“You know this is probably the last thing Akane would want, right?” Junpei ignored the semi-mocking voice behind him as he continued re-packing his go bag. After all, Kurashiki Aoi had said the same thing the last four times Junpei went out on a mission for his new job. He honestly wasn’t sure why Aoi even bothered anymore; his words hadn’t worked the last seven times he’d tried them.
“Then she should come out of hiding and tell me that herself,” he answered, almost by rote. He reached for his notepad without looking. Junpei generally kept it on the small table next to his bed so he could write notes whenever inspiration struck. Lately, ever since the Nonary Game, the inspiration had been in the middle of the night.
Worse, some of that inspiration had been for more escape rooms.
His hand hit the wood of the table and Junpei looked over to confirm that the notepad was gone. He shot an irritated glance over his shoulder at Aoi. The other man was holding the notepad a smirk on his face. “Looking for this?” He tapped the unopened pad against his lips. Junpei held out his hand expectantly and raised his eyebrows. “Maybe I don’t want to give back your secrets,” Aoi teased and continued to hold the pad.
“Hand it over,” he ordered and took a step closer.
Some of the amusement left Aoi’s face as it hardened, uncomfortably reminding Junpei in the ship’s cabin. “She won’t thank either of us for this.” Despite the harsher expression on his face, the words were soft. “Akane runs the show and she didn’t want you involved.”
“Aren’t you the co-founder of the company?” he muttered, giving up on Aoi’s cooperation and making a grab for the pad. Aoi simply jerked his arm back, keeping Junpei’s pad out of reach. He glared at the older man which seemed to make him even more amused.
“I’ll give it back if…” Aoi said, trailing off suggestively.
Junpei sighed and gave up on the notepad. He could buy a new one at the airport. He didn’t have the history with Aoi that he had with Akane and participation in the Nonary game – even if Aoi had helped set it up – had created an artificial sense of closeness; but over the two years they’d kept in contact and because somewhat tentative friends, Junpei had a sinking feeling he would like what Aoi asked of him. “Just keep it,” he muttered, and pulled the zipper on his bag. “I have to go; my flight leaves soon. You can let yourself out and leave the copy of the key you made behind.”
“Flight?” Aoi’s voice was surprised, all amusement gone. Junpei simply ignored him, shouldered his bag, and moved to leave. “Where are you going?”
“Does it matter? It’s not like you’ve cared. Or done anything but get in the way,” he snapped, completely done with the other man.
“That’s not true.” Junpei finally looked over at Aoi. “I’ve been funding your little operation, haven’t I?” His voice turned bitter even as Aoi’s eyes narrowed, focusing all of his attention on Junpei. “Besides, she’s my sister, not yours. Not your girlfriend either, right? Not your anything, Junpei. After all, she left before you could ask her to be your anything.” His mocking smile returned only this time Junpei didn’t sense any playfulness or teasing.
This was Aoi trying to hurt him in return.
He sucked back the initial words that made their way up his throat – she left you too, asshole – and remembered the hazy, half-imagined picture of a younger Aoi sobbing in the incinerator over his sister’s ashes. Aoi always had multiple reasons to do anything and those reasons weren’t always very clear to anyway. The second Nonary game, though, was crystal clear: first, to save the sister he’d raised after the deaths of their parents and, second, to force Ace’s confession.
It was Aoi’s motivations for helping Junpei now that always confused him. He was sure part of it was to actually find Akane. He knew the siblings corresponded in some way – probably a dead drop – but notes or letters weren’t the same as seeing her and knowing she was safe. Beyond that, though, Junpei didn’t have a clue; his best guess was that Akane had asked Aoi to watch over him.
“I’m sorry,” Junpei muttered, looking away. He tried to drop his shoulders, ease out of the stance he hadn’t realized he’d stiffened into. He swallowed and said again, trying for clear and genuine, “I’m sorry, Aoi.” Junpei shifted his bag in his hands absently and flicked a glance over at the clock.
“Where are you going this time?” Junpei finally looked back at Aoi at the question, noticing the faint lines under the man’s eyes.
“I got a tip from someone at the agency that Akane had been sighted in America at,” he paused and dug the note back out of his jeans pockets. “The Mars Mission test site.” He crumbled the paper back up and paused before revealing the real reason for his hurry to get there. “There’s also suspected members of Free the Soul in the area.”
“Even after you and Seven took down their headquarters?” Aoi asked, surprised.
“They have a lot of influence and power, you know that. There’s a reason we did it alone,” he snapped. “Four months is more than enough time for them to regroup. We still don’t know who Brother is or what he wants, beyond killing people.”
Junpei ignored the way Aoi’s eyes wandered down to his shoulder, where he’d taken a bullet during their attack on the group’s operations. “Why did you quit school?”
Junpei blinked at the sudden topic change and frowned. “What does that matter?”
“Eventually this will be over,” Aoi said softly. “What are you going to do then? I think a software engineer would be more valuable than an alcoholic detective. I think Akane would want a software engineer.”
He clenched his jaw and let out long breath through his nose before he answered. “Because this is important and learning how to code advertising into phone apps isn’t.”
“All right.” Aoi nodded once, sharply, and held out the notepad he’d stolen. “I’ll let you go this time.” Junpei snatched the pad back quickly, in case the other man changed his mind. “But,” Aoi said and reached out to poke the middle of Junpei’s forehead. “You have to come back to me. Unharmed.” Tension hung in the air at the gravity Aoi put in his request. “I don’t have many… people. I lost Akane twice.” Junpei blamed the strangeness of Aoi’s mood on why it took him so long to understand what Aoi meant by ‘twice’ – once to death and once to leaving on her quest without a word. “I don’t particularly want you to get lost either.” He slid his pointer finger down Junpei’s brow, to his nose, and then to his lips, before tapping once and pulling back. Goosebumps formed on his skin at the soft, gentle touch and he found himself wondering when the last time he had been touched outside of violence was.
It felt like the Nonary game might’ve been the last time.
“I’ll try,” he offered somberly.
“Do better than try.” Aoi poked Junpei’s forehead again, harshly, probably as a rebuke. “SHIFT if you have to. But come home.”
“Okay,” Junpei promised and hoped he didn’t break his word in Nevada.