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The Kenma Project

Chapter Text

It felt like a perfectly ordinary day. That’s what was so strange as Yuuji Terushima lay in bed amidst the soothing sunlight filtering through the curtains. He checked his alarm clock to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Nope, 7:02 a.m., and he felt no different.

He forced himself out of bed, with a little less resistance than usual, and went about his routine. He was so sure after the news from Futamata yesterday that he’d feel some novel, sprightly energy, but the day felt quite normal. The shower water in his apartment was still slightly hotter than he wanted, and he still had to brush his teeth and shear his stubble over the same impeccably scrubbed sink.

When he thought about it rationally, there was no reason he should feel any different. His efforts (and Futamata’s with a handful of others) had invented an antibiotic that could potentially eradicate malaria by altering the virus’s genome. The first prototype, Futamata confirmed last evening, was ready for testing. It was an unprecedented breakthrough, the pinnacle of a painstaking career studying DNA. It was so monumental a feat that, as far as Terushima was concerned, it didn’t matter that he’d acquired the research for the proto-vaccine through technically illicit means.

As he got dressed, the familiar hum of traffic and pedestrians sounded distinctly normal too, despite the existence of a nearly global war going on. Terushima attributed the constant ease in the city to the fortune of currently residing in a country that was officially neutral—“officially” because everyone knew which side they were actively supporting, but that fact didn’t faze the average citizen one bit.

In one sense, it was all getting a bit boring.

Alas, the incessant monotony couldn’t be helped. Yuuji had to get back to his lab at the national Department of Health to continue his real contribution to this research project. And so, he wrestled his head through his shirt and adjusted the collar to his liking.

Yup, today would be just another ordinary day.             

Suddenly all went black. His breaths gasped against a hood thrown over his face. He flailed as someone—multiple people—throttled him to the floor, hoisted him up, and escorted him away.

 

After being marched, driven, and paraded again, Yuuji Terushima was finally unhooded in a chair before a large round table in a drab, glossy room. Instantly he noticed he was not the only person here under similar circumstances. Two pairs of eyes seated adjacent ogled the new arrival, the nearer person nonchalantly relaxing with hands in pockets, the farther slouching with crossed arms and one foot propped on the table’s edge. The former bore a look that said, “Oh, another one?” while the latter appeared abjectly disinterested.

The people who'd brought him into the space proceeded to scan a badge on a card reader and exit a sliding door that swooshed shut behind them. Terushima warily glanced over the various personnel in military police garb poised along the walls in stock-still poses.

Before long, the door swooshed open, announcing a stern copper-haired man with a bowl cut in a prim purple military uniform—the national colors of Shiratorizawa, the country in which Yuuji had been temporarily working. By his livery’s accoutrements, he was evidently a maritime officer of high rank. He marched to the opposite end of the table, hands joined behind back, and sharply rotated to face the three seated men. Contrary to himself, Yuuji judged the two men beside him to be more perturbed than perplexed.

“Kenji Futakuchi…Shigeru Yahaba…Yuuji Terushima,” the officer said, casting his eyes over each in turn. Futakuchi and Yahaba appeared almost disdainful. “I am Admiral Kenjirou Shirabu, and as you can tell, I’m with the Shiratorizawan Navy. All of you know why you were brought here, and all of you know the consequences of refusal to cooperate in what I am about to tell you.”

Yuuji blinked. He’d figured his arrest (if you could call it that) was related to the vaccine, but the apparent involvement of the navy in his detention made that seem somewhat unlikely. In any case, he spotted Yahaba sink deeper into his chair.

“You are aware of the current state of the war engulfing most of the world,” Adm. Shirabu continued. “No progress has been made to liberate Datekou, and neither the Miyagi Alliance nor the Tokyo Entente are capable of opening additional fronts on each other’s continents. The war is at a stalemate…but not for long.”

He furrowed his brow, as if to signify now was the time to listen closely.

“Intelligence indicates that Nekoma, Fukurodani, and Nohebi are cosponsoring a venture called the Kenma Project. Nothing is known about this project, other than it is believed to be a new weapon that would turn the tide of war irreversibly in Tokyo’s favor.” He made successive eye contact with the three men as he splayed his palms on the table. “The three of you are to use your individual talents to infiltrate the lab where the Kenma Project is being developed, find out what it is—its nature, potential, application, and expected completion date—steal that information, and ultimately sabotage it.”

Yuuji’s eyebrows rose. A blatant espionage mission? How on earth had he gotten mixed up in something like this?! He could admit there was some thrill to the whole top-secret mission idea, but he was still aghast at the whole predicament to begin with.

“My government will provide the intelligence we have on the Kenma Project and will assist in deploying some of you in Tokyo, but beyond that, you are on your own and have total freedom as to how you accomplish this mission,” Shirabu concluded as he rose to his firm posture again. “You may ask any questions now as this will likely be the last time we see each other. If it touches on information I cannot give, I will say so.”

Futakuchi, totally unmoved the entire time, darted his torso forward. “I got one. Shiratorizawa’s supposed to be neutral, so how come you’re asking us to commit an act of war?”

It was a fair critique. The conflict began when Nekoma and Fukurodani on the Tokyo continent invaded the large island nation of Datekou off the coast of Miyagi. Datekou beseeched the aid of its mainland allies, and the nations of Karasuno, Seijoh, and Johzenji formed the Miyagi Alliance. The other great Tokyo power, Nohebi, in turn threw its support behind Nekoma and Fukurodani. Shiratorizawa—boasting arguably the world’s most powerful military—remained officially unaligned, but it was an open secret that its navy and air force were assisting the Miyagi Alliance.

After a momentary stare, Admiral Shirabu shut his eyes calmly and replied. “I cannot answer that. Next.” He gazed at the scowling person in the center, Yahaba.

“Who’s going to benefit from this?”

“The war effort,” Shirabu answered confidently. “In other words, your home countries.”

“But who is going to benefit?” Yahaba pressed. Undoubtedly the information they’d be stealing was going to someone in particular, and Terushima wished to know the answer as well.

“I cannot answer that,” the admiral again said with closed eyes. “Anyone else?” His gaze now fell on Terushima, whose demeanor he immediately could tell was the least defiant. Terushima inhaled firmly and decided now was the chance to get some answers.

“Yeah. You say we know why we’re here and what’ll happen if we refuse, but I’m totally clueless, you know? That, and you tell us we have to use our individual talents to work together, but I’ve never seen these two before in my life. How am I supposed to know what they can do, huh?”

Shirabu took a moment before tilting his head.

“Fair point,” he replied. Indeed the three men hadn’t been properly introduced and perhaps how much jeopardy they were in wasn’t as self-evident as he’d hoped. “All right. Kenji Futakuchi,” he addressed. The man sank back into his chair. “You were a counterfeiter and money launderer before the war, engaged especially in the smuggling of Tokyo migrants into Datekou. You arranged items such as identification documents, passports, cash, customs forms, and transportation services. After the invasion, you were arrested by the occupational government for anti-Tokyo activities and sentenced to be executed. You were incidentally freed in the course of a special forces operation to liberate an interned Datekou dignitary, but your government then charged you over your prewar activities. If you refuse to cooperate, you will be remanded to your government for prosecution.”

Futakuchi’s arms remained stolidly crossed, and Terushima deduced the man indeed already figured out his situation without the admiral’s intercession.

Shirabu turned now to the center man. “Shigeru Yahaba: you were a computer programmer in Seijoh working for an internet security firm, but your real job was hacking. You are behind the creation of several high-profile computer viruses, including three ransomware attacks in the last five years, one of which shut down international commerce for a day. You were recently indicted in Shiratorizawa and arrested, and if you refuse to cooperate on this mission, you will be referred for trial with a maximum sentence of 225 years in prison. You cannot expect your government to come to your aid because, as you know, they willingly deported you here.”

Yahaba fiercely scowled. His extradition was processed so patently illegally that he always knew someone in Shiratorizawa was pulling the strings.

Now the admiral again turned to Yuuji, the “cleanest” of the bunch. It was time, the admiral estimated, to reveal just how much he knew about the supposedly hapless scientist.

“Yuuji Terushima: you are a highly respected and accomplished researcher specializing in biology and genetics. You have been a partner on numerous critical advances in genetic engineering and most recently were recruited as a fellow on a project sponsored by the Shiratorizawan Department of Health studying the gene sequence of the malaria virus.

“However,” his eyebrows furrowed critically. The accusative glare made Terushima gulp. “Your lifelong work has not been wholly altruistic. While you conducted yourself sincerely on all projects throughout your career, you have consistently pilfered research samples and data from assignments and maintained them for your personal use, even when said data and materials were not yours for the taking. Just recently, Futamata Pharmaceuticals, a company run by your friend in which you are a primary shareholder, developed a potential cure for malaria using the information you swiped from my government.

“Now consider the manner in which you were detained. You were brought here directly because the matter has not yet been referred to the police, but make no mistake.” His glare narrowed. “If you decline this mission, you will be prosecuted for espionage, and not just you but your friend Futamata and anyone associated with the vaccine. Don’t expect your government to protect you. As in Yahaba’s case too, Johzenji is entirely beholden to Shiratorizawa for military support and won’t jeopardize that relationship to save a few rogue scientists. I have no doubt your vaccine could save millions of lives, but if you don’t cooperate in this, I guarantee you it will never see the light of day.”

Shirabu’s aura was one of such grave cruelty and seriousness it left Terushima so bewildered he wanted to flee. He bore no doubt the admiral could suppress the vaccine if he felt like it; he already demonstrated the power to just up and abduct someone on a weekday morning and ostensibly get away with it.

Recognizing that the scientist understood his predicament now, Shirabu once again turned his attention on all three.

“Naturally, your cooperation and the successful accomplishment of this mission will spare all of you from the consequences I have just outlined.” Futakuchi grimaced. That confirmed his theory that the charges levied against him were at Shiratorizawa’s instigation.

Yahaba sat forward, placing his elbows on the table and folding his hands as a bed for his chin. “What happens if not all of us agree?” he queried.

“That depends,” Shirabu said, shooting glances between the other two, “whether the other two decline.”

“I’m in,” spat Futakuchi, kicking his foot from the table edge and leaning forward.

“Me too,” Yahaba shrugged and then glanced at the third subject in the room. The admiral’s piercing eyes fell on Terushima too, sending another chill down Yuuji’s spine.

“I’m in,” he muttered. “But I have one more question.”

“Go ahead,” Kenjirou authorized.

“You’re right I’m the greatest scientist ever,” Yuuji sneered. Shirabu’s forehead wrinkled. That was not the turn of phrase he’d used, and it reminded him how much he resented cocksure types like Terushima. “I’m well versed in a lot of fields of study, but my specialty is genetics. Wouldn’t you benefit more from an expert in weaponry?”

Shirabu closed his eyes coyly as he had been apt to do. “I have no comment on that”—his eyelids popped open again—“only to say that you three were chosen for a reason. But now our time is up. You will be shortly outfitted for the mission, and as should be manifestly clear, failure is not a viable option.”

 

“Whoaaaaaa,” Terushima said in awe at the scuba gear disintegrating in the beach surf. “It really does dissolve.”

“Yup,” Futakuchi grinned, tossing his own wetsuit into the drift. “There won’t be any trace of it.” A week after their fateful meeting with Adm. Shirabu, the pair were now on the eastern shore of Fukurodani having been dropped off by a Shiratorizawan submarine in the dead of night. Terushima peered up the circular rocks piled beneath the pier while Futakuchi recovered a manila envelope from inside his dry garments and handed it to Terushima.

“Here. That packet contains everything you need. The first piece of paper has the address of your new apartment in Itachiyama. The key, rental paperwork, and insurance are in there too. The key fob is for your car, which should be parked a block and a half north of here. The credit card is secured by the main bank of Fukurodani and is accepted everywhere. You’ll also find your identification badge for the lab with directions on how to get there. There’s also a fake birth certificate, passport, and driver’s license with your new alias.”

Terushima gaped at all the paraphernalia. “Teruji Yuushima,” he read on the IDs.

“This is amazing,” he gasped. How the man had arranged all this in just a week’s time was incomprehensible.

Futakuchi smirked proudly; it wasn’t often he got compliments on his handiwork. “I know a lot of people in a lot of places,” he chimed.

Terushima pulled a cell phone from his pocket. It was a basic flip phone proffered by Shiratorizawa. He checked the contacts and found it already loaded with a variety of numbers for his workplace. Futakuchi rubbed the back of his head and sighed.

“In any case, this might be the last time we see each other. Yahaba found another lead in the stuff Shirabu sent over, so I’m going to investigate that. See you around, maybe.”

He didn’t wait for a goodbye and began to walk south between the wooden columns of the pier.

The car was exactly where Futakuchi said it would be, and Terushima felt a rush of relief when the fob unlocked the door. He sat in the driver’s seat and hunched over the steering wheel. Again he wondered how he’d gotten involved in this; and realizing the magnitude of what he was doing, and how hostile everyone around would be if they found out sent a terrifying chill down his spine.

But he wasn’t actually afraid. In fact, he was rather excited. Shirabu was right about his past, and he’d snuck out specimens and terabytes of data from guarded facilities before. This mission just felt like the final boss of a videogame. He now understood that experience was why Shirabu selected him for the mission.

After all, it couldn’t be because of his field of expertise, right?

 

After making it to Itachiyama and finding his new apartment, Terushima was again astounded at Futakuchi’s abilities when he found the wardrobe fully stocked with lab coats and other garments in his perfect size. The city was a sprawling metropolis, home to the world-renowned Itachiyama University, one of the leading institutions on medical science. Terushima recalled that the foremost expert on genetic engineering, Dr. Kiyoomi Sakusa, taught there for two decades. On the spot, he couldn’t rightly recall what happened to Dr. Sakusa over the last five years or so.

The laboratory where the Kenma Project was being undertaken was a massive facility constructed on a military base. Yuuji pulled up to the facility’s front gates on his first day of work and displayed a badge at the gate for entry. Once inside, he followed Futakuchi’s directions to the designated parking area and then proceeded to the building marked “Lab 3.”

All non-military personnel entering the structure were required to undergo screening. This was the most difficult part of the planning as, in order to best coordinate with Yahaba while inside the lab, Yuuji planned to wear a wireless earpiece and camera. Yahaba had already figured out the security protocols and instructed Yuuji on how to disassemble the equipment and distribute it between his bag and person to go undetected. Terushima placed his shoulder case onto the scanner and stepped through the screener with a fluid motion. As he’d learned from his previous smuggling efforts, the trick was to let the guards do their work and not be nervous. His black carrycase slid out of the scanner innocuously. Terushima put the lanyard with his work badge around his neck and took the case to begin his first day of work.

There was one civilian allowed to bypass all security procedures, and Terushima spotted him arrive now: the head scientist of the lab and the man believed in charge of the Kenma Project, Dr. Keiji Akaashi. He approached with a wide smile and was greeted with a friendly welcome from the guards who let him through. He then started to chat with an officer holding an assault rifle whom Yuuji recognized from Yahaba’s notes as Suguru Daishou, the base’s Nohebi-born head of security. As Terushima turned to depart, he didn’t notice Akaashi spotting him.

“I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Terushima twirled to find the grinning doctor looking right at him.

“I’m Dr. Akaashi,” Keiji said extending a hand, which Yuuji shook. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Doctor…” He focused on Yuuji’s badge.

“Yuushima,” Yuuji answered with an assertive grin. Keiji’s eyebrows momentarily shot up, but he remained friendly.

“What project are you assigned to?” Akaashi inquired.

“C-2,” stated Yuuji, using the codename for his assigned project. According to Yahaba’s notes, it was a comparison of the effectiveness of certain herbicides on tropical vegetation. All of the projects here had alphanumeric codes, and in Shirabu’s intelligence, the Kenma Project was referred to as “D-9.”

“Ah, yes,” Akaashi replied. “I heard you had some setbacks the other day. How are those going?”

Yuuji wanted to simper. The amount of detail Yahaba had acquired was astounding, and it was enough for him to know exactly what Keiji was referring to. “We resolved it with the new shipment. All’s good,” he grinned slyly.

“Excellent. Well, you probably already know this, but Dr. Komi can be a bit of a jokester, but don’t take him too seriously,” Akaashi smiled and thumped Terushima on the back. “I might see you around.” He waved and parted down a corridor.

Terushima was proud how well he’d maintained his composure. That man just now was the brainchild behind Kenma and knew everything about whatever Kenma was. If push came to shove, kidnapping wasn’t out of the question. But abducting the scientist was scrapped during preplanning as too risky and not feasible; and instead, it was decided the best course of action was to avoid Keiji Akaashi altogether if at all possible. The interaction seemed to have gone well though, and he could only be grateful for that.

 

Stepping into the restroom, Terushima proceeded to reassemble Yahaba’s equipment. The earpiece was disguised as an earring that sent signals directly to the auditory cortex of the brain—it was impossible for anyone except Terushima to hear Yahaba speak. Once in place, he activated it and went about setting up the camera, disguised as a pen that could be placed in his lab coat pocket.

“Yahaba, can you hear me?”

You got that set up faster than I expected,” Yahaba’s voice resounded. It was almost like receiving a telepathic message. Yahaba stayed behind in Seijoh, operating out of his old home, under covert Shiratorizawan scrutiny. There was a five-hour time difference between Seijoh and the city of Itachiyama, so it was already early afternoon for Shigeru, and Yahaba had just started a second cup of coffee—the thing he missed most since his arrest. Yahaba took a sip of the mug before continuing. “What’s your IQ?

“158,” replied Yuuji.

I bet it’s over 160,” the voice in his head countered.

Terushima smirked. “You’d be right.” A little modesty didn’t hurt anyone, but if he was going to get called on it, he wasn’t going to be shy.

After testing the camera, Yuuji proceeded to a door with a card reader and badged in. The reader chimed, and the door opened.

“Whoa, it really works,” he said staring at the counterfeit badge. “Did Futakuchi really do all this?”

Yup,” Yahaba answered, comforting his coffee cup with both hands while looking over schematics to disarm the lab’s security system when the time came. “Shirabu made Futakuchi sound like a small-timer, but I looked him up. He’s actually connected to a few high-profile heists.

Before long, they deactivated the comm so Yahaba could get into the nitty-gritty of cyber-sabotage. He promised he’d have everything disarmed by end of business, and so in the meantime, Terushima went about his day: engaging in normal research, meeting the rumored Dr. Komi (with whom he felt intimately familiar from Yahaba’s character sketches), and conducting research. The current batch of pesticide was even more virulent than Terushima or anyone on the team expected. Komi was impressed with how much Terushima knew about the native vegetation (Johzenji had some tropical regions, and he studied horticulture in university there) and left the newbie to finish tabulating the data at the end of the day. Then he was alone. He reactivated the comm.

“You there?”

Done watching plants die?” Shigeru sarcastically asked.

“I hope they don’t deploy this stuff in real life,” an apprehensive Yuuji mumbled, wishing no misfortune to befall his homeland.

How’s the weather in Johzenji?” Yahaba suddenly asked as Terushima began shutting down his lab for the night.

“Wonderful,” he said blandly, concentrating more on making sure everything was logged off properly. Yahaba took a sip of his fifth coffee.

Maybe I’ll move there after this mess,” he floated. It was after 5pm in Itachiyama but past 10 o’clock in Seijoh. Yahaba now stretched his fingers and began typing feverishly to circumvent anything keeping Terushima out of the laboratory housing D-9. He had already spent part of the day determining how to disarm the CCTV feed without anyone noticing and proceeded to execute the measures now. By the time Terushima reached the first secured entrance to D-9, the cameras were useless.

I updated your access levels, so just scan your badge and go in." Terushima did so and sure enough was granted access. The projects in the “D” part of the lab were fairly perplexing, and Terushima passed several secure rooms until he reached a door with a retinal and fingerprint scanner restricting access to Kenma in particular. It was the highest security for the entire complex. Yahaba assured beforehand that he would just trick the various pieces of equipment into unlocking the door without any inputs from Yuuji, but he warned it could take a while and had to be done with Terushima ready to enter immediately. Yahaba took another sip and frowned at his computer screen that streamed blue light into his pitch black room. Terushima listened to the man’s chatter as he successively disabled layer upon layer of firewalls:

OK, now you don’t want to give me access, but if I do this, and this, and then you’re gone. So now I need to go here, and, sorry: no. And now here, and: no. And you, no. And no to you. And no. And no. And no. And no. And no. And no. And no. Aaaaaaaaand…no to you as well. All right! Now switch this, and voila: door unlockie!

Terushima heard the reader beep, and the sliding door slowly parted to allow Yuuji entrance. It closed promptly behind him.

No ceiling lights were on in the lab, but it was not totally dark. Along with various glowing screens and keyboards, the space was illuminated by gigantic liquid-filled cylinders, three feet above the ground and stretching 8-11 feet high. Terushima gaped in awe at the tanks, some of which were filled with unusual organisms suspended in the liquid by various tubes. He began to patter slowly through the lab, occasionally stopping to read computer monitors, trying to make sense of everything around.

“You seeing all this?” Terushima said aloud, turning his torso so that the pen in his pocket could film the incubation tanks.

Yea—oh bollocks!

“Yahaba?” Terushima called. There was no reply. “Hey. Can you hear me?”

Again no reply. Terushima gulped and glanced at the security camera above the door he’d entered by. He inhaled firmly and marched onward.

10-15 seconds passed before Yahaba’s voice came back into comprehension. “Terushima, you there?

“Yeah. What happened?”

Yahaba scowled, holding his coffee as his PC booted up in front of him. “My city instituted a mandatory blackout after 10pm. I guess my house was drawing too much from the grid, so they cut power. My UPS is running now, and I should be back into everything in just a minute.

“Wait, what about the cameras?” Terushima fretted.

Don’t worry about it. The outage won’t affect my handiwork. But I’m blind at the moment, so if you die in the next thirty seconds, I can’t do anything about it.

“I didn’t think you could do anything about me dying,” Yuuji wryly replied.

Yahaba quickly slurped. “Don’t doubt my power.” Once the desktop appeared, he set down the mug to reopen the programs. “I’m almost back up. Everything looks normal still. Bear in mind I can’t tell if anyone else entered the lab while I was down, so be careful.

Yuuji gulped again, fighting a dry throat—but his anxiety stemmed more from the increasingly gross-looking creatures on display the deeper he got into the lab. He took another turn through the maze of tanks and chanced upon a large one at the center of the room.

What was inside stopped him dead in his tracks.

All right. I’ve got video again—and what the hey is that!

Terushima gawped at the thing before him. Floating in the spacious tank was a nude male human being, its mouth attached to a respirator. Terushima estimated the person’s height at around 5’7”. He looked like someone you’d see on the streets except for the unusual fact the outer two-thirds of his hair were blond, but closer to the scalp it was black.

Terushima waddled closer and peered over the data on the interface at the foot of the tank.

“Yahaba, are you seeing this?”

Of course, you idiot. So is that… ‘Kenma’?

Terushima swiped along the touchscreen, speedreading over the data. It was all calculations for genetic splicing and accelerated cell mutation.

It was the very stuff he was familiar with from years of research.

“So that’s what Kenma is. It’s not a weapon. They’re growing artificial humans.”

Hey. Don’t get caught up in it and forget to insert the drive,” Yahaba reminded. Terushima inserted a USB underneath the display so Shigeru could begin cracking the encryption. In the meantime, Yuuji peered over his shoulder at some of the mutations around. Some looked like fetuses and mutant infants; others had scales, malformed limbs, or abnormal skin growth. He realized everything else in here were failed prototypes.

At the moment though, he cared less about the failures and wondered what had succeeded to produce the apparently “finished product” in the main tank. When he turned back, he was startled to find that the man’s eyelids had slightly opened for a reason Terushima wasn’t sure.

Staring back were not human eyes; they were the eyes of a cat.

Terushima mentally retracted his earlier judgment that the subject appeared perfectly normal and scrolled some more, soon becoming enrapt in the hypotheses therein.

“I don’t believe it. This is the most advanced genetic work I’ve ever seen.”

“While you’re at it, can you fix the gene in charge of hair color, cos that ain’t normal,” Yahaba cracked. Terushima continued to scroll, each second becoming even more awed by the mind of Dr. Akaashi.

“No way! Some of this is stuff I theorized about but didn’t have any way to test! This is freakin’ amazing!”

OK, you sound like you’re getting turned on by the guy in the incubation tank, and it’s creeping me out. I cleared the permissions. Can you start transferring the data?

“Yeah, yeah, in a minute,” Terushima said with a hypnotic grin, continuing to soak in the math before him.

Then another voice announced itself in the room: “Beautiful, isn’t he?”

Yuuji literally yelped and spun around. Before him stood a simpering Akaashi, flanked by Daishou and several guards with assault rifles.

“I hate to inform you, but this isn’t C-2, Dr. Yuushima,” Akaashi calmly said. His simper grew even wider. “Or, should I say, Yuuji Terushima.”

Chapter Text

Two and a half years agoSendai Prison, Datekou

It was the pitch blackness of night when special forces from Karasuno’s CROW and Shiratorizawa’s Eagles jointly assaulted Sendai Prison in occupied Datekou. The multinational mission came about to ensure a success ratio that neither unit could guarantee on its own: the rescue of Datekou’s detained prime minister, Yasushi Kamasaki.

Peering down from his helicopter at the penitentiary, Chikara Ennoshita mentally ran through his directives again. They knew where Kamasaki’s cell was; Chikara’s band of CROWs would carry out the rescue and extraction while the Eagles provided cover. They had to be out of the prison before reinforcements swarmed the floor the prime minister’s cell was on.

All went according to plan. Within minutes, they were inside, and the level housing Kamasaki was secure. Chikara wasted no time in unlocking their subject’s cell. Upon confirming it was their grateful target, Ennoshita shot a glance to the leader of the Eagles on the mission, Eita Semi.

Semi, appearing slightly edgy, was eyeing the removal of another prisoner from a nearby cell, a man of Datekou descent with brown hair and bangs that favored the right side of his face, who looked thoroughly baffled by his rescue. Chikara suspected from the start that Shiratorizawa had its own reasons for joining the operation, but it was above Ennoshita’s paygrade and not relevant right now.

“We’re moving out,” Semi called. That meant Karasuno had to leave as well.

“Wait! Save me!”

The voice came from the cell opposite Kamasaki’s. Whitened knuckles belonging to a terrified face clasped the bars. The prison housed everyone from court-martialed Tokyo soldiers to hardened murderers, and there was no telling who this person could be. Ennoshita began to march away.

“I’ll tell you what I know of their offensive plans!”

Chikara flinched. He didn’t have time for this; reinforcements were already converging, and the first of Semi’s forces were already evacuating.

“Who are you?” he curtly asked. The man was momentarily shocked he had the Karasunoan’s attention.

“A general,” he muttered nervously. “I opposed the invasion, so they locked me up.”

Chikara stared the man down. Whatever he was here for, his prognosis was probably bad; many internees were destined for execution.

A Fukurodani Army commander, disenfranchised because of disagreement with his country’s actions? It wasn’t implausible but far too coincidental.

However, the war had gone badly for the Miyagi Alliance from the start. If this man was telling the truth, he could provide valuable intelligence.

If Chikara spent the time to save him, they may not make it out though.

Why was he hesitating? He had his orders, and they were complete. He couldn’t afford to waver like this. He had to make a choice, correct or not. He had to make it now.

“Let him out,” Chikara ordered. After frantically finding the key, a soldier quickly unlocked the cell. The stunned prisoner stumbled out.

“Move out!” Chikara bellowed. They began to stampede towards their exit point. Chikara took a glance at the frazzled second prisoner running just behind him. “What’s your name?”

At that very moment, guards from the lower levels burst into the hall.

 


One week agoKarasuno

It wasn’t often Chikara got called to his boss’s, Ryuunosuke Tanaka’s, office. That meant there was a particularly big assignment headed his way.

The Combat-Ready Operational Warfare unit—CROW—was one part of Karasuno’s powerful intelligence-gathering division, the Counterintelligence Bureau also known as the CIB. Tanaka was the head of field operations in the Karasuno office where Ennoshita had worked since transferring from CROW to a desk job. While Ennoshita was very much adept at information gathering, Tanaka constantly complained how his friend Chikara was woefully underusing his skillset. Ennoshita expected to hear some of the same spiel today.

“What have you got for me?” Chikara asked.

Facing a wall-mounted map of the country, the head-shaved Ryuu stood with crossed arms and his back to his visitor.

“I really wish I knew myself,” Tanaka grunted.

Ennoshita simpered. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ryuu sighed and retrieved a set of laminated documents from a drawer. He tapped them on his desk to get the stack perfect before facing his most valuable colleague. Sweat was starting to form on his brow. He knew how Chikara would react to this assignment, so he had to present it in as delicate a way as possible to achieve cooperation.

“This one’s straight from the commander-in-chief.” He took the first laminated card in one hand and cursorily glanced at it. “Four weeks ago, someone approached a government researcher. Apparently they were trying to get them to defect.” He handed the card to Ennoshita and stayed silent so Chikara could skim. It was a typed witness statement, evidently given by this researcher whose identity was censored. The document presented so many blacked out passages it looked like a work of abstract art:

On XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX received a phone call from a man wanting to meet XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX The man XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX His head was shaped like a turnip—

Chikara jolted at the odd, uncensored detail. Witnesses sometimes noticed the funniest things, but this description was a new one. Frankly there was precious little useful in the document that wasn’t censored. For even the CIB to not be in the loop, the researcher’s position had to be something of extremely high importance. But with this little info, there was hardly anything to go off of.

“Well, this is helpful,” Chikara sarcastically shrugged, setting the statement on Ryuu’s desk.

“I would have laughed in Noya’s face if that was all he gave me, but there was some info of use—maybe.” Adding extra emphasis on the “maybe,” he set the next sheet on the table beside the witness statement. This one was a photograph of a male in a Shiratorizawan naval uniform bearing the insignia of an admiral.

“Kenjirou Shirabu?” Chikara read from the caption beneath the image.

“He’s the military attaché in Karasuno. Apparently around the time this researcher was approached, this Adm. Shirabu was asking probing questions of a high-level official. They suspect it’s not a coincidence.”

Chikara raised an eyebrow. Who was “they”? This obviously wasn’t coming exclusively from the president. It also struck Ennoshita that, save for the timing, there was nothing to connect the two events in the slightest.

“Do we have a witness statement of that exchange?” Ennoshita queried.

Tanaka smirked. “Yeah, I do. But if you thought the first one was useless, that one’s even more redacted.”

Chikara had gotten assignments with scant details before, but this one—no matter what—just felt fishy. He also couldn’t help but notice his boss’s subtle unease, which merely made Ennoshita more suspicious.

“This happened almost a month ago, and they’re only bothering to tell us now?”

“I don’t know any more than you do,” Ryuu shrugged. “I pressed Noya, and he just said it’s classified—and I don’t think he even knows what this is about.” At this, Tanaka glanced at the next sheet in his hand. “But we did our own research and found somethin’ out ourselves.”

He placed another photograph on the table. It depicted a figure with disheveled ash blond hair and an authoritative confidence about him. Chikara, who almost never forgot a face, instantly recognized it but couldn’t quite remember from where.

“Remember Eita Semi?”

“I do,” Ennoshita said, recognizing the name, though still unsure where from.

Tanaka broke the suspense anticlimactically. “He was in charge of the Eagles in the Sendai Prison operation.”

At that, Chikara suddenly became muted. “Ah. Yeah. I remember,” Chikara mumbled. The words didn’t have the life his earlier sentences did. Tanaka sensed it but continued as if there were no change in his subordinate’s demeanor.

“Since that raid, he’s risen through the ranks of Shiratorizawa’s intelligence organs and is very well-placed now. As it turns out, Semi and this Adm. Shirabu have a history outside of their official capacities.”

The intrigue piqued Ennoshita’s interest again, and his momentary lassitude was lifted. “You think the military attaché was doing some digging on behalf of Shiratorizawan intelligence?”

“Maybe,” Tanaka said. “Well, initially that’s what I thought Noya wanted us to prove.” He stared long at the last sheet in his hands. “And then they threw this at us.” He set down the document. It was another head shot, a mugshot actually. Ennoshita didn’t have to read the caption to know the face.

“Shigeru Yahaba?” A week ago, the man in question had been arrested in Seijoh on suspicion of multiple cybercrimes.

“He was extradited pretty quickly to Shiratorizawa,” Ryuu continued, “but Saeko’s guys just spotted him arriving by plane in Seijoh yesterday. And coincidence or not, Adm. Shirabu and Semi both arrived in Seijoh around the same time.”

“You make it sound like you already did my job for me,” Ennoshita said, eyes narrowing as he tried to parse out what his actual mission was going to be. He sighed. “And what do all these things have to do with each other besides being coincidences?”

Tanaka slumped into his seat, set his elbows on the desk, and interlocked his fingers. “Dunno. They all came to us in the same file pretty much. Someone thinks they’re related, but Noya said we should focus on why Yahaba is back in Seijoh and can ignore the rest. So that’s your official assignment: find out what Shiratorizawa wants with Shigeru Yahaba; and if you happen to find out what—or if—Shiratorizawa is doing spying on us, then that’s good too.”

Chikara narrowed his eyes again. This wasn’t his style, and Ryuu knew it. It sounded more like an espionage mission—a field operation—the kind Chikara refused to do ever since leaving CROW. “All right. And how am I supposed to accomplish this mission from here?” he bluntly interrogated.

Ryuu bit his lip. This was the part he was dreading. “Because you’re not gonna do it from here. I’m sending you to Seijoh to spy on Yahaba directly.”

At last, Tanaka had played his hand. Ennoshita took a deep breath before giving his nonchalant answer:

“OK. I refuse.”

“You have no choice,” glared Ryuu unforgivingly.

Chikara squirmed, not liking how much of an ultimatum Ryuu was making this into.

 “You know I don’t do fieldwork anymore.”

“I need you for this mission. You’re the only one with the skills necessary and who has both intelligence-gathering and operational experience.”

“I gave you my answer,” Ennoshita shrugged. Ryuu wanted to snarl. The matter was too urgent and important for him to tolerate this obstinacy right now.

“Are you still hung up about Sendai Prison?” he brusquely asked. His statement clearly touched a nerve as intended. Perhaps too much. Ennoshita’s eyes lit up with such fury it looked like he’d boil over. He slammed his fist on Tanaka’s desk so hard it bounced.

“Am I still hung up about it?! I let a guy con me into thinking he was some high-placed Tokyo official when in reality he was some lowlife Fukurodani deserter trying to get out of getting shot by firing squad! And did you forget—Did. You. Forget.—that because I wasted the time to save that scumbag, three people under my command didn’t make it home that day!”

Ryuu maintained his stolid, soul-piercing gaze at the heaving male before him. Other managers might have been indignant at being verbally assailed, and Ryuu might have been less patient if this were any other employee.

But Chikara was a valuable and dear friend, and his boundless reservoir of talent was being wasted. He anticipated this resistance and had caved to it before. But not today. He couldn’t afford to have anyone but Chikara on this assignment.

Calmer and receiving no verbal response, Chikara spoke again: “I refuse to let another man’s life be in my hands again.”

“I never intended to make you anyone’s chief. You’re going to be solo,” Ryuu stated. “Nor do you necessarily have to extract anyone for that matter. Your job is reconnaissance and possibly infiltration, and that’s it.”

It was fundamentally a compromise, even though not explicitly presented as one. Chikara stared down his manager. Since he hadn’t balked in the slightest, it was evident this time Tanaka wasn’t going to. Anger began to simmer inside at being forced into something he didn’t want to do.

“Nobody faults you for what happened,” Ryuu continued. Chikara’s heart sank at the statement, one he already knew intellectually. Before Sendai Prison, CROW’s 25-year history had a zero-loss record, and it was Chikara Ennoshita who forever shattered that boast.

But the only person recriminating him for it was himself, and he knew that. If he were perfectly honest, he wanted so desperately to get out of an office and return to the field. He hated his own guilt, and yet—no matter how much he wished it—he couldn’t will it to go away.

“Dude, it’s time, and you know it. I’m not asking you to rejoin CROW, but for this mission, I need you to use some of those skills in an information-gathering role.” Chikara was silent. Tanaka could tell he was trying to conjure up more excuses. “You’re the only person I can trust with this,” he concluded.

That was the final straw. Chikara grimaced. Tanaka—as he had for the last two-and-a-half years—was only trying to help him forgive himself. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to say yes.

“There’s one more thing too,” Tanaka added, sensing he was close but not quite through to his companion, “and it’s the other reason why you’re the only one I can give this to.”

Ennoshita waited with longing eyes.

“Keep this between you and me, but while someone with direct access to the president is convinced Shiratorizawa is spying on Karasuno, I’m not so sure. Noya has his doubts too, though he can’t voice them to the president without proof. Your official mission is to find out what Shiratorizawa wants with Shigeru Yahaba, but your real mission is to find out who’s really conducting surveillance on us.”

It all came back to that researcher, Ennoshita realized. Tanaka—and his boss, the head of the Counterintelligence Bureau, Yuu Nishinoya—were just as suspicious of the sketchy connections as Chikara himself was. And if the president, on the influence of someone in his inner circle, prematurely turned on Shiratorizawa when their assistance in the three-year war was so critical, the consequences could be catastrophic.

This wasn’t just about investigating some nefarious actors. This was about preserving the country altogether.

Ennoshita gulped. Ryuu had played his trump card and made an offer he knew Chikara couldn’t refuse. Despite his heart beating quicker at the thought of reentering the field, he repeated the mission details in his head to calm his nerves: solo, no subordinates, not even combat.

But most importantly, civic duty.

It was only after he reluctantly accepted the mission formally that his true fear reared its ugly head:

Could he, this time, dispense his duty without hesitation?

 


 

Ennoshita’s relocation was prompt, and soon he found himself reacquainting with the chief of CIB operations in Seijoh, Ryuunosuke Tanaka’s older sister Saeko. Only she, Ryuu, and their boss Noya knew the specifics of Chikara’s mission. Saeko had pinpointed that the person suspected to be Yahaba was operating out of a multi-housing unit in the western part of the country at an address that used to be registered to him.

The slovenly, two-story building near downtown sat perpendicular to the street with six side-by-side studio apartments on each floor. Shigeru Yahaba’s happened to be the closest to the road on the second floor and had street-facing windows as well as back-facing, though they all appeared to be blacked out. The front door to each apartment was on the same side of the building, second-floor access provided by an open-air walkway. A tiny parking lot with 15-20 spaces was mostly full, though the car owned by Shigeru Yahaba before his arrest was notably absent.

Chikara had two objectives, both quite simple on paper but each with its own challenges: one, confirm Shigeru Yahaba was indeed living at the address, and; two, find a moment when the house was vacant long enough to snoop inside.

Accomplishing the first objective was rendered difficult by the first sign of suspicious activity. Every day in late morning, an unmarked vehicle arrived, and a plain-looking person carrying a grocery bag knocked on the apartment. The building’s occupant would take the grocery bag, and then the delivery person would leave perfunctorily. Ennoshita never got a look at the resident’s face, but that these food drop-offs were organized by Shiratorizawa was never in doubt. All the while, the apartment’s resident never left the building once in the first five days of surveillance.

Then, on the sixth day of his reconnaissance, Sunday November 8, Chikara finally accomplished his first goal. Shortly after the morning food delivery, Shigeru Yahaba openly left the apartment, checked the coast was clear, and then paced to a corner store ten minutes away. He left with a plastic bag overflowing with what appeared to be a gross amount of coffee. No one paid much mind to the felon in public. Pedestrians that did double takes seeing the man soon kept on walking convinced they were seeing things.

It was on the return trip that one unusual thing happened. A turquoise Camaro rumbled up to Yahaba and stopped. Ennoshita, having tailed his target all the way to the store, couldn’t see through the tinted windows, but it looked as if Yahaba wasn’t especially pleased with the conversation that ensued with the driver. After a minute or so, the Camaro drove off, and Yahaba lumbered back to the apartment.

 

“It’s definitely Yahaba in there,” Chikara reported that evening to Saeko, “but he hasn’t left the house long enough to get inside.”

Saeko acknowledged the difficulty but, at Ryuu’s instigation, encouraged Chikara to try to speed things up. There was evidently impatience back home to get the matter resolved for whatever reason.

Yahaba didn’t leave throughout all the following day. Ennoshita parked across the street from the building in a black sedan.

He checked his watch. It was after 10pm that night, local time.

 

Then…

…Around the time Yahaba experienced a momentary power bump in his apartment…

…Around the time Akaashi with lab security was nearing Terushima…

…Around the time Futakuchi happened upon a breakthrough in his own investigation into Kenma…

 

…A grimy tan sedan with squealing brakes rolled up in front of Yahaba’s building.

 

Through all his surveillance, Ennoshita didn’t recognize this particular vehicle. He couldn’t make out the plates—the license plate lights appeared to be busted—but they were permanent tags, so it wasn’t a recent purchase. Chikara eyed the silhouette of the driver. The person looked at their phone multiple times and spent several minutes simply contemplating the apartment building.

Then at last, the male driver exited, slammed his door, and tromped up the steps to the second floor, hands snug in the pockets of a parka. Chikara warily eyed him as he stopped in front of Yahaba’s door.

He didn’t attempt to knock or even move; he seemed to be hesitating whether he should.

Then, despite the man’s inaction, Yahaba’s door flung open without warning. There was a pause. The visitor stared irritably through the threshold.

After a brief exchange of words, the strange visitor marched down the stairs, tailed hurriedly by Shigeru Yahaba hastily locking his door. Both entered the sedan, and the vehicle whined as it sped off.

Chikara sweated as he debated what to do. It was anyone’s guess where Yahaba was going or if he was coming back. If Chikara tailed the car, he risked getting caught as well as losing a chance to enter the apartment. If he stayed put, he might never locate Yahaba again.

If there was any consolation, Shigeru Yahaba had taken nothing with him in his swift flight. That meant the real valuable stuff hopefully remained inside. He needed information and needed it now. He didn’t know if he’d get another chance to enter the empty abode like this.

He waited half an hour out of an abundance of caution. No other traffic came for the building except the usual residents. It was getting late, and Chikara decided—come what may—to take the chance now.

Lock picking was part of his training with CROW, and soon he found himself indoors and turned on a flashlight. The place was packed to the brim with boxes; apparently after his deportation, the landlord ordered the place cleared, but Shigeru must have returned before anything was hauled away. Opposite the door was a workstation with multiple computer monitors and an oversized mainframe. Trash littered the floor, his feet crunching various pieces of junk as he made his way toward the PC.

Stepping closer, he noticed the first oddity: the cover on the computer tower had been opened. Peeking inside, some of its components—motherboard, sound and video card, hard drive—were gone. He could see some electrical prongs, evidently plucked from the motherboard, on the floor, along with shards of microchips. Digging through a wastebasket he found half of the motherboard, sticky from being doused in soda, with parts crushed or crinkled by tweezers. Shigeru Yahaba definitely wasn’t planning to return, but why he went through so much trouble to leave no evidence was the real mystery.

Skimming the room more, he finally found one useful piece: a solid-state disk drive inside the toilet bowl. Fear of germs aside, he pocketed it, hoping someone on Saeko’s team could get something useful off it. As a precaution he gently pried away a corner of the black covering on the window to peek outside.

A vehicle rumbled up to the curb at that moment. It was a large personnel truck with a canvas-covered bed painted in the colors of the Seijoh Army. Soldiers poured out of it.

Chikara backed away instantly, ripped off the cover of one of the rear-facing windows, and forced it open. He skidded to the ground, fortunate the soldiers were so obsessed with getting to the front door they failed to surround the structure. He crawled under a hedgerow demarcating the boundary with the adjacent property and at last took a moment to breathe.

He carefully spied on the group of interlopers, spotting the leader—bearing the rank of a lieutenant but not the regalia of a commissioned Army officer—barking orders. The man had a stocky build with a firm countenance. His dark hair angled upward before seeming to stop at a point. His facial structure combined with the odd hairdo stood out for reasons Ennoshita couldn’t quite understand, though he thought the outline in the dark almost resembled…

A turnip.

He snapped away, and his breathing quickened.

No, this couldn’t be related. It was just a silly, obscure detail from an otherwise useless description.

Or was it? Nothing about this, after all, was turning out routine.

After sneaking as far enough away until he thought himself safe, Chikara took a moment to reevaluate. Retrieving his car was out of the question for the time being; he’d ask Saeko to get it later. He’d make his way back to their safe house on foot in lack of an alternative.

As he began to pace away, however, a hybrid electric sedan sluggishly whooshed to a halt, and Ennoshita ducked into the shadows. A male with scruffy hair stepped out and hastily fixed binoculars on the military truck ahead. Ennoshita recognized the face and decided to make a move while he had the chance. He pattered out of the darkness toward the vehicle.

The man pretended not to notice until his assailant was ready to pounce. When Chikara prepared to grab the figure, his foe twirled around and clasped one of Chikara’s wrists. Ennoshita swiftly kicked out the man’s legs, spun him 180 degrees, and throttled him face-forward onto the ground.

As soon as he was caught by the figure sitting atop him, the man ceased resisting almost immediately.

“I see. So Karasuno is spying on us,” mumbled Eita Semi to his captor.

 


 

It wasn’t part of any envisioned scenario, but Chikara Ennoshita had improvised given the new developments. Eita Semi, the man he’d wrestled a block away from Yahaba’s apartment, was now tied to a chair in an enclosed room in a CIB base in Seijoh. Any electronic devices had been confiscated and his vehicle left in the underground parking garage. Chikara updated Saeko on the situation; and while she wasn’t thrilled, she deferred to his judgment and applauded his initiative. Ennoshita asked that his car be retrieved when feasible and, if possible, that the current status of Yahaba’s apartment be ascertained. In the meantime, part of her team was attempting to read the hard drive Chikara swiped.

After letting Semi steep in lonely uncertainty into the wee hours of Tuesday morning, November 10th, Ennoshita finally stepped in on his Shiratorizawan prisoner. The restrained man remained stone-faced while Chikara locked the door with an emotionless glare.

“What you are doing to me is illegal,” Semi charged.

“We are both spies operating on the territory of a third party. I don’t think that statement has any validity.”

“And now that third party has Yahaba.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chikara queried.

“You saw,” Eita said. Chikara remained silent a second. Did Semi not know of Yahaba’s departure prior to the Seijoh Army’s arrival? The detainee’s stolid demeanor seemed sincere, but the possibility remained it was all a giant bluff. A slim possibility, though, when Chikara analyzed it: if Semi knew Yahaba had escaped and also knew Seijoh was going to raid the premises, he wouldn’t have exposed himself by going there personally.

Which left another question: where, and with whom, was Shigeru Yahaba now?

“Listen, Ennoshita,” Semi continued, Chikara flattered he remembered his name. “Whether you realize it or not, I’m on your side here.”

Ennoshita took a moment to consider. If the “turnip-head” was with Seijoh, then did that mean Seijoh was the one spying on Karasuno five weeks ago? Even if so, it didn’t explain Semi’s comrade Shirabu’s prying, which ultimately meant Chikara didn’t know whose side anyone was on.

“It needs be said that for Seijoh to have Shigeru Yahaba is a dangerous proposition,” Semi further pressured, fully aware Ennoshita was contemplating whether to trust him.

“Why? What’s so special about Shigeru Yahaba?”

“Only that he’s a very accomplished hacker,” Semi shrugged.

It was a coy lie, and Chikara knew it. If Shigeru Yahaba was just some notorious virus encoder, then Ennoshita wouldn’t have been sent to find out what Shiratorizawa wanted with him. The man Yahaba himself was considered a threat to Karasuno’s national security for whatever reason. Something else was afoot, and it all had to do with all the information—including the top secret project of his own government with which he was purportedly protecting—that Chikara didn’t know.

Some of which, apparently, Semi did know. Either, Ennoshita figured, Yahaba knew what it was that Shiratorizawa and/or Seijoh wanted to get their hands on. Or, Shigeru Yahaba had the means to get it.

There was a knock, which could only be Saeko, and Ennoshita left the space momentarily, planning to contemplate things about Yahaba later.

 

“My team cracked into that hard drive, but you aren’t gonna like it,” Saeko bluntly stated. Chikara gulped. “It had a ton of encryption, but when they got through it all, the drive was empty.”

Chikara sighed. Just as he expected. It again confirmed Yahaba never had any intention of returning to that apartment.

“We also got your car,” Saeko resumed, “and we took a peek inside the apartment. It’s taped up like a crime scene, but all the electronics are gone.”

It must be the Seijoh Army’s doing. Undoubtedly they were after the same data but would certainly have the same disappointments as Chikara himself. This also suggested that somehow Yahaba knew that Seijoh was coming for him.

And if Semi genuinely believed Yahaba had been captured, then it further meant Eita Semi had nothing to do with tipping Yahaba off.

 

“What does Shiratorizawa want with Yahaba?” Ennoshita asked his prisoner upfront when he finally returned to the space.

“Well, since you went through all the trouble to spy on him, you tell me first: what does Karasuno want with Yahaba?” Semi countered.

Ennoshita groaned and then regretted letting his emotion show when Eita’s interest was piqued.

“Don’t you know?” Semi pushed. “I mean, clearly they assigned someone of your caliber because they wanted someone who could potentially extract a target.” Ennoshita successfully controlled his visage this time, though he was reminded of his boss’s statement that he wouldn’t “necessarily” have to extract a target. Even back then, Ennoshita knew from the phrasing that extraction was always a possibility if the circumstances warranted.

Semi simpered and shrugged. “Either way, it doesn’t change the fact that we—you and I, and our two countries—have to get Yahaba away from Seijoh ASAP.”

Ennoshita was certain Semi wasn’t lying about thinking Yahaba had been detained, as much as he was playing coy about everything else.

And he wasn’t sure why, but Chikara decided to sacrifice his trump card to get to the bottom of it.

“What if I told you Seijoh doesn’t have Yahaba?”

Semi’s look of confusion was genuine. At first, he took the statement to imply Karasuno had taken the hacker, but Ennoshita cleared up the doubt as he described the events 30 minutes before Seijoh arrived. Though he purposely left out one detail.

Semi took a few moments to process the information before irksomely speaking again. “Then it’s all the more urgent if someone else has Yahaba.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“I’ll give you the proof,” he said flatly. “Undo my jacket and look at my left shoulder.”

Perplexed, Chikara complied when he saw Semi wasn’t kidding. Eita then directed him to pull aside his undershirt from around his neck. Ennoshita’s eyes shook at the sight. A dark, circular scar was obvious where Semi’s shoulder met his neck.

“That’s where a sniper shot me three weeks ago—in my own driveway.” Ennoshita backed away as Semi continued. “My government covered it up, but I’m sure your superiors can verify it. The person who attacked me is certainly the person who has Yahaba now, and given they are willing to go to this extreme to silence perceived threats, it is imperative we get Yahaba away from them.”

We. Chikara wished Semi would stop saying “we” when he had no idea who to trust at all.

“It is in both our nations’ interest to work together on this.”

Ennoshita’s head was ready to explode. First someone in his own government overprotective of some classified information. Then allegations Shiratorizawa was trying to steal protected information. Then Seijoh and the mysterious “turnip-head.” And on top of all that, Semi was claiming a fourth nation’s involvement.

And then there was the piece that made Ennoshita doubt Semi’s suspicion, the thing he intentionally didn’t tell his prisoner: Yahaba wasn’t taken. He left with the mysterious individual willingly.

“I have my own means to locate Yahaba if you let me go,” Semi spoke again. He could see Ennoshita was thoroughly confused. At this point, getting out of here and relocating Yahaba—whomever he was with—was the top priority, even if that meant sacrificing a few pieces of less valuable intel. Right now he hoped the pressure he was placing on the Karasunoan operative would be enough to make him crack and let him out.

After all, it seemed from the after-action reports on the Sendai Prison raid that Chikara Ennoshita didn’t fare well under pressure.

And even if Ennoshita didn’t cave, he still had his main plan of escape.

Chikara didn’t say anything. He was sure now that Semi was trying to con him into releasing him. He had no personal authority to rope his government into a covert ops alliance on the fly of course, but he didn’t know anything with certainty and needed to verify too much and therefore didn’t want to let his one good lead go. But the risk of a diplomatic situation rose the longer he kept Semi in custody.

There was a knock at the door. Grateful for the momentary relief, Chikara stepped out quickly.

 

In the hall outside, Saeko spoke tersely. “The Shiratorizawan consulate is here. Looks like they traced your friend’s car, because they want him back under threat of a diplomatic incident. I can’t say no since Noya never authorized us to take him in the first place.”

And at last, Ennoshita knew Semi had won. Everything up until now might as well have been stalling.

Chikara wanted to pound his own head against a wall.

He didn’t say anything when Saeko handed Semi to the consular representative, exchanging brief pleasantries that assured the affair wouldn’t be brought to their respective higher-ups.

 

Without even taking a minute to sleep even though it was almost morning, Chikara went about pursuing his only other clue. Even though his body was exhausted, he began researching the officer who led the raid on Yahaba’s apartment. Not long after daybreak, Saeko whispered in his ear some good but unrelated news: the Miyagi Alliance had just launched a massive offensive in Datekou, and from information gleaned so far, it seemed to be starting well. Chikara wondered if the expectation of the battle was why his chain of command had been antsy for a resolution to the Yahaba affair.

After a few hours of careful digging, Ennoshita finally found what he needed:

Lieutenant Yuutarou Kindaichi. That was the man he’d seen last night.

But when he looked up his position, his heart skipped a beat. He didn’t work for the Seijoh Army at all, hence the man’s unusual attire. He was part of the Chancellor Protection Unit. The CPU acted as the personal escorts of Seijoh’s chancellor, Akira Kunimi. They acted directly on the chancellor’s orders. And on further study, he confirmed Lt. Kindaichi had been in Karasuno over a month ago during a state visit by the chancellor, at the same time the researcher was supposedly contacted by the “turnip-head.”

Then, Saeko appeared and confirmed, per Ryuu, the other query Ennoshita ran through her: three weeks ago, Eita Semi was indeed the target of an unsolved assassination attempt in his home country.

She also said Ryuu wanted a report today.

Ennoshita sighed. He wasn’t sure how he’d explain his acting out in abducting Semi, but he’d justify it somehow. The moment he stood though, he wobbled from sleeplessness and fell into Saeko’s arms.

“OK, you’re done. Time for sleep,” she commanded, and Ennoshita didn’t object as she helped him over to a couch.

 


 

Ennoshita awoke sometime that afternoon in a breakroom, jostled awake by Saeko herself.

“Chikara, you’re leaving. Get up!”

“What is it?” he groggily replied, only to have a cell phone thrust into his hands. “Hello?” he mumbled as he wiped sleep away from his eyes.

“Chikara!” Ryuu’s voice barked. “Things have changed. You’re flying out to sea.”

“What for?” Ennoshita nervously asked.

“I’ll explain, but the orders are absolute. Adm. Shirabu is to be arrested.”

 


 

All day, a battle raged on the island of Datekou at the southern tip of the Miyagi continent. It was the first major offensive by the Alliance in nine months. As always, Shiratorizawan air and naval power were brought to bear in a support role. Their aircraft carriers were out at sea, providing floating airstrips for Johzenji, Seijoh, and Karasunoan aircraft as well as their own. Adm. Kenjirou Shirabu was aboard one such carrier, acting in an observational role as part of his official capacity as military attaché.

Nobody knew it, but Shirabu really didn’t want to be here right now, having been forced to temporarily charge Eita Semi with overseeing a certain pet project of his. He had requested regular updates but hadn’t heard from Semi once all day.

The carrier he was on was where Chikara Ennoshita in a helicopter was bound right now.

His orders were clear: ferry Adm. Shirabu from the Shiratorizawan carrier STZ Takashi Utsui over to the nearby Karasunoan carrier KRS Torono. Ryuu took the courtesy of explaining what he could to ease Chikara’s mind: Shigeru Yahaba had hacked Karasunoan government systems, and Adm. Shirabu was wanted for questioning immediately. Ennoshita was begrudgingly chosen due to his proximity, his preexisting knowledge of affairs surrounding Yahaba, and his experience in extraction.

After all, if Shirabu refused to come peacefully, force was officially authorized.

Ennoshita wasn’t at all sure this was the right move. He’d conveyed his findings about Yuutarou Kindaichi to Saeko, asking that they be forwarded to Ryuu, but the cyber threat back home—the exact extent of which Chikara was not privy to—preoccupied everyone’s attention. He hadn’t gotten around to giving his full report about Yahaba or debriefing Tanaka about his interrogation of Semi either.

It wasn’t his job to question orders though. He had a simple and concise directive, not open to interpretation. It was his job to execute it.

He knew what happened the last time he hesitated.

As sunset approached, Ennoshita’s copter made visual sighting of the KRS Torono and its escorts and then, just beyond it, the STZ Utsui.

The Takashi Utsui was a marvelous example of a contemporary carrier, if slightly dated. She had a relatively small capacity but was rather quick. Adm. Shirabu chose the vessel as his host for the battle partly because, secretly, it was also one of few vessels in his fleet capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles.

When the copter descended onto the Utsui’s deck by the centrally located island that housed the bridge, Ennoshita hung off the chopper’s skid. Already he spotted his target and the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Tsutomu Goshiki, awaiting him. Chikara skipped from the craft and tramped through the whirlwind of its blades toward his expectant guests.

“May I help you?” Shirabu stonily asked.

“Adm. Shirabu, your presence is requested aboard the Torono,” Ennoshita announced with a salute. The Shiratorizawan officers had already been advised by the captain of the Torono that the helicopter was coming to take the admiral to the Karasunoan ship but didn’t give any more details.

Before Shirabu could reply though, a call came over the ship’s PA:

“Capt. Goshiki, please come to the bridge immediately.” The call was repeated, causing the young captain to groan.

“Now what?” he griped and dashed hurriedly toward the island.

Now Shirabu and Ennoshita were alone.

“Whatever it is you need, you can communicate just fine with me here,” Kenjirou balked.

“The planners aboard the Torono would like your strategic input,” Ennoshita restated. Kenjirou spat into the salty breeze.

“I’m just here as an observer. If you want me to get involved, you can do it another way.” Truthfully, Shirabu actually enjoyed the thrill of battle and on any other day would accept the invitation in a heartbeat. But since he had instructed Semi to reach out to the Utsui with updates on their reconnaissance of the Tokyo Entente’s Kenma Project, he refused to leave the vessel.

“Admiral,” Ennoshita repeated, “I am but relaying my orders.”

“How many times do I have to tell you no?”

It was only 15 feet to the copter behind him. If Chikara were to carry out a forced extraction, the opportunity was while they were alone. He knew that full well.

But he couldn’t will himself to take that step.

“Admiral,” he stalled again, “I am under orders to take you with me.”

Before Shirabu could object once more, a bone-shaking grumble permeated the whole vessel. Shirabu and Ennoshita nearly lost their balance when from a compartment near the rear of the ship escaped a terrifying blast of fire, ejecting a projectile into the sky in the blink of an eye. It barreled into the atmosphere at frightening speed.

Shirabu’s eyes bulged, knowing exactly what that weapon was. Ennoshita didn’t know its exact purpose, but he could tell right away it was a long-range missile.

“Adm. Shirabu, you have an urgent call on the bridge,” the PA announced. “Please report to the bridge.”

“Thank goodness,” Shirabu exclaimed. He didn’t care if it was Semi or someone explaining that rocket; he was just glad to have the chance to rid himself of the Karasunoan insect wasting his time.

“As you can see,” Shirabu ragged, “my presence is required here. Tell your seniors I am not leaving.” Shirabu turned and showed his back. This was Ennoshita’s opportunity to take the admiral with his guard down. He had to act now.

But he didn’t.

Something was awry. Shirabu didn’t seem even remotely suspicious. If he was behind Yahaba’s current actions, then he would know why they wanted him.

No, Adm. Shirabu had nothing to do with whatever was happening. Neither did Semi. That meant Chikara had to find out what was really going on.

He darted forward and clasped the admiral’s wrist. Shirabu’s head snapped round, shocked at the audacity the man had to snare him.

“Unhand me!”

“Admiral, my name is Chikara Ennoshita, and I am with the CIB. I was sent here to arrange your transfer to the Torono because of Shigeru Yahaba.” Chikara tried not to regret his words. At first, mentioning the CIB caused a wave of confusion to wash over Kenjirou’s face, only to be replaced by shock at the mention of Yahaba.

What on earth had happened in the 24 hours since he left Semi in charge of investigating Kenma?

Suddenly, though, fear washed over Shirabu’s face, prompted by something in the sky.

A monstrous boom echoing and reverberating for several seconds now created a recoil that even managed to bounce the aircraft carrier on the waves. Ennoshita released the admiral to cover his ears and gazed skywards.

The rocket fired moments ago had imploded, spewing smoking pieces of metal near the setting sun. Shirabu realized something had intercepted the rocket and destroyed it.

It was virtually impossible to distinguish because of the fiery glare of the sun itself, but in its center now was a black speck, all but invisible to the naked eye. Two twinkling lights emanated at each corner of the speck. The two glints dropped below the sun as the black spot turned out of the sun—becoming visible as a fighter jet—and swung a quick 180. The pair of lights it dropped fell to almost sea level where they leveled off and barreled toward the Utsui.

A siren immediately wailed aboard the carrier to send the crew to battle stations. Shirabu frightfully realized what was about to collide with the hull of his ship.

“Hit the deck!”

Shirabu’s bellow was the last thing Ennoshita heard before the impact.

Two seconds later, anti-air rockets spewed from the carrier and its escorts, aimed at the escaping fighter.

One second later, the fighter’s two air-launched missiles slammed into the Utsui above the waterline, one near the front and one near the rear, detonating with enough force to nearly throw the carrier onto its side.

Three seconds later, the Torono and its escorts joined the barrage of rockets aimed at the fleeing assailant.

Eight seconds later, before the first missiles reached the jet, its pilot looped and began adroitly shooting down the rockets one-by-one. In a preternatural display of airmanship, each of the Shiratorizawan projectiles was destroyed without hitting its target.

Twenty seconds later, however, despite the death-defying array of evasive maneuvers, one of the Karasunoan missiles found its mark on the fighter’s wing and annihilated it.

And forty-five minutes later, the STZ Takashi Utsui, the first Shiratorizawan casualty of a war in which they claimed to be neutral, disappeared beneath the ocean.

Chapter Text

Monday November 9, approx. 5:15pm Tokyo timeLab 3, Itachiyama, Fukurodani

Terushima had wanted a change from his monotonous life. Being the target of a barrel of a gun wasn’t the excitement he was hoping for.

Akaashi stood confidently, a pair of armed guards flanking him either side. The guards advanced towards Yuuji, the shadows formed by the blue light from the specimen tanks intersecting like a kaleidoscope. Yuuji held onto the keyboard behind him to stabilize himself. In the soundwaves transmitted directly to his brain, Yahaba was cursing like a sailor.

“In case you were wondering,” Akaashi grinned, “figuring out your identity was easy. I’m surprised whoever sent you chose someone so recognizable in the field. The moment I saw that phony name of yours, I knew you were a spy.”

Terushima didn’t have time to feel flattered when two of the soldiers clasped his arms and another patted him down, confiscating his mission cell phone. Lt. Daishou watched coldly. No one took note of the video camera disguised as a pen in Yuuji’s pocket or the faux earring acting as a wireless receiver.

“Hiroo, grab the drive.” Daishou commanded one of them who yanked the USB from the computer. The commander turned to Keiji. “Shall I take him outside and finish him off, Doc?”

Akaashi advanced smoothly through the sea blue light, making his hair and lab coat shimmer with a tint of dark cerulean. He halted right before Yuuji.

“Don’t be hasty, Lieutenant. I don’t want any harm to come to him. Actually”—his grin, as fake as it was, seemed eerily inviting—“I want to have a word with Dr. Terushima.”

Yuuji stared into the gunmetal blue eyes that tried to read his soul, but the Johzenjiite couldn’t decipher their intent at all. Akaashi’s focus drifted lazily toward the floating humanoid in the tank, and suddenly his pupils dilated. Yuuji stumbled when Akaashi shoved him aside and plastered his hands on the console at the base of the tank. The nude figure with its vacuous feline slits did not react.

“That’s the first time Kenma’s opened his eyes,” he spoke in awe. “Lieutenant, take Dr. Terushima to my office and guard him there. I’ll be in momentarily.” He didn’t take his gaze off Kenma, and Daishou clicked his tongue. When the scientist was in this mood, “momentarily” could mean forever.

“Come on.” The security chief tersely tugged Yuuji by the arm. Terushima watched the enrapt scientist beginning to open up windows on the computer screen, quietly hoping Yahaba wasn’t entirely joking when he teased “don’t doubt my power” to find a way to help Yuuji.

For Shigeru Yahaba, however, the situation was about to get dramatically worse. 

 


  

Yesterday, Sunday November 8 Seijoh

Shigeru Yahaba hated his country. It mistreated immigrants, bragged a broken healthcare system, and didn’t boast a spotless human rights record. Only one thing ever kept him from packing his bags and leaving for good. But even that one thing of late was becoming a source of discomfort.

Then, he was arrested, whisked away in a matter of hours to the obnoxious land of Shiratorizawa. And after meeting the admiral who orchestrated his detention, suddenly he was back home.

Yahaba got about his new assignment pretty diligently, delving into the backgrounds of the Kenma Project’s researchers—from its chief Keiji Akaashi to more recent inductees like Tetsurou Kuroo—as well as the all-Nohebi security force on loan from the military junta. He was able to do it all from his old apartment, preserved in the condition he’d unwillingly left it by Adm. Shirabu’s intermediaries.

Yahaba had very little direct contact with the naval admiral, most of his communications filtered through an irksome and stodgy man named Eita Semi. He was responsible for coordinating Yahaba’s needs from food to electronic equipment. Shigeru made sure to irritate him at every possible moment and rather enjoyed doing so; and while he didn’t get everything he’d liked (he’d have preferred a more reliable backup power supply, for example), he could make do with what he had been provided.

Except for one amenity he was lacking. When Shigeru got to his work, he drank coffee like a chain smoker, yet despite persistent requests, Semi refused Yahaba’s pricy demand for one particular brand of joe. And so, when Sunday rolled around, despite standing orders to remain indoors, Yahaba took matters into his own hands.

He kept his head low as he pattered the short route to and from the store. Some passersby did double takes, but Yahaba ignored them. On his way back, a turquoise Camaro speeding in the opposite lane vroomed by. The driver just happened to spot Yahaba, promptly cut off another car to get into the left lane, and made a sharp U-turn. The car accelerated rapidly and then purred when it got close to the pedestrian, stopping alongside and rolling down the window. With near dread, Shigeru knew who it was.

“Yahaba?” the incredulous driver spoke.

“What do you want, Oikawa?” He kept his gaze elsewhere.

“What do I want?” Tooru Oikawa said with offense. “First we don’t talk for a month—which is, like, totally normal so I don’t think anything of it, except you owe me 200 bucks so I kind of expected to hear from you—then I see your face plastered all over the news as the guy who invented WannaWail!”

“It wasn’t me,” Shigeru feebly lied.

“Uh-huh. So who’d you bribe to get home?”

“No one,” he answered just as listlessly.

“Whatevs.” Oikawa waved his hand dismissively. “You know, if I’d known you were some big hotshot cybercriminal and probably loaded, I wouldn’t have given you that money. I pawned my guitar because of you.”

“I can’t pay you, so are we done?” Yahaba shrugged.

“Did Mad Dog know?” Tooru suddenly asked.

Yahaba prickled at the name. “Can you please not call him that?”

Oikawa feigned searching for the subject of their conversation. “He’s not here.”

“Listen,” Yahaba suddenly forced, “don’t tell Ken I’m back.”

“Whatever. Hit me up sometime, preferably with money. I need a new guitar.”

He sped off as fast as the engine would rev. Shigeru shuddered momentarily but marched on, his gut guiltily churning at the recollection of the man Oikawa mentioned.

At the traffic light, Tooru Oikawa slid his rearview mirror to eye Shigeru and snorted. “Considering you screwed me over with that ‘I’m broke’ lie of yours, I think I’m entitled to a little resentment,” he muttered as he thumbed a text to Kentarou Kyoutani. 

 


  

Monday November 9, approx. 5:20pm Tokyo time/10:20pm Miyagi time

Yuuji Terushima occupied a chair on the near side of a desk in a dense office. The room bristled with scientific texts on shelves alongside personal touches such as a Newton’s cradle and a picture of Dr. Akaashi with a goofily smiling silver-haired man. Suguru Daishou blocked the room’s only exit, the lieutenant looking all too displeased to be here. Terushima lounged in the chair, twiddling a pen between his thumb and index finger.

It wasn’t an absentminded gesture. To help Yahaba assess his predicament, he rotated the video camera-disguised implement to capture the layout of the space. Yahaba had made few remarks since his capture, almost wholly absorbed in eliminating any trace of the cyber intrusion before the lab caught on.

Things were bad. If not for the ill-timed power bump, he would have noticed when security entered the lab, and with the data download canceled, he had little to show for their efforts except recorded video. For now, it seemed best to wait for Akaashi to reappear and then calculate a new plan of action.

Once all evidence of his hacking was erased, Yahaba diligently checked his system to ensure no Trojans had made it in—although had any program tried, it would certainly have been blocked by his firewall.

Which was why Yahaba was shocked by what he found.

Part of the compromise for letting him operate out of his old apartment was that Shiratorizawa planted a piece of harmless spyware on his PC to monitor his activities. Any attempt to circumvent it would set off alarm bells.

That spyware was there, but so was another suspicious set of code. Shigeru analyzed the code and sat up anxiously.

The new malware hadn’t come from Fukurodani, so it wasn’t sent by Lab 3.

It originated in Seijoh.

Having routinely checked his PC before the operation began, the program must have gotten in sometime in the last twenty minutes. There was only one opportunity the code could have bypassed his firewall: the first few seconds of rebooting after the power outage.

That couldn’t be a coincidence. The power bump was intentional. And whoever planted the code knew where he was.

Yahaba highlighted the bad program and wiped it from his PC. The infiltrator would probably react promptly and may well come in person. Yahaba had to get out fast as well as warn Semi. Rather than argue with the annoying go-between over the phone, Shigeru concocted a faster way to alert his caretaker and so with pleasure deleted the Shiratorizawan spyware from his PC too. If that didn’t send Eita Semi into a tizzy, nothing would. His last order of business was his Johzenjiite comrade, for whom Yahaba regrettably could do little right now.

“Sorry, Terushima. You’re on your own,” he announced curtly and ended the communication link, the connection alive long enough to hear Yuuji audibly exclaim “What?!” Yahaba immediately went about dismantling his hardware and, with that completed, snatched his mission phone (which Semi had already dialed a few times and Shigeru happily ignored) and bolted for the front door.

Where he was going—well, he’d figure that out once he was outside.

When he flung open the entrance, the sight gave him pause.

Just as shocked to see Yahaba as Yahaba was to see him, a burly male figure with a blond buzz cut towered in his way. Shigeru averted his gaze. He wasn’t sure why the man was here, but the rapid pounding of his heart made him wish he wasn’t.

And yet, at the same time, upon seeing him again, Yahaba wanted so badly to be with this person right now as well.

“Hey, Ken,” he squirmed. The man’s surly frown was unmoved. “Can I…can I crash at your place for a while?”

The person, Kentarou Kyoutani, made no reaction at first. There were a few cold, prolonged moments.

Until finally:

“Come on.”

Ken’s reply was emotionless yet produced immense relief in Yahaba. Kyoutani dogtrotted away, Yahaba scampering after him soon after.

And under the baffled watch of a Karasunoan operative named Chikara Ennoshita, they sped off in a tan beater that was puffing at the curb.

 

The drive was excruciatingly silent. Yahaba’s phone buzzed a few more times, but Shigeru silenced each of Semi’s calls until after 11 when he stopped calling altogether. Kyoutani, Shigeru’s partner the last four years, was frustratingly quieter than usual. Shigeru knew he must have plenty of questions—for one, his secret double life had been aired on national television for the whole world to see—but didn’t have a clue how to go about answering them.

All of that was incidental to the other issue in their relationship and the difficulties that problem had been causing. It indirectly led to a fight three days before Yahaba’s arrest, as a result of which Shigeru rashly left Kentarou’s apartment where he’d been staying for several months. The rent on his old place, kept up for fear things might fall apart, was what he needed Oikawa’s money for. His moving out—in his mind—was supposed to be temporary, and he and Ken smoothed things over the next day by phone.

But they hadn’t talked about where their relationship exactly was now, if it had changed at all, and that’s what made everything so awkward at the moment.

Even so, like old times, Yahaba was riding an elevator in a downtown condo building with the boy whom he loved more than anything.

It was no secret Shigeru was the cleaner of the pair, and in his absence, Kentarou’s condominium looked even worse for wear than before. The open floorplan boasted a kitchen to the left of the entryway where the dining table was and, straight ahead, a sunken living room with a couch, TV, and computer station. The hall to the bathroom and bedroom was to the right. Kentarou slid a pile of laundry on the dinner table to one edge, clearing the space in front of where Yahaba used to sit. Then he threw off some detritus from the couch while Shigeru hovered in the entryway. His boyfriend wasn’t the talkative type, but the quiet, methodical cleanup was actually quite welcoming given who it was coming from.

Besides, Shigeru didn’t like being bothered himself, so they complemented each other’s personalities in a quirky way.

“I’m sorry,” Yahaba mumbled all of a sudden, unsure what else to say. Kentarou peered up from the living room and marched to where Shigeru stood.

“For leaving,” Ken said, sounding like a statement though intended as a question.

“Well, yeah. That’s what happens when you get arrested,” Shigeru ribbed, before guiltily realizing Kentarou was referring to his moving out. “Yeah, I—” he tried to clarify but was interrupted by what came next.

Kyoutani lassoed Yahaba in an enormous bear hug, tight to the point of almost painful and yet overflowing with genuine thankfulness for his return. Shigeru couldn’t take it. He sniffled and replied by placing his palms on Kentarou’s back and resting his face on the boy’s chest.

“I’m sorry, for all of it,” he mumbled over and over.

“Just shut up,” Kentarou replied calmly, not meaning the words harshly at all, merely wanting his boyfriend to be silent so he could enjoy his presence. Somehow, no matter what idiocy Shigeru ever got up to, this man always found it in his heart to forgive.

Before his arrest, there was only one thing stopping Shigeru from packing his bags and leaving Seijoh for good. And right now, that thing peered into his eyes with a longing for Shigeru as deep as the other man’s was for him.

And their lips neared.

 

What happened next, unfortunately, was exactly what Yahaba feared. Fight aside, the original strain in their relationship was something Shigeru had tried numerous things for, though nothing had yet prevailed.

To put it gently, whenever they tried to be intimate, Yahaba’s body…didn’t cooperate.

Kentarou remained patient and supportive. He always insisted he loved his boyfriend for many reasons beyond that. Right now, their clothes on the bedroom floor, Yahaba sulked in a fetal position on the bed, his partner supine beside him.

“I’m sorry,” he apologized again, shivering with embarrassment. Stress was the most likely cause, doctors said, and increasingly Yahaba was convinced the source was his undercover side gig. He had wanted to get out of his more criminal line of work for a while; and in fact he’d decided that after this last mission for Shiratorizawa, he’d quit for good.

Now that Kyoutani was suddenly back in his life, he didn’t yet know what he’d do afterward.

“Don’t be,” Kentarou said, the statement intended to be comforting. “It’s fine.” There was a long pause. Ken gazed at the pitch-black ceiling while his mind drifted to one of the many topics he’d wanted to ask about. “So that’s what you were doing?”

“What?” Yahaba said.

“All that stuff in the news—was it true?”

Yahaba grimaced. Suddenly he realized Kyoutani had been suspicious for a while, but he had never been the type to pry.

“Yes, but…I’m not doing that anymore.” He couldn’t tell Kentarou about his current endeavor. He didn’t know what Shirabu might do if he willfully inducted outsiders into the classified mission. Plus, someone else was after him, and he refused to endanger Ken.

Kyoutani sat up and leaned in for a quick peck on his BF’s lips. When Ken shrank back, his eyes drilled into Yahaba’s face.

“You’re still hiding something.”

The words cut into Yahaba like a knife.

And he said nothing.

A vibrating noise in the room broke the tension, and Shigeru slid off the bed to extricate the phone from his trousers pocket.

“Who keeps calling you?” Kentarou suspiciously asked, completely ignored as Yahaba read the number. It wasn’t Semi this time, but he did recognize it and answered quickly.

“H-hello?” he stuttered unintentionally.

“Yahaba!” Kenji Futakuchi exclaimed. “I’ve got something!”

Shigeru’s lips quivered as he caught the penetrating gaze of his boyfriend demanding an answer to his questions.

“This is a bad time,” Yahaba mumbled.

“It’s urgent!” Futakuchi direly pushed.

Shigeru couldn’t decide who needed his attention more. But most of all, he just wanted an escape from the situation at hand, and without realizing it, Futakuchi had offered it.

 “Gimme a minute,” he told Kenji and exited to the hall. Ken’s face sank, but Shigeru had his back to the boy. Ignoring the pangs of his conscience, Yahaba gently shut the door. “What is it?” he asked firmly to compose himself.

“Kenma’s not a weapon! It’s a person!” Futakuchi practically yelled.

“Y-yeah. They’re growing artificial humans or something,” Shigeru said, sharing Terushima’s intel.

“It’s more than that!” Futakuchi declared.

What he proceeded to detail was way more complex than Yahaba could have imagined. Kenji had encountered an individual who made extravagant but not implausible claims about the Kenma Project. The implications of the insider’s information were clear: “What you’re saying is, without that, Kenma would be useless to them even if we don’t sabotage the lab.”

The crucial part was verifying the informant’s story, and that’s what Kenji needed most urgently from Yahaba. Futakuchi had arranged to meet his contact again at 9am tomorrow. It was nearing midnight where Yahaba was. 9am for Kenji would be two in the afternoon in Seijoh, meaning Yahaba had over 12 hours to go about his task. They could also use Terushima’s help for this new scheme, but if it was all a trap, then there was no urgency in reaching out to the imperiled scientist even if Shigeru had a convenient way to do so.

“All right. I’ll call you in the morning,” Yahaba said, “once I’ve done my research and verified it’s all legit.” They each signed off from the call, Yahaba with a whole new round of adrenaline sweeping through him.

His newfound fervor evaporated when he realized Kentarou had reopened the bedroom door.

“Who’s Kenma?” he interrogated.

“Oh, uh, something to do with work,” he fibbed with an extremely unpersuasive smile. Kentarou shut the door firmly, and Yahaba heard it lock. “Hey!” he bellowed, jiggling the knob and banging on the wood. “My clothes are in there!”

There was no response. Yahaba’s head thudded against the surface in dismay, and he resigned himself to the living room.

Beside the window was a home office setup with Kyoutani’s PC. When he motioned towards it, his coffee deprivation the last couples of hours made him nearly trip. Instead he made way to the kitchen cabinet where his boyfriend always stocked the caffeine. He flung open the cabinet door ravenously, but in lieu of coffee beans, what greeted him was a solitary box of tea bags.

“Why can’t you drink coffee like a normal person?!!!!!”

 


 

Tuesday November 10, 7am Miyagi time

Yahaba awoke on the sofa around 7am. Hearing Kyoutani’s keys jingle, he pretended to still be asleep until his host was out of the apartment. A few minutes later, Shigeru forced himself over to the PC.

When Kentarou’s computer brought up the login screen, Yahaba squinted at the obnoxious blue light.

“If I were Ken, what password would I use?” He lazily typed in vain hopes he could avoid physically having to hack the PC: “I…hate…Oikawa.”

The computer dinged happily and presented the desktop. At first unsure why the computer let him in, Shigeru finally wanted to strangle Kentarou for ignoring all his advice about password security.

Nevertheless, resisting an oncoming caffeine-deprived headache, he got to work. First he snatched a notepad and jotted down everything of relevance Futakuchi had told him last night. While he studied the scribblings, 45 minutes had passed since waking up, at which time the condo door unlocked. Kyoutani waddled in with a plastic bag, tersely glancing at Shigeru in front of his PC before silently setting the groceries on the counter and emptying eggs, bacon, and bread leaving one item in the bag.

“Did you eat?” Ken croaked, seemingly unbothered by Shigeru breaking into his computer. (It was almost to be expected.)

“N-no,” Yahaba stuttered.

“K,” Ken said simply as he took out a frying pan. In the awkward lull that followed, the nude Yahaba slinked into the bedroom to get dressed, leaving his cell phone on the desk by the computer. “Your phone buzzed,” Kentarou announced when Yahaba reappeared a minute later.

The mission phone’s log recorded a few new missed calls from Semi, the one most recent stretching back to 4am. It appeared Semi made no attempts to contact him for a five-hour stretch during the night. Regardless Yahaba still wasn’t in the mood to converse with the surrogate-Shirabu and proceeded to watch his partner pour scrambled eggs on one plate and a sunny-side up egg on another. He then added two bacon strips to each dish followed by a slice of toast, the first plate’s bread lavished in butter. Kyoutani set the scrambled egg plate at Shigeru’s normal seat and sat down at the second plate. Shigeru gaped at the meal for a second.

It was exactly how he liked it.

“Thanks,” he said quietly. Kentarou paused from his first bite to give him a grunt and a light nod.

They didn’t talk anymore. Yahaba’s head drooped with sleepiness when he cut into the eggs, prompting Kentarou to retrieve the last item from the grocery bag and thud it in front of Yahaba. It was Shigeru’s favorite brand of coffee.

“For you.”

Yahaba stopped chewing.  “You got this for me?”

“You said normal people drink coffee,” Ken replied nonchalantly. Yahaba almost choked on the food in his mouth.

But rather than acting offended, Ken laughed. A snicker turning into a full, deep-throated guffaw.

“What the heck are you laughing at?” Shigeru groused but not angrily.

“You, of course!” he chortled cheerily.

Yahaba somehow couldn’t help but grin and let out a small chuckle as well.

These were the times he missed. And yet, those times always found their way in. They always enjoyed each other’s company even when things were rough. Somehow, for each of their quirks and flaws—which to some were perplexing or inexcusable—they themselves could support each other.

And despite their problems lately, Kyoutani never abandoned him.

“Why do you keep letting me back in?” Shigeru, once the laughter subsided, said with more than a hint of melancholy.

Kyoutani, who despite his usually churlish appearance looked quite approachable when he smiled or came close to it, tilted his head curiously.

“Because you’re the only one who will put up with me.”

Shigeru grinned. “And you’re the only one who will keep forgiving me.”

As soon as he said those presumptuous words, his throat closed up. Had he really been forgiven?

But Kyoutani let out another raucous laugh. “You could be a mass murderer, and I’d still forgive you!” he applauded.

For some reason, that statement gave Yahaba pause.

As Kentarou settled once more and moved to sip some tea, Shigeru set down his coffee mug and brought both hands together before his chin.

“Listen, Ken. I am going to quit,” he started, deciding to do what he felt was right, consequences be darned, “but there’s one more job I have to do. After that job is done, I’m leaving Seijoh for good.” He stared pointedly into the other man’s troubled eyes. “And I want you to come with me.”

Kyoutani set down his cup and allowed an intentionally dramatic pause to fill the room.

“Of course.”

Suddenly Yahaba’s shoulders felt free of a major burden.

However, Kyoutani leaned forward candidly. “So tell me what this job of yours is.”

In short order, Yahaba caved.

 

After apprising Kyoutani of as much as he needed to say without betraying the identity of his benefactors, Yahaba set about his work on Kentarou’s PC. It was an average home device with limited memory compared to Yahaba’s setup, so the few seconds it took each webpage to load was an excruciating nightmare. He couldn’t try pinging Terushima on such a slow machine, but he’d work around that obstacle once he vetted Futakuchi’s informant.

After plenty of digging across the internet, Yahaba found exactly what he needed.

The clincher especially was a social media post dating back to Keiji Akaashi’s days in college. There, he found a group selfie featuring five university students. A handsomely young Keiji was at the far right of the image. A man with silver hair and an elastic grin had one arm slung over Akaashi’s shoulder, a person Yahaba recognized from his previous research as Koutarou Bokuto. Tags identified the other three boys in the picture, one with the same name as Futakuchi’s contact.

The name and face of another person in the photo now stood out for a different reason, and Yahaba wanted to beat himself for not making the connection sooner. There was no doubt. Kenji’s lead was legit.

It was nearly 10am—approaching five in the morning in Nekoma where Kenji was, a bit too early to be phoning. In the meantime he’d do some more digging.

Kentarou fast found his BF’s research too academic for his liking and occupied himself with TV news coverage of the unfolding offensive in Datekou. Several hours in, the Miyagi Alliance’s forces appeared to be making headway. Then Ken’s phone chirped with a text from a friend of a friend.

“How’d it go last night ;)” read the message from Tooru Oikawa. Kyoutani did not like Yahaba’s companion from high school. He was a douchebag who’d do anything for his own gain, even throw a person under the bus. Kentarou only figured the guy had ulterior motives for randomly telling him Shigeru was back in Seijoh. Even with that knowledge, it took a day and a half for Kyoutani to work up the courage to go to Shigeru’s place. He wasn’t even going to go last night, except the urge in his gut compelled him.

“Fine. He’s at my place,” Kentarou typed back.

“O_o” was all that came in reply. Ken left the exchange at that.

Except for the occasional glances at the television, Yahaba worked without interruption until his mission phone shook on the desk. Semi was calling once again. With an exasperated sigh, Shigeru finally decided to bite the bullet.

“Yo,” he cheekily answered.

“Yahaba!” the Shiratorizawan screamed. “Where on earth are you?!”

“In hiding,” he goaded.

“Seijoh’s after you! You’re coming to the consulate!”

“Nope,” Shigeru said aloofly.

“You don’t have a choice in the matter, Yahaba,” Semi threatened.

“You’re wrong, buddy,” Shigeru quipped. “Adm. Shirabu said I had total freedom as to how I accomplish this mission, and ‘total freedom’ means I don’t have to hide inside any consulate. Where I’m at is the best place for the mission’s success, you see?”

“Whatever that admiral told you,” Semi carped, “Shirabu works for me!”

“Oh, really?” Shigeru said sarcastically. “I don’t hear fancy naval ranks before your name.”

“You have no clue who you’re dealing with!” Actually, Yahaba did know who he was dealing with since he’d researched Eita Semi during some downtime. The man worked for Shiratorizawan intelligence and seemed the more likely person to be overseeing an espionage operation like this one. Yet for some reason Kenjirou Shirabu—allegedly just the military attaché to Karasuno—acted like the mission’s leader.

In any event, Yahaba knew one thing for sure: his mission phone was designed to be untraceable, so Semi was powerless to do anything to find him. “I’ll be in touch when I have an update,” he soppily finished. “Oh, and next time, get me the coffee I want.” He hung up perfunctorily.

“Who was that?” said Kyoutani.

“Some guy who doesn’t know his place,” Yahaba dismissed. Kyoutani smiled. Which one of you two doesn’t know their place?, he jokingly thought to himself.

With Semi out of the way, Yahaba dug even deeper into the underpinnings of the Kenma Project; and after more than an hour of reviewing genetics theses, travel records, diplomatic communiques, and Lab 3 expense reports, he could nearly reconstruct the Kenma Project from its origin to the present. Even so, two matters remained to be settled: the logistics to carry out the revised sabotage plan, which would be primarily Futakuchi’s jurisdiction with his myriad underworld contacts; and locating the Kenma Project’s vital crux, a task best suited for Terushima.

That meant somehow getting back in touch with Yuuji.

“Lunch,” Kentarou said calmly, setting a plate with a sandwich beside Shigeru.

“Oh! Thanks,” he replied.

“Weren’t you going to call someone?” Ken asked. It took Yahaba a moment to parse Kentarou’s meaning. Then he swore and dialed Futakuchi.

“Bout time you called,” Kenji irritably answered.

“I was busy,” Shigeru grumbled. He told him the informant was the real deal and hung up shortly after so Futakuchi could finish arrangements on his end. It was 12:30 in the afternoon in Miyagi, 7:30am in Tokyo. Futakuchi would meet his contact in an hour and a half and hopefully get more leads. In the meantime, Yahaba pondered how to get back in touch with Yuuji. Since at last communication Terushima’s captors hadn’t found the wireless receiver or the camera, there might be a way to reinitiate contact. Due to Kyoutani’s sluggish processor though, doing so from here was not the most efficient endeavor.

He could easily get powerful enough equipment by regrouping with Semi.

Then Yahaba’s repressed concerns about his assignment emerged.

What was the real purpose behind this mission? Shiratorizawa was trying to pilfer high-level technology from the Tokyo Entente—that much was obvious. But why was a nation that officially was not at war trying to get their hands on what purported to be the most powerful weapon of all time?

Why was that operation abstrusely being handled jointly by an official in national intelligence and a naval admiral with other job descriptions?

Why was a supposedly friendly nation, Seijoh, ostensibly trying to interfere in that operation by capturing Yahaba?

And why did Shiratorizawa dare entrust such a mission to three private citizens with questionable morals in the first place?

Without Semi electronically watching his every mouse click here, now may be his only chance to find out who his actions were really benefiting.

There wasn’t much he could find publicly of course, except that Eita Semi and Kenjirou Shirabu were actually well-acquainted prior to their professional careers taking different paths. But when he pulled up some diplomatic cables from the Shiratorizawan embassy in Karasuno, he found something of note: five weeks ago, before a state dinner hosted by the President of Karasuno, Semi reminded the military attaché Shirabu to talk to a Karasunoan general named Kei Tsukishima.

Yahaba couldn’t figure out who this Kei Tsukishima was. His duties weren’t publicly listed anywhere, though it seemed he was a high-placed functionary in Karasuno’s Department of Defense.

What in Karasuno was holding Shiratorizawa’s focus prior to the Kenma Project? There was no way to find out without hacking Karasunoan infrastructure. That was impossible on short notice; it’d taken Yahaba days just to calculate how to infiltrate Lab 3 flawlessly and without detection.

And then, when Yahaba took a cursory look at the protection protocols on Karasuno’s network, he swore he recognized a familiar chain of code. He jogged his memory until he remembered where he’d seen it three years ago.

Connection or not, hacking Karasuno’s infrastructure was actually much, much easier than he anticipated. It was a little after 2pm—Futakuchi’s rendezvous time—though Yahaba had completely forgotten about that. Yahaba didn’t plan to surf the foreign servers long, just take a quick peek and satisfy his curiosity.

What he discovered answered more questions than he ever realized he had.

Resting a shoulder on the window, Kentarou nudged the untouched sandwich towards his mate. Shigeru started and obligatorily took a bite. Kyoutani idly glanced outside, seeing two black cars out front surrounded by people in teal suits.

“Your friend’s here,” he announced, surmising Yahaba’s benefactor had located his boyfriend after all. Yahaba stepped over to the window and saw the vehicles. He realized instantly from the suits the agents wore that they were from the Chancellor Protection Unit.

“Dang it!” he shouted and feverishly withdrew from the Karasunoan servers and shut down the device. No time to sabotage the PC this time. Kentarou leapt over to the front door and pressed his ear to the surface. When Yahaba grabbed his mission phone and bolted towards the exit too, Kyoutani detected agitated noises outside.

“Don’t!” he whisper-yelled. He flagged Shigeru to go to the bedroom while quickly latching the door chain. It didn’t make a difference when the door was breached as the chain flew out of the drywall. When the first agent from Seijoh’s Chancellor Protection Unit entered, Kyoutani heaved one of the dining chairs onto his head.

Yahaba dashed into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Then, one gunshot.

Then another.

And suddenly, at the thought of the man he loved, Shigeru’s desire to flee completely wilted.

His phone snapped him out of his funk almost instantly when it buzzed in his palm. The caller ID was Futakuchi’s.

Dang it!, he swore internally. Why do you always have to call at the worst time?!

He dashed to the window and with a fell swoop hurled the device from the 10th-floor residence down to the street below. It exploded into a hundred pieces upon hitting the road, even the SIM card inside snapping in two.

The bedroom door burst open. Yahaba stood still at the window, breathing heavily but slowly before lethargically turning around.

What he saw startled him. An officer adorned in the Chancellor Protection Unit’s uniform stalwartly pointed a pistol at a kneeling and grimacing Kyoutani, bleeding from the chest.

“Surrender, Shigeru Yahaba,” the officer holding Kyoutani, the leader of the force, Yuutarou Kindaichi, threatened.

Only one thing was keeping Shigeru Yahaba from packing his bags and leaving Seijoh for good.

And right now, even if it meant he’d have to stay in Seijoh the rest of his life, Yahaba would do anything—anything at all—to protect that one thing.

Chapter Text

Ten years ago National Genetics in Warfare Symposium, Itachiyama University, Fukurodani

“…We have the infrastructure, we have the minds,” Kiyoomi Sakusa said through a face mask into the podium-mounted microphone. “Itachiyama University hosts the greatest personages in genetic engineering. Fukurodani must take the lead in adapting humanity’s mastery of our own genome to the battleground before any other country succeeds in doing so.”

After a pause to signal he was finished, the crowd applauded. Sakusa stepped away as the debate emcee returned to center stage. In a chair on the opposite side of the platform, the man who was about to deliver a rebuttal sat stiffly.

“Thank you, Dr. Sakusa,” the emcee announced. “Now, speaking against the employment of genetic engineering in the context of war: Professor in the university’s Department of Genetics, Dr. Keiji Akaashi.”

Keiji approached the podium amidst obligatory clapping. While he adjusted the mic to fit his height, the audience patiently waited.

He spoke deeply, firmly. “Proponents of ‘clone armies’ or like-manner science fiction repeatedly claim that a genetically engineered force will somehow make war so horrifying that nations will renounce aggression altogether. I disagree. On the contrary, when the human face of the soldier is removed from battle, war cannot become anything but more desirable….”

As he talked, Akaashi’s gaze rolled over the polite audience in the massive hall. While billed as just a national event, the symposium had attracted observers from beyond the country’s borders too. Loitering near the exit, attempting to appear disinterested, was the Karasunoan marine geneticist Tobio Kageyama. In a back row, wearing a pair of sunglasses and a snide grin, was the poorly disguised Yuuji Terushima. Near the front, with such a poker face that one couldn’t tell which side he supported, was the person who’d sequenced the feline genome, Tetsurou Kuroo.

In one respect, it was flattering that such prominent fellows in his field were here giving Keiji Akaashi the time of day.

But Akaashi knew better than that. None of them were here to see him. If anything, they were here for his counterpart, the head of the university’s genetics department, Kiyoomi Sakusa.

Except for one person.

When Akaashi concluded his speech, respectful applause developed. One slightly disheveled man in the front row, in a top-of-the-line suit that really seemed to hate its slobby wearer, clapped. He wore a soft smile, eyes staring directly into Keiji’s. Keiji knew the man probably didn’t understand a lick of the technical lingo that either he or his opponent had just uttered, but that didn’t matter. The man always made it a point to come to all of the doctor’s public speaking engagements.

After all, the man was Keiji’s fiancé, Koutarou Bokuto.

 


 

Monday November 9, approx. 5:20 p.m. Tokyo time Lab 3, Itachiyama, Fukurodani

Sorry, Terushima. You’re on your own,” came Yahaba’s voice.

“What?!” Yuuji exclaimed in the middle of Akaashi’s office, instantly drawing a dagger-stare from Lt. Suguru Daishou. Terushima slapped his hands over his mouth, futilely hoping he hadn’t shrieked as loud as he’d imagined.

Huh?” Daishou snapped.

Yuuji sprang up and pretended to be mesmerized by the textual collection on the bookshelf. “Sorry. It’s just…Dr. Akaashi has some extremely rare texts in here.”

“Sit down!” Daishou barked, and Yuuji reflexively complied. His haste didn’t improve Suguru’s mood though. The officer trudged closer until his face was right in Terushima’s. The pen that disguised the video camera was tightly in Yuuji’s fist against his chest, aimed directly at the officer literally breathing down his neck.

“Listen,” Daishou hissed, “I had to give up my lunch break to keep an eye on you, and I’m real pissed right now. The doc may want something from you, but if it were up to me, I’d take you outside right now and finish you off like smoked salmon.”

Yuuji tried not to visualize himself searing on a grill. His hand with the pen shook, not unnoticed by the hypertensive officer. Daishou took a look at the quivering implement that Yuuji had been fiddling with ever since they got here and summarily snatched it from his grip.

“And stop with that stupid pen!” he yelled. Yuuji lunged frantically as Daishou lifted up the device, threw it on the floor, and smashed it completely underfoot. The metallic crinkle the object made gave the lieutenant pause; and when he lifted his shoe, twinkling aluminum and copper wiring spread out like entrails. Daishou picked up and studied the object, one half dangling from the other by wires.

“So this is who you were talking to,” he grumbled, recalling the doctor’s chatter before they ambushed him in the lab. The pen only transmitted video while the fake stud in Terushima’s earlobe was what allowed him to communicate with Yahaba, but naturally he didn’t correct the officer. Daishou pocketed the device before a knock came at the door.

“What is it?!” Daishou barked. One of the base guards, Yoshiya Takachiho, peeked in.

“Sergeant Seguro has returned, Lieutenant. He asked to see you urgently.”

“Dang it. Bout time,” Daishou spat. “Watch this rat here until the doc shows up and make sure he tries no funny business.”

Daishou quickly shuttled out of the space. Good thing too, for his sake, as it would be another two hours before Akaashi finally made his appearance.

 


 

Five years ago

“…Now for stories from around the country,” a news anchor announced on the television. “Parliament today voted to suspend trade between Fukurodani and Datekou, the move coming a day after Nekoma cut economic relations with the island nation….”

Koutarou Bokuto on the couch, ankles crossed atop a coffee table, peeked over the tip of a beer bottle, his interest piqued.

“Good! Datekou stuff is cheap!” he yelled at the screen.

The living room, where Bokuto was, abutted the kitchen separated most of its length by a knee wall, which allowed Akaashi in the kitchen an unobstructed view of the screen and his partner while he sliced mustard-soaked canola on a cutting board.

“It’s not about it being cheap, Kou,” he said as he chopped. “The cost of production in Datekou merely happens to be lower than in Fukurodani, making it more profitable to outsource manufacturing there than produce the same items at home.”

“Sounds like a fancy way of saying cheap!” Kou reacted.

Keiji rolled his eyes in futility as he transferred the diced vegetables to two plates and ferried them to the dinner table. “Supper’s ready.”

Kou skidded into the kitchen, rolling into a chair in their suburban bungalow and resting the remote on the table. Keiji sat down and tapped the television volume up to catch the final word on the story before switching it off, Bokuto by then already demolishing the leafy dish.

“With the way things are, I’m starting to worry Dr. Sakusa was right about war coming.”

Bokuto spoke with a mouthful. “I thought you said that guy was crazy.”

“He is!” Keiji exclaimed. “That’s why I’m scared that I’m starting to agree with him.” Perhaps that very fear of war was why Akaashi’s boss at the university abruptly quit last week and, rumors were, left the country. It came as a complete shock to everyone.

Perhaps the greater shock was Akaashi had been appointed acting head in his stead.

“So you’re in charge now?” Bokuto asked upon swallowing. Keiji looked like a deer in the headlights.

“It’s not official,” he blushed. “They’ll make a decision later this week.” Even so, the powers-that-be had already decided to appoint Akaashi to the role permanently, and the grapevine knew it.

Bokuto stared at his husband’s red cheeks and then resumed eating a bit more slowly. The two were silent, Keiji lost in thought over what he would do as department head, Bokuto’s mind racing from the strangely empty feeling in his gut.

“Hey, Keiji? What would happen to you if war did break out?”

Akaashi stopped his fork in front of his mouth. He thought about the question briefly but could only shrug. “Nothing,” he said. He was too old for the draft, and they wouldn’t enlist tenured professors against their will anyway. “The university will just keep doing what it’s doing.”

Koutarou nodded with a sullen look. He spoke after another pause: “What do you think would happen to me?”

Keiji analyzed his usually upbeat partner and quickly figured this was another mood swing that Kou had been capable of ever since they met. “Nothing,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re an assistant high school volleyball coach. Schools are still going to be open, and the athletic program won’t just end because of fighting abroad.”

“But…,” Kou said in meek protest. He had wanted to say something for a while but wasn’t sure how to articulate it; he wasn’t actually sure what he was trying to communicate in the first place for that matter. Nevertheless, he forced out the best words he could. “…I don’t know what I’m doing there.”

Akaashi’s fork clinked on the plate. “You’re raising those kids to be responsible adults, of course,” he objected, almost as a censure.

“But how? I’ve been there three years, and what have I done? Our team didn’t even make it past the third round in the tournament.”

“Winning isn’t everything,” Akaashi said.

Kou’s fists hit the table. “But it is to them!” Kou seethed, a startled Keiji gawking. “You weren’t there when the head coach introduced me—how he called me the ace of the team that won nationals. You should’ve seen it: the looks in those kids’ eyes as they thought, with me around, they could actually do it. They could actually win it all. They had a chance now. And despite all my efforts to help them, I have to watch them leave the court for the last time in tears as they wonder whatever it is they did wrong. Do you realize how hard that is? To know that you’ve done everything you could for someone, and it was absolutely, totally useless?” Kou almost felt like he would cry as he stared at his hopeless palms. “When I was the ace, I could smash through anything. But now…here…I’m just helpless. I don’t even know why I bother.”

Akaashi frowned. Keiji played volleyball in high school too—even though he and Bokuto had been on separate teams, they frequently did training camps together. Having moved on with his own life, Keiji had naturally discovered not all the skills he practiced as a setter were transferable to real life. “There’s a difference between being an ace and being a coach,” he said, to state the obvious.

Bokuto knew that intellectually. Yet knowing it didn’t make his frustration go away. The problem was much deeper than that; that much he’d barely managed to figure out.

“I know that,” he moaned.

Bokuto had tried a lot of things in life: though he played volleyball in college, he was never scouted for the pros. He practiced his major, physical therapy with a special focus on young athletes, but was bothered that often the same kids came back with the same injuries because they wouldn’t prioritize their health properly. After leaving the field, he did odd jobs until he miraculously ran into Akaashi again a decade after college. They then realized what feelings had actually always been there between them; and finally, with his mate’s encouragement, Kou picked up coaching.

He liked coaching, yet why wasn’t he satisfied? Meanwhile, Keiji, the man he loved, who already had it all, was about to become the chief in his department at his workplace.

Koutarou couldn’t live up to that no matter what he did with his life.

That was why he wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to accomplish something of note like his spouse did every day.

“Then what’s the problem?” Akaashi curtly pressed.

And once Kou realized that, he knew he couldn’t say it out loud.

“Forget it,” Bokuto snapped, scraping up a bite from his plate and shoving it in his mouth.

“What’s the matter?” Akaashi pushed lightly.

Kou leaned forward angrily. “Forget it,” he gnashed. After driving his point into Akaashi’s heart with his glare, Kou grumpily continued chomping.

The silence was thick as fog. Keiji stared, unsure what exactly had just happened.

And then he shrugged it off and resumed eating himself.

 


 

Monday November 9, approx. 7:00 p.m. Tokyo timeLab 3

Enrapt with Subject 175’s vitals, the creation Akaashi affectionately called “Kenma” consumed him for the next two hours. The timing was a godsend. Tomorrow he was to deliver a progress report on the project to representatives of the three Entente nations, and now that he and his team had successfully spliced animal DNA into the base human’s, Keiji was guaranteed to assuage any fears about the initiative’s worthwhileness.

Only after two of his cohorts, called back in on short notice, arrived did Akaashi at last excuse himself to meet Terushima. One of Daishou’s minions, a man named Sakishima, informed him of the device uncovered on Terushima’s person and that it would be left for Dr. Suzumeda to analyze in the morning. Keiji was actually a little reassured. He much preferred that his conversation with his peer be unheard by anyone.

Down the hall from the office, Lt. Daishou cantankerously snacked on a protein bar, awaiting Dr. Akaashi to return to cut him off before he entered the room, but he was too busy complaining to his sergeant to notice when Akaashi made it to his quarters and shuffled inside.

Keiji appeared before Terushima with a big smile and politely dismissed Takachiho. Once he was alone with the red-handed spy, Akaashi sauntered to his seat, set down some printouts, and faced Yuuji with a frown.

“I heard about the device they found on you,” he said, “and since now nobody can hear us, I have a question for you.”

Terushima gulped.

Akaashi spoke with a congenial smile. “So…what do you think?”

Yuuji blinked. “Huh?”

“What do you think?” Akaashi repeated, grin unaltered.

Yuuji Terushima stared. This man…was asking for his professional opinion on his creation?

Terushima’s geeky side wouldn’t let an opportunity to gush pass by. “What do I think?! This is the most advanced genetic work I’ve ever seen! It’s astounding!”

Akaashi was so flattered he chuckled.

“I’m pleased to hear that from you,” he said. And before either of them realized it, they were airily chatting away. Terushima learned more details about the Kenma Project in the next thirty minutes than he ever possibly could have otherwise.

It was once Akaashi was convinced Terushima’s interest was sincere that he played his next hand.

“So, now let’s get down to business.”

Yuuji’s mood sank.

“Obviously somebody sent you here, but you may be surprised to learn that I am not concerned about that in the slightest. In fact, I had a completely different reason for calling you in here.” Terushima gulped, but Keiji’s smile was amiable. “Dr. Terushima, I would like to invite you to join the Kenma Project.”

 


 

Three years ago

Across the continent of Tokyo, news of hostilities with Datekou broke a few hours after sunrise. In Fukurodani, school and work stopped for the prime minister’s speech. Business as usual then shut down immediately while recruitment centers spawned like rabbits in public buildings. Bokuto texted to say he would be heading home after helping set up an enlistment station in the high school. The university canceled classes after 10 a.m., and Akaashi instantly rushed to the grocery store to find it already cleaned out. He snatched what few essentials he could and sped home.

Preparing precooked yakiniku for a fast lunch, Akaashi had plenty of time to focus on the nonstop news coverage. Around noon, Fukunaga, an old friend of his and Bokuto’s from college, rang him up; they chatted for half an hour about several topics, both of them relieved they would each probably be unaffected by the conflict since they were well far away from the distant frontlines.

Kou showed up much later than expected, but Keiji had calmly gone with the flow and reheated the yakiniku. Bokuto dumped his gym bag at the door and immediately set up in front of the TV without a hello.

“Leave the TV on and come eat,” Keiji called as he apportioned the barbecue onto two plates. Kou plodded to the table, the very antitype of his normal dynamism. They ate in silence, Keiji following the TV reporting, Bokuto rationalizing every excuse to not open his mouth and say what needed to be said.

It was a story about recruitment efforts, with a politicized plea for more enlistees that finally prompted him to talk. He a-bit-too-dramatically rested his fork on his plate and shivered before opening his mouth.

“I want to go,” he whispered.

“Go?” said Akaashi. Kou nodded. “Go where?”

Bokuto was silent. He spoke even quieter. “I want to fight.”

He almost hoped Keiji didn’t hear him, but the gradual horror that washed over his husband’s face told otherwise.

“You want to do what?” Keiji’s voice was calm, but it concealed utter discord swirling inside.

Head bowed low, Kou repeated, “I want to go fight.” He leadenly forked a piece of meat into his mouth.

“Why would you?” Keiji pointedly inquired.

“I spoke to the recruiter,” Kou said taking another bite, the pause building tension. “He said they’re going to be strapped for people, and they need strong, fit guys out there.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Keiji didn’t intend the question to sound angry but didn’t really regret that it did.

Kou had no response at first. “I’m needed there,” and took another bite.

“You’re needed here!” Keiji shouted, pointing his fork at his spouse.

“To do what?!” Kou screeched. They stared each other down. Keiji looked like he would back off first, but Kou spoke up to maintain his momentum.

“I’ve thought this through. I even called Tora.” He didn’t mention that the fighter pilot from Nekoma didn’t answer his phone and that he’d only left a voicemail, but he was definitely going to talk to him for advice regardless. “And the recruiter said I’d pass all the tests—he said I’m better than the average.”

“How long have you been thinking about this?” Keiji asked, referring to Kou’s evident decision to leave behind coaching.

“For too long,” Kou replied.

Keiji stared in silence.

“Keiji, I need to do this. For my sake and for the country.”

Bokuto wasn’t especially a nationalist. What he did know deep down was, by going out and fighting for his home, he would be doing something meaningful.

Something great and meaningful, just like his husband.

Keiji hadn’t seen this much resolve from Kou in a long time.

And with reluctance, he asked: “Are you sure about this?”

Bokuto nodded. “Yes.”

Akaashi forcibly cracked a smile. “Then I can’t stop you,” and he added almost sourly: “You’re too stubborn.”

Kou finally felt relief that he had the blessing of the one man from whom he needed it. He would do anything for Keiji, and therefore he needed his husband’s approval.

And perhaps fully aware that if he’d stood his ground Kou would have eventually given up, Keiji instantly regretted backing down.

 


 

Present

“You want me to join you?” Terushima answered incredulously. Keiji bore a cocky smirk as if he had no doubt Yuuji would assent.

“That is my hope. I know your record. You have an exemplary mind.” He wandered to the bookshelf and opened a textbook. “But I understand your concern. After all, you’d be developing something that could be deployed against your country. But”—he peered over his shoulder at his stoic counterpart—“would it make any difference if I told you I don’t intend Kenma to be used on the battlefield?”

Terushima cocked an eyebrow.

Akaashi returned the book to the shelf. “Just as I’m familiar with your record, you may be familiar with mine. I have always publicly opposed adapting our knowledge of DNA to warfare. I may be receiving funding to use Kenma as a soldier, but my actual hope is to apply the information acquired here to the greater benefit of humanity in peacetime. Funny how war opens up so many financial avenues.”

Truthfully, when Yahaba first stated that Keiji Akaashi had left his position at Itachiyama University to become head of the Kenma Project, Yuuji criticized the hacker’s research on the grounds it contradicted the scientist’s professional stance. It prompted Yahaba to dig even deeper, thereby uncovering what appeared to have been the catalyst for Akaashi’s change of heart.

Terushima snuck a glance at the portrait on the table, showing the doctor with his spouse long before they were married. “You’re right I know your record on the subject,” Terushima began, facing Akaashi, “but as far as not wanting Kenma to be used in war, I don’t believe you.” Akaashi turned and narrowed his eyes. “Because of Koutarou Bokuto.”

 


 

Two and a half years ago

Akaashi slumped in a swivel chair before the computer streaming his husband’s pixelated face from somewhere in Datekou.

“Welp, tomorrow’s the day.” Kou stretched his fingers over his head until the knuckles popped. As Kou was going through training, the war ballooned around him. Every nation except the reclusive mercantile country of Wakutani and the solitary powerhouse on the continent of Hyogo, Inarizaki, had been drawn into it in one way or another.

And now, Koutarou Bokuto was hours away from seeing the frontline for the first time himself.

“Are you going to be all right?” Keiji asked rhetorically.

“I’m scared shitless,” Kou whispered at the microphone on his laptop. “But I’m so done with training. The drill sergeant was a real pisser, hey, hey, hey!”

“Should you really be saying that?” Keiji cautioned with a grin.

Koutarou cupped one hand beside his mouth and pretended to yell while whispering loudly. “The drill sergeant sucks!” He winked at the camera.

Keiji chuckled, even if his insides felt like they were inwardly screaming.

“By the way, you wanna know where we’re attacking tomorrow?” Kou eagerly asked.

“Are you supposed to tell me?”

“No.”

“Then don’t.”

“Sendai City.” Kou beamed.

Akaashi rolled his eyes. “There you go.”

Bokuto giggled. Then his head snapped to a person talking off-camera.

“Oh. Sorry. Gotta go,” he grinned softly. “I’ll call you after my battlefield debut! I love you.”

“I love you too, Kou,” Keiji replied, but the connection froze before closing, and he wasn’t sure if his farewell went through.

Keiji rolled back from the desktop with a deep exhale.

A vacuous feeling arose in his stomach. He gulped some antacid to no avail while he began to have trouble controlling his breathing, even resorting to prayer to try to calm himself. He was scared and he knew it. It was late, and he needed to rest since he had work in the morning.

As he lay awake in bed, he wondered why Kou was off fighting some war over an arbitrary political squabble? Why did people have to risk their lives for things like this in the first place?

He tossed and turned as the hours ticked by, finding himself getting up repeatedly to check if Kou was online. He never was, for good reason. Finally Keiji fingered him a message: “Stay safe.” Then the tightness in his chest finally subsided enough for him to return to bed and fall asleep.

The next morning, there had been a typed reply:

“i will”

Two days later, the media announced the fall of Sendai City, Datekou’s capital, and the capture of Prime Minister Yasushi Kamasaki.

 

Koutarou Bokuto never called back.

 


 

Present

Akaashi looked like a deer in the headlights while Terushima glared from calling the man’s bluff. How the Johzenjiite knew the name he just uttered was beyond him, but it didn’t matter. He’d been found out.

“Fine,” he frowned, returning to the desk sternly. “I had an awakening if you will.” He looked Yuuji in the eye. “But I wasn’t lying about one thing: I truly do not care who employs my technology, be it the Alliance or the Entente. I merely wish no one else has to suffer as I have.” Keiji took a seat, neatened the stack of printouts, and slipped them in a drawer. “Well, since you have no intention of assisting me, you’ll be handed over to the Army—”

“Wait, wait, wait!” Terushima interjected energetically. “Who said I wasn’t going to join you?”

And for Akaashi, time seemed to stop.

Terushima continued before Keiji could even answer: “Didn’t you hear me earlier?! This is the most innovative work I’ve ever seen! I’d kill to work on something like this!”

“You’re…going to join?”

“Of course!” Terushima threw out his arms in exhilaration.

Akaashi’s breathing tensed up until he realized the man wasn’t joking. Left unspoken earlier was the fact that it had taken many failures to reach the current point. Akaashi needed other consummate minds alongside himself, and from the moment he recognized Yuuji Terushima in the lab earlier that day, he’d been fantasizing about inducting him into the research team.

After outlining the conditions of Terushima’s cooperation, including his permanent residence on the base, Akaashi finally invited his new cohort to the lab to check on things.

“By the way,” Terushima asked as Akaashi reached for the doorknob, “there’s something I’ve always wondered. Dr. Sakusa—is he really as eccentric as they say?”

Keiji smirked. “More than you would believe.”

He opened the door, revealing Lt. Daishou’s irate face and his deputy, Sgt. Akihiko Seguro.

“Doc, we need to talk,” Suguru growled.

And then a short, frantic figure in a lab coat galloped down the hall. “Dr. Akaashi!” The man skidded to a halt and clasped the head scientist’s arms.

“Dr. Shibayama, what is it?” Akaashi stammered.

“Subject 175,” he huffed, “has died!”

 

Akaashi’s eyes bulged in horror.

“Kenma’s” newly revealed pupils had dilated vacuously. All vitals were flat. The other scientist in the lab, Dr. Wataru Onaga, frenetically studied the subject’s trends prior to his expiration. Yuuki Shibayama was doing the same thing at a different console. Terushima hovered nervously beside Akaashi while Daishou and Seguro irritably hung back, awaiting a moment when Akaashi wasn’t fully consumed by whatever disaster-above-their-paygrade had just unfolded.

“What happened?” Keiji mumbled incredulously.

“Metastatic growths appeared across his body,” Onaga said, examining a screen. “They appear to have originated from uncontrolled cell growth on the optic nerve.” The enormous pressure created by the tumor appeared to have caused the subject’s eyelids to open in the first place.

Keiji stumbled to the glass cylinder containing the deceased creation, his eyes shaking in defeat. How had the same problem that they once successfully countered reemerged?

Yuuji sidled to Shibayama and, to the surprise of the meeker man, began to scroll through Kenma’s code himself. Something caught his eye, and he signaled the shorter man to come closer.

“Is this the original code for cell development in the eyes?” he queried.

“It should be,” Shibayama presumed and began to skim himself. The way his eyebrows popped up in shock confirmed Terushima’s grave suspicions.

Meanwhile, Daishou’s patience was wearing thin. He had a critical security matter to address with the lead researcher, but before he could speak, Terushima piped up first.

“Hey, Akaashi. This DNA is designed to promote malignant growth in the eyes.”

Akaashi blinked. “What?” He scuttled over to the monitor and beheld the same illogical sequence that Terushima had seen. Indeed, the code was fundamentally engineered to cause uncontrollable cell growth.

This was positively not the code they’d used when they initiated the optical enhancement a few months ago. Somehow, it had been altered.

“Where’s Dr. Kuroo?!” Akaashi yelled. The world’s leading expert on feline genetics, Tetsurou Kuroo was inducted into the team six months ago for this specific experiment. Hearing the absent scientist’s name made Daishou jolt, however.

“He was sick today,” Dr. Onaga guessed.

“Doc,” Daishou called but was ignored.

“When was he last here?” Keiji asked aloud.

“Yesterday morning,” Shibayama recalled. “When I was checking on the subject, he came in to do a special project he said. He examined a bunch of things, took several samples, and did some computer work for an hour. I just left him to it.”

“Doc,” Daishou repeated more direly.

“What kind of samples?” Akaashi pressed. He hadn’t asked Kuroo to do anything particular, so there was no reason for him to be in on a Sunday.

“Doc!” Daishou bellowed, finally getting everyone’s attention. He heaved. “We need to talk now.”

 

Leaving Terushima with the other two scientists, Akaashi, Daishou, and Seguro removed themselves to the corridor outside the D-9 lab.

“There’s a problem,” Lt. Daishou began. “Tetsurou Kuroo didn’t call or show up to work today. I had my sergeant check his house and….” He cued his subordinate to finish.

“The place was empty,” Daishou’s longtime deputy continued. “All the furniture was there, but some electronics were missing. His car was still in the driveway.”

“He’s been kidnapped?” queried Akaashi.

Seguro shook his head. “There’s no sign of a struggle or forced entry.”

“Meaning,” Daishou said, “he defected.”

Akaashi’s chin hit his chest. All of his hard work—the farthest they had ever progressed—had been sabotaged in the blink of an eye.

“It also means,” Daishou continued, “there’s a leak.”

Keiji eyed the head guard. “Where?”

“I dunno. But let’s start by interrogating that new friend of yours,” he hissed, referring to Terushima.

“No need,” Keiji said. “I’ve personally cleared Dr. Terushima. He will be joining our team on a permanent basis, and the matter surrounding him will not be reported outside these walls.”

“What?!” Suguru disbelievingly shouted. “Are you insane?!” It didn’t matter that it made no sense for an enemy actor to sabotage the project and then plant a spy after the fact.

“May I remind you that I am in charge of this facility by commission of the Entente and therefore my decision on this matter is closed?” Keiji threatened.

“If you’re gonna stand by your new buddy, then,” Suguru chided, “that leaves only two people who the leak could be.”

Akaashi backed off at that. He didn’t want to believe it, but the two people Daishou was referring to were by far the most likely suspects: they weren’t under constant observation, they knew more about the project than by any rights they should, and they had the strongest motivation to shut it down.

Two of his oldest friends: Shouhei Fukunaga and Taketora Yamamoto.

“Don’t you dare harm them,” Keiji threatened. Daishou was the type to overstep his bounds—for all Akaashi knew, it may have been why the lieutenant and his unit were assigned to Lab 3 since the project’s inception, as some kind of exile—and Keiji wished no suffering upon the people Daishou wished to interrogate.

But, to his surprise, Daishou donned a showy grin.

“As you wish, Doc,” he sang. “Sergeant, let’s talk.”

 

Upon perfunctorily exiting the “D” section of the lab, Daishou let out an irate roar. “That quack makes me so mad!”

“What are your orders?” Seguro asked.

Daishou gnashed his teeth. “Take Hiroo, Sakishima, and Takachiho to Nekoma and interrogate the guy from that apartment. I’ll deal with that pompous Air Force ace.”

“Even though the doctor said don’t harm them?”

“I don’t care what he says. The security of this facility is my responsibility. If it turns out that guy’s a rat, liquidate him.”

 

After gleaning what he could from Onaga and Shibayama, Terushima was eventually guided to an unused office to spend the night. With the door locked behind him, he scanned the windowless, claustrophobic space where only unplugged cords remained of a computer workstation. Even if he could escape, he had nowhere to go. He tried reactivating the comm in his earring, but Yahaba didn’t pick up.

His only option was to wait then.

And, he hoped, somehow smuggle out the workings of Kenma from under Akaashi’s hapless nose.

If not to give to Adm. Shirabu, then at least to keep for himself.

 

Several hours later, Akaashi finally sent Shibayama and Onaga on their way and retired to his office. His head pounded and sweat pooled on his face.

With the most recent failure, the boast he had for tomorrow’s meeting was gone. He could hardly divulge anything surrounding Terushima or Kuroo either; the fallout would be enormous. He swallowed a painkiller and gave up thought of going home when the portrait on the table caught his eye.

He stared at Koutarou’s face beaming in defiance of the passage of time.

He held the picture frame and began to cry.

No. He had to get the funding. Which meant he had to succeed next time without fail. If the Entente shut him down, it would have all been in vain.

“Kou…I’m sorry.”

As if trying to get even closer to the past, Akaashi undid the backing on the frame and slid out the card inside. In reality, the image of him and Bokuto was a wider image that had been folded in half, and Keiji viewed the whole thing now.

The full image depicted five people, taken with an old-fashioned film camera on the cusp of its technological obsolescence. One of the other three people in the image grinned proudly, another bore a soft smile, and the third could barely crack his mouth upwards.

Keiji ran his fingers over the rough surface—the once glossy finish feeling gritty—as he beseeched each person as his fingertips passed their visage.

“Fukunaga…Tora…Kenma…please forgive me.”

 


 

Two and a half years ago

Nine days after the Battle of Sendai, the letter from the War Ministry arrived at Akaashi’s house. It came later than customary, but its tardiness made its haunting contents no less foreseeable. Koutarou Bokuto had been killed in action.

Keiji spoke to no one for three days. He took off work and stayed indoors. Akaashi had never been one to drink, but now Keiji found himself resorting to alcohol more than he liked. Though many people, including his old college gang, attempted to give their condolences, he never replied to any texts or answered or returned any calls. One man in particular bugged the heck out of Keiji, calling and texting repeatedly, but Akaashi let it ring so much he eventually ceased bothering to check the display.

Then, one morning, as Keiji lay in bed with his phone on the nightstand, his doorbell rang.

Ding-dong.

If only Kou hadn’t have gone, he thought.

Ding-dong, ding-dong.

Why did Akaashi let him go? Why didn’t he stop him?

Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock! Ding-dong.

Why did he have to go? Why was it even necessary?

Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing-dong. Ding-dong. Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock!

Why did people have to expend their lives in war in the first place? Why wasn’t there another way?

Akaashi had rolled onto his back when his phone now rang. The sound was blotted out of his mind, but right before it went to voicemail he gave the caller ID a peek.

It was that same person. Akaashi stared lifelessly at the name, as if doing so would make it go away.

Why on earth did he want to talk so badly?

As soon as the phone hung up, immediately:

Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Knock! Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong.

The noise aggravated Keiji’s splitting headache, and at last he was ready to snap to make his incessant visitor go away.

Diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing-dong!

That was it. Keiji leapt out of bed, stormed furiously into the living room, and whipped open the front door.

“What do you want?!”

Only after the utterance did he comprehend who was on his doorstep.

The person outside seemed unfazed by the verbal assault. He only glared, his long, naturally black hair dyed two-thirds blond at the end.

“Kenma?” Akaashi muttered.

The man presented his phone with Akaashi’s contact info on display. “How bout you try answering your phone for once?”

Chapter Text

Five weeks agoKarasuno

When Kenjirou Shirabu was appointed the military attaché to Karasuno three years ago, the admiral saw it as the end of his ascent through the naval hierarchy. Relegated to an advisory role was duller than watching paint dry on the side of an underway warship, even if it made him party to military strategy. Nevertheless, he spent days cooped up in the Shiratorizawan embassy, juggling his country’s interests with those of their informal ally; and when out of the compound, he kept up appearances at social functions.

Thus, when an old acquaintance tapped him to acquire some intel, Shirabu was more than thrilled. The request was juicily simple. All Shirabu had to do was make a certain official named Kei Tsukishima divulge anything about what his office in the Defense Department was in charge of. Rumor had it he would make a rare showing at a soiree for the visiting Chancellor of Seijoh.

So Shirabu’s attendance at this particular party was a bit more stimulating than usual. He hated social functions to death and would have liked to have talked to his target and sneaked back to the embassy promptly. But any party always came with a certain, begrudging requirement:

Mingling.

“Greetings, Deputy Prime Minister,” Shirabu said to the visitor from Datekou. Owing to the presence of two world leaders, the turnout for this gathering was unusually diverse and easily attracted Kanji Koganegawa who had been in town already on other business. Today he wore on his arm a slender woman, different from any of the previous partners he’d been seen with. Gossip abounded about how the deputy prime minister spent his free time, with this girl being his current side gig.

“Have we met?” Kogane, an almost empty wine glass in hand, haughtily asked. The woman beside him appeared supremely bored.

“I’m Adm. Kenjirou Shirabu, the military attaché from Shiratorizawa.”

“Ah, yes,” Koganegawa said, pretending to be in the know and, more importantly, pretending to care.

“How long do we have to be here?” the woman on Kanji’s arm indecorously whined.

“I’ll tell you when we can leave,” he gnashed irksomely.

“I seem to be bothering you,” Kenjirou spoke, happy for the chance to escape. He bowed prudishly to the woman. “I hope he treats you better than the last one.”

Kogane’s face looked like he’d seen a ghost while the girl was mightily baffled.

“The last one? Kanji, what does he mean?”

“N-n-n-n-nothing!” he stammered. Shirabu pattered away, completely unbothered. He glanced over the other attendees, looking for faces that stood out. To one side, getting hors d’oeuvres, was the chairman of Karasuno’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Daichi Sawamura; elsewhere, the Secretary of Defense, Koushi Sugawara, chatted with the petite vice-president, Hitoka Yachi. And ahead, surrounded by agents of Karasuno’s Secret Service and Seijoh’s Chancellor Protection Unit, was the guest of honor, Chancellor Akira Kunimi, finishing up a tight conversation with the President of Karasuno himself, Tadashi Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi wasn’t an intimidating man. His amiable disposition made him look like a pushover, but he had an unspoken will thoroughly buried in interpersonal exchanges. To his right at this moment was his omnipresent advisor Makoto Shimada. And to his left, perched close to the president as if using him as a shield to discourage anyone from approaching, was the man Shirabu sought: General Kei Tsukishima.

“I must say you have an excellent security team here,” the chancellor remarked.

“I’d say you do as well,” the president chuckled before one of the visiting head of state’s escorts sidled into the room. “In fact, I think another one just arrived.”

Kunimi took a glance at one of his senior officers, Lt. Yuutarou Kindaichi, who had belatedly slinked into the room.

“Ah, yes. Well, I shall not keep you, Mr. President,” he excused himself and ambled to the new entrant. Kunimi exited with Kindaichi into the hallway for privacy. Shirabu, visiting with Gen. Sawamura, observed the chancellor’s exit over his conversation partner’s shoulder.

Sawamura shortly pardoned himself, recommending the shrimp hors d’oeuvres, but before Shirabu could approach Tsukishima standing behind the president, the consul-general from Inarizaki, Shinsuke Kita, had already moved in for a chat, with Vice-President Yachi now in the conversation as an observer. Shirabu instead moseyed over to the now unoccupied Secretary of Defense.

However, Shirabu could feel his opportunity to greet his target slipping away. The quiet Tsukishima was remarkably out of place among the socialites. Normally the asocial general, whom Kenjirou occasionally saw around the Defense Department, avoided public gatherings but had been badgered into attending this one by his longtime friend, the current president. However, the antsy Tsukishima felt he’d spent enough time at the shindig, and—after Inarizaki’s consular officer excused himself to get a drink, at the same time as Kunimi and Kindaichi reentered the room—Tsukishima spoke to the president.

“Yamaguchi, I think I’ll head out now.”

“Really?” Yamaguchi queried, more surprised than he admittedly should have been. “Well, I’m glad you came, Tsukki.”

“You should get some punch!” Yachi, cradling a cup herself, excitably piped.

“Yes, you should,” Yamaguchi nodded firmly.

Kei sighed. “Do I have to?”

“No,” shrugged Yamaguchi. “But if you don’t, I’ll draft an Executive Order to make you.” He snickered.

Tsukishima rolled his eyes. “Fine,” he moaned.

As Sugawara and Shirabu parted ways—the Defense Secretary also recommending the savory shrimp—Kenjirou spied his target leave the safety of the president and plod over to the punchbowl filled with orange liquid. Shirabu made his way nonchalantly to a tray of the lauded crustaceans on the same table. Another attendee holding a glass was casually swooping in on Gen. Tsukishima but swerved upon sighting Shirabu and then coolly took a seat at the nearest table with his back to the pair.

As Tsukishima tipped the ladle into a cup, Shirabu sucked the succulent seafood.

“Karasuno shrimp really is something,” he admitted aloud. Kei gave the unprompted speaker a cursory glance. “I recall concerns several years back about the sustainability of the industry. I’m glad those fears have been allayed.” He gazed at the native to force a comment. Tsukishima peered again and knew from the man’s gaze he was socially obligated to respond.

“I suppose some people like them,” he said unconcernedly.

“I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Adm. Kenjirou Shirabu, the military attaché from Shiratorizawa.”

“How nice for you,” Kei, ignoring Shirabu’s palm extended for a handshake, curtly rebuffed.

“I’ve seen you with the Secretary of Defense from time to time,” Kenjirou said undeterred. “What is your department in charge of?”

“Studying the military uses of curling irons,” Kei dryly bluffed.

“Oh? And what have you found?”

“They don’t work well on tanks.” He cagily studied the converser, unable to read the foreigner’s game.

“Shame,” Shirabu shook his head, playing along. Kei took a sip of punch and was about to slide away when Kenjirou continued. “How’s the president these days?”

“Why are you asking me?” Kei rudely spurned.

“You seem to be on good terms with him,” the admiral shrugged. “I like him. I hope he wins reelection next year.”

Kei peered at the head of state; as far as his reelection went, Kei wasn’t really afraid if he were honest. “He’ll make it through,” he said. “He always does.” The final comment piqued Shirabu’s interest, but he didn’t want to pursue a rabbit trail with the impatient general.

“Indeed.”

Kei set down his punch glass, about to skedaddle again.

“You know, you and I have a lot in common,” Shirabu said, vexing the Army officer. “We are both basically bureaucrats in a system that depends on us doing our jobs yet unable to fix the problems of the system that employs us. The war continues stagnantly, neither of us able to do anything about it.”

“Perhaps,” Kei said, “but things will change soon enough.”

“Really? And how do you know that, General?”

Kei flinched and Shirabu definitively noticed; judging from the reaction, Tsukishima’s last remark wasn’t a meaningless slip of the tongue.

Things will change soon enough.

Tsukishima glared, knowing full well he’d fallen into a trap. “If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment across town,” he lied and scampered away. Shirabu made no move to stop him. He’d gotten as much information as could be expected and hoped it would be useful to Semi regardless. That he’d gotten any info at all from someone as tightly wound as him was enough to feel proud.

Yamaguchi and Yachi giggled with Gen. Sawamura when the hasty Kei halted beside the head of state.

“Leaving so soon, Tsukishima?” Sawamura asked.

“Yamaguchi,” Kei began ominously.

“Yes?” said the president.

Kei peered at Shirabu idly enjoying another piece of shrimp. As unsettled as he was, he wanted to believe that the Shiratorizawan admiral couldn’t do anything nefarious with what he’d said about his branch’s top-secret endeavor. No, the matter was nothing to bother Yamaguchi about right now. Kei would wait for things to pan out, for further suspicious indicators before alarming the president with the possibility of Shiratorizawan espionage.

“Actually, nothing,” he said and tersely floated out of the room. After Tsukishima exited, Shirabu checked his watch and resumed his obligatory networking with the copious attendees, ignoring the guest sitting at the table nearby.

That guest, whose attempt to talk to Tsukishima had been preempted by the Shiratorizawan admiral, pretended to be contemplating but had actually eavesdropped on the entire exchange behind him. From it, he had drawn two conclusions.

One, had he himself attempted to speak to Tsukishima, his efforts to get information likely would not have gotten any farther either.

Two, judging from Shirabu’s questions, apparently his team needed to keep a closer eye on Shiratorizawa.

 


 

Three weeks agoShiratorizawa

Seated, Kenjirou Shirabu stretched both arms over the back of a row of chairs in a hospital waiting room, dully waiting as time ticked by. He felt awkward in civilian clothes, but circumstances required it.

From the corner of his eye, a stately gentleman waltzed out of the patient area. The genteel but imposing figure quietly took a seat in the row that backed up against Kenjirou’s, intentionally placing himself one seat over from the out-of-uniform admiral. They pretended not to notice each other, the new entrant sitting calmly with hands in his lap gazing at a plaque with their country’s name in kanji above the nation’s eagle-emblazoned flag.

“Funny how the ‘shiratori’ in ‘Shiratorizawa’ means swan,” the man equably said.

It was a code. Kenjirou bent forward deeply and muttered the reply: “Yet the symbol of the nation is a great white eagle.”

The pair made peripheral eye contact. The other man chuckled and shut his eyes.

“Come,” he said.

 

Reon Ohira, the man who’d vetted Shirabu in the lobby, guided the admiral to a hospital room guarded by an Eagles soldier. Ohira privately advised his boss in the room of Shirabu’s arrival and showed the admiral in. Once Shirabu was inside, a male in a hospital bed dismissed the guards in the room.

Even before Shirabu entered, Eita Semi was sitting upright in bed, the curtains blocking out all light. He was shirtless, his left shoulder topped in a bulky white cloth, tautly held in place by bandages circulating his torso. Kenjirou didn’t know why the intelligence officer summoned him but he already knew the cause of his colleague’s injury:

Just yesterday, Eita Semi almost died at the hands of an assassin.

To say they were friends was awkward; fate had simply forced them together countless times—in higher ed, military training, signals intelligence—until they almost intentionally parted ways: Shirabu for a career in the navy, Semi going into special operations. People might assume they got along well.

They’d be wrong.

“What a sorry state to see you in,” Shirabu stoically chided.

“You try getting shot,” Semi snorted.

“I have. It’s not fun,” Shirabu rejoined. In former times, their displeasure would have been more subtle, but continued interaction had dispensed with all pretenses. “Do you know who did it?” he asked after a frustrated pause.

“That’s what Ohira is trying to find out…but I already told the president what I think is the reason why.”

“Is it because of Karasuno?” Shirabu asked, in reference to his questioning Kei Tsukishima a fortnight ago.

“You wouldn’t know this,” Semi said, “but the operation in Karasuno was put on hold, and that’s the reason I called you here now.”

Shirabu cocked an eyebrow.

“Not too long ago,” Semi continued, “we picked up some chatter in Tokyo that they had made important progress on something called ‘the Kenma Project.’ I was beginning preparations to infiltrate the project when this happened.” He glanced at the thick padding on his shoulder. “The president ordered the assassination attempt covered up to trick the perpetrator into thinking they’ve silenced me, but no doubt they will figure out soon enough I’m alive.”

“So, in other words,” Shirabu pointedly interrupted, “while you’re supposedly laid up due to injury, you want me to investigate this thing called Kenma because the person who tried to kill you won’t notice if someone outside national intelligence is conducting your activities in your stead.”

“Let me finish!” he gnashed angrily, mostly upset his thinking was that transparent.

“Am I wrong?” prodded Kenjirou. The veins bulged on Semi’s forehead so visibly Shirabu wondered if the man’s wound might reopen.

Semi exhaled to calm himself and sighed. Kenjirou’s intellect and shrewdness were the reasons he wanted his longtime cohort to oversee the mission in his place after all; in a weird way, it was reassuring. “I already have the blessing of the president. All the mechanisms of the state would be at your disposal. For as long as I’m officially out of commission, the entire operation would be in your hands. You’re the only one I can entrust this with, if you’ll take it.”

“Oh, I’ll gladly take the chance to show you up.” Semi jolted, but Shirabu cut Semi to the quick. “But why? We’re not officially at war with the Tokyo Entente, so why does anything they or Karasuno is doing matter in the first place?”

“I’ll get to that,” Semi said cryptically.

“Please do,” Shirabu snootily replied. Semi was ready to slug his companion.

“We only have a vague idea what ‘Kenma’ is—it could be ballistic, nuclear, cyber, or even organic in nature—but whatever it is, it will completely change the nature of war if it’s finished. It has been decided that we must get our hands on that technology first in order to control it. Why is that so important? I think you already know. Thirty years ago, Tokyo would never have taken any action that could have risked a war with Shiratorizawa. The fact they dared invade any part of Miyagi is evidence we are not the great deterrent to violence we once were. If Tokyo completes this project, the Entente will conclusively become the hegemon of the new world order. We can’t let that happen, and President Ushijima agrees. In other words, sabotaging Kenma and stealing it for ourselves isn’t simply about helping Miyagi win the war….”

“…This is for the glory of the nation,” Shirabu interrupted and finished.

And there it was. For how much they often didn’t get along, both men were united in one point: the desire for their country to be the greatest in the world. For Shirabu, that desire was arguably even stronger than his counterpart’s. As part of a navy that was hopelessly content to watch other countries do its dirty work, Kenjirou’s mouth curled upward with excitement.

At last, he had something truly interesting in his professional life. And it was one more reason why Semi had no doubt Shirabu would execute the task to the utmost.

“The hard part,” Eita resumed with a different tune, “is recruiting a team. To maintain the ruse that we’ve abandoned looking into Kenma, you should avoid employing our trained operatives.”

“I already thought about that,” Shirabu spoke up, “and I already have some ideas. In fact, by my estimation, all we need our three people: someone with underworld connections who can move about Tokyo freely, someone adept in cyberwarfare who can thwart any computer-based system, and someone with the requisite technical knowledge skilled enough to seamlessly go undercover in the facility where Kenma is.”

Mildly surprised at how quickly Shirabu was settling into his new role—and mildly frightened too—the proposal was far easier said than done, he thought. But Semi offered what little help he could:

“I think I have a lead on the first one. A couple of years ago, we freed a Datekouan by the name of Kenji Futakuchi from Entente imprisonment. I think he has the underworld connections you’re looking for.”

“There’s a catch,” Shirabu charged. Semi smirked, soaking up the chance to, for once, be the one throwing a curveball in their relationship.

“I actually approached him already, asking his assistance. He refused. Maybe you can make him cooperate, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. He’s a bit of a selfish jerk.”

“Don’t you worry. I’ll make him comply.” Shirabu made the statement with absolutely no doubt at all. Semi grinned evilly, actually eager to find out what magic Shirabu could pull.

Yup, if anyone could pull this task off, it was Shirabu.

 


 

While preparations were made for the other future members of Shirabu’s squad, the admiral went to work convincing the obnoxious Futakuchi to join. Led to believe that his rescue (during the mission to retrieve Prime Minister Kamasaki) was purely happenstance when in reality Shiratorizawa had intentionally freed the prisoner to use him as an intel source, the ungrateful former human smuggler had grown complacent in his two-and-a-half years of liberty. After finding out how deep his underworld connections ran, Kenjirou became convinced the guy was right for the job and went about cashing in a few diplomatic favors to make him comply.

It culminated in a manila envelope dropped off at the residence of Kanji Koganegawa in Datekou. Inside was a simple photograph showing the deputy prime minister with a woman at a resort as well as a sealed second envelope with directions to call a phone number before opening. Koganegawa recognized where the photograph was taken and frantically dialed the number immediately.

“Where did you get that picture?” he demanded.

“Immaterial,” Shirabu anonymously replied, “but I don’t think it would be flattering for you if it came out that, while Prime Minister Kamasaki was exhorting soldiers in Sendai City all the way to his capture, you were canoodling at a beach resort.” Kenjirou told his captivated listener to open the other envelope. It contained various documents related to human smuggling, all referencing one Kenji Futakuchi.

“In there is sufficient evidence to charge Kenji Futakuchi with forgery, and immigration and customs violations. You have 36 hours to produce a public indictment of Futakuchi, and your cavorting will remain a secret.”

“That’s it?” Kogane asked.

“That’s it.”

30 hours later, Kogane called to say he submitted everything to the ministry of justice but cautioned they may not produce an indictment in time, and even if they did, it might be under seal. Shirabu repeated his initial terms. Five more hours later, Kogane told him it was done, and Shirabu confirmed through diplomatic channels of the indictment’s publication. In short order, Shiratorizawan authorities took Futakuchi into custody.

 

In the meantime, at Shirabu’s urging, agents in the national intelligence accelerated a preexisting inquiry into the mastermind of several ransomware attacks and successfully traced their origins to a computer programmer in Seijoh named Shigeru Yahaba. Shirabu told Semi and the president they needed Yahaba urgently for the mission. Wakatoshi Ushijima indicated the severity of the matter to Chancellor Kunimi, and when the chancellor retorted that extradition proceedings would take several months, President Ushijima threatened a reduction in Shiratorizawan military support if he didn’t comply. Unsympathetic for an international cybercriminal to begin with, Akira Kunimi personally made sure Yahaba’s rendition was complete in half a day.

 

Locating the last puzzle piece—a suitable spy—came only by happenstance. Shirabu attended a prescheduled walkthrough of a Health Department study into malaria. One researcher, a Johzenjiite named Yuuji Terushima, was immediately out of place among the homegrown staff. When Shirabu casually explored his past, strange coincidences emerged between his public work and private endeavors. When he got permission to bug the doctor’s apartment, he fortuitously caught the scientist red-handed sending data to a pharmaceutical company in Johzenji. And thus, two weeks before the next major offensive on the Datekou front scheduled for November 10th, Shirabu’s dream team was complete.

 

All the while, Kenjirou continued to act his role as military attaché. Following the last major conference, Yuu Nishinoya, the director of Karasuno’s Counterintelligence Bureau, inquired what the admiral thought of Shiratorizawa’s detainment of Shigeru Yahaba. Shirabu played coy.

Things continued as planned on all fronts: submarines inserted Terushima and Futakuchi in Fukurodani, Semi acted as go-between with Yahaba in Seijoh, and on a Monday evening, November the 9th, Shirabu temporarily placed Semi in charge of all matters before leaving port aboard the carrier STZ Takashi Utsui. Too busy dealing with the AWOL Yahaba (and with no desire to come crying to Shirabu for assistance if he could help it), Semi didn’t call Shirabu at all the next day. In fact, until a CIB agent named Chikara Ennoshita revealed himself on the Utsui’s deck on that Tuesday evening, Kenjirou had no reason to suspect things weren’t going as planned.

 


 

Sunset, Tuesday November 10, approx. 6 p.m. Miyagi time

Capt. Tsutomu Goshiki, the Utsui’s commanding officer, had accompanied Shirabu to meet his Karasunoan visitor hoping to watch whatever juicy conversation might follow—as unlikely as it was that anything particularly juicy would ensue. But an impromptu summons to the bridge destroyed his plans, and he pounded into the ship’s control room with a frown.

“What is it?!” he growled.

“There’s a call for you,” a crewmember announced, and Goshiki took the phone receiver.

“Capt. Goshiki. Who is this?”

“Captain,” Eita Semi began without introducing himself, “there is an ICBM traveling a westerly course passing over your location any second. You are to shoot it down at once.”

“And who are you?!” he objected furiously.

“I am a confidante of Adm. Shirabu! You are the only vessel with the capability to intercept that missile! You must neutralize it!”

“Then have the admiral give the order!” Goshiki spat. There was a chain of command, and whoever the anonymous speaker was, he was violating it.

“Your staff said he was busy, and that’s why they called you! If you fail to shoot down that missile, I assure you Adm. Shirabu will have you court-martialed!”

The young captain reacted to that. Tsutomu Goshiki was a rising star—in his mind at least—and he wanted to keep building his prestige. The threat of his career figuratively torpedoed by failing to take a critical action was anathema to him.

He pattered over to the radar screen and had the crew scan above the atmosphere.

And sure enough, a high-speed object was traveling west almost over their location. In a very short time, it’d be out of range.

Goshiki was more shocked than he should have been. He didn’t stop to ponder the implications of the direction the missile was traveling—away from Miyagi and towards Tokyo—before he gave the next order: “Shoot that thing down!” The bridge crew faltered at the surprising command. “You heard me! Obliterate it!”

Moments later, Ennoshita and Shirabu were aghast when an anti-ballistic missile burst forth from the rear of the carrier barreling skyward in a westerly arc.

Goshiki returned to his phone call. “Done.”

“Good. I don’t care what he’s doing. Get Adm. Shirabu in there and let me speak to him.”

Goshiki ordered a call placed over the PA for Adm. Shirabu, and the message was issued at once. At last, the captain took a few moments to sigh. He hoped to get a good explanation for this when the admiral arrived, along with—he dearly hoped—commendation for his quick resolve.

“Captain! Our ABM was destroyed!” a crewmember urgently warned, announcing the anti-ballistic missile’s spontaneous interception long before it reached its target.

“What?!”

“Unidentified aircraft approaching from the west!” came the next alert.

“Whose?!” Goshiki shrieked. Their ship was well away from the battlefield, so it was strategically unlikely the Entente would send a lone aircraft. Even if they did, Tokyo was at peace with Shiratorizawa, so they weren’t theoretically in any danger.

Unless the approaching aircraft had shot down his missile—in which case, it could potentially do anything.

“It’s not responding to contact requests,” an operator advised. “It appears to be Entente.”

“Entente fighter has fired two projectiles!” came another dire update.

Now Goshiki froze. If an Entente aircraft was attacking, surely it would be directed at the Karasuno contingent to his side.

Projectiles headed this way!

Under more pressure than he’d ever been, the captain gave the only, precarious, order he could.

“Shoot that plane down!”

As soon as the Utsui’s anti-air rockets let loose, the attacker’s own projectiles slammed into the side of the carrier long before the hulking vessel ever stood a chance of evading. Toppling over, Goshiki banged his head on the floor and slipped out of consciousness.

 

Swallowing his pride, Semi had made the desperate choice to come get Shirabu to attend to the dire matter ashore in Seijoh, but from a helicopter a short distance away, he beheld the next few moments with horror.

As he neared, he saw a smoke cloud in the distance but didn’t realize it was the anti-ballistic missile imploding from enemy fire. Then two consecutive explosions rattled Shirabu’s flagship. The pilot of Semi’s chopper pointed out the mad escape of a Nohebi fighter jet, weaving crisply to escape multiple rocket salvos. The jet’s maneuvers caused some of the pursuing missiles to collide; and in some cases, the jet weaved backward and shot down the projectiles.

When Karasunoan vessels released missile volleys in support of their attacked ally, the pilot’s luck finally ran out. A rocket clipped the jet’s wing, and moments later the other projectiles savaged the craft.

Nearby, a parachute popped open over the ocean.

“Follow that parachute!” Semi barked.

 

After the fighter jet’s rockets slammed the side of the carrier, all Shirabu remembered was being airborne.

Then he remembered the deep blue ocean beneath him.

Then he remembered something snagging his wrist and his body bluntly hitting the side of the hull.

Shirabu gaped upwards at the confessed spy Chikara Ennoshita gripping Kenjirou’s arm, his other hand dangling from the deck. Several feet to their side was a rope ladder.

“Grab the ladder when I swing!” Chikara yelled. Shirabu clasped both hands on Ennoshita’s forearm as the other man rocked him back and forth to build up momentum. Kenjirou leapt and barely clasped the rope. Ennoshita swayed himself to jump next, but when the damaged vessel lurched, Chikara’s fingers lost their grip. His jump misfired and he barely missed the ladder.

One moment later, he too was grabbed by the very naval officer he’d saved moments ago. Above them, calamitous metallic grinding preceded Ennoshita’s helicopter skidding off the deck as the vessel rolled too far toward the water. Chikara grabbed the rope ladder, and he and Kenjirou tightly pressed themselves against the hull as the chopper plummeted and cacophonously shattered against the waves.

“Come on!” Shirabu yelled before wrestling his way upward. Shirabu then helped Ennoshita onto the deck as the vessel leveled out.

“Thanks,” Chikara said.

“Returning the favor,” the admiral said curtly and scanned the area. While the ship stabilized, Shirabu definitely sensed a dominant lean toward the side the missiles had struck.

At the same time, he spotted the aerial puff of smoke where the attacking fighter had been and its pilot parachuting towards the sea. Overhead, Semi’s assigned helicopter whirred past, making a beeline for the ditching pilot.

“That’s great! Save the guy who tried to kill me and leave me to die!” Kenjirou ridiculed angrily. He reined himself in. There were more important things right now. As the senior officer aboard, he needed to get to the bridge and know the situation. He wanted to interrogate the Karasunoan spy who’d revealed knowing about his connection to Yahaba, but now wasn’t the time. “Ennoshita was your name?”

Chikara warily beheld the admiral whom his government alleged was guilty of tasking Yahaba with hacking his government. He likewise wanted information from the admiral, but similarly pursuing that lead would have to wait until they weren’t in mortal danger.

“I have a duty to the sailors on this ship,” Shirabu continued. He marched beside Chikara and clasped his upper arm. “Once this situation has stabilized, we’re going to finish our conversation.”

 

Ennoshita followed the admiral to the bridge where they found the groggy Capt. Goshiki with a nasty bump on the head. Assuming command, Shirabu directed damage control efforts, until the ship’s list was too great and Kenjirou gave the order to abandon ship. He and a dutiful Ennoshita helped crews from the lower decks until it was too precarious to stand, and nearly a half-hour after impact, the admiral donned a lifejacket, handed one to Chikara, and guided him to the rim of the vessel.

“Can you swim?” Shirabu asked.

“Yes, sir,” Chikara replied. He bent his knees to propel himself from the deck, but before he could do so, Shirabu pressed a palm to his back and unceremoniously shoved Ennoshita off.

Shirabu following promptly, the pair splashed into the water, dyed orange in the twilight, the sun already beyond the horizon. Shiratorizawan and Karasunoan destroyers reeled in lifeboats and picked up stragglers. Semi’s helicopter with a search beam clattered overhead. The spotlight finally landed on Shirabu and held fast. From the blinding light a ladder unfurled down to their level.

“Climb up,” Kenjirou called to Ennoshita. Chikara gratefully complied, with Shirabu following.

It felt like he was climbing forever, but finally Ennoshita reached the cabin of the chopper. Chilly water dripping out of his hair and past his eyelids, he couldn’t make out Eita Semi staring flabbergasted. Ennoshita doggedly crawled into the craft and heaved exhaustedly. But as Shirabu entered the cabin, Semi forced Ennoshita prone, straddled him, and held a pistol to his head.

“What were you doing on that ship?!” he furiously blared.

“Leave him,” Kenjirou said calmly, drying his face with a towel in a corner.

“This guy works for Karasuno!” Eita objected.

“He saved my life. Now get off him.”

Eita snorted and clambered off Chikara. Shirabu flung a second towel to the Karasunoan.

“What happened on there?” Semi asked the admiral.

“Don’t know. We fired an ABM, but that fighter shot it down.”

“What?!” Semi shrieked. He didn’t give Kenjirou time to answer before frenziedly ripping open a door to a compartment used to store equipment. Occupying the otherwise empty closet at this moment was a man in a Nekoma Air Force uniform, his wrists bound with duct tape. “Why did you attack that ship?!”

The pilot, whose smooth yellow Mohawk looked unbefitting his position, beamed devilishly. “You attacked me first,” he boasted.

Semi tried to comprehend that statement before parsing it out in horror. This pilot had inadvertently been in the path of the rocket launched to intercept the ICBM and believed it was aimed at him instead. For all intents and purposes, Shiratorizawa had accidentally attacked the Nohebi plane. (It hadn't occurred to Semi the oddity of a Nekoman cadet operating a Nohebi aircraft.)

“What’s going on?” Kenjirou insisted. Eita grabbed Shirabu’s shoulders in a panic.

“Seijoh has Yahaba! They fired an ICBM at the lab where Kenma is!”

Shirabu froze. Ennoshita gaped, trying to piece together all the information he could passively absorb. But the Nekoman prisoner was listening too, and what he said next cut through the cloud of despair enshrouding the Shiratorizawan officials.

“Did you say…Kenma?” All three in the cabin peered at the restrained airman. “That lab’s…gonna be destroyed? Then good riddance!!!”

Semi clasped the detainee’s lapels. “What do you know about Kenma?!”

“First you gotta tell me why you wanna know,” the captured combatant sneered.

Before Semi could continue, the helicopter’s pilot—oblivious to the conversations behind him—called out to Semi. “We are approaching the Torono. I told them the admiral is aboard, and they have a party to meet him on the deck.”

Ennoshita flinched recalling his original orders. He gaped at the Karasunoan aircraft carrier towards which they were descending, spotting its captain Kiyoko Shimizu and several armed naval personnel standing by.

“Don’t land!” Chikara shouted.

The pilot jumped and stopped the craft in place.

“What are you talking about?” Shirabu questioned.

“Adm. Shirabu, Shigeru Yahaba hacked my government. They are planning to arrest you in connection with it.” Noting Shirabu’s surprised reaction, Ennoshita turned to Semi. “But you’re saying Seijoh has Yahaba.”

Eita grimaced. Chikara Ennoshita knew too much as it was, and now he had Shirabu’s piercing glare too.

“Semi, care to explain?” Shirabu nigh threatened. Grimacing, Eita reached in his pocket.

“The Chancellor Protection Unit raided a condo downtown. When I went to investigate”—he produced from his pocket the nonfunctional remains of Yahaba’s mission cell phone—“this was on the street outside.”

Shirabu was gone for 24 hours, and somehow in that time, his entire, neatly planned operation had suffered a supercritical meltdown.

“Admiral,” Chikara resumed, “the people holding Shigeru Yahaba have committed a crime against my country. My government may not be ready to listen to you, but”—he gulped—“I am willing to act as a go-between to convince them of your innocence if you are willing to disclose what is actually going on.”

“Not in your life!” Semi spat.

“Deal,” Kenjirou curtly contradicted.

“What?!” shouted Semi.

“Thank you for all you’ve done,” Shirabu said with hefty sarcasm, “but since you have not officially finished recovering, I remain in charge of this investigation, don’t I? And now that we are together again, your temporary command passes back to me.” He sent a piercing glare to his comrade. “And didn’t you just say it? The lab is about to be destroyed. There’s no point in protecting our operation.”

Their scheme to restore the glory of Shiratorizawa had failed, though Shirabu secretly wasn’t ready to give up on that dream entirely yet.

In the short term, however, he had a higher priority. “We need to make whoever’s responsible for this pay.” He faced Ennoshita. “Our cooperation is on the condition you tell me everything you and your government knows, understood?”

Shirabu actually didn’t expect to get everything but would take whatever he could, while Ennoshita reluctantly nodded, unsure how he’d guarantee that condition. Chikara pondered where to go next, and recalling the suspicions raised by his superiors in the CIB, Ennoshita realized if he could get to Saeko, they’d all be safe.

“Can we make it back to land on this chopper?” Ennoshita asked.

Shirabu eyed Semi who queried the cockpit. They had just enough fuel to reach their departure point, the city where both Semi and Saeko’s bases of operations were.

“I know a person who’d be willing to hear your side of the story,” Chikara said.

“All right then. Take us there,” Shirabu directed, and Semi ordered the chopper to make an aerial about-face.

After watching the ships’ lights disappear into the distance in the impending eve, Shirabu faced his new ally.

“You have a few minutes, Ennoshita, to think over what you’re going to tell me,” he said before he knelt in front of the Nekoman prisoner-of-war. The airman reeled, not liking the look of displeasure on the admiral’s face. “But first, I want to hear what you know.”

The POW smirked. “Like I said, first ya gotta tell me why you wanna know.”

“Well, at least tell me your name,” Shirabu said calmly with a subtle air of lethality.

The detainee was taken aback. Finally he scowled:

“Taketora Yamamoto.”

Chapter Text

Monday November 9, approx. 5:00 p.m. Tokyo time Nekoma

Perusing Shirabu’s information on the Kenma Project, Yahaba found references to a certain location in the country of Nekoma; and triangulating several pieces of data, he identified an apartment that was in some way connected to the project. While Terushima would infiltrate Lab 3 in Fukurodani, Kenji Futakuchi’s job was to snoop inside the Nekoman residence.

After being dropped off on Fukurodani’s coast, Kenji made his way south into Nekoma via a migrant tunnel run by an old acquaintance. Then he commissioned another old associate to manufacture a key to the apartment while illegally acquiring a pistol. While his network once ran far and wide, his three years’ absence and effects of the war meant some of his former connections had dried up or moved on. Futakuchi irksomely realized that reintegrating himself to the underworld in peacetime would not be as easy as he assumed.

Fortunately, he had just enough favors saved up that, after a week of preparations, he was ready to break in to the apartment. The lessee, an accountant named Shouhei Fukunaga, was out of town until Wednesday. And so, on Monday afternoon—at the same time Terushima was sneaking into the innermost depths of Lab 3—Futakuchi entered the apartment.

Kenji quietly locked the door behind him. It was a modest, two-bedroom accommodation, not grotesquely large. He examined the space, from the gaudy line art on the walls to high school volleyball participation trophies proudly displayed on a shelf. Sifting through one of the kitchen drawers he found a gross stack of unopened mail addressed to a “Kenma Kozume.” Mostly junk, several bills were among the batch, stretching back months.

He checked out the bedrooms that adjoined the main living space. The master bedroom was left neatly in order before Fukunaga’s business trip. Then Futakuchi took an interest in the smaller bedroom, the door to which was closed. Though also neatly done up, the second bedroom didn’t feel as lived in as the first, eerily exuding the vibe of a show home—or even of the room of someone who had died.

On a dresser, Kenji noticed a framed photograph, depicting five college students.

If this was Kenma Kozume’s bedroom, Futakuchi wondered, and if he hadn’t been here in months, then where was he?

His pondering was shattered when the front door unlocked.

“Fleek,” Kenji whispered and plastered himself against the wall beside the dresser, resting one hand on the pistol in his belt. The new entrant innocently locked the door, dropped a suitcase in the entryway, and strolled into the kitchen. Kenji peeked around the threshold to behold the apartment’s unduly early owner in a business suit, stretching with a light groan.

Shouhei Fukunaga spotted the open drawer containing the mail and bumped it closed with his hip, only then wondering why it was open to begin with. He began to look around the apartment to make sure he was alone. Futakuchi withdrew into the room, in his panic knocking the dresser. The picture frame atop wobbled and, against Kenji’s desperate pleas, clapped face down on the wood.

Fukunaga jumped, looking at Kenma’s inexplicably open door. He stiffly tiptoed away and retrieved a frying pan from a drawer to attack the suspected intruder. Kenji’s shirt soaked through with sweat as he withdrew the handgun. He couldn’t hear the quiet compressions of the rug under Shouhei’s socks so cautiously peeked around the threshold.

The moment Shouhei saw a head tilting around the doorway, he raised the pan high and galloped with a scream imitating samurai movies.

Kenji ducked and dived through the doorway in front of his attacker. Before Shouhei could react, he stretched his leg and tripped the assailant who artlessly skidded across the carpet. Kenji then planted himself atop his foe, pressing both his wrists to the floor.

“Get off me! Get off me!” Fukunaga writhed, banging his feet against the floor.

“Shut up!” Kenji yelled.

“Where’s Kenma?!” Shouhei demanded.

“Who’s Kenma?” interrogated Kenji peevishly.

“What did you do with him?!” Fukunaga barked again, ignoring Kenji’s confusion.

I didn’t do anything to him!”

“Let him go, you monsters!”

“Shut up and listen to me!!!” Futakuchi roared angrily. The ferocious bellow at last got Fukunaga to freeze and—with a mix of fear and confusion—peer up at his captor.

Now that he had his subject’s attention—“Who on earth is Kenma?” Kenji impatiently asked.

 

In a café at the base of a skyscraper across the street from his apartment, Shouhei Fukunaga inconspicuously ordered drinks with Kenji Futakuchi. Around them, citizens carrying on like normal despite the faraway war ate, chatted, or, like the man at the adjacent table, read the newspaper. Fukunaga felt guilty for charging at Futakuchi and soon surprised Kenji with how open he was willing to be about his friend Kenma.

Shouhei Fukunaga and Kenma Kozume met at Itachiyama University in Fukurodani two decades ago. Kenma had been living in Fukurodani since middle school as his dad did contract work for the military and was studying computer engineering. Fukunaga was an exchange student majoring in accounting. In college they befriended another exchange student—an ROTC mechanical engineering major named Taketora Yamamoto—and two native Fukurodanians: Koutarou Bokuto, studying physical therapy while playing collegiate volleyball, and Keiji Akaashi, with his sights set on genetic work. By coincidence, all five played volleyball in high school and quickly bonded over their shared experiences.

More recently, Kenma had lived with Fukunaga for much of the war after the former’s home was demolished to construct a military base. For almost as long, Kenma received monthly visits from Akaashi. Fukunaga would take Kozume to a local hospital and drive the latter home a few hours later. Every time, Kenma Kozume was almost comatose when Shouhei picked him up, but Kenma never complained about the effects on his body. Shouhei didn’t think it his place to pry further.

That state of affairs was the repeating monthly routine…until six months ago.

 


 

Six months agoNekoma

In the very same café, the unassuming Shouhei loitered with a lukewarm cup of coffee when a sort of celebrity entered. The man wore full Air Force regalia, though his smooth yellow Mohawk well contradicted any look of refinement. Fukunaga was aware of glances and whispers from other customers. Fortunately Shouhei’s visitor wasn’t the kind of celebrity who got hounded for autographs, but his face was recognizable nonetheless thanks to their government’s rabid publicity: the visitor was the Entente’s top fighter ace and Nekoma’s “hero” of the war, Taketora Yamamoto.

Shouhei had dropped off Kenma for his monthly procedure at the district hospital before coming to the café. He and Yamamoto—who went by “Tora” with his friends—planned to chat, but Tora’s last PR engagement ran so long that as soon as he received a latte on the house, it was time to pick Kenma up.

“Kenma’s hurt?” Tora asked.

“No, he’s helping Akaashi with something.”

“Akaashi’s in town?” Yamamoto’s head tilted. The last time all of them had been together was two years ago.

At Bokuto’s funeral.

“How’s he doin’?” Tora asked.

“OK, I guess,” Fukunaga shrugged. “I don’t talk to him much. He’s doing something super top secret in Fukurodani, and I guess Kenma’s helping him on it? He comes every month, and I take Kenma to the hospital and pick him up. I’ve seen him a few times, but he always says he has to head home right away. He quit his job at the university by the way. He works for the government now.”

They parked outside the local hospital. Tora then got a call from the guy arranging his public appearances, so Fukunaga went in to get Kenma alone. Yamamoto finished the phone call when Shouhei stumbled back lugging their friend like a drunkard over his shoulder.

Fukunaga maneuvered the virtually unresponsive form of Kenma Kozume into the backseat. Tora gawped at his friend; Kenma’s vacuous pupils beheld Tora, but the man had no energy to acknowledge the passenger.

As soon as they started driving, Kenma fell asleep, as usual according to Fukunaga.

 


 

The following day

Kenma woozily forced himself awake in his bed where Shouhei had tenderly laid him and tucked him in. His head pulsed from the worst migraine of all time. Dressing in a black T-shirt and red boxers, he wobbled into the living room where a fully dressed Fukunaga and Tora, in only boxers and a sleeveless undershirt, were eating breakfast.

“Mornin’!” Tora yelled blithely with his mouth full of cereal. Kenma, neither prepared nor expecting to have visitors, flinched and ducked behind the bedroom threshold. “You don’t gotta hide your morning wood,” Tora offhandedly joked. “We’re all guys here.”

“Shut up!” screeched Kenma who slammed the door shut. He emerged a short time later now properly dressed. Fukunaga prepared cereal with milk and set it before Kenma’s chair. The man, with blond, uncut locks that grew out from an undyed black top, shuffled to the chair silently.

“I see you still keep trying to dye your hair. But it’s never gonna look good if you don’t keep it up, bruh!” Tora laughed, but Kenma didn’t respond. Fukunaga silently chewed on a cream-cheese-layered bagel. “Dude, everythin’ OK?” Tora asked of the silent meal guest.

“Hm?” Kenma shrugged. “Yeah.” He took a small spoonful of cereal and sipped the milk daintily. His stomach felt like it was in knots, and he didn’t think he’d be able to eat the dish in front of him.

“You looked awful yesterday. What’s that guy doin’ to ya?” Tora brashly asked. Fukunaga glanced between each speaker.

Kenma gave Yamamoto a nonchalant glance. “Huh? Nothin’. It’s just medical stuff.”

Tora eyed Kenma suspiciously when the man pushed the bowl away.

“I don’t feel well,” Kenma murmured.

“Get some rest. We can hang out later,” Shouhei reassured. Kenma shuffled past their guest and closed the door to his bedroom after him.

“What was that about?” Yamamoto asked Fukunaga.

“He’s always like that after he sees Akaashi. But he gets over it after a day or so. He’ll be totally back to normal in three days at the most.”

“What’s Akaashi doin’ to him to make him like that?”

“Kenma says he just draws blood and plasma and stuff.”

“You don’t act like that after drawin’ blood,” Tora scoffed.

“All I really know is it’s for the war and Kenma won’t go into details.” Fukunaga never questioned it, even as deep down he harbored concerns about his friend’s wellbeing. At least, he told himself, Kenma never showed any long-term effects from the procedures.

 


 

One week later

When he wasn’t recovering from his monthly hospital trip, Kenma was everything Tora remembered him: shy, solitary, observant, and an avid gamer. They took a few outings, and Shouhei loved the peaceful time they could spend together. Kenma was constantly nervous that his incapacitation was causing him to lag in the MMOs he played, but as they traveled around town, he stuck to his portable consoles just like back in college.

Then, several days later, Akaashi called Kenma.

 

“Hey, um,” Kozume shyly mumbled to Fukunaga later that evening, “so: Akaashi’s coming back.”

“Really? It hasn’t been a month.”

“Yeah, uh, he says he has to take more samples now.”

Tora, on the couch watching the news and criticizing opinionated pundits who knew nothing of conditions at the frontline, stifled himself to hear the conversation behind him.

“I guess it’s gonna be a weekly thing now.” Kozume reflexively rubbed the back of his head.

“Oh, well, I guess I’ll just have to rearrange things with work so I can drive you more,” Fukunaga accepted.

“Yeah,” Kenma drooped. He hated putting Fukunaga through so much trouble. “I guess I’ll just have to quit playing Final Haikyuu Quest. I’ll never keep up with anyone now.”

Something changed in Tora, hearing Kenma morosely sacrificing his pastime. He strode upright, looking askance. “Why don’t you just tell him no?”

Shocked by the objection, Kenma shrank back. “Oh, well, I—”

Tora marched towards him. “You shouldn’t give up what makes you happy. I don’t get it, bruh.”

“Well, it’s, uh, it’s for the war….”

“What could be so important that you’d make yourself a zombie?!”

Shouhei quaked slightly at Tora’s blunt forcefulness.

“Well—”

“Why are you letting him treat you like that?!”

“He needs my blood!” Kenma finally reacted irritably.

“He can use someone else’s blood!”

“This is what I want! You got a problem with that?!”

Tora flinched at the tetchy response, Fukunaga equally surprised.

“Why would you want that?!” Yamamoto expostulated.

“He’s making better soldiers!”

Both Tora and Fukunaga distinctly jolted. Kenma sheepishly receded. He’d just said more than he was supposed to.

But Yamamoto guffawed tactlessly. “A soldier?! You?! You can’t be a soldier!”

“Don’t laugh!” Kenma protested.

“Cloning you to be a soldier?! Hah!”

“It’s not cloning,” Kenma meekly complained. But suddenly breaking his cackling fit, Tora slapped both hands on Kenma’s shoulders, his face forming a nearly maniacal smirk.

“Listen, bruh. If you’re tryna take my job away, lemme tell ya. I don’t want you to,” he said with a gentle but forceful tease. “I like my job. No one can have it. So you better get that pretty little thought out of your head of tryna protect me.”

Tora cackled mockingly. Kenma’s face glowed bright red, redder than Fukunaga had ever seen his roommate. Yamamoto released the boy who had been stunned into silence. Tora supported himself against the couch when his demeanor became grave once more.

“So, listen. I don’t like my friends suffering, so tell me: do you like it?”

Kenma, still red in the face, took a few moments. Shouhei eagerly awaited an answer.

“No,” Kenma finally mumbled.

“No?” Tora repeated, half-unsure if that’s what Kenma had said. Kozume shook his head in agreement. “Then tell him you don’t want to do this anymore,” commanded Tora frankly.

“I can’t,” Kenma continued to mumble. Tora darted forward and caught his friend in a tight bear hug. Kozume’s blush returned just as strong.

“I don’t care what that guy’s doing. I don’t like the thought of one of my friends being hurt. And I definitely don’t like the thought of one of my friends being the one doing it!” He faced Kenma squarely and jostled him. “Tell him you quit, and he has to find someone else. Do it for me if not for yourself.”

Kenma’s eyes seemed to be tearing up. Tora shook him again to get a response.

“Y’hear me?”

Kozume gazed deeply at his friend’s perturbed, concerned face.

“Yeah,” Kenma squeaked and, without warning, began to sob. His face plopped on Tora’s chest and he sniffed, much to the surprise of both present. Tora became flustered with no idea what to do until he decided to just let Kenma be.

When Kozume finally withdrew, Tora resumed: “We’ll go with you tomorrow, so you can tell that guy that you’re done with this, all right?”

Kenma wiped his eyes with his sleeve and nodded. Both Shouhei and Tora watched him quietly resign himself to his room, where he collapsed on the bed and cried into his pillow.

 


 

The following day

The trio waited in the hospital lobby until Akaashi appeared, escorted to their surprise by a Nohebi Army officer named Suguru Daishou. Tora homed in on the Fukurodanian doctor immediately. Something about the man seemed off.

Immediately Keiji glided towards the fighter pilot he hadn’t seen in two years. “Tora, it’s so wonderful to see you.” Akaashi ensnared him in a hug that somehow felt cold and mechanical. Tora hesitantly returned it.

“Well, Kenma, let me explain to you the things that are changing,” Keiji said upon breaking the embrace. Kenma nodded and cast an unsteady glance at his cohorts. Tora nodded staunchly and Fukunaga fired a thumbs up of encouragement. Kenma inhaled deeply and followed Akaashi and Daishou out.

 

20 minutes later, Keiji and Kenma returned, the latter’s head drooping, Keiji wearing a smile as serene as it was unnatural. Tora and Shouhei stood with nervous perplexity.

Akaashi spoke. “Kenma tells me you have some concerns about what we’ve been doing.” Tora already dreaded where this was leading. “And to alleviate some of your worries, I’d like to invite you to see what really goes on—if you have the time, of course.”

Kenma shamefully avoided eye contact with his friends, feeling as though he’d let them down. Fukunaga and Yamamoto were silent at first.

Tora snarled at the glibly smiling Akaashi.

 

An hour later, Yamamoto and Fukunaga stood outside a window looking into an operating room. Inside, Akaashi and a fellow researcher named Wataru Onaga had restrained Kenma’s wrists and ankles to a surgical table. Kenma lay limply, staring with ennui at the ceiling. Lt. Daishou stood by with an assault rifle; and in the hall, Daishou’s deputy Sgt. Akihiko Seguro, also brazenly armed, guarded the door to the side of Shouhei and Tora. Though allegedly meant to reassure them, each step observed through the glass just made the onlookers more anxious. IVs were brought out, and Kenma was hooked up to various tubes with vitals displayed on different monitors.

“Are you ready?” Keiji finally said, holding a needle for drawing blood.

Kenma’s breathing and heartrate were elevated. He tried mentally telling himself to remain calm, but doing so only made him more self-aware of how irregular his breaths were.

“Yeah,” he lied, not mentally ready at all. He never was; he simply wanted to get it over with.

Then Akaashi inserted the needle into the concave side of his elbow. Fukunaga and Tora quietly observed the different fluids that filled containers over numerous draws the next several minutes, both astonished by the sheer amount of liquid being removed. Tora thought it shouldn’t be humanly possible.

“All right. Another one. You doing ok?” Keiji asked after the fifteenth sample.

Kenma breathed heavily but measuredly. “Yeah,” he huffed. Akaashi felt uncertain with the answer, but he persevered and inserted another needle. Kenma winced. Tora’s fist angrily tightened.

As more and more fluids filled the tubes and Dr. Onaga constantly hooked up more empty cylinders, Keiji again took note of his patient, gritting his teeth and groaning faintly.

“Are you sure you’re ok?” It was the first real hint of concern on the scientist’s face. Kenma’s reaction today was not normal at all.

Kenma grimaced but told himself the pain bubbling throughout his body would subside if he soldiered through it. “Keep goin’,” he forced himself to say, his lips abrasively dry. Keiji hesitated but inserted another needle at the patient’s request.

This time, Kenma violently convulsed.

And then, as the fluid began to depart Kenma’s body, the pain became instantly unbearable, and he let out an earthshattering scream.

“Kenma!” Keiji cried, clasping the man’s jerking body.

Tora acted on instinct. Startled by the commotion, Seguro wasn’t paying attention when Tora dashed past him to get into the adjacent room.

“You can’t be in here!” Daishou screamed at the intruding Yamamoto and pointed his machinegun. Not frightened by the assault rifle for a second, Tora unceremoniously slugged Daishou in the face and ran to the writhing Kenma.

“Kenma! Kenma!” he screeched, Akaashi stunned by the pilot’s presence. He then spotted Daishou scrambling upright, wiping blood from his lip with the back of his hand.

“You’ll pay for that!” Suguru growled and, to Keiji’s horror, aimed his weapon.

“No!” Akaashi yelled viscerally. As if in a trance and with no regard for his own safety, Akaashi bounded between Tora and Daishou, his arms wide like a crucifix. Daishou faltered and didn’t fire.

And then, all of a sudden, the patient passed out.

“Kenma?” Tora said in fear. He rattled the boy’s shoulders. “Hey, Kenma, wake up!”

“He’s unconscious,” Onaga, analyzing his vitals, announced.

“Kenma! Listen to me! Wake up!” Tora continued to yell.

Both Fukunaga and Sgt. Seguro, now in the room, gawked. Akaashi shakily steadied himself against the end of the table, Tora eliciting the only noise in the room.

 


 

The following day

Akaashi promised he would talk to Tora and Shouhei the following day. He showed up at the latter’s apartment in business attire, but immediately the casual mood was demolished by the looming presence of Daishou and Seguro, both heavily armed, flanking the doctor.

Kenma was not with them.

“I don’t have much time,” Akaashi said after taking a proffered seat. Tora sat backwards on a dining room chair and Fukunaga sank apprehensively into the couch.

“Where’s Kenma?” Yamamoto immediately questioned.

Akaashi took a deep breath. “He and I talked about this before the procedure, but Kenma is coming back with me to Fukurodani.”

“What?!” Tora exclaimed, shooting to his feet. Daishou instinctively raised his gun at the loose cannon who’d punched him yesterday.

“Kenma agreed to this beforehand,” Akaashi anxiously added.

“He’s OK?” Fukunaga asked.

“He will be. I’m positive,” he said with slight hesitation.

“He will be?!” Tora thundered.

“I’m sorry, but just know that this is what Kenma wants.”

What Kenma wants. If not for his tearful confession the other night that he didn’t want it, Tora and Fukunaga might have been more persuadable.

“Shut up!” Tora impugned. “Kenma told us how he really feels, so don’t give me that bull!”

“I could play a melody on a lyre like you!” Fukunaga pointedly said with an obscure pun. Tora’s rage momentarily flagged in the face of the incomprehensible statement. Keiji involuntarily smirked when he figured out the wordplay.

“Want me to wipe that grin off your face?!” Tora upbraided. Daishou readied his assault rifle to shoot as necessary. Fukunaga leaped to hold back Tora, but the sudden movement prompted Seguro to aim his own firearm at the latter, frightening Shouhei back into sitting down.

“I’m afraid I have a flight, so I can’t stay,” Akaashi said, perfunctorily standing.

“Tell me!” Tora demanded. “Why on earth would Kenma want to subject himself to that, huh?!” He glared ferociously at the man he no longer felt he knew. Keiji had the look of a deer in the headlights, debating how to respond.

Everything was indeed with Kenma’s consent. But as much as Keiji wanted to assuage their fears, he wasn’t at liberty to divulge the reason why.

Only Kenma had the right to disclose his reasoning.

“Doc, we gotta go,” Daishou hurried. Keiji took the chance to march to the door.

“If you walk out that door, consider our friendship over!” Yamamoto threatened viciously. Keiji fearfully gazed back.

“Doc!” Daishou demanded.

And Keiji Akaashi abruptly scuttled out of the space.

 

While Tora banged his fists against the wall, through the window Fukunaga spied the doctor and his guards entering a dark green sedan out front. It sped away promptly.

They had no way of knowing it, but despite his attempts to control himself, Akaashi was bent forward in the car, his face in his palms, crying irrepressibly over his dearest friends.

 


 

Present

“That was the last time I saw Akaashi or Kenma,” Fukunaga concluded. A few days after Keiji’s departure, the doctor phoned Fukunaga up. Fukunaga expected an apology and real explanation, but instead the Fukurodanian pretended like nothing had happened. Akaashi made one meager acknowledgment of the brokenness he’d caused, offering a tour of his lab in a renewed attempt to reassure them Kenma was fine.

Tora had returned to active duty the day after Akaashi left. As much as Shouhei wanted to do something for Kenma, the frightened Shouhei used the excuse he was too busy with work to go abroad.

The final episode in the saga occurred a few weeks ago. Yamamoto earned home leave again for more publicity appearances. When Shouhei told him Akaashi’s offer, Tora instantly called the scientist up and said he’d take it.

“I’m going to save Kenma,” Tora asserted immediately upon hanging up. Yamamoto left the next day…

…And never returned to Nekoma. His appearances were quietly, abruptly canceled. Having not spoken to him in two days, Fukunaga feared the worst until Tora finally called him.

“I’m not coming back,” he had said quietly, apprehension pervading his voice. He offered no explanation and added the most haunting words of all: “You’ll have to save Kenma, bruh.”

 

Shouhei expectantly turned his attention to Futakuchi sitting opposite.  “So you’re going to save Kenma and Tora, right?” he beseeched.

Kenji shrank back. “Saving” anyone wasn’t part of his mission.

But Futakuchi didn’t care. His career helping migrants leave Tokyo for opportunities abroad was all for the sake of giving hope to people trapped in impossible circumstances by forces beyond their control. The story he had just heard—as atypical as it was—was no different. The fate that had befallen the three hapless Nekomans all because of the Tokyo Entente’s project was beyond fair.

Kenji had already made up his mind. He’d save these three and accomplish his mission.

“Of course. I’ll save you and your friends,” he answered.

All the burdens on Shouhei’s shoulders lifted instantly. “Thank you.”

“Listen,” Kenji said, “I need to make arrangements, and it’s too dangerous for us to be seen together. Go back home, and I’ll pick you up tomorrow—9 o’clock, let’s say. Then I’ll keep you safe.”

Fukunaga nodded gratefully. The pair rose and proceeded out the door.

Before parting ways on the sidewalk though, Fukunaga turned to his savior one last time.

“Actually, I have one more request….”

 

Back inside the café, the man at the adjacent table flipping through various newspapers during the duo’s conversation now set down the tabloid he was studying. He intently eyed the pair through the café window, after having eavesdropped on their entire exchange.

 


 

As soon as Kenji got back to the place he was renting, he immediately called Yahaba, not caring that it was midnight across the ocean.

H-hello?” Yahaba answered with a stutter. Kenji ignored it.

“Yahaba! I’ve got something!” he bellowed.

Shigeru replied with hesitation in his voice. “This is a bad time.”

“It’s urgent!” Kenji again insisted.

There was a nerve-racking pause before Yahaba finally muttered: “Gimme a minute.”

It didn’t take long for Yahaba to get onboard with what Futakuchi was saying. The Kenma Project evidently depended on continually acquiring the DNA of Kenma Kozume. Why was irrelevant for their purposes; what mattered was that, if they could get Kenma Kozume away from the Entente’s scientists, then the project would most likely stall. Shigeru promised to vet Fukunaga’s story before the morning. Kenji accepted it as a necessary precaution. He himself then went about arranging transportation for himself and four persons.

Yes, four persons, not three, after Shouhei’s surprising, last-minute request:

“I want to save Akaashi too.”

Despite everything, Fukunaga still held out hope for the scientist he’d known for decades, insisting Akaashi had changed for the worse since his spouse’s death and convinced his current behavior was because he’d never gotten over it. Futakuchi felt sorry for Fukunaga. And despite the difficulties it could cause, he’d do whatever was in his power to save Keiji Akaashi too.

 


 

Tuesday November 10, approx. 7:00 a.m. – 2 hours before Yahaba’s arrest, 6 hours before the sinking of the Utsui

Unable to sleep, Shouhei found himself pacing, pondering, and panicking at various times throughout the night. The nighttime news of the Miyagi Alliance’s new offensive in Datekou kept him occupied further. Everything was suddenly so surreal, and before he knew it, his constantly interrupted attempts at packing his suitcase outlasted Tokyo dawn.

Around 7 in the morning, Shouhei had refitted his travel case with clothes and sentimental possessions. It was hard to believe that, just yesterday, the same suitcase had been used for his curtailed business trip.

Checking his email yesterday morning, he’d received an anonymous correspondence telling him to come home that day, if he wanted to help his “friend.” Shouhei fretted it was a trap, but he steeled himself and bit the bullet, flying back immediately.

Thus, when Shouhei encountered Kenji in his apartment, he naturally assumed Futakuchi was the one who’d sent the email. He had no way of knowing that Kenji had nothing to do with the person who was trying to reach him, nor could Futakuchi know that somebody else had been trying to contact Fukunaga. Ironically, the two simply ended up in the right place at the wrong time.

Satisfied that packing was done, Fukunaga chose to take one last look at Kenma’s room for posterity. He noticed the picture frame Kenji accidentally knocked over lying face down.

It had been Shouhei’s idea to commemorate their last year of college—Kenma, Tora, and Bokuto graduating, Shouhei returning to Nekoma for his Master’s, and Akaashi starting grad school at Itachiyama—with a group photo. On commencement day, he touchingly gifted each of them a copy. Kenma, almost unsurprisingly, summarily lost his during his move, inspiring Fukunaga to digitize a copy that he uploaded to social media so Kenma could have one in spirit. When Kozume moved in with Shouhei after the outbreak of war, Kenma noticed the framed photo that Fukunaga still displayed twenty years later. Shouhei gave it to Kenma to put in his room.

Fukunaga set the picture frame at the top of his open suitcase and admired the glimmering faces: Bokuto’s silly grin, Akaashi’s temperate smile, Tora’s dopey beam, his own gentle smirk, and Kenma’s hard-pressed un-photogenic frown.

Now there was just one more matter to resolve.

What Shouhei hadn’t said last night was that, during Tora’s final phone call two weeks ago, he left a phone number. “If there’s an emergency, call that number and ask for ‘the tiger.’” Tora hung up in a rush. Fukunaga had never attempted it and even hesitated now, but seeing the happy portrait of the five friends, he dialed.

Colonel Akama,” answered a voice authoritatively. Fukunaga jumped. Colonel?! What phone number did Tora give him?

“Uh, can I speak to the tiger?” he trembled. The officer’s reaction was beyond cordial.

Are you aware we are in the midst of a military emergency?! I don’t have time for—” There was silence, and then another voice, taking the phone, spoke:

Yo.

“Tora!” Fukunaga cried.

What are you doin’ callin’ me?!” Yamamoto remonstrated.

“Uh, you said if there was an emergency, I—”

What do you want?” he curtly interrupted.

“I, uh, I met someone—who will help save Kenma. And you too!”

There was a pause, and then Yamamoto in shock stumbled over every word that popped into his mind. “Wha—Are you—How—Dude! I ju—Just be careful, OK?! That’s great news, but be careful!” He hung up suddenly.

That hadn’t gone how Shouhei envisioned it. But he’d done what he needed to do. Now he’d help Futakuchi in every way he could.

Unfortunately, like Fukunaga and Futakuchi last night, someone else at this moment happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.

“That was easier than I thought,” announced an intruder. Shouhei twisted around to find Sgt. Akihiko Seguro wielding a handgun, blocking the room’s exit. Filtering into the space around him were Kouji Hiroo, Isumi Sakishima, and Yoshiya Takachiho in Nohebi Army uniforms. “I expected we’d have to torture you, but nope. You and that pilot have been conspiring all along.”

“No,” Shouhei begged as Sakishima and Takachiho each grabbed an arm. Fukunaga’s knees collapsed in despair.

All of his hope of rescuing Kenma or seeing his friends again vanished.

He prayed that Futakuchi would accomplish what he couldn’t.

“What do we do with this one?” Takachiho asked.

“Simple,” said Seguro as he prepped his pistol to fire. “Daishou said if we confirm he’s a rat, liquidate him.”

 


 

Tuesday November 10, 9:00 a.m. – 4 hours before the sinking of the Utsui

Yahaba finally got back to Futakuchi an hour and a half ago to report Fukunaga’s story checked out, and now Kenji waited in the driver’s seat of his rental car outside Shouhei’s building.

Futakuchi waited.

9:10 passed.

9:15.

He began to get worried.

A few minutes later, he exited the car and proceeded upstairs cautiously.

His heart sank when he found Shouhei’s apartment unlocked.

Closing the door behind him, he drew his handgun and tiptoed through the house. The living room and the kitchen were clear. So was the bedroom belonging to Kenma.

When he peered in the master bedroom, he grimaced.

“Ah, fleek.”

A pistol in one hand, Shouhei was laid out to look like he’d taken his own life, but Kenji knew better.

This was bad. He’d been compromised.

He had to warn Yahaba.

 

That very moment

When the first agent from Seijoh’s Chancellor Protection Unit entered, Kyoutani heaved one of the dining chairs onto his head.

Yahaba dashed into the bedroom and slammed the door.

Then, one gunshot.

Then another.

And suddenly, at the thought of the man he loved, Shigeru’s desire to flee completely wilted.

His phone snapped him out of his funk almost instantly when it buzzed in his palm. The caller ID was Futakuchi’s.

Dang it!, he swore internally. Why do you always have to call at the worst time?!

He dashed to the window and with a fell swoop hurled the device from the 10th-floor residence down to the street below. It exploded into a hundred pieces upon hitting the road, even the SIM card inside snapping in two.

 

“Come on, pick up! Pick up!” Futakuchi yelled into the receiver as it continued to ring.

Then, after the fourth ring, an automated female voice piped up: “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service.

“What?!” Futakuchi shrieked and dialed again.

This time, there was no ring. “The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no long—” Futakuchi hung up as a terrifying realization washed over him.

He was on his own.

Quickly Kenji fled to his car. He drove around the city, bound for nowhere in particular. Illogical turns were made without rhyme or reason, all to confirm one fact in his rearview mirror:

He was being followed.

Sgt. Seguro occupied the front passenger seat of the swamp green sedan tailing the man they suspected of being Fukunaga’s accomplice. After unsuccessfully trying to lose his tail, Futakuchi pulled up to an abandoned power station. Hiroo, driving the other vehicle, skidded alongside, and Sakishima unleashed his assault rifle into the cab of Kenji’s car. Kenji swooped to the ground as bullets zipped overhead. He madly dashed into the building.

“Get him!” Seguro shouted.

The disused plant still boasted piping, grungy containers, and rusted turbines, providing more than a few hiding spots. A catwalk encircled the space high above. Kenji took a few moments to breathe, acutely listening to the ruckus made by his pursuers entering the derelict building. As long as he could hide, he had a chance to escape.

And then, his phone rang obnoxiously.

Kenji silenced the ringer immediately and flipped the device to vibrate.

“Over there!” Seguro yelled in reaction to the ringtone. Kenji sprinted to a new hiding place.

As soon as he took off running, his phone buzzed in his palm with a new phone call. Kenji angrily read the display:

Restricted.

It wasn’t Yahaba. He silenced the call, but his phone vibrated again. Kenji hung up once more.

The caller dialed again, and Kenji silenced it again.

The caller hit redial again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Ducking behind a crate, Kenji silenced the buzzing once more, but sure enough, the incessant dialer called once more. His patience exhausted, Kenji irritably answered.

“What do you want?!” he whisper-yelled.

The voice that replied was suave and cocky. “Kenji Futakuchi?

Kenji froze, trying to process who the mysterious caller could be. He didn’t think the speaker’s accent hailed from either Tokyo or Miyagi.

“Are you the ones who killed Fukunaga?” he whispered, asking the only question he could think of.

The caller’s reply just added to his confusion. “Nah, that wasn’t me. I’m the one who’s about to save yer life.

Futakuchi flinched, but at that moment Akihiko Seguro appeared pointing a handgun at Kenji. Futakuchi expected the end.

And then, suddenly, there was a light swoosh as something from high up quietly passed through Seguro’s skull. Seguro wobbled, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he flopped to the floor.

“Sarge!” shrieked Sakishima.

There was a faint zipping noise, followed by Sakishima landing with a thud. Hiroo was next to be felled mysteriously. Takachiho dashed to the exit, but before he escaped, there was another zip sound, and he gurgled and skidded on the floor.

After several moments of silence, Kenji warily peeked around the side of the crate.

Seguro’s subordinates were all splayed on the floor. A sniper had felled each of them, but Kenji was too high-strung to figure that out. He peered at the phone in his hand.

The stranger had hung up.

Now Kenji’s attention was drawn to the metallic friction sounds above. Four men in all black, with ski masks and tactical gear, each carrying sniper rifles outfitted with silencers, levitated from the catwalk to the floor by zip lines. As Kenji wobbled upright, one of the armed men checked Seguro’s pulse. Two others sprinted to inspect the other three soldiers. The last one, seemingly their leader, halted before Kenji.

Futakuchi had no way of knowing it, but the man in front of him, who was supposed to have met Fukunaga last night, had been sitting in the café with newspapers, listening to his and Shouhei’s chat.

Nor could he know that the same man, two nights ago, had helped Tetsurou Kuroo go into hiding.

Nor could he know that the very same man three weeks ago had tried to kill Eita Semi.

“Uh, thanks,” Kenji mumbled. The evidently highly trained soldier stared through the ski mask with cold, stoic eyes. The soldier checking Seguro’s vitals sauntered behind Futakuchi. The operative lifted his sniper rifle in the air and rammed the butt of it into Kenji’s skull. Futakuchi blacked out immediately.

Surveying the unconscious man for a second, the foursome’s leader picked up Kenji’s phone and then extricated his face from the ski mask with a gasp of relief, shaking his head to tousle his mask-flattened silver hair. Then on his own phone he dialed the man who called Futakuchi moments earlier.

Yes?

“Tsumu, we got the Shiratorizawan spy.”

Awesome, Samu. Bring ’im to Fukurodani. We’re leavin’ tonight.

Chapter Text

Five weeks agoKarasuno

Yuutarou Kindaichi felt uncomfortable out of uniform, but his current assignment necessitated it. He had illicitly invited a well-regarded scientist in Karasuno to a round of coffee. Yet as uncomfortable as he was in civilian clothes, the person with whom he was meeting was far more off-putting.

For one, Kindaichi had envisioned cordial drinks at this café, but Dr. Tobio Kageyama plainly stated it was his dinnertime and ordered egg-topped pork curry. Making the situation no less awkward was Kageyama’s decision to order a kids’ size milk carton for a beverage. Making it no less awkward was the fact he was compulsively filing his nails at the table before dinner. Making it still no less awkward was his frank statement of gratitude that Kindaichi was paying, even though no such offer had been made.

And throughout all this, Kageyama was so self-focused he hadn’t asked why Kindaichi contacted him nor given an opportunity for Kindaichi to elaborate.

Yuutarou assumed the doctor had guessed why they were meeting and was just piddling the time away. After Tobio’s meal arrived, the calm eccentric stabbed what appeared to be a slice of a turnip with his fork and held it up as if contemplating the meaning of its existence. Kageyama envisioned the diced foodstuff’s former shape and then pondered its vague resemblance to his host’s upright hairstyle. After convincing himself the turnip and Kindaichi were one and the same, he plopped the vegetable into his mouth. His cell phone dinged some ungodly text message sound, and after extricating the phone from his pocket, the doctor slothfully chewed while composing a reply.

“I’d put that device away if—” Kindaichi warned, tardily trying to reassert dominance. But Kageyama shoved the screen into the former’s face. Yuutarou read the display, a message asking how Kageyama’s dinner was going from someone named “Shouyou.”

Shouyou—that’s what Kindaichi came to ask about.

“Tell me about SHOYO,” Yuutarou asked.

“Eh,” Tobio shrugged before stuffing more food in his mouth. He spoke with his mouth full. “He fie. A will duh a tuh,” he swallowed. “Actually, he’s dumb most of the time.”

“Dumb?” Kindaichi’s brow furrowed. “SHOYO” was the name of a medical process Kageyama had reputedly invented, being enhanced for Karasuno’s Department of Defense.

“Yeah, he’s clumsy too,” Kageyama continued mindlessly.

“So what you’re saying is, SHOYO needs more work?” His assignment wasn’t to find out the status of the project, but Kindaichi couldn’t help but ask given the unusual descriptions by its creator.

“There’s nothing I could do to fix Shouyou,” Tobio said without hesitation.

At this, Kindaichi’s eyes bulged. “Then why are you continuing to work on him?” he pressed.

“Huh?” Kageyama said.

“Why are you working on SHOYO if it’s a lost cause?”

“SHOYO?” Tobio blinked. And after a few seconds, a lightbulb flickered in his head. “Oh, wait. You’re asking about SHOYO? I thought you meant my associate Shouyou. If you wanted to talk about SHOYO, why didn’t you say so?”

Kindaichi might have blown a gasket if not for the dozens of witnesses.

Kageyama stuffed more food in his mouth. “However, I don’t know what you want to know. SHOYO was created to improve the shrimp population. That’s all. Right now, I’m limited with the resources I have on what I can do.”

“Then would a change in locale assist you?” Kindaichi slyly invited. After all, that was his real mission: lure Kageyama to continue his research for a country other than Karasuno.

Picking up on the insinuation, Kageyama chomped a cut of pork. He intentionally kept Kindaichi in suspense while he measuredly chewed. He dabbed his napkin against his lips after swallowing.

And then, as if he had forgotten Kindaichi’s question entirely, he scooped another bite of meat into his mouth.

“Are you going to answer me?” Kindaichi frowned.

Kageyama had thought it a stupid query and so he hadn’t bothered entertaining it with a response. But since his host was pining for one, he obliged. “Oh, sure, it would help. But if you want Shouyou to defect, I don’t see why you don’t ask him.”

“I’m talking about you!” Kindaichi yelled far too loudly, briefly attracting unwanted glances.

“Well, I’m not going to go anywhere else,” Tobio said after swallowing another bite of his nearly finished meal.

“Why not?” glared Yuutarou.

“Because,” he said after swallowing once more, “this is my country. Sure, I could accomplish better things with better resources and better support, but all I care about is my home and everything here.”

Kindaichi was half-tempted to outright kidnap his subject, but the venue forbade it as much as his orders did. Kageyama had to come willingly or not at all.

Then Tobio dabbed his lips again and rose. “Thanks for the meal. Sorry, I can’t be more help,” he said pithily.

He fast-walked to the door. Kindaichi darted after him, but when Tobio was the first to exit the establishment, a waitress slid into the path of the rushing Yuutarou.

“Excuse me. I assume you’re paying for you two?”

Kindaichi jerked. Back in Seijoh, it was customary to pay the check before the meal. While he grumpily handed sufficient cash to the waitress, Kageyama’s car merged onto the street.

 

Geez. Did your phone break?” read the new message from Shouyou, reacting to the eternal “Tobio is typing…” notification on his display.

“No. This guy wanted me to defect,” Kageyama texted back.

What?! No fair! Why’d they ask YOU?!

“Would you go?”

No! But I want to be ASKED!

Kageyama grinned. He loved teasing his partner, and now was as good a chance as ever.

“I told him Shouyou is dumb and clumsy and broken. And I don’t mean the shrimp. 3:D ”

I’m telling Tsukishima,” he protested like a grade schooler.

“Don’t you dare. He’ll overreact and say I can’t go out anymore.”

You shouldn’t go out anyway, since you always get LOST.

“Shut up Boke,” he quickly thumbed back and put away his phone.

And at that moment, he realized he’d missed his turn several blocks back and was indeed misplaced.

 

If not for the diplomatic plates on his car, Kindaichi might have gotten a speeding ticket for how he zipped to his destination. The meeting with Kageyama lasted far longer than it should have, and the lieutenant with the Chancellor Protection Unit was inexcusably late for the soiree hosted by Karasuno’s president for his boss, Akira Kunimi. Yuutarou skulked into the venue, immediately spotting President Yamaguchi conversing with the chancellor, the latter with his back to Kindaichi.

“I’d say you do as well,” Yamaguchi said in compliment to the chancellor’s security detail and then spotted Yuutarou slinking in. “In fact, I think another one just arrived.”

When Kunimi’s caustic eyes fell upon Kindaichi, the latter became stiff as a twig.

“Ah, yes,” said Kunimi with muted displeasure. “Well, I shall not keep you, Mr. President.” Kunimi about-faced and subsequently gestured Kindaichi to follow him back into the hall.

“Where have you been?” the chancellor bluntly questioned.

“There was a security threat at one of your venues tomorrow,” Kindaichi answered confidently.

“Next time, tell me before going out on your own,” Kunimi grumbled. That’s all the censuring Yuutarou would get though. He’d been on his security detail for years and was too valuable an asset to reprimand for doing his job.

But the chancellor’s mistake was to assume Kindaichi was doing his job, since after all, Kindaichi’s orders to contact Kageyama had not come from the chancellor.

 


 

Interlude – A series of coded transmissions

North Fox: Crow shrimp is sparse. It was a new moon, but swans flock to the moonlight. [Kageyama will not defect. Tsukishima provided no useful intel, but Shiratorizawa has shown interest in Tsukishima.]

Hungry Fox: Guess I’ll go birdwatchin’. [I’ll monitor Shiratorizawan activity more closely.]

North Fox: Do you want a shallot? [Are there new orders for Kindaichi?]

Hungry Fox: Save it for later. The owl café has a special. I’m gonna catch a rattler. [Keep using Kindaichi as a mole for now. Lab 3’s research has advanced considerably. I will attempt to recruit a “rattlesnake.”]

North Fox: What if there are swans about? [What if Shiratorizawa takes an interest in Lab 3?]

Hungry Fox: Then it’s huntin’ season. [Then we give them a warning.]

 

It was several days later when a certain other nation’s spies detected operatives from Semi scouting out Lab 3. And shortly thereafter—not coincidentally—Eita Semi was shot.

 


 

Tuesday November 10 Karasuno

November 10th was a special day for Tadashi Yamaguchi. It was his birthday after all. And yet, by some cruel coincidence, since becoming president, that date tended to be profoundly awful.

For one, it was this day three years ago when the war in Datekou began.

Now, exactly three years later, the combined forces of the Miyagi Alliance with the support of Shiratorizawa launched their largest counteroffensive to date. It was going well.

But the course of events that swept the world that day would make it feel far from triumphant.

By evening, Yamaguchi would have one goal: to regain control of a situation that had dramatically left him behind.

The day’s events were prefigured somewhat. A little over a week ago, the Head of the Counterintelligence Bureau, Yuu Nishinoya, delivered an intelligence report about the arrest of Shigeru Yahaba.  Under an assumed name, Yahaba was believed to have been the same individual who at one time provided cybersecurity software for the Department of Defense. For the hacker to be in Shiratorizawa or any country’s hands was thus a threat to national security. As one of the attendees at the debrief, the reclusive Kei Tsukishima warned Kageyama and Hinata, the chief scientists on his subdivision’s project, to report any suspicious activity.

“Not like anyone ever talks to me anyway,” Hinata frowned, still resentful after Kageyama was invited abroad a month earlier.

“Shut up, Boke,” Tobio Kageyama slighted, still hoping to preserve the secrecy of that encounter.

Kei’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“Nothing,” Kageyama blurted.

“Some guy approached Kageyama asking him to defect!” bellowed Hinata.

“I said, shut it!” screeched Tobio.

Disciplinary action for Kageyama aside, Kei stormed into Yamaguchi’s office, exploiting a long friendship with the president to get past the red tape. At that same time he recalled his interaction with Kenjirou Shirabu a month ago and regretted not mentioning the exchange at the time. Granted, in recounting the conversation to Yamaguchi, he embellished to make it sound worse than it was, but the military attaché and the person that approached Kageyama had to be connected, so he pushed that narrative however he needed to. Nevertheless, Yamaguchi had some concerns about Kei’s portrayal of events, which Nishinoya acutely sensed. Yuu passed on those concerns to his subordinate, Ryuunosuke Tanaka, and they used the resulting mission as an excuse to investigate Shiratorizawa’s purposes for acquiring Yahaba, an assignment that was given to a former CROW operative named Ennoshita….

That was the last Yamaguchi heard of the matter in-depth. And perhaps ironically, even while all of the above contributed to the sequence of events that took place that Tuesday, none of those actions directly caused what happened.

In fact, it all started with a traffic ticket.

 


 

Tuesday November 10, 9 a.m.Kitagawa, Seijoh

Fine. He’s at my place,” read Kyoutani’s text message.

Oikawa’s reply—“O_o”—was the exact face he was making at that moment.

Right then, Tooru Oikawa, a longtime acquaintance of Yahaba, was outside Shigeru’s apartment in Kitagawa, the place suspiciously taped up like a crime scene as it had been two weeks earlier. That somewhat prompted his coy inquiry to Yahaba’s boyfriend/ex-boyfriend (he didn’t really care what their relationship was at this point) about how Kyoutani’s intention to see Yahaba last night panned out.

So Mr. Hotshot-Lying-Scoundrel-Moneygrubbing-Cybercriminal Shigeru Yahaba was hanging out with his boyfriend/ex/whatever at the same time as police were coincidentally trying to hunt him down again? It was the kind of fishiness Oikawa hated not being a party to.

His brain didn’t have time to pursue the lurid true crime story further though. The seller of a guitar he saw online messaged him to say he was considering another offer, and Oikawa had to book it downtown to stake his claim. When his turquoise Camaro was pulled over, the car had been clocked driving 160 kilometers per hour. Oikawa initially claimed to have transposed the miles on his speedometer, but neither 100 miles per hour nor 100 kilometers per hour in the city were any better.

Then Oikawa made his biggest mistake: so insistent at getting on his way, he argued with the cop. A few four-letter words and a refusal to exit his car later, Tooru Oikawa was booked on disorderly conduct and taken to the station. As he was manhandled through the building, Tooru spouted off the only thing he could think of to earn some leniency, adamantly proclaiming he knew where Shigeru Yahaba was. The city of Kitagawa’s chief of police, Takahiro Hanamaki, overheard his protests.

Last night, a man named Kindaichi from the Chancellor Protection Unit asked Hanamaki to briefly kill power to a small apartment block as part of a state investigation. 30 minutes after doing so, the army raided an apartment there, and Hanamaki was asked to have the residence taped up like a crime scene the following morning. Takahiro naturally noticed the address was the same as Yahaba’s but hadn’t thought any more of it.

His curiosity getting the better of him, he pulled some strings to contact an old classmate of his, the local military base commander, Issei Matsukawa. Matsukawa had likewise been approached by Kindaichi, requesting a contingent of soldiers on standby for a potential operation, allegedly on the chancellor’s orders. Finding the rumor that Yahaba might have returned to Seijoh odd, Matsukawa passed on his curiosity to another acquaintance of his, one who was very high-placed in the chain of command.

And so, the information ended up in the hands of Gen. Hajime Iwaizumi, the “Chief of Defense” of Seijoh and the one charged with command of the armed forces in wartime. Because of his position, Iwaizumi saw the chancellor constantly, and around noon, during a lull in conversation with the head of state, the general asked the chancellor about the rumors Yahaba was back in Seijoh. He declined to mention the source or Kindaichi’s actions in Kitagawa, assuming the chancellor already knew about them. Kunimi kept up a poker face as he asked superficial details, trying not to be surprised by the allegation.

After thanking Iwaizumi, Kunimi decided to assign a member of his security detail to investigate, one he assumed he could trust and who happened to be in Kitagawa at that moment.

And so Yuutarou Kindaichi, going haywire over losing Yahaba last night after the spyware attempt flopped, was given the biggest break he ever could have hoped for. Kindaichi spoke to Oikawa at the jail, was given the address of one Kentarou Kyoutani, and—using CPU resources this time since the chancellor haplessly authorized doing so—raided the downtown condo at 2 p.m. (Tooru Oikawa was promised he’d be pardoned if his information panned out, but Kindaichi had no intention of following through on that.)

Kyoutani, wounded in the raid, received quick medical treatment before Kindaichi declared he would transport both Yahaba and Kyoutani to headquarters. Yuutarou departed with the two prisoners alone. And the three of them were not seen again that afternoon.

 


 

Interlude – A conversation in the Shiratorizawan consulate, 2:30 p.m.

Satori Tendou: Guess what I just heard~

Semi: I’m busy, Tendou.

Tendou: The CPU just raided a condo downtown.

Semi: What?

Tendou: Mhm! Here’s the address. Thought it’d make your day.

Eita Semi rushed to the location, outside of which he found the crumpled remains of Yahaba’s cell phone. He reluctantly advised President Ushijima of the CPU’s interference in their activities; and finally admitting the situation had gotten too dire, he headed out to sea to retrieve Shirabu.

 


 

Interlude – A phone call in Kunimi’s office, 3 p.m.

Ushijima: Chancellor….

Kunimi: Ushijima, to what do I owe—

Ushijima: Care to explain why you’re interfering with a clandestine matter of mine?

Kunimi: Care to explain what you’re referring to?

Ushijima: I have said my peace, Chancellor. I highly suggest discontinuing this course of action, as there will be merciless consequences.

The call ended promptly. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know Ushijima was referring to Yahaba. It would seem that Kindaichi had made a move against Yahaba and by extension Shiratorizawa—much to Kunimi’s surprise as Kindaichi hadn’t notified him if even the Yahaba rumors were true. His attempt to call the lieutenant went straight to voicemail.  The chancellor beheld Iwaizumi in the room.

Kunimi: General, how did you learn about Shigeru Yahaba?

 


 

Approx. 4 p.m. (two hours after Yahaba’s arrest)Karasuno

Tobio Kageyama was the headlining developer on the Shrimp Revitalization Initiative, a concerted effort to revive Karasuno’s endangered shrimp industry. The endeavor resulted in the process known as SHOYO—Stimulated-Hormone Organic Youth Optimization—which adapted the shrimp’s own DNA to offset the effects of overfishing. (Kageyama’s chief cohort, Shouyou Hinata, claimed the process was named for him, but Kageyama insisted the acronym was unrelated.)

Right away the military was interested in adapting the technology. A board of inquiry under Gen. Kei Tsukishima was established, but the recently elected President Yamaguchi was far less enthusiastic.

The war changed all that. Fearing high casualties, Yamaguchi was persuaded when Tsukishima arbitrarily said SHOYO would be ready in one year. Despite his friend’s promises, though, three years had passed, and SHOYO’s military adaptation was progressing sluggishly and was horribly over budget.

The delays weren’t because human DNA couldn’t be successfully altered. In fact, the opposite was proven by the world’s foremost geneticist, Kiyoomi Sakusa, a few years before the war, though that research had never been released for peer review.

One problem lay in the difficulty of safely adapting a process designed for marine crustaceans to Homo sapiens. Kageyama frequently yearned for the data from Sakusa’s experiment or to pick the brain of anyone who had worked on it.

But at the same time, Kageyama didn’t care much for his new job either. He was a water creature specialist, and humans just weren’t his interest. After all, Shouyou Hinata was human, and that was proof enough the gene pool was severely flawed—he once said that as a joke and never understood why his companion didn’t find it even the least bit funny.

Regardless, today, while fighting was taking place in Datekou across the strait, Tobio and Shouyou were mindlessly sifting through experimental data in their cramped laboratory in the capital.

“If this keeps taking forever, the war will be over,” Tsukishima said, announcing his entrance. Kageyama purposefully ignored the general’s arrival. Hinata’s chin dug into his palm as his eyes glazed over.

“Bakayama,” Shouyou whined, “why didn’t you just do what I said and add the mixture before gestation? That would have worked so much better.”

“Because that might kill the samples!”

“Oh, yeah?! Well, this isn’t working either!”

“Shut up, Boke.”

Kei’s eye twitched at the everyday bickering. Hinata pouted and moved his mouse to close the folder he was skimming.

But the cursor onscreen moved the opposite direction. Finding his mouse inputs inexplicably unresponsive, the rogue cursor highlighted the files in the folder and deleted them.

“Kageyama! This isn’t funny!” Shouyou yelled, repeatedly banging the undo key command on his keyboard to no avail.

“What?!” Tobio snarled. Then, his own mouse cursor began to open various folders and summarily delete their contents. “No, no, no, no, no!”

“Shut up, Bakayama! This isn’t me!”

Tsukishima was averse to ask what was going on as the scientists panicked like loons.

In a matter of minutes, three years of research ceased to exist.

 


 

Approx. 4:30 p.m.Karasuno

“We are positive the intrusion was initiated by Shigeru Yahaba and that it originated in Seijoh.”

Noya’s verbal report was exactly what Yamaguchi dreaded. The counterintelligence chief was in the president’s office with Vice-President Yachi, Tadashi’s advisor Shimada, the defense secretary Sugawara, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sawamura. They awaited Tsukishima’s final debrief on the severity of the cyberattack on SHOYO.

Nothing else in the Defense Department had been affected fortunately; but that also meant the intrusion had specifically targeted SHOYO for malicious destruction.

“There’s another matter Ryuu informed me of,” Noya continued, with some uncertainty whether it was appropriate to bring it up. “The operative we sent to investigate the espionage activity last month has identified the person who asked our scientist to defect. His name was Yuutarou Kindaichi, and he is attached to the CPU.”

That got Yamaguchi’s attention. Up until now, Tsukishima’s paranoia asserted Shiratorizawa was the mastermind, but fingering Seijoh added a new layer to the mystery.

Was Yahaba acting on Seijoh’s behalf? Since Seijoh deported the hacker to Shiratorizawa in the first place, that was initially hard to believe.

At last Tsukishima called.

“Everything’s gone,” were the first words out of Kei’s mouth when Yamaguchi answered. Not only had Yahaba wiped every file and corrupted every bit of data, he’d sabotaged temperature-controlled rooms and purged all electronic backups.

The military’s dabbling with SHOYO was over.

“You’d better make Ushijima pay,” Tsukishima grumbled.

And once again, Yamaguchi was being pushed in a certain direction, to follow a certain narrative. He hated it. He was the president, and all the fantasies growing up made him feel like he should be in charge of these choices.

Was it really Shiratorizawa behind this? Yamaguchi desperately wanted to know who his enemy was.

It was hardly a consolation and just made things more confusing, but there was one bit of arguably positive news. According to Nishinoya, none of the data from SHOYO was stolen during the intrusion, simply deleted. It meant no one else was going to be using Karasuno’s research to further their own experiments at least.

It didn’t change the urgency of the matter. Tadashi had to do something now. Yes, Seijoh was a new variable, but Yahaba’s last known benefactor was Shirabu. If he was to get to the bottom of it, he had to make Shirabu talk.

“Where is Kenjirou Shirabu?” Yamaguchi asked Sugawara.

“The military attaché? I believe he was assigned to Joint Task Force 10 as an observer.”

The president looked at Nishinoya. Sugawara and Sawamura were automatically inclined to support Tsukishima since all three were associated with the military, but Tadashi felt he needed to maintain a more nuanced approach.

“Nishinoya. Is there anyone in the CIB in Seijoh right now who can be entrusted with transferring Shirabu to our custody as soon as possible?”

Nishinoya pouted. The first—and only—person that came to mind was the one who was already there investigating the matter: Chikara Ennoshita.

“Yes, we will get on it,” he said firmly.

 


 

Interlude – A conversation in Kunimi’s office, 6 p.m.

Iwaizumi: It appears one Yuutarou Kindaichi from the CPU was aware of Yahaba’s presence in Kitagawa and coordinated with local Army and Police to detain him.

Kunimi: Who ordered that?!

Iwaizumi: The respective branches each claim he acted on your auspices.

Kunimi: I had nothing to do with this!

Kunimi called Kindaichi, but the phone again went to voicemail. The chancellor snarled. He proceeded to look up contact info for another CPU officer in Kitagawa to get to the bottom of things, just as Iwaizumi took a phone call himself. The general’s face lit up in horror, and he addressed the chancellor before the leader could dial.

Iwaizumi: Did you order the launch of an ICBM?

That terrifying statement made Kunimi temporarily forget about Yuutarou Kindaichi.

 


 

Interlude – A transmission to a helicopter headed towards Joint Task Force 10, approx. 6 p.m.

Semi: What do you need?

Tendou: I know you’re technically not in charge of it anymore, but I thought you should know that Seijoh just launched a missile at Tokyo.

Semi: Where?

Tendou: We’ve estimated the trajectory—it’s going to pass over you soon, actually—and I think the coordinates are the same as that Fukurodani facility you were looking at.

Semi: What?!

Semi immediately asked his pilot if they were within communications range of Shirabu’s flagship. And recalling the aircraft carrier Takashi Utsui had the capabilities to shoot down intercontinental projectiles, he called the ship’s bridge….

 


 

Approx. 6:30 p.m. Karasuno

“Based on the trajectory, we believe the missile will land in the vicinity of Itachiyama,” Sugawara stoically reported about the ICBM launched from Seijoh. Yamaguchi groaned and dialed Kunimi, hoping desperately the chancellor would give him answers for making such a diplomatically risky move.

“Yes, Yamaguchi,” Akira tersely answered.

“Why did you fire that missile?”

“I’ll tell you when I’m good and ready. Bye.” Devoid of the answer to that question himself, Kunimi hung up in frustration. Yamaguchi eased the receiver down and took a deep breath to center himself.

Then Adm. Asahi Azumane, the Secretary of the Navy, barged in with even more news Yamaguchi didn’t want to hear.

“The Entente attacked one of Shiratorizawa’s carriers!”

“Where?!” Sugawara shouted.

“Joint Task Force 10, the Takashi Utsui.”

Nishinoya whispered grimly to the president. “That’s the ship where we sent our agent.”

“What’s the condition of the ship?” Sugawara pressed.

“Bad. Reports are that she’ll probably go under within the hour.”

“What’s going on?” asked another person appearing in the room, quite bewildered:

Tsukishima.

“A cluster, that’s what,” Sawamura griped.

“Have you recovered the data on SHOYO?” Tsukishima asked pointedly.

“That’s not important right now.” Yamaguchi had more to deal with than Kei’s pet project.

“What do you mean ‘it’s not important’?!” blared Tsukishima.

“General! Calm down!” ordered Sugawara. But at this moment, Tsukishima tried to storm past his boss to the president himself, chain of command be darned. Sugawara grappled his subordinate to hold him back.

“Our chance to win this war is gone!” Kei blasted. “How can that not be important?!”

Yamaguchi shot upright and glared just as daringly at his comrade, three years of frustration broiling to the surface. “I hope that stupid project of yours goes down the toilet!”

The room went dead silent. Sawamura’s phone ringing punctured the quiet, and the general stepped into the adjoining foyer. Azumane received an update himself and also left. Sugawara released Tsukishima, and Nishinoya out of respect followed next, leaving Yachi and Shimada quietly standing by.

“You don’t mean that,” Tsukishima pressed after Nishinoya tensely shut the door.

“If I had known it was going to take half my lifetime to complete, I wouldn’t have approved that project.”

“I can’t control the time—”

“You told me a year! And then it was two years! Last month, you told me it was almost done!”

“Dr. Kageyama says he doesn’t have—”

“Why are we trusting a shrimp doctor to make serum for humans in the first place?! Huh?!”

That got Tsukishima to finally back off.

“Tsukki, I never liked this idea. More resilient soldiers are good—I guess. But if you can’t actually do it, then I wish I’d made you the Ambassador to Wakutani where if you screwed up all the time, it wouldn’t cost people lives!”

Kei waffled for several seconds, processing every biting word.

“Now get out until I need you,” Yamaguchi finished. He hated being harsh. It was the worst feeling in the world, against his gentle nature. For three years, he’d let Tsukishima take charge (as he’d done throughout their friendship) and get away with things that arguably seemed minor. He’d allowed Kei to lead him in a certain direction and funnel resources towards potentially undermining his relationship with Shiratorizawa without knowing the full truth. Now, it had to stop. Yamaguchi was the leader of the nation, and he was the one laying down the law.

Kei bit his lip in humiliation when he realized no reassurance was coming.

“Excuse me,” he politely bowed and swiftly marched out the door. The officials in the foyer pretended to loiter while Kei trotted past them and then filtered back into the president’s room.

When Sawamura spoke, he proceeded as if nothing had occurred, not wanting to put fuel to the fire, so he announced what his phone call had just informed him of. “The missile struck a target outside Itachiyama. It appears to have been a Fukurodanian military base. The detonation affected only the base. No word on casualties, but much of the facility is believed to have been destroyed.” He paused. “It…didn’t appear there was any attempt to intercept the missile by Tokyo,” he added, as confused about that passivity as anybody else.

“I can also confirm,” Adm. Azumane said, “that the Utsui has officially sunk. We are engaged in rescue operations in concert with Shiratorizawan vessels.”

For the first time since the hacking, there was a strange feeling of closure: the cyberattack was over, the errant missile down, and the Utsui underwater. Stress began to flake off the president as the aftermath of the chaos settled in and more reports from the frontline appeared.

Until Azumane—now briefed on Shirabu’s attempted extraction—provided an update from the KRS Torono.

“The Torono says Adm. Shirabu survived the sinking and was invited to land on the deck, but…the helicopter departed towards the mainland and is refusing our attempts at contact.”

Dang it. There was still no word on Chikara Ennoshita. Apparently, a Shiratorizawan rotorcraft was spotted rescuing the pilot of the fighter jet that sank the Utsui too.

Yamaguchi still needed to contact Shirabu, but to do so by physical force was out of the question.

“Admiral,” the president said, “that helicopter is headed towards Seijoh, correct? Keep tracking it. Noya, do we have a way to intercept it?”

“Count on us,” Nishinoya boasted with an unfaltering smile.

“Good. Don’t attack or attempt to board. Simply get in contact with Shirabu.”

And as Nishinoya passed on the new orders, Yamaguchi anxiously wondered what on earth could be happening aboard that helicopter.

 


 

Approx. 7 p.m.Over the ocean, headed towards Seijoh

“Taketora Yamamoto,” said the captured pilot.

Kenjirou cocked an eyebrow. “All right. Now tell me what you know about the lab.”

“I’m not lettin’ anyone else hurt Kenma,” Yamamoto growled.

“Who’s Kenma?” Kenjirou posed softly.

Tora mentally lashed himself for letting that name slip and immediately shut down.

“All right then,” replied Shirabu. He stood, put his foot to Tora’s chest, and shoved him into the storeroom. “Then you have some time to think before you talk,” and he summarily slammed the storage compartment shut and locked it. Semi then informed Tendou at the consulate of his intention to return to Seijoh with Shirabu—though purposefully omitted any mention of Ennoshita or Yamamoto.

Once the transmission was finished, Shirabu faced his Karasunoan hitchhiker. “OK, Ennoshita. Let’s start talking.”

They all disclosed as much as they were willing. Ennoshita detailed everything from the impetus for his assignment through his spying on Yahaba, Yahaba’s departure with an unknown person, Kindaichi’s raid, that Yahaba’s hard drive had been wiped, the hacking and the order to arrest Shirabu in conjunction. Shirabu and Semi (the former less shyly than the latter) revealed their prior espionage on a project in Karasuno, their investigation of the Kenma Project, Yahaba’s role in that operation, the raid on a condo believed to be where Yahaba went after leaving his apartment, and that Seijoh launched a missile at the very facility where the Kenma Project was being developed. One theory that Semi confirmed at least was that Yahaba may have performed cybersecurity services for Karasuno a few years back and hence the hacker probably knew a backdoor in his own software. For Chikara, that explained his country’s concern about Yahaba’s detention.

Overall, though, the intelligence sharing was as enlightening as it was disappointing, in large part because it had hardly answered every question.

There was still another matter of concern to Ennoshita too: how was he going to get in touch with Saeko? His hope was to negotiate with Saeko to forestall arresting Shirabu and stop diverting resources from Kindaichi and Seijoh.

And yet, even the Seijoh theory didn’t fully make sense.

And then there was the other problem that Ennoshita hadn’t yet figured a way around, a problem Semi conveniently brought to the forefront.

“We do appreciate your offer of cooperation, Ennoshita,” Eita began, “but I hope you’re aware this is a Shiratorizawan helicopter and we are picking the destination. We can accept your offer of assistance after we’ve returned to our base.”

Ennoshita smirked nervously.

Had he screwed up this badly?

 


 

Interlude – A conversation in Kunimi’s office, 7 p.m.

Iwaizumi: The missile silo was hacked from outside. The infiltration appears to have come from Kitagawa and would seem to be consistent with an attack by Shigeru Yahaba.

Before Kunimi could respond, he took a call from an agent in the Chancellor Protection Unit in Kitagawa. The chancellor sneered when it was over.

Kunimi: Kindaichi took Yahaba and an accomplice but did not arrive at headquarters. I want Kitagawa on lockdown. No vehicle leaves the city until Yahaba and Kindaichi are located.

 


 

Approx. 8 p.m.Over Seijoh

“There are two helicopters approaching from the southeast. They appear to be Karasunoan,” the pilot reported to Semi. The cockpit presently received a transmission from the CIB vessels, asking the helicopter to stand down.

“Ignore them,” Semi commanded.

“Make contact,” Shirabu immediately usurped.

Before the pilot could start to reconcile the contradictory commands, Tendou called from the consulate.

“Tell the Karasuno choppers to stand by and take the consulate’s call,” Shirabu directed. “Semi will understand. He knows who’s in charge.”

Eita wanted to pummel his cohort. “Yeah, do what he said,” he grumbled, donning a headset and waiting for the pilot to reply to the other rotorcrafts. “This is Semi,” he said to Tendou. “What is it?”

“Yo, hey,” sang his subordinate. “I thought you should know that Seijoh has the city on lockdown.”

“What for?”

“They’re acting like they’re looking for someone. But, yeah. It’s kinda iffy here. I’d stay totally clear.”

Semi snarled. Seijoh had Yahaba, didn’t they? So who else could they be searching for?

“Ennoshita,” Shirabu said, “where is your base?” Semi almost begrudgingly admitted cooperating with Karasuno might be the only option now, but fortunately for his self-esteem Ennoshita’s base was in Kitagawa too. Shirabu then handed a different headset to Ennoshita that Chikara took with confusion.

“Say what you need when I give you the cue,” Shirabu added, donning another set himself. “This is Adm. Kenjirou Shirabu. How can I assist you?” he said to the Karasunoan choppers.

“Stand by,” the other radio operator replied. He spoke later: “We must ask you to land at the nearest viable location.”

In your dreams, was Shirabu’s thought. He gestured for Ennoshita to speak. Chikara gulped.

Two and a half years ago, his hesitation cost the lives of three people.

But this time, he didn’t hesitate.

“This is Chikara Ennoshita of the CIB. Who are you attached to?” After confirming the vessels were indeed from Saeko, he smirked. “I was sent here on an espionage mission, and I have a report. Tell Saeko that Kenjirou Shirabu is innocent—” Seijoh has Yahaba was the thing he wanted to say next, but he restrained himself. Something about it all was too fishy.

Instead, he allowed the chopper time to communicate with Saeko. “We would like you to explain why you are aboard that helicopter.”

“I can do that, but get this message to Saeko and the president first.” He gulped again. He was risking his credibility, but without being absolutely sure, he had to communicate at least what he did know. “Someone else has Yahaba.”

 

“Someone else ordered Yahaba to do the hacking?” Nishinoya repeated in shock when Saeko gave him Ennoshita’s message. Yamaguchi, Yachi, Shimada, Sugawara, and Sawamura (Azumane had returned to his duties) listened with perplexity.

“So Shiratorizawa isn’t behind it,” Yamaguchi softly mumbled.

Someone else, he thought. Someone else—not Shiratorizawa…. Perhaps…not even Seijoh?

Yuu grimly repeated the report after the call ended, adding that Shirabu wished to form an alliance.

“Mr. President,” Nishinoya said, “I think we should trust Shirabu. The enemy is likely Seijoh.”

Seijoh? Yamaguchi doubted. His thoughts were starting to overpower him.

“Are we sure our operative isn’t being used as a hostage?” Sugawara posed. “How can we be sure he isn’t under duress?”

What would be the purpose of such a ruse though? Yamaguchi silently wondered.

Not pleased by the Secretary of Defense questioning his agent’s integrity, Nishinoya squarely faced the president. “A CPU officer expressed interest in SHOYO weeks ago. No doubt Seijoh sabotaged it.”

Then why want to steal it one day and destroy it the next? Yamaguchi was so lost in doubt upon doubt that he didn’t even emote. The chatter around him escalated into talking over each other, though it was increasingly just tuned out as noise.

“Seijoh’s actions are suspicious, but I think we should consider Shirabu—”

“If Seijoh is behind this, then Shirabu is a distraction!”

“We’ve no reason to trust Shirabu. He attempted to flee from us—”

Yachi gently encouraged everyone to tone it down as the president’s temper bubbled up once more.

 “We don’t know what any country wants!” Nishinoya screeched at Sugawara. “Which is why we have to rule out Seijoh and Shiratorizawa before we consider anything else!”

Yamaguchi’s eyes, tightly scrunched, blinked open rapidly.

They don’t know what any country wants—Shiratorizawa and Seijoh, inclusive.

Someone else has Yahaba.

They can’t split their resources against multiple foes.

And then a thought crossed Yamaguchi’s mind:

While we wonder what’s going on, whoever does have Yahaba can slip away….

Yamaguchi shot out of his chair.

“Everyone, shut up!”

The effect was immediate, and it was a feeling of power that encouraged Yamaguchi that he was about to take the first right course of action all day.

“Nishinoya, Sugawara, Sawamura, please leave. Do nothing until I call you back in a minute.”

The trio guiltily nodded and complied. Shimada and Yachi, slightly uneasy, beheld their boss dial a phone number.

One of the perks of being a head of state was a special privilege no other citizen had. It was a power to be used mindfully, and which Yamaguchi was always nervous to utilize. But he was determined to get the answers he needed, and he knew how to do it.

Rather, he knew how to get the answers everyone needed.

The phone picked up peaceably. “President,” answered a stalwart gentleman.

“Wakatoshi,” Yamaguchi said, “don’t hang up. I’m going to put you on hold for two seconds.” Not waiting for a reply before muting the line, he dialed another number. It rang a couple of times before a highly irritable person answered.

“Yes, again, Yamaguchi,” answered Akira Kunimi.

Tadashi immediately took Ushijima off hold. “Akira, Wakatoshi, I have you on a conference call. We are going to have a little chat, and we are going to be absolutely, 100% honest in what we say until we each know what the heck is going on.

“First, where is Shigeru Yahaba?”

There was silence as both leaders, to their shock, attempted to deduce why the President of Karasuno cared about that detail. Realizing that belying Yamaguchi’s asking was something much deeper than he could yet know though, Ushijima answered.

“He was formerly under my jurisdiction, but currently he is not.” It was a roundabout way of saying Shiratorizawa didn’t know Yahaba’s whereabouts. Now both leaders waited on Kunimi. Amidst the quiet pressure and the direness of his own circumstances, the independent Akira relented.

“I do not know,” said the chancellor. Yamaguchi let out a sigh of relief.

Neither of them were indeed the enemy.

“Chancellor,” spoke Ushijima, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to speak freely, “why did you fire that missile?”

I didn’t fire it,” Kunimi emphasized. “Shigeru Yahaba did. What’s the significance of those coordinates?”

Ushijima inhaled before admitting as much as he was willing to. “The significance of those coordinates was known to only a few people under my jurisdiction, Shigeru Yahaba being one of them.” He paused to consider how to continue. “It was the site of a facility being used by Tokyo for military research. No, I did not order its destruction,” he preemptively added.

The answer satisfied the chancellor for now. Yamaguchi spoke next. “Wakatoshi, why is an operative from my country riding with your military attaché, Adm. Shirabu?”

“I was not aware of anyone from your country aboard that helicopter,” he answered in his eternal matter-of-fact tone, having been kept abreast of that matter by Tendou—as much as Tendou knew anyway. “Is that why you’re pursuing that vehicle?”

“Partly, yes,” Yamaguchi said simply. “We were also under the impression Shirabu controlled Yahaba.”

“My turn,” Kunimi impatiently butted in, emboldened by Tadashi’s latest admission. “Yamaguchi, what is your interest in Shigeru Yahaba?”

It was a question Ushijima earnestly wanted the answer to as well.

“Today Yahaba sabotaged some research of ours.” Yamaguchi exhaled before his next question, the one to hopefully put to rest the “Seijoh” theory. “Akira, why was an agent from the CPU communicating with a scientist of mine when you visited Karasuno last month?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Yamaguchi scowled. “He attempted to persuade a researcher to defect. His name was Yuutarou Kindaichi.”

That was the last thing Akira Kunimi wanted to hear. “Yuutarou Kindaichi is not one of my spies,” he responded with a kneejerk reaction.

And then, the truth finally struck him.

That was it all along. How could he have been so stupid?

Kunimi’s groan was audible before he corrected himself: “Actually, I misspoke…. Yuutarou Kindaichi is a spy…but he’s not spying for me.”

 


 

Approx. 3 p.m. Kitagawa, Seijoh

Kitagawa hosted several consulates, and Inarizaki, a bystander to the global war, was among those with an office there. And deep in its inner chambers was Shinsuke Kita.

Known in Inarizakian intelligence by the codename “North Fox,” the man had on paper recently been the Consul-General in Karasuno, though it was a front for his spying on SHOYO. His superior, “Hungry Fox,” was simultaneously conducting espionage on the so-called Kenma Project in Tokyo. Despite their separate missions, their goals were the same: determine the state of genetic engineering research by the world’s militaries. Kita used Kindaichi, their mole in the CPU, to unsuccessfully persuade one Tobio Kageyama to defect, while Shinsuke hoped to acquire info from SHOYO’S overseer, Gen. Tsukishima. Kita’s mission didn’t pan out because Shiratorizawa’s military attaché got to the general first, but by eavesdropping on the conversation, Kita realized Inarizaki wasn’t the only nation taking interest in other countries’ genetic research.

The SHOYO operation was suspended shortly thereafter when Hungry Fox discovered the Kenma Project was amidst a breakthrough, and the mission in Tokyo entered a new phase. The efficient and mild-mannered Kita was subsequently transferred to Seijoh’s consulate with a new fake portfolio, where he was to use Kindaichi to get Yahaba away from Shiratorizawa and into their custody.

The capture of Yahaba took a day longer than expected, but at 3 p.m. that day, at last sitting opposite Shinsuke was the Seijohan fugitive.

“…We need you to do two things for us,” Kita said. “First, sabotage a research endeavor in Karasuno known as SHOYO; second, do the same to a venture in Tokyo called the Kenma Project. I imagine from your dealings with Shiratorizawa that the latter is not a stranger to you, but shall I explain the former?”

Yahaba grouchily said there was no need; having used his backdoor in the programming to infiltrate SHOYO’s files earlier that day, Yahaba had realized Shiratorizawa’s real goal: to become the pioneer of genetically engineered soldiers by stealing the Kenma Project before Karasuno completed its own venture.

And now, Shigeru deduced, Inarizaki was after the same thing.

“…In exchange,” Kita continued, “you will receive permanent asylum in Inarizaki.”

It was Yahaba’s ticket out of Seijoh forever. He’d be safe from his own government and from Shirabu. It was an offer too good to pass up.

Except…

“Now, I understand that what we’re asking of you could take up to several weeks—” Kita continued before being interrupted.

Weeks?” said Yahaba, deeply affronted. He held up three fingers. “I could do it in three hours.”

Kindaichi, standing rigidly beside Kita, thought it an insolent joke. Kita was ready to call the bluff if not for the total seriousness in Yahaba’s eyes.

“Well, that would be ideal, I must concede,” he said, maintaining his composure. “If we provide you the resources, can you do it?”

“Don’t doubt my power,” Shigeru nigh threatened.

Kita grinned softly. Shigeru’s personality wasn’t the type he liked dealing with, but the hacker seemed to have the bite to back up his bark (a trait shared by his boss, Hungry Fox), and he very much respected that.

“Very well then—” and he was cut off as Yahaba now held up a single finger.

“On one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“Ken comes with me to Inarizaki.”

Kindaichi nodded to indicate “Ken” was the other prisoner he’d brought. Kyoutani was a hapless bystander caught up in the operation who was of no value to Kita, but if it would secure Yahaba’s cooperation, Shinsuke would finagle something. He smiled at the hacker. “Deal.”

 

And then, as promised, after a slew of computer viruses and a hijacked ICBM, Yahaba accomplished the tasks Kita gave him.

 

Shigeru felt free when he heard Lab 3 had been destroyed. At last, he felt, he could live again and that things with him and Ken could be different.

At least, that’s what Kita wanted Yahaba to think.

Chapter Text

Tuesday November 10, approx. 7 a.m. Tokyo timeItachiyama, Fukurodani

Keiji awoke to the news of the counteroffensive taking place in Datekou. It gave him little time to dwell on the other disaster that unfolded last night: Tetsurou Kuroo, one of the most valuable members of his team, sabotaged their most successful experimental subject and disappeared. Keiji had intended to brag about the subject before representatives of the three Tokyo powers today. With the resurgence of fighting, he hoped the meeting would be canceled, but a phone call nevertheless commanded him to show himself at Coruja Manor at 10 a.m.

Keiji arrived at the lavish resort complex in stiflingly formal business attire. Everyone entering the property was subject to screening, and the place was riddled with uniformed and undercover soldiers and security. Once Akaashi’s business was known, he was kept under guard until the meeting time came. Then, most unusually, he was blindfolded and escorted to a room somewhere inside the compound.

His escorts seated him, and once the cloth was removed from his eyes, Akaashi instantly understood the reason for the excessive security.

About ten feet opposite, three stately armchairs spaced five feet apart were lined up in a row. A fourth chair of luxurious black leather was positioned diagonally back from the center seat.

In the seat at Akaashi’s left, an elderly male in a burnt red suit sat primly with both hands in his lap. The forward center chair was occupied by a woman with reddish-brown hair in a pantsuit, appearing most displeased. In the chair at Akaashi’s right was a slouching blond man in a regalia-emblazoned, dark green military uniform, a jet black peaked cap with six gold stars in his lap, eyeing Akaashi like prey. Occupying the seat farther back was a young male in a dark blue suit with crossed arms. He slouched so deeply in the chair that his coccyx was the only thing keeping him from sliding off, his skull against the seatback as if it were a pillow.

Normally when Akaashi came for these routine conferences, he met with middlemen or secretaries.

But today, much to his dismay, he was seated in a room with the leaders of Tokyo.

Coincidentally in town for a preplanned, top-secret strategy conference, they had decided to take the opportunity to meet with Keiji Akaashi directly.

“We are pressed for time, but we want to discuss Kenma in person,” began Fukurodani’s Prime Minister Yukie Shirofuku in the center seat, “especially since your most recent report claimed a major breakthrough.”

“How soon until it’s done?” quizzed Nekoma’s aged President-for-Life, Yasufumi Nekomata, in the seat to Akaashi’s left.

Keiji gulped. The breakthrough was Subject 175’s positive reception to the splicing of human and feline DNA. Somehow, he had to reassure his financial backers that Kenma was on track ideally without mentioning the subject’s decease, Kuroo’s betrayal, or Terushima.

“I cannot speak to that just yet,” he replied.

“You made a soldier, right?” Generalissimo Kazuma Numai, the military dictator of Nohebi, grunted impatiently. “When can we use him?”

“There’s the matter of mass duplication of a prototype once deployable, but first we need to replicate a consistent and quality-controllable gestation process.”

“Akaashi,” Shirofuku interrupted, “time is running short. I understand that you can probably make a million improvements, but we need to deploy Kenma now. Give us your current prototype, so it can be tested on the battlefield at the earliest opportunity.”

Keiji’s gut retracted.

“I’m afraid…the current prototype has…complications.”

The prime minister’s eyes narrowed. Since the project was being conducted in her country by one of her citizens, she felt the most responsible for ensuring its success. “What kind of complications?”

“The specimen…”—he felt like he could hyperventilate—“…died,” he finally admitted. He could feel the disfavor wash over the leaders.

“So it’s a wash,” Nekomata sighed and shook his head.

Shirofuku was more than suspicious of Akaashi’s story. “In your last report, as I recall, you said the problem of subjects dying in gestation had been overcome. These are the delays we’ve put up with for three years. Why should we not expect mass production to be riddled with these flaws if they continue to reappear?”

Akaashi tugged the front of his collar to relieve the temperature at his chest. “The subject’s death was not process-related,” he tried to reassure.

“So what caused it, then?”

“The subject was…corrupted.”

“Corrupted how?” Shirofuku pressed further.

Keiji gulped. He never should have tried to explain. “It was…sabotaged.”

The breath left the three leaders; only the deeply slouching male behind Shirofuku showed no reaction. This was a severe security breach of the Entente’s most secretive endeavor, and for the leaders not to have been debriefed immediately was inexcusable.

“Why wasn’t this reported?!” the prime minister reprimanded.

“Daishou is looking into it.”

The generalissimo guffawed ostentatiously at the mention of Daishou. Keiji continued. “I have the situation under control. It doesn’t affect the monumentality of the advances already made.”

“We don’t have a year or however long it will take to grow a new prototype!”

“I assure you the process has been streamlined such that gestation of a new prototype should only last a month at most. And other genetic modifications can be postponed for a later generation with the mind of making Kenma battlefield-ready sooner.”

“Do you know how the breach happened?” Shirofuku circled back.

“Yes. As stated, Daishou is looking into it.” None of the leaders were impressed, and Akaashi knew it. Keiji needed to say something else to reassure his benefactors—and while he wasn’t going to mention this initially, perhaps he could spin it to his advantage. “And a new person has been recruited to the team. He’s a very well-respected geneticist by the name of Yuuji Terushima.”

“Terushima? That name doesn’t sound native to Tokyo,” Nekomata noted. “Where’s he from?”

And now Keiji realized he’d made one more gigantic mistake.

“He’s from…Johzenji.”

All three leaders were aghast in their own ways; again, the man farther back showed no change in expression.

“You’re colluding with the enemy?!” Shirofuku exclaimed.

“This is a joke,” Numai griped.

“Science knows no borders—” Akaashi began to defend tritely.

“Doctor,” interrupted the elderly Nekomata, “for the sake of this project I have allowed you to detain one of my citizens and sequester my top ace. I better have something to show for violating the rights of my own citizens.” Keiji cringed at the mentions of Kozume and Yamamoto.

“Akaashi,” said Shirofuku, “this project has taken too long. It becomes harder and harder to justify to Parliament the gross budgetary needs for military research when—”

And then at last, the male seated behind Yukie raised a hand. “May I speak, Prime Minister?”

His voice resonated with an authority that earned the deference of especially Shirofuku but also to a lesser extent of Nekomata and Numai. Akaashi’s legs trembled.

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Yukie nodded.

The man righted his posture and then leaned forward deeply, his eyes drilling into Akaashi gravely. Keiji shook, never before having been face-to-face with Fukurodani’s constitutional monarch:

King Akinori VII.

“Is there any reason why taxes have been thrown away on this enterprise when it all could have been spent on more weapons and vehicles for the frontline?” the young king said, asking what was clearly a rhetorical question. Even though the Konoha dynasty was nothing more than symbolic in modern Fukurodani, the royal family still held the awe of the people, including Keiji himself.

To fall under the judging eyes of the royal was far more emasculating than anything the other occupants of the room could say or do.

Akinori raised a hand. “That is all,” he said, formally deferring the matter back to his head of government, Shirofuku.

Yukie bowed towards the sovereign and faced Akaashi sourly. “That being said, I’d like to propose a compromise if my fellow leaders are amicable. You have three months, Akaashi. You must have a usable prototype ready for mass production, or your project will be shut down. How so much money has disappeared from coffers for fruitless research will become a sticking point in Parliament for weeks if you fail. Someone will need to be held accountable for squandering state funds, and that person will be you, Akaashi. Do you understand?”

The fear on Akaashi’s face confirmed that he did understand.

“Do my colleagues agree?”

“Sounds fair to me,” Nekomata said.

Numai grunted. “Whatever. I’d’ve shut him down, but it’s your issue at this point as far as I care.”

“At least once the project closes,” Nekomata posited to the dictator, “the security force you loaned would be returned.”

The junta leader sneered vilely. “Daishou and them can drop dead. I already know what I’m gonna do to him and that squad if they ever come back.”

Keiji was only partially shocked by the personal vehemence towards Daishou. If anything, it confirmed his suspicion that Daishou’s team was guarding Lab 3 as some kind of punishment or exile.

Shirofuku checked her watch. “Our time is up. We will see each other in three months, Akaashi—hopefully with good news for your sake.”

 

Even while Keiji was being escorted off the locked-down premises, he was already trying to piece together how to proceed.

He had three months in which to salvage the project. If he failed, all of Kenma’s suffering would be in vain.

First he needed to acquire new samples. The inventory last night showed Kuroo had absconded with some samples and corrupted the remainder. The last sampling from Kenma was four days ago, on Friday. Akaashi loathed the idea of collecting new specimens from Kenma three days early, but he had no choice.

At that same time, Dr. Onaga was getting Terushima up to speed on the minutiae of the Kenma Project. Every second, Wataru was amazed at how ecstatic Yuuji was at every little detail, like a nerdy kid in a videogame store. Already Yuuji was spouting off hypotheses and modifications that, Onaga wouldn’t admit out loud, were even above his league.

The phone rang.

“Onaga speaking…. Oh, Akaashi? They finally let you go. I was almost worried.”

Yuuji looked up from a microscope suddenly. He rolled a swivel chair to Onaga.

“Can I ask him something?”

“Oh?” Wataru jumped. “Um, Terushima wants to speak to you.” He handed the phone off to the newbie.

“Hey! Get this,” Terushima squealed. “I was looking over your cell growth work. I see you’re basing some of your work on SHOYO—but with this method for accelerated cell growth, it’s no wonder the malignancy rate is so high. I don’t know how well it can work, but I was about to produce a malaria vaccine back home that impedes the virus’s ability to replicate. It maybe can be adapted to eliminate some of your malignancy problems.”

Keiji was shocked. Terushima was dead right that the death of subjects due to tumorous growths was enormous. They had done many things to make sure the most recent subject survived to adulthood, but that still required constant monitoring. If Terushima had a way to automate the process efficiently, then they could perhaps speed up gestation profoundly.

Another thought crossed Akaashi’s mind. It was a risk considering what happened with Kuroo, but his time was short. Keiji just had to hope that Terushima would be of even greater use if he knew how the base DNA was acquired.

 “Terushima, question,” Akaashi began, “would you have any interest in finding out where I acquire the base DNA?”

Terushima blinked. Yuuji had inferred there was a progenitor, but Onaga claimed only Akaashi knew the donor’s location. Whatever other motivations stirred inside him simultaneously, Terushima’s answer was first and foremost prompted by geeky interest. “You bet!” he screamed.

Akaashi grinned slightly, a pinch of stress finally flaking off him. He told Terushima he would pick him up in an hour and instructed Onaga to make sure Daishou didn’t find out in case the curmudgeon had a fit.

It was approaching noon. They’d have to stay the night at their destination, but it couldn’t be helped. Keiji could at least find out what happened after he’d foolishly sent Kuroo to collect the samples last Friday.

And he could find out if the real Kenma was in good condition.

Keiji dialed another number. “Kuguri, it’s Akaashi. Something’s happened. I’m coming tonight….”

 


 

Approx. 2 p.m. Tokyo timeLab 3, Itachiyama, Fukurodani

“The device was a high-res camera and transmitter, capturing and sending video wirelessly,” Dr. Kaori Suzumeda, a microprocessor specialist in Lab 3, said after her forensic study of the fake pen found on Terushima’s person. “It has no localized recording capacity, nor could it receive or transmit audio.”

“What?!” Daishou yelled. “But he was talking into it!”

“I don’t know what he was talking into, but this device wasn’t picking up audio,” Suzumeda said matter-of-factly.

Daishou snarled. When Terushima was arrested in Lab 3 last night, they had heard him conversing out loud with someone. If the pen wasn’t the relay, then certainly Terushima had some other means of communication on him.

Suguru irately prowled the halls searching for Terushima or Akaashi. Unable to locate either, he chanced upon Shibayama.

“Where’s Akaashi?!”

“Oh! I think he and Terushima left to replace the samples Kuroo stole.”

“What?!”

Shibayama jumped as Daishou galloped down the hall.

This was bad. That location was top-secret. He had to warn Kuguri to arrest Terushima as soon as he arrived.

As soon as he pulled out his cell phone, sirens hideously screamed throughout the building, accompanied by the air raid horns outside.

All base personnel must evacuate immediately,” piped the PA system.

Daishou found himself almost instantaneously taking charge of the confused exodus from the compound, after which he sped through a patrol of the facility by himself to ensure the warning wasn’t a cover so someone else could sneak into the D-9 lab. Once confirming the inner sanctum was empty, he took one last look at the naked, vacuous-eyed, bicolor-haired lifeform that Akaashi had created and sneered.

Jogging to the exit, Daishou was suspicious of the lack of any vibrations of the earth suggestive of missile or bomb strikes. Peeved it might all be a false alarm, he halted and dialed the Fukurodani Army base’s commander, Colonel Shuuichi Anahori.

Daishou?

“Hey! What’s the big idea?!”

You’ll see. Long-range missile fired from Miyagi. It will hit any second.

“So shoot it down!” Daishou criticized.

Our defense system has been hacked,” Anahori said, the result of a computer virus implanted minutes earlier by Shigeru Yahaba to ensure the ICBM he hacked would hit its target. “Can’t do anything about it. Is everyone out of your lab?

“How much time do we have?” Daishou asked, ignoring the question.

We don’t! You can see it! Look up!” Anahori screeched.

Daishou took a fateful second to comprehend the meaning of the statement and then sprinted madly to the exit. He was the only person left inside. Anahori evidently assumed he was already out. Hopefully he’d make it.

When Suguru emerged in the daylight, he spotted the looming, cometary arc of a missile directly overhead. It was so close he thought he could touch it.

One second later, Lab 3—and Suguru Daishou—ceased to exist.

 


 

Three and a half years agoNohebi

For how monumentally that day affected his life, Naoyasu Kuguri remembered very little of it.

Armed opponents of Nohebi’s military junta had taken hostages at an upscale restaurant in the capital, and the elite Oomizu Squadron, a crack team reporting directly to Generalissimo Numai, was deployed to resolve it.

It should have been a routine operation, except for the fact one of the hostages was the generalissimo’s niece, Mika Yamaka.

The mission’s magnitude was not lost on the commander, Col. Kiyoshi Oomizu, or the designated leader of the rescue mission, Lt. Suguru Daishou. Together they devised the rescue plan. Kuguri was assigned to the cordon around the venue while Daishou led a team into the building.

Kuguri never learned what happened inside, what went wrong, or if even anything had, so to speak, gone wrong. He only realized something was amiss when his comrades exited, their uniforms soaked in blood, Daishou scowling more fiercely than a thwarted predator.

In the aftermath of the operation, all of the militants were dead.

And so were most of the hostages.

Including Mika Yamaka.

 

It was an open secret that the intrepid college student Mika was the generalissimo’s favorite niece. Numa (as his supporters called him) was known to dote on the beautiful girl and show her off constantly. Her untimely demise left the nation’s ruler outraged. Someone had to take the blame, and the squadron that should have saved her was the convenient scapegoat.

Kuguri found himself under arrest, brought before a show trial alongside Col. Oomizu, Lt. Daishou, and an arbitrary selection of his comrades. Witnesses that claimed to be squadron members but whom Kuguri had never seen before in his life testified that Oomizu and Daishou’s plan was criminally flawed and further botched in its execution. The kangaroo court sentenced Col. Oomizu to death, Daishou and the others who went inside to life in prison. Kuguri for his part was sentenced to ten years of hard labor. The finite term was no consolation; it was a well-known fact that inmates in his country often did not outlive their sentences.

And thus, one year later, when guards took Kuguri from his cell in the middle of the night, Naoyasu expected the worst.

He found himself loaded into the back of a truck but to his surprise encountered a familiar group of people onboard: Daishou, his deputy Seguro, and other framed comrades like Hiroo, Sakishima, and Takachiho. The ride was silent, only Daishou seeming to be aware of their ambiguous fate.

Once the truck crossed the border into Fukurodani, Daishou at last exhaled a sigh of relief and opened his mouth.

“We have a new mission.”

 

In the Fukurodanian city of Itachiyama, there was a lab on a military base requiring an independent security contingent. The team needed to be highly skilled, and Generalissimo Numai begrudgingly recommended the imprisoned members of the Oomizu Squadron for the task.

Naoyasu found Fukurodani odd. He had never been in a free country and was awed by the heedless, almost hedonistic culture around him. Even so, Kuguri hated his assignment from day one. They were rent-a-cop security guards, checking in personnel and conducting airport-style screenings. Kuguri only ever wanted a secure subsistence—he’d only joined Nohebi’s corrupt military to, he thought, protect himself from becoming a victim of it—but even more than that, he wanted a calm and stable life, envisioning himself relaxing and reading whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. He was now in a country that didn’t have a “banned books” list and yearned to take advantage of that before their assignment expired and they were shipped back to probable captivity. Their assignment offered no such considerable rest period.

He languished that way for two years.

And then, six months ago, having just returned with Akaashi from Nekoma, Lt. Daishou approached Kuguri at the entrance metal detectors. “I got a special assignment for you,” he whispered.

 

Kenma Kozume.

That was the name of the person Kuguri was ordered to watch. He didn’t care enough to make the connection between the detainee’s given name and Akaashi’s project, let alone ponder the implications. The prisoner was a little less than average height, had black hair at the scalp and blond at the tips, and was somberly quiet. Daishou’s orders were to stay with the detainee and keep him handcuffed at all times. He had to feed him and even help him use the bathroom (Kuguri privately drew the line there). Akaashi never knew the strict conditions Daishou imposed on Kenma’s detention and would not have approved the dehumanizing regimen if he had. The draconian measures were simply so Suguru wouldn’t have the hassle of a possible but unlikely escape.

It was unlikely for two reasons. One, to Kuguri’s perplexity, Kenma Kozume demonstrated no desire to escape. Two, there was nowhere to go even if he did. They were at an abandoned farmhouse in the drought-ridden north of the country. They were so far up that the staggering mountains that instantly and awesomely erupted from the horizon marked the border of Fukurodani and Nohebi. The one-floor house was completely off the power grid, powered by an outdoor generator; devoid of cell signal or Wi-Fi; and had a septic tank to deal with sewage. Communication with the outside was via landline, and the unmapped access route was nigh impossible to navigate at night let alone in the day.

Akaashi and only Akaashi made weekly visits. The trips had two purposes: to bring food and supplies and to collect new samples from Kenma. Kuguri’s job was to crank a secondary generator an hour before Akaashi arrived in order to power the medical equipment, as well as place Kenma in the bed restraints to prevent him from hurting himself during his inevitable convulsions.

Kuguri, who didn’t stay in the room during the procedures, found the attitudes of the two participants odd. Akaashi had steeled himself to the whole process yet in Naoyasu’s estimation was deeply torn. When he was outside of that farmhouse, Keiji put on a cordial and blissful act, but here he was profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin, as if being there forced him to confront the kind of person he was or had become.

Meanwhile, despite the pain Kenma was bound to endure in each session (anesthesia—as much as Akaashi desperately wanted to do something to make it more bearable—could have untold worse effects), Keiji always made sure to ask Kenma how he felt before beginning. The answer was always the same: a begrudging grunt of acknowledgment. But Kenma never objected once. He’d pass out during the procedure and wake up over a day later. Although Kuguri assumed Kozume and Akaashi had some kind of arrangement, he also sensed a deep reticence from both parties about the current state of that arrangement.

Setting all that aside, the thing Kuguri most looked forward to each week was the books. When Keiji departed, Kuguri would hand him a list of books to bring on his next visit. Akaashi was happy to oblige. Kuguri would finish each batch before Akaashi arrived again, initially reading them silently in front of the sullen Kenma.

It was in the throes of one book that was banned in his homeland, 1984, that the status quo for the pair changed.

Partway through the narrative, Kuguri, seated in the squeaking wooden chair at the table the duo used for dinner, with Kenma handcuffed to the chair frame opposite, noticed Kozume dully staring at the book cover. Growing up in a dictatorship, Naoyasu empathized with the main character in a couple of ways, but he couldn’t help but wonder how someone who didn’t grow up in that world felt about the novel.

“What do you think of 1984?” he said nonchalantly.

Kenma shrugged as much as the handcuffs allowed. “Eh. It’s half poorly written smut.”

“Smut?” Kuguri said of the unfamiliar word.

“Oh, it’s a fanfic term,” Kenma said dismissively.

“Fan fic?” Kuguri tilted his head before deciphering the slang term. “Oh? You write stories?”

And that’s how their weird friendship started. Soon, since Kenma never made an attempt to escape, Kuguri stopped restraining Kenma at all except when it was time for sampling. The pair began to debate novels like a private book club, and Kuguri started requesting pop culture novellas for Kenma to read. Akaashi found the eclectic change in Kuguri’s tastes odd but said nothing of it.

In the end, for Kuguri, it was paradise: He was fundamentally left alone, he had all his needs met, he had access to all the books he could want, and now he had a discussion partner. It was a welcome distraction from the dark fate that inevitably awaited him on the other side of the ever looming mountains.

 

But then, one month ago, his Garden of Eden was trespassed upon.

Akaashi had called to announce his usual visit, and per custom, Kuguri stepped outside an hour beforehand to activate the other generator so that it could warm up. He trooped from the backdoor over the yellowed dirt toward the overhang protecting the generators from the sun, listening to the main generator clanging like an old swamp cooler.

When he rounded the side of the house, he spotted a jet black sedan parked out front.

Kuguri ducked back around the corner. He drew his sidearm and peeked at the vehicle again, its windows impenetrably tinted. He advanced cautiously, weapon pointed at the unknown car.

“I’d be careful where yer aimin’ that,” a voice announced from behind. Kuguri spun and spotted a suavely smiling man with bleach blond hair in a suit. The man bore no visible weapons but appeared totally unafraid for his safety.

“You best put down yer gun lest things get ugly,” the stranger goaded. Kuguri checked his peripherals and detected the barrel of a rifle protruding through one of the car’s windows that was slightly rolled down, aimed at Naoyasu.

“Don’ be afraid,” the stranger said. “I just wanna have a li’l chat.”

 


 

Tuesday November 10, approx. 8 p.m. Tokyo time

Akaashi and Terushima spent the trip gleefully chatting about everything chromosome, but once winter night set in, the seven-hour drive from Itachiyama stretched into eight as Akaashi navigated the pocked trail in the blackness. At last, the lights of a farmhouse materialized. When the car rumbled to a halt, the headlights caught Kuguri activating the second generator, the exhausted Akaashi a tad peeved it hadn’t been turned on earlier. Upon finishing the tedium, Kuguri flashed a wave at his guests and led them indoors.

Terushima followed Kuguri and Akaashi towards the room where Naoyasu did his reading and eating, located at the end of a hall on the far side of the cottage. He noticed all the doors were shut except for one they passed.

Inside, a man with the exact bicolor hair configuration as the “Kenma” in Lab 3 was strapped at the wrists and ankles to a bed and besieged by medical equipment. Noticing Terushima’s interest, Akaashi doubled back and peered inside. The man on the bed intentionally refused to look at the doorway, even though he could tell he was being watched. Akaashi’s face was somber.

Sharing tea with Terushima and Kuguri in the room at the end of the hall, Akaashi took the opportunity to ask Kuguri what happened last Friday while they waited for the generator to warm up.

After the incident when Kenma fainted in his last sampling in Nekoma, Dr. Onaga had refused to assist with sampling anymore, and Keiji had since gone about it alone. Last Friday, though, so absorbed in preparing for his meeting with Entente officials, Keiji changed his custom and dispatched Tetsurou Kuroo with detailed instructions to obtain the samples.

Kuroo’s specialty was feline genetics. He had been recruited six months earlier to jumpstart the amalgamation of human and beast DNA, beginning with improving nocturnal vision by the grafting of feline genes. The new focus required quadruple the number of available gene samples, and so Keiji was forced to begin weekly sampling on Kenma, even though it was a much heavier strain on Kozume’s body. At the same time, Kuroo disagreed with how Akaashi ran the project as well as his strange protectiveness of the progenitor, Kenma Kozume. Most of all, Akaashi objected to Kuroo’s insistence that Kozume be studied and even experimented upon directly, rather than the less efficient process of constantly acquiring new, vanilla samples every week.

Unfortunately, Kuguri provided no useful insights into Kuroo’s motivations. He claimed Kuroo said and did nothing abnormal but noted, much to Keiji’s chagrin, that Tetsurou was much rougher on Kenma during the sampling than Akaashi was. Kenma reacted more violently and fainted more quickly than usual. Terushima noticed Keiji quiver.

A mere four days after an especially rough draw, Akaashi dreaded how Kenma’s probably still weakened body would react today.

An hour had passed. The generator was warmed up. Akaashi rose, a lump in his throat.

In some ways, the three-month deadline was a godsend. Once the project was finished—be it a success or a failure—he had promised that Kenma would be set free. At least, he and Kenma could find solace in that.

In the bedroom, Keiji silently slid the medical equipment into place, inspecting every tube and monitor for evidence of sabotage. Kenma refused to face the doctor; Yuuji could almost pluck the tension between them.

When Keiji couldn’t handle the silence any longer, he spoke. “Tora asked about you recently.” He didn’t want to think about Tora, considering how abysmally that meeting two weeks ago had gone, but if anything could elicit a reaction from Kozume, that might be it.

Sure enough, Kenma flicked his eyes to view Keiji in his peripherals. “What’d he say?” he coldly asked.

“He cares about you,” Akaashi said weakly. Kenma turned his gaze away again.

“Don’t send that guy from last week,” he mumbled. The aching guilt in Akaashi’s chest resurged.

“I won’t,” he whispered.

When the time to start came, Terushima, seated at a table below the window, began to shake. He noticed the patient’s skin getting clammy and fingers flexing nervously.

Akaashi was so focused he didn’t notice Kuguri was unusually electing to remain in the room, seated with his elbow on the table and chin idly in his palm.

When Keiji was finished with preparations, he held a syringe attached to a tube and forced a smile.

“How are you feeling?”

Kenma’s blood boiled. It was the question Keiji always asked, but his caring pretenses were a joke. They both knew that this was going to be painful as heck, that Kenma’s body wasn’t close to being ready for it. Akaashi knew how Kenma really felt right now; and contrary to Keiji’s intentions, his mentioning Tora merely reminded Kenma of how in denial his old friend was.

“You don’t care,” he grumbled, managing to maintain his composure nonetheless.

Akaashi’s smile disappeared. “Kuroo hurt you, and I care about that,” he asserted, truthfully insulted by Kenma’s accusation. Kenma glowered ferociously at Akaashi. “Look,” Keiji continued before Kenma could protest more, “I understand how you feel. I know you think this is unfair, but—”

“You don’t understand how I feel!” Kenma’s wrists bent against the restraints like a beast trying to escape captivity. Keiji took a step back.

“Kenma, please,” he begged. Kozume hadn’t been this angry in six months. “Just remember why we’re doing this….”

“You don’t give a flip about my feelings!” Kenma remonstrated.

“I’m doing this for you!” Akaashi angrily yelled back.

Kenma’s spittle flailed as he betrayed the suspicion he’d had about Akaashi’s motivations since day one. “You just want to make up for the fact Koutarou’s dead!”

Keiji backed off instantly. Terushima stood, increasingly unsettled by the bitterness of the argument.

Kozume lowered. “Don’t act like it’s such a shock. You know that’s what this is about.” Keiji was frozen, and taking advantage of that, Kenma continued to vent. “Would you still be so gung-ho if Koutarou was the one you were sticking that needle into?!”

It was just for a second.

For just a second, Keiji’s mind’s eye stared at the spot where Kenma lay…but it wasn’t Kenma lying there.

In Keiji’s mind, it was Kou. His late spouse’s glittering eyes drilled into Akaashi’s: somber, accusative, puzzled, betrayed. The illusory face at once silently dreaded what was about to happen, silently begged Akaashi not to do it, silently questioned why his spouse felt the need to. The specter caused the syringe to slip out of Keiji’s hand and clink on the floor.

Akaashi couldn’t even begin to recompose himself. When he tried, the apparition reappeared and paralyzed him.

He needed Kenma’s DNA. No one else would suffice.

They were doing something good. It would prevent other people like Kou from dying.

…But Kou would never have wanted this. Not one bit.

Not one single, solitary bit.

Keiji couldn’t do anything else. The haunting image somehow strangled his motivation so violently that he was stuck, plagued by the thought of personally torturing Kou. Not under any circumstance would he have allowed Bokuto to be in Kenma’s shoes right now, and the sickening realization of exactly how monstrously he’d treated Kenma for so long assailed his conscience so sadistically he couldn’t stand it.

Unable to do anything, his knees buckled, and he landed on his shins and squatted in place.

Consequences be darned, he couldn’t go through with the draw.

“Kuguri,” Akaashi mumbled, “let him go.”

Kenma’s tension began to evaporate at the unusual command. And then his muscles tightened again when he spotted a new figure leaning against the doorway that led into the room.

“You know,” the stranger began, “when you first told me this guy was your friend, I honestly never expected something like this.”

Keiji snapped out of his funk at once, recognizing the deep voice. He got to his feet, blood pressure rising. “Kuroo!” he screeched at the smirking saboteur, utterly proud of himself. Akaashi’s rage morphed into fear when two soldiers in tactical gear and ski masks, rifles trained on Akaashi and Terushima, filtered into the space. Kuroo wagged his finger.

“Ah, ah, ah,” he discouraged.

A new person then appeared in the entryway flanked by another masked soldier. The smug figure wore a carefully pressed jet black suit from head to toe, his bleach blond bangs combed suavely to one side.

“It’s about time we got to meet, Dr. Akaashi,” the stranger said. Yuuji gulped, Kuguri standing behind him.

“Who are you?” Akaashi questioned.

“I go by many names,” the man proudly introduced. “Some call me Hungry Fox. Currently I go by Norimune Kurosu, the chargé d’affaires at the Inarizakian embassy in Fukurodani. But soon, y’all’ll know me by my real name: Atsumu Miya—Director of Inarizaki’s Covert Ops.”

Akaashi’s brain stammered at the thought of Inarizaki of all nations confronting him.

“But before all that,” Atsumu Miya continued, “have ya heard the news?”

Neither Terushima nor Akaashi reacted. Atsumu simpered.

“You haven’t?” the speaker said with the childish joy of knowing a TV show spoiler. “Far be it from me to tell you though. It’s better if ya hear it from someone you trust. Luckily, I gave this phone number to such a person for that very purpose.”

He gestured at the landline on the table which, as if on cue, rang.

“I suggest ya get that, Dr. Akaashi,” Atsumu teased.

Keiji trepidatiously claimed the phone. “Hello?”

Oh, my word. It does work,” a female voice said with incredulity.

“Prime Minister?!”

After the missile strike in Itachiyama, Prime Minister Shirofuku had been trying to reach the absentee Keiji, until an anonymous diplomatic source passed along the phone number. “Since you’ve already run, no doubt you know what happened.

“What?”

Playing dumb, are we? Your lab’s gone, Akaashi,” Shirofuku said without mincing words. “Your project’s toast. Prepare to be arrested—that is, if you dare to show your face again.” The prime minister hung up. Keiji hung on the empty line, processing what had just happened.

The lab was…gone?!?!?!

“What did you do?” he challenged Atsumu.

“It’s not what I did, but what you’re gonna do. Which brings me to the reason I’m here. Tell me, Dr. Akaashi. Do you know a Dr. Sakusa?”

Akaashi blinked at the name of his former boss at Itachiyama University’s Department of Genetics. “Of course,” he replied.

“Y’see, Dr. Akaashi—Dr. Sakusa’s been doin’ a project very similar to yours, for us, for the last five years. But he could use some extra help, he says, and when I asked ’im people he’d like on his team, he said you, Dr. Akaashi.”

Akaashi’s eyes dilated. For the last five years—if that was true, then that would mean Sakusa had been working for Inarizaki since he vanished.

There was no way that could be true, yet it made perfect sense.

“And it looks like I came at a good time!” Atsumu continued. “After all, Dr. Akaashi, looks to me like you need a new job.”

Akaashi couldn’t believe what was happening. Everything he had worked for had collapsed around him in a matter of seconds; and in that same amount of time, the chance to salvage it all had appeared.

He took a look at Kenma, fearful for what would happen to his friend whom he had treated so horribly. Atsumu noticed the glance with interest.

“O’ course we’ll take Kenma with us,” he said like he was a pet cat. “Dr. Sakusa’s research is a bit different than yours, so you won’t need to do more of that stuff ya been doin’.”

So many emotions rushed through Kenma’s blood at that moment that he was getting a migraine. He was tired of it all. “Just let me go home,” he groaned.

“’Fraid there’s not much to go back to,” Atsumu interjected, “considerin’ what happened to yer friends n’ all.”

Both Akaashi and Kozume reacted to that statement. Atsumu shrugged with faux sorrow.

“It’s so sad, really. You were so sure that your friends—Yamamoto and Fukunaga, right?—were leakin’ information—so much you had ’em both murdered!” he announced insouciantly.

“What?!” Kenma virulently bellowed at Akaashi. Keiji panicked, hearing this claim for the first time himself.

“What did you do to them?!” he furiously yelled. Most likely, if anything had happened to the pair, it was Daishou’s doing, but his judgment clouded by emotions, he interpreted Atsumu’s equanimity as indicating the Inarizakian’s involvement instead.

Akaashi took one feral step forward, and that’s when he heard a pistol cock to his side. Terushima yelped at the sight of their Nohebi host aiming his sidearm at Akaashi.

Atsumu finished. “Too bad, cos the spy—it was Kuguri.”

One month earlier, Atsumu visited the remote farmhouse in hopes of recruiting an agent within Lab 3’s security contingent. He offered Kuguri the man’s only chance to escape the noose that awaited him in Nohebi. In exchange, Kuguri had to persuade one researcher from the Kenma Project to defect as well.

Unfortunately, it was exclusively Akaashi who came to get Kenma’s samples every week, but when Kuroo showed up four days ago, Kuguri successfully persuaded the man to join Inarizaki. Kuroo was asked to sabotage Kenma, and then, with a healthy helping of uncorrupted DNA samples, was shuttled off to the secluded farmhouse by Atsumu’s personal sniper squad. Originally, the group was just going to head home from there, but when Akaashi announced he was coming that evening—on top of the unprecedented success of Kita’s operations in Miyagi that included the dual elimination of SHOYO and Lab 3—Atsumu decided to take a risk and lure two more candidates for Sakusa’s team.

And as Akaashi pondered the offer, Atsumu’s seductive glare shifted to Terushima. Yuuji flinched.

“Oh, don’t worry, Dr. Terushima. I mentioned your name to Dr. Sakusa too, and he thinks you’d be a nice addition to his team as well.” The man’s glance peered to something down the hall, out of the view of everyone in the room. “But perhaps someone you know can explain it better than I can.”

Atsumu and the masked guard behind him stepped aside to make room for another soldier who shunted another person into view of the doorway:

Futakuchi.

“Give it up, Terushima,” Kenji said. “The lab’s gone. There’s no reason for Shirabu to keep his end of the bargain. If we return to Miyagi, we’re toast.”

It’s what Atsumu had coached him to say, and the rifle jabbing into his spine that no one in the room could see was a further threat that Futakuchi could not improvise. Even if he were to try, Futakuchi had the sneaking suspicion Atsumu Miya would manipulate anything he said into his favor.

“So, what do y’all say?” Atsumu asked in conclusion.

The Inarizakian had given them offers impossible to turn down. Not just for Kuguri, they were, in effect, chances to escape their respective nooses.

Yet both Akaashi and Terushima knew the truth behind Atsumu’s cordial invitation as well.

In reality, they actually could not say “no” even if they wanted to.

 

Later, Akaashi bent forward in a chair pensively while Kuguri undid Kenma’s restraints. He took a glance at the man who looked awful from trying to withhold tears at the claim of Fukunaga and Yamamoto’s homicides. Keiji didn’t have the guts to ask Atsumu if that were true. If anything, he was impressed that Kenma had managed not to cry, since Akaashi had broken down multiple times already.

While some of the four highly trained soldiers carried the boxes of Kuroo’s lab samples outside, Terushima and Futakuchi somberly leaned against the wall. Atsumu chatted blithely with one of the masked soldiers he called “Samu,” who likewise called the other man Tsumu.

Neither Futakuchi nor Terushima had to say it. They both could tell that their supposed rescuer wasn’t as benevolent and selfless as he fashioned himself. Their futures in Miyagi were indeed uncertain, and neither had any hope of a future in Tokyo, but their prospects in Inarizaki were just as uncertain as any.

Yuuji propelled himself from the wall and approached the Inarizakian spy chief.

“Hey, so, when do we leave?” he asked innocently.

At that moment, all the occupants of the cottage—Terushima, Futakuchi, Akaashi, Kenma, Kuroo, Kuguri, Atsumu, and the four soldiers—became aware of the chopping of helicopter blades overhead.

Atsumu beamed. “Righ’ now.”

Terushima smirked, hiding his unease. He’d gotten himself out of plenty of sticky situations before. He’d even managed to infiltrate Lab 3 without a hitch for a while.

But already he could tell outsmarting Atsumu Miya was going to be his toughest challenge yet.

Chapter Text

12 days before the destruction of Lab 3Lab 3, Itachiyama, Fukurodani

From the moment Taketora Yamamoto walked through the door of Lab 3, he had an eerie vibe.

The vibe wasn’t from the building itself, a facility the lauded fighter pilot had to be screened into like a civilian, nor was it exclusively from the eldritch experiments within.

The vibe came from his host, the superficially smiling Keiji Akaashi.

Throughout the tour, Akaashi asked Tora how he was doing, what was going on in the war, what his health was like, if he hung out with Fukunaga any. Tora didn’t like the small talk, considering he’d come here for one purpose: to make it so that Kenma would not be subjected to anymore experiments.

Tora had to sign a nondisclosure agreement before being granted access. The head of security Suguru Daishou—the guy Tora punched in the face at the hospital six months ago—was their omnipresent shadow throughout the walkthrough. He seemed particularly annoyed when Akaashi activated the retinal scanner at the entrance to what Akaashi called “D-9.”

“This is what Kenma and I are doing,” he teased with the glee of an infant at show-and-tell.

Tora was shocked at the nude male creature—about the age of a teenager—floating in the tank and was more amazed at the likeness to Kenma. Akaashi insisted it was something better than traditional cloning, but Tora’s brain didn’t care to see the distinction. The strangest oddity was the hair, black at the roots but transitioning to blond.

Six or seven years ago in fact, Tora had suggested the black-haired Kozume dye his hair. To his and Fukunaga’s surprise, Kenma did it. Back then, Yamamoto joked that Kenma wouldn’t be able to put in the effort to re-dye the roots as they grew out, and his prediction was proven every single time he’d seen him since. Why this copy of Kenma had the same lazy dye job though was above Yamamoto’s paygrade.

He soon forgot about it when Keiji concluded the tour and guided his guest to his office, as the doctor had neglected to show Tora something:

Kenma Kozume himself.

Akaashi shut the door and proceeded to return a book to the bookshelf. Tora felt a prick of sadness spotting the portrait on the desk of Keiji and Kou—Fukunaga’s photograph from college folded to fit the dimensions of the frame.

“Where’s Kenma at?” Tora asked solemnly.

“Kenma?” Keiji peered back with the barest hint of unease. “Ah, we have him at a secure location.”

Tora twitched. He hadn’t exactly planned how he was going to save Kenma, but he assumed Kenma would at least be here and would figure it out then.

His fists tightened into a ball at the thought Akaashi was hiding him on purpose.

Keiji slipped the book into its designated place and blithely continued talking. “So, when the prototype built from Kenma’s DNA is complete, he’ll be deployable as a ‘super soldier’—as they say in science fiction. The hope is eventually to replace humans on the battlefield altoge—.”

Akaashi haplessly turned just in time to see Tora charge him. Yamamoto fitfully grabbed the collar of the scientist’s lab coat and slammed him against the wall, lifting him half a foot off the ground. The look in Tora’s eyes was feral.

“Where’s Kenma?” he gnashed.

Floating helpless in the air, at the mercy of the buff man, Keiji stammered. “H-he’s safe!”

Yamamoto wouldn’t accept that answer and banged Akaashi’s whole body against the wall. Keiji yipped when his skull hit the plaster.

“I’m taking him home!” Tora declared.

“Kenma agreed to this,” Keiji growled.

Tora scowled more. It was the same thing Keiji said in Nekoma six months ago—even though Kenma himself had said he didn’t like the procedure when Tora bullied it out of him.

“Why would he agree to that, huh?! If it’s true, tell me!”

“I can’t,” Keiji whispered meekly.

“Tell me!” Yamamoto demanded again and once more slammed Keiji’s body against the wall. The picture frame on the desk bounced.

“I can’t!” Keiji snarled fiercely, teeth showing and making Tora waver for just a second. If he could, he would say it. Keiji’s conscience assailed him for hiding this secret from Tora, but he had no choice. Only Kenma could divulge the answer to the question. “If you want to know, ask him yourself when this is over.”

Being asked to acquiesce while Kenma continued to undergo whatever horrendous things Akaashi pleased—that triggered something deep inside Tora. He wasn’t going to stand for this. There was no way he was going to back down.

“Kenma doesn’t want this, does he?” he said flatly. Keiji’s eyes shook.

And said nothing.

The silence was all the answer Tora needed. His blood pressure rose. His vision clouded as rage pumped through his limbs.

If Tora couldn’t rescue Kenma, he’d make it at least so Akaashi couldn’t do anything more to him.

Akaashi stumbled on the floor when Tora let go. He lost his balance and thudded on his buttocks.

And then Tora’s hands lunged at Akaashi’s neck.

Keiji clasped onto Yamamoto’s bulging arms, Tora’s thumbs pressing viciously against his throat. The air force officer was indisputably stronger, and Keiji could only choke in reply. Instinctively Akaashi shoved his palms against Tora’s chin and began to push his skull away. The move caused Tora’s clasp to break for a second, and Akaashi’s airways opened.

“Daishou!” he hollered. Tora immediately went again for his foe’s throat. Suguru Daishou and curious soldiers whipped open the door. Springing into action, Daishou grabbed Tora’s shoulder and flung him across the room. Before that, Tora swung an uppercut at Akaashi’s jaw for a direct hit. The other soldiers trained their assault rifles on the Nekoman as Keiji collided against his office chair, which careened into the corner.

“This ain’t over, Akaashi!” Tora, flat on the ground with arms out to be visible, bellowed. While the choking Akaashi used the table as support to stand up, Sgt. Seguro handcuffed the doctor’s assailant. “I’m gonna tell everyone what you’re doing here! The president, the administration, the people! You’re gonna be through, Akaashi! You hear me?! Through!”

Daishou’s subordinates manhandled the irate Tora from the room, leaving Suguru and Keiji alone, the latter inhaling as if air were a luxury.

“Told you this was a bad idea,” Suguru said in spite and exited the space himself, slamming the door behind him.

Now Keiji was alone. He melancholically scooted his chair back to its place at the desk and collapsed into it. His fingers caressed his beet red neck as if reassuring his body it was still there. Swiping the back of his hand across his lower lip produced a blood smear on his skin from the spot where Tora’s punch made contact.

Keiji tensely washed his face in the adjoining bathroom, and several paper cups of water later, the world finally stopped spinning.

He waddled like a drunk back to his desk, sat down, and rested his face in his forearms.

And cried.

It was only gazing at the handsomely grinning face of his spouse preserved for posterity behind the glass of the picture frame that finally allowed Akaashi to stop mourning what had just happened.

Tora absolutely would leak the project’s secrets. As a public figure and cultural icon, he had the capacity to do it. Of course, what he’d find is that the highest levels of Nekoma’s government sanctioned what Akaashi was doing. Their only concern—for the sake of national security and war strategy—would be shutting Tora up so that the Alliance didn’t learn of the project.

Tora’s future was in jeopardy if he spoke out loud. Despite what happened, he told himself Tora would come around once he knew the truth. In the meantime, he had to protect Tora from himself.

So, taking a deep breath, he dialed one of Prime Minister Shirofuku’s aides.

 


 

Present: Tuesday November 10 approx. 8:00 p.m. Miyagi timeSeijoh

Via Saeko on the one hand and Tendou on the other, the Shiratorizawan and Karasunoan helicopters locked in stalemate with each other proceeded to a Seijoh Army military base outside Kitagawa. It irked Semi that his wariness of Ennoshita wasn’t vindicated, while Shirabu hoped only the turn of events would somehow be beneficial.

And that was when their prisoner, Taketora Yamamoto, began banging his foot against the storage closet door. Shirabu huffily opened it.

“Oh, are you finally ready to talk?” the admiral dryly asked. Truthfully he would have preferred to keep their POW a secret, but Ennoshita’s presence made that impossible.

“I don’t gotta listen to a punk like you,” Yamamoto said.

Being called a “punk” by a guy with a yellow Mohawk was the definition of irony to Shirabu. He slid the door closed in indignation, Tora blocking it furiously with his foot.

“Stop, you psychopath!”

“Then talk,” Shirabu ordered. Yamamoto peered at Ennoshita and Semi peering from the background and decided to ask the question he’d been pondering in the dark compartment.

“Are you the ones who are going to save Kenma?”

Shirabu raised an eyebrow. “That depends. Who is Kenma?”

Tora sneered. Earlier that day, Fukunaga called him, said someone was going to help save Kenma. If it wasn’t the Miyagi Alliance, then who on earth could it be?

“But if you cooperate, maybe we will save this Kenma,” Shirabu goaded. “Why don’t you tell us what the Kenma Project is?”

Presently the copter’s pilot announced the descent over their destination.

“Sorry,” Shirabu interjected. “Hold that thought. We’ll have to finish this later. It will give you time to collect your thoughts I hope.”

 


 

11 days before the destruction of Lab 3Mujinazaka Air Base, Nohebi

After a while, Daishou’s guards hoisted Tora out of Lab 3 to a military transport plane. Tora was scheduled to head back to Nekoma for an Air Force recruitment drive, but when he landed, the air was nippy. The jet hadn’t flown south, to Nekoma.

It had flown north, to the far reaches of Nohebi, a Nohebi Air Force compound called Mujinazaka Air Base.

The location of his banishment was chosen for a few reasons. One, it happened to be one of the farthest places from Lab 3 on the continent. Two, situated near the ocean, it still afforded Tora the opportunity to contribute his skills to the war by protecting the coastline. Three, the base’s commander was an old associate of Lt. Daishou: Col. Sou Akama, former deputy commander of the Oomizu Squadron.

Spared the purge that followed the death of Mika Yamaka, Sou Akama had rejoined the Nohebi Air Force after the unit’s dissolution, attained the rank of colonel, and came into command of the base at Mujinazaka. Because of their history, Daishou coordinated directly with the base commander on Tora’s sequestration. The Lab 3 security chief made bombastic claims about the threat the fighter ace posed, yet Akama didn’t buy any of it. His personal appraisal of Taketora Yamamoto, when the man stood at attention in his office, was a man of valor, notwithstanding the unsanctioned yellow Mohawk that he got away with because of his esteem.

“I don’t know who you pissed off or what you did to get banished here, but I’m not going to gripe about it,” the colonel said, flipping a vague communique about Tora onto his desk, “so let’s talk about the conditions of your assignment here. I’ve been told to limit your contact with the outside, but that’s hardly necessary since this base is so remote there’s no one to talk to. That said, you are restricted to the grounds except during missions. Given your prowess, I have already decided to make you an associate instructor for the slipshod excuses for recruits I have; and if you can somehow whip them into shape, I’ll be eternally grateful—if a bit shocked.”

There was a knock at the door, and Akama ordered the visitor to enter. The man who appeared was slightly taller than Sou but bore the subordinate rank of lieutenant-colonel. He saluted his superior crisply.

“Colonel, the meeting with Brigadier-General Kiryuu has been set for 0800hours, 10 November,” the officer announced. That would be 11 days away, Akama noted.

“Thank you, Usuri,” Sou nodded. He then proceeded to introduce his deputy commander, Michiru Usuri, to their new arrival. “Lieutenant-Colonel, this is Nekoma’s top ace, Taketora Yamamoto.”

Yamamoto saluted the officer, about whom Usuri had been briefed earlier. Michiru casually signaled Tora to drop the formality. The lieutenant-colonel trotted to Akama’s side while the commander proceeded to resolve the last piece of business.

While Daishou wanted Yamamoto to have no access to the outside world, Akama received a conflicting directive from a person far above Daishou: Generalissimo Numai himself. President Nekomata had apparently asked that the decorated pilot not be subjected to undue torment during his quarantine. While there was no internet or social media to be accessed at the Wi-Fi-less base, letters and phone calls were fine as long as they were monitored. Mail would be subject to censor review anyway, but trying to ensure his landline use was monitored (the man’s cell phone having been pilfered by Daishou’s team) while still allowing such use at all was tricky.

“You are not to use any unsupervised telephones, but I will allow you to make outgoing calls—within reason, when time is available—from my desk in my presence. If you’d like to assure any family you’re all right, go ahead.” He handed the handset to Tora.

Tora knew what this meant: if he divulged anything questionable, Akama would shut him down immediately. He took the phone tensely.

He wouldn’t back down though. Akaashi had done a fine job isolating Tora and ensuring he couldn’t be a threat. Sure, Tora couldn’t do anything for Kenma here—that was a difficult fact he had to accept—but that didn’t mean it was hopeless.

Sweat formed on his brow as he dialed Fukunaga.

Hello?” was the nervous response from Shouhei, hoping the Nohebi-based number was Tora, from whom he hadn’t heard in two days.

“Hey,” Tora said. He glanced hawkishly at Akama who had moved with Lt.-Col. Usuri to the back of the room, blocking the exit by their mere aura. “I’m not coming back,” he said vaguely.

Not coming back? W-what do you mean?

You’ll have to save Kenma, bruh.”

Akama raised an eyebrow.

What are you talking about?!

“Listen. I can’t talk. If you need me—if you need to get in touch, for an emergency, call this number and ask for the ‘Tiger.’ Gotta go.”

Tora pressed the receiver with his fingers. His eyes were locked on Col. Akama while setting the handset back in its place.

Akama hadn’t granted permission for Tora to receive incoming calls, but since the deed had been done, he wasn’t going to fuss about it now. He was curious if this “Kenma” had anything to do with the reason Tora was here but didn’t care to make more trouble than it was worth.

“‘Tiger?’ OK,” Akama acknowledged. “I’ll decide if the timing is appropriate to receive any call. You’re dismissed.” He signaled a guard to escort Tora to his quarters and showed the pilot out.

“Was that really a good idea?” Michiru Usuri asked. “Letting him talk to whoever that was?”

“The generalissimo and Nekoma’s president know Yamamoto is a valuable asset, and I will treat him as such.” He sighed. “And between you and me, I’ve been in this crummy country far too long, and I choose to make it as livable as possible for everyone. Besides, until Yamamoto does something to betray our trust—or until Daishou tells us otherwise—we have nothing to fear from him.”

 


 

Tuesday November 10, approx. 2 a.m. Tokyo timeMujinazaka Air Base, Nohebi

11 days later, Usuri roused Akama in the middle of the night to report the Miyagian counteroffensive in Datekou. All coastal airbases were put on alert. An hour later, while Usuri saw off the first round of air patrols, Akama was sipping coffee in his office alone, pondering the call he’d received from Daishou last night. Suguru frantically warned that Tora may be involved in something detrimental to the Entente and demanded a full interrogation at once. Akama scoffed at the urgency; he outranked Daishou and wasn’t going to sacrifice sleep for commands that didn’t come from the top down. Yamamoto took off in one of the first sorties around 3 a.m., leaving Akama with plenty of time to decide how he would handle the issue when he would be more awake.

When Tora landed around 6, with no sign of enemy activity to report, Sou gave the pilot an hour to recuperate and then summoned him to his office. The timing ended up being horrible because, as the sun rose, Akama received an increasing volume of calls.

“You needed me?” Tora asked, his body stiff as a nail at attention.

“At ease,” Akama sighed, massaging his temples. He invited the pilot to take a seat, which Tora dutifully did.

“I need you back in the air ASAP, but something was brought to my attention, and I—”

His phone rang. Akama took it quickly. It was an NCO reporting that the sweep of the abandoned terminal site on the connected property—a relic of the facility’s civilian days—turned up no signs of intruders. Akama thanked the officer and hung up.

“As I was saying—” He didn’t even get to finish that much when the phone rang again. Akama acknowledged the logistics report and as politely as possible rushed the caller off the phone.

What was I saying?” he complained aloud, rubbing his eyes with exhaustion.

“Something came up…,” Tora reminded.

“Ah, yeah. Well, I received a call last night—”

And his phone rang again. He took it, gave a succinct order after hearing out the caller’s issue, and hung up.

“You got a call…,” Tora prompted again.

“Yes,” Akama exhaled, rubbing his eyes again.

Things were too hectic to conduct a proper questioning. Of course, he had no idea what to interrogate Tora about. The pilot had made no effort to circumvent his restrictions since arriving and not made or received a single phone call. The fact Daishou was on edge meant simply that: Daishou was being paranoid.

“Let me be frank with you,” Akama resolved to say, as a word of caution to the pilot who had rightfully become one of his most important military assets. “Whatever you’ve done, you’ve seriously upset some people, and they are suspicious of you. If you are doing anything: for your sake, stop it. I don’t want to throw you under the bus for something that isn’t worth it.”

Yamamoto was equally surprised and affronted. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’,” he protested.

“I know,” Akama said and then answered another call. It was a staff officer from the Nohebi Army. “Are you serious? He still wants to meet? Tell him—” There was a volatile objection before Akama could speak his mind. “Yes, yes, fine! I’ll be there.” He slammed the phone down. “Yamamoto, you’re dismissed. Get back in the skies.”

Tora nodded and rose to depart.

But before he did, the phone rang one more time. Akama took a long, soothing inhale to center himself before answering.

“Colonel Akama,” he introduced.

Uh,” stammered the caller, “can I speak to the Tiger?

It took a second before Akama recalled what “the Tiger” meant. As for Tora, he overheard Fukunaga’s voice mutter the phrase and was paralyzed with shock.

“Are you aware we are in the midst of a military emergency?!” Sou censured loudly. “I don’t have time for—” And suddenly Tora’s open palm extended flatly before him, demanding the handset. Akama scowled, but the firmness of the man’s expression convinced him to accede. He silently handed the phone off, and Tora brought it to his ear.

“Yo,” he said.

Tora!” Fukunaga cried.

“What are you doin’ callin’ me?!” He didn’t have time to talk and was too stressed to consider there might be other reasons for the call.

Uh, you said if there was an emergency, I—

“What do you want?” he curtly interrupted. His muscles tensed under the guarded glare of the colonel.

I, uh, I met someone—who will help save Kenma. And you too!

Those words were music to Tora’s ears while simultaneously producing butterflies in his stomach.

He caught the heedful glare of Akama and stammered through a reply. “Wha—Are you—How—Dude! I ju—Just be careful, OK?! That’s great news, but be careful!” He slammed down the receiver hard and blinked at the colonel who was taken aback. “Sorry. Dumb idiot doesn’t know timing.” He then excused himself quickly.

Sou furrowed his brow. Whatever just happened wasn’t normal, but he’d think about it later and pass it along to Daishou if he felt it worthwhile. He stretched and retrieved his coat from the hanger.

A knock came, and Akama invited Usuri in.

“Colonel, I brought the final reconnaissance reports from the first sorties and recommendations for second patrols. No enemy activity at all.” The deputy was shocked to see the commander donning his jacket and peaked cap. “Are you…going somewhere?”

“Brig.-Gen. Kiryuu still wants to discuss interservice coordination in event of enemy movements. Apparently he’s afraid this offensive is a ploy to make us forestall our readiness preparations so they can attack us with our pants down. You’re in charge until I return. If Daishou calls, notify me.”

“Yes, sir!” Usuri eagerly saluted before all was left in his care.

 


 

Approx. 8 a.m. Tokyo time – six hours before the destruction of Lab 3

Usuri was accustomed to running the base in Akama’s absence. The second round of sorties was going smoothly with still no enemy sightings. The phone traffic was dying down too, giving Usuri a few moments to breathe and enjoy a beef breakfast burrito.

It was the phone call from Lt. Daishou that interrupted that breather.

“Lt.-Col. Usuri,” the chipper officer answered when the landline rang.

Where’s Akama?!” grunted Lt. Daishou.

“Who is this?”

Lt. Suguru Daishou. I need to speak to the col—

“You’re Daishou!” Usuri eagerly exclaimed. “You’re the one who killed Mika Yamaka.”

That allegation almost caused Suguru to blow a gasket. “Shut up! Where’s the colonel?!

“He’s out. I’m in charge,” said Usuri, taking a bite of his burrito. “What do you need?”

An hour earlier, Daishou’s deputy Seguro was inadvertently present when Shouhei Fukunaga called Tora and mentioned trying to save Kenma. Rashly taken as proof that Yamamoto was conspiring to undermine the project, Daishou forwent reporting the findings to his superiors in favor of exterminating Tora more efficiently.

Taketora Yamamoto is guilty of treason. He needs to be liquidated promptly.

“Oh?” said Usuri, tuning in.

I don’t care how you do it. Just make sure there’s nothing that can be traced to you.” If Nekoma’s national hero were executed without trial, Suguru’s head would roll next. His death had to look like an accident of some kind. Frankly, Daishou was concerned the moment he dialed that Akama would show due restraint on the matter. But the man he was talking to now—yes, Daishou could tell he was different.

Usuri pondered the directive. From what Akama told him, Daishou was the primary contact regarding the fishy situation Yamamoto was wrapped up in. From that fact alone, he assumed Daishou’s intel was legit. Killing Yamamoto over the matter seemed a bit extreme, but treason was a serious offense. The stakes, Usuri concluded, were simply that urgent, and heavens knew Nohebi wasn’t the most ethical country when it came to disposing of nuisances.

And he was already devising a plan of how to do it.

“All right. It will be done,” he told Daishou.

 

After hanging up, Michiru checked the clock. His boss had requested to be notified if Daishou called, but most likely Akama was knee-deep in strategy meetings with the army garrison commander, Wakatsu Kiryuu. It was best not to interrupt. Usuri would resolve the matter on his own and inform Akama upon the colonel’s return.

 


 

Approx. 11 a.m. Tokyo time – three hours before the destruction of Lab 3

Yamamoto touched down from his second sortie quite exhausted. It had been a longer mission with still no sign of any enemy activity, and he was looking forward to a respite.

When he exited the cockpit—putting the photograph he’d earlier placed on the dashboard into the pocket over his heart—he spotted Lt.-Col. Usuri speed-walking towards him.

“Yamamoto! We need you for a new mission!”

It was the most dreaded thing the weary pilot could hear right now.

Usuri pointed to a waiting fighter on the taxiway. “We’ve got another jet ready for you. There’s another sector we need to investigate. There shouldn’t be anyone there, but you’re the only guy right now we can trust for such a long-range assignment.”

Yamamoto, as high-strung as he was from lack of food and sleep, inhaled and exhaled measuredly. He’d wanted to call Fukunaga back, but Akama’s deputy with a soft but ersatz smile felt like he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Once in the cockpit, Tora removed the photograph from his pocket and found a spot on the dashboard where he could wedge it out of the way of his gauges. Throughout his career, he had kept Fukunaga’s celebratory photograph with him always. On every flight, he had it on his dash, as a reminder of what he was fighting for whenever he took to the skies

Since laying Bokuto to rest, seeing Kou’s grand smile then became a reminder that he was protecting what was left.

And ever since the incident with Kenma six months ago, Keiji’s uncomfortably forced grin in the photo invoked mixed feelings, worsened by the sight of the grinning Kou with his arm dangling happily over Akaashi’s shoulder. From then on, the photo was a reminder of the hope that one day, everything that was broken might somehow be fixed.

But the photo that Tora had on the dashboard now contained neither Akaashi nor Bokuto. After his transfer to Mujinazaka, Yamamoto clipped Keiji—and unavoidably Koutarou beside him—from the picture.

All that was left was himself, Shouhei, and Kenma.

Tora moaned when he skimmed the directive for the flight. He was traveling so far out to sea it was ridiculous. Modern jets could traverse such vast distances easily, but he’d risk nearing staging points for Alliance fleets supporting the Datekou offensive. He had no right to object to orders though. He’d embark on this mission dutifully.

If anything, maybe the long flight would give him time to ponder why Shouhei’s call from earlier was bothering him.

 

Akama returned an hour later, totally exhausted.

“The brigadier-general kept imagining all these other ridiculous scenarios that aren’t possibly going to happen. I never thought I’d get out of there,” he said, slumping into his desk. “What’s the status here?”

“The third sorties are underway,” Usuri said. “Still no reports of enemy activity. Daishou called and said Yamamoto has committed treason, and I made arrangements to eliminate him.”

Usuri spoke so casually that the sentence almost went over Akama’s head. “What?!” He shot to his feet and slammed his hands on the desk.

Usuri winced. “It seemed urgent, so—”

“Where’s Yamamoto?!”

“He’s in the sky,” Michiru stammered, raising his palms defensively.

“Recall him!”

“He’s out of range now. He won’t be able to return either. The area he was sent has an Alliance fleet, and even if they don’t shoot him down, he only has half the necessary fuel, and the gauge was tampered with so it won’t accurately report the levels.”

Akama blasted out of the room, ordering a search team to go in the direction of Tora to locate him.

 

When the searchers returned hours later, they had turned up nothing.

 


 

Approx. 1 p.m. Tokyo time/6 p.m. Miyagi time – Sunset in MiyagiOver the ocean

Tora’s flight was long and boring. He had flown a direct course to the target coordinates, taking him thousands of miles across the ocean. It was unorthodox to fly to such a distant target, but his fuel consumption appeared normal, so he wasn’t concerned as far as that went.

The long, dull trip gave him time to ponder as hoped.

Fukunaga had found someone willing to help Kenma….

What did that mean? Who? What for? Was it safe?

Was it a trap?

Then there was Col. Akama’s warning: “You’ve seriously upset some people, and they are suspicious of you.” Why now of all times? What was Akaashi and his supporters so worried about? Tora had done absolutely nothing to warrant suspicion, and he’d made sure of it.

Unless, Akaashi and his cronies weren’t worried about Tora.

Someone had approached Fukunaga at the same time as extra eyes were being put on Tora? It couldn’t be a coincidence, he figured.

Even though, as a result of the confusion sown last night, in the most tragic of ironies it was a coincidence.

Fukunaga was in grave danger. Tora had to stop Shouhei before Akaashi caught him. He had no time to waste. He had to complete this mission and book it back to the mainland.

As he’d gotten deeper into his thoughts, he’d stopped paying attention to his surroundings, such that only an incoming projectile warning in the cockpit broke his stupor.

Tora spotted the massive missile seemingly barreling towards him. He didn’t pause to ask why the unnecessarily large warhead was fired at a tiny fighter like himself—but he acted as his training dictated. He took aim and fired back, obliterating the anti-ballistic missile in an instant.

The obliterated missile’s target hadn’t been Tora though. It had been an ICBM traveling dozens of miles above, now headed towards Lab 3 unhindered.

Tora’s attention shifted to the warship that fired the weapon. He traced the smoke trail to an aircraft carrier at the center of a destroyer escort. Tora glided until he was directly between the carrier and the setting sun to obscure the fleet’s visibility of him—and readied two rockets. He launched them both at the carrier.

The escort destroyers were numerous, and a second carrier and entourage were to the south. Tora would be in deep trouble once they retaliated. He booked a 180 and retreated. So much for Usuri’s intel about no enemies, he thought. He checked his fuel gauge again to confirm it showed he had enough reserves to make it home.

He managed to glimpse the dual impact on the carrier just as heat-seeking rockets started to zip towards him at a frightening speed.

Tora flipped himself around and took aim at the insanely speedy pursuers. He fired back, obliterating some. Tora wheeled dangerously to the left to escape the surviving stragglers. One rocket took the sudden turn too short and clipped its neighbor, destroying them both and a few other projectiles. Tora flipped directly skyward like a space shuttle and then just as erratically nosedived and fired one volley to obliterate the last of the rocket salvo.

His controls warned of more missiles approaching. There were dozens this time, coming from both fleets now. Tora focused on those fired by the nearer Shiratorizawan fleet (though he didn’t know his attackers’ nationalities) and, with the same repertory of aerial acrobatics, dazzlingly eliminated each rocket.

By the time that threat was successfully extinguished, the missiles from the Karasunoan fleet were upon him. Tora didn’t skip a beat. With every second of concentration, he proceeded to annihilate these as well. One missile veered closely towards him. Tora prepared to drop flares to throw off the sensor on the rocket once it was close enough, his mind wholly consumed on getting the timing just right.

And then, a different cockpit warning sounded: the low fuel warning.

Unsure what the noise was in the moment though, Tora’s focus fatefully snapped for a second.

It was one second too long. Without figuring out the cause of the alert, he realized he’d missed his window of opportunity and that the rocket was almost upon him. Tora jerked the controls sideways, but the missile struck and destroyed his wingtip.

His controls went wonky, his agility and sleekness gone. More missiles approached at terrifying speed, unavoidably. Tora rammed his fist onto the eject button.

The last thing he saw in the cockpit was Kenma’s face in the photograph. After Tora was shot into the air, he saw his aircraft implode at the savaging of at least a dozen missiles.

In the twilight of the setting sun with the warships well on the horizon, he flipped open his parachute, a tight tug on his shoulders beginning his sudden deceleration. He drifted into the soft waves in the orange dusk.

He couldn’t make out the ship silhouettes anymore but could see the smoke billows from the carrier he’d attacked. Tora unhooked his parachute and paddled the opposite direction, towards the sunset. As impossible as it was, he’d swim all the way to Fukurodani if he had to.

He had to save Kenma. He had save Fukunaga.

Not much time passed when a blinding search beam engulfed the swimmer. He could hear the itinerant sound of a helicopter but kept swimming. The beam’s rim grew as the chopper descended as low as it could without the pressure of its rotor forcing Tora underwater.

And then splashing in the water nearby was the bottom of a rope ladder. Tora stared at the lifeline extended to him by the chopper. The copter hovered, while the ladder rolled in the surf.

And, in guilty desperation, Tora conceded he had no choice but to take it.

 


 

Approx. 9 p.m. Miyagi timeKitagawa, Seijoh

After landing at a Seijoh Army base outside Kitagawa overseen by a Col. Issei Matsukawa, the situation evolved rapidly. With the dire situation, Ryuunosuke Tanaka from Karasuno and Gen. Hajime Iwaizumi from Seijoh’s capital flew into the city to liaise on behalf of their heads of state.

As a first order of business, in following Kindaichi’s trail, another interrogation of the detained traffic offender named Tooru Oikawa took place in the Kitagawa City Jail. Oikawa admitted giving Kindaichi the address of a condo owned by Shigeru Yahaba’s boyfriend Kyoutani in exchange for a pardon. (Unfortunately for Oikawa, no one in the police or government felt compelled to honor that pardon.) The objective then fell to locate Kindaichi and Yahaba’s current whereabouts, and several hours after dark, there was still no luck—until one suspicious observation was belatedly relayed by an Army checkpoint on a rural thoroughfare.

Earlier that evening, when the blockade was first set up, a vehicle containing two agents of the Inarizakian consulate entered the city limits just before the Army closed off a backroad out of the metro area. The consular officials claimed they had gotten lost and were trying to get back to the city. At Gen. Iwaizumi’s direction, Col. Matsukawa ordered a search of the road, leading to the discovery of an abandoned car registered to the consulate parked in a cutoff in the woods. It seemed to have been left not long before the blockade went into effect and not too long after Yahaba’s hacking of the missile silo.

Maps showed the sparsely used route could be utilized as a wide detour to reach the airport.

Pieces began to slot into place after that. A query to the airport revealed that sometime around 7 p.m.—shortly after the obliteration of Lab 3—an official at Inarizaki’s consulate named Tarou Oomi ordered a jet be placed on standby. Police officers poring over security cameras positioned throughout the city were steadily accumulating footage of the car Kindaichi, Yahaba, and Kyoutani were last seen in, with the most recent sighting being in the vicinity of Inarizaki’s consulate. Computer technicians tracing both the attacks on SHOYO and the missile silo were increasingly positive they came from a specific sector in downtown Kitagawa that also happened to include the Inarizakian consulate.

The most promising lead was proffered by Chikara Ennoshita, though. As soon as the Inarizaki theory emerged, Ennoshita flexed his desk-honed intelligence gathering skills to crosscheck the résumés of the consulate staff. One figure that caught his attention was Tarou Oomi, the person who’d ordered the jet on standby. Chikara found no clear job description or verifiable history for the man. But most alarming, Tarou Oomi appeared to have briefly served as the Consul-General in Karasuno, for a short time, not too long ago.

Except under a different name.

In his concluding report in the middle of the night, Ennoshita had unmasked Tarou Oomi: his real name was Shinsuke Kita, an operative in Inarizakian intelligence.

Circumstantial as it was, the evidence was enough. In all likelihood, Kindaichi, Yahaba, and Kyoutani, under the supervision of Shinsuke Kita, were inside Inarizaki’s consulate in Kitagawa.

Then came the matter of getting the four into custody. Given the jet and the planted car, it appeared Kita wanted to smuggle Yahaba out of the country tonight. It was hoped the effort to evacuate Yahaba would resume if the cordon were lifted. Eita Semi, Saeko Tanaka, and an operative from Seijoh’s Aoba Johsai unit—the country’s own special forces—named Shinji Watari developed the counterplan to obstruct the attempt. Ennoshita occupied the room as an observer.

 

While the rescue mission was developed, Ryuunosuke Tanaka and Hajime Iwaizumi were obligatorily invited to participate in the interrogation of Taketora Yamamoto alongside Adm. Shirabu.

Yamamoto divulged everything he could think of: Kenma fainting during sampling six months earlier, Tora’s fight with Akaashi 12 days ago, his sequestration, and everything up to the miraculous coincidences that prompted him to attack and sink the STZ Takashi Utsui. Since mention was made that a mutual friend, Shouhei Fukunaga, had been contacted by someone, Tanaka and Iwaizumi pressed Shirabu on the subject. The Shiratorizawan admiral did not discount the possibility it was one of his agents but was more intrigued by the potential it was Inarizaki.

The chance that Inarizaki was involved also prompted Shirabu to argue that they couldn’t simply put the “Kenma Project” issue on the backburner just because Lab 3 had been destroyed. On the contrary, if Inarizaki had gone through the trouble of destroying the facility, it was entirely likely they already had what they needed from the Kenma Project for themselves.

Tanaka and Iwaizumi concurred, but all three agreed their first priority had to be Yahaba; and when the rescue operation plan was presented to the three nations’ heads of state, Ushijima, Kunimi, and Yamaguchi approved it.

 

Around that same time, Ryuu and Saeko called Chikara to a private room. Ennoshita didn’t like the stern vibes from his sibling superiors.

Ryuu, arms folded and leaning against a wall, spoke first. “The CIB has been asked to assist the Yahaba mission. We need two more people to act as scouts though.”

Saeko stretched her arms over her head. “I’ve volunteered to be one,” she winked. “It’ll be good to get back in the field after so long.”

While he was surprised at the Seijoh operations head’s decision, Ennoshita was more anxious than shocked. He knew where this was going and looked at Ryuu for reassurance, but his frown only assured him there was none forthcoming.

“But I need someone with me,” Saeko thinly hinted.

Chikara’s fists tightened, and he took a deep breath to calm himself.

Like the assignment a week ago, he was not being given a choice in the matter.

But this time…Chikara felt different.

This time, he was ready.

 “All right,” he replied. “What time do we move out?”

 

The plan was set, and in the wee hours of the morning of Wednesday November 11, the lockdown on Kitagawa was formally lifted.

As soon as Yahaba was in Alliance hands, then they would be equipped to counter whatever plot Inarizaki was hatching overseas.

And so, amid the callous, bare walls that felt like a prison, Taketora Yamamoto waited. While he languished here in the custody of foreigners, in a land he’d only idly imagined visiting, Fukunaga was in danger he figured, Kenma was still suffering.

He resolved that, no matter what, he would make things right, that he would make Akaashi pay if he had to.

He’d do it or die trying.

Chapter Text

Wednesday November 11, approx. 2 a.m. Miyagi timeInarizakian consulate, Kitagawa, Seijoh

Kita gently pushed back the drapes, observing the street from his fourth-floor office in the consulate. The opposing office building was dead black in the middle of the night. There was no traffic. This was good.

Yuutarou Kindaichi yawned and blinked with exhaustion when Shinsuke Kita returned to his chair at the desk.

“It was foolish to use the CPU to capture Yahaba,” Yuutarou’s host bluntly stated. Kindaichi jolted to attention and gulped. “It made Seijoh finding out inevitable.” Shinsuke casually sipped imported tea from his homeland. Kindaichi grimaced and drank his own cup of the same caffeinated beverage.

The desk phone jingled quietly. Yuutarou watched dully as Kita taciturnly took in the news from his caller.

“Seijoh has lifted the cordon,” he announced. The government was extraordinarily tightlipped about the reason for the ID inspections and vehicle searches at the city’s exits, trapping thousands of civilians in Kitagawa’s metropolitan area with grueling traffic jams. The chancellery’s press office would only attribute the move to a credible terror threat. Kita easily saw through the BS: they were searching for Yahaba.

He could only conjecture why Seijoh suddenly backed off. Doubtful had the country given up on finding its target though, which still made it precarious to attempt to smuggle Yahaba out tonight. The hope was to have Yahaba as a cyberwarfare asset for years to come, but the risk of him falling into enemy hands wasn’t necessarily worth the benefits.

Even with Seijoh on edge though, they couldn’t keep Yahaba here forever. A prolonged and public siege of the consulate demanding Yahaba or Kindaichi’s surrender would be catastrophic. All of the Seijohans on the premises—Shigeru Yahaba, Yuutarou Kindaichi, and Kentarou Kyoutani—had to be removed ASAP.

There was only one option. They had to make the attempt tonight.

Starting at 3 a.m., decoy vehicles began to depart the consulate. Kindaichi would depart via the workers’ entrance in a plain white van with the rear windows covered by black paper. An associate of Kita’s named Yuuto Kosaku would drive to the car planted earlier that evening. There, Yuuto would drive the van back to the consulate while Kindaichi transported their cargo in the alternate vehicle the rest of the way.

Yahaba and Kyoutani, wrists bound with ropes, were maneuvered into the rear of the van. Kindaichi oversaw the action nervously. While he’d be rewarded handsomely for his years of undercover work, upon exiting the facility grounds, he’d nevertheless be in hostile territory.

Back in his office, Kita dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s on the last bit of paperwork for Kindaichi to seamlessly enter the airport’s service entrance as a diplomatic concierge. Even so, he wished for the privilege to override his boss’s—Atsumu Miya’s—greed. SHOYO and the Kenma Project had both been obliterated, so their most pressing requirement for Yahaba was gone. Kita wished Atsumu would call so he could recommend adjusting their plan slightly.

It was still 10 p.m. on Tuesday on the continent of Tokyo at that time. In a secluded farmhouse in the far north of Fukurodani, a handful of individuals had been loaded aboard an Inarizakian helicopter, to be ferried across the border to Nohebi where a private plane awaited to transport them to Inarizaki.

Everyone had left the structure except for Atsumu Miya and the leader of his sharpshooter contingent—a man who happened to be his brother, Osamu Miya.

“All loaded up,” Osamu, who even now wore a ski mask, said as he toted a silencer-enabled sniper rifle.

Atsumu had been daydreaming when Samu spoke. “Hm?”

“I said yer fat,” Osamu vexatiously lied.

“Rude! Get out!” Atsumu juvenilely commanded. Samu shrugged and traipsed out of the room. Atsumu was to follow except he needed to inform Kita of the situation and verify that everything was proceeding smoothly in Miyagi, so he picked up the landline in the bedroom.

When the phone rang in the consulate in Seijoh, Kita took the call primly.

“Did ya buy the hot spring?” Atsumu asked in code.

“The forest is pricy, but trees’re fallin’ down. I’m ready to close the sale but worry the forest may prohibit.”

Kita’s words yanked Atsumu off of cloud nine. So Seijoh was onto the fact they had Yahaba, and Kita doubted the “sale”—Yahaba’s successful transfer—could be accomplished. Then Kita added another insinuation. “I suggest we get outta the pool altogether.”

“Fair point. We soothed ourselves enough. Headin’ to the snake’s den with prey. Drain the spring and go to the foxhole.”

Kita copied and they hung up. He took a moment to exhale.

“Drain the spring dry.” That order meant only one thing, and he departed quickly to inform Kindaichi and Kosaku of the slight change of plans.

 

When Yahaba first vanished that Tuesday afternoon, Shiratorizawan President Wakatoshi Ushijima dispatched a team of Eagles in anticipation of recapturing him. The unit under a man named Taichi Kawanishi was now deployed surveilling the Inarizakian consulate.

An hour after the lockdown ended, vehicles began to roll out of the consulate’s gates. Satellites tracked each vehicle to weed out decoys, with none headed towards the car found in the woods.

Then at last, amidst the stream of duds, one of Kawanishi’s agents spotted Yuutarou Kindaichi in the passenger seat of a white van. And sure enough, the van headed in the direction of the abandoned car. The operation was simple. Shinji Watari of Aoba Johsai—Seijoh’s special forces—lay in ambush near the stashed vehicle. Once the van arrived and Yahaba was transferred to the separate car, the Aoba Johsai force would move in. Kindaichi would be captured alive if possible.

That Yahaba be captured alive was nonnegotiable.

400 meters ahead of the ambush point, Chikara and Saeko camped out behind the hedges that lined the road, awaiting the van’s approach to report anything unusual. Chikara shivered in the chilly air.

Saeko conducted a routine radio check with Watari when she noticed Ennoshita sulking.

“What’s got you down?”

Chikara jolted. “Oh, nothing,” he said with obvious melancholy. Saeko sighed.

“Things’ll be fine. You know you wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust you.”

Ennoshita gnashed his lip at the encouragement. The whole operation dredged up the memories of Sendai Prison, how he’d screwed things up that night two and a half years ago and cost people’s lives. Even if the circumstances were different now, even if he wasn’t slated to be the person actually rescuing Yahaba, the doubts about his fitness to be here flooded in all the same.

He shook his head to rid himself of the images. Such a distraction couldn’t be afforded. Besides, even as he questioned all of his actions since Monday—letting Yahaba get away, detaining Semi, exposing himself and then allying with Shirabu—Saeko assured him everything had worked out because of his choices. And despite the pressure and the adrenaline—which he admittedly liked—he still felt uneasy. Saeko hoped that soon the man would be allowed to prove himself—or rather, prove to himself—that he was not incapable of saving the day as he’d done many times before.

A car engine hummed in the distance.

“I hear something,” Saeko whispered. Ennoshita trained night vision goggles on the road. With only its low-beam headlamps on, a white van, Kindaichi in the passenger seat, steadily approached.

 

Once the van left the smoother streets of the contiguous metro area, Kyoutani felt the ride get noticeably bumpier on the outlying road. The black coverings on the windows were not flush with the frames, and so a square sliver of light permeated around the edges and illuminated the interior just enough for Yahaba and Kyoutani to make out each other’s silhouettes. Seated facing each other on the sides of the van, their hands tied behind their backs, the pair said not a word since being reunited in the near pitch blackness. Yahaba quietly thanked an unknown deity that Ken didn’t look to be in any pain from the gunshot wound he sustained in the apartment.

Kyoutani had already deduced some of what was happening. The accents of his captors were from Inarizaki; and the fact the man who’d arrested them, Yuutarou Kindaichi, wore plainclothes now further suggested Seijoh was not in fact behind the current sequence of events. Most likely, they were being smuggled out of the country.

…If not about to be shot. That latter scenario was worryingly plausible, since they’d been restrained like they were a flight risk.

Along the wall of the van were hooks meant for securement straps. Kentarou had wriggled his bindings over the jagged point and continually motioned the rope against it, slitting the fibers ever so gradually in hopes of making an escape.

All the while, Yahaba heard the grunts of his boyfriend’s efforts to break the bindings and now feared it was residual pain from his chest wound. He regretted having dragged his lover into all this. He stayed silent, unable to forgive himself for the pain he had caused—not just to Kyoutani but so many others through his actions today.

But Kyoutani knew Yahaba’s continued silence was an indication he was blaming himself for Kyoutani’s predicament.

“Hey,” Ken mumbled. “What’s with the quiet?”

Shigeru pulled his knees toward his face for comfort.

“I’m sorry for dragging you into this,” he said and grimaced, now recalling what Kyoutani had said over breakfast:

“You could be a mass murderer, and I’d still forgive you.”

Yahaba didn’t know the death toll from the destruction of Lab 3, that miraculously only one person—an officer named Daishou—had been caught in the blast. It didn’t even matter. So consumed with protecting Ken and self-interest, he’d been willing to murder hundreds. Yahaba did not deserve the grace he received from his boyfriend.

“And…I have to say something…. I’ve killed people today. I wanted us to be together, so I did what they told me…. I know you hate me, so….” He teared up, unable to finish.

Kentarou momentarily stopped sawing the rope. Sometimes it pained him that his boyfriend had so little faith in him. Such were Shigeru Yahaba’s wounds from past relationships, childhood, whatever. Kyoutani had made peace with it. He’d made sacrifices too, whether his boyfriend saw them or not (and he didn’t care if his boyfriend ever saw them).

He would do anything for Shigeru Yahaba.

Ken inhaled took a deep breath, sending a wave of serenity to his extremities.

“That’s a dumb question,” he muttered. When he resumed cutting the rope, he felt the tension on his wrists slacken ever so slightly as the rope became weaker. “Hey. They’re taking us to Inarizaki, huh? You know they’ll keep using you there.”

Shigeru shook guiltily. He’d promised to quit his double life, but that could never happen in Inarizaki. Yahaba knew that, and Kyoutani knew that Yahaba knew that. So he asked the one question that Shigeru was avoiding for the last three weeks:

“What is it you really want?”

The words cut into Yahaba like a knife.

There was quiet. He knew the answer. But despite wanting it so badly, Shigeru feared he could never, ever have it no matter how hard he tried.

“I want to be with you.”

The van bounced over a rock. Another strand snapped on Kyoutani’s rope, and his wrists almost had play within the bindings.

“I just want to be with you,” he repeated and whimpered.

Kyoutani closed his eyes for a second.

It was all either of them ever wanted.

“Then let’s run away.”

The last thread snapped on the rope, and it slid off Ken’s wrists with some maneuvering.

“Are you insane?” Yahaba said, raising his voice a little. Kyoutani dashed forward and planted his palm over Shigeru’s mouth to remind him to keep it down. Shigeru actually wasn’t much surprised by Kyoutani’s freedom, considering what his boyfriend had done for a living. “How?” he whispered after Kyoutani removed his hand. “How are we going to do that?”

Kyoutani didn’t know the answer.

But he knew one thing for sure: for Shigeru, he would do anything.

“We’ll figure it out,” he said with a guttural whisper, no doubt at all.

That encircling confidence, that stoic determination, the impulsive doggedness that Kyoutani had demonstrated even by showing up to see Yahaba in the first place. It was too strong. Yahaba’s eyes wrinkled to hold back tears.

Kyoutani brushed Shigeru’s bangs aside and planted a soft kiss on his forehead. They were silent once again.

“We’ll do it. I promise,” he said. Shigeru rested his temple against Kyoutani’s chest, wanting only to enjoy his presence.

Kentarou undid the restraints on Shigeru’s wrists and then walked in a crouch to the double doors at the back of the van. He examined the lock as best he could from the inside to deduce how best to break it open. Once he had an idea where to exert the best force to break the door, he reached out his hand for Shigeru to clasp.

Hesitating only a moment, Shigeru cautiously took the extended arm.

“Let’s go,” Kentarou said.

And then, much to their alarm, the van began to stop.

 

“Saeko, look,” Ennoshita alerted.

Instead of driving past, the van rolled into the gravel shoulder on the opposite side of the street and halted directly opposite them. It was still a quarter of a mile to the car. The two Karasunoans peered intently through the hedgerow as Kindaichi and Kosaku exited the cab, slamming the doors behind them.

Shigeru jolted when the van rocked from the door slams. Kentarou tightly squeezed his boyfriend’s palm.

Chikara and Saeko were to the driver side of the vehicle, and while they could only see Kindaichi’s feet through the undercarriage, they could make out Kosaku’s full form.

His handgun was drawn.

Saeko radioed an urgent update to Watari as quietly as possible. Sweat forming on his brow, Chikara gripped the handle of his pistol.

Upon reaching the back of the van, Kosaku holstered his weapon in lack of witnesses or enemies. Kindaichi moved around him and took up position road-side with his back to the van, pistol at the ready, on the lookout for oncoming vehicles.

Kentarou put his ear to the door, squeezing Yahaba’s wrist like a tourniquet.

“Get ready.” As soon as Kentarou detected the thump of the lock, he rammed his shoulder against the door panel.

Yuuto Kosaku didn’t even get a chance to flinch when the unlocked doors burst open. The metal panel pancaked Kosaku in the face, hurling him flat on the ground. Kyoutani, still gripping Yahaba’s wrist, virtually flew out of the vehicle. Spotting a stunned Kindaichi in his peripherals, Kentarou released Shigeru (who plastered artlessly on his face), flattened both his palms on the ground, and, using his arms as an axle, swooped his legs through the air to kick Kindaichi’s legs out from under him. With Yuutarou momentarily felled, Kyoutani snatched Yahaba’s hand again and bolted into the adjacent woods.

Kosaku sat up cradling a bloody nose, while Kindaichi recovered and fired a shot blindly into the trees, ricocheting harmlessly against a trunk.

“Get them!” Kosaku shouted, his voice sounding like his nose was stuffed. Kindaichi took off into the forest. Yuuto forced himself upright and, cushioning one hand against his face, rushed to the cab to warn Kita of developments.

Seeing Kosaku stumbling towards the driver’s door, Saeko decided the time to act was now. She popped up over the hedges and fired a bullet into Kosaku’s leg. The Inarizakian yelped and fell to a knee.

Hearing the frightful crack that certainly hadn’t come from Kosaku’s weapon, Kindaichi scurried back and dived to the ground on the near side of their vehicle. Peering through the undercarriage, he saw two pairs of legs emerge from the bushes on the opposite side of the road. Saeko cuffed Kosaku while Chikara stood guard.

“Yahaba and Kyoutani escaped,” she urgently radioed. “One enemy down. Kindaichi is pursuing Yahaba. We will pursue also. Need backup now.”

Roger. En route,” Watari replied.

Kindaichi was gripped with anxiety. It almost annoyed him how right Kita was that they were being watched.

He had one choice: stall the interlopers and get to Yahaba first—and eliminate him before anyone could do anything about it.

Yuutarou aimed his handgun at Saeko’s ankle through the undercarriage and fired. Saeko shrieked when the shot hit her. Yuutarou immediately booked it into the forest.

“Saeko!” Ennoshita yelled.

“It’s fine!” Saeko ordered, quickly deducing it to be just a flesh wound. “Get Yahaba!”

Ennoshita didn’t argue. He barked an acknowledgement and sprinted into the woods himself.

 

Kyoutani led Yahaba at breakneck speed through the trees, moonlight filtering past bare, late autumn branches. Judging from the pattern of shots behind them, somehow another faction had appeared, perhaps the people Yahaba was working for originally. Getting caught by either side would certainly be bad news for his boyfriend, and he tried to run faster. His chest stung with pain. Still holding onto Yahaba who could barely keep pace, Kyoutani jammed the base of his free palm on the spot where he’d been shot some 12 hours earlier, but his pace slackened slightly regardless.

From their slowing down and from his boyfriend’s grunts, Shigeru could tell something was amiss. He snapped his hand from Kyoutani’s grip, making his boyfriend halt.

“Hey. What’s wrong?” He scurried to the front of Kentarou and worriedly noticed the hand on Ken’s chest. Before Kyoutani could object, Yahaba yanked his arm away to see a blood on Ken’s shirt.

“You’re bleeding!”

“It’s nothing.” He irritably shoved Shigeru aside.

“It’s not nothing!” The overexertion had caused Kentarou’s hastily patched wound to reopen.

“Let’s go,” Kyoutani said dismissively and began to march forward, but Yahaba blocked his path and grasped his arms.

“No.” The objection made Kentarou stare with annoyance. “I shouldn’t have dragged you into this,” Shigeru continued. “I’ll let them take me in exchange for letting you go.”

Kyoutani scowled. He’d drawn another dreadful conclusion from the fact they’d stopped here in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night—a conclusion that Yahaba hadn’t remotely considered:

They hadn’t been brought here to be taken to Inarizaki; they had been brought here to be executed.

Shigeru marched past Kyoutani, intending to head back to the van.

“Are you insane?!”

“You have a good job. You have a future here. I don’t,” Yahaba countered, with a note of bitterness. Kyoutani latched onto Yahaba’s wrist. Shigeru bit his lip and silently pleaded Ken would leave to make this easier for all of them. Kentarou tugged Yahaba back to face him and placed both hands on Shigeru’s shoulders.

“If you go back there—”

A twig snapped in the direction they’d come from.

They fearfully looked.

Kindaichi, pistol drawn, had it aimed at both of them.

Shigeru snapped himself out of Kyoutani’s grip and glared at Kindaichi sternly.

“Let Ken go. I’m the one you want.”

Kindaichi treaded forward, eyes stone cold, barrel trained on Yahaba. Kyoutani, compressing his chest wound again, was made immobile by the weapon threatening to murder his boyfriend if he made a move.

“Right? You don’t need him, so let him go,” Yahaba repeated once Kindaichi was but a few yards in front of him.

But Kindaichi wasn’t going to stretch this out longer. Kyoutani, the bigger threat of the pair, was evidently injured. Kindaichi could eliminate Yahaba and then kill Kyoutani before the latter man even had a chance to react.

Recognizing the uncaring intent in Kindaichi’s eyes, Kyoutani reached for Yahaba desperately. “Shigeru, he’s going to kill you!”

The warning made Yahaba flinch.

“Too bad,” Yuutarou said. Shigeru now faced the gun wielder with terror. “You should have listened to him.” And his finger began to depress the trigger.

“Shigeruuuuuuu!”

A gunshot rang out. A crow in the darkness took flight from a branch.

Kyoutani dived atop Yahaba, hurtling them both to the ground.

But much to their confusion, neither of them was injured.

Kindaichi hadn’t fired. He was on hands and knees, heaving from the bullet that struck his back.

Behind him, catching his breath, Ennoshita held a smoking pistol.

Seeing Kindaichi wounded, Kyoutani leaped up before Yuutarou could recover and trapped the man in a chokehold despite his own wound, much to Chikara’s surprise. Simultaneously Kentarou twisted the man’s gun-holding arm behind his back until Yuutarou dropped the weapon.

“Grab the gun!” he ordered Ennoshita. Chikara swiped and holstered the abandoned weapon. Kentarou then flattened Kindaichi on the dirt, and Ennoshita proceeded to handcuff the captive.

Everything too surreal to even process, Yahaba gazed with confusion. Once Kindaichi was restrained, Kyoutani began to relax. The adrenaline in his body dissipating, the pain in his chest returned with a vengeance, and he collapsed against a tree and slid into a seated position.

“Ken!” Shigeru ran to his partner.

Ennoshita crouched atop the detained foe. Chikara had to hand it to the hacker’s boyfriend though. Not only was his stamina almost superhuman, but he’d swear the moves Kyoutani demonstrated in taking down Kindaichi were the work of a professional.

The four stayed where they were until Watari’s horde arrived.

“Thanks, Ennoshita,” Shinji Watari said, two subordinates hoisting Kindaichi up to transport him away. “Tanaka is fine. We’re treating her now.”

Chikara exhaled gratefully. With only one eye open due to the pain, Kentarou beheld the leader of the Aoba Johsai soldiers with intrigue. Watari smiled at him.

“How you doing, Mad Dog?”

While Ennoshita was shocked by Watari’s casualness with Kentarou Kyoutani, Yahaba was more shocked by the nickname that he’d only ever heard Oikawa use as a pejorative.

“Awful,” Kyoutani replied in a bluntly honest way only acceptable between friends.

“Mad Dog?” Shigeru repeated.

Watari giggled. “Yeah. It’s what we called him on the team.”

And then Ennoshita realized why Kyoutani’s physical abilities were of such high caliber: Seijoh hadn’t disclosed that Kentarou Kyoutani was a member of Aoba Johsai.

While Watari’s subordinates checked the condition of Kyoutani’s wound, Watari himself sidled up to the forlorn Shigeru, who was actually surprised he hadn’t been handcuffed like Kindaichi.

“You better keep him close,” he said with a grin. “After you got deported, Mad Dog was given a choice: renounce ever having known you, or lose his security clearance and be discharged.” He smiled with an air of admiration. “He chose the latter.”

Shigeru felt something well up inside him and felt like an idiot for dismissing Kyoutani’s feelings to the extent he had. And now he full-on sobbed. He stumbled over to Kentarou, the wounded man now being shifted onto a stretcher.

“Ken, please forgive me—”

He felt a hand stroke the tear stream on his cheek.

“Shut up…. You’re alive…. That’s all I care about.”

And as Ennoshita watched the wounded Kyoutani be carried away and Yahaba escorted off as well, Watari winked at the CIB agent who’d saved Shigeru Yahaba’s life.

“Good job, Ennoshita.”

 


 

As night pressed onward toward morning, Semi reviewed the preliminary reports of the operation. All debriefs spoke highly of the impeccable performance of Chikara Ennoshita. The contrast to the Sendai Prison report made Semi smile.

The activity at Col. Matsukawa’s base had died down significantly by now. Gen. Iwaizumi had returned to the capital to deal with his position’s other responsibilities, leaving Lt.-Gen. Kaneo Yuda in charge, who himself was headed to Aoba Johsai’s local base of operations. Watari was guarding Kindaichi, Kosaku, and Kyoutani at the hospital, where Saeko happened to be as well; the first two and Saeko were expected to be released in a short time, but Kyoutani’s condition would take more careful observation.

Moments earlier, Ryuunosuke Tanaka informed Semi he was headed for Karasuno’s hideout, where Shigeru Yahaba was being transported along with Ennoshita. Neither Shiratorizawa nor Seijoh trusted each other to have custody of the hacker, and so Ushijima and Kunimi acceded to letting Yamaguchi take custody of him. And thus, only Semi and Shirabu remained at the barracks.

“I’m headed to Karasuno’s base to interview Yahaba,” Shirabu announced, entering the room.

“All right. As soon as Kawanishi calls, I’ll take Yamamoto to the consulate,” Semi said in reply.

Right on cue, the Eagles agent phoned. Semi’s mobile flew to his ear as fast as a bullet traveling.

“Careful. Don’t hurt yourself,” Kenjirou facetiously cautioned with a deadpan look. Ignoring the remark, Semi giddily smirked.

“Good news?” Shirabu asked when Semi hung up.

“Indeed. Now we just have to find Terushima and Futakuchi.”

Chapter Text

Tuesday November 10, approx. 11 p.m. Tokyo time/4 a.m. Wednesday, Miyagi time

After a brisk hop over the mountains, the Inarizakian helicopter touched down in the corner of a Nohebi aerodrome in the southern frontier of the country. Atsumu’s private jet in a black and white paint job warmed its engines while the Covert Ops leader’s subordinates ferried the last crates of Kenma Project materials into the cargo hold. Admiring it all from the tarmac, Atsumu’s cell phone buzzed.

The woods swallowed the spring,” Kita forebodingly declared when Atsumu answered. “Lost the shallot too.

“What?!”

“Swans and crows were campin’ in the trees,” Kita added to convey his conclusion that Seijoh, Shiratorizawa, and Karasuno had teamed up. The attempted evacuation of Yahaba had failed completely. Kindaichi never arrived at the airport, Kita’s comrade Kosaku didn’t return to the consulate, and most disastrously Yahaba had fallen into their foes’ hands alive.

I’m returning to the den,” Kita finished indicating his intention to retreat to Inarizaki pronto. “Beware of snakes on yer way.

Atsumu struggled to maintain a smile. “Don’ mention it,” he said tensely and hung up. Formerly Atsumu’s superior, Shinsuke Kita had declined the promotion that eventually went to Atsumu Miya. Despite that, Shinsuke never ceased to act like his boss’s minder.

An eerily identical man sauntered up to Atsumu: Osamu “Samu” Miya, Atsumu’s identical twin brother. The only way for an acquaintance to tell them apart was Osamu’s gray-dyed hair versus “Tsumu’s” blond.

“Got a message from Aran,” Osamu announced.

“I don’t care,” spat Atsumu putting away his phone with a harrumph.

“Problem?”

Yeah, problem! We wouldn’t be in this mess if someone knew how to aim!” Three weeks ago, Osamu had missed a smidge when he’d tried to shoot Eita Semi, and Tsumu berated him about it ever since. Even if his brother wasn’t, Osamu was well past it now; and if given the opportunity again, he’d make sure to finish Eita Semi off.

Tsumu stomped past his brother. “Let’s get outta here.”

“We can’t,” Samu said nonchalantly.

“Huh? Why?!”

“Oh, so you do care,” Samu said dryly.

“Shut yer trap! What’s the matter?!”

“They won’t let us take off….”

 

After bidding Tsumu adieu, Kita hastily resumed packing. The helicopter to ferry him to the airport would arrive any minute.

And then, one of the street-facing windows of the room cacophonously shattered. In the wake of the scattering glass appeared two soldiers with assault rifles, ferried in by zip lines from the building across the road. An adjacent window exploded inwards as well, portending two more soldiers. They pinned their guns on the stunned Shinsuke. Kita tried to book it to the exit, but one of the soldiers blocked his path. The leader of the group threw a hood over Kita’s face to stifle him; and in the blink of an eye, the group evacuated via zip line with their cargo.

Senior Eagles agent Taichi Kawanishi, the one who’d hooded Kita, then spirited the Inarizakian into a waiting truck that sped away. Once they were a safe distance from the Inarizakian compound, Kawanishi dialed Semi to inform him of their target’s capture and that they were headed to the Shiratorizawan base.

Still at Col. Matsukawa’s facility, Semi smirked giddily when Kawanishi gave him the news of Kita’s capture.

“Good news?” asked Shirabu after Semi hung up.

“Indeed. Now we just have to find Terushima and Futakuchi.”

 


 

The three nations involved in the operation each received their own designated prisoners from the night. Kindaichi and anyone else that would happen to be arrested in the woodland ambush would fall to Seijoh. Shiratorizawa in return received Shinsuke Kita. And that left Shigeru Yahaba in the relatively trustworthy custody of Karasuno.

Kindaichi disclosed to his captors that the person who’d recruited him years ago was someone from Inarizaki (the name Atsumu Miya gave proved to be a pseudonym). Since then, Yuutarou had only ever received two orders: attempt to convince a Karasunoan scientist named Tobio Kageyama to defect to Inarizaki five weeks ago; and capture Shigeru Yahaba when the man was in Seijoh. Both times he acted under the direction of Shinsuke Kita, from whom he also acquired the spyware planted on Yahaba’s PC on Monday night that had prompted Yahaba’s initial flight into hiding.

While Kindaichi proved somewhat forthcoming in interrogations, the same could not be said for Kita himself, whom Semi interrogated personally. Likewise, Semi irksomely could not get the man to admit anything in regards to the plot to assassinate him three weeks ago. Time constraints ultimately forced Semi to stand down.

Meanwhile, in the room in which Semi had been interrogated by Ennoshita over 24 hours earlier, Yahaba sat in a chair opposite Kenjirou Shirabu, who was granted permission to lead the interview. Assured that Kyoutani was safe and sound, Yahaba spilled the beans about everything. In addition to explaining his flight from the apartment, his capture at Kyoutani’s, and his sabotage efforts on behalf of Inarizaki, he revealed that the Kenma Project was named for a person, Kenma Kozume, and that they were cultivating a copy of Kozume in Lab 3. Terushima had been caught in Lab 3, but at Yahaba’s last contact with him, the pen camera and earring transmitter hadn’t been discovered.

Futakuchi, meanwhile, had made contact with an old acquaintance of Kenma named Shouhei Fukunaga. Futakuchi was going to meet Fukunaga yesterday around the time Yahaba came under attack. In every respect, Yahaba’s version of events corroborated Tora’s perfectly.

What Shigeru’s information didn’t resolve, much to Shirabu’s annoyance, was the whereabouts of Terushima and Futakuchi. Their mission phones had a built-in automatic reset feature after prolonged inactivity. Both devices were presently dead, a foreboding sign.

But Shirabu distinctly recalled something Yahaba mentioned and hoped it might pan out.

“Yahaba,” the admiral said, “can you confirm again that when you last spoke to Terushima, they hadn’t found the comm link in his earring?”

 


 

By 10 a.m., after some room reassignments in the Karasuno compound, Ryuu, acting in Saeko’s absence, furnished an enviable computer station for Shigeru Yahaba. Shigeru produced a heavenly sigh when the machine manifested not a hint of lag. Some argued Yahaba could not be trusted as an ally, but the fact remained his cyber skills were unmatched, and, ultimately, his cooperation now was the only way to expiate his wrongs.

Giving up on getting anything out of Kita, Semi made his way to the CIB base and joined Shirabu, Ryuu, and Ennoshita in the space overseeing the hacker. Representing the Seijoh side was Lt.-Gen. Kaneo Yuda from Aoba Johsai. Every one of them except Shirabu held their breath.

Yahaba attempted to reach out to Yuuji’s camera and transmitter. Having been crushed by Daishou’s boot, the pen camera did not respond. But when a ping was sent to the wireless receiver in Yuuji’s ear, it shockingly pinged back. Shirabu never doubted the outcome; he didn’t choose Yuuji Terushima for the mission because the man was an idiot.

It was currently 5 a.m. in Tokyo. Would Terushima even be awake if they attempted to talk to him? It didn’t matter. There was no time to waste.

Once everything was set, Yahaba carefully leaned towards the microphone and spoke.

“Terushima, can you hear me?”

 

Though it was several hours into day in Miyagi, nighttime hung over the denizens of Tokyo a little while yet. And at a small airport in the south of Nohebi idled a private jet marked “Fox Air.”

The plane had been here six hours, futilely awaiting takeoff clearance.

Although the ICBM successfully destroyed Lab 3, it inadvertently created a headache for Atsumu now. They hadn’t known that the Entente’s three heads of state had gathered in Itachiyama for a strategy conference. Although Kunimi disingenuously took credit for the missile and claimed it targeted a critical military facility, the Entente’s leaders feared it was a botched assassination attempt. Dreading their travel had been compromised, they implemented emergency security measures across the continent until Nekomata and Numai made it home, grounding most nonessential air traffic.

Thus, “Fox Air Flight 1107” remained stranded. Tsumu’s longtime personal pilot, Aran Ojiro, and Atsumu’s brother Osamu (who also happened to be the plane’s copilot) pressed air traffic control continually, but even as dawn neared, the tower would only say the plane could depart “soon.”

Atsumu eventually retired to one of the jet’s multiple rooms in the back of the aircraft. The other guests weren’t so privileged. Pending takeoff, they were required to wait in the spacious cabin of the plane located directly behind the cockpit. Outfitted with tables, bolted-down swiveling chairs, and rugged carpet, it meant to be a casual, in-flight hangout space.

Six seats arrayed three either side of center were all occupied. Most to the fore, Kuroo and Kuguri were asleep, the latter snoring with a novella facedown in his lap. Somewhat in the middle, Akaashi was sound asleep. Kenma Kozume, using his hands as a pillow, occupied the chair on the other side of the aircraft, his seat rotated to be facing away from Keiji. Terushima and Futakuchi’s chairs hugged the aft corners of the cabin with the corridor to the rear of the plane between them. Futakuchi’s head rested against the fuselage wall, a sliver of drool rolling over his chin. Only Terushima remained restless, constantly flipping over in his chair all night.

Having woken from his nap, Atsumu leaned right over Yuuji and clacked the plastic portcullis on the cabin window up. Terushima peeked discreetly at the figure hunched over him. Not too pleased to see they were still on the ground, Atsumu clapped the cover closed and pounded to the cockpit door. He flipped up the cabin lights, dousing the room in harsh white lighting that made Yuuji squint. Terushima stretched noisily.

He focused on Atsumu groggily, who, after checking in with Ojiro in the cockpit, exited and now was talking to—wait a minute. Were there two Atsumus? Yuuji blinked several times to confirm it wasn’t a trick of the imagination: sure enough, now unmasked, the man Atsumu called “Samu” was an identical twin.

Terushima raised the cover on the window to verify they were indeed still in Nohebi. He wasn’t sure whether to feel grateful or worried, given his substantial misgivings about Atsumu’s intentions. For the first half of the night, two of the soldiers—named Akagi and Ginjima—kept watch in the main cabin until they had been relieved by Samu and the other soldier named Oomimi. Under constant guard, there was no chance to pull anything; and even if they did somehow slip away, the totalitarian land of Nohebi was the last place Terushima wanted to hide in.

Hoping and pleading to be thrown a bone, his prayers were suddenly answered.

Terushima, can you hear me?

Yuuji’s eyes bulged at the echo in his brain. It was Yahaba’s voice, no question about it. Until now, he’d practically forgotten the transponder in his earring.

Terushima peered cautiously at Atsumu conversing away, then at the unmasked Oomimi loitering near one of the cabin doors, then at everyone in various stages of sleep. Kenji, directly beside him on the other side of the central aisle, stirred uncomfortably and smacked his lips.

Once convinced no one was paying him any mind, Yuuji gently moved his fingertip over his right earring to activate the transmitter.

“Futakuchi, did you say something?” he feigned aloud, hoping to simultaneously rouse Kenji. With so many bystanders, he had to be discreet with what he said and hoped Yahaba understood that the query was actually addressed to him.

“Wha?” Kenji garbled. He felt the stale saliva on his chin and persistently scrubbed the spot with his sleeve. “Whadja want?” he asked peevishly.

In Karasuno’s base in Seijoh, meanwhile, Semi frowned. “Are we sure he can hear us?”

Shirabu shot him a glare, both he and Yahaba having understood what Terushima was trying to tell them: not only had Yuuji heard Yahaba but Kenji Futakuchi was with him.

Now they just had to confirm Terushima was comfortable to talk.

“If you can talk to us,” Yahaba commanded, “give me proof of your identity.”

Yuuji blinked, ignoring Futakuchi stretching like an old man. An idea came to Yuuji, and he almost couldn’t resist grinning.

“All right,” Yuuji said, stretching his arms high over his head for effect. “What time is it? 1:58?”

Futakuchi, indignant at being woken up only to be asked such a dumb question (so he assumed), glared. “Huh?” He peered at an ornate analog clock on a table. “Dude, seriously? It’s 5,” he groused.

The onlookers in Seijoh exchanged confused glances. It wasn’t close to 1:58 p.m. or a.m. at all in Tokyo. But Yahaba furrowed his brow.

One-fifty-eight—he recognized that phrase.

“I bet it’s over 160,” Shigeru tritely replied, confounding his overseers.

Terushima smirked. “You’d be right,” he completed aloud.

Futakuchi scoffed at the superior remark. “You better know I’m right,” he grumbled under his breath.

Yahaba found himself admiring Terushima’s intellect once again.

“It’s him. He’s good,” Yahaba announced to his cohorts.

“I don’t trust you—” Semi began to retort, but Shirabu interrupted.

“Find out where he is,” the admiral firmly ordered. Eita glared in protest but backed off. Honestly, how effortlessly Shirabu filled his shoes this whole time pissed him off.

“Terushima. We know you can’t talk openly, so tell us what you can the best you can,” Yahaba said. “I know you’re up for it,” he added to stroke the man’s ego.

Yuuji quietly accepted the flattery. He also concluded from Yahaba’s use of “we” that the hacker was probably acting at Shirabu’s instigation.

Terushima took stock of the room again before endeavoring to fulfill Shirabu and Yahaba’s request. Akaashi, Kenma, and Kuroo still appeared asleep but lightly. Kuguri had now woken up, placed his book—Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis—on a table, and paid no heed to the aircraft’s goings-on. Finished chatting with his brother, Osamu Miya paged Akagi and Ginjima via an intercom to come to the cabin. Atsumu gave his cell phone a peek.

Terushima raised his voice. “Hey! Where are we anyway?”

The phrasing confirmed to Yahaba and Shirabu that other people were present in the space besides Futakuchi. Kuroo, seated opposite Kuguri, started to stir after the call.

“Not a bother right now,” Atsumu replied with a scheming grin.

Unfortunately for Atsumu, the Nohebi native Naoyasu Kuguri gazed vapidly at the airport. “Tsubakihara, in the south of Nohebi,” he mumbled. Atsumu frowned at the hapless informant.

“Tsubakihara, huh?” Terushima repeated. The transponder didn’t have the range to pick up anything but Yuuji’s own voice. Ryuu commanded a pair of agents to bring up Tsubakihara on a map on another computer. The city lay near the border with Fukurodani.

Shirabu intended next to ask where Terushima was heading, but Terushima delivered before the question could be verbalized.

“How long until we get to Inarizaki?” he called.

Shirabu’s fist tightened vengefully upon hearing the name of that country.

Kuguri nonchalantly replied again. “Five hours, give or take.”

Kuroo chuckled, swiveling his chair playfully. “If we ever get off the ground.” By now, Akaashi and Kenma stirred as well. Keiji caught sight of Kenma but quickly looked away.

“Five hours once we take off,” Terushima floated aloud. “Man, being grounded sucks.”

The listeners in Miyagi put two-and-two together rapidly: Terushima and Futakuchi were aboard a plane headed to Inarizaki but weren’t able to take off for some reason. And before even the next question formulated in Shirabu’s mind, Terushima proceeded to answer it.

“But, boy, I just can’t get over how amazing this is,” he piped.

Everyone turned their attention to the keyed-up scientist. Akagi and Ginjima passed by quizzically and joined Oomimi at the front while Terushima unnecessarily began to name the people aboard the plane. “I mean, we’ve got a microcosm of the world here! There’s me—the greatest scientist ever; my friend Futakuchi; the Keiji Akaashi; the original Kenma; the foremost expert on feline genetics, Tetsurou Kuroo; a defector from Nohebi; four highly trained elite soldiers from Inarizaki; and the head of Inarizaki’s covert ops—what was your name again?”

Terushima did recall the man’s name and asked just for show. Not one to decline a chance to boast, Atsumu replied with a gentle grin. “Atsumu Miya.”

“Atsumu Miya,” Terushima repeated with an equally sly smirk.

“Did you get all that?!” Shirabu yelled at a CIB agent taking notes. The man repeated the list: Terushima, Futakuchi, Akaashi, Kenma, Kuroo, a Nohebi defector, 4 probable special ops soldiers, and Atsumu Miya. They could count on at least one pilot also. That made at least 12 people aboard the aircraft.

And when Kenjirou returned his attention to Terushima, the man was already announcing something else.

“I never thought this day would come though,” Yuuji said, setting his palms behind his head as he peered at the ceiling dreamily. “To think, in a few hours we’ll be in Inarizaki, helping Dr. Sakusa produce something even greater than Kenma.”

And there it was: the real truth. To the shock of Semi, Ryuu, and Yuda, Inarizaki had been that many steps ahead of them the entire time.

But despite Inarizaki’s potent threat to Kenjirou’s dream of restoring Shiratorizawan supremacy in the world, Shirabu was not the image of fear at that moment. In fact, if anyone had actually bothered to observe him at that time, they would have realized the admiral was actually shaking with excitement….

But Atsumu, upon hearing Terushima’s declaration, sported the most impenetrable poker face of anyone in existence. “Yes indeed,” he said simply. His brother Osamu glared.

Just then, Captain Ojiro opened the cockpit and invited the brothers in. With the leader gone, the room suddenly felt less tense. Terushima pouted.

“We got all that Terushima,” Yahaba replied, but Yuuji said nothing. Shigeru peered at Shirabu, who nodded giving Yahaba the OK to ask the most important question of the day. “Listen,” Shigeru resumed. “The Kenma Project is done for. Our focus now is to stop Atsumu Miya from reaching Inarizaki and get you all away from him. But, what we need to know is, do you and Futakuchi want to come back to Miyagi?”

Return to Miyagi—that was definitely the question of the day.

For Terushima’s part, he already knew of Lab 3’s destruction, having milked Atsumu for the information last night. As genial as the Inarizakian behaved though, Atsumu spelled bad news. All of his words carried the slickness of an expert schemer. In fact, Terushima fully doubted that he would ever be granted access to Sakusa’s project. Quite likely Atsumu had never asked Sakusa about Dr. Terushima at all, the claim merely being a ploy to lure Yuuji in.

Futakuchi harbored the same skepticism. Atsumu Miya had gone out of his way to capture and court two exposed Shiratorizawan spies. Inarizaki couldn’t possibly trust them given the pair’s dubious allegiances. Terushima and Futakuchi silently agreed that Atsumu Miya had captured them with a single objective: to deprive their use by Shiratorizawa and then to have them be “disappeared” in Hyogo.

Terushima pretended to speak to Kenji when he answered Yahaba. “Honestly, Futakuchi, I wish I could go back home.”

Kenji scoffed. “Good luck with that.”

“Actually, I never told you,” Yuuji continued. “I spoke to a friend of ours from Seijoh. You know, the one who knew the admiral?”

Kenji initially glared quizzically, but the Johzenjiite firmly fixed his gaze on his counterpart until his drilling eyes drove the message home.

“He wants to see us again,” Terushima continued, lowering his voice. “He wants to arrange it too. If he can, would you want to go?”

Futakuchi almost couldn’t believe it. Yet he understood. “Anything’s better than slumming it in the Arctic,” he griped of Hyogo’s climate.

“Yeah, it’d be great if we could both go home,” Terushima loftily mooted.

In Seijoh, Yahaba peered up at the Shiratorizawan admiral. “How’s that sound?”

Kenjirou smirked.

Then, Atsumu pattered out of the cockpit. “We’re cleared to depart,” he announced cheerfully.

In quick order, everyone adjusted themselves to prep for departure, attaching seatbelts in the swivel chairs, while Akagi, Oomimi, and a yawning Ginjima occupied jump seats by the fore exit doors. Futakuchi leered at the silver-haired Ginjima, whom he had sourly identified as the soldier who bludgeoned him in the abandoned power plant yesterday.

“We’re finally taking off,” Terushima declared for Yahaba’s benefit. “Do we even have enough fuel after idling so long?” he posed to the leader.

Tsumu’s eyebrow twitched. Of all the people they’d picked up, Yuuji Terushima struck him as the most dangerous. But even if Terushima were to try something, he villainously figured, he wasn’t afraid. In a game of plotting, Atsumu would win.

“Good eyes. We’re makin’ a fuelin’ stop in the capital.” He proceeded to finish his announcement. “Once we make it to cruisin’ height, ya’ll’ll go to yer rooms.” He then slipped into the privacy of the cockpit to join Osamu and Ojiro.

“Can you believe that?” Terushima said simultaneously to Futakuchi and Yahaba. “We’ll have to refuel in the capital, but at least we get accommodations in the air.”

At that, Shirabu nudged Yahaba aside and leaned into the microphone. “Careful what you say and do in the rooms. They’re probably bugged.” After taking over for Semi the past three weeks, he knew how the intelligence game worked.

Recognizing Shirabu’s voice, Terushima issued an acknowledgement. The plane began to taxi. Having acquired sufficient information for now and with the comm device’s battery being limited, Shirabu instructed Terushima to deactivate the chat and reactivate it as needed.

“Yahaba, can you track the plane’s progress?” Kenjirou commanded once the comm was offline.

“Oh, believe me. I can,” he replied, already beginning the work to do so.

The developments of the last few minutes were staggering. Lt.-Gen. Yuda bowed out to update Gen. Iwaizumi. Ryuu noticed a text from Saeko and stepped out to call her.

Shirabu himself took a moment to strategize. In addition to working out the rescue mission details, they had to decide who else besides Terushima and Futakuchi to extract. The nameless defector from Nohebi was likely an enemy. Tetsurou Kuroo was formerly a member of the Kenma Project research team, and his current allegiance seemed suspect.

Keiji Akaashi and Kenma Kozume presented the more difficult cases. Why were they there? What interest did Inarizaki have in them? They still didn’t know everything they needed to about the pair.

“Semi, can you interview Yamamoto again?” Shirabu asked. “I want to know if he’s aware of anything that might tell us why Akaashi or Kozume are on that plane. We should also ask him what information he has on Nohebi’s airbases to prepare the mission.”

“Sure,” Eita replied.

“And while you’re at it,” Shirabu whispered, “something hasn’t made sense from the start of this whole mess: why did Akaashi use Kozume as the subject of his experiment? I’m positive there’s something we still don’t know about Kenma Kozume.”

As Shirabu and Semi talked and with Yuda and Tanaka gone, Ennoshita hovered near the door by himself, somewhat at a loss what to do. The door slid open, revealing Ryuu sliding his phone into his pocket.

“Hey. Someone wants to see ya.”

 


 

Ryuunosuke escorted Chikara to the base leader’s office, where to Chikara’s surprise the commander of CIB operations in Seijoh already was.

“Hey, Ryuu, Chikara,” Saeko announced cheerfully. She leaned back in the chair, a bandaged foot propped up on the table, a single crutch lying parallel from Saeko’s armrest to past the end of the desk.

“They let you go, huh?” Ryuu smiled.

Seeing Ennoshita pout with guilt for her injury, the woman lifted the crutch and prodded Chikara in the abdomen with the tip.

“Don’t act like it’s your fault. They told me what happened, how you saved the day out there.” She winked. Chikara blushed.

“You sure you’re well enough to take over here again?” Ryuu asked, himself having been recalled to Karasuno at the earliest opportunity.

“Ryuu, I’m not an invalid,” Saeko jabbed. Her brother chuckled.

“Alright. Chikara’ll fill you in on what’s happened.”

Ennoshita blinked. “I’m not heading back with you?” Saeko looked astonished by Chikara’s question, and the pause further made him feel the need to explain his thinking. “I mean, Yahaba’s been captured, and we know what happened with Shirabu and Kindaichi last month, so…my mission is done now, right?”

Saeko glared accusatively at Ryuu whose head drooped guiltily. “You didn’t tell him….”

“Tell me what?” Chikara questioned.

“I was waitin’,” Ryuunosuke said evasively.

“Tell me what?!”

“You’re not going home,” Saeko interjected. “But your boss has to say the rest.”

Ryuu sneered and shook.

“Ryuu!” demanded Ennoshita irritably.

“It’s not official yet, but…there’s talk of usin’ ya to lead a CROW team in the mission to rescue Terushima’s group.”

Ennoshita went quiet for a second. “But…I’m not a part of CROW…,” he meekly—and surprisingly calmly—objected.

“That don’t seem to matter to the president now. Everyone’s grateful for what you’ve done, and they trust you to counter whatever ulterior motives Shiratorizawa might have.”

Ryuu,” Saeko hushed. The door was shut so there couldn’t be any witnesses, but any kind of anti-cooperation talk had to be kept mum nonetheless. The truth was, however much they were cooperating on the surface, there was no guarantee the three nations still weren’t harboring their own agendas to enable them to emerge on top once the dust settled.

“I advocated for you, said you wouldn’t want to do it,” Ryuu continued to Chikara, “but Noya says the president thinks yer a good fit.” Ennoshita was about to speak when Ryuu interrupted. “But forget about it. It ain’t official, so as far as it matters, I said nothin’.”

Chikara became reticent. It flattered him that his performance in Seijoh was earning such high regards, and he finally felt confident with the choices he’d made.

And yet, the memories of Sendai Prison would not fade….

If the time came for Ennoshita to make a choice whether to lead a force into Tokyo to save Terushima and Futakuchi, he didn’t know how he’d respond.

“Look. And I’m gonna say one more thing,” Ryuu spoke, sensing that Chikara was again paralyzed by memories. Now was the best chance to get Ennoshita to snap out of it if ever. “After tonight, I don’t want to ever hear you feelin’ sorry for yourself again.”

Ennoshita didn’t have time to properly react to the statement when a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” called Saeko. Eita Semi let himself in. “What’s up? Sorry about the other night of course,” she offhandedly added in reference to Semi’s hours-long detention in their base on Monday.

Semi didn’t immediately acknowledge the apology, a more pressing matter in mind. “We are going to interrogate Taketora Yamamoto again. Do you want to send a representative?”

“Yes,” Saeko said firmly. She aimed the tip of the crutch at Ennoshita. “This guy right here.”

 


 

Though he’d gotten a few hours of sleep, Ennoshita found it difficult to concentrate on the interrogation. His mind obsessed over the thought of leading an extraction team again.

He was half-attentive to the conversation taking place behind a one-way mirror, where Semi questioned unhindered. As before, Tora could not adequately explain Kenma Kozume’s alleged consent in the project, so Eita shifted gears to Keiji Akaashi. He inquired about the doctor’s past and personality. Tora groaned. He thought back to how cold and sterile the man was when they’d met six months ago and how disconnected he seemed from Kenma’s wishes. Akaashi hadn’t been like that before the war…

Before the funeral….

“I dunno anymore. The man changed after Bokuto died.”

“Who’s Bokuto?” Semi asked.

“Koutarou Bokuto. He was Akaashi’s husband.”

Ennoshita perked up upon hearing Tora’s reply.

Koutarou Bokuto? Where had he heard that name before?

“What happened to him?” Semi continued.

“He was killed during the Battle of Sendai,” Tora said and grimaced with anger. “They didn’t even give us a body….”

Ennoshita thought hard, recalling where he knew the name from. It had to be a coincidence. There was no other way. It was impossible for it to be otherwise.

And yet, he couldn’t stifle the faintest of hopes that it wasn’t….

He stepped away and called up his boss: “Ryuu, I need to ask a favor of you….”

 


 

An uneventful flight from Tsubakihara to Nohebi’s capital ensued, and in no time it seemed, Fox Air Flight 1107 was on the ground again. Left free to roam the plane while they refueled and awaited new takeoff clearance, Terushima and his cohorts had by now been grounded for a couple of hours.

Atsumu had assigned Naoyasu Kuguri and Tetsurou Kuroo to one room. Futakuchi, perhaps mercifully, bunked with Kenma Kozume. That left the scientists Terushima and Akaashi to share a space.

The private compartments were indeed outfitted with bugs, and Terushima also spotted a miniature camera in the corner of his and Akaashi’s room. At least the lavatory appeared to afford privacy. While in the bathroom, he felt the underside of his armpit, locating a tiny vial hidden in the lining of the lab coat he’d worn since leaving Itachiyama yesterday. He’d sewn the hidden pocket in his coat in case it came in handy to smuggle anything out of Lab 3. The tiny cylinder contained a liquid from the facility he’d collected when no one at the lab was looking, and he was relieved no one had found it.

While discreetly gathering information about the plane’s layout, Yuuji received an urgent directive from Yahaba and proceeded to his room. When Yuuji entered, Akaashi slouched on the bed built in an alcove, mortally depressed. His demeanor brightened upon seeing Yuuji, the one person here he actually felt comfortable around.

Terushima donned a wide smile, swung a chair over, and sat backwards on it facing Akaashi. Intentionally he kept the video camera in the room directly to his back.

“Hey,” he excitedly said. “Look, I know they might get you a new phone and all once we get to Inarizaki, but…you think I can get your number so we can stay in touch?”

Keiji blinked. “Uh, sure,” he said and gave his number. Terushima scribbled on a post-it while repeating the digits back so Yahaba could hear them. When finished, Yuuji cheerily beheld the note and then displayed it to Akaashi. “Is this it?”

Keiji focused on the text, which paradoxically wasn’t his phone number at all but a message:

You will get a call in one minute. Take it in the bathroom.

“That’s it, right?” Yuuji repeated.

“Oh! Um, yes,” he nodded with bafflement. Yuuji crumpled up the paper and stuck it in his pocket to dispose of later. Feeling it best to follow Yuuji’s eerie directions, Keiji proceeded to the lavatory, located directly opposite the door to their room. Yuuji took up position in the hall to act as lookout.

At the moment Akaashi opened the bathroom door, Kenma happened to exit his room at the end of the hall bent on a restroom visit himself. Seeing Keiji (who did not notice Kozume), Kenma grimaced. Kenma shuffled past Terushima to sit in the cabin until the toilet was free, Yuuji eyeing the figure closely. Atsumu had claimed Keiji murdered two friends of Kenma, but even before that bombshell, the relationship between Kozume and Akaashi already showed considerable strain. Terushima wondered what could have made their relationship the way it was.

Keiji stared at his phone’s home screen, the ringer turned off, nervously doubting that the device would do anything.

But then the screen showed an incoming call from an unknown number. Hesitating for a moment, Akaashi answered it.

“H-Hello?”

Keiji?

Time stopped.

Keiji froze in place, hearing the impossible voice.

…Keiji, can you hear me?

Akaashi’s hands tremored, his breathing quickened. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.

Keiji! You there?!

His free hand covered his mouth. His eyes tearful, he desperately tried to keep his diaphragm from coughing.

And he forced out a word:

“…Kou?”

 

In a chair in a room thousands of miles away, the tension in Koutarou Bokuto’s shoulders released when Akaashi’s voice sounded.

“Hey, Keiji,” he said, his eyes squinting to hold back tears.

 


 

Koutarou Bokuto wasn’t dead.

…Though he wasn’t proud of the reason why.

All through training, fears burgeoned in Bokuto’s chest. Koutarou was nervous, afraid. Some of his trainers sensed it but ignored it in order to churn out as many recruits as possible. Kou told himself he had to press onward and don a confident face for his husband. He’d made the choice to be here—rashly, yes, but the choice nonetheless. He couldn’t back out now. He had to prove his valor, as he once did years ago in volleyball, so now in war, he argued internally.

And on the day he went out to battle in Sendai City in a halftrack with virtual strangers, his heart beat incredibly fast.

They disembarked. Explosions abounded, shooting occurred. Bokuto tried to aim his weapon.

As soon as the first bloodlust-filled bullet ricocheted near him, he couldn’t take it.

He ran away….

It didn’t take long for the deserter to be found. Interned in Sendai Prison pending court-martial, Koutarou berated himself constantly for having become so weak.

He knew what fate awaited him: the penalty for desertion was death.

Koutarou longed to see freedom, to be at Keiji’s side. And the thought he’d never see or talk to his spouse again killed him inside. The one whom he promised to call after his “battlefield debut,” the one whom he promised to “stay safe” for, was never to cross his eyes again. He wanted nothing more to escape in order to see Keiji if only one last time.

Then, one night a week later, there was a ruckus in the hallway. Gunshots resounded. Koutarou peered through the bars of the cell door.

Soldiers in tactical gear removed a prisoner from the cell opposite. Bokuto didn’t know who the intruders were or that the prisoner—Yasushi Kamasaki—was somebody important.

In desperation, he clasped his hands on the bars.

“Wait! Save me!”

To his surprise, the leader of the soldiers—a Karasunoan named Chikara Ennoshita—beheld the caller. Shocked he’d gotten the man’s attention, Bokuto stammered and said the first thing that came to mind to garner sympathy.

“I’ll tell you what I know of their offensive plans!”

“Who are you?” the Karasunoan sternly pressed.

“A general,” Bokuto lied, suppressing all doubts of how he’d follow through on these fibs if he did get freed. “I opposed the invasion, so they locked me up.”

After some hesitation, the Karasunoan ordered Bokuto free.

Koutarou never learned the consequences his lie had on the mental wellbeing of his savior. When he was interrogated in Karasuno, his guise rapidly fell apart, and Bokuto spent the next two and a half years in a POW camp with no contact with Keiji….

Across the ocean, meanwhile, Fukurodani struggled with the Sendai Prison debacle. The facility had been its responsibility, and losing so critical a prisoner as Prime Minister Kamasaki irreparably tarnished the army’s image. As if that wasn’t enough, two other detainees vanished in the incident: a convicted resistance fighter named Kenji Futakuchi and a deserter awaiting trial called Koutarou Bokuto. The government felt no desire to make an embarrassing situation uglier. The war ministry decided to conceal the missing prisoners. Common practice held that in desertion cases next of kin were not notified until after conviction. Since no message had been sent to Bokuto’s spouse about the current status of his partner, a forged notification was delivered to Keiji Akaashi’s address:

“Koutarou Bokuto was killed in action.”

 

But Koutarou Bokuto wasn’t dead.

 


 

As the POW talked, Ryuunosuke Tanaka flanked Bokuto’s chair on one side, Chikara Ennoshita the other.

As soon as Tanaka landed in Karasuno, Ennoshita called and requested the photo from Bokuto’s interrogation file. Shown to Tora, Yamamoto insisted without a doubt the picture was Akaashi’s “late” spouse.

A few hours later, Shirabu flew Yamamoto to the Shiratorizawan embassy in Karasuno’s capital while President Yamaguchi’s advisor Shimada and Gen. Kei Tsukishima (the latter representing the Department of Defense since Bokuto was its responsibility) brought the prisoner-of-war for a face-to-face meeting. When Yamamoto and Bokuto saw one another, no doubts about the man’s identity remained.

In the office in the embassy from which they’d called Akaashi, Tanaka peeked at Ennoshita, solemn even now. Chikara didn’t even know what to do with this turn of events—the last semblance of guilt about that day now absurdly a veritable blessing.

Koutarou attempted to reassure Keiji that things were OK as his husband whimpered inconsolably. How was this possible? Keiji wondered. It didn’t matter either way. Kou, his lover, his life, was alive. Somehow, somewhere. And he had been granted the beautiful miracle of hearing his voice. All Keiji could do was babble as quietly as possible. Akaashi didn’t think he deserved this grace at all.

“Speed it up,” Ryuu whispered. They couldn’t keep Akaashi on the line forever for operational security. Kou nodded and peered at the script in his lap.

“Hey, so, um, I can’t talk long, but I can’t come back to Tokyo, so…”—he took a nervous breath—“do you want to live with me in Miyagi?”

Akaashi didn’t care where they lived together at this point.

“Yes!” he sobbed through tears. Terushima, pretending to stretch in the hallway, could hear whimpering through the door and was thankful no one else was nearby.

To hear Keiji’s reply made Koutarou’s heart break.

“All right. I gotta go,” he said, fearful of the moment his benefactors would make him end the call, that it could mean he might somehow not hear Keiji’s voice again. Filled with so much regret for his squeamishness on the battlefield and tortured for far too long by Keiji’s absence, Bokuto had to prove to Keiji and more importantly to himself that he had the mettle.

His custodians’ wishes be darned, he would end the call on his own terms.

“But listen. I’m coming to save you, so be ready.” He hung up suddenly.

Akaashi jolted at the declaration.

Bokuto…was coming to save him?

What did that mean? Again, Keiji was wracked with disbelief and guilt. His entire life flashed before him, the choices he’d made—on the basis that Bokuto was gone! It felt like a dream, like it wasn’t happening. It felt equally like an indictment for the choices he’d made, for the pain he’d put Kenma through. His fingernails dug into his scalp, and he finally forcefully rubbed his tearful eyes and left the restroom.

He practically stumbled into Terushima’s astonished arms. The door flinging around and hitting the wall when Keiji burst out drew the attention of Kenma in the cabin and Akagi on guard duty at the other end of the hall. Terushima’s eyes flitted to both of the onlookers.

“Sorry!” Yuuji said. “He’s just a little lightheaded. I don’t think he flies well.” Terushima hastily carried Akaashi into their room.

In the compartment Akaashi plastered his face into the bedsheet, sobbing endlessly. Yuuji patted the man’s back to calm him. Yahaba had warned that Akaashi might take the phone call melodramatically, and Shigeru certainly wasn’t kidding.

“Hey, hey, no need to be so loud. They might get worried.” He added the last part mindful of the listening devices in the space. Keiji reined in his emotional outburst amidst the caution, choking every so often at the last bit of sorrow.

He found himself grasping Terushima tightly and rested his forehead on Yuuji’s chest, his unsaid way of thanking the man for somehow making the miraculous phone call happen.

“K, K, that’s good,” Terushima said, patting his back again. He helped Akaashi to sit on the bed. Terushima seated himself in the chair from earlier.

Akaashi sniffled a few more times, rubbing his hopelessly red and runny nose with his sleeve. Yuuji handed him a tissue box.

The man’s outburst seemed largely over, and as Akaashi tended to himself, Terushima analyzed him carefully. Terushima had never observed anything short of a faux self-satisfaction from Keiji Akaashi in the time they’d spent together, a state of mind brought about by Keiji’s attempts to suppress his grief. To see this much raw emotion from Akaashi was disconcerting, but perhaps it signaled that whatever Akaashi was holding in would now be released.

He wished to somehow distract Keiji before he risked breaking down again though.

The image of Kenma grimacing came to mind. Earlier, Yahaba asked on behalf of Shirabu for Yuuji to discreetly find out how amenable Akaashi or Kenma would be to being taken to Miyagi. His inseverable ties to Akaashi made approaching the scarred Kozume awkward, but now Terushima thought he'd take an opportunity.

“Hey, can I ask a question?”

Keiji snorted and peered at Terushima expectantly.

“Sorry if this is awkward, but…what’s the story behind you and Kenma?”

 


 

A few minutes earlier

“But listen. I’m coming to save you, so be ready,” Bokuto told Akaashi and then quickly ended the call.

“Hey!” Ryuu erupted. “That wasn’t in the script!”

Koutarou, clad in the black, white, and gold Fukurodani Army uniform he had when he was taken from Sendai Prison, shot up and faced the irate Ryuu. “Well, I said it!” he remonstrated.

“Like heck you’re goin’ there!” Ryuunosuke yelled. “You think we’d trust a guy who ran away from his own army?!”

Koutarou shrank, unable to gainsay his accuser.

But back then, in all honesty, he didn’t know what he was fighting for. He’d gone there out of an irrational desire to do something to make his husband proud.

Now, he only wanted to be with his mate. He didn’t want to wait. Despite his track record, he knew in his heart he would never waiver if it would immediately protect Keiji. He wanted to go so desperately in order to redeem himself.

“Please, just let me go with you,” he ineffectually pleaded.

“I ain’t havin’ this discussion,” Ryuu said and marched out. Koutarou chased the man into the hall, only to be pursued by Chikara.

Shimada and Tsukishima waited in the corridor outside. Shirabu and Yamamoto approached, Tora impatiently wanting the results of the phone call. Ryuu stamped out, tailed quickly by Koutarou and Ennoshita who grabbed the Fukurodanian’s arm to stop him from doing anything rash.

“What if Keiji refuses to come if I’m not there?!” Bokuto screamed. Ryuu stopped. That was a possibility but one not likely to kill the mission. They’d just take Akaashi by force, Tanaka figured. Seeing he wasn’t getting through to the Karasunoan, Bokuto spotted Tora and called to him. “Tell ’em, Tora!”

Tora flinched and then scowled. “If you want my advice, you should give up on that guy.”

He hadn’t expected Tora to utter something so insensitive. “Dude!” he screeched. “Why would you say that?!”

“You have no idea what’s happened the last two years….”

“Maybe I don’t! But why would you say that about Keiji?!”

Tora seethed. “Calm down, Yamamoto,” Shirabu softly warned.

Tora’s eyes drilled into Bokuto’s. To heck with consequences—Koutarou had to know the truth. “That guy hurt Kenma!”

Koutarou’s demeanor changed, first to shock, and then to perplexity.

Bokuto screeched even more fervently, with an objection that stopped every one of the hearers in their tracks. “Keiji would never hurt Kenma! Keiji saved Kenma’s life!”

And what Bokuto said next answered every question Shirabu had….