"I want to go back."
Shogo looked at her archly. "You wanna death sentence, girly?"
"I don't care."
"You do it your damn self then. You have others to think about now. This isn't the Program anymore – we're not playing Uno. You aren't the only one involved. Fuck the last man standing shit they fed us."
"Then what are we going to do?" she demanded, getting ready to work herself up, but Sugi interrupted:
"She's… right. More…. people were killed. Staying here is…. dangerous." He struggled to force out the words, his voice hoarse and mechanical. She could not imagine the pain he was in.
Noriko looked upset at that. "This is the only home I have anymore!" she argued, her eyes spilling tears down hollowing cheeks.
"Sugimura has a point, though," Shinji added. "We don't know what that was about, but obviously they know where we are. We should've left immediately. We're sitting ducks while we're here. But there isn't much we can do anymore. Hiding is pointless."
Kayoko looked equally unhappy. "But… where can we go? What can we do anymore? We were just settling in!"
It was true. They had finally become a family – partially because of Shuuya Nanahara. He was the superglue that connected them. Takako and Kayoko were Hiroki's – and Hiroki was Shuuya's. Noriko and Shogo were Shuuya's – Yukie and Hirono, too. Without him, they'd just be a band of kids who had nothing in common but life and death.
And he was gone.
"We can't separate." Shogo gave the ultimatum. "Not again. We're nothing if we aren't united."
"We're nothing anyway," Takako mumbled.
"I miss my cats."
"I miss my family!"
"I miss... Hanako."
Shinji often dreamt of his uncle.
His uncle never told him anything he didn't know. Only things he didn't acknowledge.
"Lust from the loins… it doesn't compare to love from the heart, Shinji. Take it from me."
"What if I never find anyone to love?"
"You're young yet. Besides – love is often right where we don't think to look."
"Where were you going to high school?"
"Same place as Hiroki."
"So we wouldn't have been together anyway."
There were volumes of unspoken meaning in the sentence. Takako understood though.
"We're together now."
Perhaps a long time ago she'd crushed on her best friend. Now, it was just love – for the boy he'd been, the man he'd become, and for everything he'd ever done and said for her. Because above all, she cherished him - more than anyone knew.
"You make me want to do better," he told her once, squeezing her fingers and smiling gently down at her, his expression filled with tenderness and admiration.
She smiled back at him, softly. "You make me want to be better." She answered, returning his comforting grip.
Shogo was often diffident around Noriko – not because he didn't care, but because he cared too much. She noticed it, insightful girl that she was, and did not know how to fix it.
It was Hirono who had given her the advice: "If you want him, tell him. Tell him about Shu and Kuninobu and ask him why he's so damn mopey all the time. I'm sure he thinks you're all over Nanahara."
"I don't belong to Shuuya or Yoshi." Noriko had said, arms crisscrossing with annoyance.
Takako had agreed. "If he's dumb enough to see you as property before a person, fuck him, Noriko. You don't need a guy. Not even now."
Kayoko frowned. "Easy for you to say, when you have Mimura."
But that was foolish. Nobody 'had' a claim on Noriko, and Takako certainly did not 'have' Shinji. People did not own people. Anyway...
It was not that simple.
"You look cool," Takako congratulated him. It was photo-day at school, and he had allowed her to trim his hair and wore the shirt she explicitly told him to.
He smiled at her. "And you're the coolest girl in the world."
"You're such a stud in that shirt," she teased. "Look at all the girls staring at you."
He shrugged. "That may be because I grew seven inches in the past four months."
Takako smirked. "Or it may be because of my excellent choices for you. A picture to remember! Your mother will be grateful, I expect."
"Only because you're the most stylin' girl in the world... Thanks, Taka."
"Come on, you're up, Male Student Number Eleven!" she said, and shoved him forward into the photo booth.
That night, Shinji did not kiss her goodnight. She took matters into her own hands, and rolled over, her arm draped across his chest.
"Well?" she demanded.
His gaze was pensive and tired. Dark circles sunk his eyes in, and tenderness filled her. She kissed him, instead, on the side of his cheek where lips tapered off sharply and became skin.
He actually smiled at that, and she held her lips to the spot, feeling the curve of his grin beneath her own, branding him with her kiss.
It was the hardest part, perhaps, when Hiroki got sick. He had been doing so well – his wound hadn't been too bad, and he seemed healthy. But one morning he simply did not wake up. Perhaps it was an unrelated illness, made worse by his weakness. They never knew.
Shogo was quiet. Had he known this would happen? Had he felt that it was impossible to save him?
Takako buried him next to Hirono.
Her eulogy was silent and she stood alone. Shinji and the girls let her be. Shogo eventually came out and smoked a cigarette.
"He was everything... my precious friend. How can he be gone, just like that?"
It was a foolish question. He was gone like Shu and Yukie and Hirono and Yoshitoki and Fumiyo and every girl and boy to ever die in the Program. He was not special, just because he was important to her. They were all mortal.
"Not everybody dies a hero. We can't all get dramatic deaths." Shogo watched her, but did not offer to help. He knew that she needed to do this.
They left that same day.
They did eventually move farther – Noriko gave her apologies to the family whose children she watched, and Takako quit the diner with broken English and a happy heart. With no real destination in mind, they drifted.
This time was more hopeless than the first few.
This was no longer survival – it had become Hide and Seek. They were being hunted like animals – with no time to mourn for everything they'd lost. They never stayed in one place long - breaking into houses, putting up tents, sleeping on buses that were heated and cooled and when you closed your eyes, maybe you were in a house with family.
Then the road would get rocky and destroy the illusion.
Kayoko's best feature was her smile. The very light seemed to love her, embrace her. After Sugi did not wake up, though, the weather took a dark turn. Never before had Takako been superstitious, but she idly wondered if Kayoko's grief was so strong that the very heavens wept with her.
What Shinji hated, more than anything, was cold weather. He couldn't bear it. His joints ached like an old man, his nose felt raw, and all of his grief and sadness that he carried seemed to exit his system as irritation. When it began to snow and hail, he punched a wall so hard his fingers bled.
Once, Takako had been the one who needed help. Now, he wasn't so sure.
Taka wondered how Kahoru was doing. Had she been gunned down? What about their families? They'd never know. They were probably dead, and even if they weren't, she might as well grieve for them. It wasn't as though she'd ever see them again.
"I just can't go on anymore," Kayoko said one day, while they waited for a bus to take them to god-knew where.
Noriko answered before anyone else. "None of us can. But you can't leave us."
Tears filled Kayo's eyes. "It's so hard… and so scary. I don't want to do this. It would've been better if I had just died on that island. All of this aimless wandering… it's killing me."
Taka shook her head, feeling her cheek. "No. Those were all hard deaths. Betrayal ran high. There was fear everywhere. At least you got a few months reprieve."
"Is any of it really worth it, though?" Kayoko asked, eyes hooded. "Any of it at all?"
Just like always, they slept in one another's arms and wept at each other's shoulders.
After Sugi died, she seemed to retreat within herself that much more. And it broke his heart to watch it. Love wasn't everything his Uncle had made it seem. Nobody had told him that you took their pain upon yourself.
Noriko announced she was pregnant, and both Shogo and Takako seemed to wither.
He knew why, now, though Takako still hadn't told him. When you loved someone, you just knew.
Shogo managed a tent for them in a park. They sat outside it, shivering together, entwined like a pair of knotted shoelaces.
"Sometimes I think all I can feel anymore is hate and anger." She said quietly, her warm breath tickling his ear, her proximity making his heart thud, and her words making it sink.
"Then love me." he asked her, heart aching for her approval. He wanted her to love him because he wanted to give her his own, rip it out of his chest to get the pain out. It was selfish and selfless and lonely.
For once, her gaze was not calculating or teasing or angry or sad. Heavy lashes fell on her cheeks and she laid a hand across his chest, the pads of her fingers fumbling up towards his neck.
For once, she was silent and evaded answering. She did not tell him it was simple. He did not tell her he already knew her answer.
The one time they allowed Kayoko to watch, they watched her die. She tried to apologize for her decision but the blood loss left her dizzy and Takako closed her eyes, a final time.
The sunshine had always bent around her - too beautiful and wonderful to touch. She died in the dark, because with the sun's love, she could not have left.
They had no place to put her body and so they buried her in fall leaves. Fitting, since she would rot with them in the winter.
Shogo let her leave, in the end. Noriko found a woman's home, three months pregnant and unhappy to see them go. She was safe, though, and Shogo had made his decision.
He left her with kisses and promises of love. Takako only snorted and told him it was about time, remembering the first time he had left her with those. This time, at least, he left her with proof of it.
"It's not that simple-" he began, and trailed off, looking at her, a knowledgeable grin poking out behind the sheen of cigarette smoke that always followed him. He had loved before, and thought he was unable to do it again, but Noriko had taught him otherwise. "Or I guess it is."
There were no boundaries to love, not before, and especially not after.
"I want my revenge."
"Isn't it enough that I'm here with you?"
He knew the answer was no. He knew she was angry. He knew he loved her.
"It's more than enough," she answered suddenly, surprising him. "If I do it, I'm maybe going to die. You're my legacy."
He frowned. That idea did not sit well with him at all. "Taka—"
"I'm going to go recruiting. On the streets. I don't care if the police shoot me. People read that website, Shinji, and people will listen to me. Even here. Especially here, because they know."
"Don't trust movements—" he began, and then ended. Uncle Hajime had said it was not wise. But Uncle was dead. Perhaps listening to his Uncle for so long, posthumously, was not the best idea.
Perhaps that was when he stopped idolizing his Uncle and truly understood human fallibility – in himself and others.
"I'm coming with you."
He was taken aback at her vehemence.
"You have to stay with her – settle down anonymously. Protect Noriko. You won't be just the third man to die in this game."
"I need you."
There was love in his words, and pain. Her eyes filled up with futile tears. "I need you more," she answered, and that was everything she could give him. The entirety of her heart and soul laid in those words.
"Can't you leave off vengeance and just… live?" he almost pleaded her. Though he knew it was foolish, all he wanted was to stay with her now. Though they had no escape from the little hell they were in, all he wanted was to wake up every morning and see her. Angry, sleeping, happy, in love, sad... he wanted everything.
He'd even deal with 'Robo-bitch' to be with Takako. He would let her wear her armor or run to him naked. Nothing mattered anymore but that she at least cared for him.
'History comes in waves… and whether it'll be war or a movement, I don't know. We can't make a difference. But we can fuck them good.' Shogo had once said. Noriko and Shuuya had seemed to find the words familiar.
Shogo said he would go. But she needed Shinji to stay.
"How am I supposed to leave you if you ask me this?" she asked him, voice choking with emotion. "How am I supposed to let you go?"
"You want revenge because you can't let go."
"Don't tell me you don't understand it!" she burst out, because she knew he did.
"If you go… I'm going with you." He answered instead, and when she cried, he held her, and kissed her, and swore to never let go.
After, the three of them did return.
They found several veterans of the Program who were willing to help them. And it was Shogo's idea to take back the island, which had been in disuse since their particularly catastrophic Program. They were wanted criminals - except Shinji, who had been a victor tragically killed by his scheming classmates after they had been assumed dead. Takako, Shogo, Yukie, Noriko, Hiroki, Hirono, Kayoko and Shu. Takako did not know how they knew - maybe because they were the finalists? Or were the cameras still recording?
It didn't matter anymore. But their appearances had changed so drastically that even walking down the street, nobody recognized them. Besides, who would expect to see a criminal brazenly strutting down the street? No officer did.
"Are you worried about Noriko and the baby?" she asked him curiously. He had easily helped her rid herself of anything to do with that, so long ago.
He shrugged. "I don't know if it's my kid."
"But are you worried anyway?" she insisted.
He looked at her, with eyes that were hard and sad and filled with guilt and regret and pain and hate and gentle love for the girl he might not ever see again. "Of course I do. I'll probably die. But I'll die knowing that I moved on, that I loved again, that I forgave, and that I'm tryin' my damndest to give as good as they got me."
"Shogo... it wouldn't be anyone else's kid. Just so you know." She looked at him seriously, and he nodded, his eyes faraway for a moment. She did not know where he journeyed - to Noriko, to Shu, or to before. To the girl who was before Noriko. To the first Program or the second.
There was a lot of places he could be.
There were seven of them altogether, and to honor Shuuya, they called themselves the Wild Sevens. A little inside joke between champions of madness and anarchy.
It was only because of the war with America that they had an opening. Takako made it into the council hall at the capital with ease. Shinji was with her.
They had discussed this plan for months – and the time was ripe. Perhaps it was not the best plan… but it was vengeance. She might be seen and get shot - a criminal walking into the most important building in government was not a particularly genius move on their part.
"I wish it didn't have to be this way," he said quietly.
She kissed him. "I love you. I love you more than I hate them."
"I know. That's why you can do this."
She used the ladies bathroom and left. She moved with confidence and was not question. It was amazing at how easy her plan was executed. Months of anxiety for such a quick operation.
Outside the complex was Shogo. She nodded at him, and he turned with her. They walked away together, with him pressing a button in his pocket as the building exploded behind them. Takako did not feel regret – but she worried for the civilians that had been caught in the crossfire. Perhaps she had learned that when war was a gamble, blood was the stake.
It took a long time for her to justify it to herself - to forgive herself for hurting innocents who did not know anything, who had been fed lies and fear.
But isn't that what they had been, in the Program?
The Program data was all erased from the computers by a strange, untraceable virus. It was postponed that year.
That same year, America won the war - thanks to the mysterious explosion in the war room of the government - and helped re-socialize the government... with the help of the young man who had designed the bug that had crashed every computer in the Senate.
Back in America, Shogo found Noriko – he sent pictures of her and the baby. Takako looked up from the mail and smiled at Shinji. They promised to return when the baby was strong enough for travel - maybe a year or two.
Shinji's most noticeable feature was his eyes – bright and hopeful, they looked at her with love. Their little apartment was beautiful. They opened all the windows and cooked every meal fresh and at night, they laid together, fighting the nightmares hand-in-hand.
She gave him another haircut – spiking the edges and leaving him clean cut. The length of his hair had grown on her, but when she gazed at the smug, spiky-haired bastard, she wondered at how he looked beautiful to her no matter what. His hair did not matter.
When she looked in the mirror, really looked at herself for the first time since she had been fifteen, she cried. Her hair was choppy and short and she hated it and she took scissors and hacked at the rough locks angrily. When Shinji found her crying in the bathroom, he buzzed her hair for her too, and then they matched.
She sometimes wondered if she was ugly now, with short hair and scars and a limp that would never heal, but Shinji told her it didn't matter, told her she was wonderful because she was herself. Her vanity had taken blows, but her confidence grew.
They, and all other survivors of the Program, were given government help. Shinji and Takako received honorary high school diplomas – and straightaway applied to colleges. Shinji chose to be a computer engineer. Takako, after much deliberation, decided to study medicine.
"Maybe I can try and make this world a little better," she decided, thinking of Shogo and his father.
They visited their friends parents.
Shinji's family had been untouched, as the victor. But his parents saw him and ordered him out and Ikumi did not recognize the tall, thin man who resembled her brother. Just like she was not quite the Takako she had been, he was no longer the same Shinji. He cried, after, and she held him.
Takako's family had been decimated, but her father and Hanako were glad to see her. Ayako had been taken by the government and never returned. Her mother had been killed by the war. Takako was inconsolable after, but Hanako leapt after her and showered her in kisses and happy barks. It was a small happiness, a pebble amongst mountains.
Then they visited Hiroki's mother, who cried when she saw Takako, taking the girl in her arms and thanking her and apologizing. They all cried together, and stayed for tea.
They visited the few others they could find - Kayoko's mother was gone, Yukie's parents refused to see them, the orphanage caretaker thanked him quietly. Hirono's family was harder to find.
Takako visited Kahoru, but it was not the same. They had both seen too much. When Class 3B had been taken, Kahoru had been taken in for questioning about Takako and her classmates. She was smaller and quieter now. Fitting together was not as easy as it had been, but they promised to try, for old time's sake.
Kahoru gave them a copy of their favorite photos, though, and Shinji hung them up in the kitchen, after they painted the walls yellow and put up curtains and furniture and laughed together for the first time in ages.
Takako's limp never quite healed properly. Shinji often suffered stomach pain. These were the physical markings of their memories. Sometimes it got lonely, without Shogo and Nori, but she had created a life in America, and coming back was a lot to ask of her. Takako's father left her Hanako and he retired quietly. They adopted Hiroki's little kitten, too, and the household was never lonely or gray or foul-smelling.
"How does it feel, knowing you started and ended a war with that stupid laptop?" she asked him one night, idly.
He grinned at her. "All those times you bothered me about tinkering with it, too."
"It was probably way less complicated than you made it seem. Shut up," she ordered.
And she made sure he obeyed by covering his mouth with her own.