The stairs turned a corner at about the halfway point, and then opened out into another hallway, which was much smaller than the last. This didn't make much architectural sense, but Hinata had not expected anything less.
It didn't have any of the same kind of vine cover as the last floor, painted or otherwise. The walls were made out of some kind of metal, which cast a harsh yellow glare on everything and everyone in the hall. The paths split left and right at a central column large enough to be a room, and wound into a distance too far away for Hinata to see.
Togami had stopped at the foot of the stairs, and did not move as Hinata and Nanami and Enoshima approached again. Hinata would have moved ahead of him, but with Nanami on his left and Enoshima on his right he would have had to push past Togami, and somehow… despite the ample space on either side, the figure in front of him felt immovable, and not just because of his stature or his temper.
He adjusted his grip on Nanami's shoulder, all the while struggling to keep his balance on the stairs. "Er..."
"Togami-kun?" Nanami said in a soft voice. Had she actually felt concern for Togami, or had she detected the awkward situation that Hinata had been thrust into? He couldn't tell, not without asking. "Are you..."
"Preposterous..." Togami shuddered, and then spread his fists open and closed, as if he were trying to figure out how to react to whatever he was feeling and absorbing it in the least obvious way possible. Then he bowed his head and strode forward, without so much as another word.
Enoshima made a soft sound in the back of her throat as he left, something like a "tut-tut." Hinata cast her a glare, daring or perhaps begging her to speak her mind. But she didn't – she just smiled and stared into the middle distance, inscrutable as ever.
"We need to follow him," Nanami mumbled.
"Al…alright," Hinata said. "Nanami…do you know what's going on?"
"No," Nanami said. "This is… this is not something we can control. Not now."
Hinata nodded, and then continued down the stairs and into the hall. The floor was made of some kind of metal mesh, and it felt awkward under his feet. He took the left path around the enormous central pillar – which, upon coming out the other side, he saw was actually a room – the CONTROL ROOM, or so it was labeled.
His eyes went wide at the sight. "That's…"
"Don't worry about it," Nanami and Enoshima said in frightening sync. Hinata forced himself not to think about it, as Togami was getting further away.
Like the previous hallway, this one seemed to go on forever. Togami did not look up or back as he walked, and for all he knew – at least as far as Hinata could tell – the others had ceased to burden him long ago.
"Disgusting," Togami was mumbling to himself – the echoes carried his words all the way down the hall and into their ears. "Inscrutable, vile, grotesque …"
It was here, as the glow of the hallway walls began to fade against Togami's skin, that Hinata realized that the murals had returned. This time, he looked up to find that two parallel rows of human figures lined the wall, stylized in the same clumsy scrawl as the buildings on the upper level.
He quickly registered the commonalities between each figure – they were all the Impostor, at least as far as he could tell from the broad strokes of their builds. But they were all different – at least, different in their style of dress, their hair, and who they appeared to be. He could see a businesswoman on one side, dressed in a sensible gray suit jacket and skirt… he could see what looked like a low-level gang member, with a cheap suit and open-front shirt… he could see a girl in gothic Lolita dress, a boy in a garish part-timer's shirt, a school uniform, another school uniform, on and on and on and on…
As Togami continued on, his footfalls grew softer, and his pace grew less urgent. He was still mumbling, throwing what felt like insults, but his tone was softer, and his words less audible. The last one that Hinata could hear was "filthy", which died in his mouth as, after what felt like an eternity of moving between badly-drawn human figures, he stopped mid-stride, his eyes wide and staring.
Then, slowly, he extended his foot... and swept it around his center in a circular motion, moving himself into a wider stance.
Then he moved his feet back together, and swept himself back across the floor, letting his hands flow free in the gust left behind from his movement. It took Hinata another moment to realize that Togami was dancing – and dancing quite gracefully, moving without interrupting the flow of his dance.
His eyes burned again, but he did not speak. Slowly, his dance moved him closer to one of the images on the wall – and it was then that Hinata realized that the images had no faces. Not even any sort of crude facsimile of a face – just nothing where features should be. As he approached each image he slid his fingers across it briefly – just a light touch, not even enough to apply the layer of grime he'd developed on the previous floor.
"Togami?" Hinata called, but he did not respond. He opened his mouth again, but found himself unsure of what to say – really, he was just angling for a response at this point, anything to bring his confusion into focus and provide him with some clarity. "Are you -"
"Sssshhh. Don't interrupt. Just listen." Enoshima closed her eyes, blocking out the scene entirely as there was no sound to be heard.
"This is out of our hands, Hinata-kun." Nanami trembled against his shoulder, though, with her face buried, he could not see her expression. "I wish I had another answer for you."
"Nanami…" Hinata turned to look at her, as much as he could without dislodging her, and then sighed when he couldn't immediately follow up on his thought. "I know. This isn't your responsibility."
"It is," Nanami mumbled, but fell silent, and did not clarify. Hinata cast her a wistful look, but held her closer in response.
"You're not going to ask what she means." Enoshima's eyes were still closed, and she swayed slowly from foot to foot. It was a statement of fact, and not a question, and neither Hinata nor Nanami replied. "Well, okay. If that's not something you think you have to know. Have it your way, then."
Togami continued to move down the hallway, further and further from the others, twisting and turning with impeccable grace. Occasionally he would appear to stutter and jolt, or even to stumble, but in the next moment he would right himself, and continue on in his trance as though he had never fallen.
"I am ugly," he said, in a voice that made it sound like he could burst into tears at any moment. "Inscrutable, vile, I am grotesque, I am filthy. I am disgusting. I am nothing, perverse, unnatural, defective, unfit to serve and unfit to exist."
He approached another painting, a broad-strokes portrait of the Impostor as a man in a red sweatshirt and a white surgical face mask. Again his fingers brushed the sides, leaving only the barest hint of a mark and a smudge. "In a city of men and women I occupy space that should not be mine. I thrive in the spaces where I am hated and feared."
He moved across the hall to another painting, this time the Impostor as a woman in a white sundress, with her hands clasped over her front. "I am a parasite, unworthy of independent or individual thought. I live only to destroy. I die if I do not kill."
Togami moved back to the center of the hall, and slowly, serenely continued forward. His head was bowed, and his hands swaying from side to side, but at that moment he was so far out of reach that Hinata could barely see these movements.
He tried to move forward, to keep pace with him, but his motivation was failing him almost as much of his strength. Nanami held close to him, of course, her eyes fiercely locked on the scene in front of her. And Enoshima…
Enoshima had pulled as far ahead as her tether would allow, which placed her only a few feet behind Togami. Hinata couldn't see her face either, but his eye was drawn to the way that her auburn hair swayed with the movement of her body, or the clanking of her chains as they dragged on the ground behind her.
"You were doing so well," Enoshima said, surprising Hinata with her volume. "What do you think you're going to do with this now? Wouldn't you rather take what I was going to give you, and absorb the essence of despair with the rest of the world?"
"I was weak," Togami said, clutching at his suit sleeves with his hands. Hinata could see the dirt and charcoal streaking his hands, even from a distance.
"You are weak," Enoshima said. "You're still not strong enough to face me."
"I was angry," Togami said, digging his fingernails so deep into his palms that Hinata did not doubt he drew blood.
"You weren't supposed to be angry," Enoshima said. "Despair isn't anger. Even my older sister knows that."
"I was afraid," Togami said, resolving once and for all, apparently, not to listen to the woman behind him.
"You can't even destroy him with your own bare hands," Enoshima replied. "What does that make you now? What do you think you are without me?"
Togami stopped in his tracks, but did not allow Hinata and Nanami much of a chance to catch up before he started moving again, away from Enoshima. He walked walked through this space with a breathtaking slowness, curling his arms tighter and closer around himself as he progressed… until finally he stopped, long before the end of the hallway.
The metallic gleam of the hallways' walls had grown lighter and brighter as it drew near the farthest, dead-end wall, until finally it faded to a bright, matte white. And in the center of that light was a painting of Togami - the real Togami, as far as Hinata was sure he was supposed to figure.
Unlike the rest of the human figures or even the rest of the murals, this painting was... beautiful. It was as if Hinata had discovered an Italian fresco in the center of a bunch of childrens' sidewalk drawings, and it had been painted in about the same style. The figure's arms were spread out to his sides in a gesture of giving, or perhaps benediction, and his gaze held a softness that Hinata had never seen on the true Togami's face before.
In fact… despite the difference in size, Hinata felt that this Togami looked and felt more like the one he had known than… perhaps even the one he had known. It was an idealized figure, perhaps indicative of everything the Impostor had wanted Togami to be.
"I hated him for so long." Togami pulling hard at the expensive fabric of his sleeves, and left deep, dark gashes in his suit coat as he approached the painting on shaking feet. "But I was dead and he gave me life. I was nothing, and he made me everything."
Much like he had on the last floor, he slid his fingers down the portrait of his own face. A few gray-green smudges trailed from his hand, distorting the left side of the image. Then he pushed away, using the momentum to slide onto his hands and knees, in a vision of supplication.
Another vision crossed Hinata's eyes, one that he could not say for sure was real or just the product of a scared and tired and traumatized mind. He considered the lonely and ugly figures around him, struggling from one stance in society to another, stumbling and lumbering and always only barely keeping under the radar. Ready to flee from one life into the next at any moment, barely stopping to pause for fear of exposure. It was a life of selfish non-accomplishment and non-satisfaction. It was a nothingness, so heavy on a burdensome body that it threatened to swallow them at any moment, eating at them from the inside out until mercifully it removed them from the world…
Or so it was until they saw him, the beautiful one, the rarified one. The time and place of the discovery was lost even to them, but the images and considerations and thoughts and beliefs that came to them then were nothing less than new life in a lifeless body, a glimmer of hope in a world of distorted misery.
At only fourteen, this had made a name for himself even beyond the name of his family. He had made a personal fortune in the millions by day-trading stocks, and everywhere the media and passers-by praised him for his ingenuity, his privilege, his fortune, and his power. They had never heard of such a person so close to their age, not even in the fiction they hardly read.
They became obsessed. They would learn later about his cruelty, and about his wrath, and about his callous nature. They felt none of this now. They knew so little, and absorbed even less, but even then they would have moments when they would clear their mind from the burdens of its lived experience and replace it with what they felt that Togami would be.
A Togami of power. A Togami of influence. A Togami of wisdom and strength. Togami with the power to take the weakest and smallest members of society and protect them from all its ills. A Togami that could make the rote physical sensation of eating feel as though it were nourishing something worthwhile. A Togami that reflected themselves, what little there was, with the strength and confidence that they knew they did not have.
And at that moment Hinata thought he saw what looked like a small, smudged figure underneath Togami's outstretched and perfect fingers, perfectly shielded and protected. As he watched, the blocky lines dripped away from the figure's body and fine, glorious detail filled into their place, until finally, they had become him, and he had taken on the name of Byakuya Togami.
Hinata started and shook his head, just in time to see Togami grind to a halt and collapse in the middle of the floor. This time, Hinata ran to try and catch him, but he'd hardly gotten his hands on his shoulders when Togami shoved him back without a word. It took Hinata a moment to catch and right himself again, and by the time he had Togami had risen to his knees, though he had not stood.
It was impossible, but… in place of the wall in front of them, the one which until moments ago had held the amazing fresco, there was only a set of stairs, exactly the same as the ones on the previous floor. The stairs led down, presumably to another level of the school – and with no play at hesitation Togami threw himself ahead, leaving the others to follow or not, for all it mattered.