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Strength in Solace

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It becomes evident, as Yuito and his platoon arrive at the area marked Level 0 Experimental Division, that they’ve found the part of the facility that’s in active use. Tall windows on the opposite wall overlook a vast factory block, conveyor tracks whirring along between machines that connect via pipes to a number of glass vats, each filled with a thick, dull pink liquid. A strange stench hangs in the air, familiar but unpleasant in a way that makes Yuito bring his hand up over his nose.

“What is this place?” he wonders aloud, brow furrowed. “A manufacturing plant…? Wataru, is there really no info about it at all?”

“Yeah, according to public records,” Wataru replies over brain talk, “the building you’re standing in just straight-up doesn’t exist.”

A thoughtful frown tugs at Gemma’s expression. “It’s hard to imagine something of this scale staying completely off the books. I wonder if we should assume that it’s endorsed by the government…”

“Um, hey,” Hanabi points towards the wall, towards a shelf packed with dozens upon dozens of cases, “aren’t all those boxes just like the ones that were in that truck back by the entrance…?”

Tsugumi yelps, flinches back, and squeezes her eyes shut, and Yuito is at once on alert, “Tsugumi?! What’s wrong?”

“Are the contents the same as well?” Luka asks, and the mere possibility brings Yuito’s throat up into his heart. He hopes, prays that she won’t nod.

But she does.

“How can that be…?” Yuito says, incredulity hot and bright in his eyes as he turns back towards that laden shelf. “There’s– There’s at least a hundred. And they’re all human heads?”

“It’s not completely inexplicable,” Luka grants. “If the Others we saw here are in fact being kept intentionally, then it stands to reason that they would require… feed.”

The frown that’s already on Gemma’s face deepens further. “I get what you’re saying, but… I don’t know.” With a wary glance at the shelf, at an apparatus near it that feeds a large metal pipe through the wall and into the factory block, he approaches the windows and looks out at the manufacturing line. “It looks a lot like they’re processing the heads. If they’re just giving them to Others, why would they need to–”

He stops suddenly, and when he doesn’t start again, Hanabi gently prompts, “Gemma…?”

Another moment of tense silence passes, and then Gemma turns from the window, his expression acutely troubled. “Yuito,” he calls, and the addressed blinks, “I’m… not sure how to say this. I think you should take a look for yourself.”

The words flood Yuito’s chest with foreboding, and he approaches the window and looks apprehensively over the various whirring and rattling machinery. “What is it…?”

But Yuito finds what Gemma wanted to indicate to him before he hears his response: The last leg of the manufacturing line dispenses that dull pink fluid into rows of ampoules, hermetically seals them, and seats them five at a time into black cases. And Yuito knows those cases, those ampoules, that fluid, that smell, and he could swear that he can still taste the bitterness clinging thickly to his tongue, and it makes his head spin, makes his stomach roil to think that this is what he drank.

“Awful,” Tsugumi says, her voice small and tremulous and her fingers tented over her lips, and Yuito realizes that the others have joined him and Gemma at the window.

Hanabi touches her hands to the glass hesitantly, disbelief etched deep into her features. “This… This can’t really be what it looks like, can it? It’s gotta be just– just a coincidence that the ampoules look like the ones Yuito was prescribed, right?”

“I understand wanting to believe that,” Luka grimly replies, “but making excuses for what’s in front of us isn’t going to get us any closer to discovering the truth of what’s going on in this place.”

What’s going on this place. The words are a flash of oil in a hot pan, and all Yuito’s indignation and disgust overspills, “What the hell is going on in this place?! How can they turn human brains, human lives into drugs and then hand them out from the hospital like it’s perfectly normal?! Where are they even getting all these severed heads?! There’s hundreds of them! This is insane!”  

“Yuito–” Gemma begins, but he pauses, frowns. “No… I won’t tell you to calm down. Honestly, I’m having a hard time staying calm myself. But we’re not going to be able to find the answers to those questions if we’re too blinded by anger to look carefully. Let’s try to keep a level head and find out what we can.”

Yuito wrings his hands into tight fists, takes in a breath, and holds it. Stay calm. Keep a level head. But that ampoule, that smell, that taste, those heads, that fluid, that smell, that smell. He used that medicine. He swallowed it. He took someone’s life down his throat, into his stomach, and he knows it’s not there anymore, but god, just knowing it once was rakes his insides up into knots.

He breathes out. He doesn’t feel any calmer, but for now, at least, he can act like he does. “Yeah. Sorry. Let’s keep looking around, then.”

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Hanabi asks, worry pressing her lips tightly together, and Yuito’s head dips.

“I’m okay,” he lies. “Tsugumi, I’m sorry to ask you to use your clairvoyance again in this place, but do you see any more areas we might be able to get into from here?”

With just the briefest look of reluctance, Tsugumi nods, and a red hue washes over her eyes. “It looks like,” she reports, “there’s another large area to the west. There’s a door that I can’t see through, though… We may need another–” With a gasp, Tsugumi suddenly whirls around, crying out, “Enemy at five o’clock, above us! A gun–!”

Yuito reacts to the warning before he fully parses it, spins on his heel, and snaps his eyes up to the catwalk overhead, where he finds the barrel of a handgun staring back at him and a person on the other end of that barrel hooking their finger around the trigger. In the next moment, several things happen all at once: Luka vanishes and reappears on the catwalk, Gemma activates his sclerokinesis and puts himself in front of the rest of the group, Yuito projects his grasp and tugs the gun loose from the shooter’s hands, and a deafening bang peals through the room and echoes off its high walls.

“I-Is everyone all right?!” Hanabi immediately asks.

“No damage here,” Gemma announces as he releases his sclerotic shell. “Luka? Yuito, Tsugumi?”

“Yuito–!”

It’s only when he hears the distress in Tsugumi’s tone that Yuito begins to realize what’s happened, begins to understand the cause of the sharp, momentary sting he felt in his side. And as he looks down and finds the small, reddening hole bored through his coat, his thoughts are all engulfed in the memory of that day in Suoh Line 9, of the bullet that pierced Naomi’s shoulder, of the blind terror that filled her eyes, of the unearthly scream that issued forth from her body as her very existence crumpled from within, scattered, and left behind something mangled and twisted.

Yuito’s attention snaps abruptly back to the situation at hand as he feels Hanabi’s touch on his shoulder, hears her voice beside him, “Yuito! You can hear us, right…?!”

He lowers his head in a faint, stiff nod. “Y-Yeah, I can. Sorry.” He swallows and takes a slow, shuddering breath. “I’m– I’m okay, I think. It hurts, but I don’t feel anything weird.”

“There’s minor damage to the liver, and to the seventh rib,” Tsugumi assesses. “Arteries are intact, and… I don’t see any particular abnormalities.”

“This is Seiran’s facility, not Suoh’s,” Gemma reminds, “so it’s probably not too likely that they’d be using metamorphosing rounds.”

“I’m not seeing any out of the ordinary either,” Wataru says. “Blood pressure looks stable, and heart rate is within an expected range…” He lets pass a terse, acutely frustrated sigh. “Just… ugh! This wouldn’t have happened if this dumb system could just show me readings for non-psionics! I’m sorry, guys.”

“Don’t worry about it, Wataru,” Yuito says with a small shake of his head, his hand reflexively clenching at his side. It hurts, but it’s not worse than the headache that crippled him when they were still in Mizuhagawa. “It’s not your fault what the system can and can’t do. And besides, it sounds like it’s not that bad of an injury anyway.”

“That’s not true,” Tsugumi immediately corrects. “Any abdominal wound should be treated seriously. Just because it’s not as bad as it could be, doesn’t mean it’s not bad at all.”

“I’ve confirmed that the bullet was a standard ballistic round,” comes Luka’s voice over the connection, and in the next instant, he reappears at their side, a card key in his hands. “The gunman appeared to be an employee assigned to this level, so I relieved him of his credentials after disabling him, but…” His gaze shifts to Yuito. “Tsugumi’s right. That’s not an injury that should be taken lightly. We should call off our investigation for today and reassess after you’ve received proper treatment.”

“Wait, but if–!” Yuito winces, and he’s sure that won’t help his case, but he perseveres, “If we leave now, who knows how much harder it’ll be to get in a second time! And how many more people will die for that sick medicine they’re manufacturing in the meantime?!”

“I’m frustrated too,” Hanabi says, and her fingers curl gently into Yuito’s sleeve as her brow pinches with worry, “but not only is this place is swarming with Others, apparently there’s people who will shoot at us, too. It’s too dangerous - if we kept going and something happened to you, I’d never forgive myself, no matter how many answers we found because of it.”

“Not to mention,” Gemma adds, “if Kasane’s attempts on your life have been on orders from Seiran, then it wasn’t just bad luck that you were the one that bullet hit, Yuito. Erring on the side of caution means assuming that anyone and everyone in this facility wants you dead, and you’re in no state to deal with that kind of threat.”

“Hey, sorry to throw fuel on the fire,” Wataru interjects, his tone fast and urgent, “but I just got a reading for a small group of psionics about eighty meters south of your current location. They started jamming me as soon as I noticed so I can’t confirm their identity or movements, but they’re definitely Seiran OSF.”

“I’ll take a look,” Tsugumi offers, and apprehension curtains over her features. “It’s Kasane,” she says, “and Arashi and Shiden. Kagero and Kyoka, don’t seem to have caught up yet, but there are about a dozen armed non-psionics blocking off the exit.”

Gemma’s expression darkens. “Non-psionics aren’t really an issue when we know to expect them, but dealing with them and Kasane’s group…”

“I’m doing what I can to obfuscate your GPS data, so they shouldn’t know your exact location… unless that employee tipped them off before shooting,” Wataru considers. “It doesn’t look like any alarms have been tripped, but I think you should definitely consider yourselves compromised.”

“Agreed,” Luka says, and he turns his attention to Yuito. “Given the circumstances, I strongly believe that retreat is the only sensible course of action. If you’re really set against it…”

But, albeit reluctantly, resignedly, Yuito shakes his head. “No, I… I was being unreasonable. You’re right, we should get out of here before Kasane finds us.” Before Kasane notices that he’s injured, before she realizes that she’ll never have a more ripe opportunity to cut him down - and before his friends get caught in the crossfire defending his dead weight.

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Luka replies, a faint trace of the tension in his features loosening. “Then let’s not waste any more time–”

“Wait,” Tsugumi says, her tone uncharacteristically forceful. “Luka, is it possible for us to leave via teleportation…?”

He blinks, and then he answers, “No, I’m not comfortable teleporting long distances in an area as active as this. The risk of collision is just too high.”

“Then,” Tsugumi continues, “Yuito’s wound needs attention before we go. There’s some vasculature, that’s very close to tearing. If we leave it as it is, the bleeding will get much worse while we move… I think.”

“Wh-What should we do, then?” Hanabi says, glancing fretfully to the hand Yuito holds against his side. “Can we treat him right here and just… fight Kasane off if she finds us?”

“This is just off the top of my head,” Gemma begins, “but how about we split up? We can intercept Kasane and lead her away while Yuito takes the card key that Luka found and heads further in. They may be a little less likely to search restricted areas that we shouldn’t be able to access.”

“I can go too,” Tsugumi suggests with a hand laid lightly on her chest. “My clairvoyance can keep us from running into any enemies… and, it’s also useful for treating internal injuries.”

Luka nods. “That sounds like a fine plan to me. Yuito, what do you think?”

“…Honestly,” he says after a pause, “I’m not crazy about splitting up. Kasane’s platoon is formidable, even if they’re down two of their members, and I hate to ask you guys to take care of the fighting while I hide off in a corner somewhere.”

“You’d do the same for any of us, though,” Hanabi says with a warm smile, and she squares her shoulders and raises her fists. “You know you can rely on us anytime, Yuito! Kasane may be tough, but we’ll handle her!”

Yuito returns the smile and acquiesces with a small nod. “Yeah. Hanabi, Gemma, Luka, I’ll leave it to you guys.”

“Understood,” Luka says, and he motions to Hanabi and Gemma. “Let’s go; we can discuss our strategy as we move. Yuito, Tsugumi, contact us when you’re ready and we’ll do what we can to secure an escape route.”

Their plans decided, the platoon parts ways, and as the other three disappear beyond the door that closes behind them, Yuito briefly inspects the card key left in his care and, with a brief gesture to Tsugumi, starts towards the corridor that branches off the side of the room, “We should get going too, Tsugu– Ngh.”

His second step forward is punctuated by a shock of pain that lances abruptly through his side, tensing his whole body against it and catching his breath in his throat. As he becomes aware that Tsugumi is hovering close by, sea green eyes all worry, he forces himself to relax his posture and assures her, “I-I’m all right. I just moved too suddenly, I think.”

“It’s likely to be more painful, while you’re moving around,” she cautions. “The bullet damaged muscles too, after all… You should take your time, and walk slowly.”

Heeding Tsugumi’s warning, the two pick their way through the adjoining corridor at a careful pace, progressing bit by bit down what appears to be a maintenance hallway. When they arrive at a shuttered door, Yuito presents the card key he received from Luka to the access panel mounted on the nearby wall, and the shutter lifts.

“I don’t see any signs of human activity ahead… or any Others,” Tsugumi reports, but her expression complicates. “There are doors that I can’t see through, though. And, it’s… strange.”

“Strange?” Yuito repeats. “In what way?”

“It almost looks like a normal residential space. There’s furniture - chairs, tables, decor - but… the scale is all wrong,” she explains. “Everything is much, much bigger than what a person could use.”

Bewilderment veils Yuito’s features. “What? But why in the world would–” He stops himself and grudgingly pushes his questions down alongside all the others he has no means to answer. “No, never mind. If it looks safe, then that’s good enough.”

So saying, they pass under the raised shutter and into the hall beyond, and the cramped and narrow maintenance pathway soon opens up into something that shouldn’t catch Yuito off guard - he heard Tsugumi’s description, after all - but the reality before his eyes is so much more bizarre than what he had imagined: high walls set so far apart a truck could easily pass between them, framed paintings hung too high to even tell what they depict, furnishings that loom ominously over them, plush red carpet that spills out like a sea across the tidy stone tile flooring… But what captures Yuito’s attention, and his unease, more than anything else are the doors spaced evenly along either side of the hallway, reaching up, up towards the distant ceiling. Though the knobs are all well out of reach, each door has a small recessed panel at its base - an entry properly sized for human use and locked by an adjacent access screen.

Yuito would almost find it easier to believe that the scenery isn’t real, that he somehow unwittingly connected to a vision simulation or to some sort of AR experience, but he’s all too aware that no such convenient explanation exists. And even though he resolved not to ask, not to wonder, the question tears at him: Why would a place like this exist anywhere, let alone within a facility that turns human brains into drugs?

“Yuito,” Tsugumi prompts, and he takes a breath, does what he can to bridle his confusion, and wills his feet to start moving again.

“These doors,” he says, glancing over the access panel as they pass it. “Are they the ones you said you couldn’t see through?”

A nod. “I have a sense of the shape, and the size of the spaces on the other side, though… It looks like there’s just one big room behind each door.”

Yuito frowns. “So, some kind of storage rooms, or…? This place doesn’t exactly look like a warehouse, though…” With a shake of his head, he pries his focus away from the huge doors and brings it back to the situation at hand. “Anyway, whatever it’s for, it doesn’t seem to be a heavily manned area. Think we can sit down here?”

“A little further,” Tsugumi says, and she points ahead to an intersection in the corridor. “Around the corner… so we won’t be seen right away, if someone comes in after us.”

“Got it.” His wound protests all the more angrily after the brief respite as he starts forward once more, and if he’s honest with himself, between the hot pain gnawing through his side and the stress piling up on his shoulders, fatigue is beginning to catch up with him. Yuito keeps a hand against the wall as he moves, occasionally leaning his weight just slightly thereupon, occasionally flinching against the throb in his ribs, all the time hoping that the tells of his discomfort aren’t so obvious as to make Tsugumi worry.

They reach the corner, turn it, and just as Yuito dares to allow himself to relax, the entryway at the bottom of one of the massive doors further down the hall slides open, and he at once snaps back to full attention.

A woman dressed in the same white coat as the few other employees they’ve seen around the facility exits the room with a small black case tucked against her elbow, pressing a handheld terminal to the nearby access panel to seal the door behind her. As her gaze turns up and fall upon Yuito and Tsugumi, all her movement stops, the surprise in her features giving way more and more to alarm as she processes the situation. “Huh…? Wait, the intruders?!”

Before she has the opportunity to find her composure, Yuito darts forward, projecting his reach ahead of himself, taking hold of the terminal just as she begins to raise it, and tearing it out of her hands. The woman yelps, and, as if freed from a spell of paralysis, suddenly ducks ahead, the case clutched to her chest as she dashes down the hall.

“Hey, wait–!” Unsurprisingly, the woman shows no sign of heeding Yuito’s demand, so before she can pass him, he captures one of the enormous chairs against the corridor’s wall with his psychokinesis, heaves against its weight, and topples it into her path. With a small shout, the woman stumbles and falls backwards, and Tsugumi immediately steps in front of her, gun in hand, and poises to shoot.

“Don’t move,” she warns, her voice low and impassive. Her eyes flick up to Yuito’s. “Her hands… Can you secure them?”

He nods and, undoing the fastening on the pouch where he keeps his field supplies, approaches and kneels beside the woman as he extracts and unwinds a length of cordage. “Bring your arms together, please,” he instructs, and the woman gives him an uneasy look before complying.

“Look, I– I’m just an employee, okay?” she says. “I don’t make any decisions about this place. I just do what I’m supposed to.”

“We’re not planning on hurting you,” Tsugumi assures, but Yuito can’t help yanking the cord a little more tightly around the woman’s wrists than he meant to.

“If you’re an employee, then tell me what the hell is going on here!” he presses, a fresh swell of indignation flooding over him. “You’re manufacturing drugs out of human brains?! That’s insane! What reason could you you possibly have to justify that kind of cruelty?!”

“Yuito–”

The woman turns her head down, her brow deeply furrowed. “…I can’t tell you anything.”

His sword comes free of its scabbard and swings around in front of her, its edge gleaming dangerously. It’s a perfectly hollow threat, but he counts on the woman not knowing that he won’t make good on it. “Like hell you can’t! I was prescribed those ampoules - I won’t let you say I don’t have the right to know about them!”

“Yuito.” It’s Wataru’s voice this time, and the sudden brain talk transmission gives him pause. “Some of your numbers are starting to look a little strange. Is everything okay?”

The interruption calls Yuito’s attention back to himself - to the sharpening pain in his side and the wetness sticking his shirt to his skin, to the feeling of sweat on his forehead and the heaviness of his breath - and the hotness of his anger very quickly abates.

“We encountered interference,” Tsugumi silently replies. “Changes to Yuito’s condition are due to exacerbation… not additional injury.” She opens a private connection and continues, “Yuito, your bleeding has increased, substantially. I know that this is a precious opportunity to get more information, but… that isn’t what we should be focusing on now.”

“…Yeah.” It is a precious opportunity, but Yuito doesn’t need Tsugumi’s ability to see inside himself to know that her assessment is fair. He glances to the door from which the employee exited and the access panel softly glowing next to it. “Think we could get in there with her terminal? It’d probably be a bit more secure than this wide-open hallway.”

“Mm.” Keeping one hand on the grip of her gun and a finger poised over the trigger guard, Tsugumi tugs at the woman’s arm and bids her to stand, “We’ll have you come with us, for the time being. Don’t make a sound.”

The cold, decisive professionalism with which the quiet and gentle Tsugumi handles enemies never fails to amaze Yuito, but he doesn’t have the leeway to dwell on it. As he extends his reach to the terminal that he earlier tossed away and pulls it to his hand, he gathers himself and straightens his posture again - or begins to, but his wound shrieks against the motion, and for a moment he can only stand there, doubled forward with his hand gripping fabric that dyes his touch red. The pain is a reminder, though, of just how urgent his circumstances are, and Yuito quickly gathers himself, steels himself, and follows the other two.

“Wait!” Despite the barrel of Tsugumi’s gun pressing at her back, the employee roots her feet to the floor, her expression frantic, as they approach the door. “You– You can’t go in there!”

Tsugumi spares her a response, “Why?”

The woman’s eyes dart to and fro as she searches for a response she’s willing to give, but she ultimately fails to find one, pressing her lips together and fixing her gaze anxiously on her feet.

“If someone saying ‘don’t go in there’ was enough to keep us out,” Yuito says as he brings the terminal up to the panel’s face, “then we wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Before the woman can make any further argument, the lock disengages, the panel opens, and the soft brightness of daylight spills out across the threshold into the hall. And silhouetted in that light is the mammoth form of an Other, the crowns of its veiled twin heads pointed to the floor and its gaping maw towering high over them as ribbon-like tendrils squirm and writhe around it.

“Don’t attack!” the woman pleads. “This Other is–!”

“Naomi…?”

It feels like an it’s been an eternity since that day in the abandoned subway, but the memory is still as fresh as ever in Yuito’s mind, especially after the brief moment of panic that accompanied the earlier gunshot. He’d never completely given up on seeing Naomi again, never stopped wanting to do anything he could to help her, even when her sister had inexplicably started treating him as an enemy to be slain, but the only information he’d ever been able to pin down was…

“Yui…to…?”

The connection acknowledges the transmission as coming from Naomi Randall’s personal port, and the voice unmistakably belongs to the kind, warm-hearted young recruit who vanished that day. But in the very next moment, that voice is overwrought with distress, “Wait, don’t look! Don’t look at me!”

“Huh?! O-Oh, uh, sure?” Startled by the response though he is, Yuito complies and turns his head. “Um, I–” He doesn’t know what to say, even though there should be so much - even though there is so much, so much that he can hardly keep up with his own thoughts. “I just… I can’t believe you’re here. And you’re… you. You know who I am, you’re talking just like a normal person– Ah, I mean–! Not to say that you’re not a normal person, just, you know…!”

“…No, I don’t think anyone would say that I’m a normal person anymore,” Naomi says, a soft, wistful ache suffusing her reply. “I am an Other, after all…”

Yuito’s brow knits, but there’s no way to take the words back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said it like that,” he apologizes. “Are you doing okay, Naomi? Does Kasane know you’re here?”

“I’m… okay,” Naomi answers hesitantly, as if dancing around a hundred other possible replies. “Kasane’s been here. We’ve talked.”

“I see…” On one hand, he’s relieved, but on the other hand… On the other hand, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Kasane defecting to Seiran in the wake of their violent uprising, coming to the defense of a facility that’s responsible for such atrocities - if it’s for Naomi, Yuito isn’t sure there are any lines that Kasane wouldn’t cross.

“Naomi,” Tsugumi begins as she ushers the employee forward and lets the door slide shut behind them, “I’m glad to see that you’re well. We didn’t work together for long, so you may not remember me…”

The Other’s misshapen head shifts slightly side to side. “I remember you, Tsugumi. I’m sorry if I worried you.”

Tsugumi voices a small dismissal, and then she asks, “Would it be all right, if we use this room for a bit? Yuito’s injured… I’d like to treat him immediately.”

“He’s injured?” Naomi repeats, an acute sense of concern enfolding her words. A pause comes before her response, though, tense and heavy. At length, she replies, “That should be fine. I’d like to tell you to take your time, but… you probably shouldn’t stay too long.”

“We actually can’t really afford to stay long anyway,” Yuito says, and although he doesn’t quite understand the reason, he dutifully honors Naomi’s request to keep his eyes away from her. “As long as we’re here, though, maybe we could talk for a while? Not about anything specific, just… how you’ve been doing, or if there’s anything you want to ask about, or…”

“Naomi, don’t talk to these people,” the employee interrupts. “They’re enemy OSF from Suoh - any information they take back is going to be used against Seiran. Against your sister.”

“They’re not ‘enemy OSF,’” Naomi objects. “They’re my comrades. My friends. I trust them.”

“Thank you… Naomi,” Tsugumi says as she compels the woman to sit on the floor and begins adjusting the bonds around her wrists to affix them to a piece of furniture near the door. “This is a big help to us.”

Finally feeling as though he can relax, Yuito takes a few retreating steps towards the wall, leans against it, and carefully lowers himself to the floor, a sharp intake of breath becoming a hiss of pain that sneaks over his lips before he can make the effort to stifle it. As he takes his field first aid kit from its straps and opens it to check its contents, Naomi’s voice attracts his attention, “Are you okay? What happened?”

Yuito’s eyes raise on reflex, but he quickly lowers them again. “I’m– Well, I’m in rough shape, actually. We’re intruders, so… someone shot at us.” He sees no need to supply the context that the people keeping Naomi safe are also pursuing his elimination.

“I’m, going to get started,” Tsugumi says as she kneels at Yuito’s side. “I may ask to borrow your psychokinesis…”

“Sure, do whatever you have to. I’m in your care.”

“They shot at you,” Naomi repeats, aghast, and Yuito wonders how much of her tone is because of the bloody red puncture Tsugumi reveals as she pulls his coat aside and lifts the bottom of his shirt. “Even if this facility is supposed to be secret, that’s going too far! All of this ‘enemy OSF’ business is ridiculous - you’re not someone they should have to shoot at!”

Yuito grants Tsugumi’s SAS request for his psychokinesis, flinching slightly at the familiar sting of the virtual cable connection. “We are intruders, after all, and… I am Joe Sumeragi’s son.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason not to shoot at you? Just imagine if you’d died! I’ve heard that Seiran and Suoh are hostile to each other now, but that wouldn’t excuse killing the son of the country’s chairman!”

“Well… Actually, about my fath er–” His thoughts catch in his throat as he recoils against the sensation of something tugging from inside his abdomen, and Tsugumi, eyes bright red and a pale violet glow haloing her hand, dips her head in sympathy.

“I’m removing the bullet now. I know it’s painful, but, I need you to hold as still as possible…”

He gives a curt nod and braces himself against the corner, hands rigidly clenched and pressed to the floor. “I only found this out recently,” he says, focusing on the wan distraction the conversation provides, “but my father - apparently the development of the metamorphosing bullets happened under his watch. I can’t– I can’t even begin to imagine how I could ever apologize, Naomi. It’s unforgivable. Unacceptable.”

In the long, long pause that precipitates, punctuated only by the tiny clink of the extracted bullet being set aside and held breath coming raggedly loose, Yuito wonders if somehow Naomi didn’t hear him, or if the brain talk connection has failed, or if she’s come to resent him so much that she regrets permitting him to stay, but just as he considers speaking up, her voice at last comes through,

“I… see. I’d been told that it happened because of New Himuka, but…” There’s another pause, not as long but all the more oppressive, and when Naomi speaks again, it’s in a tone that’s troubled, mournful, yet resigned, “It’s unforgivable. I agree. But, I think being the leader of a nation is probably a lot more complicated than we imagine it. Maybe the research was something he inherited from his predecessor. Maybe there were circumstances that made it difficult for him to put a total stop to it all.”

But Yuito frowns deeply and objects, “There are no circumstances that would excuse subjecting his own citizens to that research, accidentally or not. Hell, there’s no excuse for subjecting anyone to something like that, not even hostile enemies.”

“I think so too, and, I mean… sure, I’m never going to be able to forgive what happened to me, but that doesn’t mean you should hate your father, Yuito. And I certainly won’t ask you to apologize for him.”

“…You’re strong,” Yuito says, and Naomi responds with a fleeting, humorless laugh.

“Is that what it looks like? I’m just… doing what I have to. To keep living.”

“I’m going to flush the wound, and bandage it,” Tsugumi explains as she takes a pod of saline solution and snaps off the cap. “It will need a few stitches, I think… but we’ll take care of that back at the hideout.”

“Right,” Yuito acknowledges, wincing just slightly at the sight of the blood rinsing away with the saline and at the angry red hole left behind. “Thanks for all your help with this, Tsugumi.”

She nods, and Yuito returns his attention to Naomi, raising his gaze just short of the massive, long-fingered hands resting with their wrists twisted around and their backs lying against the floor.

“There’s something I do need to apologize for, though,” he says. “That day in the subway, when it happened - I knew the Other in front of us was you, but I fought anyway. If Kasane hadn’t stopped me, I probably would have kept fighting until one of us died. I’m sorry.”

“What, that? That’s not anything you have to apologize for,” Naomi replies, the faintest traces of levity finding her tone. “Honestly, I don’t even remember what happened that day. I don’t really remember anything from before they started giving me the ampoules.”

Yuito’s stomach drops, and he glances to the employee, who pointedly turns her head away. “Ampoules?”

“They’re some kind of medicine, I think?” Naomi explains. “I don’t know much about it, but when I take them, I can use brain talk like this. It’s… tough, though, when the effects wear off. I lose my ability to communicate, and it’s so painful…”

His fingertips go cold, his throat tightens, his head buzzes so frantically he can hardly keep up with himself. A facility stricken from all public records. A place where Others are kept. A diet of brains. Hundreds of human heads, their brains extracted and processed into a slurry. And at the root of it all, the human-born Others that resulted from New Himuka’s inhumane research.

He doesn’t want to, but he at once understands the reason that medicine exists.

“It's okay, though!” Naomi hurriedly amends, apparently sensing his unease. “The ampoules last for a while, and now that they’ve figured out a good dosing schedule for me, it almost never reaches the point where the effect completely wears off. So, it’s not something you should feel sad about, okay?”

Her gentle reassurance only cuts into the wound all the more deeply, and Yuito drops his head forward, his shoulders rounding. He doesn’t know how to respond. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what he should tell her. 

“Don’t say it,” the employee suddenly snaps, and Yuito startles from his fugue.

“Huh? What?” Naomi asks, puzzled. “Don’t say what?”

“Finished,” Tsugumi announces as she takes her hands away from the bandaging fastened neatly to Yuito’s abdomen. “I’ll let the others know that we’re ready… and,” she engages brain talk, “I’m not sure, it’s wise to tell Naomi. She deserves to hear the truth, but…”

“I know,” Yuito agrees, but he can’t keep the disquiet from his expression, and he uncertainly, stiltedly tugs his shirt back into place.

“Wait, I don’t understand. Don’t say what?” Naomi presses, the confusion in her tone giving over to frustration, and the woman answers,

“You don’t need to worry about it, Naomi. It’s not something that involves you.”

“That’s not true at all.”

Yuito’s objection is instant, hot, and given on reflex, and while he doesn’t immediately regret it, he does wish he’d thought it through a little more mindfully.

But Naomi is already asking, “What do you mean…?” and the time for mindfulness is quickly passing him by.

The employee tries again, “It is true, and you of all people, Yuito Sumeragi, should know just how little that knowledge would benefit–”

“Please stop interrupting us,” Naomi requests, her snaking appendages all aquiver. “Yuito, what’s going on?”

He takes a breath and lets it out slowly. “It’s not true that it’s information that doesn’t involve you,” he begins, “but I agree that knowing it won’t benefit you. It’s something incredibly unpleasant, and hearing it will probably hurt you a lot, but… I know how painful it is to find out that you’ve been kept in the dark. So if you ask, Naomi, if you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

“…I,” she says at length, “want to know. Please tell me.”

With a small nod, Yuito wraps an arm around his middle, braces the other against the wall behind him, and begins to heft himself up from the floor, accepting the assistance Tsugumi is quick to offer. Once he’s righted, he gathers himself, organizes his thoughts, and explains, “We saw the area where those ampoules are manufactured while we were searching this facility. The medicine inside is made by… by taking the brains out of human heads and processing them into a liquid.”

The words and the memory they invoke churn his stomach all over again, but he twists his fingers into the hem of his shirt, damp with blood and saline, and hangs tight to his emotions while he waits for Naomi to find her reaction.

And that reaction doesn’t come quickly. It comes slow and heavy, thick with tension, with apprehension, with a lightlessness that hangs suffocatingly over the room.

“Is… that true…?”

He nods once.

“I see.” The stillness in the air slowly gives way, and in its wake is left cold, disconsolate resignation. “I see. So… I really am just an Other.”

“You’re not, though,” he appeals. “It’s not as if any of this is your fault, Naomi. You–”

“Look at me!” Naomi suddenly, hotly demands, and Yuito’s brow creases.

“Nao–”

“I said look!”

Still rifling through his thoughts for words that might convince her, Yuito cedes and lifts his gaze, taking in the sight of Naomi’s form in earnest for the first time since her metamorphosis. And even knowing that it’s Naomi, that it’s Kasane’s sister, that it’s his ally, his fellow new recruit, his friend, his eyes see the twining appendages all arched with their pointed tips shuddering and the bony, backwards hands curling ragged nails into their palms and the dual mouths agape in a soundless wail, and his body tenses as if before an enemy. And he hates it. He hates that he feels the way he does. He hates that his own family had a hand in this tragedy. He hates that Naomi’s been bound to carry such a gruesome fate all by herself. He hates that he can’t even find anything to say to console her.

“What am I,” Naomi says, and though she has no eyes to shed tears, her voice brims with just as much hurt, “if not a monster? If the only way I can stay myself is to… to feed on human brains… If the only way I can live is by someone else giving up their life, then shouldn’t I just die?!”

“That isn’t–!” It isn’t true, but even though Yuito knows that, believes it, Naomi’s words cut apart his convictions and cast them at his feet, and he falters under the weight of his own doubts. Why had he been given such a medicine? Who had decided his life was worth more than someone else’s? How could the lives of hundreds of people have been deemed so insignificant that someone thought it acceptable to reduce them all to consumable goods?

How can he live with himself, knowing that he’s benefitting from such brutality? And how can he possibly ask Naomi not to feel the same?

“That isn’t true,” Tsugumi says, suddenly and with all the confidence that had slipped like sand through Yuito’s fingers. “The way that those ampoules are being manufactured is indefensible, but, Naomi, Yuito, the two of you aren’t at fault for needing them. You don’t have to justify not wanting to be in pain.”

The declaration abates the heat from Naomi’s tone, and the sharpness in her posture fades. “Wait, what…? But… why would Yuito…?”

“We’re not sure why,” Tsugumi replies. “The hospital said it was just exhaustion and prescribed those ampoules, but…”

“That doesn’t matter right now. This isn’t about me,” Yuito swiftly interjects, loath to bring up his own paltry troubles when Naomi’s still struggling with something so much more immense, but Tsugumi shakes her head.

“It matters,” she insists, “because the two of you are in the same boat, having to rely on something awful to survive. And both of you think that you’re doing something wrong, but… neither of you would say that the other is doing something wrong.” She clenches her hands in frustration. “That’s not right! If each of you thinks that the other shouldn’t feel ashamed, then, don’t feel ashamed of yourselves either…!”

Yuito presses his lips together, eyes turned down. Our circumstances aren’t the same, though, he wants to argue, but after hearing Tsugumi’s reprimand, he can sense the self-flagellation buried at the core of the sentiment.

“…You’re right,” Naomi says. “I’m sorry. I never would have guessed that you were in a similar situation, Yuito. I said something really hurtful.”

“Not at all. I know you were just venting,” he immediately dismisses, but the concern in her voice lingers.

“Could I ask about what’s going on? About why you’re using those ampoules?”

Yuito hesitates, reluctant to worry Naomi with matters that are irrelevant to her, but he ultimately yields to the request, “There’s not all that much to tell, really. My memory’s been unreliable lately, and I’ve had some terrible headaches.”

“That’s glossing over it, quite a bit,” Tsugumi gently chides. “Just before we arrived here, the gaps in your memory were becoming so frequent… it was like you couldn’t keep up with what was going on. You were in so much pain you could barely move, and you couldn’t speak coherently…”

“Well, I mean, I don’t think there’s any need to go into that much detail…”

“Oh no… I’m so sorry to hear that’s been happening,” Naomi says, the words heavy with empathy. “It’s scary enough not being able to communicate, but losing your memories too… And you don’t know the cause?”

He gives a small, brief shake of his head. “Like Tsugumi mentioned, the hospital said it was just exhaustion, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. It gets worse the more use my power, and I felt better immediately when–” His expression complicates. “…When I drank the medicine in the ampoule.”

“It’s strange,” Naomi considers, “that medicine that works for an Other would work similarly for a person. Or maybe it works for me because my brain is still human… But,” her large head bows slightly, entreatingly forward, “I’m glad you had something that could help make it easier. And, even if you hate it, I think you should use the ampoules again if you need to. I don’t want you to be in pain if you don’t have to be.”

A smile brushes lightly over Yuito’s features. “I’d like to say the same to you. I guess we could both stand to try being a little more positive, huh? ‘Where there’s a smile, there’s happiness,’ right?”

“Oh, Baki!” Twisted though Naomi’s form is, Yuito still sees that her demeanor brightens. “Aww, I miss Baki! It’d be nice to go to another collab cafe someday!” Just as easily as it came on, her brightness dims and fades. “I wonder if I’ll ever get the chance…”

I’m sure you will, Yuito wants to say, but even he knows how naive a sentiment it is. “I hope you will,” he says instead, sincerely. Something occurs to him, and he takes his hand from his side and reaches for a pocket. “Um, if you’d like–”

An alarm blares in the hallway, and though the door muffles most of its volume, its suddenness startles everyone in the room. Before Yuito even has the opportunity to wonder what’s going on, Luka’s voice comes over brain talk, “Tsugumi, Yuito, we made contact with Kasane Platoon. We managed to get some information from them, but they’ve triggered the security system. The Others in this place are becoming more active as a result, but that will help disperse the non-psionics we were worried about, so we should take advantage and retreat quickly.”

“Yuito,” Tsugumi prompts, and he nods, replying to Luka silently,

“Understood. Forward us the coordinates for our rendezvous point and we’ll head there ASAP.” He turns to address Naomi with an apologetic dip of his head. “Sorry, it looks like we need to get going. This,” he holds out the terminal he took from the employee earlier and gestures to its owner, “could you return it to her once we’ve been gone for a few minutes?”

“Oh… Sure.” Her large hand, palm contorted upward, slides slowly forward, as if she knows too well how intimidating it would be were she to move any faster, and Yuito leaves the terminal in her care. “Will you be able,” Naomi asks, “to get back all right? Is your injury okay?”

“Uh, well, it does hurt a lot, if I’m being honest,” Yuito admits with a faint laugh, and he looks to Tsugumi, “so, I’m probably going to end up being a bit of a burden on you and the others.”

Tsugumi frowns. “Rather than saying you’re a burden… say that you’ll rely on us. That’s what teammates are for, after all.”

“That’s right, Yuito,” Naomi eagerly agrees. “Calling yourself a burden isn’t exactly being positive, is it? Let your friends support you!”

The declaration takes Yuito by surprise, and he laughs again, the sound a bit fuller, a bit more heartened than it was. “I will, I will. Thanks, both of you. Also,” he reaches to his pocket once more, unclips the stuffed Baki keychain he’s carried since that day in the abandoned subway line, and offers it, “I was thinking I wanted to give this to you, Naomi. I don’t know when we’ll be able to meet again, but until then, I just kind of… want you to have something to remind you that I’m supporting you too. If you want it, of course.”

“…Oh, I…” She reaches forward again, even more cautiously now, more hesitantly. “Can I really?”

“Of course. Although, uh, I did cut it open once and sew an ampoule into it. It’s kind of a long story. But if you don’t mind that…”

“I don’t mind at all!” she quickly assures, and when Yuito deposits the keychain into her palm, she rolls it to her fingertips and holds it carefully, preciously. “Thank you… so much. I’ll take good care of it. Tell me that long story next time, okay?”

“For sure,” Yuito nods, and a notification in the corner of his vision alerts him that Luka’s group has chosen the coordinates to meet. He exhales slowly, squares his shoulders, and gives a soft, warm smile. “All right, we need to get going. Keep doing your best, okay, Naomi?”

“Yes,” Naomi says, and she sounds so much more like herself now, that thick, heavy, harrowed cloak of hopelessness fallen from her voice. “You keep doing your best too.”