Asahina Asahina didn't think that she would be able to eat anything for the rest of her life, after what she'd just seen. Maybe not even donuts.
Especially not pancakes.
The Super High School Level Swimmer screwed up her face and pressed both hands tightly over her mouth, trying to swallow back bile at the memory of it. The execution had only been a moment ago, but it had seemed to go on forever. The memory of it was harsh in her mind, flashing again and again across the inside of her eyelids like a broken lightbulb. She's see it in her nightmares, she just knew it.
The girl felt a heavy hand laid on her shoulder. She knew immediately who it was, and felt safe enough then to take her hands away only to grip Sakura's tightly with both of them.
As awareness returned, as the ringing faded from her ears, she heard footsteps, and voices. Some of the other students had apparently recovered much more quickly than her, and were filing towards the elevator. Asahina knew that she would have to join them. She didn't mind, really – the sooner she was out of this place and safely back in her own room, behind a locked door, the better.
She opened her eyes to see Togami, Hagakure, Celes, and Touko all making a beeline for the elevator. She took a deep breath.
"L-Let's go, Sakura-chan," she stammered in a weak voice, starting off.
Asahina paused immediately, looking back at her friend. She saw then that Sakura wasn't looking at her, but was instead regarding the students that were still in the trial room. Asahina looked with her, seeing Naegi, Kirigiri, Yamada…
The boy was still at his seat, standing ramrod straight and staring at the floor. His eyes were huge and glassy and unfocused, even as tears continued to stream from them. For such a normally hot blooded person, it was an honestly creepy thing to see, to the point that Asahina couldn't help but shudder at the sight of him. She couldn't help but think, when she saw those dead eyes, that there was just nothing there.
But neither would she leave him here, either. The other three were obviously trying to bring him back to the real world – she and Sakura went over to see what they could do to help.
"Ishimaru-kun?" she ventured tentatively, waving an arm in front of his face. He didn't so much as blink.
"He's in shock," said Kirigiri. Her arms were folded tightly across her chest, and she was worrying at her lower lip as she stared intently at Ishimaru, almost as though hoping to draw him out of his shell by sheer force of will. "Some sort of catatonic state."
"I can't really blame him," said Naegi, who looked nothing but concerned and sad for Ishimaru, and faintly nauseated after what they'd all just seen. "He…he really took it hard…"
"Really? Taking it hard, did you say? As hard as a dumbbell to the head, maybe?!"
Asahina, Naegi, and Yamada let out nearly identical shrieks of surprise as Monobear suddenly materialized in their midst. It was bad enough that Yamada, who had been busily but carefully trying to shake Ishimaru back to coherence, lost his balance and fell. Unfortunately, his grip on Ishimaru meant that he didn't quite let go in time, and Ishimaru fell with him.
He didn't even make a sound. He hit the floor like a doll and lay there.
"O-Oh!" cried Yamada, scrambling upright as quickly as he could. "Kiyotaka Ishimaru-dono! I-I am so sorry! Let me help you up!"
"Good! And be quick about it!" Monobear tapped one paw impatiently on the floor, checking an imaginary watch, as Yamada went about trying to haul Ishimaru back upright. Yamada was not a strong boy, however, and had very little success. Even when Naegi went to help him, that still didn't change the fact that Ishimaru just wasn't doing anything to get up. "This isn't just anyplace in this school, you know!" Monobear continued angrily. "You're only supposed to be down here after there's a murder! Unless…" It put one paw to its mouth thoughtfully, regarding them all. "…you're going to make it so that there's another murder right now? I knew it! You're all planning to murder Ishimaru while he's down! Break his neck! Put your hands over your mouth and smother him! Bash him in the head just like his brother did to Chihiro Fujisaki!"
"N-No!" Asahina cried, feeling horrified and sick all over again and wanting, more than anything, for Monobear to just go away. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Naegi and Yamada settle on a compromise, where they both took one arm around the shoulder to keep their classmate propped up. "It's not like that! We would never do that to him!"
"Of course you wouldn't! That wouldn't make any sense at all! After all, only one person can graduate from a murder!" Monobear surveyed them all critically, humming to itself, before pointing to the largest of their number. "I suggest Sakura Oogami! She's strong! I bet she could do any of that with her bare hands! And then kill you all for being witnesses!"
"Sakura-chan would never do that!" Asahina's voice was almost a scream, she was so angry and miserable and sick. "We're not like you! We wouldn't do that to a friend!"
She turned to stare at them all, her gaze fierce, the beginnings of tears in her eyes. "Right?!"
They all nodded, as she'd known they would. All except Sakura, who was staring intently at the unresponsive Ishimaru.
And then she approached him, where he was hanging limply between Naegi and Yamada. The other two boys looked up at her…and, for a moment, Asahina knew they doubted her.
She never did, though. Not Sakura. Especially not Sakura. They might have called her the Ogre behind her back, she might have been bigger and stronger and more powerful than all of them, but Sakura was one of the very best people Asahina had never known.
And the boys seemed to realize that, after a second's horrible doubt. Or at least, they didn't make any move to stop her when Sakura knelt down enough to pick up Ishimaru from between them as though he weighed nothing. She only stooped a little, because the other boy really was very tall, when she settled him on her back.
"…of course," she finally said, in a soft, sad voice. Asahina couldn't see her expression as she looked down at the floor. But she could tell by the way she stood, the way she spoke those two words, that Sakura's heart was breaking.
The wrestler glared up at Monobear next. "Call us another elevator. We are leaving."
"Tch." Monobear turned its back on such a scene of unity, waddling away back to its podium. "That's what I wanted you bastards to do all along! I do everything for you otherwise – can't I have a little time to myself? Go on, get back upstairs! Maybe drop Mister Hall Monitor on his head, make it look like an accident!"
He pressed some sort of hidden button. Asahina heard an elevator start to rumble downwards in reply, and couldn't but breathe a small, soft sigh of relief.
Things would be better, when they were out of here. They always were, at least for a little while.
"Go on, and hurry it up this time! Or I'll flood the room with poison gas – then you can stay here forever if you like it so much!"
They didn't need telling twice. When the doors opened, the remaining six students made a beeline for the car. Or, well, it wasn't so much of a beeline – Sakura led the way, moving with more purpose than any of them probably felt combined, obviously motivated to get Ishimaru out and away. The rest of them moved around her, almost like an honor guard, unwilling to be too far either from her or from Ishimaru while he was still in his catatonic state.
But Monobear couldn't resist a parting shot. He never could.
"Asahina-san…do you mean to say that Mondo Oowada wasn't your friend? Or that Byakuya Togami, Touko Fukawa, Yasuhiro Hagakure, or Celestia Ludenburg aren't, either? Because Oowada was very capable of doing that to one of his so-called 'friends'. And as for the rest…well, they all went ahead and left you here with me!"
They were cruel, harsh, and above all true words, and Asahina felt something break inside her as each one hit her like a blow. But she clenched her fists at her side and refused to look back as she joined the others in the car, not until the door had closed behind them and they'd started to ascend.
It was lonely and empty, with only six in the car, especially when Asahina couldn't shake the sense, no matter how hard she tried, that there were only five. Especially when she couldn't help but wonder if, one day soon, there would only be six to ride in this elevator together.
Asahina visibly shook her head, trying to dislodge the thoughts. No. No one else would kill anyone, would they? Not after seeing that. Not after seeing what would happen to them. None of the others would be so cruel, right? Not so cruel as to put them all through a trial again, to put them all in danger, to take a life…
She could still hold on to that belief, after all this time. She knew that she had to, but she also realized with a tight, hot, sick feeling in her chest that it was getting harder.
To help keep the bad thoughts at bay, Asahina found herself turning to Sakura, as she had so many times over the last horrible, awful days. And she had to admit that it was an encouraging, inspiring sight – Sakura, still standing tall and strong, but always, always using her strength for good, to protect them and keep them safe. Yes, she was strong, maybe the strongest person in the world, but she was also gentle and kind and Asahina hoped that the others would see that, now. She hoped they would remember this sight of her, carrying Ishimaru gently and carefully on her back, carrying him away from Monobear and all his cruelties, protecting him in the hopes that he might recover.
She hoped that he recovered. She really, truly did. But now, seeing him like this, all his perfect posture and passionate declarations and love of order and fire in his eyes just gone…
…Asahina hated Monobear, then. She even felt, deep down in the pit of her stomach, a tiny flickering of hate towards Mondo, as well. After all, it seemed that he'd succeeded in taking two friends away from them, and not just one.
Maybe people could still be that cruel.
An inappropriately cheerful "ding" sounded in the car. The elevator rumbled to a stop, the doors slid back, and they all piled out into the hallway, eager to be well away from that place. If they had their way, Asahina knew, they would never again return to it.
"We should take him to his room," Kirigiri said.
Asahina nodded. The others did, too. It was the only sensible thing to do.
But they'd only taken a few steps away when something happened to draw all of their attentions immediately, made them all turn on the spot or pause in their tracks to stare at Ishimaru with baited breath.
Asahina wasn't sure if she wanted to laugh or cry when it happened again – when Ishimaru moved.
He'd turned his head to look at them – to really, truly look at them. Just for a second, but enough for Asahina to see a glimmer of life there where there hadn't been before.
His expression changed, fractionally. But it was only so that a flash of the misery and despair he'd been showing so freely before could rear its ugly head. Asahina expected him to start sobbing again. She realized, horribly, that she was almost hoping for it.
But instead, Ishimaru just turned away from them, shifting so that he didn't have to look at them. He pressed his face against Sakura's shoulder, and began to…weep. Not sob, just…cry, the sort of crying where the only reason you heard anything was because the person was just too weak to keep silent anymore. He'd sobbed and screamed, down in the trial room, before Mondo had died, he'd raged against the wrongness of it all with all the fire in his blood. This was nothing like that.
And yet, as Asahina watched him move one hand to grasp blindly, tightly at the fabric of Sakura's shirt, saw his other digging fiercely into her upper arm, she realized that it was still hurting him just as much, hurting him so much that he could barely survive in the pain of it. And she felt the tears that had been threatening for the last while finally begin to trickle down her cheeks in hopeless, helpless sympathy.
She would forever be ashamed of the fact that it was Yamada, of all people, who acted first. The doujin author stepped forward hesitantly, staring up at Ishimaru with pity and sympathy. He reached out with one trembling hand and patted Ishimaru gently on the shoulder. "Kiyotaka Ishimaru-dono…i-it will be okay."
Useless words, untrue words…but they were something. They were comfort. And even if Ishimaru flinched away from his touch as though it hurt…it was a sign of life.
"Y-Yeah…" said Asahina, wishing that her voice didn't sound quite so awful as she stepped forward to stand beside Yamada. "Ishimaru-kun…we're still here."
It wasn't completely over. Monobear still hadn't won. And no matter how much Ishimaru was hurting, he wasn't alone.
They reached for his hand at the same moment. They both flinched back in surprise, staring at one another. But then Asahina smiled gently at Yamada, tears still making her vision blur. They reached out again together, both holding his hand.
Naegi's hand joined theirs', as did the gloved hand of Kirigiri. And then, with just a little rearranging and shifting, Sakura managed to cover all of their hands with her large, scarred, warm one.
"We won't hurt you," said Naegi, his voice emphatic and strong as Ishimaru's had once been. "No matter what Monobear says…we're friends!"
Asahina looked around at her classmates…her friends…feeling a tiny, tiny smile settling onto her face. It was a silly gesture of support, maybe, but she could see on all their faces that it was genuine, that they really, truly, wanted to be here, for Ishimaru and for one another. This was a moment for pure and utter honesty and support, and she knew that the sight of their six hands holding tight to one another would stay with her, even after the memory of Mondo's silhouette in the cage faded away.
Especially because, even if he still wasn't looking at them, even as his shoulders shook with tears, she could feel Ishimaru holding her hand tight, as though he never wanted to let go.
Asahina knew then that he would recover. It would take time. It would hurt. But he knew now that they were here for him, and they knew now that he was still in there, buried in all the despair. Even if it would take time to dig him out, she knew the five of them would keep at it, wouldn't stop until he was leading their breakfast meetings and chastising them for their dress code violations like always.
They all brought him back to his room, saw him laid on his bed and covered by a sheet. He'd withdrawn back into himself, by then, but Asahina couldn't give up hope, not after the signs they'd already seen, and it was clear that the others were determined not to, either.
Naegi ran to get him water, Yamada held his head up as Asahina helped him drink it. Sakura kept back, staying by the door. It almost seemed as though she were standing guard. Kirigiri, seemingly a bit uncomfortable, busied herself tidying up – the room was immaculately clean, but there were still signs that some of Ishimaru's distress over the murder had bled out into his living space, and Asahina knew that, when he finally came back to himself, he'd want things to be tidy.
Naegi and Yamada brought them food, next – Asahina hadn't even realized that dinner time had come and gone. She was reluctant to eat, still, they all were to some degree. But Kirigiri, ever the rational one, pointed out that they'd all have to eat sometime or fall into a state of catatonia as deep as Ishimaru was still suffering from. The sooner they forced themselves, the better.
It was easier, when she put it simply like that. And Asahina thought that she could look at her four friends, keep the sight of their linked hands in mind, and maybe manage to keep the image of pancakes with butter out of her mind long enough to eat.
First, she saw to feeding Ishimaru, together with Yamada holding his head up. Then, in deference to Kirigiri having just cleaned up, they agreed to eat in the hallway. Slowly but surely, they all found their voices again, they all began to talk, really talk, about little, pointless, but above all innocent things. Or at least, Yamada and Naegi chattered, Kirigiri listened attentively with an amused little smile on her pale face.
"Are you all right, Asahina?" These were the first words Sakura had spoken to her in a while. Asahina was surprised to hear them, if only because they'd all been focused so intently on Ishimaru that she'd quite forgotten about herself.
But she smiled warmly up at her friend, grateful as always for the concern. "I…I think I'll be okay," she said. There was still a hitch in her voice, a promise of more tears, because she hadn't really processed what had happened and how horrible it had been, not really, not yet. But she could hold them back, for now, surrounded by the others, with them to focus on instead. "What about you, Sakura-chan?"
Sakura still looked grim and sad. Asahina wondered then if that was why she'd been keeping back all this time, so they wouldn't see it, wouldn't see that she was hurting, too, even if it wasn't as bad as Ishimaru.
Asahina was touched that Sakura trusted her enough to confide that much in her, at least.
"I am well," Sakura said softly, solemnly, and Asahina could tell that she was just as surprised and grateful for the question as Asahina had been. "What happened was…horrible." She took a deep, steadying breath, her gaze falling to the floor. In an even quieter voice, almost as though she were speaking to herself: "But…we will endure."
"Right," said Asahina, trying for a smile. "We'll be okay. I know we will."
Especially with Sakura keeping them safe.
The thought reminded her, of earlier events, of another reason why Sakura might be looking quite so somber. This prompted Asahina to reach out and rest a hand lightly on her friend's arm, a sign of support. "Sakura-chan, please don't think too hard, about what Monobear said. We know you aren't like that. We know you'd never hurt any of us, especially not Ishimaru-kun."
Sakura still didn't look up at her, but Asahina saw that she smiled softly all the same. It was a sad, tired sort of smile, but Asahina could hardly blame her for that. "Your confidence…does me credit, Asahina," said Sakura, after a few seconds of silence between them.
"You deserve it," said Asahina emphatically. And then, before she could stop herself or lose her nerve, she pushed herself up onto her knees, so that she was tall enough to be at eye-level with Sakura…and, more importantly, tall enough to lean forward and kiss her friend lightly on the cheek.
The gesture surprised Sakura noticeably – Asahina heard her gasp, saw her blush, felt herself blush, saw out of the corner of her eye that they were being stared at. But she made herself keep looking at Sakura long enough to say, "I believe in you, Sakura-chan. We all do." She looked back at the other three, seeking support. "Right?"
They all nodded, as she'd known they would. Even Yamada, who had always been a bit nervous around her.
Their impromptu dinner wrapped up, shortly after that. Kirigiri was the first to leave, calling back over her shoulder that they should call her if anything changed. Yamada scurried off back to his room, a little after, muttering something about spending some time with Bo-ko to heal his soul. Naegi asked them both if they would be okay and, after assuring him that they would, walked alone back to his room.
It was Sakura who suggested, gently, after a little while longer of silence, that Asahina should probably go back to her room for some rest.
"…will you come with me, Sakura-chan?" Asahina found herself asking.
Sakura considered it for a moment, before shaking her head. "I should stay here, for a while longer," she said, looking back at Ishimaru's door. "Just in case. Someone should be here."
"I could stay with you."
"You should rest, Asahina. It might be hard to believe now, but I assure you – sleep will go a long way towards helping you recover from this, and perhaps even move past it."
Asahina saw that there was no budging her friend, and she also knew that Sakura was right. She didn't know how successful she'd be at trying to sleep, but she knew that she would at least have to try. "Okay," she said, not without a twinge of regret. She got to her feet, wincing a bit as her muscles protested after so long sitting. She started to turn away, but then a thought occurred to her. Placing her hands on her hips, adopting a stern stance, she stared down at Sakura. "But you have to sleep too, Sakura-chan, okay? You might be strong, but you have to take care of yourself, too! Promise me you'll go back to your room when Night Time comes!"
"…I will, Asahina. I promise."
Even if there was still an undercurrent of sadness in her eyes, even if her heart was still hurting for them all, Sakura smiled the closest thing to a genuine smile she'd managed all day. It gave Asahina hope to see it.
When she bent down to give Sakura another kiss on the cheek, neither one of them was surprised this time. Then, wishing her a good night, Asahina turned and walked down the hall towards her room, slipping inside and, yes, locking the door behind her.
Ishimaru was able to walk and move himself the next day.