Stop It. Get Some Help.
“I know you’re there, Momota. Not sure what part of ‘I-can-smell-deception-fifteen-miles-out’ you still aren’t getting.”
Kaito sighs, shoulders slumped as he slinks into Kokichi’s line of sight.
“Do you really have nothing better to do than stalk little ol’ me? Would it help if I set off a skylight every time your favorite damsel’s in distress? Everyone already knows about your hero complex, but I didn’t take you for an exhibitionist too,” Kokichi sneers, leaning on his cane. He twists his left hand around the grip idly.
“Damn it, Ouma, can you just let someone care about you for five minutes?”
“It was ONE TIME!” Kokichi shouts, a little shocked by the way his voice reverberates down the hall. It’s more than their class now. Eyes on him, eyes he doesn’t know; eyes he can verify are really there this time. They stare, and he stares back. Needlepoints of pain prick into his nerves, each momentary glance searing his spine. He shakes his head, rounding the corner, walking away. He would at least try to run, had he not just had a very unpleasant, very public reminder of why he shouldn’t. “I didn’t ask you to care about me.”
Kaito scoffs, picking up pace in pursuit. He never can leave well-enough alone, can he?
“Yeah, I know, you’d rather choke, threats’n scary noises. I’ve met you. And I can speak Kokichi well enough to know the closest translation of ‘maybe I can fall back on my friends occasionally’ seems to be 'I need you to kill me, Kaito, it’ll be great! Swearsies.'”
Ouma pauses, feigning deep thought. Both hands stay glued to the head of his cane; he shifts all his weight onto it, daring to lean forward. If it has to be there, he may as well make it a part of his mannerisms. He’d much rather look a top-hat and waistcoat away from vaudeville than vulnerable. It’s go big or go home, as they say, and it’s not like Class 79 even has that much choice anymore. He tilts his head, even without a curious finger to the corner of his lip.
“So mean, Momota-chan,” he frowns a bit too big for his face, nary a crease toward the eyes. Fake? Yes, but more importantly deliberate. “A real hero wouldn’t be so chipper! You’re supposed to get all Dark and Broody about it,” he shrugs, contempt dripping from every syllable. The mask of carefree indifference has flown from his face, and rather than pick up its scattered shards Kokichi decides to walk a little faster. Maybe if he rambles on enough, Kaito will lose interest and leave him be.
“About how deeply it damaged your soul, forever, to have to get blood on your hands, and how much Pain it puts you in to know you’ve taken a life, and once a quorum of girls and at least a good fourth of the guys are throwing themselves at you, THEN you can think about the monster you had to slay to make it happen. Haven’t you ever read a book? Ever? I seriously think it might not have happened, ever.”
Ouma glances to his side.
Kaito isn’t sure precisely when they took a turn in the opposite direction of their next class (and, in fact, towards a wing of the school that’s near-empty at this hour.) He is sure, however, it doesn’t matter in the slightest. “Aren’t you bored of that line yet?”
“Which one?” Kokichi asks, a small lilt at the end of the phrase covering up just how hard he’s breathing.
Not that Momota is doing any better. Dumbass.
“Harping on about exactly how stupid you think I am! Which is rich, by the way, considering I got tailored to advance space travel and they made you an actual clown,” he huffs, crossing his arms. Despite all better instincts telling him not to engage, maybe even to bail completely, Kaito Momota doubles down. He slides down the wall of the elevator’s enclave where Kokichi’s decided to set up shop, landing not five feet from the boy picking at the various stickers wrapped around his cane.
“You bet they did~!” Kokichi smiles as usual, though the mischief and malice are replaced with. With.
Something with a bitter aftertaste, the matching laugh clawing its way out from his throat.
“Certified Clown Around Town, thanks much. It’s good to be appreciated, you should try it sometime!” violet eyes widen, coming into focus for the first time this whole conversation exclusively to unnerve Kaito. It may have even worked a week ago, but now?
Now Kaito has seen what those eyes really look like as they stare death in the face. This is less than child’s play, as far as threats go. It would be insulting, really, had he not noticed that Kokichi only looks away to conceal how big his pupils have gotten. “Oh, I do. All the time.”
“Sidekicks are subordinates, they don’t count! Of course they’ll kiss the ground you walk on, they’re obsessed with you,” Kokichi huffs, this strangled nishishishishi into the side of his hand. “They wouldn’t put up with you otherwise!”
“… Co-dependent, maybe, but it’s not like that’s their fault.” Kaito sighs. The concession comes quickly; a peace offering in the form of self-awareness he’s been building lately.
“Yeah, 'cuz it’s yours~!” Kokichi cracks himself up, holding his forehead.
A flat palm turns into a fist, white at the knuckles. Eyes dulled, staring straight ahead, his voice comes to tremble. “But that’s a lie. At most you enable them, I think, which. There’s really nothin’ like the feeling of having your team here’n-now’n-all-together, is there?” He half-mumbles, not particularly concerned with being heard. “They need space. You are supposed to be the space expert, at least, so really we’ve got nobody better to play the part, do we.” Under his breath, he mouths: “I’d be a hypocrite, telling you not to chase that feeling.”
Kaito sits up a little bit straighter. It feels uncanny, seeing his friend so. Empty. Like a stage spot-lit before the set has been built, walking in on rehearsal while the actors still have their scripts in-hand. When Kokichi is lost in thought— genuinely lost in thought, without an escape route in mind— his ‘true’ self shines through a bit. It has only ever seemed cold, calculating, unfeeling in the split-second glances he’s caught through the crack in the wall of artifice between them, but the look on Kokichi’s face now, it’s… wistful. Longing. More human than Kaito wanted to admit to himself. The hangar was not a fluke. Kokichi Ouma, for all his insistence otherwise, is as much a scared, lonely kid as any of them.
Now they have to find a way to live with that.
He does not know if the people Kokichi misses are out there, somewhere, in that wide, wild world outside. He does not know if they ever existed. He is certain that Kokichi doesn't want to.
A long silence passes between them.
Kaito Momota, Luminary of the Stars and typically-reasonably-punctual student, half-considers taking Kokichi by the shoulder, helping him up, and walking them both back to class. Really, he thinks to himself. What was he even doing out here—
Of course, then he takes a look at Kokichi, and that plan is instantly scrapped.
“Kichi. Hey, Kokichi. You okay, dude?”
Of course not, but it feels wrong not to ask.
" 'o’wway," he mumbles, voice hitching, shoulders heaving with the slightest breath. Rather than merely distant, his eyes seem glassy, too used to this by now to show anything but numb.
“Hell no! Kichi, are you— stupid question, damn it, where were you going?” Kaito will never hear the end of it if Kokichi wakes up outside one of his 'safe zone’s. Kokichi, at least, takes a good few seconds too long to register first the question, then that Kaito noticed enough of his habits to ask.
“Dorm,” comes the answer, too meek not to have an immediate backpedal to re-assert himself. Yet here we are.
“Wh— Kichi the dorms aren’t anywhere close to here, did you f—”
“I TOOK A WRONG TURN!” Kokichi screams, the sound bouncing from wall-to-wall of this abandoned corridor. He crosses his arms over his head, face blocked by his elbows. "ALRIGHT? I just, wanted, to get where people aren’t, and I shortcut through here all the time even if it's a longer walk because nobody’s in my way, and then you show up —!"
The tears pricking the corners of his eyes look unnatural on him. They seem real, haphazard and unintentional, a byproduct of Too Much happening at once. Kaito is the only witness. Even that, to Kokichi, is too much.
“Okay. Okay, got it, I’ll take off in a minute, just hang on. I’ll get you to Tsumiki, she’ll know what to—”
Well. That settles that.
“ 'm not, fucking, I-I-I-don’t need you, Momota,” he heaves as he suddenly insists on climbing back up to standing, slamming the elevator button with the base of his palm. “Will you quit babysitting me if I pinkie swear not to do anything stupid? …Unless it’s really funny?”
Kokichi does not wait for an answer, practically throwing himself into the elevator and pressing the ‘Close Door’ button as hard as he can. Naturally, the door takes its sweet time closing, Kaito trailing behind the boy.
Unsurprising. Still, he’s a little disappointed.
The door shuts before them with a solid k-Klang. Even fully expecting it, Ouma winces a little. To his mild shock, Kaito does too.
“… H-eh. You’re just that dedicated to playing hooky with me, huh Momo-chan?” Kokichi smiles, and it is obviously forced. But it’s no longer Kaito he’s trying to convince, is it?
Oh good, he’s Momo-chan again. Step in the right direction. “Hmm, maybe. I take my job very seriously now, SHSL Babysitter’s got to play the part.”
Wrong thing to say, apparently, a crestfallen Ouma smashing every floor button on the control panel with a swipe of his hand. This should be a while.
“What! You started it, are you going to get on my case about being ‘clever enough to come up with your own jokes’ next, or something?” Kaito shrugs, rolling his eyes as he leans against the wall of the elevator. “Shuichi and Maki-Roll will have notes, so. You’ve got me captive. Revenge is right there.”
“It’s a joke to you?”
Kokichi sounds too small. Disbelief creeps in, tinging the words with the reek of honest confusion, of dread.
The incessant ding! vv-ack, vAHvUmp, whrrrr… ding! of an elevator systematically checking every, single, floor of the building for a new occupant is even worse than the thick silence between them. Blissfully, nobody walks on.
Kaito is the one to break the tension.
“… Yeah? I mean, that you’d need a babysitter, the whole. That shit’s as real as mine, and it’s not fun, it’s a couple steps too far to heckle you for that.”
Kokichi looks as though he could spit in his face and at least try to crush him under the heel of a light-up tennis shoe. “Liar.”
“Which word didn’t you understand?”
“The only one y— lie about what! Has anyone been giving you shit for it, seriously? I’ll punch’em!”
"See?" says Ouma, explaining nothing.
Well. Until the clueless look on Momota’s face chips at him enough to admit, “I see what you’re doing here. You, my guy, are caught up in some classic double-think. It’s a breed of lie powerful enough to snare you no matter how smart you are, if you aren’t careful.”
Kaito opens his mouth to object, but. Seeing the floor number tick over with its high-pitched 'ding!', he decides there might be some benefit to playing along after all.
“… You’ve really never…?” Kokichi’s brow furrows, leaning his right shoulder heavily against the wall. He does not let his back touch the metal. “It’s when you’re convinced to believe two things that directly contradict each other at the same time. Usually it’s a side-effect of propaganda, indoctrinating people into the Ideology of Whatever and all that, squash any questions before they’re asked. But you can totally do it with petty stuff too!”
Kaito looks him up and down. “You might be the only guy I know that’s actually bothered to read that book,” he halfheartedly laughs, in desperate want of a distraction.
“Mm, not at all, Momo-chan! Why would I bore myself with a dull, super-grody old book with a bunch of questionable bits from just after the second time the world shit itself within a century, a book that codified a lot about how people talk about political machinations and just the idea of a surveillance state, let alone the nightmarish panopticon we trade ourselves for now because they’re occasionally kind of fun! The screens couldn’t actually see you back when he wrote about it, Kaito. And you know what people did?”
Kaito, holding an arm out for a Kokichi that both A) takes it to re-balance himself and B) is very put out that he has to take it to re-balance himself, speaks matter-of-factly where Ouma cuts the rope on the rant. “Absolutely f–”
“They did ABSOLUTELY FUCKALL, KAITO, path of least resistance, going along with the rules of a game they did not mean to get into, but they also failed to stop, and they had to just sit and take it. None of it mattered. Even, when they thought they got out, n-none of it…” Hic.
The elevator door opens, landing the pair on the rooftop level. Only the sound of the wind rustling plant life around the greenhouse greets them up here, bright blue sky stinging both of their eyes emerging from the soft incandescent light of the elevator.
The real sky, this time. No LCD panels in sight.
“Mm-hmm. No need for an Ultimate Supreme Leader, whatever that means anymore, to look into somethin’ like that.”
Kaito lets the thought conclude, a little guilty now for bringing it up. For running away from what’s uncomfortable to know, again. Like a coward. We’re both cowards.
“That’s all you have to say?”
“What do you expect me to say?” Kaito shakes his head. “And you still haven’t answered me.”
“I’m headed. Right, here.” Ouma smirks, feet planted in the middle of the path.
“About the doublethink, Kichi, figured I should consult the expert.”
The boy considers this a moment, tapping his cane nervously when it should be helping him stand.
“… Come on, Kaito, you’re not totally braindead! It’s obvious.” Kokichi shrugs, or does his best to, closing his eyes and taking in real, fresh air, for the first time in [he doesn’t know how long. Too long.] Cheery as usual. Except… “You just look at yourself for a sec’n play spot-the-difference, Saihara’s probably got you cross-examined down to the bone! So what if you say that your sidekicks need to be more independent, it’s still more convenient to take their notes for granted while you go off on some Quest for all the Nothing it’ll net you. Heck, maybe you do want to care about the guy you voted for in every trial, just to send a message! But if you really think I’ll buy that you doubted for a second that this. Whatever this is, is anything but your self-aggrandizing attempt to convince yourself you’re still needed, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Kokichi laughs. Not his over-the-top Saturday-morning-supervillain Maniacal Laughter, but this subdued puff of air through his nose that nearly makes him choke. The only thing keeping him up (and awake) at this point, swaying as he may, appears to be pure adrenaline and spite. Kaito has to physically hold himself back from trying to catch Kokichi and carry him.
" ,,, Okay. Maybe I. Do, like to feel needed. That’s the truth. That doesn’t mean that’s all, Kichi, things are always more complicated than that."
Kokichi’s eyes narrow, pouring over Kaito’s features for any trace of insincerity. Considering how blurry his vision is getting, it doesn’t really help.
“You know what?” Kokichi interjects. “You’re right!”
“… I’m right?”
“Of course you are! Silly Momo-chan, you’re a literal rocket scientist, after all, and it’s not like a confluence of factors’ll get past someone that sharp! But it’s not like those factors are ' more complicated than that’, not really. Even an idiot would notice I’m struggling just to exist half the time! That I am small, and I am fragile, and I might keel over if the wind blows too hard, that I wasn’t supposed to be here, or be anywhere besides splattered between two metal slabs locked together for eternity, I’m weak, Kaito Momota, and you’re a damn vulture that just can’t let this broken bird be, now can you?”
That smile. That face, the Kokichi he still sees in his nightmares re-emerges, expression cast in shadow by the halo of the sun overhead. Of course he’s been flippant with his health, with himself. Of course it took a few weeks of trial and error for him to finally relent, get a cane, and of course he immediately took a shine to bruising shins with it. It doesn’t matter to him, because Kokichi Ouma considers himself a wraith bound to haunt this school. Because Kokichi Ouma is and should be dead.
“… wasn’t winning enough for you?”
The question is so soft it aches in his chest. A pain to give. A pain to receive.
The thin, curling leaves of a peach tree overhead rustle in the wind.
Kaito turns around.
“Alright. You know where to find me.”
They are both well aware that, wherever that place may be, there was no chance of Ouma getting there any time soon.
Kaito does not look back. He does not leave, either.
“S-So mean, Momo-chan,” Kokichi laughs, its latter half morphing into a sob. “A-At least be mad at me. Yell at me. Something, I’m Liar Supreme! King of the Shitheads! Can’t I at least keep that?”
Kaito sighs. “I didn’t win, Kichi. Not the game. Not even against the obstacle they made you into, let alone you. I-I.” Kaito reaches for better, clearer words, but he settles for close-enough. “I didn’t know, that you felt that way. And maybe you’ll believe me, maybe you won’t, but. I don’t, see you like that. I wanna say you’re one of the strongest guys I’ve ever met, but you are absolutely gonna call me out on that, so let’s go with. Resilient. That fair?”
Tears soaking into the dirt below, Kokichi steps with his cane to slowly get himself back in Kaito’s line of sight. “That’s. Definitely a new one.”
“And exactly the kind of thing you want in a leader. Or. I would. You roll with the punches like nothing I’ve ever seen! You got a concussion, then punched, shot twice, bled out, got poisoned, and the only thing that could put you down had to crush you completely just so you wouldn’t pick right back up! That’s gotta be at least a couple reasonable places to die, and you didn’t, just to stick it to the killing game. Legendary levels of petty. Honestly, Kichi, I probably could walk away and know that you’d be fine, because you’re you. You scrape by like that. I just think you shouldn’t have to. I need to get better at listening when I hear ‘no’, but. You need to know I won’t think any less of you if you say anything else. Okay?”
Kokichi nods. His face is buried in his scarf; saying the word yes out loud is still a bit beyond him, for the moment. So is ‘letting Kaito see his face while he processes possibly the nicest thing anyone has ever said to him’. Rather than force himself to speak in the watery, weeping tone he loathes when he lacks the careful control to turn it off at will, he lunges forward.
Kokichi hugs Kaito as tightly as he can.
“… Holy shit, Kichi, how long has it been this bad?” Kaito gasps, only now permitted to see that, while he knew Kokichi was having a bad snit, he’s likely going to actually faint once the adrenaline wears off.
“Been worse,” the boy shrugs into Kaito’s side. He’s been at least vaguely aware he was going to crash for a while, now, doing his best to push it out of his mind.
To lie to himself that he isn’t scared.
“Momo-chan?” Kokichi asks, the fight fading from his voice. Kaito taps his shoulder to acknowledge so that Kokichi can keep his eyes shielded from the light. “Can we see some stars? This one’s too, too try-hard, y. Yeah?”
Kaito, for a moment, is flummoxed. Stars? It’s mid-afternoon, what could you possibly—
His lab. The astrophysics lab, on the roof, in the observatory. Bound to be close enough to empty while it’s too bright to see anything.
A safe zone.
“Yeah,” Kokichi concedes with a whisper. “Please.”