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“Okay, what do you think?”

Tsukasa shuffles closer on his knees. He’s holding up his masterpiece on a scrap of torn notebook paper, all crayon and pencil and (hopefully) red ink, and grinning ear to ear. 

“That’s me,” he explains, pointing to the figure grinning with a similar fervor, “and that’s Mitsuba!”

Hanako blinks, squints closer at the other part of the drawing, which appears to be a truck with teeth. A truck that’s currently disemboweling the fellow school mystery, and having a hell of a time doing it too, judging by the red covering most of the page. “He’s being...eaten?”

“Yeah,” Tsukasa coos, “Mitsuba doesn’t like trucks much, and Sakura says he’s gotta face his fears! Guess that’s ‘cause one ran him over — did you know that? Went ‘SPLAT!’ like a tomato, aaaaall over the road.”

“Hm,” is all Hanako responds with, barely audible. It’s better not to respond at all when it comes to Tsukasa, but Hanako knows ignoring him completely could lead to this conversation going on for hours, and he really doesn’t want to hear about No. 3’s insides for hours. Call it common decency. Call it complete non-interest. Call it a similar conversation to ones they’ve had before, because Tsukasa seems to make a habit of collecting things that get squished by cars.

 

You see, he’d really rather be spending his Saturday in any other way than being subject to his brother’s artistic visions, but Hanako doesn’t really have much of a choice. This perfect world isn’t going to draw itself, and No. 4 had made it clear that she wasn’t going to either. Hanako had known she could be difficult to work with, but he didn’t expect her to dump the whole project in his lap after he’d offered his critiques. Completely reasonable ones at that! It wasn’t his fault she’d been drawing those space hamsters completely contrary to his vision, and—

...Well.

What’s done is done.

That’s why Hanako’s sitting on the art room floor with a mountain of cheap paints, pencils, and a sketchbook depiction of his only assistant. Er, well, it will be her, just as soon as he gets the face right. A couple of fixes here and there. It’s nearly done, if that counts.

So Hanako picks up a green pencil and begins to shade the ends of Yashiro’s hair, all the while Tsukasa is making his “hms” and “huhs” as he crawls back to whatever he’s working on in the corner of the room. Hanako doesn’t dare look. If he’s lucky, maybe he’ll forget that his little brother is there at all, and then he can focus on the true task at hand. The important stuff. The “Operation: Save Yashiro!” or whatever he may call it if it didn’t hurt so much to think about. Don’t think about it, okay? Fix the problem before it even arises. That’s Hanako’s tried and true method of everything, and he can only hope it doesn’t fail him now. Right. It’s just him, and these paints, and—

“I need green,” Tsukasa announces to the room.

Scratch that forgetting part.

“I’m using it,” Hanako retorts, shifts just a bit further away.

 

Okay, focus.

It’s important that he gets this right.

Hanako knows best of anyone that there’s no changing fate. There’s no candy-glazing the fact that Yashiro is going to die, and that it’s (probably) going to be Hanako’s fault, and that being O Honorable No. 7 of Kamome’s School Mysteries isn’t going to magically whisk away that fact. Being dead doesn’t give you a magic wand to wave; it only makes you a lot more aware of the whole dying process. He’s been through this before, okay? Dying isn’t like falling asleep. It’s not warm and welcoming. It’s harsh and it’s cold and it’s— 

“Amane.”

Hanako grits his teeth.

It’s spending an eternity paying for the fact that he died by spending it with his little brother, who is currently pressing against his back, breathing into his ear.

“What.”

“I need green.”

Hanako takes a deep, dramatic sigh before he holds up the pencil, lets it be snatched away before he hears Tsukasa scrambling back to whatever he’s been working on. There’s no use fighting it. Tsukasa’s an oversized cat, a tiger with teeth like razors. You give him what he wants or he bites your hand clean off just for the fun of it; sometimes he wants a green colored pencil and sometimes he wants you to put a knife in him, and there’s not really any way of getting around any of it.

 

......But, anyway. Yashiro. Hanako sifts through the mess of pens and spilled paint and settles on a worn down yellow crayon to begin filling her arms with flowers. Yashiro always likes flowers, you know? Maybe she could have a garden full of them, in this world. Maybe she could wander through miles and miles of petals until she was old and gray, just like she should be doing in the real world. Hanako tries not to think too much about the fact that this whole charade is fake. He tries not to linger on it because it leaves a bitter taste between his teeth. She should be walking through real fields of flowers instead of gardens glazed in gesso that would never wilt away. She should be growing old outside of this dusty old school, because Yashiro wasn’t the one who put a knife in someone just because she was supposed to. 

 

There’s a wet splat from behind him, and Hanako turns.

“Tsukasa, wh—”

“Don’t look!”

His brother’s at his feet in an instant, covering his canvas propped against the wall with the width of his hakama and his hands dipped in blue paint. Hanako opens his mouth to say something, but— no... No. Best not to ask. Instead, he returns his attention to his work.

 

There’s a significant, hat-heighted part of him that really hates this whole business of fake worlds and fake lives and fake flowers at the tip of his crayon, but Hanako’s doing his best to put that aside. No. 4 had assured him, after much prodding and poking, that Yashiro’s memories would prevent her from even realizing the difference, so......that was a good thing, right? That would make it less painful. If he was lucky, she’d never even have to learn of her own death. She’d be first year student Nene Yashiro and nothing more, nothing less. That’s why this world has to be perfect. That’s why he has to finish it. It has to be perfect. It will be perfect. It.....it— 

“...I need more yellow.”

There’s a shuffling behind him. Hanako becomes acutely aware of cold air creeping up his spine, and suddenly Tsukasa is beside him again. He’s peeling open Hanako’s hand and depositing a gift gently, very un-Tsukasa-like, with blue-dyed fingers, before curling back up his big brother’s fist around it. Hanako stares at his hand for a long, worrying moment before unsheathing whatever horror lies within.

It’s another yellow crayon, tip scrubbed all the way to the paper, and it feels...odd. Almost......wet? Slightly sticky. There’s bumps around the body which he slowly registers to be teethmarks, and Hanako drops it to the floor. Shakes off the germs in a face-squenching motion. Rubs his hand on his pants as he prays that whatever diseases growing in Tsukasa’s mouth aren’t supernaturally transmissible, because who knows what’s been there in the past fifty years— 

 

SPLAT .

 

Hanako’s head jerks forward at the sound.

It’s not against Tsukasa’s mystery canvas though. No, this is dribbling down the back of his neck like thick, congealing blood. Hanako reaches up to touch and pulls his hand away orange, wounded by the shrapnel of cheap acrylic paints.

“Tsukasa what the hell —”

No looking!

Another glob of paint goes flying in Hanako’s direction, this time skimming his hat and smacking the top of the sketchbook in his lap.

Shit!

He reaches for something, anything in a blind panic to wipe away the paint before it ruins, ultimately settling on his sleeve to scrub the blemish away, the imperfection, the threat against everything he’s been working so hard to finish for someone who deserved so much more than him, and—

 

“Okay!” Tsukasa chirps with a clap. “It’s done! You can look now.”

And Hanako does look. He whips around like a snake ready to strike, ready to hurl at Tsukasa all on his mind and then some, face scrunched, fists clenched.

He doesn’t make it to that point though.  Hanako’s words fall flat with the paint tripping from his hat as he stares, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the bright, bleeding, blooming mural before him. 

It’s the school. It’s the school on some flat, cheap plastic canvas, and yet it’s so very alive. Windows glow with warmth to match the glittering stars in the sky, figures skip and laugh through the roof’s skyline. By the gates stand three figures: a pair of identical, uniformed boys holding hands, and another with a bouquet of sunflowers to hide her face.

“That one’s me,” Tsukasa explains, pointing to the one whose face is mostly grinning teeth, then moves to the much more miserable figure beside him, “and that one’s you.”

“Why do I look so miserable?”

“Why? Because you’re Amane!” Tsukasa wanders over and drops to the floor beside him, pulling his knees up in a twisty, uncomfortable looking knot. He looks to his older brother. He looks back to the painting. He looks to Hanako once more, and then a bit quieter, asks, “Do you like it?”

Did he like it......

Hell, it was near perfect. It was too perfect. It was more than Hanako could ever imagine and more than he could ever want, and what he wants most is to hate it. He does. It’s fake. It’s not real. It won’t ever be real.

“It’s not real,” he answers aloud this time, trying to work his face back into a neutral expression. It doesn’t seem to work, because Tsukasa’s grinning again.

“Duh. If we were making real worlds, we’d need a lot more mokke.”

Hanako doesn’t ask what he means by that; doesn’t ask where he got the pink paint for the cherry blossoms once he realizes there a distinct lack of any on the art room floor. He just sits and stares and thinks as hard as he can, about anything and everything that can fit in his perpetually thirteen-year-old brain. About how something like this could be so perfect and yet so horrible, and about how unperturbed his brother seems towards mokke genocide. 

He glances over to the side and sees that disemboweled No. 3 and his truck nemesis have been incorporated into the road outside the school, except this time Tsukasa seems to have done the courtesy of giving No. 3 a sword to defend himself. Or maybe it’s a spear. Maybe it’s an oversized knife to fit his ego, like Hanako has buried deep in his own chest from fate’s unmerciful whetstone. Maybe it’s just a drawing. None of this is real anyway.

 

“You juuust gotta pretend, Amane,” Tsukasa states, looking pleased with himself, “You know, you always were bad at that.”

“Was not,” Hanako mutters, even though it’s not true. 

 

Next to him in that painting is a girl holding sunflowers, smiling like the sun behind a thick smear of clouds. That girl is a drawing and that girl is alive. That girl is Nene Yashiro, first year — it will be.

Fine. 

He touches it, just to be sure, and pulls away his finger dipped in yellow.

Hanako can pretend.

He can pretend for a bit, for just a moment, if it’s for her.