[Chapter 1 - 017]

I slept even worse today than I did the night before, but at least I was up before the morning announcement… The first thing I heard didn’t have to be MONO-9000’s horrible little cackle. I could take a shower in peace!

The blaring alarm went off a few minutes after I stepped back into the bedroom, just in time for me to drown it out with my hair dryer. Not that MONO would’ve noticed it, of course– but at least I got a few more minutes of normalcy out of my day before I had to leave my room and deal with… whatever was going to happen at this meeting.

Things seemed oddly quiet as I passed through the hallway and the cafeteria. It wasn’t that early in the morning, was it? Surely people would be eating breakfast by now. I grabbed another poptart from the kitchen, then opened the library door to find…

Tiffani, Riko, Yusra, Aoi, Honoka, Kapono, and Salvatore sit in a circle in the library.

Well, not a whole lot. Honoka was there, of course, as well as Riko, Yusra, Aoi, Kapono, and Sal, despite his hesitation earlier. Even Tiffani had managed to drag herself out of bed before noon. But that was it. I knew Nik was having a rough time, and I could see why some of the others would be wary of the meeting, but where was Vash? Or Jurou? Or Ishi…?

Everyone was sitting around the small round table in the corner, so I dragged an empty chair over there for myself.

Tim frowns.
Timaeus

So, uh… This is it, huh.

Honoka tries to smile.
Honoka

I mean, it’s still half of us!

Honoka’s cheerfulness sounded hollow amidst the conspicuously small crowd.

Riko frowns.
Riko

…Figures.

Tim laughs nervously.
Timaeus

I-I’m sure Ishi just overslept, maybe the others…

Aoi thinks.
Aoi

Kapono frowns.
Kapono

Sal chews on his pen.
Salvatore

…I don’t want to have to repeat myself. Should we wait for the stragglers?

Tiffani talks.
Tiffani

Hmph! I got two hours of sleep last night and I still dragged my ass out here. If they aren’t coming, they aren’t coming.

Tiffani starts munching on popcorn.
Tiffani

Now get on with it, I wanna see some drama.

We looked around at each other nervously as Tiffani munched on some microwave popcorn.

Yusra frowns.
Yusra

I suppose we should get started.

Aoi frowns.
Aoi

I guess we just… go around the circle? Like show and tell?

Honoka smiles.
Honoka

Why don’t you start, Tiffani, if you’re so excited about it?

Tiffani looks away.
Tiffani

No.

Sal laughs.
Salvatore

Oh come on now, darling, if you wanna in on the gossip you’ve got to be ready to spill some beans of your own!

That was a bit rich coming from him. After some badgering from the rest of us, though, Tiffani finally relented with a snarl.

Tiffani growls.
Tiffani

Fine! Fuck you guys. Fine.

Tiffani looks embarrassed.
Tiffani

…I was cheer captain in middle school.

Honoka laughs nervously.
Honoka

Y-you were what?

Tiffani yells.
Tiffani

You fucking heard me! I’m not saying it again!

I, unfortunately, was the first to break the stifling silence. I had sworn before I even stepped in the room that I wouldn’t laugh at anyone’s secret, but…

Tim fails to contain his laughter.
Timaeus

Pfft– oh my god? I’m sorry I-I’m sure you were great at it I’m just–

Tiffani grins maliciously.
Tiffani

Hey Tim, guess what? Guess what I got right here?

With a vengeful grin, she waved her letter in my face and began to read loudly.

Tiffani reads aloud.
Tiffani

Timaeus Woodworth stole a book from his school’s library–

Tim huffs.
Timaeus

I was in the third grade!! A-and I paid the replacement fee!

Yusra giggles.
Yusra

Third grade? What was the book?

Tim laughs nervously.
Timaeus

…Magic Tree House #7…

Maybe I should’ve been a little more annoyed at how quickly the huddled crowd erupted into laughter, but I found myself laughing with them this time. There was an unspoken relief that maybe all our worrying had been over such childish secrets after all… I guess I didn’t mind being the laughingstock again, if it put the others at ease in a dreadful time like this.

Aoi laughs.
Aoi

Okay, seriously though, we should probably just tell our own secrets.

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

Yes, it would be unfair to the absentees to not allow them a chance to explain themselves.

Tiffani looks away.
Tiffani

Fine, whatever.

Tiffani crumpled up her paper and tossed it at the garbage bin, missing by a few feet.

Kapono speaks.
Kapono

…Who’s… next?

If we went in the current order around the circle, then Sal would be next… But surprisingly, Riko spoke up instead.

Riko frowns.
Riko

I, uh… I do cosplay sometimes. I actually got into the finals at a contest one year, at Tokyo Comic Con…

Aoi gasped and clapped their hands together.

Aoi yells.
Aoi

Holy crap, is that why you look familiar?! Was it the Voyager-era Romulan commander uniform with the sash and eyepatch–

Riko suddenly grins.
Riko

Wait– Oh my god you recognized it? That’s my favorite uniform design but no one ever knows what it is–

Aoi grins.
Aoi

You looked amazing! I’m so jealous! All I’ve got is a crappy storebought science officer uniform, do you do commissions—

Riko looks genuinely happy.
Riko

Thank you! Scalemail is such a pain in the ass to work with but it was totally worth it–

She froze as if she just now remembered there were seven other people in the room with her. We were all too stunned by her sudden shift in demeanor to say anything.

Riko snarls.
Riko

…Of course, if you people breathe a word of this to anyone I will personally break your fingers. Understand?

Tim looks terrified.
Timaeus

Y-yes ma’am!!

Honoka smiles worriedly.
Honoka

Well sure, but you know there’s nothing wrong with having a hobby, right?

Riko frowns.
Riko

It’s, um… Y-you don’t get it.

Riko sounded uncharacteristically subdued as she leaned back in her chair. Yusra piped up quickly, as if to spare her further embarrassment.

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

I’m afraid my secret is not so interesting! It’s hardly a secret in the first place…

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

My family is “involved with Hope’s Peak Academy’s finances,” but only inasmuch as the corporation regularly donates to educational institutions. I don’t tell people simply because it makes it sound like I bought my way into the school.

Sal looks up.
Salvatore

I see… You think that’s why you’re here with the rest of us?

Yusra shrugs.
Yusra

Perhaps, if our kidnapper was after money? Though that seems extremely unlikely at this point…

Sal frowned and scribbled something in his little black notebook— he’d been doing that a lot today. None of us had said that much, right? But he wrote so small that I couldn’t exactly peek over his shoulder without it being obvious…

Oh well, it’s none of my business. It was Aoi’s turn now, and they didn’t look too happy about it.

Aoi frowns.
Aoi

So, uh, mine is my deadname, do I need to—

Tim frowns.
Timaeus

MONO went there? Really?

Aoi yells.
Aoi

Yeah! I guess at least it happened to me and not someone who’d take it really hard…

Aoi huffs.
Aoi

Though if the person with my secret is here, uh, please don’t tell anyone?

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

Of course.

Tiffani growls.
Tiffani

Man, this isn’t even like, fun gossip. Where’s the serial killer?!

Timaeus yells.
Timaeus

S-stop joking about that…

Sal chews on his pen.
Salvatore

The more petty secrets we have, though, the fewer people we’ll have to actually worry about…

Honoka was next in line, though I already had a pretty good idea what her secret might involve…

Honoka sighs.
Honoka

So, this might sound strange, but… despite being the Ultimate Tap Dancer, I have never actually, um, performed a full show on stage. I can’t dance for that long… health reasons…

Aoi looks surprised.
Aoi

Oh, that sucks, sorry… But what are you all dressed up for, then?

Honoka smiles.
Honoka

I-I just like to look professional! Gotta set a good example for my students…

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

Students? Well, no wonder you’re an Ultimate! It takes twice the talent to teach others well than it does to perform.

Honoka blushes.
Honoka

Ah, that’s…! Y-you’re really giving me too much credit.

Honoka nodded quickly to Kapono, trying to divert attention from herself as her cheeks turned red.

Kapono frowns.
Kapono

…A-pha-sia… from… injury at a dig…

Kapono rapped his knuckles lightly on his forehead.

Kapono sighs.
Kapono

…Don’t like talking about it.

Honoka smiles gently.
Honoka

That’s okay.

Aoi thinks.
Aoi

Yeah, we don’t need the details. Just making sure you aren’t a serial killer or something.

Tim yelps.
Timaeus

Not you too…!

Sal laughs.
Salvatore

You aren’t actually worried about that, are you, Tim?

Tim laughs nervously.
Timaeus

O-of course not, the chances are astronomically low it’s just poor taste I think–

Kapono snickers.
Kapono

…astronomical…

Tim sighs.
Timaeus

Oh my god I didn’t even do that on purpose.

Sal laughs.
Salvatore

Ahahaha! To be fair, it’s about the same chances as someone like me winding up here…

Riko frowns.
Riko

Honoka laughs nervously.
Honoka

…What’s that supposed to mean?!

Sal hesitated, looked around the room one more time, and finally leaned forward on the table with a dramatic sigh.

Sal sighs.
Salvatore

I suppose it’s my turn, anyway. This is a little awkward, though, I was hoping I wouldn’t be the only one with such a big reveal!

Tiffani grumbles.
Tiffani

Honestly! You people are boring as hell. This better be something good, blondie.

Honoka huffs.
Honoka

Stop being so rude!! His secret could be something very personal so we’re not going to judge him for it or treat him any differently…

Sal huffs.
Salvatore

Uh, well that’s sweet of you, darling, but…

Tim laughs nervously.
Timaeus

Yeah, I’m sure it’s nothing we can’t handle–

Sal's entire demeanor instantly shifts.
Salvatore

–My name, talent, and everything you know about me is a lie.

You could hear a pin drop in the silence that followed, if it weren’t for Tiffani shoveling popcorn into her mouth.

Tim looks baffled.
Timaeus

Oh.

Yusra thinks.
Yusra

Aha! I was wondering about that.

Riko frowns.
Riko

Honoka yells.
Honoka

Wh-what? But the Electro ID–

Salvatore(?) looks away.
Salvatore?

Sal is just the latest in a long line of aliases. If you’ve heard of me, you’ll know me by my penname… Janus. Ultimate Investigative Journalist.

Introduction card for Janus, the Ultimate Investigation Journalist. The student formerly known as Sal has a much more imposing presence this time.

Wait wait wait. Hold the phone. That Janus? Not the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and endings, but– the one in the news–

Tiffani’s grating cackle snapped me back to reality.

Tiffani cackles.
Tiffani

Holy shit! Oh my god! Now we’re talking! What kinda shitty spy movie am I watching right now?

Janus grins.
Janus

I thought some of you might feel that way. Would you like to see my notes on that child trafficking ring takedown from a couple years ago? Bet you’ll find a few famous names your local news networks were too scared to publish!~

His laugh had a bitter edge to it as he pulled another notebook out of his back pocket and spread it out on the table. Its contents left little room for doubt; every page we flipped through was chock full of notes and diagrams that a conspiracy theorist could only dream of.

Even more convincing to me, though, was the frightening ease with which he dropped his persona. Nothing about his appearance had changed exactly… but Sal, as we knew him, was gone. Those were the eyes of a person who had seen some shit, and that vengeful smile…

Janus talks.
Janus

Or you can just ask Riko. You’ve got my secret, right?

Riko frowns.
Riko

…How did you…

Janus laughs.
Janus

Darling, you have no poker face whatsoever. But thanks for confirming my little theory about the distribution of the secrets…

Tim thinks.
Timaeus

What do you mean?

Janus grins.
Janus

Why I thought you of all people might have guessed it, Tim! You’re bilingual, after all. If Tiffani has your secret, Yusra has Aoi’s, and Riko has mine, then all you have to do is anglicize the names…

Our new resident detective cracked his notebook open again, to show us a list he’d already written on a fresh page:

Sal's list of who has whose secrets.
Aoi yelps.
Aoi

Oh, you’re right!

Tim frowns.
Timaeus

That seems… suspiciously straightforward?

Janus thinks.
Janus

I’m sure MONO-9000 wanted at least some of us to figure out the pattern, especially since it used a language several of us know. Makes it easier to pick a target if you know who has your secret… or to frame someone else if you know who has theirs.

Yusra thinks.
Yusra

Maybe it didn’t expect us to work together as much as we have…

Honoka frowns.
Honoka

Th-that’s all well and good but– can we back up a little? You’re that Janus?? The one on the run from multiple federal intelligence agencies??? Won’t you get in trouble–

Janus frowns.
Janus

More trouble than this? Darling, we’re already in the worst case scenario.

Honoka sighs.
Honoka

…I guess that’s fair.

Aoi thinks.
Aoi

It is still a bit far-fetched, you know… that you’d just tell us.

Tiff grins.
Tiffani

You can fucking say that again! Ahahahaha!

Janus looks away.
Janus

Is it, really? A complete stranger was able to connect the two identities, so I have to assume my entire operation is compromised. And there’s no guarantee MONO-9000 won’t just broadcast everyone’s secrets even if someone dies… Not much point in hiding anymore.

Tim looks worried.
Timaeus

But… wouldn’t it still be safer to stay Sal for as long as you could…?

Janus grins maliciously.
Janus

What you’re forgetting, Tim, is that I’m the pettiest bitch alive. I’ll doxx myself to hell and back before I let some asshole robot steal my story.

Another hesitant silence, finally interrupted by Riko.

Riko sighs.
Riko

…I believe you.

Kapono frowns.
Kapono

…Me too…

Riko frowns.
Riko

So what? Are we supposed to just stand around gawping at your superior intellect, Mr. Holmes? Or are you going to do something about all of this?

Janus frowns.
Janus

Ahahaha! I don’t know what you’re thinking, doll, but I’m not some Hollywood secret agent with gadgets and shit. All I do is gather, analyze and present information in a way that makes powerful people very angry…

He shifted in his chair, and another predatory grin split his face. It felt like he was talking to more than just those of us in the room…

Janus grins maliciously.
Janus

…And like hell am I gonna let a scoop this big get away from me. I will find out who did this to us, why, and how. Any other questions?

Aoi thinks.
Aoi

I mean… several, yeah. But I can just talk to you later.

Tiffani grins.
Tiffani

Yeah me too, I’m out of popcorn.

Riko frowns.
Riko

Yusra smiles.
Yusra

My goodness, everyone’s so hostile! I, for one, am pleased to have someone like you on our side, especially given the circumstances.

Honoka laughs nervously.
Honoka

I-I mean I wasn’t trying to be rude! It’s just a lot to take in…

Tim thinks.
Timaeus

The odds really are something… But I’m glad you told us, uh, Janus? I never thought I’d get to meet someone like you…

Kapono smiles.
Kapono

Yeah… you’re pretty cool.

Janus looks away.
Janus

Eh, don’t get too used to me. I’ll have to start planning out a new name and face as soon as we get out of here… But I’ll do my best to help you all.

Janus smiles a little less ferociously this time.
Janus

And I hope you’ll call me Sal in the meantime! I rather like the name.

Tim yelps.
Timaeus

S-sure, but… new face???

Sal laughs.
Salvatore

Tim, honey, look me in the eyes and tell me you think any of this is real.

Janus? Sal? laughed and drew a circle around his face with his finger. Now that he mentioned it, I could see tinges of plastic in his hawk-like nose, the roots of his bleach blond hair…

I didn’t have much reason to doubt him anymore. My problem was more conceptual than anything else: if this was really Janus standing before me, the vigilante reporter who’d evaded capture and recognition for years… how the hell did our kidnapper get ahold of him in the first place?

Janus looks away.
Salvatore

…There’s a camera in that corner, by the way. This whole place is bugged to hell.

Honoka yelps.
Honoka

What?!

Tim frowns.
Timaeus

I thought I felt like I was being watched…

Maybe I could shelve something in front of it… Though I bet tampering with surveillance too much would probably have some consequences.

On that unsettling bombshell, the room fell silent again.

Yusra speaks.
Yusra

…So, that’s all of us, hm?

Riko sighs.
Riko

All of us that showed up.

Aoi frowns.
Aoi

What do we do now…?

Tim looks away.
Timaeus

Well, I don’t know about you, but I think I’m gonna go check on Ishi… just to make sure nothing’s wrong.

Honoka frowns.
Honoka

…Alright…

Honoka looked for a moment like she was about to say something else… She was the one with Ishi’s secret, right? Wonder how MONO-9000 spun that one.

She stopped herself, though, and instead stood up and looked around the table.

Honoka smiles weakly.
Honoka

Everyone… stay safe, okay?

Sal looks away.
Salvatore

Tiffani looks away.
Tiffani

Kapono frowns.
Kapono

…Yeah.

And so the meeting in the library drew to a close, answering some questions and asking many, many more.

I dismissed myself from the room and headed back to the dorms, still pondering the things I’d learned this morning. Aside from Sal’s dramatic revelation, the others didn’t seem to have much to hide– that was comforting to know, at least. But it only made me more worried for the students who didn’t show up… Some might have overslept, but I couldn’t know for sure.

Not unless I asked them myself, anyway. Maybe after I found Ishi, I could go check on the others, too?