorial, and no one thought twice about murdering someone from a different faction when they crossed paths. Gangs of former Monokuma Kids stuck together, murdering adults and being murdered in turn.
That was the world Maki grew up in, a city where you had to be scrappy and resourceful and willing to kill to survive and to protect your own. Her parents were killed when she was too young to remember them, and she grew up in a gang of kids. When the older, tougher kids went out into the city on supply runs, Maki was left behind to take care of the littler kids. More than once she had to kill to protect them - from roving bands of adults looking to attack little kids while they were vulnerable and undefended, or kids from other gangs breaking in to each other’s bases to steal supplies.
When Maki was maybe seven or eight (she didn’t know her exact age or birthday), the Future Foundation finally gathered up its resources and mounted a massive raid on Towa City. Men in riot gear broke into the abandoned building-turned-base where Maki’s little gang was squatting, and with no context as to what was going on, the children were chased down and grabbed and dragged away screaming. Maki scratched and bit and fought, her improvised weapons bouncing uselessly off that Future Foundation body armor, but was ultimately dragged away as well, unable to protect her family.
She never saw any of them ever again.
The kids rescued in the Towa raid were dispersed to orphanages across the country, where the system was quick to label them “Towa Kids.” Utterly violent and feral and unadoptable. Like most Towa Kids, Maki was developmentally way behind most of her peers. She knew a dozen different ways to kill a man with a cinderblock, but she’d never learned to read or tie her shoes. Civilized society was something she didn’t acclimate to easily. There was too much structure, too many rules she was somehow expected to understand. The clean clothes and ample food felt like a trick to make her lower her guard; kindness that could be snatched away at any moment. She was deeply resentful and distrusting of adults and authority figures, and was a nightmare to deal with in her new orphanage, constantly causing destruction and having to be dragged back after escape attempts.
But as much as she hated the adults running the orphanage, Maki considered it her grudging duty to look out for the children. It was a hassle, not a job she enjoyed, but the role was familiar and something she was very, very good at. And they needed someone to protect them with all these demons around.
Maki gained a point of stability in her life when she ended up bonding with one particular kid. Kokichi was a lot younger than Maki, maybe four or five, scrawny from malnourishment until it was hard to tell. Whatever his life had been before the orphanage, he didn’t talk about it. (Or rather, he never talked about his real backstory, but there were plenty of fake ones which grew more convoluted and ridiculous with each retelling.) He’d been here a lot longer than she had, and was quick to adopt her as his “Number One Lackey” and show her the ropes.
Being tiny and too clever for his own good made Kokichi a natural target for bullies, and he’d responded by preemptively becoming a bully himself. He was mouthy and a prankster and tended to get himself into scrapes he couldn’t get himself out of, and Maki quickly became the muscle to his brains; the scary older girl he could run and hide behind whenever he ticked off the wrong person. Something about his build reminded her of the little kids she used to take care of back in Towa. It awakened some reluctant Mamma Bear instinct in her. Their relationship was very: “I’ve only known Kokichi for a day and a half, but if anything happened to him I would kill everyone in this orphanage and then myself.”
“Promise you won’t run away anymore,” Kokichi demanded of her once, curled up in the warm flashlight-lit safety of the blanket fort that was D.I.C.E.’s temporary headquarters. “I can’t pull off any plans if I can’t count on my lackeys to be around when I need them.”
“I’m not your lackey,” Maki answered shortly. “You don’t have any lackeys.”
“I have basically thousands of lackeys,” Kokichi corrected her, gesturing around at the the small army of stuffed animals gathered around them in the blanket fort - toys he’d stolen from the other kids in the orphanage, wearing their official lackey uniforms of clown masks made from paper plates and markers and string.
“You don’t have any real lackeys,” Maki said, and Kokichi grabbed a rabbit toy and held it to his chest with an exaggerated look of offense.
“How dare you! These are all valuable members of the organization.” He tossed the rabbit carelessly behind him. “And I plan to supplement their numbers with some more flesh-lackeys at some point, anyway.”
“That would require you actually making some other friends for once,” Maki said bluntly.
“Wow! That really stings coming from a social butterfly like you, Maki!”
Maki rolled her eyes. “Are you sure you’re five?”
“I have absolutely no idea!” Kokichi answered brightly. “It’s kinda just everyone’s best guess, isn’t it? Maybe I’m six. Maybe I’m seven, and my tragic years of starvation before the orphanage have stunted my growth. Are you sure you’re eight?”
“Because you talk like an adult sometimes,” Maki went on, mostly ignoring that.
“You should try it. Really work hard on the whole reading thing, skim through a couple of dictionaries. They treat you better when they think you’re precocious.” He narrowed his eyes at her, going suddenly from joking to serious. “But seriously. I know you hate it here. But Towa City got bulldozed. You can’t go back.”
Maki looked away, biting her lip furiously. It was a blunt, cruel thing to say, but Kokichi was right. She had nowhere to run away to.
“Soooo,” Kokichi went on cheerfully, “Stay put! I need my right hand lackey to pull off the really complicated stuff, so you’ve gotta stop disappearing all the time.”
He held out his pinkie finger, a serious look on his face. Maki narrowed her eyes at it suspiciously.
“If I stop running away, then you have to promise me something, too,” she said.
Kokichi let his hand drop. His head tilted to the side curiously. “Ooh, making demands of your leader? I’ll allow such insubordination, but only because you’re the only lackey I have with opposable thumbs.”
“If you really want me to live here in the orphanage,” Maki said sharply, “Actually live here, permanently, then… promise me this. Let’s never get adopted. We don’t need adults to take care of us. We can take care of each other.”
“Hah, I thought you were about to demand something unreasonable. Yeah, that’s fine. I don’t want some dumb family. When you turn eighteen we’ll just leave together.”
“When I turn eighteen, I’ll die,” Maki answered him coldly.
There was something… forlorn about Kokichi’s expression, for a moment, made unreadable by the flashlight shadows, but his wide, gap-toothed grin quickly covered it. “No you won’t,” he said.
“I will. You don’t get it, because you’re not a Towa Kid, but that’s how it was where I come from. You die before you can turn into a demon.”
“No,” he repeated. “You won’t. Because you don’t know your birthday. If you don’t know exactly how old you are, you’ll never be sure if you’re actually eighteen. You could be seventeen forever, if you think of it that way.”
Maki hadn’t thought of it that way.
“So, deal?” Kokichi prompted, offering his pinkie finger again. Maki hooked hers around it.
“Fine. No more running away. And I’ll try harder at the reading thing, if you’re going to be annoying about it.”
“And no killing anybody,” Kokichi said with a grin, their fingers still locked together. Maki snatched her hand away with a look of betrayal.
“You can’t just add things after I agree to it!”
“Too late. You pinkie swore.” Kokichi shrugged, as if this was a law of the universe and there was nothing he could do about it. “So if you were planning to… I don’t know, go around some night and murder all the orphanage staff with that piece of glass you’ve got hidden under your mattress… Welp. Too bad. You can’t. It’s D.I.C.E. rules now.”
“How’d you know?” Maki said sourly.
“Maki, Maki, Maki. I’m your leader. I know everything.”
“You searched my bed.”
“That’s how I know everything!” He patted her on the back, heedless of the sullen glare she was giving him. “Leave the adults to me. I’ve got them wound around my fingers; they love me here. I’ll keep them off your back for a few years, and then we’re out of here as soon as your arbitrary, orphanage-assigned birthday thinks you’re eighteen, and is probably wrong about it. We’ll move to the city and get a REAL headquarters, with plenty of legroom for my freakishly tall lackeys.”
Maki sighed. “We could have that now, if you didn’t always get lazy halfway through building the blanket fort.”
Their promise was a lie, of course. It had never been something either of them could control.
The man who adopted Kokichi was tall and pale and sickly-looking, a metal prosthetic replacing the arm he’d probably lost in the Tragedy. It wasn’t an uncommon sight to see people with injuries like that. Maki thought he looked creepy, but he was also talkative, and he smiled a lot, and the orphanage staff seemed to like him.
Maki observed him silently as he filled out paperwork in the orphanage’s office, leaning against the wall across the hall from the open office door and staring daggers at his back. Nobody was paying her any attention. Why should they? She was just another kid in the orphanage, older and undesirable. Visiting adults always ignored her. That large, sharp piece of broken glass she’d found was hidden behind her back, a makeshift shiv wrapped partially in duct tape so she could grip it firmly without cutting into her fingers. She tensed and loosened her hand around it nervously, watching the adult write.
Kokichi was also standing at the desk, tiny next to the tall stranger as he bounced eagerly up and down on his heels, vibrating the desk. “How big’s your house? Do I get my own room? Do you have any pets? Do you have a swimming pool? I know a kid who got adopted from here who went to a house with a swimming pool.”
“Ahaha, no, we don’t have a swimming pool,” the stranger said, all soft-spoken smiles. “There’s a treehouse in the backyard, though.”
“You have a backyard? You have a treehouse?”
“Yes, Hajime built it for our daughter.”
“You have a daughter? Am I gonna have a sister? How old is she? Is she nice? Do I have to share my room with her? Do I have to share the treehouse?”
Maki swallowed, adjusting her grip on the shiv. Kokichi’s excitement, like most of Kokichi’s interactions with adults, was probably an act. He couldn’t possibly want this stranger to take him away. He had a plan. He was making a lot of noise, distracting everyone, buying her time to save him. It would be easy. She could kill the man in one cut, if she was strategic. Launch herself at him and stab the glass deep into his throat as he left the office and walked past her. With that sickly complexion, he probably wasn’t very fast or strong. He wouldn’t be able to fight back. She could leave him bleeding out on the floor as she grabbed Kokichi and ran.
(Ran… where? No, she’d think of that later. One problem at a time.)
No killing, Kokichi’s voice echoed in her head, the phantom pressure of his pinkie wrapped around hers. D.I.C.E. rules, no killing. But these were extenuating circumstances, Kokichi would forgive her, Kokichi would understand.
She tensed as the paperwork slid across the desk, as Kokichi whooped and excitedly hugged his new father, continuing his stream of a million questions. She tensed further as the two of them left the office, and the tape-wrapped edges of the glass dug into her fingers, drowning out that memory of Kokichi’s hand. Get ready…
Kokichi never made eye contact with her. As they passed her, he was beaming at the stranger with the most alien, unfamiliar, genuine smile she’d ever seen.
She couldn’t do it.
He looked so happy.
Whatever small improvements Maki had made with Kokichi’s encouragement, this crushed them. It cemented her hatred of adults, and she drew in on herself even further, becoming even more violent and mistrusting.
But Kokichi had not forgotten her. Maki was his lackey, after all, and he figured she’d probably be lost and aimless without him. Plan A was a bit of a long shot, but worth a try: he asked his cool new dads if they could maybe adopt her too.
They couldn’t. In fact, Hajime had been against adopting even one kid. While Nagito was on plenty of extremely expensive medications and experimental therapies, his health had continued to slowly deteriorate, and he had trouble keeping up with even an older kid like Monaca. Hajime was concerned that he wouldn’t have the energy to take care of a kid as young as Kokichi. Nagito went behind his back and adopted Kokichi anyway, of course, but Hajime was putting his foot down at three disciplinary nightmares. (“Nagito, that will kill you.”)
But Kokichi cared very deeply about this, and was very loudly, actively mopey about this, and was starting to draw up convoluted diagrams for Plan B: a rescue attempt that would almost certainly end in burning down an orphanage. So Nagito called in a favor.
“Who does he think he is, acting like we owe him something?” Toko complained about it later that night, glaring up glassesless at the dark, fuzzy blur that was their bedroom ceiling as though it had offended her. Lying beside her in the darkness, Komaru snuggled into her shoulder.
“He’s right, though,” she murmured sleepily. “We could handle a Towa Kid. We’ve been handling four Towa Kids for years.”
“See? See? We have four kids. We don’t need another mouth to feed!”
“They’re moving into the Hope’s Peak dorms this year,” Komaru reminded her.
“Courtesy of nepotism,” Toko muttered.
“Don’t complain,” Komaru said. “It’s a good school, and they deserve it.”
“I’m not complaining, I just think we need to acknowledge that it’s nepotism. Your brother did not send four Hope’s Peak acceptance letters to his own niece and nephews because the school scouts were desperate to recruit them.”
“What I mean is, we’re about to be empty nesters,” Komaru went on, undeterred. “Would it really be so bad to have another little girl around?” Next to Toko on the bed, Komaru propped herself up on her elbow, her voice excited. “We could fix up Kotoko’s room for her!”
“S-stop making plans for it!” Toko groaned. “Right, we’re empty nesters. Against all odds we’ve managed to keep our kids alive until teenhood. We teen mommed those kids into teenhood. We have earned this peace and quiet.”
“Toki,” Komaru sighed, her voice growing serious and a little depressed. “We helped with that raid on Towa City. The Future Foundation used our intel. We dragged a few of those kids across the city limits with our own hands. If they’re not doing well… isn’t that… you know… kind of our fault?”
“No,” said Toko, firmly. “No, because we dragged them out of an apocalyptic murder city. We’re not bad people for doing that. You’re just thinking of it that way because that’s how Nagito worded it. He was trying to make us feel guilty. You know that guy has a knack for manipulating people. Don’t be gullible.”
Komaru flopped back down onto her pillow. “Yeah, you’re right. It just… bothers me, to find out that nobody ever followed up on that. None of those kids ever got therapy for the stuff they went through. They just got thrown into orphanages and foster care and stuff, without anybody explaining anything to them. Do you think any of them ended up in loving homes?”
“I don’t know, probably some of them,” said Toko, throwing her arms toward the ceiling exasperatedly. “What, do you want to track down every single Towa Kid and adopt them? Open our own, better orphanage? We can’t save them all.”
“Maybe we can save one of them,” Komaru said quietly.
“Don’t let that asshole get in your head. If this kid is so miserable and in need of saving, he can figure it out.”
A long silence between them. Neither able to sleep, both just staring through the dark at the ceiling.
“We know what we’re doing now,” Komaru said, after a while. “We’re not exactly teen moms anymore.”
“Yeah,” said Toko.
“It’s kind of sad, that Masaru and Kotoko and Nagisa and Jataro are all leaving, just when it feels like we’ve finally got this whole parenting thing figured out.”
“Kind of,” said Toko.
“It would have been nice, if we’d started out knowing what we were doing,” said Komaru. “Like, it would be nice to do it all over again, without all the trial and error.”
“I guess,” said Toko.
Another long silence.
“It’s going to be really quiet around here from now on,” said Komaru, softly.
“I’m sure they’ll be back every weekend to eat all our food and do their laundry,” said Toko.
“Yeah,” said Komaru. “But it won’t be the same.”
Toko sat up. “Komaru,” she said exasperatedly, “If you want a baby, just say you want a baby.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be a baby.”
Maki had always imagined that she’d fight her own adoption. She’d pictured herself being dragged out of the orphanage the way she’d been dragged from Towa, kicking and screaming and biting and clawing. But when the day came, she found herself packing her singular bag in meek, deadeyed silence, emotionless under the smothering blanket of melancholia that had been draped over her ever since failing to protect Kokichi.
Really, what did it matter who’s roof she was under? One set of adults was as good as another.
There was an empty feeling to Toko and Komaru’s house. A feeling that Maki hated; the kind of feeling that tended to hang around the empty beds of kids who’d been adopted, back at the orphanage. The house was dominated by children who weren’t here anymore; bedrooms overflowing with personality, happy photographs lining the walls, trips to the beach and sporting events and middle school graduations. Maki was a stranger here, a hermit crab in a too-big shell, and no amount of smiles and reassurances from Toko and Komaru could make her feel like she fit.
That night, curled up in the dark under the glittery sheets of an aggressively pink bedroom, Maki sat up in bed and stared through the darkness at her bedroom window.
D.I.C.E. rules, no running away.
But don’t get adopted had been one of the rules too, and Kokichi had already broken that one, so what did it matter anymore?
Towa City got bulldozed. You have nowhere to run away to.
She didn’t have to go back to Towa. She could go anywhere. She could go find Kokichi, or the other Towa Kids she used to take care of. (She was so used to the world being the size of a singular city, she had no concept of how impossible it would be to find anyone.)
Comforter still wrapped around her shoulders, Maki stood up. As if in a trance, she crossed the room and opened the window and climbed out, and walked barefoot out into the night.
In the wee hours of the morning, sleeping in some grimy backally and curled up in the comforter she’d stolen off her new bed, Maki awoke with a start. Toko’s face was hovering just inches from hers, a wide, wild grin stretching from cheek to cheek.
Maki screamed and scrambled backwards until her back hit a wall, and her scrabbling hands found something heavy which turned out to be a loose chunk of brick. She raised it threateningly. “How did you find me?”
Toko bobbed upright, that uncanny grin still splitting her face, her tongue lolling disconcertingly out of her mouth, and said in a voice that wasn’t entirely Toko’s: “Oh, y’know, I got connections, I talk to people who notice things. You’re not as stealthy as you think you are, kiddo. C’mon, let’s head back. Toko and Komaru are freakin’ out.”
“You’re… not Toko?” Maki said uncertainly.
Not-Toko grinned at her brightly. “Well, normally this is the part where I’d introduce my glorious self as your friendly neighborhood serial killer, but since you grew up cut off from the internet you’re probably gonna be all ‘who’s Genocide Jack?’ and that’ll take the wind outta my sails, so let’s not and say we did, eh?”
“Who’s Genocide Jack?” said Maki, and Jack groaned exaggeratedly.
“Uuuuuugh, there it is! You know, when kids these days don’t know who you are anymore, it really makes you feel like an old maid!”
“You are an old maid, and I’m not going back with you,” said Maki, getting slowly to her feet and hefting the brick. “Leave me alone, demon.”
“Really? You’re gonna squat in an alleyway forever?” Jack dragged her foot through the layer of grime coating the crumbling asphalt, and casually kicked aside a few cans and discarded plastic wrappers. “Gonna go back to that glamorous Towa City life, sleeping in the gutter? Gonna steal?” Her head tilted sideways owlishly. “Gonna kill?”
“I know how to survive out here,” Maki said sharply. It wasn’t entirely true. Maki had learned from her escape attempts back at the orphanage that the outside world wasn’t like Towa City. Too populated, not enough abandoned, crumbling places to hide, a street layout she hadn’t memorized, too much law and structure and police who chased you if you tried to steal food. Her skillset for surviving felt useless out here. Still, she slapped the palm of her hand sharply against the brick for emphasis, full of an indignant hometown pride. “I’m a Towa Kid. I know how to steal and kill and sleep in the gutter. I don’t need your food, or your house, or your pity! Leave me alone! Do you wanna die?”
“Hmmmmm,” said Jack, tapping her chin. “Yep, okay!”
“Okay?” said Maki, faltering.
“Okay, I wanna die!” said Jack, and she rushed forward suddenly, her voice cracking as she shrieked: “Take a swing at me, Towa Kid! Show me what you’re made of!!”
In that split second, with a weapon in her hands and an adult rushing towards her, Maki was in a world that suddenly made sense again.
She acted on instinct and swung the brick at Jack’s head. She expected Jack to flinch and back off; she wasn’t intending to kill anyone. (D.I.C.E. rules, no killing. But if that was what happened, well… Kokichi broke the rules first.) Jack didn’t flinch or dodge. She caught Maki’s wrist with an unbelievable strength, and it hurt like slamming her arm into an iron bar. Maki gave an involuntary shout of surprise and let go of the brick, and then with a calculated kick Jack was sweeping Maki’s legs out from under her. Her back hit the ground hard, before the brick even landed. It was over that quickly.
Maki remained limp and stunned and panting as Jack leaned over her, still gripping her wrist, something horribly uncanny valley about that lolling tongue and perpetual grin. “Escúchame, Macarena, ‘cause I’m about to do some parenting. The reason you Towa Kids got sent to orphanages to be taken care of by adults is because you don’t know how to survive out here. You’re real proud of how spunky and scrappy and scary you were in your little apocalypse bubble. But out here in the real world, you’re just children, and there are people a hell of a lot scarier than you.”
There were no more escape attempts.
For the next week, Maki kept herself locked in her bedroom. A new kind of rebellion, a new way to have some small measure of control over her situation after being dragged home by Genocide Jack. Ironically, Maki found that she kind of liked Jack, actually. Jack ruled by power and violence, so she’d earned the right to be in charge. Toko and Komaru had gained no such respect.
Sometimes she could hear them talking through the bedroom door. Sometimes she’d crouch next to it and press her ear to the gap beneath, straining to hear what they were saying. (To scout out the enemy, obviously, not because she was interested in anything a bunch of adults had to say.)
“I think we should talk to her about Towa City.” Komaru’s voice, murmuring in the hallway, low and insistent.
“Are you stupid?” Toko hissed back. “She’s probably already got a heaping helping of trauma from when you sicced Jack on her. You want to reopen a bunch of old wounds and make her talk about her Towa City trauma too?”
(Maki bit her lip furiously at that. Towa City was not trauma, it was home.)
“Aw, but I think she likes Jack,” Komaru said cheerfully. “She actually talks to her, you know?”
“She… talks to Jack? Really?”
“Um, well, it’s more like she yells curse words at Jack, but that’s more human interaction than either of us have gotten out of her, so…”
“Look, d-do you want her to grow up to be a serial killer? Because I’m trying not to raise a serial killer! We are minimizing her Jack contact!”
“Aw, Toki. The other kids spent time with Jack growing up, and they turned out fine.”
“The other kids were already serial killers; the damage was done,” said Toko flatly. She made a groaning sound. “Ugh, we’re completely off topic! I’m trying to say that we shouldn’t force her to talk about Towa City!”
“I mean, she doesn’t have to talk. She could just listen. I think we should tell her about our part in Towa City.”
“From her perspective, our part in Towa City was as the enemy. If she doesn’t trust us now, she’s really not going to trust us if we drop that bomb on her.”
“I think it really helped, with the Warriors of Hope,” Komaru insisted, sounding eager. “It was common ground, you know? No matter how much we butted heads, at the end of the day they knew that we’d been through what they’d been through. I think it would really help Maki to know that too.”
“Maybe,” Toko conceded, her voice going a little quieter. “B-but that’s too big a conversation to have through a locked bedroom door.”
It was indeed far, far too big and complicated a conversation to have through a locked bedroom door, and in the end Toko and Komaru came to the conclusion that they should wait for a bit. Maki was an angry, scared child in a new and uncertain situation, and they knew from experience that sometimes the best thing you could do for a kid like that was to give her space. Maybe after a day or two of being nonthreatening and respecting her boundaries, that icy anger of Maki’s would melt a bit, and she’d venture out of her room and come to them on her own.
For the time being, Toko and Komaru pointedly left meals on a covered tray on the kitchen table, which Maki sneaked out to wolf down in the dead of night. Depending on which demon had done the cooking, it was a bit of a roulette. Toko’s cooking was bland and disappointing but edible, but Maki learned very quickly to be wary of Komaru’s experimental recipes made with mystery ingredients from the exotic grocery store. Slowly, she fell into a comfortable routine.
But one night, there was a boy sitting at the kitchen table.
He was a teenager in a Hope’s Peak uniform, studying late into the night, textbooks and notes spread out in front of him. His face, outlined by the stark kitchen light, was straight out of the photos in the hallway.
Her plate of food was sitting beside him. Distractedly, reaching over without looking as he studied, he was eating it. Maki stood in the doorway and stared at him in brokenhearted horror, the overwhelming weight of not belonging, not fitting, not wanted, no control, no power, everything can be taken away crashing down on her. Something in her snapped.
“That’s… that’s my food! They left that out for me!!”
She leapt at him, knocking him to the floor, scattering a flurry of notes around them both as she grabbed furiously and blindly at him. “It’s mine!!” she hissed over and over again, her voice almost silent. She pressed her hands over the boy’s nose and mouth so that he couldn’t cry out and wake Toko and Komaru. “It’s mine!! It’s mine!! It’s mine!! You can’t have it!! You can’t take it!! It was for me!!”
They struggled wildly for a moment on the kitchen floor, rolling around in the scattered notes. The boy was older and bigger and stronger, but Maki had fought and killed before, and right now she was fueled by an infinite well of rage. In that moment, she felt like she could have smothered him to death…
…If it wasn’t for the fact that her vision was getting blurrier and blurrier and something hot and wet was running down her cheeks, pattering onto the boy’s face.
He stopped fighting back suddenly. After a moment, Maki did too. Still sitting on top of him, her muscles had gone limp, and she drew her hands away from his face at last to scrub furiously at her eyes. “I’m sorry,” the boy said softly beneath her, infuriatingly gently, as if none of that had happened. “I didn’t know it was yours.”
“You don’t know anything,” she whispered, her breath hitching silently and her shoulders shaking, her forearm still rubbing uselessly at her eyes. Her other hand formed a fist and beat weakly against his chest, punctuating her words with each impotent punch. “Nobody. Knows. Anything. Nobody gets it, nobody understands, nobody knows.”
“I get it,” he said, not flinching as she hit him.
“You don’t.” She slid off of him and flopped onto the floor, staring up at that too-bright light on the ceiling, letting the shape of it burn into her red and stinging eyes. The teenager sat up beside her.
“You’re Maki, right?” the boy said.
“I’m Nagisa.” She didn’t respond, so he went on awkwardly, filling the silence. “I guess I’m kind of your brother, now. Uh. Don’t feel awkward about being adopted; we’re all adopted.”
“I don’t need a brother. I don’t want a brother, I don’t want a family, I didn’t want to be adopted, I just… I just want to go home, but they destroyed it. Everyone thinks it was bad. Everyone thinks they saved me, everyone thinks this is better, but it isn’t.”
“Yeah,” said Nagisa. “It’s not better. It’s just different.”
“Don’t talk to me like you understand. You don’t understand,” she told the ceiling light scathingly.
There was movement beside her. Nagisa had stood up. A moment later, he rejoined her on the floor, carrying the plate from the table. He set it between them. With her bare hands, Maki reached out and grabbed a handful of food and shoved it quickly into her mouth, before Nagisa could steal any more of it. It was Toko’s cooking, bland and warm and familiar, and her eyes got hot and blurry again, for no reason at all.
“It’s bad in different ways,” said Nagisa, while her mouth was full. “It’s scary in different ways. Nobody is trying to kill you out here, but… the adults can do whatever they want to you. Shuffle you around and take things away from you. Separate you from your friends and ship you halfway across the country to make you somebody else’s problem. They can hate you all they want, and you’re not allowed to hate them back. They could hurt you if they wanted, and nobody would protect you, and if you protect yourself by fighting back, you’re a bad kid, and somehow it’s your fault.”
A little hitch of a sob from Maki, through her mouthful of food.
Nagisa pulled a cellphone from the pocket of his uniform. The screen was cracked, which was probably her fault. Maki swallowed her food forcefully, her throat tight and painful.
“Are you going to tell Toko and Komaru I tried to kill you?” she asked, still sprawled out across the floor while Nagisa started to text someone. “Are they going to make me somebody else’s problem?”
“No,” said Nagisa, his fingers tapping at the screen. “You’re our problem now.”
“Why? Why do they even want me? I’m a Towa Kid.”
Nagisa glanced up from his phone, looking at her seriously. “That’s why,” he said. “We Towa Kids have to stick together.”
And then it turned into an impromptu midnight party, as the people Nagisa had been texting started arriving. All of the siblings Maki hadn’t had the chance to meet yet, Masaru and Kotoko and Jataro, a rowdy gaggle of teenagers who immediately set upon Toko and Komaru’s pantry with ravenous, merciless abandon. Maki sat uncertainly on the couch, cradling her half-eaten plate of dinner protectively in her arms as the snacks were dragged out, while beside her Nagisa pointed to each in turn and made an attempt at hasty introductions.
“That one’s Masaru-”
“Hey, Maki! Just call me big bro, got it?” Maki was punched good-naturedly in the shoulder. “If anyone gives you a hard time, they’ll have to answer to me! You can count on me for help with anything that isn’t homework.”
“Do not count on any of these people for homework,” Nagisa confirmed. “And the one getting crumbs all over the carpet, seriously Jataro, eat that in the kitchen - that’s Jataro.”
“Sorry you gotta be related to me,” said Jataro, through a mouthful of food. “It’s probably disappointing. Want some chocolate-covered potato chips?” A package of snacks was popped open and unceremoniously dumped onto Maki’s half-eaten plate. “Nobody in this house likes them but me, but you should try them. They’re gross.” Jataro grinned as if this was meant to be a glowing recommendation.
“Ew. Seriously, ew. Mega ew. Of course she’s disappointed to be related to you, she just met you and you’re already trying to poison her to death.”
“And the girl making that grossed-out face is Kotoko.”
A cutesy, dazzling smile rounded on Maki. “Maki, li’l sissy, (can I call you li’l sissy?) I love your hair, it is adorbs. Can I play with it? I brought scrunchies.”
They ended up settling on the couch around her, eating snacks and laughing and trading stories about Towa City, Nagisa’s homework forgotten and somewhat trampled on the kitchen floor, the carpet full of crumbs, Maki’s hair a glittery mess of barrettes and scrunchies.
“Omigosh, and do you remember Toko and Komaru’s faces when we cut power to the Towa Tower skydeck? Toko was all like… noooo!”
“Haha, yeah, I couldn’t believe an adult was afraid of the dark!”
“Well, they just seemed like adults because we were so young. When you think back, they were barely older than we are right now. We were all just kids back then.”
“Ahaha! Look at Nagisa implying that he isn’t a kid anymore!”
“I-I’m in high school!”
“Um, they looked reeeal cool and grown up fighting all our mechs, though. And Big Bang Monokuma.”
“You just think the mechs were the cool part.”
Maki was silent as they chattered. Processing, her face utterly blank. This was the first time - outside of a furtive, overheard conversation outside her bedroom door - that anyone had ever talked to her about Toko and Komaru’s time in Towa City.
Nagisa at last seemed to notice that she’d been staring off into space for a while. “Are you okay?” he asked, while off to the side his oblivious siblings roughhoused and bickered and threw snacks at each other. “I know our family can be a lot to deal with. I think Toko and… uh, our moms wanted to wait until you were settled in before meeting everybody. So I kind of jumped the gun here.”
“It’s not that,” said Maki, quietly. “It’s just… I didn’t know about all this stuff. They never told me.”
Nagisa put an uncertain hand on her shoulder. “I’m sure they wanted to. Maybe they were waiting for the right moment. Maybe they were afraid of how you would react. Like, it would make you hate them even more, or something.”
Maki remained silent.
“Are you okay?” Nagisa asked again.
Was she okay? She was certainly overwhelmed. Everything had been strange and different for so long, and she didn’t understand the world at all, and she knew she was safer now but she didn’t feel safer, and she’d been treated with such a new kind of hostility, labelled violent, feral, unadoptable, a Towa Kid, as if that was something bad about her, and she had gone from complete independence to having no control over anything anymore, and had her family and friends torn away from her again and again…
But now relief was flooding her, drowning all of that out. “They never told me.” She looked up at Nagisa at last, her throat tight, her eyes starting to water again, and something reverent crept into her voice. “They never told me. Toko and Komaru. They were Towa Kids.”
…And regardless of faction or gang, child or teen, enemy or ally, Towa Kids understood.
And then things were better.
Not perfect. School was hard. Everything was hard. Everywhere had too many adults, and too many rules she was just somehow expected to understand. But like before when she had Kokichi to encourage her, Maki started trying again. Bit by bit, she opened up to her new family.
It was several months before Maki - hesitantly, and stumbling over the alien words - deliberately started referring to Toko and Komaru as her mothers. The formal word haha at first, stiff and polite, though eventually she’d relax into okaasan for Toko and the surprisingly vulnerable and childish kaachan for Komaru.
She had four siblings now, living away from home in the Hope’s Peak Academy dorms, and coming home on the weekends to raid the pantry and do their laundry. She got along with them amazingly. Mature, studious Nagisa helped her with all the stuff she was behind on, like math and reading. Weird, creative Jataro would talk to her about all the gross, bloody, violent parts of her life in Towa City without cringing or looking uncomfortable, and privately admitted to her that yeah, all the social rules out here were stupid and arbitrary but here were some tips to deal with them. Masaru was a bit too high-energy for Maki, but sometimes high-energy optimism was exactly what Maki needed to pull her out of a funk, and she ended up relying on him after all, calling him whenever she’d had a bad day, to listen to the wide smile in his voice as he chattered for hours about something stupid. Kotoko eagerly helped redecorate her old bedroom, packing up all the cutesy pastel goth stuff with an air of overdramatic mourning, and then she and Maki went shopping and personalized the crap out of the place, new clothes and new bedsheets and new posters and decorations. They even (with Jataro’s help) installed a bunch of wall-mounted displays for her growing collection of cool weapons.
Genocide Jack was the one enabling that particular hobby. She wasn’t exactly a mom, (more like a cool aunt) but despite their rough start she was definitely Maki’s favorite. She assured Maki that if any killing needed to be done to protect the family, your friendly neighborhood serial killer had that covered.
“And just in case you still don’t feel safe, here’s some killin’ tips. No more smashing people’s heads in with pipes and cinderblocks. We’re gonna get this girl some weapons and teach her how to use ‘em. Don’t tell your mothers.”
The two of them took a few deliciously secretive trips to the seedy and well-hidden shop where Jack got her custom scissors, where a few of Jack’s friends from the criminal underworld were happy to give Maki a crash course in various weapons and less-than-tournament-legal martial arts techniques. Maki came home with a beautiful array of knives. She did not tell her mothers.
Rounding out the extended family she was slowly getting to know were Maki’s uncle and aunt, Makoto and Kyoko. They were apparently famous people, but growing up in the isolated Towa City meant Maki had never heard of them. She also had a timid little doormat of a cousin, Shuichi Naegi, who was about her age and who their respective parents seemed to think ought to be friends with her. But Shuichi was incredibly intimidated by Maki and kind of boring to hang out with.
“My dad thinks I should try and make friends with you,” he’d said once, when uncle Makoto had dragged him along for a visit.
“I don’t want your pity friendship,” Maki told him coldly, sitting on her bedroom rug and determinedly practicing putting together and taking apart the aluminum crossbow that was the newest addition to her collection.
“It’s not like that. My dad thinks I need to make friends in general.”
“Well, you can’t have my pity friendship either.”
In fact, the only thing Maki and Shuichi seemed to have in common was the fact that they were both quiet, introverted kids - though Shuichi’s silence was nervous and awkward and Maki’s hostile. Without the glue of a talkative mutual friend like Kaito to bind them together, their attempts at conversation petered off quickly and uncomfortably.
“Um, Maki… Do you have any hobbies?”
“Like… studying their history, or collecting them, or learning how to use them?”
“Oh.” An awkward silence. “I have a book at home about swords, if you want to borrow-”
“Do you want to die?”
Swords were a sore subject with Maki, who’d gone to middle school one day with a katana casually slung across her back. It was her latest present from Jack, and she’d brought it to show off to her friend Natsumi Kuzuryu - whose mother was a kendo master, and who, rumor had it, came from a yakuza family, and who most importantly was the only kid in class who got as excited about weapons as Maki did.
She’d been utterly unprepared for all the shouting and backlash that resulted from unsheathing it in class. The sword was confiscated from her immediately, and Maki was left trembling in the corner of the teacher’s lounge, unarmed and surrounded by very loud, very aggressive adults.
Toko and Komaru came to save her. There was a lot of arguing - all white noise to Maki, who was panicking and regretting that she hadn’t brought her usual array of hidden knives with which to fight her way out - but she picked up a random word here or there. Expelled and permanent record and, of course Towa Kid, hurled like an insult. Maki felt like crying and being sick, all at once. She hadn’t MEANT to cause trouble, not this time. She’d been working so hard lately, to get good grades, to listen to her teachers, to get along with her classmates. She liked going to school by now, she had friends here. Now she’d ruined it, because once again she hadn’t understood the unspoken rules.
Somehow, they talked their way out of it. This was all just a misunderstanding. The sword was a toy of course, Toko had insisted with a look on her face that dared anyone in the room to correct her. Her, Toko Fukawa, a world-famous survivor of the Hope’s Peak mutual killing, while behind her Komaru in full Future Foundation uniform kept casually texting updates to her brother. Their presence seemed to radiate: this could be a laughable little misunderstanding, or this could be an incident, and we don’t want an incident now, do we?
Nobody wanted an incident. It was just a toy sword. So sorry. Our mistake.
Toko and Komaru walked her home early that day, Maki pale-faced and tightly clutching the very obviously real katana that had been returned to her. Her mothers bickered a bit over her head. (“Did you know she had a sword? I didn’t know she had a sword!” “Seriously, we have got to stop letting Jack parent!”)
Unlike her teachers, they didn’t take it from her. But when they passed over a bridge, Maki flung her katana in the river. She didn’t want to collect swords anymore.
But here was the best and most wonderful part of Maki’s new life, one which made up for everything else. Eventually, a nervous and excited Maki found herself riding the train on her own, being trusted that she wouldn’t run away, to go visit Kokichi.
He lived in a big house in a nice suburban neighborhood now; the kind of idyllic place most kids at the orphanage had dreamed of going once they were adopted. It was as far from the chaos of run-down Towa City as it was possible for a place to be. Maki stood around staring for a while before ringing the bell at his gate.
When Kokichi opened the door for her, all smiles and excitement, she punched him in the face.
“I don’t want some dumb family, huh?” she said, looming over him him coldly while he was bawling on the floor. “You little liar.”
Kokichi’s waterworks stopped abruptly, and he grinned connivingly up at her. “Well, duh,” he said. “It’s basic economics, Maki. I traded you for a treehouse.”
Kokichi had, in the interim, actually made friends with some of the neighbor kids, and D.I.C.E. now met in the treehouse in Kokichi’s backyard. Maki admitted grudgingly after viewing the place that it was a very nice treehouse. Lots of legroom. And okay, maybe she was proud of him for making friends.
In the future it would become a permanent arrangement, riding the train every day after school to see him. It became an after school job, in fact. One of Kokichi’s fathers was always working, the other was a house-husband who was often ill and had a difficult time keeping up with Kokichi’s energy - so Kokichi’s parents paid her a fortune in babysitting and helping-around-the-house money. With Kokichi getting into trouble all the time and running to hide behind her again, Maki was the happiest she’d ever been.
(Shuichi tagged along on occasion, because their parents were still insistent on forcing them to be friends with each other. He quickly gained a reputation among D.I.C.E. for being entirely too observant and thus very difficult to prank… which made him a challenge which had to be pranked at every opportunity. Maki did absolutely nothing to defend him.)
Team Danganronpa grabbed her from Kokichi’s house.
They’d probably been waiting and watching, because neither of his parents were home when they broke the door down and barged suddenly inside, Monokuma-themed masks hiding their faces. A brief skirmish before a foul chemical-smelling cloth was forced over Maki’s mouth and nose. Kokichi’s screaming rang in her ears as her vision went dark. Her last thought before blacking out from whatever they’d drugged her with was frustration that she’d gone soft, that even with all her hidden knives she’d only managed to get a stab in on three of them.
She awoke disoriented in a holding cell on Jabberwock island, with fifteen other scared, confused teenagers. Mostly people she didn’t recognize - Maki caught sight of a girl she’d gone to middle school with, but the rest were complete strangers, kids with nothing in common. Kokichi clung to the back of her shirt and peeked out from behind her, his eyes sweeping calculatingly around the room as he waited for the drugs to wear off and the weakness in his legs to subside. “Shuichi too, huh,” he said thoughtfully, his face betraying nothing.
Maki’s own gaze found her cousin Shuichi being dragged toward them through the crowd by that familiar-looking blonde girl, a lost, nervous look on his face. Maki’s heart plummeted. That tiny, fragile, too-antagonistic-for-his-own-good Kokichi was involved in this was bad enough; a timid guy like Shuichi would definitely be the type to die first in a dangerous situation.
“Hey!” the girl piped up cheerfully, steering Shuichi in front of them. “You’re Shuichi’s cousin, right? I’m glad you’re finally awake. Shuichi was worried. I’m Kaede Kuzuryu.”
“I know,” said Maki. “We went to the same middle school.” She remembered Kaede vaguely as a distant strain of piano music drifting through her friend Natsumi’s house, the few times she’d been invited over, before the two of them started going to separate high schools and drifted apart.
“Is this your first time being kidnapped?” asked Kaede, in the nervous but chipper tone of someone trying a little too hard to break the ice.
“No,” said Maki, thinking back to the distant memory of being dragged out of Towa City. “I’ve been kidnapped before.”
An awkward silence between them all, for a moment.
“Well!” Kaede said brightly, clapping her hands and powering onward. “Don’t worry. Stuff like this is more about our parents than us. They’ll pay the ransom money, and we’ll be out of here before you know it!”
“My parents don’t have the kind of income to pay ransom money,” said Maki, nonplussed. “What makes you think this is about ransom?”
“Shuichi and I have been going around and asking people!” Kaede said confidently, even though it had probably been HER doing all the asking and Shuichi getting dragged along behind and acting generally timid and uncomfortable. “That boy over there-” She stood on tiptoe and pointed across the room. “Is heir to the Togami Corporation, so his family definitely has money. The really tall guy and the girl next to him are the prince and princess of some little European kingdom. Shuichi’s dad is Makoto Naegi.” She left it at that, as if the name alone explained everything. “And my dad is the head of the Kuzuryu Clan.”
“I know. We went to the same middle school,” Maki repeated, a little annoyed. Kokichi snickered behind her.
“Th-there are some outliers, but what most of us seem to have in common is that our parents are important, wealthy people,” Shuichi cut in quickly.
“Then are Kokichi and I outliers?”
“Well, you might have been grabbed because you were related to me…” Shuichi said apologetically, tugging on the brim of his hat.
“Or they grabbed you as collateral damage while grabbing me,” said Kokichi, far less apologetically. “My parents are international jewel thieves. Sorry you had to find out this way, Maki. I totally meant to tell you eventually.”
“Your dad works for a pharmaceutical company,” Maki said flatly.
“Aw, you got me. They’re actually drug lords.”
But Maki couldn’t help but notice how distracted he was; the way he went worryingly, uncharacteristically silent as the conversation continued, staring around the room and drinking in every detail and filing it away to be analyzed. Maki - who’d known Kokichi for a very, very long time and could read him very, very well - got the sudden impression that he’d noticed something the rest of them hadn’t. And whatever he’d figured out, he didn’t like it.
Maki didn’t like any of this either. Hyper-aware of the slight pull of Kokichi’s knuckles against the fabric of her shirt, of the way Shuichi kept stuttering and tugging down on the brim of his hat, Maki made a decision. Whatever Team Danganronpa put them through, whatever happened to her, the boys were making it out alive. She would be strong enough and feral enough and violent enough to protect them. After all, she was a Towa Kid.
She would not remember this decision when the game began.
As part of their plan to mock and anger the former killing game survivors, Team Danganronpa used the Neo World Program to edit Maki’s memories. For the daughter of Genocide Jack, a trained assassin seemed apt. A twisted negative of her guardian: a cold, emotionless killer with a body count in the hundreds, who hated her talent and killed not for art but for money.
After her rescue from the Neo World Program, she awoke as someone Maki-adjacent. Two sets of memories, two lives blended together. Maki trusted neither. If one backstory had been fake, who’s to say the other one wasn’t made up as well? Of all the kids pulled from the Neo World Program at the end of the game, her fragile trust was by far the most broken. Her parents were once again strangers to her, scary adults she couldn’t trust.
They spent a lot of time in the Jabberwock Island administrative building before being reintegrated into their old lives. The adults thought it would easier on them, letting them stay together as a group for a while, giving them time to sort out their memories in a controlled, isolated environment full of group therapy sessions and entirely too much rigid adult supervision. Maki hated it. Their refusal to let her escape into the outside world only cemented in her mind that their story was a lie, and the world out there wasn’t at all what they claimed.
Being forced to continue living alongside her “classmates” had its challenges as well. Maki’s hatred of Kokichi (who’d gotten so many people killed, who’d been such an unrepentant force of chaos during the Killing Game) was still sharp and hot and absolute. Kokichi’s own memories were just as blended, and his relationship with Maki flickered between ally and enemy when he wasn’t rigorously concentrating. When he relaxed for a second he slipped into old habits without thinking - teasing Kaito until he was angrily snapped at, and then laughing and running to hide behind Maki.
It was not a slip-up that Kokichi would make twice. Maki turned on him in a second, malice in her eyes and hands at his throat, the adults rushing to pry them apart as her fingernails dug into his windpipe. There was no snappy, mocking comeback as the adults dragged her off of him. Wide-eyed and gasping, Kokichi stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, and then turned and silently fled.
She felt a bit smugly self-satisfied at the fact that not a single one of her classmates chased after him to console him. Not even Kirumi. Not even Gonta. That malicious little brat had burned all of his bridges.
Kaito would visit her room to try to talk to her about it later, that infuriating, disappointed look all over his face. Maki slammed her door on him. That hypocrite had been among the people NOT running after Kokichi, so what right did he have to be disappointed in her? And besides, the last person in the universe she wanted to talk to was Kaito.
“Who was that?” Himiko’s voice chimed in behind her as the door slammed shut.
Maki stalked over to her bed and sat down, contempt and suspicion in her voice. “No one we know.”
After the Neo World Program there were only two people in all the world who Maki still trusted, and right now they were both sitting in this room. The three of them were wearing dull grey Future Foundation-issued sweatsuits, she and Shuichi sitting side by side on her narrow, uncomfortable bed in one of the temporary rooms that had been set up for them in Jabberwock Island’s administrative building. Himiko lay on her back on the floor, her legs in the air, her heels drumming with a slow, fidgety rhythm against the wall.
“We need a plan,” said Maki, addressing the room. “We need to figure out what’s really going on around here. Doesn’t this feel too good to be true? Suddenly we wake up and nobody’s dead, it was all virtual reality, we’ve got these perfect, happy families waiting for us on the outside?”
“It… it does seem a little too perfect,” Shuichi admitted. His voice was quiet, and he was staring at the floor in that anxious, timid way he used to carry himself at the very beginning of the death game, flinching slightly when anyone spoke to him. A part of Maki was worried about that, because Shuichi’s memories and personality had been put through a blender too, and he seemed to be having a harder time than the rest of them putting himself back together again. But she had so many other things to be worried about right now.
“It’s suspiciously perfect,” Maki agreed. “So what are we going to do about it?”
“I… I don’t know, Maki,” Shuichi murmured.
“I don’t care, Maki,” Himiko announced to the ceiling. “I don’t care if it’s suspicious. Angie’s alive and Tenko’s alive and my mommies are alive and basically everyone else on Earth is alive, and isn’t that better?”
“They aren’t your parents,” Maki snapped. “They’re fictional characters. We saw them before in the simulation, right? They could easily be actors hired by Team Danganronpa. And you shouldn’t trust Angie and Tenko, either.”
“Why not?” said Himiko indignantly.
“Because they could be actors too. This could all still be part of some messed up gameshow. You remember the audition tapes they showed us in the final trial. We don’t know anything about their real personalities.”
“You don’t even trust Kaito?” Shuichi asked softly.
Maki looked away, trying to ignore the anger and confusion and hurt that filled her. “That’s not Kaito. Just…. the actor who played him on TV. He was just scripted to be our friend. We never really knew him at all.”
“That’s sad,” said Himiko, rolling over onto her stomach and glaring up at Maki. “Why would you say that! Tenko and Angie, too? That’s way too sad to be true!”
“But it is,” Maki answered her sharply, pragmatically. “The only people we can really trust are each other.”
Himiko pouted. “I’m sick of picking apart lies and truth and not trusting anybody. I don’t care if it’s not even real. I wanna live in this world now.”
“This world is probably just another knot of fake memories they stuck in our heads for their next season.” Maki shot back coldly. “We know they can do that, so we can’t assume any of our memories are real. I don’t want to keep falling for fake memories and having fake happy endings ripped out from under me for the sake of their next big plot twist. I’m done. I’m not believing anything anymore.”
Himiko made a soft sniffling sound, looking strangely so much smaller in her oversized Future Foundation sweatsuit, missing her witch’s hat. Shuichi was still staring at the floor, his shoulders hunched, his own hat pulled low over his eyes.
“Shuichi, come on,” Maki implored. “We can… investigate. We’ll find out who these people really are. We can figure this out.”
“I can’t,” he said quietly.
“I can’t help you,” he repeated, clenching his fists against his knees. “I thought the same thing, Maki. I know it’s too perfect, I know it would irresponsible to just accept it after everything we know about memory alteration. It’s a solid theory, and we can definitely find ways to test it. But… this ending is nice, and I’m tired. Everyone’s tired. If I think about it critically, if I start picking it apart, there’s a chance I could take this away from them.”
“Do you wanna die?” she said sharply. “If it’s a lie, then you’re not taking anything away from them. They never had it to begin with.”
“I can’t,” said Shuichi. Again that flinch, again that shrinking back in on himself, tugging down on the brim of his hat. His voice faltered, and he stared down at the floor, his face hidden.
Maki slapped him.
“H-hey!” shouted Himiko. Shuichi gave off a yelp, wide-eyed, his hat askew, and she grabbed him by the collar of that baggy grey sweatshirt, forcing him to look her in the eyes. Somehow, it felt like a distinctly Kaito thing to do.
“Would you stop,” she said angrily, fed up with everything in the universe but especially, in this moment, Shuichi Saihara’s pity party, “acting like nothing that happened in there counted or mattered? I am sick and tired of seeing you pretend you’re the same cowardly, pathetic person you were at the beginning of the killing game! Pull yourself together! I don’t know what memories poured into your head after they woke you up. I don’t know who you are out here. But in there you were the Ultimate Detective, and that’s the Shuichi we need right now.”
Shuichi stared at her, his eyes flicking. Maki felt her face grow hot, and she roughly let go of his collar. Kaito would have unashamedly kept yelling and shaking him until he’d snapped out of it. Maybe that was what Shuichi needed. But Kaito had the confidence to do a lot of things Maki could never manage. “I…” she looked away from Shuichi, before she had to watch him fold under the inevitable anxiety and panic of prolonged eye contact. “I’m not sorry,” she muttered. “I’m right.”
“You’re a jerk is what you are,” said Himiko. Maki didn’t argue against that.
There was a long, miserable silence between them. The ice in Maki melted a little. She realized how rigid and hostile her body language had become, and she sighed and forced herself to relax. “I guess if you two want to just accept this reality, I can’t blame you. It would be nice if this was the truth. I’ll just… deal with it alone.”
The silence continued. Maki realized with a sinking heart that silence was, itself, an answer.
“If it counts for me, it counts for Kaito,” Shuichi said suddenly.
It was the loudest they’d heard him speak in days, and there was a faint but familiar edge to his voice, something they recognized from class trials. Maki looked up at him sharply. Himiko was staring at him too, her elbows against the floor, her eyes wide.
“Your logic isn’t sound,” Shuichi said, his voice growing stronger. “If what we went through in there counted and mattered, then it counts and matters for all of us. If I changed in that killing game, if I was a different person by the end of it, then so was Kaito. So were Angie and Tenko. So was everyone. You can’t say it was all just scripted for them, but not for us.”
He was right. Maki knew it. She was hurt and confused and angry and frustrated after being told that her entire life was fiction, that her friendship with Kaito was scripted for the sake of some voyeuristic audience. It wasn’t Kaito’s fault.
“And that’s a good thing,” said Shuichi. “Because right now we really need Kaito. I don’t think I can do this without him.”
“But… you will do this,” Maki said slowly, hope blossoming in her chest.
“Yes,” said Shuichi, resigned. “You’re right. Of course I want to just accept this reality. If there’s an underlying truth, I don’t want to expose it. But I’m not okay with accepting another lie, either. More than anything, I want to finally live in the real world.”
He reached out a hand, hesitantly. It hovered halfway between them. For a split second, muscle memory made her want to link her pinkie finger with his, for no reason she could think of. But then his palm was grasping hers firmly, and the feeling faded away.
From beneath the brim of his hat Shuichi met her eyes, and something in his gaze told her that the Shuichi she knew had finally found his way back. “So,” he said, “I think I’m going to keep investigating until I know for sure if we’ve found it.”
“Okaaaaay,” Himiko said from the floor, pushing herself up into a sitting position. “When Shuichi says it, it actually sounds reasonable. Well, it also sounds like a pain, but… I’ll work hard too. For Angie and Tenko’s sakes. I’ll use my magic to reveal any imposters who try to disguise themselves as our friends and family! I’ll blow them to smithereens with my Every Show You Watch Will Be Cancelled After Two Seasons curse!!”
A faint breath of laughter from Shuichi. Maki squeezed the hand of a boy who might, in a perfect world, be her cousin… but who, in this world, was a closer friend to her than that cousin had ever been. She looked between them, the two people in the world who really, actually understood.
“Okay,” she said, with a small smile. “I can trust that.”
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