Despite the fact that she is not old enough to actually legally do so, Maki is a surprisingly good driver, and in the several hours they’ve been on the road, they’ve made remarkably good time.
Or, at least, it felt like they were putting the distance in. It must have been late morning at this point, but Shuuichi had been too anxious to check his phone since around dawn, when all of their devices had begun to ring with an urgency that could mean only one thing: they’d been discovered as missing.
It had been jarring; letting six phones ring for almost an hour without interruption, missed call after frantic text message after long voicemail filling up the spaces on their lock screens. Eventually Maki couldn’t take it anymore and demanded everyone’s phones either shut up or go out the window, and after that it had just been. . .silent.
The mood in the RV was tense, to say the least. Save for the ambient sounds from the RV — an occasional creaking of the floor, the whistle of wind outside the windows, the steady thrum of the engine, the rare sound of a car speeding by — it was quiet, too quiet, quiet enough that he could practically hear everyone else’s racing minds.
For the past hour or so Shuuichi has been heavily considering wasting the drive away with a nap, but the culmination of all going on at present kept him awake, foot tapping anxiously against the floor as he waited for someone to do something. Get up to go to the bathroom. Turn on the radio. Speak. Something.
Which was a stupid idea. By all accounts Shuuichi is at the head of this mission, the quest as Kaede had put it before everyone had fallen to silence, so if anything, the others may be waiting for him to make some sort of move.
He glances to the front of the RV. As she has been since they boarded the vehicle Maki is driving silently, body still and eyes totally focused on the road ahead of her. She — at least, Shuuichi hoped from what she’d said earlier — knew where she was headed, not having to stop once to check directions or ask anyone else for their input. Her reliability is comforting, though not much else is.
Kaede is in the passenger’s seat, and she is much more active than Maki; at one point she’d sat and spun around in the chair for about twenty minutes, eyes not really focused on anything. She’d stopped since Shuuichi last looked to her, and was now facing forward, one knee pulled up to her chest, her other foot tapping out a rhythm unknown to Shuuichi onto the floor. She’d been by far the most anxious when the phone calls began, and ever since hadn’t met anyone’s eyes.
Gonta and Kiibo were sat on the couch across from Shuuichi, and Kaito at the small booth right next to it. Kiibo had their eyes shut, hands on their knees and seemed to be in some sort of resting mode; and after Gonta had failed to rouse them a while earlier he’d taken to reading a book about — well, Shuuichi couldn’t be sure, but after about twenty minutes of staring at the odd-looking bug on the cover, he was pretty sure it was a book about beetles.
Kaito sits despondently on one side of the booth, picking at his fingers and bouncing his leg with such intensity it betrays his agitation and boredom. The few times he’d caught Shuuichi glancing at him he’d forced a grin, or pulled a face just long enough until Shuuichi looked away, before his expression dropped into something much less animated.
Shuuichi sat on the other couch, shoes tucked against the wall and feet pulled up next to himself. He’d abandoned any care for manners about feet on furniture right around when his anxious leg spasms gave way to cramps, and he’d been in that position since, alternating between spending long periods of time staring out the window at the moving scenery or at his uncomfortably quiet friends.
Unsatisfied with his assessment of his friends this time around but unable to do anything about it, he looks out the window once again. Smudges of green and gray blur past too quickly for him to catch the details of what they are.
“Anythin’ interesting out there?” Shuuichi doesn’t notice he’s being spoken to until Kaito heaves himself to his feet and drops down noisily next to him on the couch. He jumps, taking too long to process the question, and then shakes his head.
“It looks like the same forest and sky that it did two hours ago,” he replies, smiling the tiniest bit as Kaito chuckles next to him.
“That’s just ‘cuz you’re not lookin’ hard enough,” Kaito says, making himself comfortable on the other end of the couch and propping his legs up on Shuuichi. It surprises him for just a moment before he smiles, the close contact of his friend comforting. “Hey, let’s play a game of I Spy. You ever played?”
“When I was little.” A memory, vague and blurry on the edges pops into his mind of his mother with a finger to her chin, shaking her head as a much younger, more foreign Shuuichi guesses at what she possibly could have spied with her little eye. He brings his sleeve to his mouth to hide the smile it brings forth.
“You’re all playing too, so get your thinkin’ caps on! Growing up in the middle of nowhere made me a master of car games!”
“I’m driving,” Maki says, the rolling of her eyes clear in her voice. Kaito grins conspiratorially at Shuuichi.
“That’s not the spirit I’m lookin’ for, Maki Roll! Be excited! Be engaged! Kaede, don’t let her slack off up there.”
“You got it, boss,” Kaede replies with a laugh, something like I’ll play one game with that moron and that’s it, coming from Maki, which only makes Kaede laugh harder. Kaito winks at him.
Maki, as well as the rest of their little group, ends up playing more than one game, some of them more involved in the guessing than others. Kaito, as is the case in seemingly all that he does, gets intensely into it, cheering on his friends whenever they guess correctly or otherwise show any sort of interest in the game at all.
Shuuichi finds himself almost content during the forty-five minutes or so the six of them play, laughing in tandem with everyone else more than once as the mood within the RV lifts significantly. Though his phone burning a hole in his pocket is never too far out of his mind, Shuuichi has fun, and he’s almost disappointed when Maki calls an end to the game as she turns into a secluded parking lot and shuts the vehicle off.
“Is everything alright, Maki?” Kiibo, whose face was still red from having taken an obscene amount of time to guess Gonta’s I Spy pick of the couch they were both sitting on, looks towards Maki curiously.
“I need to rest before I drive anymore.” She stands from the driver's seat and stretches her limbs, the pops of her joints as she moves echoing around the RV. “We’re making alright time, so taking a few hours won’t be an issue. The rest of you should sleep, too.”
“Maki and I are taking the bedroom, so everyone else find somewhere else to get comfortable and try to get some shut eye.” Kaede stands as well, yawning into her hand for a moment before following after Maki towards the back of the RV.
“If it is all right with everyone, I will be taking the booth,” Kiibo says to the rest of them, popping a panel open on their hip and settling gently into the seat nearest one of the outlets. “Though I do not necessarily need a charge right now, I am most comfortable operating at full capacity.”
“No problem.” Kaito stretches his arms over his head, yawning loudly. “Shuuichi, I’ll take the couch if you wanna take the wall bed?”
“Alright.” Kaito lifts his legs up enough for Shuuichi to stand, then kicks them out and settles fully onto the couch. Shuuichi watches as Gonta settles gently on the other couch, discarding his glasses onto the floor and waving up at Shuuichi sleepily. After waving back Shuuichi walks towards the wall bed, leaving his shoes by the couch for the time being but taking his bag and dropping it onto the twin mattress.
As he pulls one of Rantarou’s hoodies and the bear from his bag, he can’t help but want to abandon the idea of taking off his binder and pass out right now. Though the bed didn’t look particularly comfortable, the idea of nodding off for a few hours and potentially being able to escape the trauma of the past few days was extremely tempting. There was nothing he wanted more than to forget, at least for a little while, the daunting task that lay ahead of having to save his brother from a fearsome god and save the world.
He snorts, the sound lacking any real humor. As if.
Shuuichi pulls his spare toothbrush and toothpaste from his bag as an afterthought, suddenly craving the taste of a fresh, clean mouth. As he pulls the zipper to close up his bag his eyes catch on something green in his periphery, and his heart stops.
He turns slowly, very slowly, and though he expects nothing less, he feels an ache develop in his chest regardless when he realizes the glimpse of Rantarou he thought he saw was just his imagination.
He’s hallucinating, and he needs to sleep.
“I’m going to brush my teeth,” Shuuichi says to the room, cringing when his voice comes out a quiver, the shake of it seeming to echo. With a flash of embarrassment he realizes he’s dangerously close to crying, and taking only a moment to wipe beneath his eyes he trods off towards the tiny bathroom to save himself the mortification of crying in front of everyone.
He shuts the flimsy door of the bathroom behind him with more force than necessary, an odd anger at himself manifesting as he tries and fails to fight the tears welling up out of a misplaced feeling of shame and pent up frustration.
It’s better to fall apart in private than in front of the others, though, so there is a note of relief to be felt to that point as Shuuichi relishes in the comfort of privacy for the first time pretty much since Rantarou was taken.
With a shaky breath he turns to face the bathroom, only to find that he is not as alone as he thought.
Kokichi sits perched daintily on the closed toilet lid, phone in hand and a delighted grin aimed in Shuuichi’s direction.
And, unlike Shuuichi, he is entirely unfazed by the scream that Shuuichi lets out at the sight of him.
“Ohhh, I’ve been found!” He pockets his phone and bats his eyelashes up at Shuuichi, expression fawnlike, eyes wide and a light blush crawling up his face. Any illusion of it being genuine is broken by the flash of his grin as he takes in Shuuichi’s caught out expression. “By my beloved Shuuichi, no less! That means you get a prize, cuz you’re the first one. You, my perpetually blue acquaintance, get to take a peek inside my bottomless backpack! Only for a second, though, otherwise the ga — oh, you’re crying. Huh.”
He is, but he’s too flabbergasted to feel any real shame at the fact. Gearing up to sound annoyed, though, he wipes beneath his eyes and pins Kokichi with an unimpressed look.
“Y-You said you were going to stay at camp.”
Kokichi clicks his tongue condescendingly, swinging his feet, not looking particularly concerned about that face. “And that’s where you’re wrong, New Kid! Meanie Maki and her hokey gal pal Kaede said I was staying at camp. It’s a personal conviction of mine to never listen to what cornballs like them have to say — leader types are just so obnoxious, y’know? — so here I am! Aren’t you delighted to see me?”
Kokichi wobbles his lip for emphasis. Shuuichi sighs, missing the energy necessary to humor Kokichi’s, well, whatever it was that these little interactions were.
“You really shouldn’t be here, Kokichi.”
“Aww, why not? I’m following all the rules and everything! I turned my location thingy off, cut up all of Miu’s credit cards that I stole — cuz those are, like, suuuper easy to track — turned off my Snapchat map, and everything! You guys haven’t noticed me in the bathroom for hooours, I’ve been so quiet, you won’t let those meanies kick me out when I’ve been such a good boy, will you, Shuumai?”
“Please don’t call me that,” Shuuichi admonishes, voice weary. “And — you haven’t been totally a. . .good boy.”
He cringes as soon as he says it. Kokichi lets out a laugh, but his expression remains artfully confused. “Whaddya mean? I’ve been so well behaved, just like one of those ugly little show dogs.”
“. . .What?”
“Arf arf!” Kokichi sticks his tongue out in an approximation of a dog. It’s comically stupid, but Shuuichi feels a sort of compulsion to laugh.
“You lied just now.”
Kokichi’s nose scrunches up in confusion. “Okay, yes, I lied about the dog thing, I’m not a furry — unless you’re into that, but that’s a little yucky, even for y—”
“No, oh my. . .” Shuuichi rolls his eyes and places his toothbrush under the tap, too impatient to wait any longer to brush his teeth. “The backpack thing, Kokichi.”
“Oh, that?” Kokichi pulls it into his lap, idly messing with one of its pink cat ears. “No, I wasn’t lying, middle finger swear!”
Shuuichi spits into the sink before he can see Kokichi flip him off.
“Besides, I hate liars.”
Before he can respond to that, a polite knock at the bathroom door interrupts him. “Shuuichi, I noticed you have been in the bathroom for quite a while, are you alright? Do you need any assistance?”
With a grimace, Shuuichi pulls the bathroom door open. Kiibo’s eyes move in an instant from Shuuichi to Kokichi, still sat on the toilet lid, and they immediately burst into sputters.
“Oh, hey, Kiibaby. Way to perv on Shuuichi while he’s in the bathroom.” Kokichi hides a laugh with his hand, swinging the backpack onto his back with the other. “I’m gonna call you CR33-P0 from now on.”
Kiibo’s face goes red, finger hanging limply in the air as they try to come up with a response. Shuuichi spits the last of his toothpaste into the sink and sighs.
“H-Have you been hiding in here this whole time?”
“You betcha, CR33-P0! Hey, when did stinky Miu take the time to turn you into another of her weird sex bots? I’m thinking of filing a police report in Shuuichi’s honor.”
“Ugh!” Kiibo seizes forward and takes Kokichi by the hand, dragging him bodily out of the bathroom, Shuuichi following close behind. “Of course I couldn’t count on you to stay true to your word even once, Kokichi!”
“Oh how you wound me, Kiibot,” Kokichi says dramatically, glancing backwards to shoot Shuuichi a wink. “Hey, toaster oven, hands off the goods. I’m fragile.”
Kiibo scoffs, dropping his hand and retrieving their own to cross their arms indignantly. “You are no such thing.”
“Aw, shit.” Kaito groans from the couch as he catches sight of Kokichi. “Of course I couldn’t catch a goddamn break from you even while the world’s ending.”
“Lovely to see you as always, space case,” Kokichi retorts, waving his fingers at Kaito delicately. “Have I introduced you to my friend, CR33-PO the perv-bot?”
Kaito snorts and rolls over, apparently intent on going back to sleep.
Kokichi moves towards where Gonta lay and snatches his glasses up off the floor, placing them on his own face. The large round lenses dwarf his entire head, and after making a crude comment about the strength of Gonta’s prescription, hops on top of him and pokes his chest until he wakes.
“Gonts, you’re happy to see me, right? The rest of my friends hate me!”
“Gonta always happy to see Kokichi!” Gonta grins up at Kokichi to further his point, to which Kokichi’s pout falls into a smirk.
“That’s why you’re my favorite, Gonts. At least someone loves me, even if it is the one who goes looking for stink bugs for fun.”
It’s at that point Kaede steps out of the bedroom, clad in a large pink t-shirt and pair of red shorts. Eyes bleary, she takes one look around the group, eyes narrowing as they catch on Kokichi, and without a word she steps back into the bedroom, shutting the door loudly behind her.
Kokichi, for all it’s worth, seems delighted by this turn of events. “Stinky protagonist Kaede is too busy making out with Sushi Roll to kick me out, so I’m safe for a while longer!”
As Gonta launches into a schpiel promising that he won’t let anybody get thrown off the RV, Shuuichi takes that as an opportunity to do what he set out to in the first place. As quietly as he can he slips away back into the bathroom, pulling the door shut and locking it for good measure before taking off his shirt and binder.
The hoodie, while big enough to provide adequate comfort and familiar in the way it smells like Rantarou’s terribly gaudy perfume, it doesn’t satisfy the loneliness radiating throughout his core like he thought it would, and the resulting emptiness in his chest only has him feeling more exposed and alone than ever.
He stares at himself in the tiny mirror, stained from what must be years of loving use. He’s missing his hat, having shoved it into his bag after several prodding questions about it had made him feel insecure in wearing it; even just the absence of it makes him seem so unlike the Shuuichi he knows himself to be.
Exposed and without his hat; messy, unwashed hair; under eyes and cheeks stained red and raw from rubbing away countless tears over the past several days; wearing Rantarou’s grossly overpriced clothing without having to be wrestled into it for a feature on his Snapchat story or something equally stupid; wide, angry, anxious yellow eyes staring back at him through the mirror in an RV stolen from a god in order to save the world from a threat that’s been blamed on him.
There is so much in Shuuichi’s reflection that he doesn’t recognize, it’s almost as if he’s forgetting what he really looks like. What he’s supposed to look like.
With great difficulty he pries his gaze from the mirror, instead focusing on grabbing his phone he’d discarded on the sink and unlocking it with shaking hands. He half expects something to happen — an explosion? An alarm? The intense, breathy scream of Nagito’s voice or the panicked, desperate pleads of Makoto or the clipped, frazzled tone of Byakuya as they all urge him to call them back, tell them where he is, let them know he’s okay?
But, no. Though staring down the number of missed calls, voicemails, and texts his phone has been inundated with in the last few hours — the number well into the triple digits already — is scary and incredibly guilt-inducing, he gets to his target with no other issues.
Shuuichi isn’t what he’d consider a particularly organized person; he’s not like Byakuya, who has every contact, every document, every photo meticulously sorted into its matching folder or album or group. He only has one non-default photo album in his photo app, and it’s one comprised entirely of the stupid pictures Rantarou always took of the two of them.
There are over two hundred, collected and compiled over many, many years of friendship, and many different phases of his and Rantarou’s life. The early ones, of the two of them posing for first day of school pictures taken by Shuuichi’s mother, starting with their second year of friendship, only days after he and Rantarou had borrowed a pair of Makoto’s scissors in order to demolish Shuuichi’s new haircut that he hadn’t deemed short enough.
The terrible blurry ones that were the product of Rantarou getting his first smartphone at the ripe age of nine, mostly of Rantarou making dumb poses towards the front facing camera from too low of an angle and with Shuuichi caught doing homework in the background.
The other various phases of their friendship; when Shuuichi’s mother died, and they found themselves living in the same house and spending more time together than ever; when Rantarou pierced his own nose at age twelve; when their matching love of video games emerged and they had a short-lived stint recording and uploading themselves playing and commentating on the games; Rantarou’s polaroid phase, in which he spent obscene amounts of money on old, authentic film just to take pictures of the most mundane things; Rantarou’s many hair colors, piercings, and even a tattoo; every new school, new house, and new experience documented.
Shuuichi stops on one of the many selfies Rantarou insisted they take together. They’re both smiling, though in fairness one side of Shuuichi’s mouth is being pulled up by Rantarou, one arm around Shuuichi’s shoulders so his finger can manipulate his face into the photographed grimace. It’s a terrible picture; the phone is shaking from the movement of them both laughing, half of Rantarou’s face is shielded by Shuuichi’s hat which he’d stolen and placed onto his own head, and neither of them had been able to look straight at the camera in time.
Even looking as he did, grinning like a moron and displaying a totally different persona than the casual, effortlessly beautiful Rantarou he broadcast to the world, he’s still eons more comfortable in front of a camera than Shuuichi ever has been. Rantarou was always the more photogenic one, but he always pulled Shuuichi into his selfies anyways; always took sneak shots of Shuuichi while he posed; always poked his cheeks afterward, made him flush, teased him about being his ‘handsome little brother.’
It was annoying, and embarrassing, and exhausting, but Shuuichi would give anything to have it back. Would give anything to have Rantarou back.
Setting the picture as both his lock screen and home screen doesn’t make the hurt go away, but the reminder of a time when everything is okay at his fingertips helps him close the distance, just the tiniest bit.
Stepping out of the bathroom, it seems that the arguing has for the time being been put on hold; all that Shuuichi can hear is Kaito snoring loudly, the low whir of Kiibo’s inner mechanisms as they charge, Kokichi’s idle humming coming from — oh.
Kokichi waves from his spot on the wall bed, sprawled out in apparent comfort and feet swinging contentedly in the air. Shuuichi spares a glance to the shut bedroom door behind him; something tells him that trying to argue his way back onto the bed would draw Maki or Kaede out of the bedroom to mediate, and frankly, he’s already dreading the inevitable confrontation between Maki and Kokichi, he doesn’t want to worsen things by making it happen while Maki is tired.
He just grabs his bag, which Kokichi must have set onto the floor at some point, and looks over his options for some place to rest.
He ends up in the booth seat opposite Kiibo, more than a little unnerved by the way in which their eyes stare forward, unseeing and unblinking, the only movement in them a tiny green light that blips every so often to indicate their. . .battery. . .level? Or something to that degree, Shuuichi supposes.
It’s hard to find a position comfortable enough to sleep in, but he must doze at some point, because when he next opens his eyes it’s to an RV cast in shade and, as is becoming worryingly common, Kokichi.
Maki has him by the hair, expression dangerous but overall appearance rather. . .cuddly? At the very least, the far too large, light purple hoodie patterned with kittens that fell nearly to her knees did not serve to make her look more intimidating.
As Kokichi whines against the strength of her hold, though, Shuuichi can’t help but wonder if there’s an outfit on earth Maki wouldn’t look formidable in.
“Screaming isn’t going to stop me from killing you,” Maki tells him curtly, fingers twisting in his hair.
Strangely, Kokichi’s eyes cut across to Shuuichi very briefly in response. He wiggles his eyebrows — Shuuichi cringes away in preparation of what’s to come — before glancing back up at Maki and letting out a bloodcurdling scream.
“What the—” Kaito scrambles for one of Shuuichi’s shoes, still discarded by the couch, and throws it in Kokichi’s general direction, looking miserable. Grinding his teeth, he pulls a pillow over his ears. “Maki, please shut him the hell up!”
“That can be arranged.”
Kiibo groans across from Shuuichi, unplugging themselves and shaking their head until their eyes flash back to their usual blue. Mouth set into a disgruntled frown, they roll their eyes. “And here I was hoping that finding you was just a bad dream.”
“Robots don’t dream,” Kokichi says idly, rolling his shoulders. “Someone wanna wake up Gonta so he can get Maki off of me already? This isn’t fun anymore.”
“You—” Maki releases her grip on Kokichi with difficulty, wiping her hand on her shirt in disgust. “What’s not fun is waking up to find the worm I thought I left behind having snuck his way onto the RV like some sort of infestation, and none of you—” her eyes cut across dangerously towards Shuuichi and Kiibo, “thought to tell me.”
“Worm?” Gonta asks sleepily, sitting up and looking around excitedly. Kokichi snorts and falls backwards to sit on his torso.
“There ya are, buddy.”
“We have a stowaway,” Shuuichi supplies unhelpfully. Maki huffs and turns away, stomping off towards the bedroom. Kaito groans loudly from underneath the pillow as she slams the door behind her.
“Shuuichi! You’ll make sure I don’t get thrown off the moving RV, right? Right?”
Instead of answering, he stands to go and retrieve his shoes. As he’s slipping them back on someone emerges from the bedroom, and when he looks up he finds Kaede, fully dressed and staring at Kokichi with crossed arms.
“I want to say I can’t believe you, but I can’t, because I know you.” She rubs tiredly at her eyes. “How did you even know we were taking the RV?”
“As soon as Kiibaby showed up, I knew all of us wouldn’t fit in the car,” he responds casually, picking at his nails. “Then when I saw Kaito stomping up to Shuumai’s cabin, I knew it was a done deal. Go in through the unlocked garage door, break the latch on the bathroom window, slip in and hide til we were a few hours into the trip, and here I am! Clever, right?”
“You are. . .” Kaede balls her hands into fists, though there’s no real anger on her face. “I just want you to know how incredibly disappointed I am that you put this whole thing in jeopardy.”
“Oh nooo, the girl that wears sweater vests is disappointed in me.” Kaede crosses her arms over her outfit with a huff, face flushing in embarrassment. Maki emerges from the bedroom at the tail end of Kokichi’s taunt, hackles visibly raised as she stalks towards him. “However will I recover.”
Kaede puts a hand out to halt Maki’s apparent intent to kill him, sighing. “As much as I think we can all agree that Kokichi being here is a hindrance, we don’t have time to drop him somewhere safe.”
“Somewhere safe,” Maki echos, eyes narrowed at Kokichi dangerously. He leans farther back against Gonta, lip wobbling.
“And,” Kaede continues quickly, “this is no time to be fighting, or endangering each other. Out here, we’re — we’re all that we have to count on. We can’t leave him, or anyone else, behind. It wouldn’t be right.”
“I must agree,” Kiibo says, standing up from the booth to pin Kokichi with a look. “Though I am most certainly not looking forward to being taunted for the next several days by him, I cannot in good conscience as a counselor in training leave him behind.”
Kaede nods firmly, sparing one final apprehensive glance towards Kokichi before focusing her attention on Maki. “It’s almost four, so we should get back on the road. Are you alright to drive?”
“Yes.” Maki glances briefly over the rest of them. “Just keep him away from me.”
As Maki and Kaede settle into their seats and start up the RV, Shuuichi takes the opportunity to change back into his binder and use the restroom. When he reenters the rest of the RV he finds Maki has already pulled them out of the remote lot they’d stopped in and back onto the road.
In the time he took in the bathroom Gonta had taken to sitting across from Kiibo at the booth, so Shuuichi slides past to take a seat on the now-vacant couch. He unlocks his phone briefly to check the time and catalogue the new onslaught of messages he’d received while he slept, rolling his neck against a knot that had developed at having napped at such an odd angle.
“So, Maki Roll,” Kaito begins sleepily, propping his head up on the pillow to get a good look at Maki where she sat up front. “Where are we even goin’? How do you even get to the Un — well, uh, where we’re headed?”
There’s a slight shift in the room as everyone angles themselves to hear Maki’s response. She’d said when they’d left that she knew how to get there, but she’d yet to given any directions, or even any indication on where they were going, so it made sense that they were all interested in what she had to say.
“It’s not so clear cut as to say that the Underworld is at a certain place. It’s not something I can put in a GPS,” she begins, eyes on the road. “What we’re heading towards is a. . .point of access. An entrance that’s separate from the Underworld itself.”
“What do you mean?” Shuuichi asks. “Do you mean like. . .a portal?”
“. . .That’s a stupid way to describe it, but the short answer is yes. The long answer is that it’s not as clean cut as that. It’s more like we’re headed to where the entrance is in theory.”
Maki sighs. “It’s not a question of whether there is an entrance, because yes, there is technically one. It’s more a question of whether we’ll be able to access it.”
“What’re you sayin’, Maki?”
“I’m saying,” she snaps, “that the Underworld is not known for having visitors. It’s where souls go to die. There is no reason for a living person to end up there. So unless you’re dead, a descendant of an Underworld dwelling god, or invited, you don’t go to the Underworld, period. I know how to get to the entrance, but it’s a matter of whether or not that god will let us in or not.”
“You mean you don’t even know if we’re able to get to the Underworld?” Kiibo asks frantically, the sentiment echoed all around the RV as everyone has a collective freak out.
“No, I — I don’t think that’s right,” Shuuichi interrupts, shaking his head. “Gun — I mean, the, ah, the threat counts as an invitation, right? It must. He wouldn’t tell me to bring the spear to his ‘domain’ if I wasn’t able to get in.”
“Shuuichi’s right,” Kaede agrees, looking back at him with a small smile on her face. “He isn’t an idiot. As long as he thinks Shuuichi has the spear, we’ll be able to get in. What’s important is that Maki knows how to get there, and we’re working together, so try not to worry too much before we get there, ‘kay?”
The seven of them lapse into silence after that, no one seeming to have anything to say. Despite Kaede’s words of encouragement, though, there’s an undercurrent of suspense that permeates the air, stifling any conversation or attempts to really relax. Everyone, at least for the time being, though, seems content enough to do their own thing, which Shuuichi supposes is an improvement from this morning.
Gonta has pulled the book about beetles back out and reads silently at the booth; Kiibo sits and stares at him curiously, words — are those their thoughts, Shuuichi wonders? — scrolling across their collar; Kaito has seemingly fallen back asleep, breathing lightly from beneath the pillow; Kaede and Maki talk quietly amongst themselves, too soft for Shuuichi to hear; and Kokichi — Kokichi settles silently onto the couch next to Shuuichi, one earbud in his ear.
Shuuichi looks around awkwardly; though other than the bed there wasn’t really anywhere else for Kokichi to sit, it still was a little uncomfortable to be on the couch with him, after — after what?
Kokichi was weird and loud and probably one of the most. . .interesting? Fascinating? At the very least unique people Shuuichi had ever met, but nothing he had done thus far warranted being wary of him, Shuuichi didn’t think. Maybe it was the fact that Shuuichi struggled to get a read on his intentions at any given moment, or the fact that half the time Kokichi spoke so fast about such strange things that he struggled to digest any of it in time to formulate any sort of response, but nevertheless. . .something about him was off. Maybe not in a bad way, but at least in a way that puzzled Shuuichi endlessly.
And he’d only known him for a matter of days. How so many questions could arise out of a near stranger was baffling, but it was also intriguing. Shuuichi would give anything to answer just one of the questions Kokichi had floating around his head.
He tries to be subtle as he observes Kokichi, body facing towards the window but eyes flickering over every so often to get a read on him. Unlike earlier, he’s not wearing any particular mood or face; most of the time Kokichi is so expressive, that whenever he isn’t performing (and is that an insensitive thing to call it, Shuuichi wonders?) he finds it impossible to puzzle out what exactly was running through his mind.
With others it was easy; one look at Kaito’s expression or one glimpse of Maki’s body language or one word out of Kaede’s mouth and it was immediately clear what they were thinking and feeling. Even when they’re trying to hide their feelings, like Kaede whenever she’s nervous or Kaito when he’s embarrassed, one look and you can tell.
Even with more challenging people — Rantarou and Byakuya being prime examples of people who kept up a facade in order to mask what they were really going through — Shuuichi could generally pick out what they were thinking or feeling. Byakuya’s mouth twitches whenever he’s trying to remain stern but doesn’t want to be, and his body language is always a dead giveaway whenever he’s nervous or uncomfortable or amused, even if his face remains unchanged.
Rantarou, too, was easy to read after so many years of knowing him; Shuuichi can usually tell what’s going on with just a look at his eyes, he’s so used to him. They narrow when he’s annoyed; he blinks more often when he’s bored or when he’s trying to impress; his eyes widen when he’s trying to appear engaged; he can’t look in the same place for long if he’s nervous or upset.
But Kokichi. . .
Mouth set in a line, not frowing, just passive, no inclination one way or another. Eyes downcast at his phone, blinking slowly but not in any specific way. Not chewing on his lip, or tapping his fingers, or bouncing his leg, or anything.
Until he suddenly flashes his gaze over to Shuuichi, one eyebrow cocked upwards and a smile pointed in his direction.
Teasing, feigning surprise, looking to make sure Shuuichi knows he’s been caught staring. He knows what the expression is supposed to mean, but there’s nothing genuine in the way his brow wiggles, the way his smile is all teeth.
Shuuichi recognizes an act when he sees one, but for the life of him he can’t figure out what’s going on behind the scenes. What’s almost worse, he’s still embarrassed at being caught out.
“Stare much?” Kokichi asks, voice casual, swinging his other earbuds loosely around in the air. It knocks Shuuichi’s leg more than once. “Maybe I was wrong about CR33-P0, maybe you’re the weirdo. How does Creepichi Saihara sound?”
“Really rolls off the tongue,” he concedes, forcing the thought process out of his mind for the time being. He can worry about Kokichi and his weird motivations when Rantarou isn’t in danger. “What are you listening to?”
“If you wanted to share, all you had to do was ask.” Shuuichi accepts the proffered earbud and places it in his ear, trying not to cringe away from the loud, bright music that immediately spills into his head. He’s expecting some double-edged (or perhaps even just straight-up rude) comment to follow, but it doesn’t; Kokichi just looks away and stares off into space, head moving minutely in time with the music.
It’s nice, actually, just sitting in silence (or, well, as silent as it can be when listening to music). Though he had his own earbuds buried somewhere in his bag, he hadn’t dug them out for fear of missing something while listening to music; though now, he’ll have to, because it’s actually the most relaxed he’s been since everything began.
Eventually, though, Kokichi breaks the silence. He doesn’t look over at Shuuichi. “You were crying in the bathroom earlier.” He keeps his voice quiet, barely a hum over the sound of the RV. “It’s none of my business, duh, but if you wanna talk about it, you can, I guess.”
The question surprises Shuuichi, so much so that he struggles to answer it. “I, ah. . .I must have just been overtired.”
Kokichi’s eyes cut across to him all of a sudden, narrowed dangerously and matched with an unimpressed frown. “You’re lying.”
“I. . .” He falters, pausing for a moment to pull out his phone, something to avoid Kokichi’s intense look. “I am. I — I miss him. Rantarou.”
Shuuichi pulls the earbud out of his ear, crossing his arms and pointedly looking away from him. “And right before you saw me I — I thought I saw him. And I think I probably was really tired, but also, it’s just been. Really, really hard. I watched him die — or, I thought I did, and I hardly had a chance to mourn before this all happened, and I just. He’s my best friend in the entire world, and I just want to see him again, and that’s. . .the gist of it, I guess.”
“Y’know,” Kokichi begins after a moment, edging himself closer to Shuuichi to peer curiously at his phone, “I’ve heard so much about this guy, and I’ve yet to see a picture. You gotta have one, right?”
Shuuichi tries not to cringe at the way Kokichi peers at his screen as he unlocks his phone and navigates to his photo library, ending up on the still-open photo album of the two of them. He angles his phone subtly towards himself, spends a few moments looking for a picture he hopes will give Kokichi a good first impression of his brother, and then, satisfied, turns the phone back towards him to reveal it.
It’s one of the many selfies Rantarou insisted they take the night they went to the arcade, and though it’s dark due to only being illuminated by whatever city lights were on in that moment, and half of the frame is taken up by the matching peace signs Rantarou had insisted they do in order to show off the bracelets Shuuichi currently wore on his wrist, it’s a favorite and he can’t help but smile just looking at it.
Rantarou has the posed arm around Shuuichi’s shoulders, his two fingers brushing the edge of Shuuichi’s shyly smiling face. Shuuichi’s own hand is posed between them, framing Rantarou’s own grin.
Kokichi plucks the phone from Shuuichi’s fingers, voice teasing as he coos at the picture. “Wooow, Shuumai, he’s a real looker! I can’t believe you’re related!”
Shuuichi can’t help the grin that crosses his face at the comment. He reaches for his phone back, only for Kokichi to fall onto the other end of the couch away from him, scrolling quickly through the rest of the album. “He’s cute! When we bust him out, you should give him my number.”
“The first thing I do when I save Rantarou will not be to set him up with anybody.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I just texted myself from your phone, so now you have my number.” Kokichi tosses the phone back to him, remaining reclined on the couch and resting both arms underneath his head. When Shuuichi checks the message Kokichi sent himself, he finds it to be the picture; he feels himself flush as he puts his phone away.
“But you two look so happy, which is so weird! You’ve looked so emo since you got here, y’know?” Kokichi’s retrieved his own phone, eyes focused on it instead of on Shuuichi as he speaks. “I hardly recognize that smiling weirdo as you at all.”
Shuuichi feels his smile drop just as quickly as it appeared, physically deflating from the surprising hurt the jab inflicts. He tries not to let his change in mood be obvious; he needn’t worry, though, as Kokichi has entirely disengaged, earbuds back in his ears and eyes resolutely on his phone.
Kokichi is almost nice. He’s so close at times to saying something that genuinely makes Shuuichi feel a little better, saying something that is kind for the sake of it, but every time there is always something. Something that leaves Shuuichi feeling as if he would’ve been better off not talking at all.
Curling in on himself, feeling more than a little insecure, he can’t help but hope that the silence that falls between them sticks.
But, because of course not, it’s only a matter of minutes before Kaito is sitting up, cursing loudly. “Agh, c’mon guys! This is a road trip, and jus’ sitting in silence is freaking me out so bad I can’t even sleep!”
“Thank god, your snoring is obnoxious,” Maki retorts, earning an embarrassed squack from Kaito.
“Maki Roll, I’m gonna go nuts! Can we at least turn on the radio?”
Kaede perks up at that, spinning around to face the rest of the RV with an approving smile pointed in Kaito’s direction. “That’s not a bad idea! I know we’re all understandably a little tense, but let’s try and relax for a while, at least until we start getting closer! Here, I’ll find us a station. . .”
She spins back around in order to fidget with the radio, missing the way Kaito mouths ‘thank god’ as his wish is granted. Fully seeming to commit himself to being awake he stretches, tossing the pillow aside and looking to Shuuichi, expression still a little bleary.
“Hey Shuuichi, what were you an’ Kokichi talkin’ about over there an—”
“—higher up at the Togami Corporation has confirmed the CEO, billionaire Byakuya Togami and his husband are still searching for their missing adoptive son, Shuuichi Saihara, after an automobile accident claimed the life of their other son, Rantarou Togami—”
Shuuichi’s breath catches in his throat as several pairs of eyes zero in on him.
“—are urged to contact the missing persons hotline at the following number, with any information as to the whereabouts of the missing child shall be rewarded with one hundred thousand—”
“Holy shit, Byakuya an’ Makoto aren’t messin’ around,” Kaito says dazedly, eyes still on Shuuichi.
“Hey, Shuuichi,” Kokichi stage whispers, nudging him gently in the ribs, “when we’re all done saving the world, think I can call that number and get the cash reward for you?”
“Kokichi, you are so insensitive, I cannot—!”
“—In breaking international news, Queen Nevermind, after only revealing the existence of an heir apparent to the European Kingdom of Novoselic’s throne a matter of hours ago, has been granted authorization by the Japanese government to deploy over two thousand troops in search of her child after an apparent kidnapping. Roadblocks have been set up on major roads on the main island, so expect delays. . .”
“Of fuckin’ course a royal goes missin’ right after we go on the run!”
“Think Nagito’s luck is finally catching up with us? I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. . .”
“All of you shut up,” Maki says tersely, not having to turn around for the glare most definitely on her face to be effective. Shuuichi feels the RV slow the tiniest bit beneath him. “And let me think.”
“Oi, Maki, there any back roads you can pull onto?” Kaito rises from the couch to stand between Maki and Kaede’s seats, pawing at the map splayed out between them.
“No, there isn’t.” The RV slows a significant amount, sending more than one of them tripping as a long line of cars becomes visible beyond a sharp turn. “Damn it.”
“Gonta no understand,” Gonta begins softly, rising from his seat at the booth to join the majority of the group — minus Kiibo, who had been sat frozen since the broadcast had played — up near the front of the RV.
“We not do anything wrong, right? No kidnap Queen Nevermind’s ‘heir’. . .” Slowly, the RV shifts forward as more cars are stopped, searched, and let through the blockade manned by several soldiers in strange, bulky uniforms. “Gonta not even know Queen Nevermind have an heir. So we safe, right?”
The sound of Maki’s teeth grinding is audible. Kaede spins around, fingers drumming in a nervous, unsteady rhythm on her armrest.
“Even if we didn’t, we’re still seven teenagers driving in a stolen RV with no adults and no license.”
Kokichi, having been silent for a long minute, opens the window closest to him and sticks his head out. “Hope we’re not thinking of driving through, cause they have guns. Uh oh.”
“Guns?” Kaito parrots, face paling as he turns to face Kokichi. When he receives only a shrug in response, he begins to pace anxiously, sneakers slapping loudly against the floor. “Maki, what’s our angle here?”
“Hey, Kiibaby, now would be a great time to be actually useful and show off your laser vision or machine gun arm or whatever other weird shit you can do.”
He’s met with silence. Frowning, Kokichi rises from the couch and marches over to where Kiibo sits, looking vaguely affronted at being ignored. It’s not until he’s poking incessantly at their cheek that Kiibo responds, standing up with wobbly legs and glancing frantically around the RV.
“E-Everyone!” The volume of their voice has Shuuichi wincing. They don’t seem to notice. “Though I would normally be rightfully offended at this idea, it seems this situation is. . .dire.”
“Don’t say that, Kiibo, or I’m actually gonna freak out!”
“Anyways!” Another glance out the window has their thoughts turning from anything coherent into garbled letters and numbers across their collar. “The soldiers are searching vehicles, yes? Seeing as I am very visibly, ah, a r-robot, I believe it may be best for me to hide, so as not to arouse any unnecessary suspicion.”
“That’s a good idea,” Kaede says quickly, sparing a glance over her shoulder to where the line was growing increasingly shorter. “Come with me, we’ll find a place.”
Kaede takes them by the wrist and drags them bodily deeper into the RV, leaving the rest of them looking to Maki for guidance. She pulls the RV forward another few feet, close enough now to the soldiers to make out clearly the sleek, glossy guns at their belts and the strange insignia marking each of their face masks.
“We are six eighteen-year-olds celebrating our last year of high school with a road trip,” Maki tells the four of them briskly, hands tight on the steering wheel. “They’re foreigners looking for a kidnapped European royal, not the cops. As long as we act natural and Kaede is able to hide Kiibo, things will be okay.”
“And if they do find Kiibo?” Kaito asks, eyes flickering back towards the two of them were rustling around quietly in search of a hiding spot.
“Then Kaede and I will disarm them long enough for us to get away.”
“You got it, boss!” Kokichi responds, voice cheerful as he pulls out his phone and waves it around in the air. “And I’ll be in charge of putting the whole thing on TikTok! Getting harassed by a bunch of freaky cops will be great for my page.”
She pins him with a harsh look over her shoulder, eyes narrowed towards his phone. “If I think you’re going to mess this up even a little bit, I will throw you to the soldiers and escape while they’re using you as a punching bag.”
The nervous tremor Shuuichi has been desperately trying to keep out of his legs rolls in with full force, so much so that even consciously tapping his feet won’t mask it. He wraps both arms around his stomach, taking a shaky inhale. “Please, don’t talk about leaving anybody behind.”
“Shuuichi’s right,” Gonta agrees with a nod of his head, looking to Kokichi with a small frown. “No matter what Kokichi says or does, we no can leave him behind.”
“Aw, Gonts! My heart is melting, seriously, I’m all gushy inside, yuck!”
“But Kokichi, please try to be nice. Shuuichi getting nervous.”
Kokichi raises an eyebrow in his direction. Shuuichi offers what he hopes is a blatantly sardonic thumbs up in response, one arm still firmly around his anxiety-induced aching stomach. He just shrugs before turning back to Gonta, rolling his eyes with an exaggerated whine.
“I’m always nice, but whatever!” Kokichi pockets his phone, then pulls on the pink backpack he’d had since Shuuichi had found him. “I’m a regular ol’ ball of sunshine, I am. Protag Kaede could take a few pages outta my book about being nice.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Kaede mumbles as she reenters the front of the RV, settling back down in her seat before turning to pin Kokichi with a look. “And will you stop calling me that? I don’t know what you mean.”
Kokichi just bats his eyes at her until she groans and turns away. “Kiibo’s hiding as best as they can. Let’s just hope they have better things to do than check underneath our bed, huh?”
“I’m going to throw up,” Shuuichi says miserably, resting his head between his knees. A big hand rubs comfortingly in circles on his back, and he doesn’t need to look up to know it’s Gonta. He wheezes as a way of saying thanks.
“We’re next.” Maki puts the RV in park. “Nobody say a single word. Kaede, take the lead?”
“Mhm!” Kaito pulls Shuuichi to his feet, still looking a little pale himself. He offers Shuuichi a matching grin and thumbs up, though his smile shakes around the edges. He tries to match it best as he can as he follows after Kaede off the RV.
The climate outside is windy, and unusually warm for late afternoon. In all Shuuichi counts fourteen soldiers in total; two immediately step onto the RV as Kokichi makes his way out last, four stand before them, with the others scattered about at various stations around the blockade; their vehicles, the roadblocks themselves, and on either side of the surrounding woods.
Shuuichi finds his eyes continuously trailing back to the silver, shining guns each of the four guards before the group of them wear at their belts. Their entire uniform matches; bulky, clean armor in various hues of silver, blue, and black cover their entire bodies, the only unshielded part of them being the area of their heads above the mask that covers from their chin to above their noises.
The four pairs of eyes that move over the six of them are cold, but not suspicious or hostile. The shortest guard, with piercing slate eyes that slide over each of them individually, speaks first.
“This is an authorized, lawful search by the Kingdom of Novoselic.” Their is soft, lilted, and heavily accented. “In addition to submitting to a vehicle search, please state your name, destination, and purpose of travel.”
“Maizono,” Kaede says breezily, keeping her eyes locked with the soldier’s as she speaks. “We are heading to the nearest campground for a vacation.”
One of the other soldiers taps a few times on a panel on their arm, eyes trained on Kaede as they type. The first soldier nods, eyes flickering up to the RV.
Shuuichi feels himself freeze up, and notices Kaito do the same at his side. Maki gives each of them sidelong icy glares, and Shuuichi coughs in an attempt to loosen himself up.
Kaede laughs, shrugging her shoulders in self-deprecation as she bares her hands. “Unfortunately, I forgot my ID, and by the time I noticed, we were several hours into our trip. My apologies!”
The soldier stares at her for several long moments, before turning to the other three and speaking for several moments in a language Shuuichi can’t understand. Finally they step away from the group to stand in front of Gonta, glancing up at him boredly.
“How old are you all?”
Kaede’s smile waivers slightly as she waits for Gonta to answer. He fidgets with his fingers for a few moments, face reddening the longer the group of them stand in silence. “Gonta a-and his friends are eighteen years old.”
The soldier takes a step back, eyes once again assessing each of them. Out of the corner of his eye, Shuuichi sees Kokichi grasping his phone from within his pocket, and silently prays this will just end already.
The soldier glances at Shuuichi as they speak. “Lying is unnecessary. We are not police, and we do not care about students on a joy ride in their parents vehicle. Do not be so nervous.”
Each of them take a collective deep breath.
“As soon as my soldiers finish searching your vehicle, you will be free to leave. Please wait here until they are finished.”
The soldier turns away then, pulling out a cell phone to make a call. Some of the tension saps out of Shuuichi’s body, leaving him with merely a stomach ache and sweaty palms, as opposed to the full blown combination panic-and-asthma attack he could feel himself building up to. Kaito tosses an arm around his shoulders, seeming significantly more at ease himself.
“Is it just me, or do these guys seem to you that they have a stick up their ass?”
Shuuichi chuckles despite himself, reddening when one of the soldiers raises an eyebrow at him. He elbows Kaito gently in the side. “Don’t push our luck.”
“‘Least I’m not actin’ like Kokichi,” Kaito says disdainfully, jutting his head towards Kokichi who was eyeing one of the soldier’s guns carefully, fingers grasping around empty air as he asked rapid fire obnoxious questions to an unsuspecting soldier. Shuuichi brings a hand to his mouth to mask a laugh as he observes.
“I think I can hear Maki’s annoyance from here,” he whispers back, cringing as Kokichi flicks the soldier’s arm panel.
“Don’t talk about me,” she says curtly from Kaito’s other side, earning an embarrassing squeak from Shuuichi and a guffaw from Kaito.
Something clatters noisily to the ground behind Shuuichi, nearly jumping him out of his skin.
All six of them turn to look at the cracked plastic of the window that has fallen out of its matching panel in the bathroom. Like it was planned, as Shuuichi’s eyes instinctively move upward to where the window used to be, something like a cry fills the air around them, followed by another, much more solid sounding crash to the ground.
Kiibo has just jumped out of the broken window, and their head has fallen off.
“Kiibo?” Shuuichi asks incredulously as they flail around on the ground for their head, sound leaving their mouth in an electronic garble.
“. . .The what?”
Gonta and Maki immediately move to pull Kiibo to their feet, the latter immediately taking their head aggressively from their hands and slamming it with more force than strictly necessary back onto their neck, earning a loud cry and another string of electronic noise.
And then Shuuichi notices the guns.
There’s a sniper sight pointed right around where his heart would be if it hadn’t already fallen right out of his chest and into his shoes. As the soldiers yell to each other in their native language and more move in to surround the seven of them, more guns take aim and more sights find themselves plastered to every immediate game-over spot on their bodies.
All of them except Kiibo, who stands suspiciously target free and shaking in their boots.
“What the hell, Kiibot!” Kokichi whispers in a hiss, kicking at Kiibo with unmasked annoyance. Half of the sniper sights immediately align themselves over his forehead, effectively clamming him up.
“Another hostile or robophobic action against the Princette will cost you your life,” one soldier says viciously, accent jarringly harsh comparative to the soft lilt Shuuichi had heard from the others just minutes ago. “Hands in the air.”
“What the fuck is going on?” Kaito demands, earning several sights on his own body. He coughs anxiously, raising his hands not a moment later. “Why are you freakin’ out over Kokichi bein’ an ass to Kiibo?”
“And why do you keep calling them. . .’Princette’?”
Shuuichi is pretty sure he knows the answer already, but for the sake of clarification, he asks anyways. He expects the shift of several guns back over to him, but nevertheless he feels his anxiety shoot up in intensity at the imminent threat.
Like clockwork, each of the soldier’s face masks morph into full helmets, shielding all but their eyes. Shuuichi’s hands shake where they sit in the air.
“Under Novoselic law, at this time authorized to exert in the bounds of the nation of Japan, the punishment for the kidnapping and endangerment of a royal, and furthermore for the kidnapping and endangerment of a prince, princess, or princette is death.” From between Maki and Gonta, Kiibo visibly goes green. Shuuichi isn’t left with enough time to dwell on the logistics of that. “Queen Nevermind has authorized the use of deadly force in retrieving the Crown Princette. Release Princette Kiibo at once.”
Then: “Kiibaby is a what?”
Six pairs of eyes shift to Kiibo, wearing various shades of confusion, panic, and annoyance.
Kokichi laughs, the sound vaguely unhinged, delirious. “What the fuck?”
Maki’s hands twitch into fists in the air, the expression on her face making it very clear that it’s Kiibo’s neck she’d much rather have them wrapped around. This is not lost on the soldiers, who direct the vast majority of their guns towards her.
“Did you not think it may be important to mention that you were international royalty?” Kiibo visibly shrinks under her frosty glare.
“I—” All of the soldiers start at the sound of Kiibo’s voice. Kokichi’s laughter fractures into something akin to a sob. “Sonia has never referred to me as the heir to the Novoselic throne, or even specifically as her child. As I’m still unaware of my true parentage, the thought did not occur to me!”
“Princette,” the shortest soldier says in a much more submissive, deferential tone, bowing ever so slightly towards Kiibo. Kokichi has begun cursing at Shuuichi’s side. “I must request that you step away from the kidnappers at once.”
Kiibo glances frantically between the group of them and the soldiers, but does not move from where they stand. “Please put away your guns! They are not kidnappers, they are my friends!”
“Kiibo, I hate you so, so much.”
Kiibo grimaces. “Except Kokichi. He is not my friend.”
“Not helping, Kiibo,” Kaede tells them, voice tight.
“We will not ask again. Release Princette Kiibo at once.”
“Tin Can already told you,” Kokichi bites back irritably, cracking his knuckles in the air, “we didn’t kidnap them.”
“Will you shut the fuck up already, asshole?”
“Silence,” the soldier interrupts, voice harsh. With deliberate movements, they holster their gun. “I shall offer you a deal. Release the princette to us, and we shall not harm you.”
“No, you’ll just imprison us and then kill us once we’re brought back to your country.” Shuuichi gives a significant look to the rest of the group. “You already told us the punishment for the crime you’ve decided we’ve committed is death.”
With a shrug, the soldier retrieves their gun, aiming the sight between Shuuichi’s eyes. “Have it your way.”
“Wait!” Kiibo steps forward, arms thrown out defensively in front of as many of them as they can — they only succeed in shielding Maki and Gonta, but nevertheless immediately all of the guns slide far out of their direction.
“You are not listening to me! I am telling you that I am here voluntarily, of my own free will, so no further threats are necessary! Please, just allow us to leave in peace!”
“My apologies, Your Highness,” the short soldier begins, gun sliding once again upward, “but we have direct orders from the queen to return you to her custody and to dispatch the kidnappers.”
“I have — ugh!” Kiibo throws their hands up in frustration, then pulls their right arm to their chest and begins fiddling anxiously with something there Shuuichi can’t immediately identify.
“I have no plans to allow you to harm my friends, nor to go with you. If you do not leave us be, I will be forced to take offensive action.”
Something whirs to life inside of their arm. A moment later they raise and aim at the collection of soldiers, intense blue light radiating from the hole where their hand used to be. Though their eyes narrow dangerously as they take aim, their whole frame trembles, fingers on their left hand shaking as they finger at a button on the bottom of their forearm.
“Princette Kiibo,” a soft voice pleads as one of the soldiers lowers her gun, helmet retracting back into the normal face mask a moment later. Her eyes are blue, and they water as she takes a tentative step towards Kiibo, arms held out placatingly.
“I beg of you to think of Queen Nevermind — your mother, before you choose your next action.” She takes another step closer, and Kiibo is really shaking now, a steady stream of no no no no i don’t understand rolling across their collar in quick green text. “I was there when she received the call that you had gone missing. I have never seen Her Majesty weep, and yet she was inconsolable at the news of your kidnapping.”
Kiibo blinks several times, as if holding back tears. With each artificial movement of their eyes, more and more static fills the white space within them.
“She love you so, so deeply. You understand the position she is in, yes?” Tears stream freely down the soldier’s face. “To give life to her first child in so, so long, to finally have an offspring who will not leave her due to the fallacies of being half human, only for you to be ripped away from her arms, yes? She is heartbroken. Please, come with us, let us take you to see your mother. All she wants is to see you again.”
There’s oppressive, tense silence for a long, long stretch of time as Kiibo glances between the soldier, with her arms outstretched as if to embrace them, and the increasingly scared looks the Shuuichi and the others were casting in Kiibo’s direction.
Finally, they shake their head, eyes firmly on the six of them.
“Please ask her for my forgiveness for what I am about to do, and for making her wait a few days longer.”
With a renewed confidence they rearm their gun, pointed at the encroaching soldier. She backs away with narrowed eyes, drawing her own gun. “I will give you one final chance to let my friends and I leave in peace.”
The sniper sights do not stray from the six of them. Kokichi groans in frustration, gesturing to Kiibo wildly.
“Hey, pigs, why don’t you aim at Kiibo, they’re the only one of us that’s armed!”
With a roll of their eyes and a wince, Kiibo fires, the kickback making them stumble. A flash of bright blue light streaks through the air before Shuuichi can even process it, so fast that he can’t shut his eyes in time to miss the impact of the shot against the group of soldiers.
He needn’t have bothered.
“W. . .What?” Kiibo asks incredulously, eyes focused intensely on the soldier who was pointedly not affected by Kiibo’s gun. “This gun has shot through metal before, I — I don’t understand—”
They fire again. Shuuichi watches as the force of Kiibo’s shot seems to merely bounce off the soldier’s armor like a rubber ball.
“Uhm, Kiibo?” Kaede asks nervously.
Kiibo looks moments away from collapsing. “It would seem my mother has equipped her army with robot-proof armor.”
“Hey, Kiibo!” The intensity of Kaito’s shout draws all of the gun’s aims to him. “You just called Queen Sonia your mom! You admit it now?”
Strangely, inexplicably, they go red. “Y-Yes.”
“As happy as I am for you, Kiibo,” Shuuichi says urgently, eyes on the many guns still drawn and aimed at them, “is this really the most pressing matter at the moment?”
Several things happen within the span of a few seconds as the final syllables leave Shuuichi’s mouth.
One: the soldiers issue a final warning, promising to begin shooting if Kiibo does not immediately return to their care.
Two: Kiibo pleads once again to let them pass freely, growing audibly more frustrated the more they are ignored.
Three: the rest of the group — minus Shuuichi, who is too concerned with keeping a careful watch on the guns aimed at himself — makes some very purposeful eye contact over the shouting match between the soldiers and Kiibo, apparently firming between themselves something Shuuichi is not privy to.
And four: Maki pops out of sight, and all hell breaks loose.
In a matter of moments Shuuichi’s friends are armed and on the offensive. Maki, the only trace of her existence being a knife that floats poised dangerously in the air, moves methodically between soldiers, grabbing guns and tossing them aside faster than they can even notice what’s happening. Kaito has torn open a panel on the side of the RV, revealing a dusty toolbox and crowbar that he swings around with abandon, working at one soldier in particular, attempting to beat the helmet off of their head.
Gonta picks two soldiers up effortlessly, knocking their heads together between pained whimpers of, “sorry, sorry Gonta so sorry!” leaving them unable to do anything but flail helplessly in the air.
Kaede has run a fair distance away, far enough that Shuuichi cannot hear whatever she’s meant to be saying — singing? — as she spins the paralyzed soldiers who made chase after her around in circles. Kiibo has joined her, apparently immune to the affects of her power as they take guns from the frozen hands of the soldiers and struggle to break them over their knee.
And Kokichi — Kokichi’s wielding a boxcutter, darting quickly beneath the legs, around the backs, over the heads of soldiers and dragging the sharp blade over whatever points of weakness he can find in their armor.
“Why is everybody armed and ready to fight except for me?”
“So slow on the uptake, jeez!” Kokichi wrenches a gun away from a downed soldier, eyeing it as if it’s a shiny new toy and he’s a rich kid in a toy shop. He clicks the boxcutter shut and slides it back into his backpack, pausing his hand within it for several moments to pull out — Rantarou’s baseball bat?
“Why do you have that?” Shuuichi demands, taking momentary behind Kokichi as he pushes the gun into the pocket of his jacket — it makes Shuuichi ill just to watch — and grips the bat in both hands. The pink kitten on his backpack stares pitifully up at Shuuichi. “How did that even fit in there?”
The response he gets is vaguely menacing laughter as he swings the bat experimentally, very nearly taking Shuuichi’s head off as a stray long nail nearly stabs his eye out. Knowing better than to trust Kokichi not to accidentally kill him he takes a large steps back, just in time for the soldier whose gun Kokichi stole to charge headlong towards the two of them.
“Hey, batter batter, swing!”
It’s a terrible hit, and Kokichi winces with the force of it, but nevertheless the effect on the soldier is immediate; as they fly backwards from the impact of the hit, Shuuichi can immediately see patches of blood form within the pockets the nails ripped through the armor as if it was tissue paper.
Kokichi curses under his breath, eyes alight with wonder. “Holy shit, Shuuichi, this weapon is magical! Where did you get something like this?”
“It’s a baseball bat!” Shuuichi half shrieks as Kokichi, looking on the verge of tears, pushes it into his hands.
“A magic one! This convo is toootally not over, you hear me?” With a wicked grin Kokichi darts off, pulling the gun from his pocket and running headlong into the fray, conveniently leaving Shuuichi to deal with three incoming soldiers.
“This is crazy,” Shuuichi whispers to himself, struggling to get a decent grip on the bat as his hands sweat faster than he can wipe them off. “This is crazy, magic is weird, the robot is a princette, and I am going to freak out.”
Shutting his eyes he swings wildly with the bat, and nearly throws his arm out of its socket, not to mention totally misses any of the three soldiers bearing down on him. Cringing at himself he takes a deep breath, adjusts his grip, and swings again.
It just barely clips one of the soldiers in the side, but that’s all it takes to make them go flying several yards backwards, slamming hard into one of their vehicles, shattering the windshield and most definitely getting glass into the wound Shuuichi’s just left.
Wound. Wound Shuuichi just left. That he can already see is bleeding through their armor.
Why the hell did Rantarou have this?
As much as his nervous brain would love to dwell for several anxiety-filled hours on that and similar questions, there is no time. There are still two soldiers with their sights set on Shuuichi, and all around him his friends are struggling within their own fights.
As he does his best to disarm the soldiers as painlessly as he can, he mentally takes stock of what his friends were dealing with.
Maki is visible now, having to resort to ducking around gunfire and grasping hands as she pulls gun after gun from the hands of the soldiers bearing down on her. Kaito is with her, doing his best to beat the recovering soldiers away from the pile of guns Maki is amassing, but it’s no use; they’re grabbed and turned back on the others faster than Maki can disarm them again.
Kiibo seems on the verge of having a breakdown as shot after shot from their gun merely bounces off the soldier’s armor. Eventually they relent, and help Kaede lean paralyzed soldiers against the side of the road and out of the way.
Shuuichi swipes at a soldier’s legs with the bat, sending them sprawling, but he has no time to applaud his minor victory as the realities of the fight dawn on him.
Despite their progress, not much ground is being made — and if something drastic doesn’t tip the odds in their favor, fast, they’re going to lose, and Shuuichi fears for his friends safety at that outcome.
“Oh! Everyone, look!” Gonta’s sudden, booming yell breaks through the fighting, calling everyone’s attention momentarily to himself as he points at. . .nothing. An empty spot in the woods.
“W-What is it, Gonta?” Kaito asks weakly, struggling to wrestle the crowbar back from one of the soldiers.
“We are surrounded by woods.”
“And?” Kokichi asks impatiently, banging the gun against his leg as it seems to run out of ammo. He resorts to hitting an unhelmeted soldier over the head with the end of it.
“Many types of bugs live in the woods!”
“Get on with it, Gonta!”
With a grimace, Gonta kicks aside a soldier who was attempting to pull him to the ground, and cups both large hands over his mouth.
“Bug friends! Gonta need your help to save friends! Please!”
Aside from the dizzying headache Gonta’s voice at that volume imbues Shuuichi with, nothing happens. Grimacing at the aftershocks of pain from the hit a soldier was able to land on him while he was distracted, he winds the bat back up, prepared to do his best to make sure his friends make it out of this okay.
It’s his responsibility. Everyone is here because of Shuuichi, because they believe (at least somewhat) in the fact that he didn’t steal Junko’s spear. In his determination to save Rantarou. In his inability to give up when he’s being depended on by people he cares about.
Shuuichi will not allow himself to fail.
He swings the bat, hits the soldier as hard as he can, despite the rush of guilt it sends through him.
As he moves to regain his grip some force from behind him seizes the bat, yanking backward in one fluid motion, causing him to stumble and nearly let go of it. He catches himself on one knee, wincing at the jolt of pain it sends through him, but does not let go.
The soldier persists, even as the nails, apparently affected by the magic Kokichi said possessed the bat, digs through their armored gloves like a hot knife through butter and bloodies their hands. Shuuichi tugs desperately on it, the feeling of the rough wood rubbing against his bare palms painful, but he cannot let go.
If he lets go, it means giving him and his friends one further disadvantage. If he lets go, it means giving the soldiers one more weapon to seriously hurt them with. If he lets go, it means losing one of the only things he has left of Rantarou.
“Give it back!”
Squeezing his eyes shut he forces himself to fall backward, silently willing the world to slow, slow, slow down as he grasps onto the handle of the bat with everything he has. The inky, shifting darkness ebbs his vision immediately, and with a sick feeling of satisfaction the ill feeling and the slowness only lasts until he’s fallen onto his back, the bat fully in his hands and the soldier looking utterly bewildered.
As he stands, though, the darkness crawling across his vision does not leave, and it takes the screaming of the others to realize that it isn’t just him that’s seeing it.
An amorphous, all-encompassing wave of black, buzzing matter rises from the woods like a tidal wave, rising high enough into the air to block out the almost-setting sun for a few moments before surging downwards towards the makeshift battlefield. Screams crescendo all around Shuuichi as the wall of — they’re bugs, oh my god, thousands, hundreds of thousands — bugs overtakes all of them, swarming everyone without a care to who was friend or who was foe.
There’s buzzing in his ears, in his eyes, in his mouth, so sickening loud that he can’t make out who it is who runs screaming onto the RV. Just barely between the waves of insects swirling in the air he can see Maki standing statue still within the fray, a hand braced over her eyes as her other is thrown out behind her, wrapped protectively around Kaede as she cringes behind her.
Something loud and clunky moves past — the electronic edge to the scream sets it off as being Kiibo as they, too, take shelter on the RV — which seems to give Kaede the idea that now is their chance to get out of here.
“Everyone get in!” she yells as loudly as she can over the dizzying buzz, grasping Maki around the arm and pulling her bodily behind her. Shuuichi looks around wildly for any stragglers, finding Kaito after a few moments braced against the RV, coughing and bracing both hands over his ears. Shuuichi pushes him towards the door, tosses the bat in after him, and holds it open just long enough for Gonta to hurry on before pulling it shut as quickly as he can.
From the safety of the bug-free RV, the chaos outside is all the more horrifying. Soldiers sit half engulfed by various bugs all around, waving guns and hands and helmets frantically in the air in an attempt to escape. Very, very cautiously, he spares a sidelong glance to Gonta.
That is his power?
“Kokichi better be on, because I am not opening the doors,” Maki says with conviction, voice aghast as she throws the RV into drive and floors the gas pedal.
“Present,” Kokichi replies from somewhere within the bathroom, accompanied by the flush of a toilet. When he stumbles out moments later, he collapses onto the floor without preamble, looking positively green.
Kaede stands from her seat with shaky legs, tapping each of them on the head as she passes through the RV. “We have everyone. Okay. Okay.”
She falls heavily onto one of the couches, letting her head rest against an equally-exhausted looking Kaito. Kaito pats her leg gently, leaning his own head against hers and letting his eyes fall shut.
As Maki speeds away from the roadblock much faster than is strictly legal, Shuuichi lets himself collapse on the other couch, looking to Gonta wearily as he settles into a cross-legged sit on the floor.
If Gonta is powerful enough to do that, then who on earth could his godly parent be?
Kokichi rises from the floor and falls onto couch next to Shuuichi, groaning. Kiibo emerges from the bathroom a few moments later, looking deeply ashamed as they settle into the booth, eyes downcast and hands folded tightly in their lap. Shuuichi looks down at Kokichi for a moment, noting how tired, how exhausted he looks. How exhausted all of them look.
For now, he supposes, it doesn’t matter who anyone’s parents are. They faced their first real challenge of this mission and survived, and right now, that’s all that’s worth thinking about.