In the Shadows of Utopia

Chapter 6

For the second time in as many days, Okabe found himself in the back of a cargo truck. This one, unlike their usual transportation, was stolen—they couldn’t afford drawing attention to a registered truck and driver who could be traced back to them. Not to mention that leaving a driver out to dry like that would be both cruel and inordinately wasteful; what kind of commander would dispose of his agents just because they were apparently of no more use? Loyalty was a rare and precious thing.

Okabe choked a little, unable to distract himself from the fact that he was sharing a confined space with two squads of people who hadn’t seen running water in several months. Fortunately his gagging was lost under the bang as they hit another pothole. The Ban-etsu Expressway was well maintained, but the nearby village and the roads that surrounded it were anything but. Forty minutes of driving and it felt like he’d been attacked by an incompetent masseuse wielding a meat tenderiser.

There were two more bangs as Captain Masumune rapped on the wall.

‘Gentlemen, listen up. In five minutes, we will reach the Ban-etsu toll booth. You’ve all been briefed, so remember your roles and I know that you will perform them to the best of your abilities. May the gods watch over us all.’

A few nodded, others closed their eyes to pray, and most of the new trainees gripped their black-market assault rifles so hard their knuckles turned white. Okabe drew his own pistol (he wasn’t meant to be directly in the fray, and the weapon had kept him safe so far) and tongued the suicide patch in his mouth. No matter how many times he experienced it, battle was something he never quite got used to.

The bone-rattling vibrations died away as the truck turned onto the fresh tarmac of the Expressway, replaced by a chorus of metallic clicks as nervous soldiers checked their clips, loaded cartridges and snapped off the safeties.

‘Arai. Murai,’ the captain hissed, gesturing to the metal shutter that separated them from the outside world. A short man and a slightly taller woman—veterans, by the hard look in their eyes—nodded and slid to the floor.

The truck lurched beneath their feet and began to slow. Thirty seconds.

Okabe fixed the faces in his head, one by one. Proud, protective Daru and Yuki of the mischievous smile. Little Suzuha. Beautiful Ruka, never lost for willing company but still so alone. Innocent Mayuri, a spot of colour suffocated by greys. Kurisu, the stifled enigma. And Feyris, taken from them.

Faces he had to see again.

Move forwards.

Voices came from outside. Harsh. Official. Tap tap of footsteps around the side of the truck.

A clatter as the shutter started to wind upwards.

Before it rose three inches, Arai and Murai shoved rifle muzzles through the gap and started firing. Short, sharp bursts, deafening him. Actinic flashes blinding him. Bodies thudded to the ground outside, falling like wet sacks as the rest of the Organisation men yelled orders and started to fire back. Their shots rattled against the metal shutter but failed to penetrate, ricochets whining away as Arai and Munai kept firing to the tune of screams from outside.

The return fire died off; he guessed the remainder of the Organisation forces were heading for cover.

Masumune gestured sharply and the two closest to the shutter grabbed it and heaved it the rest of the way up, the sunlight almost blinding Okabe all over again.

‘Go, go, go!’ the Captain shouted. Their task done, Arai and Munai were the first out, clearing the way for the rest of the Valkyrie to follow, filing around the shutter-lifters who had thrown themselves down in the middle and were shooting indiscriminately into the armoured office and tollbooths.

A few of the enemy ignored the bullets that zipped and whined around them to fire at the vulnerable Valkyrie squads as they scrambled for cover. Either suicidally brave or programmed to lack self-preservation, almost all of them fell under the covering fire from the truck, but they took their toll. Munai, out of bullets, didn’t make it. Last out, Okabe flinched as he was spattered with warm fluids, the corpse of his immediate predecessor tumbling over the lip of the truck. The two prone men swore, their guns falling silent as the corpse toppled through their line of sight.

A moment later, Okabe breathed a sigh of relief as the chatter of their own covering fire started again, taken over by the ones who’d made it to cover. All three of them dashed for the nearest unoccupied booth.

Back to the wall, Okabe took a moment to get his bearings amongst the rising smog of cordite. Using a mirror he kept for the purpose, he scanned around the corner. The expressway had four lanes, two in each direction, and each was barred by an armoured gate and accompanying tollbooth. The Valkyrie were in possession of three, and the sole enemy occupant of the last would be overwhelmed at any moment. Good.

That left the office as the Organisation’s only bastion. Already, it had begun to spit fire from the windows, but there were deadlier weapons than ballistics in this world. Namely, the radio. In less than a minute, the word would be out and the Valkyrie would find themselves caught in a trap not of their own design.

Conventional techniques would get them inside in ninety. Not good enough. Unconventional, then. He was good at unconventional.

The lone enemy taking cover in the booth popped up only to reel back as sunlight was reflected directly into her eyes. A chorus of shots rang out, redecorating the booth in arterial crimson.

One down.

‘Cover me!’ Okabe yelled, rounding the corner and sprinting for his next target. Tiny fragments of tarmac stung his ankle as a bullet impacted close to his feet but he made it safe to the truck.

The key was still in the ignition; a twist and the vehicle juddered into life, heading straight across the lanes toward the office. Okabe ducked down in the cabin, out of their line of sight but with a hand on the wheel, and began counting under his breath. This had to be timed carefully.

At the last possible moment, he yanked the wheel around and slammed on the brakes in a jackknife. Metal groaned under him, tilting dangerously—if he’d misjudged this he’d end up as blamanche. A moment of sickening uncertainty and then the side of the truck slammed into the office hard enough to send him sprawling.

The office structure had looked heavily built; a little impact like that would barely scratch its paint. What the truck would do is block every one of those windows.

He tumbled out of the cab just in time to watch a redhead sprint around the side of the office and toss a fist-sized grenade through the doors. A second later, they belched smoke with a deafening crump.

With that, everything was quiet, save for the ringing in his ears and a clattering from inside as shattered debris collapsed to the floor. The silence was broken by a tall man with hand-painted camouflage patterns over the standard coveralls, who thrust his gun in the air and whooped. The others soon joined him, cheering and shouting, borne along by the sheer relief of survival.

Only Masumune remained silent. Kneeling beside each body, he rolled them onto their backs, meeting their blind gazes as though committing every detail of their faces to memory. When he rose again, their lids were closed. You couldn’t believe that there were sleeping, but there was some peace in it nonetheless.

Okabe himself paused only to slide a gate card out of a man’s pocket. They weren’t to be mourned, he told himself firmly. Only dead men need be mourned, and those who fell in this foul future merely slept until the day he turned back the clock and raised them from the ashes.

‘Captain,’ he said to Masumune, ‘the clock is ticking and there are explosives to be planted. Let’s get to it, shall we?’

‘One moment, sir,’ the elder man replied, heading to one of the tollbooths. A grey-clad body was sprawled inside, arms and legs splayed like a child’s broken doll. Masumune brushed aside a lock of hair that had fallen across her features, unheeding of the sticky crimson that clung to his fingers, and studied her for a long moment before shaking his head and sliding her eyes shut. ‘I must be patient, then,’ he murmured, almost too quietly for Okabe to hear.

‘No rest for the wicked,’ Okabe said firmly, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘The tunnel’s long, and time is against us.’

The last lump of C4 wedged into a gap in the rocks above the tunnel, Okabe stood and waved. ‘That’s the last of them!’ he shouted, to a chorus of nods from below, while a little further down the road, a short man he dimly recalled to be Arai was laying their few anti-vehicle mines supplemented with his lab’s homemade firecrackers. His own work done, Okabe descended the rocky hillside like a limber gazelle, bounding from rock to rock until something gave way under his feet and the resulting landslide deposited him at the bottom.

‘Ow.’

Lying flat on his back, Okabe decided to take a chance at rest while it was offered. The sky was deep blue and streaked with wispy clouds; golden birds that tweeted merrily as they danced with the pink elephants. One enterprising pair began doing the tango.

A grin swam into place, surrounded by fiery red hair. ‘You alright?’

‘Some mild contusions. But my mental capacity is plentiful enough to withstand such a miniscule loss of intellect.’

‘Not if the convoy squashes you flat.’ A hand grabbed his, calluses scraping against his palm. ‘Upsi-daisy.’

Okabe’s arm felt like it had been torn from its socket, but he was up. ‘And might I know the name of my gallant rescuer?’

‘Uno Kawano. You can call me Uno.’ She ducked her head a little, the grin fading a little. ‘You know. If you want.’

She seemed about to leave, but her gaze darted about their surroundings and she leant in closer. ‘Look, there’s something I have to ask you. What do you think of the captain?’

‘Masumune?’ Okabe asked, surprised. ‘Why, is something wrong?’

‘He’s no good. The old-fashioned manners, the nice-guy act, they work on the CO but anyone can see he doesn’t know what he’s doing!’

She sighed.

‘Most of us joined up ‘cause of you, Hououin Kyouma. You probably know this already, but you’re kind of a big name. I’m just asking in case he screws up… we can count on you to get us out of this, right?’

And to think, not a day ago he’d been plotting to get these people closer to him. Funny how life always gave him exactly what he asked for, just in time for him to realise why he shouldn’t have.

‘People can surprise you,’ he said eventually. ‘Sometimes you just need a little faith.’ And if they couldn’t trust in their captain at this stage of the game then they might as well shoot themselves in the head and save the Organisation the trouble.

As Uno strode back to the rest of the group, Okabe couldn’t help but wonder if the second part would have been more persuasive.

Not for the first time, Okabe questioned if it wouldn’t be easier to simply abandon the rebels to the inevitable and repair the Nostalgia Drive in secret. But the idea of cravenly letting the Organisation roll over Japan disgusted him; not to mention that an Organisation allowed to fully secure itself would reduce his chances of sneaking into the TDZ almost to zero and make his job much, much harder. In the end, this was the better way.

He just wished the better way wasn’t so likely to get him shot.

Okabe, Masumune and the two Valkyrie squads lay camouflaged on the hillside, waiting for the enemy to appear. The growling of engines grew louder and louder, until the first set of vehicles emerged from the tunnel. Four wheels and a blocky front like an armoured jeep—Komatsu LAVs. Each carried five soldiers, and there were four of them. An equal match for their own numbers. Then two trucks, the targets of their little grocery trip, and four more Komatsus bringing up the rear.

Outnumbered two-to-one, eight mounted guns (each able to turn a man into tatters and rags) and all the Valkyrie had were a few mines stolen or bought off the ex-military black market.

Well, nobody said it would be easy.

They watched as the convoy drew closer to the first set of mines. One hundred metres… fifty…

Masumune’s fist tightened on the detonator.

Thirty… ten… five…

The fist clenched. All hell broke loose as the first four LAVs were enveloped in flame and sent tumbling off the road. The Valkyrie were firing even as the shockwave hit them with an earsplitting thoom, blinking the dust out of their eyes. Impacts lit up the second set of LAVs, which fired back in lethal bursts even as the smoke cloud hid them from view. The grassy hillside below was shredded in seconds—but the gunners were firing blind and the Valkyrie could fire back at will.

The supply trucks accelerated with a roar, trailing smoke as they burst out of the cloud. But they wouldn’t get far—ten Future Gadgets sensed them coming and exploded with little pops, like firecrackers. Thermite powder scattered across the road and blazed to life, burning through tarmac and rubber. Frantic drivers applied brakes to melting wheels; they got nothing but the shriek of tortured metal. Trailing white sparks and foul smoke, the trucks slid to a stop.

Gusting winds blew the road clear, exposing the Valkyrie for the first time. With relief, Okabe saw that two of the remaining four mounted guns were silent; one gunner had been thrown from his perch and the remains of the other lolled in his seat. Men spilled out of the Komatsu, some falling but others taking up position and firing back. The mounted guns fired again tap-tap-tap-tap-tap and he saw the Valkyrie in front thrown back even as a punch to his own shoulder sent him sprawling.

Okabe bit back a scream as agony blossomed from where his arm used to be. Writhing, his remaining hand scrabbled at his skull—

His skull?

But

Why

‘Sir! Are you alright?!’

When Okabe opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was Masumune screaming at him. The words seemed faded, as though a barrier of thick glass separated him from the world.

‘Ow,’ he groaned reflexively. His sides hurt, as expected from hitting the ground like he had, but his arm and shoulder were fine.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap

‘Help me with him!’ Okabe watched dazedly as Masumune grabbed one of his wrists and someone else grabbed the other, physically hauling him up and away from the lethal streams of lead that were tearing through the landscape. The world snapped back into place and he gasped like a landed fish, kicking frantically to get his legs under him and propel them all up the slope.

Cracks rang out as the remaining Valkyrie returned fire, finally dropping the last two gunners. Momentarily out of danger, he twisted in his rescuers’ grip, bringing them both to the ground with a yelp.

‘Time-shift!’ he shouted into Masumune’s ear. ‘Set off the charges!’

The other man’s eyes went wide as he fumbled in his coat for the other two detonators. Two muffled thooms sounded, and he watched a fountain of dust rise over the nearest tunnel entrance. Stone shards fell as lethal rain while rock flowed downhill to bury the entrance, irregular boulders bouncing and tumbling bottomward.

‘Hells yeah,’ gasped Uno from where she’d fallen beside him. ‘Drive through that, zombie motherfuckers.’

Below, the gunfire had stopped, and the only sound to be heard was the pattering of rubble on tarmac. The last of the Organisation’s forces had fallen. Heaving himself up, Okabe offered a hand to each of his companions and tugged them to their feet before setting off down to the road. When he arrived, two Valkyrie were at work on the trailer doors, blowing the locks with a final pyrotechnic duet.

‘Well, ladies and gentlemen,’ Okabe said, swinging the doors of one open to reveal stacks of weapons, ammunition and explosives, ‘I think we can call this a job well done.’

‘Guys!’ The cry came from Arai. ‘Look!’

He was pointing at the other tunnel, just visible around the corner.

Still open. Gaping.

‘Shit!’ Uno swore from beside him. He ignored her, time seeming to slow for him as thoughts sparked and crackled between his synapses.

Insufficient explosives? Unlikely. Trap? Possible. Irrelevant.

A dozen schemes of varying practicality and, frankly, sanity presented themselves. He selected one.

‘Fall back down the hillside!’ he could hear Masumune yelling.

‘Idiot!’ Uno yelled right back. ‘It’s completely open! Are you trying to get us killed?’

The other Valkyrie were wavering, caught between the two. Of course, when both staying and leaving were certain death, you found a third option.

‘QUIET!’ he shouted.

And quiet there was.

‘Thank you. Now, we have three objectives, do we not? Objective 1: to retrieve these fine armaments for the purposes of the Valkyrie. Objective 2: to escape the armed force that is currently heading our way through yonder tunnel. Finally, Objective 3: to survive whilst completing the aforementioned.’

The Valkyrie were still listening, their eyes wide with the blank fascination engendered by a man stepping in front of an oncoming vehicle.

‘To that end, you fellows’ he waved a hand vaguely, ‘will grab as much guns and ammunition from those trucks as you can carry and occupy those two armoured vehicles. You there, take a bamboo-copter and get up on that hill. Warn us when the Organisation’s forces approach the bend. You two,’ he indicated Masumune and Uno, ‘will stay and help me. Well? Chop-chop!’

The Valkyrie scattered. His two helpers looked at him like gamblers watching the ball slow and wondering if they shouldn’t have bet on black. ‘Help you with what, sir?’ the captain asked.

Okabe grinned.

‘We can’t all fit!’

‘So sit on someone’s lap, numbnuts. What are you, teenagers?’

‘Sir,’ Masumune asked nervously, ‘have you entirely thought this plan through?’

‘Define entirely.’

The man visibly winced. ‘I see. Ah, sir!’

Okabe followed his pointing finger to see Arai sprinting towards them from the hill, waving his arms. ‘Right on schedule.’

The third LAV roared to life as he turned the ignition key. Steering wheel locked in place, accelerator wedged against the floor, there was only one task left to be performed. He hooked the barrel of a rifle behind the shaking gear lever and yelled,

‘Begin: OPERATION CHARGE-OF-THE-LIGHT-BRIGADE!’

Park to Drive

The LAV accelerated away down the road, almost taking Okabe’s arm with it as the door slammed shut.

‘Into the car!’ The three of them piled into the final LAV, eyes front just in time to see the Organisation’s forces round the hill. Komatsu, personnel carriers, even some of the tanks he’d thought had been decommissioned years ago. A wall of metal was grinding down the road, and one streak of dust was rising to meet it.

As the two converged, a light blinked in the projectile LAV’s cabin, invisible under the mass of looted explosives they’d stuffed it with. A bomb on wheels.

Okabe pressed the button.

Flame blossomed.

The LAV detonated with a flash that sent him reeling and a roar that rattled through his bones. A centimetre of armour plating became scything shrapnel, tearing through metal and flesh alike. Lighter vehicles were hurled off the road completely to tumble down the hillside below, until scarred tarmac and blazing mechanical skeletons were all that was left.

‘Good. I think we can consider the operation a success,’ Okabe said in the stunned silence, and reached for the ignition.

‘Sir, I think I speak for both of us when I say that we would feel safer if you refrained from interacting with any more vehicles.’

‘Backseat driver, are we?’ He tossed the keys to the captain. ‘Just get us out of here. That explosion is going to act like a beacon.’

As their little convoy juddered across the demolished tarmac, weaving between wrecks, Okabe leant back in his seat with the insouciant smugness of someone who knows they have just pulled their companions out of the fire through their own sheer cleverness.

It would have fooled anybody who didn’t notice the way his gaze avoided the carnage outside.

‘So you screwed up,’ Colonel Shoda summarised, leaning back in his chair. Masumune stood ramrod straight in front of his desk, hands behind his back, like a schoolboy sent up for detention.

‘Yes, sir. I don’t believe any could have predicted that the hillside would fail to collapse, given its known instability. Nevertheless, had the resultant situation been under my sole command every member of both squads would have been killed in action. We would have failed to deliver you crucial supplies and the safety and security of Kawanuma Base would have been compromised.

‘I have failed you, those men and women entrusted to me, and the entirety of this base, and hereby ask to be removed from the office of Captain.’

‘Nope,’ the colonel said bluntly.

The two men stared at each other across the desk.

‘Sir,’ Masumune’s voice was ever-so-slightly strained. ‘I’m not entirely sure you were listening. I am not fit to hold the rank I possess.’

‘Then get fit,’ Shoda growled, rising from his chair. ‘You’re the captain for the same reason I’m the colonel: because there is no one better for the job. And yes, if you screw up then we will either die or be taken to the surgery to be made into shiny happy people! So. Do. Not. Screw. Up.’ Every word was punctuated with a finger jabbed into the man’s chest. ‘Am I clear?’

The still-a-captain’s face was imperturbable as ever. A close observer might have noticed a slight sheen on his forehead. ‘Yes, sir.’

‘Damn right I am. Now that’s done, let’s get to the actual point.’ Shoda sank back into his seat, seeming to age as he did so until a worn old man sat at the paper-strewn desk. ‘Hououin Kyouma.’

‘Kyouma, sir? I believe he’s packing for a departure this evening. Is that a problem?’

‘The problem isn’t with him leaving,’ the colonel sighed. ‘It’s with him coming back.’

‘He saved my life,’ Masumune pointed out with the faintest tinge of reproach.

‘Saved? No. Banked. And the day’ll come he wants that debt repaid.’

‘Nevertheless, sir. If he asks, it is our duty to obey.’

The colonel’s lips pursed as though tasted something bitter. ‘You trust Kyouma that much?’ he asked his subordinate.

‘I trust that he wouldn’t ask us to sacrifice ourselves without reason, sir.’

‘And what about her?’

Masumune blinked. ‘Perhaps… a noble dream is worth following. Even if it means the sacrifice of my own.’

Shoda regarded him for a long moment. ‘Ah, sod it.’ His fist thumped down on the table hard enough to cause minor faulting amongst the piles. ‘Captain, tell Kase to get the new weapons handed out and the ammunition sorted; should be enough for Okino to step up recruiting. Then get down to the barracks and tell the men they’re on double drills indefinitely. As of this minute, Kawanuma base is to be on full war footing.’

‘Yes, sir. Though it will mean a considerable increase in my workload.’

The colonel’s eyebrows drew together dangerously. ‘Problem?’

‘Actually, sir, I was hoping to nominate Uno Kawano for promotion to Lieutenant. She is able and I feel she may provide a valuable perspective.’

‘Done. Now go and do what I bloody told you to, soldier!’

The captain glided inaudibly out of Shoda’s office. After waiting several minutes to be entirely sure the man was gone, he reached into his desk draw and pulled out a half-empty bottle of jealously hoarded and, by now, well-aged whisky and took a single draught.

‘You hear that, Kyouma? All the tin soldiers, lining up to die for you. How’s about I do us both a favour? When it comes to it, I’ll make sure the fools live for you instead, if I have to drag them through this thing with my own two hands. Just don’t bloody welsh on your side of the bargain.’

The drawer and its precious cargo thunked back into the desk, to be left until the next crisis. It would not, he thought, be a long time coming.

Okabe’s eyes blinked open as the truck ground to a halt. The lulling vibrations now absent, he was at full wakefulness in a second. Were they already at their destination? But he wasn’t supposed to arrive until near-dawn and not a trace of light could be seen in the dark void of the trailer.

Crunch, crunch. Footsteps, circling around the trailer. As quietly as he could, Okabe slipped a hand into the top of his overalls to wrap around his pistol grip. Waking in such a matter had become almost routine, and for a moment his mind wandered back to the original Future Gadget Lab. Memories of fluffy pillows and the soft warmth of a Mayuri Special quilt thrown over a sofa.

There were two hard rat-tat knocks on the shutter and he lowered the pistol with a sigh of relief as the shutter wound upwards. ‘Is something wrong?’ he asked the tall figure, before stiffening and fingering the pistol grip as he remembered the distinctly rotund nature of his current driver.

‘Barricade.’ The voice was female, clipped and monotone. ‘One kilometre ahead. To avoid official suspicion you are requested to exit and proceed on foot. With me. Please.’

It could be a trap. But given the distinct lack of spotlight, firearms or summary execution, it seemed an unlikely possibility. And the idea of this person posing a danger alone was laughable; he wouldn’t bet on that stick-thin silhouette against little Suzuha. If only he could risk enough light to check her eyes.

‘As you wish,’ he sighed. ‘It seems a pleasant rest and an easy voyage home was too much to ask, eh? Truly, my life is but the whim of a cruel fate.’

‘Wasted time increases the possibility of discovery.’

His back was stiff from sleeping on a hard floor and his head was beginning to pound from fatigue. ‘Very well,’ he called out, trying and failing to hide his irritation. ‘I’m coming out.’

‘You wouldn’t happen to know anything else about this barricade, perchance?’ he asked as he clambered out. The shadowy figure said nothing, turning to head into the woods. ‘And I’d appreciate if you didn’t ignore me.’ Behind him, the truck switched its lights back on again and pulled away, stranding him.

Cursing under his breath, he headed for the moving patch of darkness that signified his escort, almost tripping on the ditch at the side of the road. Little light came from the thin lunar crescent but he could see that one side of the sky was definitely brighter than the other—home was nearer than he’d thought. Long grass tugged as his ankles as he powered forward, easily catching up to the slender figure ahead and grabbing her by the shoulder.

‘Look, you didn’t answer my question,’ he said, ignoring the way she stiffened in his grip. ‘Is there trouble?’

‘Rumours of possible Valkyrie activity. This area has been placed under quarantine under the orders of Captain Yoshinaga,’ his guide said curtly. ‘Roads are watched. It is unsafe.’

Impossible! To have tracked them here after he’d been so careful. The man he’d let die only a few days ago to protect their secret; was that sacrifice for nothing? Here of all places, there shouldn’t have been so much as a whisper of—oh, no. No, no, no! Of course she noticed. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t? But that was always the way with her.

He stumbled through the darkness, his thoughts clouded as his eyes. Were the others all right? Should he be heading to the rendezvous points, or were they already taken? If the Organisation had the Nostalgia Drive then all hope was already lost, without possibility of reversal. The high chittering of cicadas seemed to take on the sound of mocking laughter.

‘We’re here.’ The cold composure of his companion helped snap him out of the momentary daze, a branch rustling as she lifted it aside—he hadn’t even noticed entering a wood—to reveal a larger space beyond. He entered. The canopy above excluded any hint of moonlight; the way beyond was impossible to discern.

‘Well?’ he called back, ‘What now?’ No reply.

A light flashed into existence behind him, his shadow sprawling across the leafy floor. A cry rang out—his own—as he turned and stumbled back, gaping in horror at the abomination revealed. Two bulging eyes glowed above a shadowy maw, burning in the light of…

Mayuri giggled and switched the torch off.

‘Hey, silly.’

‘…’ he said uselessly as she wrapped her arms around him, feeling his heartbeat slow from a whine to a more sedate hum.

‘At least hug back,’ she said, pout noticeable to the ear if not the eye.

‘Just be glad he didn’t shoot you,’ Makise’s voice sighed from the darkness. ‘I told you startling an armed man was a bad idea.’

‘I really must agree on this one,’ Ruka scolded, ‘that was a very reckless thing to do, you know.’

‘Oh, phooey. Someone has to keep all you grumpyguts from spoiling the mood.’

‘Nobody’s ever accused me of spoiling the mood before,’ the (man, you fool, man!) replied throatily, ‘and my methods are far less likely to get me shot. Of course, I do search any supplicants very thoroughly…’

‘Hmph. I liked you better when you were easy to tease,’ Mayuri huffed.

‘And I liked you better when you weren’t talking. Or here,’ Makise grumbled, right on cue.

‘What are you all doing out here!’ Okabe hissed, still reeling a little from residual distress and the subsequent emotional whiplash.

‘The roads were being watched, so we had to get you around on foot,’ Ruka said. ‘On which note, are you still there, Moeka dear?’

‘Y-yes. Sorry,’ his guide whispered from outside the glade, ‘But I didn’t look. Promise.’

‘I know you didn’t,’ Ruka said, his voice soft and kind. ‘I trust you. And I ask so much of you… I wish I could repay that trust.’

‘Then why can’t he?’ he heard Makise hissing to Mayuri. ‘Just turn the torch back on!’

‘You work for the Organisation,’ Okabe made the deductive leap. ‘Wait… Ruka, this is your mole? The one you told me about?’

‘Yes. Without her, you never would have had enough information to pull off the Kawanumo hit.’

The one that was obviously a trap? Okabe thought, before dismissing the notion. Ruka of all people would know when he was being fed misinformation.

‘And when we found out about the quarantine, she was the only one who could pull people over without looking suspicious,’ Mayuri piped up. ‘So Ruka asked if she’d lend us a hand, and here you are!’

‘Um,’ Moeka murmured, doing her best to interrupt without interrupting, ‘I need to get back. They’ll miss me otherwise.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ Ruka said, ‘I didn’t think. But just one thing, before you go…’

It was still almost pitch-black under the trees, so Okabe saw nothing, but he heard a gentle tread cross the clearing and a sharp intake of breath from where Moeka had been standing. He certainly wasn’t supposed to hear the quiet whispers that followed. ‘I seem to say this so many times: Thank you, Moeka. I wish I could do more.’

‘N-no. It feels good… to help you. That even someone like me…’

Eager to distract himself from a conversation that was becoming all too personal, Okabe walked in the other direction from the whispering voices only to stumble into another pair.

‘I don’t get it,’ Makise was muttering to Mayuri, ‘what’s with all the cloak and dagger? Sure, she’s worked for the Organisation but so have I! You don’t see me walking around with a scarf tied over my eyes.’

‘It’s a secrecy thing,’ Mayuri whispered back. ‘The Organisation figures we might have spies like her, right? So those creeps chip anyone who works with too much sensitive stuff. The more she tries to find out for us, the more likely it one day they’ll take her too.’ His oldest and most empathetic friend sounded on the verge of tears, her voice thick. ‘So she mustn’t be able to say anything about us. You know, Ruka talks about her a lot. She’s helped us so many times and she’ll never even meet us properly. It’s so sad…’

Stuck between direct angst and indirect angst, Okabe buried his face in his hands. ‘Where’s Daru when you need him?’ he complained.

‘So, you think—uh—they’ll be out a bit longer?’ Yuki gasped as Daru trailed a series of kisses down her neck.

‘They better be,’ her husband replied, without stopping. ‘Mmm, it’s been so long since we had the house all to ourselves. I may have left a spare mine in front of the door.’

Yuki shrugged and rolled them over. ‘Works for me.’


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