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Yuki Hishida wandered through the forest, occasionally checking his map to make sure he was headed the right way. Though the closely-gathered woodlands were relatively small compared to the rest of the island, progress had been slow, mainly due to Yuki’s desire to keep quiet. He didn’t want to believe that anyone would stoop so low as to play the game, but if they did, his single-shot pistol wouldn’t protect him for long. Better to just avoid getting caught in the first place, even if it meant flinching and looking around warily every time he stepped on a stray leaf or twig.
The forest began to thin out somewhat as he steadily advanced northwest, though enough trees remained to block out the majority of the harsh sunlight. Yuki supposed he was grateful for that, in a way- if he already had to endure the pain of walking further than he was used to, combined with the uncomfortable weight of the collar around his neck and the growing fear of a sudden painful death, at least he didn’t also have to deal with sunburn. Now that would be just plain unfair, he thought, resisting the urge to let out a bitter laugh. Did fairness even exist anymore?
Maybe that was too heavy to think about, especially when he was so close to Nanako. Nanako… Just at the thought of her, the building tightness in his chest relaxed a little. A check of the map revealed that he was almost at the northwestern corner of the island, where she was apparently hiding in a bathhouse. It was a smart move- after all, Yuki himself had been barricaded in the island’s former city hall until another classmate had found him. He and Shinobu weren’t exactly close, but there was no bad blood between them, as far as he knew- at least, not enough to be suspicious of him. Unless… had the game already broken him? Had he lied to Yuki’s face with the intent of leading him into a trap? The sudden spike of paranoia was strong enough to slow Yuki in his tracks, almost tempting him to stop and turn back.
No, he decided after a moment of slow, reluctant pondering, forcing himself to suspect even the kindest and gentlest members of his class. He wouldn’t. And even if it was some kind of trick? He would find a way out, no matter what it took. Maybe he would end up dying on the island after all, but not without seeing Nanako. Not without telling her the truth.
His heart leapt in his chest as he caught sight of a large building dominating the horizon. It was too far away for any details to be clear, but what else could it possibly have been besides the bathhouse he was looking for? Though the pain in his legs was getting noticeably worse, his hope and excitement propelled him forward, only stopping when he arrived at a wide, deep chasm that separated him from the building. He wasn’t quite sure how, but the abyss reached so deep that he couldn’t even see the bottom clearly, only indistinct shapes- some of which were far too human-shaped for his comfort. Suppressing a loud gulp, he pulled his eyes from the vaguely morbid sight, instead scanning the cliff’s edge for any way to cross. Luckily enough, a single bridge was suspended over the chasm, thin and wind-whipped but reasonably sturdy. Thanking whoever might listen that he wasn’t afraid of heights, Yuki took a single step onto the bridge, continuing onward when it showed no signs of collapsing underneath him.
Once he was on it, the bridge seemed much longer than it had before. Yuki’s weight kept it from moving too drastically, but it still rocked back and forth with the wind, just enough to set him slightly off balance for most of the walk. As he approached, it became clear that the mysterious building was definitely a bathhouse, though the tightly closed gates that stood almost twice his height were slightly worrying. Hopefully Nanako would let him in- or, at the very least, let him talk to her without an audience. He had almost completely crossed the bridge when a particular vicious gust of wind sent his hair flying into his face, distracting him for long enough that he didn’t see the gates open just a little, nor did he see the frightened girl aiming her bow as she silently prayed for safety.
He did see the arrow flying towards him, but not soon enough to keep it from plunging deep into his chest.
Gasping for air as a burning pain pushed outward from the wound, only his iron grip on the bridge’s ropes kept him from tumbling into the unseen depths. Something warm was trickling down the inside of his shirt, forming a dark wet patch on his deep blue uniform jacket- even if he couldn’t quite grasp what it was, something deep and visceral inside Yuki was certain that it wasn’t good. Too lost in pain to notice his assailant rushing back through the gates, he couldn’t even begin to guess where the arrow had come from, beyond it being a sick joke the universe had decided to pull on him. Can’t believe it’s gonna end here… I was so close…
Too close! He couldn’t give up, not when his goal was right before his eyes. Crying out in agony at every move, he gradually let go of the ropes, settling down onto his hands and knees and slowly crawling forward. The arrow was just short enough (or just deep enough inside him, maybe) to avoid dragging on the ground, something that Yuki would have been grateful for if he had the presence of mind to think about anything besides pain and Nanako. When he finally reached the gates, they were slightly ajar. It took almost all his remaining energy to push them open, his pace considerably slowed once he was inside.
He didn’t have to go very far before someone heard him, a small group surrounding him in what felt like the blink of an eye. Hitomo Gakusha, timidly asking a question he couldn’t quite hear. Lucy Kanagaki, eyes full of tears as her shaky hands clutched a large bow. And… dare he believe it? Nanako Maeda, kneeling in front of him with a gentle hand placed on his head. No longer filled with the drive to advance forward, Yuki collapsed, almost impaling himself even further before Nanako caught him. Fighting the encroaching darkness in the corners of his vision, he stared up into her eyes, letting the sight of her safe and unharmed pull him out of his own painful reality.
“…Nanako?” He took a deep breath, trying to ignore the stabbing pain of his insides shifting around the arrow. She rapidly blinked back the tears forming in her eyes before forcing a smile, her hand softly stroking Yuki’s hair as she cradled his weakening body.
“It’s going to be okay,” she whispered, hoping that the obvious lie would bring him at least a little comfort. “We’ll fix this somehow, okay? I promise.” Somehow, at that, Yuki managed a weak smile.
“Yeah.” He was silent for a long moment before speaking again, the endlessly flowing blood beginning to form a small pool beneath him. “Hey… Nana, I’ve… gotta tell you something. Something secret, okay?” He felt the instinct to direct a meaningful glance at the other girls, but somehow he just didn’t have the will to look away from Nanako. Before the game, he had used to think she was so beautiful it hurt. He hadn’t known anything back then- she was salvation, a gentle light keeping the cold, relentless darkness from stealing him away.
“Of course. Don’t worry, they’re not listening. You can tell me.” She already knew what he was going to say. They had awkwardly danced around it for what felt like forever, each too intensely afraid of humiliation to make themselves vulnerable- but somehow, as he lay dying, apparently Yuki had worked up the strength to admit what she never could. She couldn’t bring herself to look away either, but she trusted Lucy and Hitomo to do exactly what they were doing- looking away, closing their eyes and ears to the private moment before them.
Another ghost of a smile flickered across Yuki’s face. He felt the vague sense that maybe it should have been hard to say what came next, but it seemed to flow from him naturally- at least, as naturally as it could when he was constantly interrupted by breaths and gasps of pain. “Never said it before, but… love you, Nana. Always have. So glad you’re safe…” He had always been pale-faced, but by then he looked dangerously ashen. It was a wonder there was any blood left in him at all, judging by the steadily growing pool that had already irreversibly stained Nanako’s clothes and hands.
She burst into quiet sobs at his faint but sincere confession, already regretting her inability to stay strong for him. Somewhere, deep down, she had never quite believed that he could have really fallen for her. Knowing the truth was one thing, but only knowing when it was too late? It just seemed too cruel for words. As she held Yuki as close to her warmth as she could without injuring him even more, all her pain and fear and regret spilled from her eyes as bitter tears. She felt like she could have been crying forever by the time Yuki managed to pull himself upwards a few inches, just enough to leave the faintest suggestion of a kiss on her tear-soaked cheek. By the time Nanako realised what had happened, his eyes were beginning to flutter closed, mouth relaxed into a content smile. As his deep breaths began to slow, he managed to push out one last whisper, so quiet that Nanako might not have heard if she hadn’t been holding him so close. “So happy I’m here… in the end…”
Before she could say anything at all, his body fell limp in her arms, silent and unmoving. “Yuki?” She gently tapped his head, hoping to get his attention without hurting him. “Yuki? Come on, wake up… it doesn’t have to be for long, okay? Just please, wake up.” She tapped him a few more times, her voice higher and growing in desperation. “You can sleep soon, just not yet! Okay? Just wake up!”
“Nanako.” Her heart soared for a split second before she realised it wasn’t Yuki who had spoken. Lucy had turned to face her once again, eyes downcast with guilt. “He… he has to sleep. We shouldn’t disturb him.”
“No!” Her voice came out so loud it even surprised herself. “Not yet! I haven’t told him… didn’t even get to tell him yet…” He was just sleeping… but if he was sleeping, why were his eyes still open? Slowly, very much against her will, it began to sink in- he wasn’t going to wake up. He had died without knowing that she loved him too. She was ready to burst into fresh tears, but before that happened, her eyes just happened to catch the arrow in Yuki’s chest. In that instant, it hit her that the arrow looked far too familiar.
“Lucy.” The sudden coldness in Nanako’s voice was shocking to the other girls, especially when they themselves were struggling to hold back tears. “Why? Why?” Of the seemingly massive number of questions fighting for supremacy in her mind, only the simplest of them managed to force itself onto her tongue.
“I’m so sorry!” Forced to confront what she had done, Lucy’s tears spilled over her eyelids, her body wracked with loud, heaving sobs. “I didn’t- I thought, I thought he was coming to kill us! All of us!”
“You thought Yuki would kill us?”
“No, I… I didn’t know who it was, okay? I was just, I was scared, and…”
“Oh, save it, would you?” Nanako snapped loudly enough that Lucy fell silent from pure shock. The change in the atmosphere was almost tangible, the crushing misery lightening somewhat but in the process turning downright sour. Not oblivious to the shift, Lucy’s own eyes hardened as she sniffled in an effort to banish the tears. “So yesterday you could barely hold that bow, and now suddenly you can hit someone without knowing who they are? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“I’ve been practicing,” Lucy asserted, holding out the bow for added effect. “I wanted to be able to defend us! Defend you! Is that so wrong?”
Watching the scene unfold with wide, fearful eyes, Hitomo managed to speak up. “Come on, let’s not fight, we should-“
“You call this defending us?” Hitomo was cut off before she could finish her sentence. “Just shooting without even looking, you think that’s ever a good idea?” Usually, Nanako was good at stopping before she said too much, but her grief blinded her from seeing what was too far. “Maybe you did kill Tetsuo while we weren’t looking!”
“Really? You’re siding with Shinobu now?”
“Why shouldn’t I? He saved us, remember? And you know what, I bet he made sure that Ai was actually trying to kill us before shooting!”
“I said I was sorry! What more do you want, should I shoot myself too?” Both Lucy and Nanako were yelling by then, Hitomo shaking and covering her ears.
“What do I want? I want Yuki back, you murdering bitch!” Rage welling up and pushing her beyond reason, Nanako lunged forward, shoving Lucy to the ground. Her bulletproof vest made her bulky and slow, but the added weight helped keep Lucy trapped in place even as she violently struggled. “I’ll kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!” Covered in blood and furiously scratching and punching at Lucy’s face, the demure fashionista of their class was practically unrecognisable.
Despite her disadvantage, Lucy fought back hard, managing to strike a few blows against Nanako. After a particularly vicious slap, she was distracted enough for Lucy to mostly free her arm, reaching out to grasp the only object within her reach. As soon as Nanako saw what Lucy was holding, she tried to snatch it away, but she was too late- Lucy only needed a second to lift her arm up high, and then another to thrust the arrow into Nanako’s throat.
The effect was instantaneous, Nanako rolling off Lucy and making awful, rattling gasps for breath. She made a few movements that looked like an attempt to get up, but before she could make any progress, she fell to the floor as a deceptively small amount of blood dripped from her wound.
Forcing herself not to look at Nanako’s corpse, Lucy turned to Hitomo with a shaky smile. “It’s okay, Hitomo… we’re safe now. No one’s gonna try and kill us now, right?”
Hitomo could only scream at the nightmare before her, gun raised and fired before Lucy knew what was happening. She fell after the first bullet shot cleanly through her head, but Hitomo kept firing, squeezing the trigger over and over for a long time after it ran out of bullets.
As quickly as she had started firing, Hitomo dropped her gun, screams only ceasing when her burning throat could no longer make any substantial noise. Before she could even begin to process what had happened, a shout sounded from outside the bathhouse, coupled with the distinct sound of fast-paced footsteps on wood.
“Hitomo? Lucy? Nanako? I heard shooting, are you oka-“ Shinobu stopped mid-sentence, gazing down at the dead bodies with a horrified expression that didn’t look quite right on his average, usually calm features. “Oh god… Hitomo, what happened? What have you done?”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t know if there was even an answer at all. Still gripping the handle of her empty gun, she pointed it up at Shinobu’s head, fingers straying towards the trigger. Would it be enough?
It was. Hitomo was only barely conscious of a pain in her head before it all went mercifully quiet, her body collapsing to join the others. Alone once again, Shinobu turned back the way he came, listlessly dragging his feet as he crossed the bridge. Painful as it was to think about it, he couldn't help but wonder: what could have made lifelong friends turn against each other so quickly? Had their bond always been poisoned by resentment, just waiting for an outlet?
No, he reluctantly concluded. This is who we are, deep down. The game shows us that.
But is it so wrong for us to want to be better?