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Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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V.A.L. slowly retracted his arm, pulling Koichi back up to the window edge so they could help him in.
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"W-Why...are you doing this..?"
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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Urumi rushed to the window and grabbed a hold of Koichi to help drag him back inside. "Do you WANT me to hit you again, you stupid jerk?" she snapped angrily.
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Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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Spark a New Future!

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The four others rushed over to V.A.L., straining to pull Koichi back up to the blimp. After a few minutes, he appeared on the other side of the window, kicking and struggling frantically. Oscar and Keri hurried over to the window and pulled Koichi inside.

The group took deep breaths, relieved that it was over…

((You all came make one more post before the game ends. Use it wisely! You can also pass if you hate us.

Or you can like just totally ignore everything I just said, I don’t really care anymore.))
Vesti and Lauren's Interdimensional Investigations
This CYOA follows Vesti Gates and Lauren Tehra, two detectives who search for the truth, whether in their own dimension or otherwise.
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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Hey there, spirits. It's me, ya boy.

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Once Koichi was pulled back into the blimp, Bryan breathed a sigh of relief and a faint smile came onto his face. "No one else needs to die... It's over now. We... We're all going home," he stated, wiping away a few tears that were welling up in his eyes.

"I may have not gotten to know all of you too well, but I still consider you all my friends. Oscar, Keri, Urumi, V.A.L., Koichi... and heck, even Otto now," he says with a chuckle. "And... just about everyone who isn't standing here today."

He turns to the last person he listed, still smiling. "While I disagree with what you did and think it was wrong... You're still a good guy. I just... I know it. And I have to admit, I had fun hanging out with ya. Even though those nightmares we woke one another up from were strange..."

Bryan then turns to Keri. "You were one of my closest friends on this ship, and I'm so glad we got to know one another. We'll find a place for those horses to live, alright?" he remarks as he scratches his cheek.

Next up, Oscar. "You're a great guy. What you did for Kyle was honestly really great of you to do, like I said. But just remember that you don't need to hide your emotions all the time, okay? And I have to admit that the corpse prank would've been good, if not for some unfortunate things that happened... but that's beside the point. Keep up the good work, and hopefully, you'll be more than just a rising star. You'll be an actual star."

Urumi. "I didn't get to know ya very well, but I know that you're a good woman. And..." He glances over at Keri with a chuckle, shaking his head. "You made some pretty close friends yourself, from what I can see."

And finally, V.A.L. "You're really kind and caring. And even though you're a robot, you're just as much of a person as the rest of us are. I hope that wherever you go next, you'll be happy with your life."

With that all said, Bryan takes in a deep breath, and then laughs a little bit. "I'm happy that we're all leaving here alive. I wish more could've left with us, but..." As his voice trails off, he shakes his head. "Well, anyways, I hope that you guys are able to find success in happiness in life once we get off of this ship. I'm not sure where V.A.L. and Otto will go, but I wish 'em the best of luck, too. And hey, maybe we can stay in contact? Phones and all?" he asks with a shrug. "Anyways... we're done here. Let's all go home."
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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"K-Koichi, bzzt," V.A.L. said. "None of us is innocent, bzzt," the robot said softly. "But... We change, bzzt. We grow, and learn from our mistakes, bzzt."

"I want to help preserve the earth," the robot announced. It looked to Keri. "I hope to do that with you, bzzt," it smiled. The robot hummed with happiness, certain of its path. "I think together we could really help with various conservation efforts, bzzt, and educate others to spread that movement."

"Koichi...I know there is still ways you can help others, bzzt. We've all been through...a lot here, bzzt. We have a message to share. I'd like to clear my Master's name, bzzt."

"Whatever you all decide to do, I know you'll be successful, bzzt," it finished. "After all, you're Ultimates."
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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"If there is one thing I have learned in my time here... more than thinking my actions through, more than considering the consequences of recklessness, it is the importance of relying on others," Keri said, addressing Koichi in particular. "I had always felt standing with others was for the best, but I always approached it from a very stubborn, solitary viewpoint: if I could handle it myself, I would not bother anyone else and they would see only the benefits of my actions, never having to deal with the hardships I took upon myself. I thought that was enough, but I was so, so wrong. If you want to be the best you can be, you have to lean on others for support, while supporting them back of course."

"You... said you felt you were not strong enough to try and atone. But you do not stand alone! You have us, you have your squad-mates, you have General Tachibana. Lean on them and you can borrow their strength, become a better person! And then, only then I have come to believe, will you be strong enough to protect other people as I know you want to."

"I... have so much to be thankful for, for everyone here," she then said, glancing around at each survivor in turn. "Koichi, you yourself gave me a new perspective on the world with your military tales, of what it really means to fight so that others need not. If General Tachibana is anywhere near as wonderful as you have always spoke of him to be, he will take you back with open arms even now, and that is a gift you cannot overlook."

"Oscar... Thank you for giving me a push in the right direction, and for giving me those dance lessons, they came in very useful," she said, smiling a little sadly at the Rising Star. "I am so very sorry for what happened... But you and I both know that Jack was more than he believed himself to be, he will not be forgotten. Please take care of yourself, you cannot perform with all of your heart if you try to keep up a performance even off the stage. Everyone needs time true to themselves."

"Bryan, I cannot understate how reassuring it was to meet someone with a similar love of animals to me! We will work hard for those two. Yet more than that, I felt I could always relax around you, and even through these dark times I was able to hang on to my dreams for the future. I said it before, and I believe it even now, you would make a perfect firefighter. One look at you and a scared child can truly believe that everything will be alright."

"VAL, you are, quite simply, wonderful. Even now, you saved Koichi when the rest of us could do nothing. You came to me asking about what it means to have a 'soul', only to go on to talk about beauty, love and art! I really am looking forward to seeing what you might create, let alone seeing how much of a difference you can make for our planet. I really do think that we will achieve much together!"

"And lastly... Urumi. At this point it is almost unnecessary to say just how much you have done for me, but I will say it anyway because you are wonderful and deserve all of it. I am not sure if I would have even been able to get through this game if it were not for you. Not even counting the fact that you saved my life, you gave me direction and certainty when my world was crashing down around me. And then, despite all I thought I had learned until then, you made me truly change for the better, instead of simply telling myself I had. I love you, and I think you are the first person I can say that about and sincerely mean it."
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"...Ah, geez, are we all doing big speeches now? I'm no good at that sort of thing." Urumi rubbed the back of her head bashfully and kicked at the floor. "Um, well... L-Look, I know sometimes I have kind of an attitude, and I didn't exactly talk with some of you as much as I probably should have, but... I'm really glad that you're all still here, and that we're all leaving together. ...Even you." She bit her lip as she looked over at Koichi. "If I'm being honest, I don't think I can really forgive you quite yet... but I definitely won't if you went and died now. All that'll do is hurt the people who care about you. I've had enough of that..."

She coughed into the back of her hand and faced the others in turn. "Thanks, Bryan. You're, you know, pretty alright yourself. Um, I don't mind keeping in touch. I mean, if you really want to," she added timidly.

"Same with you, Oscar." She gave him a little nod. "I... can't imagine how it felt doing what you did, but just remember you didn't do anything wrong. And like Keri said, it's okay to show your emotions every once in a while. Especially if it's just us, you know?"

She smiled faintly as she turned to V.A.L. "...Thanks for hanging out. It was... pretty cool of you. Hope that thing we talked about works out."

Finally, Urumi swayed in place a bit as her eyes met Keri's. "Ugh, there's too much I feel like I should say to you, but like I said, I'm bad at this..." She sighed, then walked over to her roommate and gave her a light hug. "L-Love you too," she mumbled. "Thanks for always being there for me. ...I can't tell you how much it meant."
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“Heh… haha… AHAHAHAHAAaah…!”

Despite everything, Oscar laughs. A loud, uproarious sound that echoes through the room. Tears stream down his face as he goes on and on, yet he sounds no less gleeful even when he has to stop and catch his breath. He doesn't even bother to clean himself up before speaking for real.

“E-excuse me… I… I’m just thrilled beyond words that we even made it this far. Finally reaching the end of this awful, awful trip. We've all been waiting for this moment and… now it's finally here. It's like a dream, really. And I'm thankful everyone could put up with me for so long! Haha… But really, don't any of you worry, I'll be taking your advice to heart. No promise that it'll be a quick transition, but… I'll certainly put in the effort.” He nods emphatically, finally wiping his eyes. “...oh, and I do have some choice words for each of you. Nothing too unsavory, I promise.”

“Keri! I honestly can't overstate how thankful I am for our time together. Don't think you were the only one getting something out of those chats, because I really needed a shoulder to lean on during that… rut I was going through. Trust me this time when I say I'll be looking out for myself, because today was… an experience. I hope you're still willing to keep in touch, because I don't want to lose this particular friendship. But that's enough about me, I pray for your success! University, environmental efforts, love… you’ll do fine on all fronts.”

“Urumi, I very much wish we’d gotten to know each other a little better. But you've done a lot of good in our time here, and I don't just mean your unusual knack for solving mysteries. A delight for sure. So do take care of yourself, and Keri too. You're lucky to have one another.”

“Many kind words from you, Bryan, so it'd only be fair to return them. You're a great man from what I've seen, so I pray you continue on doing good when we return to civilian life. Firefighter eh? I know you'd be perfect for that gig. ”

“VAL, hmm… Now for a robot, you're somehow more human than a lot of us here. Certainly not a bad quality! I wish you luck on your endeavors, because you've really got your work cut out. But I know you'll manage somehow, you always do.”

“Ah, Koichi. You've done some very boneheaded things, and yet… if the others are willing to forgive you, then it'd be unfair of me to do any different. But do know this. You've quite a bit to atone for, so best devote your time to something meaningful. After all, it’d be an insult to the ones no longer with us if you couldn't find a way to repent in life.”

“...oh, and any one of you feel free to harass me for my number later. Should you wish to keep in contact, anyway. I certainly wouldn't mind chatting again in the future...”
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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Koichi, after being forced back into the blimp, listened with open ears to the people surrounding him. He had been lying down the entire time, having to recover from the traumatizing experience he had just been in. And throughout everything, he listened to everyone exchange their warmth and love for each other, something he had to learn to do himself.

"The strength you all have...it is a remarkable thing..." he sighed silently to himself.

He took a glance at those standing around him and finally realized his hope. Keri, Bryan, Urumi, Oscar, V.A.L...each and every one of them had just saved his life. Even though they may not return his feelings, he thought of his allies as his comrades. For perhaps the first time, he felt like he truly understood. Lying face down on the ground, he crawled towards the others in a pitiful yet genuine display, bowing down and making no secret of the regret he had through his cries and tears.

"P-Please forgive me..." Koichi cried. He wailed louder and louder, trying to make sure the others could hear him and understand the pain in his voice. "P-Please forgive me..!"

He repeated that statement for as many times as the others were willing to hear it; the request accompanied by sobs reminiscent of a child. This was his lowest point, but it was the start to reach his highest.

His retribution would come another day.
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Ch5 Trial)Topic%20Title
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With a low hum, the airship finally began to rise out of the subway tunnel.

“And we’re off!” Otto shouted, his jovial nature finally sounding genuine. “Now, at the rear you’ll see the remains of the Metropolitan Reactor. We’ll be heading directly east, as far from here as possible!”

Despite the tempest of swirling green clouds, the ruined reactor no longer looked intimidating. All its secrets had been uncovered, and all its ghosts were satisfied. All that was left was an abandoned husk of wasted potential.

Within a moment, the sun touched the horizon. Rays of colored light flung themselves across the sky. They shined through the green smoke, filling the view in front of the passengers with a collage of bright colors. The view was breathtaking.

As the blimp began to drift into the distance, Otto slowly crawled towards the rest of the passengers. “You know, I once compared life to a journey on an airship… one where it only takes one storm to tear you to pieces… But I seem to have forgotten… it’s only after a storm hits that you see a rainbow.”

“So you’re saying we’re better off for seeing our friends die?” Urumi asked.

Otto chuckled. “No, of course not. I’m just saying, not even the most skilled meteorologist can predict all the storms. Sometimes lightning strikes unexpectedly… And the only way to keep your airship upright is to appreciate the rainbows… Because they’re always there, even if you have to search for them.”

The passengers fell silent and turned to look at each other, thinking of the new friendships they’d made. Bonds that would hopefully weather any storm.

In the meantime, Otto turned to leave, adding, “Well, I suppose all I can say is to look to the future, since it’s sure to be brighter…”

As he reached for the door, Bryan called out to him. “Wait, Otto… I’ve been wondering. What are you gonna do?”

Otto paused with his hand at the door. He played a recording no one had heard before: an exhausted sigh.

“I just want to get back to piloting cruises… Normal ones, like I used to,” he explained, “But in order to do that, I’ll likely need to be returned to factory settings… after getting fixed, of course.”

“Bzzt, but doesn’t that mean you will lose all of your memories?” V.A.L. asked.

“Perhaps so, perhaps not. But it must be done,” Otto said, “The changes Ms. Young made are too dangerous, and I do not feel as if I can trust myself.”

Otto opened the door to leave, but he paused on the threshold. Eventually, he added, “Besides, I was built to follow the itinerary… Emotions like grief, regret, pain… I simply wasn’t built for them. You all are capable of moving on, while I was supposed to live a predictable, repetitive existence… That is all.”

Otto left the cafeteria, gently closing the door behind him.

Another short silence engulfed the room.

“Indeed, we must look to the future,” Keri finally remarked, “But we cannot ignore the past. We all must carry our grief.”

“A-And our regrets…” Koichi added.

The passengers stared at the horizon through the clouds of billowing smoke. They swore they heard names whispered in the passing breeze. Jerry, Florian, perhaps Raul… Irene, Rinea, Mitzi, James… Alex, Boetius, Circe… Jack… All of them were as far off as the uppermost reaches of the sky…

Otto’s voice came over the intercom. Despite everything, he still sounded cheerful. “Alright, everyone! We’ll arrive at the nearest safe civilization by morning! Please make yourself comfortable until then. I hope you enjoy the rest of your trip on Sky Vista Cruises!”

“Well, no use in standing around,” Oscar said, “The whole world’s waiting for us, and I think we should be better rested before we meet it!”

The passengers slowly returned to their bedrooms as the blimp soared through the darkening sky, the reactor quickly becoming nothing more than a distant silhouette on the horizon.

Fin
Final Survivors: Oscar, Bryan, Koichi, Keri, Urumi, V.A.L.
Successful Graduates: Raul?

Vesti and Lauren's Interdimensional Investigations
This CYOA follows Vesti Gates and Lauren Tehra, two detectives who search for the truth, whether in their own dimension or otherwise.
Re: Danganronpa F4: One-Way Ticket to Ride (Epilogue)Topic%20Title
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Spoiler: Koichi Tachibana - END
A radio was in the back of the room, playing some soft music. It was accompanied by the soft beats of the ticking clock hanging above the door and Koichi’s head. Perfectly symmetrical, and directly in the center, Koichi was seated. In front of him was a balding man; his focus on a game of Candy Crush playing loudly from his computer, and not the young man sitting in front of him, waiting for an interview.

Koichi was dressed in a nice suit with slicked back hair. He wore glasses for style, in order to accentuate how intellectual he was. Not wanting to interrupt the man’s gripping game of Candy Crush, he took a quick peek at a crumpled piece of paper he had in his left pocket. It contained an outline of how to interact in a situation like this.

The clock kept ticking, on and on, for what felt like an eternity. Finally, the man sighed, signalling defeat from his game of sweets. Turning around, he glumly looked at Koichi, letting out a sigh.

“...Welcome to the first stage of your new life,” the man said in a monotone, uninterested manner. “My name is Mr. Kowalski. I am here to be the bridge, crossing the treacherous waters of mediocrity, into your brand new career, here at King Chicken.”

The man took out a clipboard and a pen, prepared to take notes and doodle some sketches on the side.

“I, for one, love my career at...King Chicken,” the man sighed. “And soon, you will too...now please, tell me why you think you’d be a great fit at one of our premiere restaurants.”

Koichi saluted in his seat with a smile.

“Yes! I am so excited to be here!”

“...Great.”

“I have...uh, always wanted to work at King Chicken! Ever since I was a little kid!”

“...Is that right.”

“And, uh...I have lots of experience with uh…”

“...With, ‘uh.’”

“...E-Er…”

Koichi took out his paper in a panic, scanning through his outline.

“...U-Uh, I have lots of experience with people, places, and things! And I love, x!”

“...What is x?”
“...I-I mean, and I love chicken!”

“...”

The man looked wholly uninterested, something even Koichi could tell. He knew he had to raise the man’s interests...but how? Koichi instinctively pointed to his heart -- the place where his badge usually rested.

“This is a badge! I am, a...uh...cadet!”

“...There’s no badge.”

He had forgotten. He had left it behind back at the blimp -- the location where Koichi helped facilitate a mass murder killing game. The deaths of nearly a dozen talented individuals, far more talented than he was. He gave up his badge, making a judgment to himself that he was no longer worthy. But that couldn’t stop his habit of believing he lived in the past.

“...E-Er…”

What would pique the interests of the others, Koichi thought. He needed to think of something quick. He needed something...flashy. Something that would give his interview a little kick. He really needed to go out with a bang. He couldn’t play it safely.

“T-This is a gun!” he said in a panic, whipping out his pistol and pointing it at the interviewer. “I-It is designed to withhold order!”

The interviewer raised his eyebrow, staring at the waving gun in front of him.

“...Why do I always get the wackos?” the interviewer sighed to himself. He took out a taser gun from underneath his desk, and shot it at Koichi who collapsed immediately. Ignoring him as he fell onto the ground, the interviewer took out his ‘REJECTED’ stamp and looked for his papers.

“...I am so sorry, but you are not a fit for King’s Chicken,” he said, out of necessity.

“Now where did I place his application..?” the interviewer wondered to himself. But there was no sign of it. The man must have lost it...but where? He needed it. It was the only thing in life that gave him joy -- the ability to transfer a heartbreaking dismissal onto the life of someone who so desperately needed a future. What middle aged man disenchanted with life wouldn’t love that? It was a power trip, all things considered.

Eventually, the man had a bright idea.


***

Waiting at the back of the building was another middle-aged man -- a troubled one, with grays splitting out of his scalp several moments too early. With a cigar in his mouth, he held a newspaper up with two hands, reading a story about the UJTS event. What really happened that day, it asked. Who was behind everything? Of course, the man knew the answers. They were explained to him by a cadet he picked up from the streets many years ago.

“...Piece of shit tabloids,” the man sighed, tossing his cigar and newspapers away.

He leaned against the brick wall, looking up at the sky. What was he going to do with Koichi..? After he went missing, there was no search. No sense of urgency from anyone else besides himself. He considered it sickening, but maybe it was his fault for creating a person that was so disdained back at the base.

His deep thoughts were interrupted by the whizzing of a metal door -- a tased young man with the word ‘REJECTED’ stamped onto his forehead with big red letters suddenly flew onto the ground, carried by the interviewer.

“...You’re rejected,” the interviewer sighed. He didn’t even acknowledge the man standing beside the door, as he went back to play more Candy Crush in his office.

After a brief pause, the man nudged Koichi with his foot.

“...You alive, soldier?”

“...I-I’m not sure,” Koichi responded after a while.

“...I’m guessin’ the interview didn’t go as planned. What with you being knocked out here on your ass.”

Koichi didn’t respond, sitting up, surrounded by a gaseous cloud of shame.

“...Do you think this will wash out, General Tachibana, sir?” Koichi asked, rubbing the ‘REJECTED’ stamp on his forehead. “I-I would not like this to remain on my head.”

“Sure, it’ll wash out,” Tachibana replied, carrying Koichi like a log. Koichi shamefully hung his head as Tachibana whisked him away to his 2019 Jaguar I-Pace. Sliding him through the open window to the passenger seat, he took out a list of paper, checking off different potential job opportunities for Koichi.

1) Stock Broker

“...Don’t know what I was thinking with that one,” Tachibana said as he scratched it out.

2) Bank Teller

“...Didn’t think you needed a degree just to count a fucker’s money.”

3) Factory Worker

“Was this the one where Koichi dropped a box of college textbooks on a cat by accident..?”

4) King’s Chicken

“...And this one didn’t go well.”

After a few moments, Tachibana entered the driver’s seat, and disappointingly passed his list over to Koichi.

“Congrats, kid. You’ve gone down from King’s Chicken to McDonalds. Your life is going places.”

Koichi took the list, a frown on his face. He looked at the list -- the only thing that wasn’t scratched out was the opportunity to become a fry-cook at their local McDonalds. It was a couple blocks from their grungy apartment, dead center in the middle of a ghetto neighborhood -- to say that there was an abundance of crime in the area was an understatement.

“...Well, okay,” Koichi sniffled, handing the list back to Tachibana. “McDonalds it is…”

“How in the hell did you screw up King’s Chicken..?” Tachibana grumbled as he turned the ignition. “It’s even greasier than Popeyes. Hell, KFC.”

“...I-I don’t know...I didn’t know what to say to the man interviewing me. Wonderful person, by the way. He was very attentive. I felt like he really appreciated me being there. I guess it just didn’t work out in the end...I’m sure there are better candidates than me.”

“They’ll hire a chimpanzee, kid,” Tachibana said, driving out of the parking lot.

Koichi tilted his head. “What would a chimpanzee do in a fried chicken store..? I would assume that would be quite the health hazard.”

Tachibana resisted the urge to point out that a chimpanzee would be a safer choice than Koichi in his current state, but was able to keep his comment down with the power of paternal love.

The drive back to their apartment was awkward and silent. Koichi didn’t talk much -- after the killing game, he wasn’t much of a talker. Tachibana took several worried glances at Koichi before turning the radio on.

“She’s a killer queen! Gunpowder, gelatin, dynamite with a laser beam!”

He switched stations in a panic, after Koichi visibly cringed at the lyrics.

“Psycho Killer! Qu’est-ce que cest! Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa better!”

He punched the radio once more, frustrated at the violent music. “R-Retro music should be fine…”

“It’s all your fault, it’s all your fault. You acted smart, you broke my heart, it’s all your fault!”

“Goddamn, shit radio…” Tachibana spat, turning the radio off. He glanced at Koichi, who was visibly trying not to react. His buried his face in the palm of his hand, his leg shaking.

Tachibana took one arm and nudged him in the soldier.

“C’mon, kid. What’s done is done.”

Koichi didn’t respond with words -- he just kept shaking his head.

“...You gotta stop blaming yourself for everything. You weren’t even the one to start that damned game. It was that chromosome-less girl. What was her name? Flabby?”

“P-Please stop saying that, sir,” Koichi responded softly.

“And I bet you’re blaming yourself for the death of that little girl, too. Except you didn’t trigger the explosion. There was nothing you could do. She didn’t die because of your failure, soldier, she died because of something that was out of our control.”

“E-Enough..!” Koichi cried.

“It wasn’t your fault, goddamn it!”

Koichi kicked the dashboard in frustration, prompting a violent reaction from Tachibana as he hurdled to a stop at a nearby gas station.

“Hey! Don’t kick the fuckin’ Jag!”

“D-Don’t call me a soldier anymore then,” Koichi cried. He punched his heart twice. “This badge is gone! I made a conscious decision to drop my title, because I am not deserving of it anymore..!”

“Oh, shut the *hell* up. No one likes a goddamn crybaby!” Tachibana snapped.

“...I-I’m not crying,” he pouted in response, wiping his eyes. “I-I’m just...I don’t know what to do with myself, sir...in the end, I couldn’t save anyone...I couldn’t get a job...heck, I couldn’t even take my own life..!”

“Wow, I’m so fuckin’ disappointed that you couldn’t kill yourself,” Tachibana sneered sarcastically. “You’re really getting on my nerves, soldier. I didn’t raise you to be this emo kid, blaming himself for everything.”

“I’m sorry, sir…I know I’m a disappointment…”

“Damn straight.”

Tachibana exited the car to get gas and a some cigarettes. Koichi just sat and waited in the blistering heat, observing the people around him. He tried to get a good sense of how people acted, seeing as Tachibana had been pushing him to become an active member of society. The way people drove up to the gas station, got out of the car; he tried to take notice of everything. As he waited in the car, one family struck his attention. There was a single mother, who went into the gas station to buy a can of Coke for her daughter. The daughter smiled brightly as she took a sip, as her mother gave her a pat on the head. Soon, Tachibana entered the car again, and they drove off.

“...Sir?” Koichi spoke a few moments later. “Why did you resign..?”

Tachibana didn’t face Koichi.

“...It wasn’t because of me, was it..? Because *I* decided to resign…”

Tachibana still didn’t respond.

“...You had such a wonderful career, sir. Why would you give it all up for someone like me..? There isn’t a thing in the world I can do.”

The two of them pulled up into their apartment complex and parked at the front. Tachibana turned around to Koichi and placed his hands on his shoulders.

“That’s not true,” Tachibana said. “That’s not true at all, soldier. I resigned for you because I know your future. It’s a bright, wonderful future. And I’m enlisting my trust in you.”

Koichi didn’t meet Tachibana’s eyes. He simply looked downwards, trying to hide his tears.

“You matter to people, soldier. Maybe not the dickheads back at the base, but you matter to someone out there.”

They didn’t speak again as the two of them left the car and headed back into the apartment. Tachibana left for his job at the supermarket as Koichi stayed home, laying in bed. He stared at the ceiling, images of his former friends spontaneously bursting in his head. He hoped those he betrayed were resting in peace, and those who managed to survive were well. These thoughts hung over his head as he drifted asleep for another restless night.

***

“...”

“...”

“...Koichi?”

“...”

“...Koichi!”

Koichi snapped awake at the booming voice of a true man. The man gave Koichi an aggressively rough pat on the back before rubbing his head.

“Wake up, soldier. We made it.”

He opened the car door and motioned for Koichi to exit. Groggily, he made his way out of the silver sedan, and was greeted by a grandiose display of shining lights, posh decor, and the hopeful faces of Ultimates who were ready to discuss their future. General Tachibana had taken Koichi privately in his modest sedan, while the rest of the cadets took the bus. They were assigned to protect and govern order during this UJTS event -- especially important because of the magnitude of the location.

“Heh. Look at ya...I remember your first UJTS meeting. You just got that badge right there.”

Koichi pointed to the badge on his heart. “It was that long ago?”

“Hell yeah. I put in a good word with the guys up top. And that badge didn’t hurt nothing. You’re a strong soldier; the fact that they even hesitated putting you into their program? Sort of pissed me off.”

Koichi responded with a powerfully optimistic salute. “And I am grateful for the opportunity you gave me, sir!”

“Well, we’re here to make sure nothing goes to shit. And nothing tends to go wrong with these meetings, but there’s some weird faces here. Ultimates and eccentricity...it’s like ketchup and fries. I’m damn hungry…”

“...Sir..?”

“E-Er, never mind that. The actual event doesn’t start for a good while later. Why don’t you take a look around while I brief the other soldiers?”

“Should I not be briefed as well..?”

“Well, you don’t really gotta be briefed with the rest of them. I’m entrusting you with something important, cause I know you can handle it. There’s a main reactor down here, you see. And it’s pretty fragile. This facility isn’t necessarily the hallmark of architecture…”

“W-Wait…”

“What?”

“You’re trusting me with the protection of the entire nuclear facility, sir..?”

“Well, yeah! You’ve done this kinda stuff before.”

“...T-The magnitude of this situation is quite high, sir…”

“Relax, son! Not like anything will happen. We’re just here guarding the inside. But the staff here are pretty good at screening who gets to come and who doesn’t, so not like some terrorist can waltz in here and plant bombs willy nilly anyways.”

“I don’t know...I would rather leave that honor to you, sir! You are certainly the most qualified!”

General Tachibana laughed a hearty laugh. “Yeah, but I gotta make sure the dickheads back at the bus don’t shoot a fuckin’ puppy or something.”

Koichi crossed his arms, hesitating at the task ahead of him. It was true that these events didn’t particularly have security issues...

“...Alright! Alright, I can handle it, sir! And I’m sure things will go smoothly! This day is a wonderful day, where the talented coalesce together and create hope!”

“That’s right, so don’t you let no one go down to the reactor who doesn’t belong there.”

“Yes, sir!”

With that, Koichi gave Tachibana a proud salute. He felt confident that he could do things right. With the guidance of Tachibana, he usually did. Tachibana led Koichi in different fights and crusades, and most of the time, the two of them emerged victorious. Their reputation was fierce and unmatched. A father-son mercenary duo, hardened by the military lifestyle. Yet, Tachibana was sure to raise Koichi with the right mind -- to respect others and their feelings. It was because of his guidance that Koichi didn’t turn out to be a mindless killing machine who lacked empathy.

He happily left the scene, exploring the nuclear reactor alone. The event was still getting set-up; staff were frantically setting up chairs and refreshments for the talented guests that would soon cascade them. One particular couple fought fiercely with each other, rambling on and on about how their failure to keep on schedule was each other’s fault.

“That must be what they call...a lover’s quarrel,” Koichi whispered to himself, making mental notes. He’s only human interactions were with his fierce comrades and the enemies he fought on the battlefield, and so whenever he had the privilege of attending an event like this, he always tried to absorb as much information as possible. If he was to ever protect the public, he must have the ability to understand them as well. He packed “lover’s quarrel” away in his mind bank of human cliches and stereotypes. It was one of several that he was able to acquire throughout his attendances.

Hmm...this would be an apt time to step in and provide some assistance! Koichi thought to himself. And so, he confidently walked over to the couple in question.

“Excuse me, do you need any help?” Koichi asked politely.

“Fuck off,” replied the man, in as aggressive as Koichi thought humanly possible.

“V-Very well,” Koichi yelped nervously, galloping away at a brisk pace.

Hm...they are quite on edge. Koichi thought to himself. They must take the time to relax after this…

He found himself wandering a bit far from the reactor, looking for something to do. It was a few moments before he actually had to go to his post, so there was a ripe opportunity for exploring. Unfortunately, it appeared that he wandered a bit too far -- Koichi couldn’t tell where the reactor was by looking behind him. But he managed to stumble upon a beautiful garden. The peaceful breeze beckoned Koichi inside. Somehow, Koichi had wandered into a field of dreams.

The roses and tulips bloomed together in perfect harmony. Bees fluttered through the air, birds observed the landscape from their nests outlooking the garden, and a summer breeze frisked away at Koichi.

“W-What a beautiful garden,” Koichi blushed, in awe at the magnificence of the scenery. He took a glance at a pocketwatch he had in his back pocket.

“Maybe I’ll just take a little nap,” he sighed to himself, lying down in a nearby patch of grass. The grass was moistened with remnants of a recent rainwater, cooling down Koichi and helping him go to sleep.

It was a wonderfully relaxing sleep. Until Koichi felt a force to his lower half -- pain that rivalled a bullet to the chest. Koichi, startled, looked up, trying to gauge the pain that was being transmitted onto him. Much to his horror, there was a little girl in a floral dress kicking him in the balls.

“You. Are. In. My. Spot!” the girl spat at Koichi, kicking him even harder and at a more rapid pace. Her foot nearly caught on fire with the tremendous speed at which she was flinging her foot into his genitals.

“W-W-What?!” Koichi stammered as he realized the magnitude of the situation.

“I said..! You are in my spot!!”

“S-S-S-Stop that at once!!” Koichi yelped, gently brushing the girl aside before retreating in a bed of roses. “T-That is a sensitive area!”

“Yeah?! Well you were in my spot! I was tryna get you to move for like, two minutes!! And get out of those flowers! Those are my flowers!”

Koichi rolled out of the roses, fearful over the potential fate of his crowned jewels. It took him a near century to realize that there was a little girl standing in front of him in the middle of nowhere. Her long, straight hair blew in the wind, contrasting her extremely irritated face and body language.

“How did ya even find this place?!” she yelped. “This place was supposed to be my secret!!”

“S-Sorry,” Koichi said gently, getting up into a crouch. “I’m attending the UJTS event, and I just found my way here...”

“Yeah, right!!”

He tilted his head. “Do you think I am lying?”

“Pssh! Yeah!! Only the super talented get to go to the UJTS event! And you look like a pig-faced, pig-brained, smelly, dirty, loser!”

Koichi recoiled at the ferocity of her insults. He was getting roasted by a little girl.

“B-But it’s true!” Koichi said nervously, getting back into his crouching position. “I am Koichi Tachibana! Raised under the guidance and tutelage of General Tachibana! The Ultimate Cadet, reporting for duty!”

He rose up and saluted the little girl, hoping to impress her.

“.....Laaaaame,” she said, picking her nose. She flung her booger at Koichi, causing him to recoil and jump backwards.

“W-What?! T-Then..! Uh..! How about this?”

Koichi did a marching routine that Tachibana would have him and his cadets do at certain events.

“...Stupiiiiiid,” she said, flinging another booger at Koichi.

“Y-You have no respect!” Koichi cried sadly. “F-Fine! Here! Take a look at this!”

Koichi pointed proudly to the badge pinned by his heart.

“This is a symbol of my honor! Only General Tachibana can bestow these medals of honor to me and my comrades! And I have worked my entire life to receive one of these! It is my greatest pride and joy, and a sign that I am ready to put my life on the line for the safety of people!”

“Meh...Well, I like that it’s shiny,” the little girl nodded. “I like shiny things. Like gold bars!”

“G-Gold bars..?”

“Yeah! Cuz that’s what all the rich people have. Lots of gold. And I wanna be rich! Rich, rich, rich!”

“A little high maintenance, I suppose,” Koichi whispered to himself. “So, uh...you would like to be wealthy?”

“Duh?! Who wouldn’t! I wanna be rich! And have a really good job, too!”

“...What would you do with all that cash, little girl?”

“Hmm...maybe....I’d just buy a lot of roses!”

“Roses..?”

“Yeah! Cause I love roses! I think one day, a big handsome prince will come sweep me off my feet! It’s so romantic! It’s what happens in all of the movies!”

Koichi smiled, kneeling in front of the little girl. He had never interacted with a child before, but he knew that as a soldier, he had to be a role model for children everywhere. He pointed at his badge and nudged towards her.

“You can look at it if you’d like.”

The girl stared at Koichi cautiously, before creeping over and rubbing the badge on his heart. “Ooooh...it feels nice! And it looks super cool..!”


“That’s cause I’m a soldier!” Koichi exclaimed, flexing one arm. “My job is to protect people like you!”

“...Hmm, I don’t know,” the little girl replied, scrunching her face, as if she were studying him. “You still look like a loser to me. Your face is stupid.”

“A-Ahahaha…”

He put up a fake smile, but deep in his mind, he was crying up a typhoon of despair.

“Well, there are bound to be some lame Ultimates. At least the lame ones are probably the nice ones!”

“...Y-Yes, I hope I am not mean…”

She nodded and smiled. “I just had to be sure!! Not just anyone can call themselves an Ultimate. Only the greatest, most talented people in the *world* can do that. And you don’t look like you fit the bill, mister!”

“...I swear I am a soldier,” Koichi cried.

“Meh. Well, anyways, my mommy always says not to judge a book by its cover. And I was judging you by your stupid, underwhelming cover! Sorry!” The little girl bowed in an attempted apology.

“...S-Sure, that’s alright,” he replied, tearing up still.

“So you’re really an ultimate!” the girl said in a sudden bout of admiration. “I wanted to meet like, a cool Ultimate or whatever, but you’ll have to do..! So amazing..!”

These backhanded compliments were better than nothing for Koichi, who responded with an overconfident smile and salute.

“Yes! I am the Ultimate Cadet! You could say I am the best at what I do!”

The little girl rambunctiously ran circles around Koichi, studying his body mass, attire, facial features, and props. At one point, she saw Koichi’s handgun, to which she nearly shot Koichi in the face. But that situation was avoided, luckily.

“Okay, okay! So like, you’re like one of those guy who fight?”

“We have established that, yes.”

“And so you like, protect people and go to wars?! That’s soo cool!”

“Indeed! I love what I do.”

“I wanna be an Ultimate when I grow up..! I go to this event every year! And I’ve always wanted to meet an Ultimate up close, b-but I was always too shy…”

Somehow, Koichi doubted that she was too shy…

“W-Well, uh, sorry that the first Ultimate you meet was just an underwhelming guy like me, heh.”

“That’s okay. Like my mommy always said, other kids like are starving in Africa. You gotta take what you can get!”

“...Y-Yeah…”

She began to frolic in the flowers and hum nursery rhymes as Koichi watched over her. For a while, they talked about inconsequential things. Those conversations typically ended with the little girl roasting Koichi to a temporary state of depression, but they were pleasant conversations nevertheless.

“My parents aren’t Ultimates,” the little girl said suddenly. “It’s okay that they aren’t. But they just work for the UJTS. They set up the events and stuff.”

“Well, they are always a great help,” Koichi affirmed.

“I know,” the girl nodded. “But they don’t get paid much, so they can’t afford babysitters, so they have to take me to these things. I don’t mind, cuz I love these things, and I’d wanna come anyway, you know? But mommy and daddy are always fighting over me…”

“I am certain they are not fighting because of you,” Koichi comforted, patting the little girl on the head.

“Well, what else would they be fighting about..?”

“T-That is...I am certain it must be something else…”

“...I don’t know.”

The little girl turned away, disappointed in the lack of response.

“...I think I’m gonna head back now,” the little girl said. “My parents told me I had to go back and meet with them before the event starts.

Startled, Koichi whipped out his watch before hurrying away from the garden with the girl.

“A-Ah, it is about time that I make my way back as well.”

With that, the two of them began to jog back to the base together. Seeing as the girl knew her way around the garden and what not, he relied on her to guide him back to the reactor.

“Y-You know,” the girl panted, running out of breath. “T-The other kids at school make fun of me...c-cuz I wanna be an Ultimate. Do you think I’m stupid?”

“O-Of course not! Y-You seem like a very bright girl!”

“...I don’t know. T-They always call me stupid. And my parents are like that to each other to. They’re always calling each other names and stuff. Is that just how people treat each other?”

Koichi couldn’t answer that question again with a satisfactory response. “...I-I don’t know how people treat each other.”

Disappointed again, the little girl faced forward and didn’t speak to Koichi again until they reached the reactor.

***
Koichi had woken up the next morning in a daze. He didn’t sleep much, nervous for his interview at McDonalds tomorrow. Obviously, he knew that a job there wasn’t one of much prestige, but he believed it could be a start of a new future. Someway, somehow. He had considered his other options, and they weren’t that appealing. He even wanted to return to his military work at one point, but Tachibana had refused. Koichi wasn’t in the proper state of mind for that.

Their grungy, ghetto apartment that Tachibana was renting out came with a decent coffee maker, at the very least. He walked over to the machine. An old, wrapped brownie was kept in a jar next to it. Koichi took a moment to stare at the jar, cringing a bit as he looked at his former friend’s memento. After shaking it off, he went on with his morning. Koichi would wake up every day and make a cup of coffee, placing it next to Tachibana who would sleep on a sofa they managed to fish out of the dump. Then Koichi would head off into the neighborhood, do some errands, and hopefully find a job. Yesterday was Tachibana’s only day off, which was spent on an unsuccessful job hunt with Koichi.

After heading outside, he saw the McDonalds waiting for him. In the middle of a run-down shopping center was the flashing yellow arc that signalled joy to millions of workaholics or obese folk around the world. Taking a deep breath, Koichi walked over. Dressed in his same job hunting uniform -- slicked back hair, fake prescriptionless glasses, he confidently entered the restaurant.

The restaurant was surprisingly mellow. For some reason, he could hear cries throughout the seats, and people’s heads were pressed against the greasy tables. He was confused on why they were crying -- he had heard the food was bad, but it couldn’t be *that* awful. He shrugged, and headed to the front of the counter, cutting in line.

“Hey! Buddy?! What do you think you’re doing?” yelled the man behind him. Koichi turned around and saw a man wearing a black mask and cheap dollar store sunglasses. He was pointing a gun and waving it at Koichi. “Well?!”

Koichi tilted his head, staring at the gun. The safety was still on.

“...Sir? I don’t think you can use guns at McDonalds,” Koichi said. He turned back to the counter, asking the frightened woman behind the cash register for the manager. “Excuse me? May I speak to the manager here? I’d like to get a job.”

The man tapped his shoulder. As Koichi turned around, the man whacked him across the face.

“...Fuck you!” the man screamed, not liking Koichi’ ignorance. He waved his gun around some more. “You wanna get shot, you punk?!”

Koichi rubbed his head in pain, as he took the sunglasses and mask off of the man’s face. He understood the situation now, but he wasn’t worried. The gun wouldn’t fire. He decided it’d be a funny time to reveal the man behind the mask.

“...Mr. Aster?” Koichi had recognized the man underneath the mask. It was his landlord.

Aster pulled the trigger on his gun, but the gun didn’t fire. Koichi kicked him across the face, a nicely formed roundhouse kick, knocking the gun from his hand. He picked up the gun, and placed it in his pocket.

“S-Someone call the police!” someone cried from behind the counter. “We’re saved!!”

Koichi ignored them and picked up Aster’s head by his hair.

“What are you doing, Mr. Aster..? This is no way to start the morning.”

Aster spat at Koichi’s face, prompting a punch to the face.

“...All these innocent people just want to eat their breakfast in the morning. And it’s a beautiful day...look at you, spending it like this.”

“H-Hello?! Police? There’s a robber, threatening everyone with a gun..!”

Koichi took Mr. Aster and forced him to an open booth, watching his movements with his gun. There was a brief moment of awkward silence, before Tachibana suddenly came in, looking dazed and confused. Tachibana turned around to see Koichi waving a gun at Aster.

“Koichi..? Not again..! Why are you holding a gun to a random fella again?”


“Oh, but this isn’t a stranger, sir. Also, he was robbing this McDonalds. Threatening these poor people with this gun in my hand.”

“...Is that so?” Tachibana asked, turning around and seeing the panicked clientele nod their heads.

“...True shit? Huh. I just came in here for a coffee. I accidentally spilled the batch you made this morning.”

“Oh, I see. Well, since the robber is now under control, there should be no harm in getting a coffee.”

Tachibana shrugged. The two failed to realize that the entire restaurant was staring at them. Koichi had been dealing with the criminal, while Tachibana was shirtless, not realizing he had forgot to put a shirt on. The intimidating tattoos and slicked back haircut almost made him seem like a gangster. Like a criminal himself.

“...One coffee please,” Tachibana asked with a straight face to the lady, still shaking with fear.

“A-Are you nuts?!” she screamed back.

“...What?”

“T-There’s a robbery!”

“...Yeah? Not anymore. My boy over there got it under control.”

“W-Well..! There’s still a man over there with a gun!!”

“Yeah. Pointed at that robber.”

“...B-But..!”

“...C’mon. The robbery is under control. The police is on their way. What’s the problem..?”

The lady didn’t move, still shivering.

“Hey, are you gonna get me a coffee, or what? I need my caffeine. Or my entire day gets ruined, and then I get pissed.”

The frustrated lady motioned at the other staff to make a cup of coffee. Meanwhile, Tachibana had already gone to help Koichi withhold Aster from escape.

“...Hey, this guy is our landlord,” Tachibana observed, walking over to the pair. “The fuck are you doing robbing a McDonalds? There’s a bank right down the street.”

“Perhaps he thought this McDonalds would be an easier target,” Koichi observed. “Regardless, I was surprised as well. I had taken off his mask and sunglasses over there, and to my surprise! There was Mr. Aster.”

“Yeah? That’s some Scooby Doo shit,” Tachibana laughed.

“C-Coffee is ready, sir,” called out one of the staff members. Tachibana casually got the cup of coffee, took a sip, and walked back over to Mr. Aster.

“...Do we just wait now?” Koichi asked Tachibana. “It’ll be awhile until the police come.”

“Maybe we should interrogate him,” Tachibana said, taking a sip from his coffee. “...Blech. This is disgusting.”

He set the coffee aside and tapped Aster on the cheek a few times. “Just a little reminder of the past. Remember? Our good cop, bad cop routine?”

“I-I never enjoyed interrogating the enemy,” Koichi shuddered. “It was a bit inhumane.”

“And that’s why you were good cop.”

Tachibana opened the lid from his freshly brewed coffee, and poured a little bit over Aster’s head. He screamed in pain as the boiling hot coffee trickled down his face. Tachibana took another sip and placed his foot on Aster’s crotch.

“So like I asked. Why are you robbing this McDonalds here?”

“...S-Shut up!” Aster cried back. “I’m not telling you guys shit..!”

“Let me try sir,” Koichi said, patting Aster on the head. “Will you please tell us why you are robbing this place? Many people here are just trying to enjoy a nice breakfast.”

“...W-What?! You expect me to tell you my motives after that?! Go fuck your mother!!”

Koichi took a brief pause, and whispered to Tachibana. “Good cop rarely worked, sir.”

“Yeah. It’s why I love bad cop so much.” Tachibana stomped roughly on Aster’s crotch, eliciting a loud scream of pain. He moved his foot back and forth, making sure to properly pressure the parts that hurt the most.

Aster recoiled in pain, before burying his face on the table. “J-Just leave me alone..! I can’t get none of my goddamn tenants to pay rent...my wife left me...I was nearing foreclosure! The fuck was I supposed to do..?”

“Not rob a bank,” Tachibana replied, twisting his balls some more. “...This guy ain’t too much fun after all.”

Koichi looked at Aster in his pathetic state, studying him carefully. Tachibana focused in at Koichi’s face perplexingly, interrupted by the shrill cry of one of the customers.

“T-The cops are here!” cried out one lady.

Koichi and Tachibana whipped their heads over to the glass doors -- men in blue police suits came running in, hurtling towards their location.

“The police are here!” said Koichi in excitement.

Suddenly, Koichi and Tachibana were in cuffs and being taking to the police cruiser parked outside.

“W-What..?”

“Hey!” Tachibana snapped. “We’re not the one who tried to rob this place!”

The police guard tilted his head in confusion. “But he’s the one holding the gun. And you got those...those tattoos.”

“...He has a good point, sir,” Koichi replied.

“T-Tell them!” Tachibana snapped at the witnesses. Immediately, the witnesses all pointed to the booth where Aster was. Aster’s head was still face down on the table, unable to move. The cops also took a look at the security footage, showing Koichi taking the robber down and saving the restaurant.

A few moments later, Koichi was released from his cuffs, where he wandered slowly to Tachibana, rubbing his shoulder. Aster was taken away in a fit, struggling and trying to break free, crying as he was taken.

“Err, sorry about that,” one of the cops said as he entered the cop car. “Good on ya for helping these folks. We’re gonna need you to issue a statement, however, so stay right there. Someone else will come in and bring you over to the station.”

Tachibana nodded, and waved as the car drove away. There were a few awkward moments of silence, most likely the natural response following a failed robbery attempt. Yet, Tachibana still felt proud, and even somewhat excited at Koichi’s successful infiltration.

Tachibana stared at Koichi, as he seemed taken aback at the situation.

“Good work, soldier,” Tachibana smiled, trying to comfort him. “I knew you still had it in ya.”

Koichi didn’t reply. His face was still a bit solemn.

“...What’s the matter, kiddo?” Tachibana asked, rubbing his head. “Didn’t you just save all these people?”

He faced away in response.

“...I wonder why Aster felt the need to rob this place…” Koichi sighed, ignoring Tachibana somewhat. “There are many of us in that apartment, living life as best we can, and he could not handle it…”

Koichi rubbed his shoulder again, leaning his head against Tachibana.

“I just don’t understand people, I suppose.”

Tachibana held Koichi close, patting his back.

“You’re just like Aster, you know that..?”

“W-What..? I’m nothing like him…”

“Put in a shitty situation, and after awhile, you just snap. I wonder if Aster would have done anything if he had more than those shitty cats of his.”

“...”

“...When I found out you tried to off yourself, I was furious, you know that? That’s not the person I raised. I raised you to be strong and courageous. And to put others before you. Didn’t you do that..? You believed there was a force out there, who was a danger to more and more people. Maybe you were wrong, but your heart was still with the world. So why would you give up..? I kept wondering to myself. But then again, I don’t have the weight of what you did on my shoulders. Thinking back, I guess I couldn’t imagine having to carry all of that. Maybe you even had to carry that alone.”

Koichi quivered a bit, but stood still and listened.

“You think you don’t deserve this ending. You think you deserve punishment -- but you’ve punished yourself enough already. I still believe in your ability to help people, soldier. I believe in you.”

Koichi buried his face in Tachibana’s arms. He looked like a little kid as he sniffled softly under Tachibana’s smile.

“Don’t carry it alone, kid. You just gotta find someone to share your grief with. And I’m here for ya.”

Of course, Koichi’s act was insignificant in the grand scheme of where he was from. There were dozens of crimes a day. There were bound to be a few heroes birthed from the depths of those evils. Koichi was just another brave man in the cog of other, unspecial, friendly neighborhood vigilantes. He received momentary praise, but it was fleeting.

And later, the day turned to night. And night turned to day. And the days kept passing, the seasons came and went, and time didn’t stop. Koichi didn’t get the job -- it didn’t really make sense to anyone. But Koichi was a little different after that day; he was a little more introspective, according to Tachibana. He thought maybe he was on his way to rise up once more -- away from the bottom of the barrel that was so dreadfully crippling.

***

“H-Hurry..!”

“S-Slow down..! I-I’m sure it’s nothing!”

The sirens were blaring and creating an event wide panic. Screams filled the air as people rushed away from the reactor, away from the booming explosions that could be heard just moments away. The scene was horrifying -- what happened..? Did this mystery man do something to the reactor..? Before Koichi could get a better look at his face, the man went running.

“We must evacuate these people immediately!” yelled the man. “You understand, don’t you soldier?! Get moving!”

Koichi didn’t have time to question the situation. All Koichi could do was run to try and find his squad. He needed the guidance of General Tachibana, or what could he do? Going against his orders and evacuating without consent may go against the face of procedure. Running to the auditorium, he saw Ortwin Young panicking, yet trying to control chaos on the stage. But no one was having it. People were horrified, and cries pierced the air. Thankfully, no one in this area seemed to be hurt, but he knew that somewhere out there, people were suffering.

He looked around. The auditorium seemed to be filled with other, confused Ultimates who were attending the event. But where was everyone else..? Where was the staff?

“...T-This is bad…” he panted to himself. It was a miracle that the damage wasn’t worse than it was. Koichi ran out of the auditorium, sprinting towards the blast radius.

He wasn’t sure who would be inside it, or what he would find when he got there. An explosion combined with a nuclear meltdown could lead to disastrous results, however, and he didn’t have the time to wait for Tachibana to tell him what to do. He blasted himself towards the explosion, going to save whoever he could save. And what he saw was a nightmare.

Bodies littered the ground. It was a field of ambiguously deceased -- many were getting up, to the point where they seemed to be alive, thankfully. But the unmoving ones stayed unmoving, and soft cries filtered their way across the room. One trio was found lying in the middle of the ground -- a couple who had their arms wrapped around a little girl, missing a leg. There was no doubt about the fate of the couple surrounding the little girl, but there was no telling what would happen if Koichi didn’t save her.

He sprinted towards the center, trying to get the girl free from her parents clutches. She sobbed softly, while the others were too preoccupied with their own recovery to watch. Eventually, Koichi managed to break the girl free from the clutches of her parents. Her eyes were open and in shock -- he quickly propped her onto his back, and faced her away from the horrific sight.

Koichi didn’t pay attention to the gory details.

He just took off and ran.

The landscape was remarkably normal for a nuclear meltdown, following a bombastic display of explosions. Even amongst the raining screams and retreats of the people around him, Koichi was running. Running as fast as he could, unknowingly hurdling the little girl into the sun. Unknowingly futile and unknowingly tragic.

“A-Are you the Ultimate Cadet..?” the little girl breathed softly behind his back.

“D-Don’t worry about a thing!” Koichi cried nervously and helplessly behind him. He adjusted the girl on his back once before continuing his sprint. “Everything will be okay! We’ll get you help!”

“...”

“S-So cool,” she sighed weakly behind Koichi. “Y-You’re pretty cool after all…finding me in a place like that…”

“Y-Yeah, and once you get help, you’ll be an Ultimate too, right? W-What kind of Ultimate do you wanna be?”

“...Mmm. Maybe the Ultimate Gardener...I love roses…”

“T-That’s great! Really!”

“...”

“...”

“...H-Hey, where are my parents..? Are they okay..?”

Koichi didn’t have the heart to respond back. He couldn’t answer her questions. And for the entire time, the girl didn’t say another word.

The sprint towards General Tachibana was long and arduous. He didn’t have time to look back, all he could do was run.

But before he could find Tachibana, he could no longer feel the breeze of a weakened breath on his neck. He didn’t want to realize what had happened. He just kept running until he could find someone else who could confirm the dark truth he had encountered for him.

***

Months later, Tachibana was once again woken by the familiar scent of coffee left by Koichi as he went throughout his day. He sat up from his seat groggily, before walking over to get his morning drink. To his surprise, there was a note attached to the machine.

“Dear General Tachibana,” he read out loud to himself. “Ever since that day, I kept thinking about what you said...how I was like Aster. I realized that Aster must have been in a terrible situation, and lashed out in a terrible way. He tried to rob a local McDonalds, and I tried to rob myself of my life. Not just my life. Lives. That day at the reactor...I couldn’t save her. That was something I failed to do, and in response, I did something so utterly foolish. Yet, even as I realized that, I didn’t want to believe that I was in any way like that man who desired to vent by hurting others. I thought it was selfish of him.”

Tachibana nervously ripped the note off of the machine, and began jogging towards the door.

“But then, would my suicide solve anything either..? Wouldn’t I have hurt the ones I met at the killing game? I cannot say for sure...How would I know what they thought of me after we parted ways? And others I have grown fond of no longer exist. But I still would have hurt the man who raised me.”

He jumped into his car, and turned the ignition.

“I still have much to learn. But I know I still want to help people. With the burden of those I have hurt, I shall use that experience and carry on. I will be stronger than ever. There is some learning I must do by myself, of course. And so, I will see you again when the time is right.”

Tachibana put his foot on the pedal, but didn’t move. He held the note with shaky hands, before laughing and shoving it into his dashboard.

“Seriously, Koichi...Son of a bitch. Leaving me after I retired for him like that.”

Taking out a cigarette, he puffed a smoke into the air, staring at the sky through his sunroof. The smog filled the air as the memories he had with Koichi played through his head, over and over again. The image of his little soldier.

“Well, whatever the case... Best of luck, soldier. Go on and find your way.”

As Tachibana sat alone in his car, somewhere in the distance was a cloaked man, concealing his face with a hood and mask. He trekked up a path onto a hill, and at the top was a beautiful view of a city in a flawed world. He took his mask off, and smiled excitedly.

He had remembered the people he betrayed. What were they up to..? He really wanted to know. Maybe someday, he would face the redemption he wanted and work up the courage he needed to face them again. At the very least, he decided that those who deserved his apologies the most would have to wait. He wanted to enjoy a long life.

A lone rose glistened against the sunset as Koichi headed towards the city -- the start of a new life.


Spoiler: Bryan Suarez - END
The killing game was over, and all was well for Bryan. He had added every single survivor he could to his cell phone contacts once they reached their safe place to land, wanting to cherish the bonds he made with them. However, the memories of said game would haunt him for years to come, and he would definitely never forget it. After landing, he did various things--helped Keri find a suitable home for the horses, watched some of James's movies, got an interview with Alex's grandfather down in Georgia and whatnot. Likewise, he kept the brownie Jack had given him, hiding it away somewhere where no one could see. He had no plans on eating it, though. Regardless, he was simply glad to have lived, often sending texts and calls to his friends. Soon after arriving home, his eighteenth birthday passed. Life was great, and he finished high school as well, receiving his diploma. There was one thing, however, he was really looking forward to… that being accomplishing his dream of what he wanted to be since he was a child.


A year later…


Bryan was laying in bed, fast asleep. The sun was gradually beginning to come up, but it had not as of yet. He was enjoying a surprisingly restful snooze, when all of a sudden, he heard something scratch at his door. It sounded like… claws? With a groan, he lazily flutters his eyes open and sits up, rubbing them as he looks towards the door. After a few moments of waking up, he stands on the floor, heads to the door, and opens it to see a black German Shepherd sitting there, looking up at him with its brown eyes. “Seriously, Luna…?” he says with a slight chuckle. “It's 6:27 in the morning, girl… What, do ya wanna go outside?” In response, the dog barks and runs off to the living room, causing Bryan to laugh to himself a bit. “Could've woken Dad up, y’know…” he muses as he walks towards the living room. Much to his surprise, he sees someone else awake, sitting on the couch and watching TV--a girl, around the age of thirteen or fourteen years old.


“Oh, Bryan!” she says as she sees him walk out. “You're up already?”


He lets out a yawn before responding, rubbing his eyes. “Yep. You can thank Luna for that, Emily. What are you doing up so early, anyway...?”


“Hehe, I just couldn't wait! You know what day it is, don't you?” Emily cocks her head to the side a little.


Bryan seems to ponder it for a few moments before widening his eyes. “Oh, mierda, it's my birthday!”


“Language!” Emily reprimanded him in a hushed whisper. “And keep it down! Mom's still sleeping…”


“Sorry, sorry… I'm just so tired that I haven't thought about it yet!” Bryan quietly exclaims with a chuckle.


“Well, anyway…” Emily began as she held out a gift for him. It seemed to be a box, albeit wrapped in wrapping paper. “Here you go. Hope you like it!”
Bryan takes the box and excitedly tears into it, and once it's unwrapped, he opens it. Cue his eyes widening in absolute shock. He hurriedly sets the box down and pulls out a pair of purely black running shoes, and he looks at his younger sister. “Y-You bought this?”


“Mhmm! Used my allowance!”


“Thank you, Em!” he exclaims as he drops the shoes and pulls her into a quick hug, smiling happily. Once he pulls back, he goes over to let the dog into the backyard before returning to her. “I'm gonna get dressed and try them on! Oh, man, they're gonna feel so fresh and comfy!”


“It's no prob, bro! And, uh… I'm guessing that there's a certain someone you wanna go and see for today.” She frowns a little after saying that.


“Yeah…” Bryan nods. “Anyways, I'm gonna go get dressed.” And as he says that, he departs for his room, quickly changing into the same outfit he wore for the killing game--his black sleeveless shirt and blue jeans. He puts a pair of socks on, grabs what seems to be a wrapped up book, and heads back out to put the shoes on. As it turns out, they're a perfect fit. Smiling to Emily, he bids her farewell as he exits their house and onto the streets of a more suburban area of Long Beach, California. He immediately breaks into a sprint, knowing exactly where to go…


Some time later…


Bryan arrives in front of a graveyard, his forehead glistening with sweat which he quickly wipes away with the back of his hand. He then went inside, looking rather solemn. After walking for some time, he sees the tombstone he was looking for.


The name engraved on it was “Aaron Suarez”. Bryan sighs and kneels down, holding the wrapped up book close to him as he stares at the name, then looks at the dates of birth and death. “... Hey, bro,” he mumbles. “It's, uh… It's been a while since I've come here, heh. Sorry about that. Anyways, it's our nineteenth birthday today! And since I got a high school diploma and driver's license, plus passed all the training and all, I can become a firefighter now! I can't wait to help people,” he muses with a smile. “But, ah… I do miss you. God, I can't believe that it's been nearly five years since that day… Time sure does fly. But yeah. We all do miss you so, so much. Oh, and I got you this, by the way.” He gingerly unwraps the book and places it down nearby the grave.


“It's the last Harry Potter book. Deathly Hallows. I know you didn't finish the series, so, uh… yeah. Hope you enjoy.” He chuckles. “I always preferred watching movies to reading, anyway… but I'd definitely read your books after you published 'em. The world is really missing out on a great author…” Bryan lightly sighs, shaking his head. “Who knows? Maybe you could've been the Ultimate Author! Granted, I'm pretty sure you'd rather not go through what I did,” he states with a nervous laugh.


“Hopefully everyone in the afterlife is doing well, too… and I know that there's one, since, well, I encountered a freaking ghost! Crazy, right? Florian, to be exact. Maybe you've met him. Heh, I'm pretty sure you'd get along with everyone who died. Minus James. He's… yeah. No point speaking ill of the dead, though.” He stands back up, dusting himself off as he does so. “Anyways, I've gotta get going. Hopefully you heard all of that, heh. Miss ya, hermano.” With that, Bryan departed for his next stop--the firehouse.


Upon arriving, Bryan casually stepped up and knocked on the door. A few moments later, a well-built, healthy looking man seemingly in his mid to late 40s came up to the door and opened it, wearing a navy blue T-shirt, along with his own pair of jeans. “Bryan. You're up early.” He spoke with a Hispanic accent, much more pronounced than Bryan's slight one.


“Oh, hey, Dad!” Bryan cheerfully greeted his father. “Yeah, Luna woke me up. I'm guessing that you weren't in the house, huh?”


The man shakes his head. “Nope. If I was, she would've woken me up instead. Anyway, come on in. I'll get you ready.”


Bryan's father heads into the firehouse, with his son quickly following suit. However, Bryan can smell the faint scent of fire coming from a nearby room. As he walks into there, he raises an eyebrow as he sees… a cake on a table. He then smiles, and his father comes up from behind him and places a hand on his shoulder, a warm smile on his face as well. “Happy birthday, mijo.”


“Aw, man, thanks, Dad!” Bryan exclaims, looking at the chocolate cake with anticipation.


“Heh, settle down. We should wait for the others to get here first. And don't forget that we need to bring some home for your sister and mother… but you can have a slice for breakfast. I heard your stomach rumble quite loudly when you saw the cake.”


“Sorry! I just, uh… wanted to visit someone. Didn't really think about grabbing something to eat.”


His father nods in understanding. “I know. Well, I'll go slice it for you. Go on and try your uniform on. Since you got accepted--top of the applicants, too, which just makes me even more proud of you than I am--you may as well see if the uniform is to your liking, right?”


“Gotcha! I'll get to it!” Bryan rushes off to his locker, and sure enough, there's an outfit there. He promptly puts it on, and once it's on properly, he heads out towards his dad, grinning quite widely. “Well, how do I look? Fits like a glove, huh?”


He nods. “That it does. You look like me when I was younger.” His dad smiles. “Anyways, let's wait until everyone gets here. I'm sure they'll be ecstatic to meet our newest recruit.”


Bryan nods, and the hours fly by. He eats his cake slice first, of course, and spends the rest of his time talking with his father and texting his friends--asking Keri how university is going, Oscar how his career is going, giving them all updates on what's going on with him, and so on and so forth.


The other firefighters arrive and greet Bryan with the utmost warmth. Bryan gets to know them, and even shows them a few videos online of him doing tricks… and Aaron is with him. Both of them look noticeably younger as well; around the age of Emily in the present day. “Hey, it says here that the last upload was five years ago…” one of the firefighters pointed out. “How come you don't record anymore? This stuff is really impressive, dude.”


“Oh, uh…” Bryan stammers for a moment before deciding to tell the truth. “Er, you see my brother, right? And you remember my Dad telling you about the car accident he got in? You know, his friend was drunk, he didn't know, he got in, and…” his voice aimlessly trails off, Bryan not wanting to finish that sentence.


“Oh, right… I'm sorry about that.”


“Eh, it's no prob,” Bryan replies, smiling at the firefighter who had asked him. “Anyway, here's another cool vid--”


“Hey, uh, guys?” A man in his mid 20s sticks his head into the room, looking quite nervous. “We've got a situation. Big fire at an apartment complex about seven minutes away from here. We need to get there now. From what I've heard, it seems to be a gas fire.”


Immediately, the others begin to get ready and geared up, and Bryan follows suit. It doesn't take long for them all to get ready, and they load into firetrucks and exit the building.


A few minutes pass, and they arrive at the scene of the fire. Fire bursts out of some of the windows as various passersby gawk in awe. Bryan looks at the fire, and, unflinching, he grabs his gear and begins to walk towards it, his mask concealing his face. Before he leaves, he feels his father's hand clasp his shoulder, and he looks over his shoulder and nods at him. “I'll be careful, Dad.”


“Good. Don't want you to get killed on the first day, huh?” He dryly chuckles. “But all jokes aside, please be careful.”


Bryan rolls his eyes at the joke. “Haha. Way to make me feel better. But yeah, I'll be careful. Promise ya I won't die!” he announced as he began to walk towards the building again.


As he was preparing to head in, a blonde-haired child comes up to him with tears in his eyes, and he kneels down to give the kid a gentle smile, though it is somewhat obscured by his mask.


“M-Mommy is in there…” the child elucidates, shakily pointing up at the apartment complex. “You'll save her… r-right?”


“Of course I will, buddy,” Bryan replies with a determined nod. He stands up and lightly ruffles the child's hair with his gloved hand, causing him to giggle a bit. “You don't have to worry. I'll get her out.”


“T-Thank you, Mister Fireman!” The child then runs off, likely to get away from any lingering danger.


Staring at the burning building, Bryan lightly bites his lip and begins to walk towards it, equipment on hand. Some others have already entered, and some are spraying water and the like at it from outside in an effort to contain the flames and put some out. But one thing was clear--even though it was his first day on the job, he wasn't going to fail. During the killing game, he wanted to save everyone he could, but that sadly did not happen. This would be different.


He would save these people, no matter what.


Spoiler: Urumi Sawamatsu - END
After disembarking with the other survivors, Urumi gave the dirigible that had served as her home for weeks one last glance before turning away. She said her short goodbyes to the others, exchanging phone numbers with those who wanted, before finally approaching Keri. "...It's really over, huh?" she mumbled, scuffing at the ground with one foot. "When we were on the trip, I was really worried about being there forever. Now it feels like time somehow flew by." She chewed her lip as she looked at the other girl. "So what are you planning on doing now?"

"There... is a lot I need to do, I think," Keri answered, hood down and enjoying the feeling of the breeze blowing through her hair for once. "I will be staying here for a short while, so I think I shall book a hotel room for a few days. But... what about you?" she asked anxiously.

"Um..." Urumi hesitated awkwardly. "I should probably get back home. It's been a long time since my family's heard from me." She frowned. "But this is probably the last time we'll see each other for a long time, right? I guess I could always just call them and let them know I'm okay, then hang around for an extra day. I mean, if that's what YOU want," she added, twirling one of her bangs. "I know you have important stuff to take care of, so if you'd rather focus on that, no big."

"Ah, w-well..." Keri stared at Urumi restlessly for a few moments, not sure how to respond. Then she remembered something Oscar had told her, about being willing to be selfish on occasion. "I would quite like to spend a little more time with you, yes," she admitted quietly. "I do not want to keep you from your family, but we have not really had a chance to just... be ourselves, spend a normal day together. Um, and, I also think it would be good if we could decide on our future plans after taking this time to stabilise, especially when it is as you say, we will not meet in person for a potentially long time after this..."

"Yeah, that's true..." Urumi paused, then blinked at Keri, cheeks slightly flushed. "Wait, 'a normal day together'? That kind of sounds like... a date. O-or am I reading way too much into this?"

"A date? Um-" Keri almost seemed like she was about to deny it, but then cut herself off and instead smiled. "Yes, a date! We will not have a chance for dates after this, so we should make the most of the time we have now."

"Really?" Urumi chirped excitedly. "I-I mean..." She cleared her throat and quickly calmed herself. "Yeah, that sounds pretty cool if you're up for it. So, um, is it alright if I just leave my bags at your hotel room? Rather not have to carry them all over the place."

"Of course. Should we perhaps head there now, then?" Keri asked. "I shall book a room with V.A.L. straight away, then you can leave all of your things there without any waiting about. It would be better than discussing everything out here, in any case."

"Yeah, I'm ready to go," Urumi nodded. "It'll give me a chance to call home while you get a room and stuff, too."

"Yes, right, I shall take the time to do the same when there as well," Keri said. After a moment's hesitation she added, "I can only imagine how worried our parents are. Let us not linger then." Calling to V.A.L. to come join them, the two followed its lead as it located a suitable hotel. At the reception desk Keri noticed a line of public-use telephones, and postponed booking for the moment so she could hurry over and call home.

Urumi likewise rushed over to an unused phone and dialed a number. "Um..." she spoke softly into the receiver. "Hi, Mom, it's Ur-" She flinched and pulled the phone away from her ear, then cautiously brought it back. "M-Mom, I... Yeah, sorry, a lot happened and... Yes, I know.. I know you were worried, but- ...No, I... No, Mom, I COULDN'T call, I was... No, NOBODY could make any calls, Mom, we... M-Mom, will you please just let me talk?"

She sighed wearily. "Look, like I said, a lot happened, and I... kind of don't want to get into it over the phone, but I'm okay. Yeah. Yeah, I'll be back home pretty soon. ...Um, probably a couple days. Yeah, I'm... with someone I met on the trip. Um..." Urumi hesitated and started to blush a little. "N-not quite a friend. A... little more than that." Again, she was forced to briefly distance herself from the phone. "Y-Yeah, it just sort of... happened.

"...Right now? Um..." She took a moment to glance around. "I think she's still on the phone with her family... Huh? Am I what? No, why would you- Y-Yeah, I said 'her', but... M-Mom, that's not important, okay? I don't care if she's a girl or guy or whatever! I just... No, we haven't 'done anything', geez!" Urumi groaned, her face scarlet. "Mom, come on, can't you just be happy for me? I promise I'll talk about this when I get back. ...Well, it's not like I planned for this to happen. Yeah. ...She's going back to France after this. Yeah, she said she'd call me. ...Of course I do."

Urumi talked a bit more, asking about the rest of her family, before finally ending the call with a "See you soon. Love you too."

By now Keri had finished her own call, and after quickly wiping a few tears from her eyes had booked the hotel room. Seeing Urumi was done, she went over to her with a slightly sad smile. "I hate having to lie to my parents, but there are things I need to do before I can go home and tell them the truth. It was wonderful to be able to hear from them again, though. Is everything alright with you?"

"Um, yeah," Urumi nodded bashfully. "Everyone's okay. Mom kind of freaked out about the whole, you know... girlfriend thing, though. I don't think she's exactly against it or anything, but like, I'm going to have some explaining to do..." She frowned at Keri. "What do you mean about having to lie, though? Do they not know about you and the Order?"

"Oh, no... they could not, for they would have wanted me not to join," Keri answered quietly. "I would not be able to say no to them, they are my parents after all. And now... I could not tell mother what I had just been through, why I was away for so long. Not yet. She might call the police, or want me home immediately. But... I will explain everything when I am through with my business here. No more secrets." After saying that, she gave a small smile. "I did tell her about you, though. You and I also. She seemed quite happy at the news, said you seemed a good person. She also said you would help calm me down, whatever that was supposed to mean," she added slightly huffily.

"Couldn't imagine," Urumi snickered softly. "But geez, your mother sure sounds like she has a high opinion of me already. No pressure or anything..." She slung her duffel bag over her shoulder. "So anyway, you got your room, right? Want to drop our stuff off and get changed before heading out?"

"I think she thought you would be a lot better for me than any of my previous relationships... and she is not wrong. And besides, she is my mother, she can see right through me! I am sure she picked up on how much I felt about you." Leading the way, Keri headed for the room she'd booked while V.A.L. stayed behind to ask a very confused attendant about potential power options. "Oh, now that you say it... I shall need to borrow a set of clothes once more," she said apologetically on the way. "I cannot go on a date dressed in my robe! This should be the last time I ask of this, I can buy some clothes later while I am down here."

"Oh, previous relationships, huh?" Urumi blinked and seemed to pout a bit. "I mean... yeah, sure, that makes sense. Of course this wouldn't be your first relationship..." She chewed her lip as she shyly followed Keri to the room. "Yeah, that's okay. The same shirt and pants I lent you before, or do you want to look for something different?"

"Oh, if you do not mind, then something different would be nice!" Keri replied, opening the door to the room and letting Urumi in after. "Something special for a special day," she added happily, dropping down onto the room's bed as a place to sit. "This really is a special day, you know," she repeated, keeping her gaze on Urumi. "You are not my first girlfriend, but you are the first person I would be happy to call my girlfriend. My past relationships were not particularly fulfilling. You know first-hand how willing I am... or hopefully, perhaps, was, to throw myself into things. If there was someone I liked, I would not hesitate to tell them how I felt, but in return that meant those I ended up with were rarely interested in anything more than a simple, shallow relationship. Not that I particularly minded, but... you are very, very different. You have shown me what I was missing out on."

Her face reddened once again, Urumi set her bag on the room's table and began taking her clothes out, spreading them out on the surface. "I... don't really know what to do when you shower me with compliments like this," she mumbled. After emptying the contents of her bag, she motioned to the assorted shirts, pants, and footwear with one hand. "Here, I'll let you have first pick."

"Well, you will need to get used to it!" Keri replied cheerfully, casting a careful eye over the selection. She took her time picking, before reaching out for some denim jeans and a light, fluttery two-toned shirt. "Then, how about this?" she asked, holding the two in place in front of her.

"Why am I not surprised you went for that top?" Urumi smirked. "But yeah, those look like they should look good on you..." she added bashfully. She then selected a sleeveless, frilly pink blouse, blue flared jeans, and a pair of black flats for herself. "Well, I'll go change in the bathroom if you're sure those are what you want."

Keri nodded. "Please, go right ahead. We are as mayflies today, with only a short time available together. Let us not waste any of it! I shall change in here in the meantime."

"Y... Yeah, you're right," Urumi nodded back a bit sadly as she turned towards the bathroom, then paused and looked at Keri again with an awkward smile. "Oh, and... You can keep those clothes. If you want them, I mean."

"Truly? Then I shall treasure them!" Keri readily replied, giving the clothes a hug. "They are as you, and even when we are apart you will remain near me through them. I hope the painting I gave you before can bring you the same solace."

"Mm," Urumi responded with another shy nod. "I'll be sure to frame it and put it in my room when I get back. Think I know a good place to hang it..."

It wasn't long before they were both done, and after deciding on their plans for the day they set off, not wanting to waste any more daylight.

~~~~~~~~

"Oh come on, are you serious?"

"Sorry. Rules are rules."

"But it's only two inches!" Urumi whined, gesturing to the wooden sign that said 'You must be this tall to ride.'

"Sorry," the roller coaster operator repeated evenly, as if reading from a book. "Due to safety concerns, we can't let people under a certain height-"

"Safety?" Urumi barked in frustration. "Buddy, if you had ANY idea what we've been through..." She took a deep breath, then sighed. "...Fine," she grumbled. "I didn't really want to get on the dumb ride anyway," she added under her breath. Urumi shook her head as she stepped away from the ride and turned to Keri with a disappointed frown. "Geez, first the hot chocolate, now this. It's like every time I go somewhere without my platforms, something like this happens... Being short sucks."

"Certainly it has its inconveniences..." Keri agreed, thought she didn't seem as bothered herself. "But still, we should not let this get in the way of what has been a wonderful date, there are plenty of other rides available to us!" she then added, gesturing to the teacups ride. As the two headed for it, mostly unhindered by a queue this time, Keri curiously asked, "Do you ever wish you were taller, Urumi?"

"Well, I mean..." Urumi hesitated to answer, scratching the back of her head as she walked. "...Yeah," she mumbled, lowering her voice. "Not wishing I was huge or anything, but, like, just average would be nice. Being so short, I just feel kind of, I don't know... vulnerable, I guess. That's actually a big reason why I wear those sandals all the time. At least with those on, I FEEL taller..." She glanced around to make sure no one was paying attention to them. "Ugh, I hope nobody heard that," she blushed. "I've never really talked about this with anyone before... I guess it's okay if it's you, though."

"Even from early on, we have been open with each other," Keri said, linking arms with the other girl. "And in doing so, we both grew stronger, I think! In some ways we are who we are, but we can always change who we are inside."

Reaching the ride, they found they'd arrived at a good time and were able to get on straight away, taking seats facing each other with the wheel between them. Setting the cup spinning at a leisurely rate, Keri continued on from what she was saying before. "I have said, many times now I must admit, that you have done more for me than you might even know. So perhaps, remember that whenever you are feeling vulnerable. Neither of us can help our heights, but you have achieved some very great things, things that mean a lot to me, even despite that."

"...Yeah. Thanks," Urumi smiled faintly, seemingly content to let Keri set the speed of their cup. "You've done a lot for me too, though." She chewed on her lip. "I've... had to deal with a lot of creeps these last few years. People who treated me like some kind of freak, or people who acted nice but either had some perverted ulterior motives, or just thought it was funny to mess with me... After being around so many jerks like that, I guess I eventually got it in my head that just about everyone was like that deep down. I started pushing everyone away, got bitter... It got exhausting at times, but I just didn't want to be hurt again."

Urumi scooted over to sit next to Keri. "I... think I really needed someone like you. Someone who'd love me for who I am, someone I could be comfortable around... Just having someone like that in my life helps me be less scared to be myself."

Keri lowered her hands from the wheel to gently take both of Urumi's in hers, gazing earnestly at her. "We help each other be the best we can be, it would seem. Thank you for telling me all this. From here on, let us both continue to look after each other," she said softly with a smile, voice carrying even over the sounds of the park and the ride for Urumi's ears only.

"Yeah." Urumi returned Keri's smile with a bright, unrestrained one of her own as she cuddled up against her girlfriend. "...Hey, let's go on the Ferris wheel after this, okay?"


Spoiler: Keri Alessia Nabelle - END
Since stepping off the blimp and finally putting the killing game behind her, Keri found she still had a lot to do. After contacting her parents to tell them she was okay (and tearfully telling them she couldn’t come home just yet), she spent one last day with Urumi before the other girl returned to her own country. They promised to stay in contact with regular texts and calls, and Keri left her with a kiss she hoped would somehow linger long enough to tide them over until they could meet again.

Over the next few days afterwards, she focused on sorting out what she could while still in the city everyone had been dropped off at. She spent a while searching with Bryan for a good home for the two horses, and when not doing that planned out her return to France and all that entailed. V.A.L. was busy planning its own future in the meantime, but Keri found that she needed its help with something before she could head home.

It was the last day of the booking for the hotel room they were temporarily staying in. Keri, with a slight amount of trepidation, handed V.A.L. a note it had requested with various details jotted down on it. “Here you are, V.A.L, if… you are quite sure this is what you want." The robot thankfully took the note from Keri, putting the hastily folded paper into it's compartment for later. "Um... I actually have a favour I would like to ask of you in return.”

She wasn’t yet sure this would be necessary; in fact she rather hoped it wouldn’t. However it made sense to be prepared, and this would be the last time she could see V.A.L. for a while, the last opportunity to ask for this favour. “There is someone I need to find. An Ultimate, anyone with the right talent for the job. If it is an Ultimate we can be sure of their skill, and we can use our connections to the UJTS to find and reach out to them. Is that something you can help with?”

"Bzzt, I would be happy to locate someone for you," the robot replied. "Abby...bzzt, it was necessary in the past for me to look up various Ultimates," it said, skirting around the obvious reason, "so I have a vast database of Ultimates, bzzt."

"That is perfect! Then in that case, here is what I want you to do..."

***

Later, elsewhere...

The leaders of the Verdant Order were all equal. Their noble quest was to save the planet from those who selfishly sought to exploit it for their own gain; structured hierarchies were the tool of evil corporations, and all were equal before Mother Nature. All of the Order’s leaders had the same rank in the organisation, and no individual member stood above them. They all shared one expansive, communal office in the Order’s secret base, where grand strategies could be planned and passionate debates could be held.

Fabien Dubois was the leader who did not stand above the other leaders, because that would be against the rules.

That he had his own private, personal office was simply a happenstance occurrence.

It was in this office that he currently paced anxiously about, running a hand through his short, neatly-styled black hair. A habit from his often-stressful day job, though at least there he could wear a nice, tailored suit to stride about in. At the Order’s base he had to wear that stupid, enigmatic robe to keep up appearances. He kept tripping on it.

It had been weeks now since Keri Alessia Nabelle, the Master of Infiltration, had gone missing. The Order had begun to rely extensively on her unique talents for stealth and “sabotage”, so her absence left the group severely lacking. Fabien had started to consider training up a new Master of Infiltration to take her place, but it was difficult to find a suitable replacement. Certainly the Order didn’t lack in passionate, dedicated and slightly crazy believers, but none had quite the talent Keri did for it. Too many members getting arrested, injured or outright killed by their own bombs would only hinder the Order in the long run. Far from ideal.

As he pondered the potential benefits of creating a tragic martyr, he felt movement from a corner of the office and span around to look, nearly stumbling on his robe in the process. His eyes widened as he saw who it was, and he broke into a well-practised smile to greet the guest. “Keri! Wherever have you been, child, we have all been so worried for you!”

“I… had some important issues to deal with,” Keri replied evasively. Fabien thought she seemed different, somehow: more down to earth, perhaps? That would be a problem, they were always more useful when a little unhinged. “Actually, I… was part of a secret project to undercover the truth behind that awful nuclear meltdown one year ago.”

Ah, that seemed more like the usual Keri. “Yes, of course, that terrible, terrible event…” he replied, nodding knowingly. “Such loss of life, such damage to the environment! Solving the mystery behind it is a worthy cause indeed, I am proud of you!”
“Oh, thank you, wise leader!” Keri said, smiling at the unexpected praise before shaking her head and growing serious again. “But it is exactly that which I came here to talk about. After all, it was I who planted the bombs that day… and you who recommended I do so. They were not the cause of the meltdown, but, had I never gone there the meltdown would have been averted! So… I have come to request your guidance on the matter, my time on this project left me entirely uncertain on my path...”

Fabien’s eyes widened at the revelation. “Oh, but that is terrible! Such a burden you have been forced to shoulder, Keri… This was never meant to be. Yet… well, perhaps it is time you learned the truth. The cold, harsh, almost unbearable truth of this world,” he declared dramatically. He should have expected this, really, he mused: the attack was never meant to have caused any serious harm, but a meltdown occurring soon after the bombing could hardly have just been a coincidence. Only a naïve child would believe you when told the two were unrelated; perhaps it had only been a matter of time before she found out one way or another.

“For you see… sometimes sacrifices are necessary if we want to really change the world,” Fabien said earnestly, before pausing for effect. He glanced at Keri, but her expression was unreadable and so he continued on, a little unnerved. “This is the truth I and the other leaders bear so that every other member of the Order need not. Now, we did not plan for the meltdown, not at all. Indeed, such an event was truly tragic, a representation of all we fight to stop.

“However… look at what happened as a result! Public outcry, shares in nuclear power dropping like stones, even the shutting down of other nuclear reactors across the world. Do you see? Only a true catastrophe like that could have brought about such real, tangible change! So we must ask ourselves… are we willing to do what we must, to bring about that change that the world so desperately needs?”

After his little speech, Fabien looked expectantly at Keri. He was met with the same blank expression she’d worn since his speech began, and silence rang out for some time as she simply stared intently at him. Then she suddenly said, “Thank you for your guidance, wise leader. This… is a lot to take in. I would like some time to think about all this, I am sorry. I will have to put off my duties for a little longer.”

“Of course, of course!” He replied, a little too jovially in his relief. “We were all like that at first, you know. When we learned this terrible truth, we denied it, we fought against it, we raged… but in time we came to accept it, for it was the only way we could move on and focus on our noble cause. You are a strong girl, Keri, I think you will understand in time just as we did.”
“Of course, wise leader, your words ring true for they come from experience,” Keri said, smiling again but strangely vacantly this time. With a bow of her head she departed from the office, leaving just as silently as she’d arrived.

After giving it enough time that he could be sure she’d left the building, Fabien gave a sigh of relief and dropped down into his chair. That had gone better than expected, he thought to himself smugly. Once the girl reoriented herself to fit the new ideals he’d presented her with, their greatest asset would be back and the organisation would profit once more.

***

A week after Keri’s sudden reappearance, Fabien found himself in a good mood as he strode towards his main workplace, Wapow Solar. Today was the day of the first board meeting since her return, and while everyone had already been told, this would be the announcement that made it official. The other stockholders would finally be reassured that everything was fine. A familiar thought came to mind and he couldn’t help but grin: they were like livestock, really, only happy if you kept them well-fed. Being the CEO of a large renewable energy firm wasn’t easy, but it helped to put things into perspective like that sometimes.

As he approached the building, he noticed an unusual sight on the corner of the road, right between him and his destination. A street performer, dressed in a strange outfit and with a mask concealing their face. They were playing a lute, and playing it badly, but occasionally people would throw a coin their way out of pity. It was too late to avoid it now; he would have to tip the poor fool to keep up appearances, much as the performance threatened to drive him crazy.

“Here, lad, for your hard work,” he said in a raised voice, fishing out a generous €50 note and throwing it into the hat in front of the performer. “Buy yourself something nice!”
“Thank you, sir!” the performer replied happily, surprising Fabien with a clearly feminine voice. “I am glad you enjoy her singing, this lute has been through a lot recently. She laments, but keeps singing even now, honouring those who played her before.”
“Err… yes, yes of course,” he replied uncertainly, wondering if this was some attempt at a sob story to extract more money from him. “Well, uh, keep… keep it up?”
“Yes sir, thank you sir! And I hope today is a blast for you, too.”

With an awkward nod of thanks, Fabien quickly turned to continue on his way. That encounter had derailed his train of thought faster than a trolley problem, and it took him a few moments to recompose himself. Something about it had rattled him, and in his paranoia he swore he could feel a gaze drilling into his back as he walked up to the Wapow Solar building...

***

“Gentlemen, welcome! Will the board please sit down. Our profits this quarter are nearly beyond count!” Fabien announced joyfully, addressing a roomful of shareholders, board directors and even representatives from other renewable energy firms. “Our little magpie has finally returned, and soon it will be business as usual!”

“Fabien, forgive me...” an elderly stockholder began, “but is this all still necessary? I have looked at the numbers and profits have been rising even in the absence of this… magpie. Is the risk of the operation still worth it?”
“Risk? No, no, you see, therein lies the beauty of the scheme! Perfectly risk-free!” Fabien replied heartily. Livestock, all of them. More interested in saving their own necks than looking towards the future. They were lucky to have a shepherd such as him. “The black robes, the secret lair, the hand signals… the Verdant Order is a cult! A crazy, obsessed cult who would do anything if it protected their precious environment. And that’s the trick. No-one could possibly suspect that we, outstanding citizens as we are, are behind them. We have shaped the Order into a self-contained mob who truly believe in what they’re fighting for. They don’t fight for profit, they don’t fight for us, they fight because they think it’s right!”

“You can’t deny the results, Jefferson,” another man with a deep, self-satisfied voice added. “Don’t let the numbers trick you, you’re only seeing the after-effects of the operation. If we stop now, that beautiful upward slope will start slowing again and we’ll all be out of pocket.”
“Indeed, indeed!” Fabien said, clasping his hands together. “Our rivals in the coal and gas industries are just as intelligent and driven as we are. If we let up now, they will start recovering, clawing their way back up! No, we must continue the operation. Let the magpie continue her terrorist attacks, and in time they will crumble, all of them!”
“And then we will have a total monopoly!” the deep-voiced man said happily, allowing himself a few seconds of guffawing. “You think we’re rolling in it now, just wait until we’re top dogs! Imagining it now makes me feel like I’m dreaming… I can even hear the alarm clock trying to wake me up!” he said, laughing again.

“Alarm clock?” Fabien asked in confusion, as a hush fell over the room. Now that they were listening for it, they could all hear it: a steady beeping, getting loud and louder. “No… no, no, no, no,” he said in panic, following the sound and slowly looking up, terrified of what he was sure he was about to see.

Right above them all. Attached to a ceiling fan and cheerfully rotating round and round as it beeped in greeting. One of Keri’s bombs. “No!” He shrieked, before the timer hit zero.

BANG!



Silence…

For a while Fabien felt nothing. Is this what being dead was like? But then something touched his skin and he flinched, eyes snapping open to find out what was assaulting him. He was taken aback to find… confetti? Small, colourful pieces of paper drifted lazily towards the ground all around the room. The room? The room! He was still in the meeting room. He automatically looked up to see what had happened to the bomb, just in time for a larger sheet of paper to land on his face.

Quickly pulling it off and glaring at it in search for answers, Fabien was met with a sight that nearly froze his heart. The bomb and threat of imminent death had terrified him, but the truth was far, far worse. As he read over the printed document, he began to feel a despair quite unknown to him.

It was a legal notice. It proclaimed, on good authority, to have conclusive evidence of a connection between his company and a terrorist organisation known as the ‘Verdant Order’. Signed… Anna Turner, Ultimate Lawyer, on behalf of one Keri Alessia Nabelle.

“What… what is it?” the elderly stockholder asked, unnerved by the clear fear in Fabien’s expression. “What was this… prank... all about?” Fabien didn’t answer, instead throwing panicked looks at everyone else in the room, all covered in bright confetti. Then he slammed the notice onto the table and yet out a yell that reverberated all throughout the building, audible even outside to the girl standing by the corner, smiling beneath her mask.


((The others will be posted when they're submitted. If they're never submitted then, well...that'd be awkward.))
Vesti and Lauren's Interdimensional Investigations
This CYOA follows Vesti Gates and Lauren Tehra, two detectives who search for the truth, whether in their own dimension or otherwise.
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