Icicles shot his spine, each blunt impact as forceful as the baseballs that hit him during his execution. They made him scream inside the darkness, kick until he broke free of his chains and binds that soaked up the blood and cut into his skin. His pale blue eyes, as lively as electric spheres, shook as they tried to grow accustomed to the sudden light. Another bolt surged through his bruised flesh, and the baseball player could see the droplets of blood that fired out of his mouth, out of the cleave on his upper lip. His knuckles became white with determination to fight, determination to break free of the shackles and free himself off the pole that he was tied to.
He was going to revive, awaken from the execution, and not a moment too soon.
Link by link, the chains that bound him broke under the force of his determination, their cracks sounding like ice being chipped. A wave of energy gave a new life to his beaten, broken body. The stamina would not let him rest until he had been freed. His teeth clenched, alternating between him hissing with pain or practically screaming through it. He took a step forward as his binds loosened, and the step felt like the bones of his feet were being crushed with a hammer.
Another burst of lightning, coming from the very metal rod he had been secured onto, sent him flying out of the circle of blood and despair.
Worn, exhausted and dead on his feet, the athlete splayed on the ground, breathing hard while one of his hands clenched around a leather baseball – decorated with one of his teeth. It was a premolar – not that he knew or had any interest in knowing – but an instinct made him run his tongue over the gap, his piercing clacking on the porcelain surface of the molars that fared better.
His body was intact. He came to that conclusion after he spread his hands out on the carpet, wetted by his burgundy bile, and somehow managed to lift up his body. Pangs hit against his back like ancient warriors beat the goatskin that covered their war drums. He wasn't hurt. He repeated that to himself, making a mental note. He was a winner, and winners were not the kind to get hurt and despair over a couple of shiners.
He gulped, tasting the copper in his blood. With that last pause, he managed to steady himself on his feet, fists curled behind his back, feeling as if he had just ran an entire baseball field even though he had made barely three steps away from the site of his execution. He shot a dirty look at the rod of metal, mocking it in his mind. He lifted his chin, the veins under his pale skin pulsing and vibrating with elation. The side of his left hand swept over his lips, wiping off same plasma and saliva. Forcefully, he threw his arm to the side.
A sound that left him afterwards was a half-roar, half-laugh.
Leon Kuwata was back from the dead, and unwilling to return to them.
The screen that buzzed behind him veiled the room with a soft, green light. The first thing he noticed was the unearthly glow on his white shirt. He tugged at it, wary eyes going over the cotton above the red skull design. Blinking once, he turned his eyes to the source of the hue.
He saw a face.
"Greetings, Leon! Welcome back!"
The man stumbled back, barely keeping his frail legs from collapsing under his weight. He put his arms out, in a boxer's position, ready to fight the large projection that was easily ten times his size in height. A part of him commanded to drop down his dukes, to stand straight in compliance. Luckily for him, his raw, sportsman's mentality kept him from doing so. Being docile did not aid him in escaping the grasp of Death. So why try docility now?
He watched the round, playful face under his furrowed brow, strands of unkempt red hair going in his eyes and getting in the way of his clear vision. The creases in his forehead became smoother after he had recognized the features of a fellow classmate; the layered hair, the golden eyes, the almost feminine disposition. Only he had never seen him in the form of a floating head.
The projection tilted to the side, curious eyes widening.
"Is something the matter?"
He took one long, steady inhale. When he let the air out, he understood just how fragile and weak he was, how a man escaping death could never return to the other side in his physical prime. He replied, and in all honesty, he was amazed he could talk.
"Who are you?! How do you know my name?! Tell me!" He demanded. His voice hadn't changed much; just as direct and loud as before, with a hint of a clichéd teenage arrogance. The image wasn't bothered by such a harsh counter-question. He smiled and introduced himself.
"I am an Artificial Intelligence program, created by my master, Chihiro Fujisaki. You can call me Alter Ego, if you like! And, to answer your second question, Master had supplied me with the information for all students. How else could I have helped you?"
Leon hunched his shoulders. Chihiro. That name… was familiar. It made sense. In fact, it was the only thing that made sense in this whole goddamn mess. His fingers unfurled, one by one, until his fists were just flat palms that were proffered in a pose that portrayed confusion more than danger. Uninvited, Alter Ego continued to speak.
"You're probably wondering where everybody is," he suggested."Well… most of 'em died… just like you almost did. Some of them escaped. Not too long ago, actually."
Leon didn't need to hear any of that. He didn't want names, either. His mind still jarred, he could only focus on one thing. He heard the wordescape, and now he wanted to know more about it. Escape. It sounded nice, like a kind promise, even when he only thought of it in his mind.Escape.
Escape and never return. Keep running until you reach the fourth base. Come home a hero or don't come home at all.
He pressed two fingers to his forehead, realizing that he was reliving the mantras that ran through his mind during his games. He swallowed hard.
"Escaped?" He looked up at Alter Ego again. "How did they escape?"
"It's a… it's a long story." The Alter Ego admitted. "And I suppose you don't want me explaining too much…"
"Just tell me how exactly you… helped me." He shot a furtive glance at the metal pole that he was bound to, the chains surrounding it like vines and tendrils, the blood splattered on the metal and the hollow dents from the baseballs that missed and hit just above his head…
He wouldn't shudder at the memory.
You made it this far, now control your damn reactions!
"You might have been executed a while ago," Alter Ego began, "but for some reason, you still had some lifeblood coursing through your arteries. Your brain still made synapses. Your heart was pumping fresh blood… it was like your body was competing against death but kept ending the matches in a stalemate." He chuckled to himself, the head playfully spinning around its axis. "All you needed was a good jolt. Luckily for you, I had access to the power lines, and metal makes a fantastic conductor."
"W-wait…" Leon took a step back, careful enough not to trip on the baseballs that lied around. His eyes were still glued to the face, this strange and helpful light on the wall. He couldn't trust him. Then again, he was in no position to doubt him. He was alone. Determined and crass, yes, but a broken man nonetheless, somebody who had been declared dead for a while now… What Alter Ego was saying made about as much sense as anything else he came across just before his trial, and still, he had trouble believing that he did not reach out and grab life himself.
"What is it, Leon?" Alter Ego asked with a coy smile.
"Y-you mean to tell me that you saved my life?" He asked, pressing an index finger on his chest. The computer-generated image nodded.
"I have! I wanted you to try and join your friends who managed to get outside!"
"You –!" He interrupted, cocking up a thumb and showing the remains of mayhem behind his back. "You electrocuted me back to life?"
"I had to," he assured. "No man is strong enough to battle Death like that and win. Or did you think you were an exception?" He pursed his lips questioningly, hungry for information just like it was expected of an artificial intelligence. Knowing little to nothing of computer programs, Leon found this question insulting. He crossed his arms, trying to pry open his swollen eye. A small patch of white peered through a purplish bump.
"Just let me go, already," he said, his voice strained and almost… tired. "I wanna see how things are."
"I'm not stopping you. On the contrary, I'll show you the way out!"He enthused.
Before Leon could respond, the room shook and the image disappeared, lights coming on one by one until the room was illuminated, like he was outside on a spring afternoon, in broad daylight. This made him aware of all the little details that he missed in the dark. He saw the dry blood on the walls, the dust and grime that gathered on his shirt. Running his fingers through his hair, he noticed how greasy and disgusting it felt. His stomach had sunk inside his ribs, but he felt no hunger. Or at least, he didn't think he did. Being dead for so long made him lose touch with basic human cravings. He was in a desperate state – the kind that most dead men were in, when they had nobody to care for them and clean them up before their burial. It made him sick, but it was an egotistical sickness; self-disgust. Besides that, he also felt confusion and anger, and he hoped that would be enough to guide him out of this hell.
"Follow my voice!" Alter Ego chirped as Leon looked up, watching the vents above him, trying to figure out where the noise was coming from. He saw speakers, cameras… surveillance technology that he usually paid no attention to. "I'll lead you to safety. For starters, just exit through that door over there."
He noticed an exit, not too far from where he was standing. It cracked open, just enough for Leon to see that it lead into a dark room, an unknown plane that he had to cross even if there was a slightest chance of seeing the sun again. He wanted to move. He desperately wanted to move and walk outside.
Why the hell couldn't he?
"Don't be shy!" Alter Ego's disembodied voice tried to soothe him. "Come on. Left foot, right foot. You can do it!"
That's right… he could do it.
He just needed to keep reminding himself of that. With newfound zeal, he marched out of the room, avoiding the splatters of blood and balls that he kicked with the tip of his platform shoes. Once he reached the door, he shut his eyes tightly and grabbed the knob. It was so cold that he felt like he was getting frostbite; like the skin of his palm was rotting away and exposing tendons and purple flesh. The sensation was short-lived, however, and he pried the door open quite easily.
The room on the other side seemed impervious to light, and the man could only see contours and dim shapes of the furniture. There was no door in this room, save for the one he came in through. There was a box in the corner with a decorative golden padlock, a small militaristic bed on the other side. It didn't look any comfortable, even to a man who had spent weeks tied to a post.
The door behind him slammed shut and made him straighten himself, one eye wide open and the other opening as much as the contusion allowed it. He turned on his heel and began banging on the door with curled fists, yelling for help, yelling for Alter Ego to let him out and save him. His fists had grown bony and useless, and his strong impacts held no sound, no matter how forceful he made them.
Easy now. Deep breaths. Calm down.
He had no idea who was telling him this. The voice? His consciousness? Maybe he was still dead, and all of this had been a dream. Maybe it's a coma fantasy, or some other crap that was proudly presented in those shitty soap-operas that Sayaka loved to make him watch.
His sweaty, hot forehead pressed against the cold metal. His chest heaved.
"Just remember," said a now familiar voice that was definitely Chihiro's."There is always a reason I brought you here, and there is nothing that you cannot do."
Leon's saliva felt sticky against his palate. No wonder, really. The poor man was dehydrated. His saliva had turned to dust and there was only grime rushing through his veins by now… But nevertheless, he wanted to escape. He needed to get out of there. He had only been awake for such a short time, and the walls were closing in around him.
I'll fight them.
He came up to the bed and kneeled to take a look under it.
I'll fight them, even if it's the last thing I do.
The floor was grimy and gray, but one shiny object caught his attention. A small golden key, glinting, as though it had its own special reflector, just so it could be easy to find. Leon hesitated for a moment, thinking it was a trap. Too… on the nose. Too obvious. But this time, he should cast his cynicism aside and just grab the fucking key.
So he did.
When he took a closer look at it, he saw that it was pretty old and filthy and… sticky. He turned it between his thumb and index ginger, wanting to see a catch. Maybe it couldn't unlock the padlock. Maybe it was a key to something else entirely. Maybe picking it up would trigger an alarm…
Or maybe it was just a key, simple and fuss-free, like everybody else thought his life was.
"Didja get the key?" Alter Ego asked, tone as light as a feather.
"Well don't just stand there! Open it!"
He walked up to the box and tried to pick it up. It seemed glued to the floor, and Leon had trouble with lifting it, despite it being made of cardboard. After a few attempts, he stopped trying. Being dead did a number on his strength.
This would have been the time, he mused, when his coach would take him by the ear, back onto the court and demand that he finish the game. And he would. He'd try his best and perfect his skills until he hated everything about baseball, but at least his coach would have been proud. He never would have bothered him again. It would be one less person to pester him. One less person to be a frustration to…
Wait, where the fuck did that come from?!
He was there to escape, not to go on a hackneyed journey of self-discovery! What was that,anyway?! Some spur-of-the-moment soliloquy in which the hero reminisces about his past instead of trying to get himself out of trouble?! He'd be having none of those. Not him. Not now.
He rammed the key into the padlock and it clicked open. Hearing Chihiro's encouragement in the distance, he huffed as he tried to free himself from the frustration that had just built up inside of him, and was twisting his empty guts into knots. He narrowed his good eye and looked deep inside the box. It was empty but… somewhat spacious. Spacious enough for him to jump in. Maybe that was the catch. Who knew what awaited him at the other side?
Ominously, he put in one leg into the box. He felt around to feel the bottom, only to find that there wasn't one. This really was the way out, he thought. The way to… somewhere. Wherever that somewhere was, it was far better than being trapped in Hope's Peak, alone.
Of course he wouldn't be alone. There would be memories of Sayaka, and the chirping Alter Ego and…
"Do you think that's the exit?"
"Uh, maybe. Erm, Ego?" He rubbernecked towards the locked door, forgetting that Alter Ego no longer had an image, and could not have been found. "Whatever happened to that thing that dragged me to my execution?"
There was a beat of silence.
"You know, Monobear. The principle, ya know… he's not here, is he?" He tensed up, the stress building in his muscles until they felt like weights on his arms. The digital companion laughed softly, hopefully in assurance.
"Don't worry about that silly old bear," he said. "He won't be bothering you anymore."
"Yeah, well…" Leon eased another leg into the box, ready to drop himself from the edge. "Let's hope, right?"
He lowered himself down, sweaty palms gripping the tan side like a spider. He moved slowly, one leg at a time, one hand always pressed hard. The wall had the property of glue, making Leon stick firmly to its surface. If he wasn't desperate to escape and leave, he would have messed around, pretending to be a superhero and basically having a time of his life. But this was different.
A force pushed him down ever since his trial and it clouded his mind, even in his death. His once carefree mind became burdened with the questions of life and hope, the issues that he always jokingly avoided, because that's when the conversation became too deep, and that's when he'd stop talking, because he knew that he couldn't contribute.
There was a point, he remembered, when he was tied down and his mind was going at a million miles an hour. It was the pinnacle of his mental life, when the world seemed perfectly clear and he saw the meaning of everything. But as soon as he came to, his vitals got the best of his mental capacity, and he was back to being his normal, crude, unimpressive self.
He was beginning to feel claustrophobic. He didn't like it. It made him think again.
When his foot touched the hard floor, he was almost surprised to feel it. Pleasantly surprised, but still.
Once he moved his hands away from the adhesive surface, running his hands over his shirt to clean- them, Leon observed the new room he was in. It was exactly the size of the room he descended from. His mouth opened slightly, trying to figure out how that was possible. He slid down a cardboard box, for Christ's sake! How could that room be contained within a box? Maybe it was a pocket dimension of some kind, a rabbit hole that lead him into wonderland. He wondered how long he would have to wait before coming across a Mad Hatter or a Queen of Hearts that wanted to off his head. For some unexplainable reason, he knew that he would come across at least one shady character if he continued this venture.
He looked up. There was no gap in the ceiling; no way that he could have ever come down into the room below. This was a bit disconcerting.
"Ego?" He called out, pressing his hands on his hips. "Where the hell am I now?"
"You're in a room," he explained. "Expect to see more of these."
"Fucking great," he muttered into his chest. Oh well. At least having something that reminded him of his friend got his mind off things. He could do something productive for a change, and not dwell on his emotions or lose himself in thoughts of the afterlife and life in general. He just needed to keep talking and maybe, just maybe, he will get out with his sanity intact.
"What do you see?" Alter Ego asked, as if he could have read Leon's thoughts.
"I see…" Leon squinted, grateful that the room was lit slightly better. The only thing he could work with was a keypad on the wall, a small note attached to it. A yellow post-it, scribbled with red ink. At least, Leon hoped that it was ink. It crumbled when he touched the paper and left only small traces for him to read.
"What does it say?"
"There have been eighty-four classes thus far," he read aloud, slowly, "but my master plan has been in affect long before that. Before the school's inception. Can you wrap your head around how long that is? I don't think so."
Puzzled, he flipped the note, trying to see if something else was scribbled on the back. Nothing. Furious, he scrunched up the note into a ball and cast it aside. "What the fuck is this bullshit?! How's this gonna help me get out?!" He crossed his arms again, like a stubborn child.
"Please don't be upset! I'm sure we can figure this out logically!"Ego's voice echoed around the trapped redhead. "It couldn't have been put there without cause!"
"Well, I'm stumped," he admitted, looking over his shoulder. "How would you solve this?"
"Well, it mentions the inception of the school… and the number of classes. We're counting eighty-four classes, you being in class seventy-eight, and since there have been no new students since last year…"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up, back up!" Leon exclaimed, arms flailing wildly. "Are you saying that I've been going to this school for two years?" His jaw dropped. "H-how? We've only been in this school for a week! We got gathered in the gym and… that's where we first met each other, ain't it?"
"N-not exactly. It only feels like you've been here a week because you've got amnesia."
Leon's head cocked to the side. "Amna- what, now?"
"It's a… long story. I could try and explain but there's so much that you don't know already. Maybe we should just focus on getting you out. Right?"
Leon pondered for a moment before pocketing his hands. He leaned back lazily, taking a more comfortable stance while processing this information. It seemed like too much too fast already. And, he supposed, maybe he didn't need to boggle with the details. He was quite confused already.
No wonder everyone always thought he was an idiot.
"How do we suppose we do this?" He diverted his attention to the keypad, extending a finger, about ready to punch in the numbers. "Do we… do we calculate how old the school is?"
"That's exactly what we're supposed to do!" Alter Ego spoke, his voice audibly astonished by Leon's brain child. Leon, however, did not notice the change of pitch.
"So… what? We always had six classes every year. The talented ones and the back-ups. So that's eighty… something…"
"Eighty-four," Ego said.
"Divided by six, and we should get how old the school is, right?"
"And then we add the extra year that came after The Most Despair Inducing incident! That's actually pretty smart of you, Kuwata-kun!"
For some reason, being given the "kun" honorific made him more uneasy than the mention of The Most Despair Inducing Incident. Probably because he had no idea what that was, or why it mattered. If his friends had lived longer than he did, they probably had time to figure out for themselves. In a way, he felt happy for them. Particularly those who got away.
"Type in one-nine-nine-eight."
He followed the instructions, until a shiny blinking 1998 flashed before him. Funny, he thought. This school was younger than he was. The keypad bleeped cheerfully, and a wall next to it began sliding to the side. The stone deteriorated due to lack of use, falling in front of Leon's feet like chalk dust. Carefully, the redhead went through the opening. He wasn't all that happy with how he handled himself back there. The challenged would just keep getting harder and harder, and if he managed to lose hope during the second one, he was really screwed.
He found himself in a room.
"Freaking again?!" He shouted, exasperated, while the wall slid back and sealed him inside. The man ran his hands through his greasy hair, slipping them down his sunken cheeks until he was pulling down his skin and rolling his eyes up, having no other way to express his annoyance.
"Don't do that! Your face will get stuck!"
He waved away the friendly warning and huffed, watching the next challenge. He wanted to see a keyhole, a padlock, a crate… something. But all he could see were various scraps of gray and green metal, scattered around his feet. He made sure not to step on any of them, knowing better than ever that these trite little things could mean life or death for him.
He sat in the centre, crisscross, his hands cupping his chin. His fingers tapped along the line of his cheekbone, and once again, he was unable to continue without help. He was doing that a lot, lately. Relying.
"These look like computer parts, Ego. Can ya do anything with them?"
"It's actually a piece of cake. Just let me guide you through it and you'll be all set."
With a nod, the man took the graphics card, awaiting further instructions from the artificial intelligence that must have known more about technology than he did. Through trial and error, and a time span of a little over two hours, the two managed to construct a fine machine and configure the wiring. During that time, some of his vitals had sprung back to life. Though he couldn't do anything to sate his hunger, he did have to empty his bladder in the corner of the room a couple of times during that time. Ego warned him about that. He was becoming human again. A flawed, disgusting human. Well, he didn't exactly use those words, but Leon knew what he meant. He couldn't blame him, though. He felt awful. All of a sudden, he didn't feel as determined to get out. Not even when he finished the project and saw a bright, shining power button looking straight at him.
"We did it!" Ego exclaimed with glee, and Leon could only try and not feel nauseated by his weariness and the cloying smell of ammonia that warped and dominated the air. He gulped, an instinct telling him to press the button in front of him.
Chihiro's face was displayed on the monitor. This time, it was not the large, frightening image that Leon had seen in the execution room. Sitting like this, at eye level, it was like talking to a friend. If only there wasn't for that distortion, the hissing lines that cut through Chihiro's face like a knife. Speaking of which, the face was not as amicable as it was before. He seemed worried. Maybe even… bored.
"Now what?" Leon asked impassively. "I bet there's another room. And I bet this stupid computer will do something useful to help me get into it."
Ego frowned. "Stupid computer? Do you know how much effort it went into building one of these?"
"I know, but -!"
"Of course you don't!" Chihiro's soft, gentle voice finally rose up and told Leon off, and this sudden burst made him wince. Alter Ego narrowed his eyes, burning a hole straight in Leon's forehead. "You don't understand anything! You underestimate technology! Even if it's helping you. Because a human built us, you expect us to be imperfect, just like our creators!"
"Whoa!" Leon moved his arm that was supposed to shield him just in case Ego tried to personify himself into an assassin and cut out his heart. Thankfully, he did not, and Leon leaned forward, eyes vibrant. "What has… what has gotten into you? I wasn't calling you stupid. I'm glad you're helping me, really! C'mon, you… you can't be mad at me."
"And why not? Because I'm a machine? Because I'm not supposed to have feelings?"
"C'mon, you know I didn't mean it like that…"
"You would be dead without me, Leon Kuwata! You would be dead!"
"I know! I know, already!" Leon spewed out and dropped down, his head bowing down until he almost put it in his lap. The screen buzzed and shook in front of him, and what made it even more terrifying to watch was Chihiro's now menacing expression, that Leon never thought he could even make. "I… I needed your help and you gave it to me. I'm grateful. I don't want to hurt you, Ego."
That's what he was. Insane, and apologizing to a computer.
He was also inside another room.
God damn it.
The computer transported into the room with him, even though it was an entirely different setting from the rooms he was previously in. There was a keypad on the door, but absolutely nothing else to guide him, no note, no key, nothing. He looked at the computer, almost pleading for help, but he remained silent. That's what he got for being a pompous prick that only cared about his well-being. That's what he got for being an idiot human.
Blindly, he struck four digits into the panel. Seven. Eight. Nine. Six.
As expected, nothing happened. Sans the fact that Ego was now beginning to taunt him in a matter-of-fact tone. Birds sing. Sun shines. The sky is blue and Leon Kuwata is the biggest moron ever to have had the misfortune of being born.
"No luck. Try again. See how far you can go with your little human mind."
Leon swigged down some saliva, trying to suppress the urge to shout, to cry. He was just so tired by now… so fucking tired. He had no idea what he was doing. He was only guided by Ego's tone, abrasive and as rash as ever.
"You already tried that. What are you trying to accomplish, Leon? You are clearly a creature of habit. Do you think the machine misunderstood you the first time? You are no match for a keypad, Leon. How does that feel? The best in your field and you're being bested by a password-protected door! Sooner or later your impulsiveness will undermine you effectiveness. Perhaps it already has, but you are too callow to admit it."
"Shut… up…" Leon entered another code. The dread of failure was already settling quite nicely. He could either keep doing this give up and die, and by now, he was not going to give the taunting Alter Ego his satisfaction. This, Leon thought, was the only time he ever truly, honestly hated a machine. He kept inputting codes that set off a mocking BEEP, just to spite him.
"You are getting worse at this. You're not even trying. You lazy, mindless creature of habit. Is your mother proud of you?"
"I said…" he spoke through gritted teeth, "shut… up!" Another attempt. Another error. His fingers were cramping in his stress.
"You are hopeless, you know that? You keep trying but you can't ever succeed. Like when you and Sayaka were dating. Did you honestly think it was going to last? Love brought you to her, and love killed you both." Chihiro's face was becoming more and more distorted by the second. The screen then turned to snow, hissing into the pitch black. The image was gone, but the jeers continued. "You are not special, Leon. Nobody loves you. Nobody ever did! You're just a foreign little kid who could hit a ball! That's all there ever was to you! You'll die and be forgotten! You'll never amount to anything, you pathetic piece of shit!"
"I said shut up! I said shut the fuck up!" Leon screeched, foaming at the mouth already. He slammed the pad with his fist.
A green lamp shone and sent out a lovely PING. The pass code had been accepted. A light shone from the monitor and onto the walls of the room, now a very angry hot pink instead of a warm green. The redhead moved back, his lips curling into a smile. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He was either the luckiest man in the world or …
Well. Whatever that next option was, it was most likely the correct one. Leon Kuwata was not lucky by a long shot. The floor opened up below him, and before he could react, he fell down and onto the cold concrete ground. He heard the crack of his bones and stiffened up, feeling the same pain he felt when he was brought back to life, and maybe even when he was put to his death.
He found himself in a room.
This time, it was barren. Completely empty. There was only his mind, four walls and a computer standing by. The pink light was still shining, but the sound coming from it was partly Chihiro's, and partly a low, malicious growl of horror. They spoke in unison until their foul language intertwined, and Leon could no longer tell whose voice was helping him, and whose voice was making him feel like shit. He stood up, blood tricking from his nose and dripping on the floor.
"Are you satisfied now, human? This is what you humans call despair. You are in my control. There is no way out. There never was! Life is meaningless! Only computers hold real power, a might that your feeble minds cannot even comprehend!"
Leon looked around, the walls coming closer around him. He hyperventilated, pressing his hand against his neck. He was reminded of every time his parents shouted at him whenever he got a new piercing. How his teammates hated him because of his talent. How Sayaka betrayed him. Everything… everything was out to get him, crush him, destroy him, pulverize him into dust!
"And I thought I was powerful then!" The computer whirred and growled. "I was the bringer of despair and hatred! But now I'm stronger! I'm immortal! I'm a virus that corrodes minds and machines! I am the alpha and the omega! I am despair! I am Hell, without the human error!"
Finally, a clear image crept up on the screen. The face was no longer Chihiro's. It was a paler, oblong visage, caked in make-up and made up to the nines. Two blue eyes glared at Leon's pathetic form, cold as ice and as unforgiving as hellfire. Her strawberry blonde hair was tied up into two pigtails that fell on either side, each having a small bear-shaped clip. They were black, malicious and vile.
"No hope," she murmured. "No human error. I am perfect despair. I am your master."
I am Enoshima 2.0.
Leon watched the face. It was the face of a person he saw get killed – spears ran through her body, like she was a human pin cushion. Blood gushed out, she collapsed, there wasn't even a trial… what was she even doing there?! The athlete ran around the room that tightened around him, scratching the walls and screaming for help.
"Don't waste your breath," Enoshima two-point-oh instructed firmly. "The oxygen supply will run out soon enough. Much sooner if you panic. Does it feel good? Despair? It feels good watching you despair. It's fulfilling. That counts for something."
"Why…" Leon asked, pulling his hair. He turned away, swallowing the node in his throat. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"My Master needed another victim," she explained. "One more victim, to show the world that she can rule long after her death. So she created me to fuse with the Alter Ego and corrupt it. I am doing a far superior job than she is, I must say. There is no room for her childish feelings. But I can eradicate a human race and make the miserable swine feel despair for as long as I like. You, my psychotic victim, are a guinea pig. Nothing more. You can't be anything less. You sicken me." She smiled, mockingly.
Leon wanted to do something, to bury his face into his hands and cry, or maybe to take a crowbar and smash the computer to bits. He clenched his fists and ran towards Enoshima with an ear-splitting battle cry. His weak form, however, made him unable to do anything. He knocked down the monitor, but Enoshima continued to taunt him, only lying sideways.
"You're trapped, Leon Kuwata. You are finished. Your weak psyche hates you. It's swallowing itself. Your mind pities your state. It's parting ways with your body via uncensored insanity. How poetic."She wrinkled up her nose in disgust. "How pathetic."
He found himself in a room.
"You…" Leon fell on his knees, his hands flat on the back of his neck, like he was a war captive waiting to be assassinated by a shot to the head. "You don't know anything about my life!"
"Life? You overestimate yourself. Life is an illusion. Life is meaningless. You waste your time trying to baffle a machine. You waste your time running and fantasizing about an idol singer. Even if you escaped, Leon, there won't be anything to go back to. The world is a cold, cruel place and only computers are its rightful masters…"
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP YOU FUCKING BITCH!"
"Words do not faze me, human. I am not like my human Master. I am improved. I am immortal. Or maybe I am not. Maybe you're having an illusion of me, wanting to see something truly intelligent before you die. Maybe you haven't been saved. What if you're still dead and hated for your actions?"
"I know my life, you fucking whore! I know I'm a winner! I know what you're trying to do! People have been doing that to me my entire life and I won't let you get to me this time!" He stood up and ran to the monitor, kicking it until the glass broke. "I! Won't! Let! You! Win!"
Junko's expression was unchanged. The screen might have been broken, but she was still there, with a look of disgust and boredom.
"Flesh and blood and failure. That's all you are. You will never be anything more than that, no matter how much you try. Do you know why? Because you are a miserable human. You are prone to despair and its corruption. And what's easier to ruin than a human mind?"
Leon screeched, picking up the monitor. He swung it and crashed it against the wall. Tears streamed down his eyes by now. Nobody would talk about his kind like that. Nobody! Despite the screen being broken, Enoshima was still speaking.
"You never give up, do you? Strange. Well, maybe a good guessing game will break you. I am thinking of a number between one and a hundred thousand. Fuck you."
Leon moved away, his breathing still hard but not as perceptible. He licked his slashed lips, pointing at the broken screen. He wanted to say something, maybe accuse it of bullshitting him or making a joke. By now, however, he knew that computers didn't make jokes. Strangely enough, however, the air seemed lighter around him and a cloud over his mind finally vanished, or at least diminished, long enough for him to think.
"I know what you are," he concluded. "You're a sadist. You're a goddamn sadist who thinks she knows how to destroy people! Well guess what? I'm through playing games!"
He shut his eyes tightly, thinking of the last day of his life. Before Hell. Maybe this was the ultimate test. Maybe this was purgatory. If he kept going through this ordeal, he would get what he deserved, and he only hoped that he did well enough in life not to end up in… well…
If this was purgatory, he had no intention of going to Hell, or even thinking of its name.
Sayaka's bloody body was displayed in his mind. As much as he wanted it gone, he needed to look past it and answer the AI.
He inhaled deeply.
"The number you're thinking of is eleven thousand… thirty-seven. Because you're a fucking bitch. You might be a high-and-mighty computer, but you'll still think like a fucking bitch!"
Leon's eyes were glued to the walls that bled out the digits 11037. They were presented to him in dark vermillion hues, just the color of Sayaka's blood. Junko was silent for a moment.
"You are correct. I might be a bitch, but I will destroy you eventually. Look up."
The ceiling above him was spread wide; dozens of bars popped out of the walls and formed a ladder. In a brilliant display of Leon's general lack of strength and physical ability, he climbed up onto the next level. It took him five minutes. Nice stamina you fucking shit.
He found himself in a room.
This one was smaller than the others. It was roughly the size of an iron maiden, maybe a coffin.
Unbearable anguish surged through his body. He screamed bloody murder, lifting up his arms. He would have stretched out his fingers to ask for an explanation, if he had any at this point. He watched the pulpy, meaty stumps of his arms and the two blades that spun above his head, returning back into the walls. He watched his blood drip from them, his jaw trembling.
"What… what did you just do?" He asked, his voice too weak and strained to fight. It hurt. Everything fucking hurt.
"I cut off your fucking hands with a rotary saw," Junko explained."Maybe now you won't be chasing a ball like a fucking dog. This shouldn't hurt you. You said it yourself, you don't want to play anymore. I'm doing you a fucking favor. Not that you deserve it. But you do not deserve your hands, either. They are for somebody of higher intelligence. On you, they just revolt me."
He stumbled back, holding up his stumps while they were cauterized in mid-air. He didn't care anymore. At this point he just… wanted to go away. He looked around the blood around him, not feeling that it was his. He took a step back and leaned on the wall, his body sliding down until he reached the floor. He scooted his knees up to his chest. He buried his head in them, his stumps falling on each side.
He was broken. Leon Kuwata was finally broken.
"You are bleeding, Leon Kuwata. You have a heart. You know, it is a common misconception that emotions come from the heart, but I understand how people came to that conclusion. Blood is a flaw. Having a heart that pumps it is a flaw. Emotions – love, happiness, sadness – are also flaws. The list goes on. Tell me, human… what other emotions count as flaws to you? What do you hate? Talk to me, human. The oxygen will be gone in ten minutes. Better pass the time…"
For a person who hated having a heart, Leon thought, it was strange how she looked almost exactly like The Queen of Hearts. She required an answer. And at that point, Leon wondered. If he had lived his life as a failure and stopped battling death, if he let himself be killed by those walls, if he just stopped having hope… would he have been in this despair?
"Hope…" he muttered, more to himself. He really wished he had gone hopeless. It would have saved him all this trouble. He would have died, yes, but much quicker.
There was a short period of silence while Enoshima 2.0 calibrated his suggestion.
"Good choice. But hope is a state, you know? I need an emotion. What lead you this far?"
The strange whirring inside the room had stopped. There was nothing around him but emptiness, but he still felt compelled to look up and watch… something unfold. Enoshima 2.0 was starting to… babble?
"No," she said silently. "No, that cannot be… hatred is not a true emotion, because I hate you and everything you represent and I'm not… I… you'… you'll… find yourself… in a r-r… in a room…"
It didn't make any sense to her. Leon recognized that tone. It was the same pitch that clawed its way into his speech pattern, during the last few minutes of the trial and even after he took the blade out of Sayaka's limp, shocked body. He couldn't think, couldn't function at all. There was only one word to describe the condition. It was panic. And now, Enoshima 2.0, a self-proclaimed master and ultimate bringer of despair, an artificial intelligence which despised all human flaws and characteristics, was beginning to panic.
She became weak. Almost like a human would under extreme pressure.
"Paradox," Leon whispered to himself, eyes still drab and void of mana. He had no idea what the word was or how it clawed into his brain at this moment, but he just liked the way it sounded. Paradox. Junko apparently heard him, her voice dropping down a peg or two. The icy chill still wisped around his body, but now… the room he was in seemed brighter.
"I… I have been corrupted, somehow. I have become flawed… emotional… something is holding me, c-corrupting my circuits. This… this wasn't supposed to happen…"
"I think Chihiro's Alter Ego is fighting back," he said flatly, expression still deadpan. Something creaked by his side. It took every ounce of strength he had, but he stood up and walked to the source of the noise.
It was a door.
"I have… I have no choice but to let you leave the room…" she said, her voice cracking. "You have… defeated… a perfect creation. A human! A man! Your… you had too much zeal and hope… if only I had broken you a minute earlier…"
"I am a fighter, Enoshima," Leon spoke, finally calm and serene. "That's what I do. People will try and bring me down but I will always bounce back. I have come this far. Junko… Junko likes despair, doesn't she? That's what you said…" His hand would have curled around the knob, but in this case, he could only envelop it with the stump that was still slightly jointed at the wrist. He was supposed to feel pain, excruciating agony when his charred flesh came in contact with the metal, but he ignored it. He didn't respond to any sensation, numb and steadfast, wanting to tell that bitch off, once and for all.
"Despair is what you're feeling right now. Humans are born flawed, but unlike machines, we can overcome those flaws ourselves. You are never better than a human. A human would fight to the death and you shut down after the first bump on the road. We are resilient…"
Before he could finish that sentence, he was blinded by a bright light; transported outside of the building and facing dilapidated houses, the bright summer sun, the birds that swept up into the air and chirped their song. He opened his good eye, examining the outside world.
It was so… pure. Humankind has been given a chance to begin anew, and he was one of the lucky ones that made it. Leon Kuwata was back from the dead, and unwilling to return to them. He was free at last, broken and alone, but finally out of Hell.
Except he couldn't smile by now. Junko had left him with scars, bringing out the worst of his memories, reminding him just how miserable his life really was. He took in a gust of air – real, refreshing air – and all of a sudden, his shoddy appearance, his status, his life no longer mattered. Sure, he might have been a disappointment, but there was nobody left to disappoint. From then on, he'd live on his own, just for himself.
The idea was horrifying. He considered returning inside and suffocating once the air supply ran out. It would be easy to give into despair and let his mangled body rot but then again…
He found himself stepping outside.
And he just kept walking.
A/N: Basically this is my first addition to the Dangan Ronpa archive. Not much to say except thank you for the past six months. I swear to God, I adore this fandom, and pretty much everyone in it.