Hiro squinted at the paper. “This isn’t, like, a trap or something is it? You’re not making me sign over my first-born child, right?”
“It’s just a plain old release form,” Tsumugi calmly explained. “Everyone who’s on camera has to sign one.”
“It’s nowhere near as complicated as mine,” Makoto added. “And there wasn’t anything about the Illuminati or anything in there.”
“If you say so….” Hiro filled it out with his signature neat handwriting. As soon as he finished, Hiyoko snatched it out of his hands.
“Finally!” She skipped over to Mahiru, who was going over the settings of the camera one last time. “How do you think he’ll—”
“Shh, we want their reactions to be natural. Don’t spoil it.”
Hiyoko pouted. All she could hope for was this scene would be quick to shoot, now that her duties were completed. There was no chance someone was going to accidentally walk onto the tennis court.
“Now, Hiro,” Tsumugi said, “this is just a normal conversation between friends. Pretend we’re not here.”
“Uh, okay.” He turned to Makoto. “You wanted to talk to me about something, right?”
“Yeah, but why don’t we play a few sets first?” He had been filmed for the past few weeks and he had gotten used to the logic of filming. He’d go to a location, he’d do some mundane action, it would all be filmed, then they would find a “natural” break to then begin a conversation.
Neither he nor Hiro were very athletic, nor did they even particularly enjoy tennis, but it was a more suitable hobby for Makoto to have than reading manga or watching tv. Real Makoto was a little too boring for Tsumugi’s liking. If people thought he was more interesting than he actually was was the price to pay, well, it was worth it. Anything was worth it for love.
The two friends leaned against the fence to talk (once suitably arranged and the logos of their drinks taped up). Hiro kept glancing nervously at the too-close camera, felt the cable of the microphone rubbing underneath his clothes. It was a very unnatural situation but Makoto was taking it in stride.
“I’ve been seeing someone new,” he said.
“I thought you were seeing Kyoko.”
“We broke up a few months ago.”
“Oh, sorry, man, I had no idea.”
Makoto laughed nervously. “It’s okay. She didn’t want to make a big deal about it and I wanted to respect her wishes.”
Hiro nodded along. “So who’s this new girl?”
“Well she’s not exactly new, we’ve dated before, we reconnected is all. It’s been really nice, actually.”
“…I thought you only ever dated Kyoko.”
“Do you remember Sayaka Maizano?”
Hiro jumped. “Of course I do! How can I forget her? She killed Leon, man!”
“CUT!” Tsumugi sighed. “Hiro, your reaction was too strong, you need to be more neutral.”
“Wha…? How am I supposed to be neutral hearing that?” He turned to Makoto. “What the hell are you thinking?”
“It was self-defense, remember? She didn’t mean for it to happen!”
It had been a few years, the exact details were fuzzy. It was hard to pay attention to the case when one friend was dead and another was accused of murder. It ended up only being something like “involuntary manslaughter.” And she had been on her best behavior in prison, or at least that’s what all the gossip sites said.
“Let’s try again,” Tsumugi said.
“Do you remember Sayaka Maizano?”
“Uh, yeah. I didn’t know you dated her, though.”
Once more Makoto laughed nervously. “We were only going out for 2 days before she was arrested, I didn’t have the chance to tell too many people.”
Hiro nodded. “So how long have you been seeing her…?” He had many, many other questions, but this sounded like the normal thing to say. As if this was just a regular person, a regular relationship. He now realized why this was being shot for reality tv.
“A few months, but it’s been going great! She’s so nice and kind, she laughs at all my jokes, here….” Makoto pulls out his phone and gives it a few taps before handing it to Hiro. “I go visit her every chance I get.”
It was all selfies of Makoto and Sayaka kissing, hugging, smiling for the camera. The ex-pop star’s hair was no longer blue, blurry tattoos of cursive script graced her knuckles and forearms, she noticeably gained mass from a mixture of commissary snacks and nothing better to do than work out. She’d never be able to take on Akane or Sakura in a fight, though she might be able to get the upper hand on Hina. Sayaka had always seemed like the opposite of Kyoko, but the orange jumpsuit made the differences even starker.
“You guys look…like a nice couple,” Hiro decided to say.
“She’s getting out next week, actually.”
“She’s going to move in with me.”
“Is that really a good idea, dude?” As soon as the words left his mouth, Hiro realized that was probably the wrong thing to say, but no one stopped him, and Makoto didn’t seem bothered.
“Well it’s either she lives with me or she goes to the halfway house. Her parole officer has cleared everything, so we’re all set.”
“Do they really do that? What’s stopping any guy from saying they’re dating?”
A pause. “That’s why they only release you to family.”
Hiro tried to fit the pieces together but it wasn’t making sense. He could hear Hiyoko giggling from behind Mahiru. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, it’s no big deal, we just had to get married and then—”
“Did you just say married?”
“Well, yeah, but it’s no big deal.”
“Marriage is a really big deal, dude!”
“We were already planning on getting married in the future, so why not get it out of the way?”
“Aww, man.” There were a lot of things Hiro wanted to say, but the camera was right there, this was going to be on tv for everyone to see. His mom was going to see this. What would she say…? “Wait, don’t you live with Komaru? Does she know?”
“She knows that I’m seeing somebody.”
“Does she know they’re moving in?”
“Well…I haven’t gotten around to that part yet.”
“I will! Soon. We’re in love, she’ll understand.”
“Cut!” Tsumugi smiled. “Hiro, you’re a natural at this. Say, are you interested in your own show? The network has been looking for mediums.”
“No, I’m good.” He didn’t need his crystal ball to tell this wasn’t going to end well.
Komaru’s heart was beating in her throat as the phone rang.
“Hold on one second,” her brother said. “Okay, what’s up?”
“I just got off the phone with Toko. Is it true?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re moving a felon into our house? And you didn’t even tell me?”
“It’s not against the law to be a felon.”
What kind of answer was that? A total non-answer. “That’s not what I have a problem with. It’s an invasion of our privacy.” It had already taken a lot of convincing to let Makoto stay when he was getting back on his feet from the breakup. It was Toko’s house, she was 2/3rds of the permanent residents, she had the final say.
“Both of you have been so kind and giving ever since Kyoko and I broke up, and I really appreciate it. But this is the woman I love and—”
“You don’t know her!” What the hell was going on with her brother? Couldn’t he see how sketchy this all was? “And you didn’t tell me you married her!”
“I-it’s not a real wedding, it was a prison wedding! We’ll have a real wedding later, with a ceremony and everything, and mom and dad, but I had to marry her so she could stay with me once she was released. You know how it is.”
“I don’t! I’ve never been to prison!”
“But you’ve been in love, you know what that’s like. Would you want me getting in the way of you and your girlfriend?”
It’s true, he hadn’t, and he could have. They were the same year in school, he knew the novelist for a lot longer than she had when they first started dating, but they didn’t get married after only a few months. And Toko had never killed anyone. But bringing up that point right now could turn into a game of splitting hairs.
“You also left out the fact that this is going to be on tv.”
“Wait, am I on speakerphone? I am, aren’t I?”
“This is a private conversation! You can’t record this without my consent!”
There was the voice of someone else talking, too indistinct to make out. Makoto then said “This is a one-party consent state, which means only one person in the conversation has to consent for it to be recorded for it to be legal. And I consent, so it is!”
“Makoto get your ass home right now! And tell that camera crew to stay the fuck away!”
“I could never say no to you.” Nagito smiled. “I’m just not sure how someone like me can help a person with so much going on as you do.” If anyone would end up on tv for being wonderfully normal, it would be Makoto.
“My girlfriend and I need a place to stay. My sister threw us out.”
“That’s terrible! I could never imagine why someone would do that.” Tsumugi was nodding from her spot behind Mahiru. It was great to see someone as plain as her being the producer of a show like this, about normal people caught up in bad situations. The state and federal prison system couldn’t stop the power of love.
Makoto sighed. “She has no sympathy for Sayaka. She’s not a bad person, she just got caught up in a terrible situation.”
“I’m all too familiar with that. I’m lucky that none of the charges ever went to trial, so her parole officer should have no problem.”
“I knew you’d understand.” The default iPhone ringtone drew their attention. Makoto perked up. “I think that’s Sayaka calling me now!” He pulled out his phone and set it to speakerphone. Mahiru leaned in with the camera.
“You have received a collect call from an inmate from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Do you accept the call and all associated charges?” The phone beeped as he pressed 1.
“What the hell is going on with my PO?”
It took a moment for Nagito to recognize the voice. Any sense of sweetness fitting of an ultimate pop star was long gone.
“It’s just a minor hiccup, my love,” Makoto said. “I’m getting everything sorted out today.”
“You better. I don’t want to spend probation in a fucking halfway house. The ankle monitor is bad enough.”
“But in a few days, we’ll be together! You’ll have your freedom!”
“You idiot, didn’t you hear me? I’m not free, I belong to the state. Did you know you can’t even get your ankle monitor wet? You have to have it plugged in 4 hours to charge?”
“No, my love, but this will be new for both of us. We can figure it out together.”
Sayaka groaned. “You say the dumbest shit, you know that?”
Makoto laughed and smiled. “Yeah, I know.”
“So are you going to top off my account or what?”
“Huh? But you’re getting out in—”
“You know I can’t eat the food in here! Do you want me to starve?”
A mechanical voice interjected with “You have…one minute left.”
“I’ll do it.”
“Right away. I love you, Sayaka.”
“Don’t forget, okay?” The phone beeped three times as the call ended.
Nagito said, “She sounds…different than I remember.”
“The world is a dangerous place for a beautiful woman alone,” Makoto said. “Every day she’s in danger! Surrounded by…by those felons!”
One could argue whether it was the crime or the system that made a person into a felon, but regardless, Sayaka did drive a knife into a fellow student. Multiple times, to the point of exsanguination. That wasn’t a thing non-felons did. Usually. They would probably quickly become felons if people knew about it, or if the cases ever made it to trial. But that was none of Nagito’s business; going out of his way to throw his betters into pits of despair wasn’t a great way to help them reach their best.
This shouldn’t have become a routine, but it had. Mukuro was used to waking up before the sun rose, but not in civilian life. Instead, she had to spend her Tuesday morning driving 8 hours to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up her sister. Junko never seemed to get the hang of civilian life, either, which was why this happened once or twice a year. Maybe one day they’d make a Snapchat filter that digitally removed ankle monitors. Or ones that weren’t so easy to cut through.
This time was different, though, as there was a small camera crew waiting. Mukuro parked in the far side of the lot and crept closer. The videographer was aimed up the road, awaiting the prison bus, but the rest of the crew were talking to an average-looking person.
“Makoto?” What the hell was he doing here? She found herself walking towards him, only noticing it when he called out to her.
“I never expected you to be here!” he said, hugging her.
“I could say the same thing.” She glanced nervously at the camera. “This isn’t paparazzi.”
“I’m on a show, actually.” He laughed nervously. “It’s about people who fall in love with prisoners and what happens when they get released, get used to civilian life, all that.”
Oh no. Is this who Junko was talking about…? “Who, uh, who would that be?”
“You remember Sayaka?”
“I do.” It was a relief that her sister hadn’t found a way to steal her old crush…but not that Makoto had fallen for someone who was probably going to end up trapped in the cycle of recidivism. It was hard to get used to life on the outside—that was probably the appeal of the show—but maybe Makoto liked girls like that? What would he think that she had over 300 confirmed kills? Would that be too much? How could she—
“Miss Ikusaba, it’s nice seeing you again.” It was a woman with long blue hair and big round glasses. Mukuro was blanking on the name.
“It’s nice seeing you, too.” The camerawoman looked familiar, along with the…assistant? Helper? All the ex-soldier remembered was that she was very nasty. Were they all Hope’s Peak alumni?
“Are you here for your romantic partner, too?”
“I’m here for my sister.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
Mukuro didn’t know how to respond.
“I’m not here to judge.” Another moment of silence. “You see a lot of things in my line of work, so it’s not always safe to assume, you know.”
“Junko is my sister, not…any of that.” What the hell kind of tv shows did she work on where that was even a question? “I’m not comfortable being on tv. Nor will my sister.” That part was a lie, Junko loved the attention, the emotional rush of seeing her image being dragged through the mud, which didn’t do much to deter her from going back to prison. But Mukuro hated the spotlight. One of the nice things about these prison releases was that it was one of the few times she could be out in public with Junko and not worry about cameras.
She had to wait off to the side so she wouldn’t be in the shot, which wasn’t an issue for her, but it was hard to watch Makoto fidgeting with his phone and constantly looking up the road. He must have no idea how the prisoners were frequently let out late, that they didn’t bother giving you an update, that they might even cancel the day’s release and you’d have no way of knowing. But he was here despite…whatever it is he and Sayaka went through. That loyalty was nice to see. It hurt that it was all for someone else.
Soon the familiar prison bus came puttering down the road. The producer(?) was telling Makoto what to do, giving him advice on how to act, what the procedure for this was. She seemed all too familiar with this process. How big was this show? How many people went through this?
The first person to step off the bus was Junko.
“I’m free, bitches!”
“Please watch your language,” the guard said. He then did a double-take. “Tsumugi?”
“Hi, Shuichi! I’m sorry to be a pain but could you please move Miss Junko? We’re here for the other prisoner.”
“What do you mean this isn’t all for me?” After enough pleading, she got herded over to Mukuro. The two sisters hugged. “What’s with the class reunion?”
Mukuro lead them off to the side. “It’s some reality tv show.”
“Is that what Maizano was talking about? I thought she was bullshitting us.” Junko smirked. “D’you know how many girls got some sucker on the outside sending them money?”
“I imagine a lot.”
“It’s sooo easy, too. There’s gotta be at least, like, 10 women I helped catfish dudes.”
Mukuro blinked. “What?”
“Yeah, see, not everyone is as hot as me or Maizano, so they use other people’s pictures on those dating sites. But sometimes the dudes catch on and ask for a picture of you holding a piece of paper with their name or something. So we just set that up and the scam keeps going.”
“You’re okay with people pretending to be you?”
“People are already doing it, I might as well get a cut of the profits, right? And besides, the more bitches you have crawling to you for favors, the better.”
Mukuro looked back at Makoto. She remembered how friendly he was with Sayaka back in high school, but now she couldn’t look more disinterested. He kept reaching for her hand and she kept moving it out of the way just in time to brush hair out of her face or scratch her cheek. The body language was so cold, so distant, but he just didn’t notice at all. Or maybe he didn’t care. His high school sweetheart was back by his side, and that’s what mattered to him.
The worst part of this job was that Hiyoko had to keep her mouth shut all day. Since Sayaka was under house arrest at Nagito’s house, that meant she had to be around that freak day in, day out and she couldn’t do anything when he opened his goddamn mouth. If she had access to a time machine, she would convince Sayaka to kill him instead.
Like how the hell did this bum have such a huge house? Something about a trust fund and an unlucky string of family members meeting their untimely ends meant Nagito never had to work a day in his life. It also gave him an incredibly annoying inferiority complex. It was worse than Tsumugi’s, somehow. The only consolation was that she could gossip with Mahiru about it when the day was over. There really was no lack of things to discuss on this job.
Yes, there had been incredibly funny subjects they had followed before, but something about Makoto’s storyline was a neverending cavalcade of Incidents. The “meet-cute” at the bus station had whatever was the inverse of chemistry (gym class?) and they were almost late to meet the parole officer because Sayaka had to go clothes shopping, as what Makoto had brought wasn’t suitable (even though he got exactly what she had asked for). They had to have broken several laws racing to the PO and it only could have been better if they had gotten pulled over. Especially so if the officer was Kyoko, somehow.
Makoto was nervous for their first night together as husband and wife, but Sayaka shot him down. “I’ve been in prison,” she said, “it’s been years since I’ve been touched. I’m not comfortable doing any of that yet.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I understand. Take your time.” When he sat down to be interviewed that evening, he was adamant that it would only be a few days until she got over her nerves. “I love her, and she loves me, we have the rest of our lives together for sex.”
Sure, sure. That didn’t stop Hiyoko from getting a hold of Junko’s number and asking the model about her fellow felon.
“Look, look!” She shoved her phone in Mahiru’s face.
“You shouldn’t be getting involved with the cast like this,” she chided, but took the phone to read anyways. They were at the hotel bar, like they were most nights after filming. There wasn’t much else to do in this shithole town.
“Junko isn’t cast because she’s not fucking her sister. Probably.” She snickered. “God Tsumugi is so gross for even bringing that up. This isn’t Jerry Springer.”
“Oh my god, I knew Sayaka was lying.” The redhead was scrolling up through the conversation. “Wow, she’s really spilling the tea.”
“I’ve seen enough porn to know what goes on in women’s prison. How the hell can our protagonist not know?”
“Porn isn’t a reflection of reality.”
“What, and we’re doing a better job? Come on.” This was the closest Hiyoko would ever get to being a Professional Drama Manufacturer. Chasing people down as a tabloid journalist was too tiring. It was only a matter of time until she had Tsumugi’s job, then she could set up scenes however she wanted, direct the editors, choose when to put in the audio stings…This was much better than dancing. Though maybe she could use her connections to find a sufficiently drama-filled dance studio for her very own show to produce. No one would suspect little girls in kimono could be so hateful. It would be perfect.
“Should we tell Tsumugi?”
“What?” Hiyoko scoffed. “No way. You know how people get, they forget we’re even there and they drop the act in due time. Won’t it be even juicier when we catch that moment?”
So they waited. Makoto could only take so much time off of work, so soon they were watching Sayaka sit around the house. It only took a few hours for it to pay off. The speedy tapping of fake nails on a brand new pacific blue iPhone 12 Pro Max drew Hiyoko’s attention. She nudged Mahiru over. The angle wasn’t great but they still caught the conversation.
I’m so bored this is even worse than prison.
At least you have this warden wrapped around your finger.
Yeah but this one keeps expecting sex UGH.
When do I get to see you? I miss you.
If you can get everyone out of the house for a few hours, then I’ll make something work.
I can’t risk being seen.
I’ll think of something.
But this is only temporary. The moment you’re off probation, I’ll come rescue my princess from this nightmare.
I love you 💙
I love you more 💜💜💜
It went on like that for some time. Hiyoko slipped out of the room before she gagged. She went looking for Tsumugi, who she found on the back patio on a vape break. This time she actually did gag, both from the overwhelming artificial “Miku Blueberry” aroma and having to remember that such a thing actually existed and people paid money for it.
“We need to interview Sayaka before Makoto gets back.”
Tsumugi tilted her head. “Oh?”
“It’ll be worth it trust me.”
The session started by working through the backlog of questions for the previous days’ shooting, getting some lines to ADR, clips they could use for marketing, and some decoys to lull her into a sense of comfort.
“So,” Tsumugi said. “Who was that you were texting?”
Sayaka laughed. “Makoto, of course.”
“He has a Samsung. You were texting another iPhone.”
She smirked. “You gotta understand, it’s tough in prison. You do what you gotta do to survive.” She stood straighter in her chair. “And just because I married Makoto doesn’t mean anything. Like I said, you do what you gotta do. And that means you make plans in case your main plan falls through.”
“In case something happens to Makoto?”
“Oh, you got it backward. Makoto is the backup. You’ve seen him, he’d do anything for me. And just because I’m with him doesn’t mean I’m going to stop talking to anyone else. If I’m stuck with him,” she shrugs, “but I can do a hell of a lot better than him. I was used to a certain lifestyle before I got incarcerated and, well, he’s not going to be able to give me that.”
It took every trick in her book (and the aid of her co-producer Kokichi), but Tsumugi was able to get him. This was the first time she and her crew were escorted by butlers. They were also escorted by security and weren’t allowed to touch any of the furniture in the sitting room; the house staff did all the moving and tweaking of the scene, though they did listen to her directions.
Finally, the subject entered the room: Byakuya Togami, followed by another man, who immediately handed Tsumugi a thick stack of papers.
“You’ll find my lawyers made some changes to the release form.”
She quickly flipped through it, but there would be time later to sort it out. She just needed the footage now before he changed his mind.
“I really appreciate you taking your time to talk with us,” she said.
“I’m here to clear up any misconceptions you may have.” He sat in the chair across from the camera. “Are you ready? I’m not going to repeat myself.”
Mahiru jumped, making the final touches to the camera before nodding at Tsumugi.
“Please, explain your side of the story,” the producer said.
Byakuya smirked. “It’s quite simple. I wanted to check in on an old classmate. The criminal justice system isn’t as difficult to navigate if you have the means. A pop star might be affluent, but nowhere near as much as a Togami. My intention was to see if I could aid her in obtaining an early release.”
“So that’s when you first started talking with Sayaka.”
“Naturally. There was little my legal team could do to aid her, as she was already looking at a reduced sentence due to being a model inmate. Still, it was inevitable for her to fall in love with me.”
Tsumugi just plain couldn’t believe it. Kokichi always had a knack for finding the most dramatic cast members (as well as the talent for setting up explosive situations) while she always found the most boring, the most regular, the ones that never made it to subsequent seasons since nothing was going on with them. But now she had a bonafide love triangle on her hands, with a felonious pop star at the peak and two polar-opposite men vying for her attention. The chance they would get into a physical fight at the reunion was small, but the fact that one of them was the Byakuya Togami would draw audiences in droves.
If she played her cards right, she might even be able to pitch Keeping up with the Togamis. Though there would need to be more than one Togami for that to work. But she didn’t doubt Byakuya’s ability to pay for a divorce lawyer for Sayaka.
“Do you know that she’s currently in a relationship with another man?”
He scoffed. “Yes, but we both know it means nothing. She married him out of desperation before I reached out to her. One of the factors that lower recidivism is ties to the community, and that includes a legal spouse, did you know that?”
“I did not,” she lied. She’d been working this show for several years, she knew the system better than most ex-cons.
“Besides, do you think Makoto would be able to give her everything she needs to be happy? The man doesn’t even have a place to live.”
“But aren’t you concerned about being in a relationship with a felon?”
“Miss Shirogane, do you really think I care what others think? I already know they think the worst of me out of jealousy. It’s everyone’s dream to marry a pop star. And if she wishes to have her career back, I can make that happen. There is absolutely no downside to this situation.”