The sound of gunfire cracked through the air, but Junpei didn’t flinch. His back was pressed to the wall, occasionally peeking around the corner to see if he could get a clear shot, but there was still too many of them. The smells of blood and gunpowder were heavy in the air- they could have made him gag, if he wasn’t so used to them already.
He turned to the man beside him, who was crouched down and trying to fix the jam in his gun. Seven’s brow was covered in sweat, but his hands were steady even as they were being shot at. It was nice to have an experienced detective on his side, Junpei mused to himself, but even that couldn’t help them much right now. They’d been careless and gotten caught, they just needed one more person to come through for them so they could get out of here…
Junpei fired a couple quick shots around the corner, earning more rounds being fired back at them, when everything went dark.
“Someone get the generator running!”
“Dammit, keep your eyes peeled! We can’t let them out!”
Seven had stood back up, gun fixed, and was pulling on Junpei’s shoulder. It was now or never- they’d need to make a break for it if they were to get out of this building alive.
Junpei went first, sprinting across the gap to the other hall as quickly as possible then slamming his back into the wall on the other side once he was there, breathing heavy as he waited for Seven to follow suit. Their attackers had clearly heard them but still couldn’t see them, but Junpei knew they’d be following soon. They had no choice but to run, now.
Seven led the way as they sprinted for the stairway leading up to the ground floor, occasionally pulling Junpei into cover when they’d run across a random guard, or helping him return fire when they got caught.
It took them much longer than Junpei would have liked, but they eventually reached the stairs and started climbing in the dark, feet pounding on the concrete stairs as they ran up, up, up…
“We can’t use a door- Let’s just break the window.”
Seven nodded at Junpei’s suggestion and fired a round into the glass, shattering it. It was noisy, but it was better than risking incapacitating themselves in a rain of shattered glass. Even still Junpei felt a shard of glass catch his head as he jumped through, but that was better. He could deal with a couple of scratches, no problem. Dim moonlight illuminated the courtyard outside the facility, and he could see guards running at them. There was no cover out in the open- they’d just have to run.
“Take the lead, Seven. I’ll cover your back.”
He nodded and set off in a sprint that was shocking for his size, Junpei right behind him. The guards were firing, but they were almost home free-
The sudden force and pain in Junpei’s arm knocked him off balance, and he tripped to the ground. He scrambled onto his back and held his gun with shaky hands, firing back and hitting the guard in the leg- good, he wouldn’t be paying much attention to Junpei now. As for the other- no, Seven had already taken care of him. Ok Junpei, just get up, get up, you need to run now…
His upper left arm screamed with pain but it thankfully didn’t harm his running any, as he made a dash after Seven to the safe point. There was a car already waiting for them, familiar face inside- Lotus, or as she’d insisted Junpei start finally using her real name, Hazuki.
It didn’t even take her a second to notice the blood oozing from Junpei’s arm, and she hopped out of the driver’s seat, instructing Seven to drive, and got into the back to get a closer look.
“It’s not that bad- The bullet went clean through, and I don’t think it got any arteries. Just hurts like a bitch.”
Junpei was trying to keep her from worrying, but she was obviously having none of it. Ever-ready with a first aid kit she got to wrapping it right away, ignoring Junpei’s winces of pain.
“You’re going to have to let Ennea look at this, alright Junpei?”
While not a doctor yet, Ennea was still a medical school student- and as long as Junpei was refusing to go to the hospital, she was the best he had. He knew Hazuki and Seven didn’t like his choice, but hospitals… they reminded him of death. And he only wanted to be in one if his injuries put him on the edge of death. Anything less than a mortal wound was low enough priority that he could let Ennea deal with it, she was plenty talented.
Hazuki continued to check his breathing, pulse, and everything else while Seven drove in silence, and Junpei just gritted his teeth. The wound may not have been serious, but it still hurt like hell- getting shot was not fun, as he’d unfortunately come to know.
The bleeding had slowed over the ride but still wasn’t done completely- Ennea’d have to give him stitches, for sure. Upon their arrival back at Hazuki’s house Seven led Junpei to their makeshift medical room, while Hazuki got her daughter. He watched as Junpei continued to ignore the pain, shaking his head.
“I wish you’d let us get you some professional help.”
“Ennea’s basically a professional by now.”
“You know what I mean, Junpei.”
Junpei didn’t say anything. Beyond the thought of death that came with hospitals, it also came with other problems- namely, they might start asking what he was doing to get beaten up so often. And if they asked questions, they might try to hospitalize him longer; which he couldn’t allow. Not as long as he was looking for Aoi. Aoi was far more important.
It was clear from Seven’s face that he planned to say more, but Ennea entered the room at that moment, and asked Seven to exit. She didn’t say anything as introduction, just went to work on examining the wound.
“You’re a lucky bastard, you know that Junpei?”
“Yeah, you tell me that every time.”
“Well, I mean it every time. How you’ve managed to avoid death so many times is beyond me.”
“I probably used up all my bad luck last year, is all. That, or the reaper’s tired of seeing my face.”
Ennea gave a sarcastic laugh as she went to grab a bottle of disinfectant and the sutures, before carefully removing the bandages and getting ready to operate. Junpei looked away, bracing for the pain that was sure to come.
“Junpei, you’ve got enough bad luck for fifty lifetimes. It’s just selective bad luck, is all.”
“Heh, you’re probably righ-tch.” He clenched his jaw shut to prevent himself from biting his tongue as she carefully dabbed at the wound with the disinfectant, and not a moment later she’d begun the sutures. It hurt like hell and with no anesthetic he could feel every movement, but he still preferred that to going to the hospital. Besides- the pain just meant he was still alive. It didn’t take her long at all to finish stitching up the entrance wound, and Junpei breathed out a sigh of relief. She still had the exit wound, but at least one half was done now.
The exit wound was stitched up in much the same fashion, done fast and professionally. Ennea took a second to ensure that they were both closed up properly, before taking one last wipe of disinfectant over each wound, and wrapping a clean bandage around his arm. Operation done, Junpei moved to get off the table he’d been seated on, but Ennea pushed him back down.
“Nope. You know the drill, I’ve gotta check for other injuries.”
“Fine, fine. But I’m pretty sure I came out relatively unscathed this time.”
“The last time you said that, you were hiding a burn the size of my hand under your shirt. Off, now.”
He sighed and complied, pulling his shirt off to prove that this time, he really wasn’t hiding any injuries. It hurt to move his left arm, but at the very least Ennea helped him put it back on after determining he wasn’t lying.
They went through all the motions, just for safety- checking reflexes, checking signs of head trauma, spine trauma, but Junpei was clear. There was nothing else but a few cuts on his hands and head from jumping through the broken window, a result of the shattered glass. Ennea sighed as she got to work on patching them up, but not able to do much about the blood that was matting Junpei’s hair as it dried.
“You know, you never check over Seven like this.”
“That’s because he actually goes to the hospital if he gets shot. We need to look after you or else you’d let yourself bleed out on the carpet.”
“Oh come on, I’m at least kind enough to bleed out in the bathtub. Don’t do me a disservice.”
“Just shut up and go see Nona already, I’m going to check Seven then I’m off to bed.”
Junpei shrugged and hopped off the table, doing as she said. He passed Seven on the way out, the older man just sighing as he looked at Junpei’s injuries. They both knew Junpei would never quit until he found Aoi though, so no point even bothering to try changing his mind- when Junpei’s mind was made up, it was made up.
He wondered sometimes if Seven regretted helping Junpei find an agency. It seemed like it at times- he often did look worried, but there was no point in talking anymore. What’s done was done, and Junpei had what he needed to do.
He trudged upstairs on tired feet, opening the door to his room but a touch surprised to hear Nona call him from the bathroom.
“Ennea said your hair needed cleaned- lean over, I’ll help you wash it.”
“Huh, how’d you- oh right, espers.”
Nona just nodded- Junpei often forgot about that ‘morphogenetic field bullshit’ (as he put it), but Nona and Ennea had been training for a while now with it. He supposed they’d always been in sync ever since he’d started living here; now they were just even more in sync.
He knelt down by the tub and Nona knelt beside him, turning on the tap and letting it run until it was warm. After it was at a comfortable temperature she got him to rest his head over the edge, and gently she began pouring water through his hair, kneading through both the knots and the dried blood in it.
“Well, at least the cuts aren’t too bad this time- I won’t use shampoo, but you should be fine for it in a day or so. At least, that’s what Ennea said.”
Junpei just gave a quiet hum of acknowledgement, while Nona kept talking. While Ennea was often the one to berate him for not taking good enough care of himself, Nona tended to talk about other topics to distract Junpei.
“Hey, remember that picture of the dog mom showed you? Well, she actually managed to find a framed print of it- Said you can have it if you want.”
“It’s a Funyarinpa, Nona.”
“Didn’t I say? It’s practically blasphemous to not know the Funyarinpa.”
Nona chuckled, too used to Junpei’s sarcasm. It had taken him a few months before he’d been able to joke around with them, but once he’d started it was always like that. It was actually impressive how deadpan he was able to get his voice- the first time he’d mentioned the Funyarinpa, everyone in the room had been convinced he was serious.
What was more surprising was maybe just the fact that he even cared- he’d thought that wasn’t really possible for him anymore, and yet he found that he did indeed care. Perhaps it was just because they didn’t really seem to judge him- they would maybe judge his bad habits, yeah, but they didn’t actually judge him as a person. It was minor, but a touch of security after his life had crumbled so much was reassuring.
“Well, time to dry off then get to bed, Junpei.”
She tossed him a towel, before standing up. Junpei stood up himself a moment later, trying not to aggravate the little cuts on his head as he dried his hair the best he could.
“Ennea finished up a while ago, but it sounds like Seven’s planning on staying over tonight. You can chat with him if you want, but I do think you look tired.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll go to sleep eventually, but first I’m going to talk to Seven.”
“Fine, fine. G’night, Junpei.”
She walked off to her room, and Junpei headed back downstairs. There was only one light left on, a softly glowing light from the den in the back of the house. He entered the room to find Hazuki and Seven sitting by the minibar, talking softly.
“What, started without me?”
Junpei feigned hurt in his voice as he sat beside Seven, resting his good arm on the counter. Seven just sighed and shook his head, while Hazuki was the one to respond.
“You’re only getting a drink tonight because you got shot, but then you really should go to bed.”
“Well damn, I should get shot more often then.”
“Yeah, yeah. It was a joke, jeez.”
Hazuki gave him a glare but didn’t say anything more, handing Junpei a bottle of scotch and a glass. Beside her was her laptop, which had too many files open on the screen at once for Junpei to really make sense of anything. He just shrugged and opened the bottle, pouring himself a glass while talking.
“So, find anything good?”
“Actually, yeah. I was going over the data Seven got me, and I found something you’ll be interested in, Junpei…”
“Yeah? Do tell, Hazuki.”
“Looks like Free the Soul’s backing some sort of experimental facility located in Nevada this December. It’s supposed to be a test site for a Mars mission, and they’re looking for applicants.”
“And why’s this of interest?”
“Because Aoi was on the roster of registered participants.”
Junpei spun about in place, staring directly at Hazuki. She didn’t flinch, only nodded.
“Junpei, the chances of you actually getting picked are fairly slim…”
“I don’t care. I’m going, even if I have to force my way in.”
“I thought you might say that…”
Seven shook his head as he spoke, clearly tired. He looked like he needed the sleep even more than Junpei did- despite everything, or maybe as a result of everything; he looked old. Far older than he normally did, as if the weight of the world was pushing down on him constantly. Considering the things he investigated, actually, it probably was.
“We found the names of the organizers, but you can’t do doin’ anything stupid, Junpei. Don’t do anything illegal, or friend or not I’ll have to take you in.”
“I know, Seven. I’m not stupid- I’ll just convince them in my own way.”
His own way would probably involve a good few threats, and they both knew that, but it was better than Junpei ever actually acting on them. He’d do whatever necessary to accomplish his goals, even if that meant putting himself back in that damn desert… he’d do it, if he could find Aoi.
Junpei downed his scotch pretty quickly, pouring a second glass and enjoyed the pointless conversation for a little while longer, until sleep eventually began to catch up to him. He left for bed, saying a quick goodnight to Hazuki and Seven both, then climbing upstairs to go to his room.
He never bothered to put on pajamas for bed, just lying down still in his jeans and t-shirt on top of the covers. He was so tired that he could hardly keep his eyes open, but he still found that he couldn’t sleep. His mind just kept going back to one thing:
There was no way that Aoi would be unaware of free the soul’s involvement in this project, which meant that there had to be something going on. Hell, the fact that they were involved at all was suspicious enough- what the hell could they do for their freaky cult that had to do with a Mars mission?
Junpei’s mind was swimming with thoughts, but even still it was slowing. He could feel sleep pulling at him and he let it, slowly falling into a dreamless sleep, just one thing still on his mind.
‘I’ll find you soon, Aoi. You can count on it.’