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To Nourish

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Chapter 1: To Heal

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Shuichi Saihara had yet to uncover all the mysteries of this so-called school...but if there was one thing he knew for certain, it was that reality television royally sucked.


Thus far, on this "Love Across the Universe" show, he'd been pushed into awkward situations with Kaede, bombarded with personal questions, and prodded into developing a gambling addiction. Only three days had passed since the sixteen ultimate students had been trapped in this place and told they had to fall in love in order to escape...or else they'd have to play some sort of crazy killing game instead. Only three days...yet it felt like more than a week. The six robotic bears were constantly making sure the students were doing something "entertaining" for the audience, whether that was getting into petty fights or posing in sexually suggestive ways.


It was frankly exhausting...though Shuichi had to admit that it was strangely helping him get acquainted with everyone rather quickly. He already trusted them enough to stop wearing his hat around them, and though he'd only met them three days ago, he inexplicably felt as if he'd known them for a lot longer.


As soon as he'd fallen out of that locker, he'd taken a shine to Kaede. Her kind smile, her assertive confidence...with her support, it hadn't taken him long to calm down and open up. Talking with her always soothed him and made him feel at ease. He has this wonderful feeling, that everything would be fine, as long as they were together.

Unfortunately, the tiny multicolored Monokubs had decided that meant they were meant to be, and had done their best, from trying to shove Shuichi onto her, to raining flower petals on them, and even trying to sneak some pieces of Kaede's underwear into Shuichi's pocket. Honestly...as of yet, Shuichi only thought of her as a best friend. He loved her...but not really in a romantic way. Though...he didn't know what sort of feelings she had for him, and it made him a little bit nervous. Nevertheless, he enjoyed hanging around with her the most of all.

Throughout their days together, Shuichi had gotten to know the other students pretty well: Rantaro, mysterious, yet calm, collected, and very perceptive, not yet privy to his own talent, Gonta, the kindest and sweetest soul, despite his intimidating appearance, Angie, loyal, devoted, and unshakable...

Tsumugi, geeky, down-to-earth, and always grounded, Himiko, a listless daydreamer, except when it came to her magic, Tenko, loud, forceful, and fiercely hateful of men, yet always trying to help in her own way...

Kaito, a truly inspirational, motivating person, brimming with confidence and dreams, Korekiyo, rather creepy, but full of knowledge and love for humanity, K1-B0 or "Kiibo", protective and pure, and surprisingly normal, despite his metal body...

Miu, the brashest and most vulgar of them all, yet covering for a much more demure side, Ryoma, often depressed, regretful, and aloof, but holding a hidden passion still within him, Kirumi, selfless to a fault, authoritative, and a bit motherly, even if she tried to deny it...

And finally Maki, who had reluctantly revealed her true identity as an assassin after Shuichi had stumbled across her lab before she did. She was prickly and cold on the surface, but as she'd begun to hang out with him and Kaito, she had started to reveal her caring side, little by little. Kaito and Maki were getting quite close, becoming the other "potential couple" the Monokubs targeted for their unhelpful sabotage.

But...despite how he'd come to know and care for everyone in their group, in their own way...there was still someone Shuichi just couldn't figure out, no matter how hard he tried. Kokichi Ouma, the so-called Ultimate Supreme Leader... Sometimes childish in his appearance and mannerisms, he loved constantly pranking and toying with the others...yet underneath, he'd shown hints of great intelligence and untold information about their confinement here.

It would be simple to assume he had something to do with this absurd situation, but...at the same time, it was nearly impossible to interpret what he was thinking. Talking to him was like walking in circles, hovering over what he was truly trying to say, but never arriving at it. And Shuichi had a feeling he was doing it on purpose. Kokichi's constant lies served to hide his knowledge and his intentions, but also his own feelings, keeping Shuichi constantly guessing in the meantime. Did he care, or did he not care? Was he trying to help, or get in everyone's way? He wouldn't admit it, but Shuichi had been spending a fair amount of time puzzling over the enigma of the small purple-haired boy, strangely drawn to the mystery and the confusion of it all. He was the Ultimate Detective! He should be able to crack this case! Maybe...

Kokichi was awfully stubborn about revealing anything, and sometimes, his words made Shuichi want to hug him and slap him at the same time. It was almost like...he didn't want anyone to know him.

If anything, he seemed one of the most distant in the group. When not at gatherings, he was usually alone. Or chasing after someone who was trying to escape him. Gonta seemed to be able to tolerate him the best, but even then, Kokichi kept his distance from him, insulting him and turning him down every time he invited him anywhere. He appeared to enjoy being with Kiibo, but Kiibo avoided him whenever he got the chance...and that was understandable, since Kokichi only insulted him and made fun of him the entire time. Kaito and Maki couldn't stand the little shit, and Shuichi had actually had to stop them from hurting him on a few occasions.

Usually, everyone just tried to ignore his annoying jibes. But Shuichi felt a strong, inexplicable urge to...befriend him, even if it seemed impossible. Learn more about him, even if he'd buried himself under ten layers of contradictions. And if he couldn't find anything out by talking to him, he could at least use the power of observation.

Darkness began to fall on day four, and at their nightly dinner gathering, Shuichi's eyes followed Kokichi as closely as they could. He was acting like his usual self--relentlessly taunting and tormenting Kiibo, trading innapropriate jokes with Miu, dodging Gonta's innocent questions, and just generally being an annoying brat. But as the night wore on, Shuichi began to notice a few little things that he definitely hadn't seen before...and an uncomfortable feeling was growing inside his chest.

He was finding it hard to believe, but the longer he watched, the more sure he felt. It was so subtle, no one else would have ever noticed...but Shuichi could see it when he ran, when he jumped up, when he crossed his legs, when he quickly moved his arms... Something was physically different about Kokichi...compared to how he looked when they had first arrived at this place...his clothing was looser. It looked slightly bigger on him, more empty folds and creases appearing as he moved, more excess fabric puckering at his waist when he sat down.

This could only mean one thing--Kokichi had lost weight. And he'd already been quite thin to begin with. When he paid attention, Shuichi could see it in his face, too--it was just a bit more angular...less soft and smooth. If that skin got any tighter, his cheekbones would be showing. No one else would ever notice a thing like that...and he hid it very well. His entire collarbone and chest area were covered by his bandanna, after all. But why? Was he sick? Had something happened to his body? And that was when Shuichi made his other critical observation.

Kokichi wasn't eating. Eventually, he downed a small bottle of soda, but not once throughout the whole night did a piece of food pass his lips. For tonight's dinner, Kirumi had made curry, fried rice, and smoked salmon, with a salad on the side, and tiramisu for dessert. But even when he was offered a little cup of the tiramisu, Kokichi refused to eat a single bite. He cleverly deflected attention away from himself by teasing anyone who tried to interact with him, and playing with other people's food, mashing Himiko's lettuce into her curry, or cackling as he flung tiny bits of rice at Kiibo. It was perfectly effective. Kirumi would normally notice someone neglecting her food, but she was too fed up with him destroying the composition to really care what else he did.

What was going on?! It was just so hard to believe that Kokichi Ouma, of all people, had some sort of eating disorder. But as Shuichi searched his current memories, he desperately tried to recall if he'd ever seen him eat anything before...and he couldn't remember, exactly. It was possible that he hadn't even eaten anything besides liquids since day one. But...he'd never admit it, if he tried to confront him about it. He'd just talk in circles and deflect any questions with lies and suspicions, as usual.

Maybe it was something stress-related? But what could the cocky little trickster possibly have to stress over? Sure, everyone was bothered by being locked up and forced to participate in some dating show...but Kokichi had never seemed upset by it. He never seemed to care about anyone or anything, really... It was likely he wouldn't escape, since he definitely wasn't finding any sort of true love here, but...

"Hey, Kaede?" Shuichi decided to ask his best friend, beside him. The blonde girl had just finished the last of her salmon, and she looked to him with soft, questioning eyes, her antenna bouncing just a bit.

"Hm? What is it?"

"Um...is it just me, or... Do you think Kokichi looks kind of skinnier than he did before?"

"Huh? Kokichi?" Her face slightly scrunched in confusion, as if shocked that Shuichi would even consider him for a moment. She quickly glanced in his direction, across the table. Currently, he was trying to skewer a piece of salmon on Kiibo's antenna, to the robot boy's distress.

"Um... He's always been that skinny, hasn't he? He's just tiny. Doesn't stop him from being a huge pain in the butt, though."

"Huh..." He shouldn't be surprised--this only confirmed his suspicions that nobody else had noticed. His strategies of covering it up were working. "I'm just...concerned about him, you know?" Shuichi attempted to explain his question.

"Mmm." Kaede took a quick sip of water and frowned in contemplation. "I know what you mean, but..." Her hands folded tightly over her note-dotted skirt. "He just refuses to be a part of us, no matter what we do. He just keeps saying terrible things and lying to our faces. Ryoma and Maki were loners, too, when we first arrived, but they're coming around. Kokichi...I really don't think he's ever going to change, and though I hate to say it, I've...given up on him at this point."

"Mm. I understand." Shuichi brought a thoughtful fist to his chin. True, Kokichi never would change...but that didn't mean it was hopeless to try to reach him at all. It didn't mean it was impossible to find his inner heart and form some sort of bond with him. Right now...an awful, disturbed feeling in the pits of Shuichi's stomach told him that if he didn't try to reach Kokichi now...something terrible could happen. He wasn't going to let him hurt anybody...including himself.

Kaede sighed. "Just...please, don't get yourself into trouble trying to talk to him. He's dangerous, Shuichi. Remember when he said he was disappointed that the killing game was cancelled?"

"Yeah." Who says he wasn't lying about that, though? Shuichi decided not to share that doubt with her. "I'll be really careful around him, I promise."

Shuichi quickly finished his own dinner, glancing at Kokichi, who had since changed targets and was now bothering Kaito with vague threats.

No matter what, he'd made up his mind... He had no idea how he was going to even try, but... He had to make an effort...no, he had to confront Kokichi. There was no way he could sit by and watch this, no matter how horrible a person he could potentially be. No matter what--even if he hated him, even if he fought him, even if he made the rest of his time here a living hell...he wouldn't stand aside and watch him suffer. At his core...that was just the kind of person Shuichi was.

Kaede re-engaged him in a comfortable conversation about some of her past piano recitals as dinner was winding down and Kirumi was beginning to clean up. It soothed his worried heart for the time being...and he readily shared his own experiences with her. And in the end, it strengthened his resolve.

He would have to somehow catch Kokichi alone...but that wouldn't be too hard. Just do it. Do something. Stop this. You can do it.

One glance over at Kaito's clenched fist, next to Kokichi's pallid, cackling face solidified it all. It was possible. Anything was possible... Kaede might have given up, but... Shuichi refused to. It was what his heart told him--a separate entity from his rational brain. And he'd decided to listen.

---

A cold veil of darkness had fallen over the campus, giving everything an anxious feeling of the unknown. It dug into Shuichi's chest, making his courage waver just a tad. This was normally when he would abscond to the casino, feeding casino coins into the various machines and playing games until he'd won enough to afford a premium gift. It distracted him just enough to take the edge off his worries, so he could collapse into bed at 11PM, take a few minutes to collect his thoughts, then drift into a relatively fitful sleep. But not tonight. And maybe not ever again.

The nighttime announcements had already played, and everyone was straggling back to the dorms. Shuichi mentally counted each person who entered into the circular building, making sure they would stay in place. Sometimes, Kaito and Maki liked to meet up at the trellis, but last night, they hadn't, so...this could possibly work.

"Are you sure...?" Shuichi snapped back into the present when he heard Kaede's voice beside him. That's right--he was walking back to the dorms with her, but he'd already told her... "Your rest is important, you know. You can't do any detective work while sleep-deprived."

"I-I know." Shuichi awkwardly reached up to scratch his scalp. "But there are just a few things I want to check, while everyone else is sleeping, so I won't be distracted or anything. Don't worry--I'll get in bed before midnight."

"And you still won't let me come with you, huh?" Kaede puffed her cheeks slightly. "Stubborn. What if something happens to you...?!"

"It won't. I promise. And...I'm sorry. But I need to be alone for a bit."

Finally, she relented, giving a frustrated sigh. "Fine... But you had better tell me everything tomorrow morning."

"Yes. I will." The lie felt bitter in the back of his throat. Please forgive me, Kaede. It's not that I don't trust you. But you care too much about me. I don't trust you to not stop me.

The two exchanged fond "good night"s, and Shuichi watched Kaede walk off to the dorm with a twinge of regret. He'd love to let her in on his plan, but...she would get in the way. She'd already given up, after all.

Now...all that was left was to wait. Shuichi sat down on a bench near the trellis, keeping the dorm in view. Everyone had passed though its front doors, including him. But he had this strong hunch... He wasn't sure exactly where it came from but...

He does things when we're not watching. He's doing a lot of things in secret. And the only time he'd be sure to avoid everyone...has to be the middle of the night. It was just a crazy guess, but he'd have to bet on it. A different sort of gamble was being played tonight...and he had to win.

10:30...nothing so far... Shuichi went over what he would say, trying uselessly to anticipate his response. There was no such thing as anticipating with him. 10:45... Shuichi checked his watch every minute, trying to push back the anxiety that was threatening his windpipe. He needed to be calm, stubborn, firm, unrelenting... He needed to keep his composure, no matter what. And then...

Five minutes of eleven, a quiet clack echoed across the yard, and Shuichi's eyes immediately focused. Someone was coming out of the dorms...and there was no mistaking that small stature and white costume glinting in the false moonlight. Kokichi.

Shuichi got to his feet and stepped down from the platform. And, of course, he immediately noticed. Kokichi had only taken a couple of steps, but he froze in place, for a split second looking genuinely shocked. "Shuichi? What are you doing out here, huh? Having some fun with yourself?"

Shuichi moved closer, and Kokichi regained his regular demeanor, flashing him a toothy, teasing smile. That grin was painfully obnoxious, and in any other circumstance, Shuichi might've just ignored him and walked away. But no...he couldn't let him deter him. And there was no doubt he was intentionally trying to discourage further discussion.

"...I need to talk to you, Kokichi. While we're alone."

"Ooooooooooo!" Kokichi chirped, far too loudly. "Have you come to confess your undying love for me, Shuichi? Or perhaps you want to beg me to spare your life? Either way, it's tooooo late!"

"Kokichi." Shuichi put a hard edge into his voice, though he knew it was entirely lost on the smaller boy, who was still tucking his arms behind his head without an apparent care in the world. "Come on. This way."

He beckoned towards the clump of grass and weeds next to the dorm. They needed to be out of the way, just in case, by some coincidence, someone else came out of the dorm.

Kokichi was surprisingly obedient, and all but skipped after him into the brush, cheeky smile still plastered over his face. "This is my first secret nighttime confession! How exciting! I bet the viewers are eating this up!"

"Kokichi." Shuichi repeated, trying to get him to take this just a little bit more seriously. "I have something to say."

"Nyeehee! Go on, go on..."

"I was watching you at dinner tonight, and--"

"Wow, I never pegged you as the stalker type--"

"--I noticed something that needs to be addressed." Shuichi plowed straight through his voice, refusing to let him get a word in to derail this conversation. It was best to simply ignore his taunting and teasing, pushing through to the heart of the matter. At least, that was how he'd decided to deal with him. He'd force him to face this, even if he didn't want to, even if he pushed back just as fiercely.

At last, Kokichi let out an exaggerated sigh, dropping his arms and rolling his eyes. "We've already been over this a million times, Shuichi. You're so terribly boring and predictable."

What is he on about now? Shuichi mentally prepared himself for whatever he was going to pull out next.

His expression suddenly switched into a small, relieved smile, one hand gently resting on his bandanna, near his heart. "Well...I suppose if you're going to be so insistent about it, I guess I can't help it." He gave an innocent-looking smile, one that would normally make anyone believe him...because it was just so damn cute.

It's not cute, Shuichi berated himself for letting that thought cross his mind.

"Alright, alright... I'll try my hardest to get along with everyone and be friends, alright? It's going to be different from now on. No more messing with people and getting them all upset and stuff."

God, if only that were true...

"No." Shuichi clenched one fist at his side. "It's not about that. It's about something completely different. I honestly don't care if you get along with everyone or not."

"Reeeeally?" Kokichi tilted his head a little and looked up at him with wide, questioning eyes. "I find that hard to believe. But whatever. That was totally a lie anyway."

Shuichi ignored his bait, stubbornly pressing forward. He would have to just say it--see how he reacted. He was going to deny it, of course, but...did he even know that he'd noticed? Hopefully, he'd be able to find out.

"Kokichi...you haven't been eating, have you? You've lost weight. You're starving yourself. I can tell. Why is that?"

Kokichi's soft purple eyes gently blinked...then immediately resumed their playful shine. "Nyeeheehee! You say some really weird things, you know."

"So you're denying it?"

"Not necessarily." He tapped a finger at the edge of his chin. "But I wanna know why you think that. However did you reach that crazy conclusion, oh mighty Ultimate Detective?"

Though Shuichi was beginning to feel the pangs of a headache starting up in the back of his skull, he forced himself to ignore the jibe. "First of all--you never even touched any of Kirumi's food tonight. You only drank a bottle of soda. And second--well, just look at yourself! If your clothes got any looser, they'd be falling right off."

"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"This isn't a joke!" Regrettably, Shuichi was losing a bit of his composure. Kokichi's blasé attitude about the whole thing was starting to wear at him. "I'm really, truly worried about you, you know?"

"Pff," Kokichi looked away, suddenly very interested in his fingernails. "There are literally hundreds of more important things you should be worried about, rather than the state of my diet. You need to be figuring out a way to get us all out of here. Be an actual detective for once, instead of playing therapist. I'm really disappointed in you."

Shuichi bit his lip. It was probably just something he'd said to get under his skin and make him leave him alone...but he couldn't deny that there was a grain of truth in that statement. There was a lot of things he still needed to look into--mysteries about this school, or whatever this was, left unsolved as of yet. But one part of his statement was definitely incorrect...

"No, that's wrong!" The objection burst from Shuichi's mouth as soon as his heart asserted it. "Your health and well-being isn't 'less important', Kokichi. I want to get everyone out of here. I want us all to survive, unharmed. And that includes you too. You might find this hard to believe, because you don't care about anything, but...but I care about you."

For an incredible second, Kokichi had no reply. For one moment, suspended in time, his eyes were just pure pools of blank softness. Unknowable, yet calm and strangely vacant. And it were the breif moments like these that had Shuichi convinced there was more to him... Something was there, besides just simple malice. Unfortunately, it didn't last very long.

"Okay..." Kokichi spoke, glancing away. His voice was low, but Shuichi could pick up a tiny lilt in it. "I'll tell you. You found me out, so...I won't be able to hide it much longer..."
Shuichi subconsciously held his breath. Was this serious? He was concentrating all his efforts into trying to read between his words.

"I..." Kokichi grasped his forearms, not meeting his eyes, his forehead pinching with apparent worry. "I have...anorexia!"

Something about the tone of his voice was weird.

"I can't help it...the thought of eating makes me feel sick. I must keep my perfect, slim figure. What kind of supreme leader would I be if I turned into a big, fat blob? No one would ever take me seriously. I hate the thought of gross fat cells forming on my body, and...oh no! Now I'm thinking about it!"

Kokichi began to shudder...and Shuichi formed a deep scowl. He didn't want to have to cast doubt on something like this, but...this was just too dramatic a confession to be the truth.

"It's really disgusting of you to lie about having a serious illness."

"Huh? Lie?" Kokichi's shivering halted, and he stood up straight, giving him a questioning stare. "Even I wouldn't lie about something like that, you know."

Yes. Yes, you would. You'd pull out whatever stops you had to protect yourself and whatever secrets you're holding. Maybe Shuichi really was getting better at reading him.

Kokichi twisted his face into a pained, emotionally tormented expression that was very nearly convincing. "How...how could you not believe me, dear Shuichi? It took so much for me to reveal my terrible secret to you..."

"Kokichi, please..."

"Please what? I'm baring my soul to you over here, and yet..."

"You would never bare your soul to anyone, let's be real here."

"......Ah. Yeah, I suppose not." Kokichi finally gave it up, breaking into his usual cheeky smile. "You're too good, Shuichi. I can't have any fun with you."

Shuichi heaved a sigh. Trying to get anything out of him was like pulling teeth...except the teeth would get sucked back in and you'd have to pull them all over again. "I just want to help you," he insisted. "I promise, I only want to make sure you're okay, Kokichi. Please. Tell me what's really going on."

"I already tooooold you!" Kokichi put on his whiny, insistent tone. "I've got anorexia! It's a serious problem! Orrrr maybe not! Who knows, huh? But that's totally what you thought it was, wasn't it? So maybe it really is true!"

Shuichi just wanted to smack him. He wanted to just give up and leave in an angry huff. But that was exactly what Kokichi wanted, so he wasn't going to let him win. This method clearly wasn't going to work, so...he'd have to push himself...try something a little unorthodox, a little risky, even.

Quickly, and without warning, Shuichi shot his arm forward, grasping Kokichi's wrist and holding fast. It worked. His façade dropped, revealing a genuine expression of shock.

"Wh-What?!"

"Kokichi." Shuichi spoke his name with gentle resolution. It was even worse than he'd thought. A shiver went up his spine, though it didn't show in his body. "Wow. Your wrist is so thin... I'm not very strong, yet I feel like I would be able to just snap it apart."

It actually took a second for Kokichi to compose himself...but when he did, he began to snicker. "Nyeeheehee... Is that a threat, Shuichi?"

"No. Of course not." His voice was dangerously close to stuttering...holding this tiny wrist in his hand had reminded him of just how serious this was. "Why is it...so hard for you to understand that I'm actually worried about you?"

Kokichi only frowned and shrugged his bony shoulders. "Oh, I believe you. But you're wasting your time. You're a boring idiot."

"I'm not wasting my time...especially..."

Shuichi steeled himself against what he was about to say. It had come down to this, after all. But if he had to use this strategy, he had to use it, as much as it made him feel uneasy. A plan had been forming in Shuichi's mind throughout the night, a plan to put an end to this, if all else failed. He'd hoped not to have to use it, but...Kokichi was being way too stubborn. He was going to have to do it. He would play along with Kokichi's mind games. To help him, to save him, he could do it...he could be dishonest, too.

With a bit of a yank, he pulled the smaller boy closer, almost intimately. And he spoke in a low, grave tone. "...Because. I need you."

Kokichi's face went blank for a second again, before morphing back into a thin smirk, eyes narrowing like a snake. "Oooh. What's this now?"

"I need you...as a part of my plan. And I need you alive for now, okay?"
Kokichi lifted his other arm, cupping the hand that was clenched around his wrist. "Tell me more..."

"I can't right now." Shuichi steadied his heart against this lie. No doubt, Kokichi would see through it eventually...but for now, he just needed to set this up. "That's why I needed to speak to you alone. The whole conversation before this was just a cover. And we can't discuss it any further here."

Shuichi lowered his voice into a whisper. "Tomorrow night. 10:30. I need you to meet me at my room." The effect was rather convincing, if he thought so himself. "I'm certain it will make things much more interesting around here."

"Really?" Kokichi's eyes squeezed narrower, leering up into Shuichi's face with that chilling expression of his. "I wouldn't have expected this from you, Mr. Detective." His voice was equally low, quiet, and sly. "Unless you're lying right back to me. You've got guts, Shuichi."

Though his heart was flip-flopping and he felt like breaking into a sweat, Shuichi kept his appearance stoic. He had to. For his sake. "Whether it is or not...you'll have to come and find out, then."

Finally, he released his wrist, and Kokichi flexed it, letting the blood flow back into his hand. "Alrighty, then... But, if this turns out to be a waste of my time..." The dark, dangerous glare flashed back onto his ghastly white face. "...You'll live to regret it. I'll make sure you suffer in ways you can't even imagine."

With that, he casually turned his back, giving a jaunty wave. "Welp--bye-bye for now, dear Shuichi! Stay tuned for the thrilling continuation!" And before Shuichi could get in another word, he'd disappeared back into the dorm, apparently abandoning whatever he'd been up to in the first place.

The world stilled into silence, and Shuichi gently drew in his breath, calming his nerves. What in the world was he getting himself into? Kaede's warning to stay away from him echoed in the back his mind, but he forced it down. Despite his appearance, despite his threatening words...a voice deep inside him was telling him that Kokichi wasn't as dangerous as he made himself appear. Just a hunch...but his other hunch about him had been correct. Why not this one, too...?

In the depths of night, Shuichi clutched a fist to his heart. Kokichi...I'm going to save you. Even if you don't want to be saved. I promise...I promise I will never give up on you.

He had to get to bed...there was a lot to do tomorrow if he wanted to pull this off, after all. But for a moment, Shuichi stood in the silence of the still courtyard, letting his feelings wash over him and fill him with resolution. His courage, given to him by his closest friends, those he loved, despite only knowing them for a few days... He thanked them from his very soul...

Pinpricks of glowing stars shone down on him from above...and even if they turned out to be fake, he prayed to them. For his continued strength...and for the life of his small purple-haired friend.

---

As soon as Shuichi had showered and dressed, he took a full, careful inventory of his room. Table, closet, desk and chair, empty bookshelf, a few drawers... Hm...he could possibly work with this. First, he had to develop a method of locking the door from the inside. He might need a few extra supplies, but it could be done. The shelves would be useful...the desk and chair essential.

A part of him felt dirty for planning something behind someone's back like this...but it was the only way. If any other options had appeared before him, he would've already taken them. He shouldn't feel bad, and he had to keep telling himself that.

First of all, he had to get to the dining hall posthaste. Otherwise, waking up this early would be entirely wasted. With ideas swirling through his mind, Shuichi made his way there, using the back entrance, and making sure he didn't run into anyone else on the way. The only one up this early...was precisely the person he needed to talk to.

She wasn't in the dining room, but that was to be expected. After all, she was in the kitchen, cooking up today's breakfast. Warm, delectable scents wafted by Shuichi's nose as he poked himself through the kitchen doors. "...Kirumi?"

"Oh. Good morning, Shuichi." The Ultimate Maid turned her head, gray bang shifting past her eye. "You're up early today."

"Y-Yes. I, um...I have a request... It's kind of unusual, but..."

"I will be happy to fulfill any request you may have, Shuichi. It is not my place to judge." Kirumi gave him a serene smile, though her arms flipped pancakes on the stove, stirred a pot, and adjusted the temperature on a seperate stove at the same time, all without skipping a beat. She was frightfully skilled at times...

"Um...I'd like you to teach me to...cook a few things."

"Certainly. Just give me moment..."

"Oh, but not right now! I mean, after breakfast! I...want to wait until after breakfast." Shuichi had to phrase it correctly, or else Kirumi would insist that he wasn't bothering her and try to do it right now.

"Very well." With one last bright smile, she turned around again, focusing on her various cooking tasks. "I will be delighted to teach you to cook, Shuichi. Meet me back here in the kitchen once breakfast has concluded, then."

"Yes. Thank you very much, Kirumi. I'll you see you then." Shuichi pulled away, quickly trying to rub out the blush he was sure was forming on his face.

As he'd thought about it last night, he'd decided... He could easily just ask Kirumi to make all the food he needed...but he wanted to create it himself. Yet, he couldn't even figure out why. It made no rational sense...but he just...wanted to. He realized that it was sort of unlike him to do something just because he wanted to... But, why not? There was no reason not to either. In fact, he might better be able to explain it away...

In a few short moments, the earlier risers--Gonta, Kaito, Angie, Maki--made their way into the dining hall. Tenko was probably awake, too, but she usually waited for Himiko. They all commented on Shuichi's presence, but he waved it off by saying he'd had a hard time sleeping last night.

Kaede arrived, immediately asking him about his night...and the rest of the students began to trickle in after her. Awkwardly, Shuichi made up something about re-checking the library, but being unable to find any clues hidden in the books. Naturally, Kaede still seemed concerned, but she bought it well enough, deciding not to pester him about it, for which he was very thankful.

Everyone sat down to breakfast...and Kokichi was nowhere to be found. It wasn't terribly surprising, but...Shuichi found himself worrying a little bit anyway. Five days surviving on nothing but soda and chewing gum...it was incredible that he hadn't actually passed out already... Unless he had, and no one knew about it. Shuichi really didn't like to think of that possibility.

Kirumi's lesson afterward went smoothly and easily. Her directions were precise and detailed, her examples flawless. Though Shuichi doubted he could produce the same results she had, he was confident he could remember all the steps.

Afterwards, he'd promised to spend some time with Kaede in her lab. Day five passed just as easily and comfortably as the previous four. Naturally, there were a few interruptions from Monokid, who'd purposely tried to plow Kaede over, so that Shuichi would catch her...and Monophanie, who had sat in the corner and made gross kissy faces at them for almost an hour.

They investigated a few more places together, to no avail. For a little while, they joined Kaito, Maki, Gonta, and Ryoma for a picnic lunch. The whole day, Shuichi only thought he saw Kokichi once--just a flash of white, running away from a peeved Miu and Kiibo.

Though he smiled and kept up conversation, the distracting thoughts were still eating at his insides. Nighttime...nighttime was steadily approaching. And everything needed to be perfect.

As soon as he got a break from the others, Shuichi slipped into the warehouse, packing up the supplies he needed and stealing them back to his room. Closer...just a little closer... He was nervous, but at the same time, proud. The cycle would end...the cycle would end now. And he'd decided to end it, no matter what.

---

Five minutes of ten. Everything was set in place. He'd tested the door trick earlier to make sure it worked. He'd meditated and tried to steel his mind against distractions. He'd set out the paper towel, the chopsticks, the spoon, the drinking glass. The warming plates were running.

Composing himself once more, Shuichi drew in a slow, deep, empowering breath. Okay. Now...all that's left...is to wait.

Clink...clickclick...cl-inkclink... A soft metallic noise suddenly scratched at the inside of Shuichi's ears. Click...clnk...

With a heavy thump of his heart, he realized what it must be, and rushed to the door. Of course. Leave it to Kokichi to throw a wrench into his perfect setup. But it was okay...it was going to be okay...he could still pull this off. Shuichi swiftly reassured himself...and yanked his door open as far as it would go at the moment.

"Ah... Hello, Shuichi." Kokichi grinned up at him from his crouched position near the doorknob. In a blink, he stashed the long metal needle he'd been holding in the bottom of his pants leg. So, that's where he keeps them...that strap thing is probably meant to keep them in place.

"Nyeehee. I thought I'd drop in early and surprise you. But you had to go and ruin it all. Aw, maaaan..."

Shuichi stared down at him. Rather than feel annoyed or worried at his attempt to foil his plans, he just felt...pain. He hadn't thought it possible, but...Kokichi looked even worse off than before. His skin was a ghostly, unreal white. Tiny indentations were starting to form on his cheeks. It was almost terrifying.

He stood up on spindly toothpick legs...and hopped right on into the room, despite looking ready to collapse. Of course. He'd gone another day without sufficient nourishment again...

"Oh, wow, so this is Shuichi's room!" The malnourished boy rocked back and forth on his heels, and it was a small miracle he didn't topple right over. "How utterly plain and dull. You should at least bring your pretty little poison bottles in here."

"I like it this way." Shuichi let the cool, smooth door handle slip from his hand, leaving the door to click shut. Almost...

Kokichi took just one more step towards the center of the room, and...

Shnnnk! Clackclackclackclack!!

He whirled around at the sound, his eyes widening into dark pools...and then, they compressed into near slits.

Yes. Thank God. It worked. Okay. Good.

Shuichi had set a trap on the door... As soon as someone stepped past a certain point, the small security sensor attached to the wall would pick them up...and send a signal to the automatic winches across the door, shooting two thick chains in an X pattern and tightening them in place. Now, the only way to release them would be with the remote that Shuichi had hidden away in one of his drawers...but Kokichi didn't know that. They had been monstrously heavy, and Shuichi had nearly killed himself lugging them all the way here and lifting them into position...but, now, all of his efforts had paid off. And that angry, menacing look on Kokichi's face was both worrisome and immensely satisfying.

".................Well." It was taking him a moment to form the words he wanted. "What's the meaning of this, Shuichi? Did you really mean to...trick me? How bold...and how foolish of you."

And now, he had to deal with the consequences. He was now trapped in a room with Kokichi Ouma.

Shuichi shrugged, trying to appear unconcerned. "It was the only way I could make you stay."

"I have to admit, I thought you might have prepared some sort of trap. But it seems I underestimated you. I didn't think you had it in you."

"You thought it might be a trap, and yet you still came?"

"Naturally. Call it...personal curiosity." Kokichi lifted a finger to his mouth. "Now I know just what you are capable of."

Shuichi clenched his teeth behind his lips. He'd hoped to bait him out...he needed to be sure Kokichi hadn't brought any sort of weapons concealed in his loose clothing.

"But...if this turns out to be just a big waste of my time, then..." Kokichi's face squeezed into a truly twisted, malicious expression, his eyes almost crossing as they narrowed, his smile becoming a thin, wide, creepy crescent. "...I'll destroy you, Saihara. Maybe not tonight, but I swear, I will kill you."

That look...that face...Shuichi had to admit, it sort of frightened him. But at least now...he knew the answer. "Not tonight"...it meant that tonight, he couldn't. He hadn't brought any weapons with him. That was surprisingly short-sighted of him, Shuichi thought. And short-sighted of me, too. I should have been prepared for him to come prepared. But, thankfully, they'd both failed in that respect.

Shuichi refused to let the uneasiness show on his face, keeping his fists clenched at his sides. And it seemed Kokichi was already bored with his lack of reaction.

"Sooooo..." He turned away, striding confidently into the center of the room. "What are you going to do with me now that you've got me prisoner? Was all that about a secret plan just a lie...?" He shot another baleful look over his shoulder...though it wasn't quite as powerful as the first. It was more like...he was evaluating him...sizing him up for...something.

"Not necessarily." Shuichi had already thought of how he would spin this. "I do indeed have a secret plan...though it might not be whatever you're imagining."

Kokichi sighed, flicking one of his longer strands of hair. "This had better not be something stupid, Shuichi, or..."

"Take a seat." Before he could finish, Shuichi pulled out the desk chair, gesturing towards it. "Don't worry, it's not booby trapped or anything. And we'll talk this out."

Kokichi kept a frown and a suspicious glare fixed on him...but he actually did sit down without a fuss.

And then...Shuichi sprang into action. Quick as he could without spilling anything over, he grabbed the ramen bowl from his shelf...then the napkins, the chopsticks, the glass of chilled soda... Expertly, he placed everything on the desk before the disgruntled Kokichi and plopped into a sitting position on the edge of his bed. A tiny smile grazed his lips, while Kokichi just looked incredibly frustrated.

"...So my suspicions were correct. You are just being a horribly boring waste of my time."

"No. Not at all." Shuichi crossed his legs, fixing him with a determined look. "I just want you to eat. That's all you have to do. And then you can leave."

"Welp, good-bye, then." Kokichi leapt back to his feet, his legs trembling just a bit as they struggled to hold him up. He banged opened the desk's drawers, quickly sifting through them. "You gotta have some kind of device that undoes that chain in here...otherwise you wouldn't be able to get out, either. So I'm not letting you waste any more of my time with this shit."

"Kokichi." Shuichi's firm voice stopped him before he could walk across the room to start checking more drawers. "Why do you keep saying it's a waste of time? I don't know what's so important that you need to get done, but...isn't it more of a waste of time if you pass out or make yourself sick from undernourishment? You won't be able to do anything that way. Taking care of your own body isn't a waste of time--it ensures you have enough time to do everything you need."

"Tch."

Shuichi knew...saying that he cared about him, that he was worried about him, wouldn't work. The only thing that worked on Kokichi was pure logic. "You'll have more energy. You'll be able to do things faster. It only makes sense..."

A moment of awkward silence. But neither of them moved.

"...Fine. Fine. Whatever. I'll do it." Kokichi threw himself back into the chair with a huff. "Just don't expect some sort of charitable friendship reward after this."

Shuichi felt a part of his chest clench as the smaller boy carefully picked up the chopsticks, then paused for a moment, staring into the bowl. "It's chicken," he explained. "With salt. And a little bit of spice." Because he'd had a weird hunch that Kokichi didn't like pork, for some reason. Why did he even know these things? It was like he just knew from looking at him.

Kokichi gave him a quick glance and a nod, almost as if confirming his assumptions. And then...to his happiness and relief...he started to slowly nibble at the noodles all by himself. Just tiny bites, as he held the chopsticks to his mouth, taking twice the amount of time anyone else would...but still. It was all right. Kokichi was going to be okay. Kokichi was eating, albeit little by little... Some food was getting into him. The cycle of starvation was over. And Shuichi was so glad, he just wished he could hug him.

He settled himself back on the bed, trying not to stare too much and make him nervous...he had to do everything to make sure he didn't stop now. He pulled a book out from under his bed and started to half-read it, the other half listening intensely to the barely-audible slurps.

"Is this Kirumi's?" Kokichi asked, after a moment.

"Um..." Shuichi had to bury his face in his book, because he felt the heat flickering at his cheeks. "Actually, uh...I made it."

"Ah. Yup. That explains it."

Jumbled words swam before Shuichi's eyes as he willfully ignored him. No, he wasn't going to ask what that meant...since he feared the following line would be "That explains why it tastes like such shit". And whether it was a lie or not, he didn't want to hear it.

The first several bites were agonizingly slow--after all, his stomach had to slowly get used to having food inside it again. But eventually, Kokichi's natural hunger finally kicked in, and he started eating at an almost normal pace. Elegantly lifting small pieces of chicken and bean sprouts with the chopsticks and popping then into his small mouth...munching with lips pressed together. The frustrated face he'd worn earlier had melted into something not quite happy but not quite upset either. Somehow...he was being comforted. Having actual food inside him at last was soothing his body...as much as he might not realize it.

After swallowing a large bite, Kokichi broke the silence again. "So...this is it? You're not gonna try to force information out of me?"

"I truly don't care," Shuichi easily answered, still avoiding his eyes. "You don't have to tell me anything. I don't even need to know the reason you did this to yourself. My only wish, my only objective is...for you to get better, Kokichi." Shuichi wasn't even sure himself why he cared so much...but he did. Something deep in his heart was telling him...he had to get to know him better. He had to protect him, stop whatever madness was coming to him...before it was too late.

Kokichi paused, biting his lip...then gave an exaggerated sigh. "Awww. And I was hoping to get an extra special interrogation session from the Ultimate Detective himself." He snickered to himself and carefully ate another little bundle of meat. "I wanna see you just try to break me."

"I don't want to break you," Shuichi told him, though he was sure it had just been a joke. "If I want information from you...I want you to give it to me of your own volition."

"What if I've done something terrrrrribly evil, though? There's no way I'd ever tell you about that, no matter how you try to butter me up."

The thought dawned on him at that same moment. With solid determination, Shuichi set his book aside, slid himself up to the edge of the bed...and looked straight into Kokichi's face. Right now...he needed the eye contact. He needed him to feel the sincerity in his words, force him to face it. The deep purple eyes were still glimmering with mischief, but the more he fixed them in place, the more they seemed to solidify.

"I'm not just being kind to you because I want your information. I want to know more about you, sure, but it's not only because of some ulterior motive."

Kokichi scowled mid-chew.

"...I don't have any concrete way of proving it, and I know you won't believe me without solid evidence, though. I'm the same way. I wouldn't believe me either. But it's the truth, and that's all I can say."

"Shuichi, the more you talk, the less sense you make."

"Eheh...maybe."

"Though I do wonder...how you became so assertive. Four days ago, you were an anxious mess. That sure is a rapid increase in confidence...perhaps over-confidence."

Automatically, he opened his mouth to explain--how much Kaede and Kaito had helped him, how differently he saw things now, how much he'd gained just from being with them and taking in their worldviews--but Kokichi made a swift "shut it" motion with his fingers, effectively silencing him.

"And I don't want to hear some sappy 'power of friendship' speech. Oh no, friendship alone couldn't have done this. It has to be more.......I wonder, hmm..."

They lapsed into calm silence again, each lost in their own turbulent thoughts. Shuichi remained at the edge of the bed, absently thumbing through the book's pages, and Kokichi continued to slowly work on the ramen.

Though they probably didn't mean anything, Shuichi couldn't help reflecting on his words. "Friendship alone couldn't have done this"... What could he possibly be referring to? If something else had affected his personal development, he'd definitely know about it. Well, whatever. He'd probably just meant to confuse him. Though it was true...just four days ago, he'd been an entirely different person. Someone who definitely wouldn't have had the courage and self-confidence for any of this. But...he liked who he'd become, who he was still becoming, even though it didn't feel like only four days ago.

Then, at last, Kokichi set the ramen bowl back down on the desk with a gentle clink...and it was empty, save for a tiny pool of broth at the bottom. "There you go--all done!" He took one last sip from the near-empty soda glass and placed his chopsticks down with a flourish. "I can go now, ri--riiiiiiiight?" His sentence trailed off when he noticed Shuichi's movements...and just what he was headed towards.

Shuichi had noticed, of course... As soon as the bowl seemed almost empty, he'd pushed himself into action once more. Quick as a wink, he was at his side again...and in his hand was a small bowl topped off with fruit--sliced apples and strawberries and green grapes and pineapple wedges. Without batting an eye, he placed it on the desk beside the emptied bowl and slid a tiny plastic cup of caramel fruit dip next to it. "That was your main course. This is the side dish. I didn't say you were done."

"But I'm not hungry anymore." Kokichi pouted. "That should be good enough, right? You wanted to force me to eat, and you did."

"No. You can't just eat whatever. You need a well-balanced meal. Not just meat and a bit of veggies."

"Pft...are you trying to take over Kirumi's job as my mommy, Shuichi? You jealous?" Kokichi leaned back in the chair, glancing past Shuichi's side, a little smile playing at his lips. "I see that cake over there....... I'd be much more inclined to eat some of that if you really wanted to make me eat more."

Indeed, there was something left on the shelf--a slice of pink and yellow Astro Cake he'd prepared as another part of this meal, as well as the remaining soda in its two-liter bottle.

"Uh-uh," Shuichi told him, playing along with his tone. "No dessert until you finish your dinner. And that's not up for negotiation."

"But Mooooooooommm..."

"If you want to leave the table, you should start on that fruit. It's good for you, you know."

"If I knock it all on the floor, am I gonna get a spanking, Mommy?"

".......Alright, no, I can't do this anymore. Just eat up."

"Awww, Shuichi is no fun. He always backs away just when it's getting interesting." Kokichi displayed a disappointed face, but Shuichi heard him utter a quiet "nyeeheehee" as he carefully sat forward again and began to poke at the fruit bowl.

Internally, Shuichi breathed a sigh of relief, glad he didn't really have to fight with him to get him to accept it. Maybe the joke roleplay had helped in that respect, though it still made him uncomfortable.

He moved around the bed to retrieve the soda bottle and refill Kokichi's glass, as the smaller boy pinched an apple slice in his slender fingers and brought it delicately to his mouth. A strange little shiver passed through Shuichi's shoulders and down his sides at the sound of him crunching into the juicy fruit flesh. Why did he...like that sound so much? Why was he listening so closely? Why was part of him feeling...nervously excited? Of course, his heart was celebrating the fact that Kokichi wasn't going to starve anymore, but...there was something more to it than that, and he had no idea what.

I want him to eat, but that's because I want to make sure he's healthy...right? I...I don't...just enjoy seeing him eat because...because I think it's attractive or anything. That would be ridiculous. Who thinks watching someone eat is attractive?

And yet, this time...he really, really didn't want to miss seeing this by burying himself in the book he was barely even reading. There was something...really interesting about observing Kokichi's eating, and he tried to tell himself it was purely a natural, academic curiosity. He'd never seen him eat before at the dining hall, after all...

He positioned himself at the edge of the bed again, resting the book in his lap...and stealing glances up at him every few seconds. Kokichi was eating slowly and carefully, slipping each small individual fruit piece into him, occasionally with a slight bit of dip on the end. From the tiny smile on his chewing lips, he did seem to be enjoying it to a certain degree. It must taste a little bit better than the ramen bowl, or... Or, maybe, right now, he was eating out of actual pleasure, rather than a desperate survival instinct. Perhaps a little of both. He'd noticed his gaze, of course, and every now and then, he'd glance over at him, flashing a thin little smirk that...wasn't helping the situation.

Once the bowl was about half-empty, Kokichi reached over and took a deep gulp of soda. Immediately after, he pushed back slightly, and his body convulsed as he stifled a series of quiet belches in one raised fist.

Shuichi shivered, so powerfully that he feared it was visible this time. Why...?! It was just a few tiny burps. It wasn't disgusting. In fact, it was actually kind of...cute. But burping isn't cute! It was only natural that he would burp after drinking fizzy soda. And...because he was getting full. He had to make a little more room. His tiny, deprived belly didn't have a whole lot of space in it anymore, after all...

Why?! Shuichi felt sparks jolt through his limbs at the thought, the image, the idea... Kokichi's tiny belly already full...but slowly filling and stretching itself fuller... What the heck?! Why is that...?! It's not... It's weird! Shuichi had to turn his attention back to the book before he started visibly shaking again. But unfortunately for his efforts, it was about to get even worse.

A few moments later, Kokichi's voice cut through the sounds of his own beating heart. "Hey, hey, Shuichi! Watch this..."

And as soon as Shuichi gave him his attention...a part of him felt like it was burning to ash.

Through his devious little smirk, Kokichi had a particularly large, plump chunk of strawberry in his mouth...and when he met Shuichi's eyes, he slowly bit down, letting the sticky reddish juice run down his face, squirting onto his cheeks, and oozing down his neck. With borderline erotic slurping, he gradually sucked in the soft strawberry flesh, heedless of the liquid trailing down from his mouth. And once it was finally gone, he finished by seductively licking his lips, stained pink from the juices.

Shuichi could feel his chest clenching, his fingers buzzing. Was he trying to act sexy? Was this supposed to be sexy? Did he find it sexy? Why the heck would it be sexy?! This was some sort of teasing, but what and why?! And yet, Shuichi found himself...almost aroused. That would be creepy if he was, though...but he wasn't, right? He couldn't be.

As his turbulent thoughts started to settle, Shuichi suddenly noticed what he was doing. His arm was raised, his body leaning in...reaching for Kokichi. And he just let his instinct take over.

His fingers gripped the hem of Kokichi's checkered bandanna...and flipped it up, bunching the fabric and using it to wipe at his face, feeling the bumps of his lips, cheeks, and chin underneath. His eyes were curious, studying every nuance of his movement...and perhaps hiding just a hint of surprised nervousness. When Shuichi let it flop back to his chest, it was dyed in streaks of pink over the white squares, but his face was mostly clean, save for a few tiny pink patches near the corners of his mouth.

Kokichi's widened eyes shifted down to look at it...and then, suddenly, they began to swell with watery tears.

"Uh..." Feeling awkward and a bit ashamed at what he'd just done, Shuichi retracted, though he still held one hand up in concern. Then...

"Aaaaaaaaahwaaaa!" The tears burst from Kokichi's eyes, flowing straight into his bandanna and making it even more wet. "How could you?! Why would you do that, Shuichi?! This was my favorite, favorite bandanna, and now it's completely ruined!! I don't even think Kirumi could get this out! It'll never come out! Aaaaaaaah!!"

"Um..." With this display, Shuichi was positive he was faking it, but it was still a little disconcerting, especially since he already felt a bit guilty. Fortunately, his logical brain clicked back on at that moment. "Isn't that bandanna part of your outfit? The Monokubs gave us all several exact copies of our outfits in our wardrobes. Including any accessories, too."

Kokichi pouted, though his crocodile tears ceased. "Yeah, I may have about twenty-five other bandannas that look exactly the same...but this one was the best one! It was special! Maybe."

Shuichi shook his head and chuckled a tiny bit. Was he already getting used to this? It wasn't as annoying as he usually found it.

"Nyeehee! You should've seen the look on your face, though!" Kokichi grinned up at him and kicked his legs with merriment. "Oh boy, you looked like you wanted to take me right then and there! It was totally obvious how much you wanted to suck my tender lips and eat out the inside of my mouth! I've never seen such a lustful expression on you, Shuichi. How surprising! I'm a little bit scared."

"Uh..." Panic immediately began to course through Shuichi's chest. He hadn't really looked like that, had he?! These strange feelings weren't...causing anything like that, were they?! It couldn't be!

"...Juuust kidding. Though I wouldn't blame you if you had." Kokichi softly snickered. "I can understand how irresistible I am. A lot of people have met their end that way, you know."

"Uh...sure." Shuichi was struggling to get a hold of his mental faculties. Mostly, he just wanted to melt into the carpet. But somewhere, in the midst of the mushy soup of his brain, an observation reached him. He's...playing around with me more. I can't stand it, but...but I think that's a good thing. It means he's feeling better now.

"Nyeehee, you're pretty amusing, Shuichi. Almost makes me want to abandon this fruit bowl just so I don't have to leave you. But, that's a lie." Kokichi popped two grapes into his mouth and gave him another little smirk through puffed cheeks.

Is this some bizarre form of flirting? What the heck is this, even? Shuichi had to calm himself down. Pressing one hand near his heart, he forced a few deep breaths. It worked to a certain degree, and he felt the thumping in his chest gently slow, though there was a certain jumpiness left in his limbs. "Whatever. Just finish up, or we'll be here all night."

Kokichi quickly chewed and swallowed. "Aww, giving up already? But I wanted to have more fun...hmmp! W-What would you do if I dribbled it all over the rest of my clothes, hmm?"

"Let you sit there in your own sticky mess and think about what you've done." He'd noticed that...little hiccup that had interrupted Kokichi's words, of course, and he was trying his best to ignore it...or else he'd probably start melting again.

"Sticky mess, huh? Wow, how vulgar. You're getting just as bad as Miu, Shuichi. And it's all cause you just can't keep it in your pants when it comes to me..."

"....I'm not even. Just...nevermind."

"Eehee." Somehow, Kokichi finally returned to eating, and Shuichi plopped back onto his bed, with a deep exhale.

There was a lot to think about...though he didn't particularly want to think about it all. This was just impossible. What had just transpired was so incomprehensible to him, he couldn't even bear to try to figure it out. Especially not while he was still in the room.

Time passed. Shuichi flipped pages, Kokichi gradually munched. At last, Shuichi felt that his system was settled, finally recovered from whatever weird shock he'd suffered. Everything was...normal. Time passed. But then...

"Alright!" Shuichi's head snapped up at the sound...and suddenly, all the excitement, all the tremulous uncertainty came rushing back into him like a busted dam.

The fruit bowl was empty. The soda glass was empty. Just a tiny bit of dip clung to the inside of the cup. And Kokichi pulled his chair back, leaning back and stretching his legs...and gave his stomach a light slap. "Phew! Man, I'm stuffed! It wasn't half bad, though, Shuichi. Or is that a lie?"

Shuichi lifted himself back to his feet. He'd done it. He'd really done it. It was amazing, incredible, joyous... He just...needed to... He just...wanted to... But he couldn't... It wasn't...but...

Kokichi hadn't freaked out when he'd touched him before, though, so...so he could do this. Shuichi convinced himself it was okay--he had to check...though he was still quivering with an emtion and a feeling he couldn't name. It frightened him, it really did...but it also had him completely ensnared in curiosity. He moved in closer, and Kokichi's eyes followed him. More than anything...he wanted to see where this led.

Subtly trembling, he reached out his hand...and tenderly patted it over Kokichi's stomach. He could sense the smaller boy immediately tense up...but he didn't squirm or slap the hand away. In fact, he lifted his arms to his chin, allowing him access.

Shuichi's hand connected again, and he carefully moved it around the area. Almost like an affectionate rub--but not really. His insides twisted. Heat rose through his abdomen and straight into his face. He was suddenly lightheaded and he could feel the quaking of his legs. He hadn't a clue what was going on with his body, but there was only one thought, one sensation overwhelming everything else.

Kokichi's little belly was no longer concave, or even flat. Though it was completely masked by his baggy shirt, there was...a tiny bump there. A very small, slightly bulging mound, filled with nourishment. So full, it had swelled out just a bit...a firm, gentle curve popping outwards a few millimeters. That ramen and fruit...together, it hadn't made for all that big of a meal...but Kokichi's belly was so small, probably shrunken after being deprived for so long, that just this much was enough to fill it to the brim.

It felt...a little warm, too, as Shuichi gently, softly rubbed around it in a circle, ignoring the bumps of his shirt's buttons. So warm...so full... His own heart was glowing within his chest, and he couldn't stop the smile from showing. "...Y-Yeah. You're all full now. I'm...so glad. Good job, Kokichi."

Kokichi was staring at him...and he was just barely able to register the look of awe on his face. His skin, his cheeks...were ever so slightly less pale. Very, very light peach... Almost...a flush. His fingers picked at his damp, stained bandanna. This was...incredible. Shuichi softly caressed his tummy once more, and then...

"Ohhhhhhhhh........I know what you are."

"What?"

Kokichi's face darkened. Eyes suspiciously narrowed. That almost-blush was still there, but it was overlaid by his dangerous smile. "I finally get it." His voice was soft, slithering. "I get what this is all about now."

"Uh..." What was he talking about? He was just messing around again, right? Desperately, Shuichi's eyes began to focus, though his mind was swimming, his body practically Jello. His hand was still resting at the top of Kokichi's belly, and he was suddenly finding it hard to pull away, as if it had been magnetically sucked onto it.

"I'm...I'm a detective. That's what I am. And...and I wanted to make sure you didn't starve..."

"Liar."

That twisted, evil smirk on his face almost made Shuichi shudder. He made to tear himself away, but Kokichi grabbed his wrist, keeping his hand solidly in place on top of his belly.

"I know what you are. You're one of those people. One of those kinky belly fuckers. Aren't you?"

"W-What?!" Shuichi couldn't help it anymore--he felt the blood rush to his face, a hot, deep red. "I would never--! You're messing with me! I don't have...kinks. That's...n-no!"

"You suuuuuure?" Forcefully now, Kokichi moved Shuichi's hand, rubbing it over his stomach and forcing him to feel the tiny bump of it again. "You're being awfully jumpy."

"What even... What kind of kink even is that, anyway?!" Shuichi felt as if part of his heart would explode. Belly kink? That's a thing? That's not... That can't be real! This isn't real! It's not... I don't have a belly kink! It would explain...my feelings... No!!!! No, it's not true!

"Nyeehee...it's useless to keep denying it, Shuichi. It all makes sense. You couldn't keep your eyes off me when I was eating. Don't think I didn't notice you over there, shaking in your boots. And every time I burped, you were practically spluging in your pants."

Kokichi's voice was almost hissing as he pulled down on his arm, bringing him closer. "You act like you're so clean and upstanding and spotless all the time, but I know. You're just a nasty, nasty boy underneath it all, aren't you?"

"K-Kokichi, stop!" Shuichi struggled, but he was holding him tightly in place. It's not true! He's just being gross! I can't...I can't live with myself if it were true. It's not true!!!

"I bet you wanted to force-feed me yourself, you piece of filth. Prod and poke at my tummy as you stuffed more food in my mouth. People like you make me sick, you know. You're not even satisfied with just regular 'ol nasty porn, no...you have to do twisted shit like this to get your jollies."

To his horror, Shuichi began to feel scratchy, angry tears forming at the edges of his eyelids. His words were stabbing into him in ways he couldn't describe. He wasn't...and yet...!!

"I bet you never even really cared about my health. You only wanted to get me here and feed me so you could get off to my cute little tummy getting all bloated like this, huh? All that stuff about caring for me was all a lie..."

"That's wrong!!!"

With a force finally overpowering his grip, Shuichi tore his hand away, wrenching his arms to the side. Two teardrops rolled down his hot face, and he panted, recovering after his scream, pressing both hands to his chest.

At last, Kokichi fell silent.

"...That's wrong." He gasped for air once more, and made his declaration, all of his chaotic thoughts falling to this one truth. "It doesn't matter. Even...even if I have some weird kink...I never knew about before... Nothing changes the fact that I only wanted you to get better. If...if I ended up hurting you, I'm sorry. I'm truly sorry. Because my only desire is...to see you healthy again."

Silence. Shuichi violently wiped his face, stuffing down any other tears that poked at the back of his eyeballs. And the silence was roaring in his ears, threatening to crush him. When had all of this gone wrong? Had it been his fault? Did he...destroy everything?

"You know..." Kokichi's voice slithered out again, almost a whisper, though his face had softened just a tad. "...I bet the viewers are eating this up. You're never going to live this down, Shuichi. You're going to be the weirdo with the stomach fetish...no one in the outside world is ever going to take you seriously anymore. You'll be shunned and ostracized and no one will ever come to you with their cases anymore. You've just become a failure as a detective, and as a person."

"...Shut up, Kokichi. Just shut the hell up."

"...But if you were willing to go that far...if you truly were willing to throw all of that away, just because you wanted to make sure I would be okay... You're the biggest idiot of them all."

He wanted to choke him. He wanted to punch him. He wanted to scream. This was all a big mistake. He should have known. Any attempt to reach Kokichi Ouma would just end in disaster. Maybe it really was hopeless...and it was partly his own damn fault. If he really had this...thing...if he was really that abnormal, detestable...

"But...you're definitely, absolutely, completely not boring. In fact...you're the complete opposite of boring."

Huh...?

Being called "not boring" certainly didn't seem good... After all, if he was "not boring" to the viewers, they would just hound him and humiliate him all the more. Except...part of him knew something about that phrase... Kokichi...used it as a sort of compliment. He wasn't sure how he knew, but...in his own backwards, lying language, he meant...that he liked him. He liked him a lot.

He didn't want to, but when he did look back at the small supreme leader in his chair...he was smiling. Gently and almost reassuringly...a small smile, accompanied by those almost-pink cheeks. How he wanted to believe it.

Kokichi sat up straight again, tucking his feet under the chair and gripping the seat. "Hey...Shuichi..." He slightly beckoned him to come closer.

The idea of actually doing it now was ludicrous--he was just going to say something hurtful and vaguely threatening again. But Shuichi found himself obeying, just because...there was nothing left to lose.

Closer...closer...Kokichi beckoned him in closer, until his cheek was brushing against the purple-dipped tips of his hair. Then, he craned his neck upward...and whispered into his ear. "I lied."

Well, of course...

"I don't mind if you have a belly kink. It's really not that bad. You should see some of the shit that Miu's into. Now that stuff's nasty."

Wha...? Against his will, Shuichi felt his heart speeding up a little again. He stepped back, and fixed those wide purple eyes with a serious, searching gaze. "Really? You're not lying about lying? You promise?"

"Ahaha. I do lie all the time--and I lie about lying, and then I lie about lying that I was lying. But not this time."

"Jeez..." Shuichi shook his head. And he didn't know if he should let it, but relief came flooding into his chest. Of course. Of course, of course.

He had to be better than this. He'd told himself he wouldn't give up, no matter what, and already, he'd been on the verge of throwing in the towel. Whether he really did have a belly kink or not wasn't the issue. It was...not allowing Kokichi to drive him away. Getting to his heart, as much as he might try to deflect him. He'd deal with his own...issues...later. He had to stop getting so flustered and letting him affect his emotions so much. Kokichi was going to play with his feelings, that much was a given...so, he couldn't give in.

With a resigned sigh, Shuichi stepped into the middle of the room. "Alright... So, since you're done now, I can--"

"Heeeeeeey." Kokichi tilted his head as he turned to look at him. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

"What now?" Shuichi tried not to sound annoyed, but...he really wanted this subject to drop.

"That." Kokichi nodded his head towards the shelf...where the slice of Astro Cake was still sitting on its small plate, in all its soft, sweet, frosted glory. "You said I could have dessert if I finished, riiiight?"

Shrugging his shoulders, Shuichi puffed out another sigh. "Whatever you think of me now, it's fine. I'm not going to make you eat that too. It's fine now--that's good enough."

"But I want it." Kokichi huffed. "You're going to deny me my sweet reward after all that? How cruel."

"Uh..." Shuichi was honestly surprised. Didn't he want to get out of here as soon as possible? Unless... "I told you, I don't want to hurt you..."

"It's not a lie! I really do want it!" Kokichi was grinning, as if everything was completely fine. "I'm kinda stuffed, sure, but that's not gonna stop me."

"I'm really not going to be happy if you puke on my rug."

"A Supreme Leader doesn't puke. It just doesn't happen. C'mon, Shuichi. Pleeeeeeease?"

He is truly incomprehensible. "Alright, alright...I'll go get it."

"Yaaaaay, cake time!"

Shuichi couldn't help shaking his head, even as he made his way to the shelf and retrieved the cake, as well as a clean fork and napkin. None of this made any sense, but then again...he was just going to have to get used to it. Throwing out his common sense and going with the flow...it made him anxious, of course, it made him terribly nervous...but he was going to do it. For both of their sakes.

"There's one itsy bitsy catch, though..." Kokichi spoke with a teasing lilt, as Shuichi finally arrived at his side with the Astro Cake. He tucked his arms behind his head and leaned back against the back of the chair again. "I'm getting bored of having to sit there and eat, so... You gotta feed it to me."

"What?!" It was just surprise after surprise after surprise. Shuichi definitely hadn't expected this, and was once again caught off guard. Why would...? He wanted this? Actually...he probably just wanted to tease him some more. Laugh and ask if he was deriving some sort of depraved sexual stimulation from stuffing forkfuls of cake into his mouth. Was that was this was all about? It was fairly probable.

Kokichi seemed to notice his hesitation, and waved a hand at him. "Hey, don't worry. I won't tease you...too much. I've had enough of that. So, c'mon. Serve me, peasant." Before even waiting for an answer, he closed his eyes, leaning forward a little bit, and opened his mouth wide. "Ahhhhhhhhh..."

Meanwhile, Shuichi thought of twenty different things he could do rather than comply. Yet, with a shaky hand, he took up the fork, cut off a bite of the fluffy vanilla and strawberry-filled cake...and complied.

The squishy pastry pushed into Kokichi's open mouth, and he closed it once he felt it, letting Shuichi slide the fork out, with a tiny smile. "Mmmm," he mumbled through his full mouth. "That's it." Then, he swallowed, and opened his mouth again for more.

This was incredibly bizarre...Shuichi couldn't get over how strange everything had turned out. No matter what kinds of scenarios he'd planned for, no matter what he'd tried to predict, he'd never have been able to see this coming. Well, he was a detective, after all, not a soothsayer. All he could do was examine things after they had already happened. And goodness knows, he'd be thinking about this crazy night for days to come.

Despite how he tried to distract himself, as the feeding went on, Shuichi began to tremble and his face began to flush once more. After three bites, Kokichi's chewing began to slow. It was taking more and more time for him to open his mouth again. But he always did.

It must be...uncomfortable and hard to keep eating now. A part of him felt guilty knowing he might be in pain. But another part of him, a part of him he silently resented, thought it was terribly, terribly enthralling.

Kokichi's face as he chewed... His eyes were still closed, savoring the sweet flavor of one of his favored treats. Even if it was a false personality, there were times he had a childish cuteness to him, even he had to admit...and this was one of those times. His expression suggested that he truly was having a wonderful time, and he very much hoped that was true.

Again...and again... Poking soft, yummy pastry bites into his small mouth... His pallid face lighting up with calm, soothing enjoyment. He couldn't spout lies and nasty words when his mouth was full of sweet things. Shuichi liked him this way. Contented. Calm. Nourished. Safe.

The very last two bites were a bit of a struggle for Kokichi, and he broke his calm expression for a second to make himself swallow. When he opened his mouth again, and Shuichi announced that there was no more, he breathed a shallow sigh of relief.

With a quiet moan, he settled himself deeply into the chair and rested a hand on the top of his belly, attempting to soothe it a little. "Hoo boy, it's a good thing that was the--ic!--the last of it. Cause I'm about capped off right now."

Shuichi squeezed at his upper arm, trying to prevent his body from going up in flames, but it was a wasted effort. From where Kokichi was pressing in, he could see the shape...and he might just be going crazy, but it looked like the little bulge of his tummy had become just a bit more bulgy. Why was it so damn appealing?! Why did he want to touch it so badly?! Was this really a fetish thing?! And was that okay?!

Kokichi cracked one eye open and smirked at the sight of his heavily blushing face. "I know you probably wanna rub it now, Shuichi, but no more for you tonight, 'kay? No touchie."

"I didn't-- Well, whatever. And, uh, I won't touch you like that again. Not unless you say it's okay. I promise."

"Aww, so considerate... Now that you're learning to deal with your feelings properly..."

"That's not--nevermind."

Gingerly and delicately, Kokichi stretched out his limbs like a cat...and then crumpled back into a lump in the chair. "Now here's the problem...I don't feel like moving anymore. So, Shuichi, you gotta carry me back to my room. You did this to me, so you gotta take responsibility."

With one nervous finger, Shuichi scratched at the back of his neck. "Well...I know I've started working out with Kaito and everything but...I dunno if I could really carry you all the way up the stairs..."

"Nyeehee, you're so useless and unreliable...oof..."

When he tried to get up on his own, Kokichi just clutched his stomach and fell back down. For a split second, he actually looked a bit worried, before resuming his usual smirk. "Oh well! Guess it can't be helped! I'm sleeping in your room tonight, Shuichi!"

"Okay..." Honestly, he'd thought about that possibility. Extremely unlikely, yes, but...he had considered it. It would be awkward and kind of weird, but...he'd decided he could do it. He didn't mind. No one else besides the viewers at home would know that they'd spent the night together. And if he really needed to rest after all this, he definitely should, no matter where.

"Really? Yay, yay, it's sleepover time with my dear Shuichi! I'm so excited! Are we gonna do our hair? Talk about the boys we like? Prank call some of our friends? Hm, hmm?" Kokichi squirmed in his seat, though he kept a hand on his stomach to prevent it from jostling too much.

Shuichi only rolled his eyes in response, while he moved to clean up the remains on the desk. Scattered napkins, empty bowls, used chopsticks, a mostly-empty glass of grape soda...he stashed the dirty dishes back on the shelves, and flung the trash into his wastebacket. But he didn't say a word. Somehow, he could just feel the burning little pinpricks of Kokichi's eyes on his back.

"You suuuuure you want to let me stay? Who knows what I could do to you in your sleep, you know? I could destroy that pretty face of yours with permanent markers. Or...I could even kill you."

"........" Though his teeth clenched, Shuichi had an inkling of what was going on here. He was trying to make him kick him out. By now, he was able to understand that much. But why?

"Kokichi, if you want to stay, I don't mind. I really don't mind at all. It doesn't bother me."

"...Oh? Cause you're used to having other boys sleep in your room with you? That right?"

A sudden, powerful urge seized Shuichi's chest. A thought, a revelation. It was out of the blue, unfounded on any solid logic...the kind of thing he would usually ignore, but... It was so intense, and he was suddenly so sure, that...he had to confirm it.

Quickly wiping his hands on another napkin, Shuichi returned to Kokichi's side, hovering close at his left shoulder. He'd said he wouldn't touch him anymore, but...there was no way he'd let him, unless he did it this way...

Wide purple eyes swiveled over to look at him...and he extended his hand, pressing a thumb to his cheek. Up...to just underneath his eye. Cupping the rest of his fingers under his chin, to keep his head steady.

Kokichi noticed. He realized, and he suddenly tried to wrench his face away, but it was already too late. Pressing in, Shuichi swiped his thumb firmly across the skin below his eyelid, to the curved bridge of his nose. And when he pulled it back...it was absolutely covered in white powder.

Kokichi's head snapped back around, glaring daggers...and under his left eye was a deep, bruised, blue-and-black circle of obvious sleep deprivation. He'd been hiding it. He'd been hiding them all this time, under a layer of makeup. And a soft ache tinged the edges of Shuichi's heart. He'd been right...and oh, how he wished he hadn't.

"Kokichi...........please tell me you've slept at least once since we arrived here."

He was terribly quiet. His vicious look settled into something more empty, his pupils sliding to the side, as if thinking...thinking of what to say. No matter--he wouldn't be able to lie about this. The evidence was already laid bare on his cheek, and he couldn't paint over it anymore. The worst kind of situation for him--when he had no freedom to invent his own truths.

Finally, the words returned. "........Define 'sleep'."

"Kokichi..." It was hard for Shuichi not to let the concern show on his face. It wasn't going to help...looking at him with pity would just exact more antagonistic responses from him. Instead, he just felt the pain swirling within his chest.

He hasn't been sleeping, he hasn't been eating... Just what has he been doing? He kept saying that eating was a waste of time. Just what is he so obsessed with doing...to the point that he would neglect his own health? To the point that he would care so little about himself, to let his body deteriorate this much...

"That's it. I've decided now. You're staying the night."

Kokichi squirmed a bit again. "So you can force me to sleep, too?"

"You got it."

"How dull and predictable of you. Buuuuuut, I suppose, if you insist..." His cheeks puffed, taking on a teasing expression again. "You had better not murder me in my sleep. Cause I'll just return as a ghost and haunt you for the remainder of your miserable life."

"Haha, got it."

"Also, when you murder me, that means you inherit control of my worldwide criminal empire. You become the new Ultimate Supreme Leader. You'll have to take control of the organization, or the entire world will devolve into madness. And I know you don't want that."

"No, definitely not."

Shuichi was learning, even in this short amount of time they'd spent together. Learning how to talk to him, how to approach him, how to piece him together, even if only a fraction of the way. As long as he remained adamant...it wasn't impossible. He wanted to prove it to Kaede, to everyone...

With a whispered grunt, Kokichi was rocking back and forth, trying to pick himself up...so Shuichi bent his knees...and offered him a hand. He didn't expect him to actually take it. And he didn't expect his entire world to shudder and flip and pulse before his very eyes.

As soon as Kokichi's bony left hand slipped into his palm, something rushed into Shuichi's senses, weaving through his brain, and freezing his breath. A terrible, awestruck, phantasmagoric feeling, like deja vu, only worse. Like reality was warping, blending into something he couldn't exactly place.

For a moment, he felt himself pressing a white cloth bandage to Kokichi's fingers. He heard Kokichi's bubbling, unrestrained laughter. He saw the bandage, wrapped tightly around two of those fingers, a tiny pinkish smear of blood beginning to seep through between them. Vaguely, he heard words... "I stole your heart..." "You'll never, ever, forget me..." "I never wanted your life..."

His mouth dropped open as he desperately tried to process what he was seeing. Concentrating with all his faculties, he managed bleed the world back into focus. The warm little hand had nothing wrapped around any part of it.......

Just behind it, Kokichi had gotten to his feet. His eyes were wide, transfixed, and incredulous...his cheeks blanching, his entire body paralyzed.

"Did..." Shuichi could barely find his vocal chords. The sound of his own voice sounded foreign to him. "Did you...hurt your hand...?

Those eyes were so icy, so bottomless, so mysterious, in the stark silence that followed. Something had changed within him as well... Something...something was here, just beyond the grasp of human comprehension. But it was slipping away again, returning to this reality, this piece of time and space.

".............Heh." The laugh roughly punched out of Kokichi's lungs. "Heh...eheheh...heheheheheheheheh..." His mouth stretched into a toothy grin. "Shuichi...have you gone mad? My hand's fine. Can't you see straight? Is there something wrong with your brain? Or...maybe it's just that you want to hurt me? That's probably it, huh? I knew you couldn't be trusted."

"Ah...a-um...ugh..." Sweat was beading at Shuichi's hairline, one drop beginning to run down the side of his temple. His trembling hand let Kokichi's drop back to his side. What...what was that? What is going on? I...I'm sure...his hand was injured...at some point. I remember...bandaging it. But...I never did that. There's nothing there. There should be, and yet it's not there...

Physically, he shook his head, he slapped his cheek, he chewed his tongue, anything to ground him back to the moment. "Y-yeah, I... Something really weird just happened to me, I don't know...what I'm talking about. I'm sorry. Maybe I am going crazy."

A tiny fingertip poked him in the forehead. "Silly Shuichi and his poor little crazy brain."

Focusing his vision, Shuichi watched as Kokichi stretched and took a slow step. He...seemed completely fine now. The same as always. But something had changed, and though he couldn't figure it out now, he definitely, definitely wanted to.

"Alright, I'm gonna go freshen up," Kokichi announced. "Try not to kill yourself in the meantime." And with that, he made his way to the bathroom, a slight limp in his gait as he tried not to disturb his swollen and overfull little belly.

Shuichi sank onto his bed as soon as the bathroom door clicked closed. Mired in his own confusion, he held his head in his hands and forced gentle, deep, strengthening breaths. So much was going on inside him, he might need several days to sort it all out. But, of course, he couldn't afford to waste that time alone in his room. He would have to face everyone else tomorrow, act like everything was the same as always, even though it felt like his entire world had shifted into another dimension. A strange dimension where he had an affinity for feeding people and bandages could appear and disappear, memories rearranging to suit their own ends.

No matter what, he was positive he'd bandaged Kokichi's hand at some point, and it was only through touching that same hand had he been able to recall it. And no matter how chaotic and confounding all of this was, one truth had emerged. If he wanted to get to the bottom of this, if he wanted to see beyond this surface level...he would have to delve further into Kokichi's enigma. The more time they spent together...the more would be revealed. Most of all, Shuichi wanted to know more...he had to know more. And knowing him would be the key to it all.

When Kokichi returned, he'd ditched his messy bandanna, revealing the jagged top edge of his shirt and his jutting collarbone. Hopefully, tonight's meal would help him heal now, because he really was far too thin.

After some arguing and teasing and banter, he finally agreed to lie down in Shuichi's bed, while Shuichi moved the soft armchair over, curling himself up on its cushion. With a reluctant sigh, Kokichi wiggled himself under the covers, lying flat on his back and staring at the ceiling.

Shuichi turned off the overhead lights and flipped open a pocket-sized reading light, using it to read a little bit more, as he curled in the chair, cradling the book in his lap. There was no way he could actually sleep right now--he had to calm himself down first. Predictable mystery novels were usually good for that.

Two chapters passed, and his heart had slowed to an acceptable sleepy level. Then...on his way back from his final bathroom trip, Shuichi decided to...check.

Kokichi's eyes were closed, his breathing gentle and even, his head limply turned to the side in the soft embrace of the pillow. The wavy strands of his hair fluffed around it in a messy bunch. Just to be completely sure, Shuichi took a pen from his desk, and very carefully, softly poked his cheek with it. His breath hitched a slight bit, but otherwise, he didn't move. Kokichi really had fallen asleep.

Despite everything, Shuichi found himself smiling, a tiny spot of affection blooming in his heart. Thank goodness. This boy...this frustrating, mysterious, obnoxious, evasive, frightening, confusing, and intriguing boy...was going to be okay now. Tucked into a warm, soft bed, soothing rest finally reaching him...a parcel of warm nourishment tucked away inside of him, slowly nurturing and healing him with energy and life. It was so wonderful, Shuichi was loathe to turn away, leave that heart-warming sight to the darkness of time. I'm just so glad...I was able to give him this comfort and care... Even if he doesn't appreciate it, if he'd rather me not...I'm glad. Because his life is more important than he thinks.

"Mnmm..."

As Shuichi stood, gazing down at the troublesome boy's sleeping form, it suddenly began to stir.

"Hnnn..." Kokichi's forehead pinched. His eyelids shuddered. His breath came faster, shorter. Pain. Clear, obvious pain had seized him in his sleep, and Shuichi nearly gasped.

"Nnn...mmmm!" His body suddenly thrashed, tossing to the side, his arms clenching in closer to his body, one leg giving a weak kick. Another whispered moan sounded, half-muffled by the pillow.

Kokichi! What happened? Shuichi watched in horror as the smaller boy continued mumbling in pain, uncomfortably shuffling under the covers. He'd been sleeping so peacefully just a moment ago... How come...? It wasn't a stomachache, was it? It hadn't bothered him before, though...

With another weak toss of his head, Kokichi groaned something...that almost sounded like "no".

Is he...is he having a nightmare? The idea was slightly absurd, but...that's certainly what it looked like. A terrible nightmare. Is this...why he hardly sleeps? Because he keeps having nightmares like this? I can't believe it, but...it must. It must be.

He had to do something. He had to stop this somehow, anyhow, or else Kokichi would wake up again, to another night of restless agony. But he couldn't go inside his mind, he couldn't tell him everything was okay now, he couldn't whisper gentle reassurances and rub at his back...

Kokichi flipped over once more, facing towards him...and in a panic, Shuichi did the first thing he thought to do. He reached out...and gently grasped his left hand, cupping it softly in his own.

"Mmh..." Kokichi's head ducked further into the covers...but the rest of his body didn't move. To Shuichi's amazement and relief, his convulsions stopped...and gradually, his moaning was quieting down, his breathing gently relaxing. The pained clenching of his face was softly soothing away again...and Shuichi tenderly ran his thumb over the fingers resting in his palm, as if reassuring him, firmly letting him know that he was still there, his warmth and his care was here for him.

At last, Kokichi's breath returned to its slow, peaceful rythmn, and a sad little smile formed on Shuichi's lips in the dark. That's it. It's okay.

After a moment, just standing there at the bedside, he realized... Uh...what am I going to do now?

He couldn't let go of Kokichi's hand. The thought of letting go and leaving the nightmares to crawl back into his head was unacceptable. There was no way on earth he was letting go now. But...he still needed to sleep, too.

Despite his rational thoughts, his heart had already made up his mind. It doesn't matter. This is more important than anything. I won't let go. And he carefully crawled into the bed, squeezing himself in beside Kokichi's sleeping form. Kokichi's hand gave a little squeeze in return...almost as if confirming his presence, and he held it firmly and reassuringly in return.

I'll never let go. Shuichi laid his head down, so close to Kokichi's peacefully slumbering face...and his heart gave a little throb. He lifted his hand just a little, lacing his fingers tighter with Kokichi's...pouring all of the care and affection he felt into this touch. If only he could communicate this way...if only he could hear the truest thoughts of his heart...

Kokichi... If you're suffering, please... Please don't bear it all alone. You don't have to be alone. Pain is meant to be shared. You don't have to shoulder all of this pain all by yourself. I'm here. I'm here for you. I promise, I'm here for you. And it'll be okay. It's alright now...

Holding the image of his soft, serene sleeping face in his mind's eye, Shuichi slowly slid his eyes shut. I won't ever let go. I won't ever give up on you. I promise.

And before he knew it, he was slipping into a soft sleep of his own, mind and body thoroughly exhausted. This was his fate now. His heart, his body, connected to this strange boy's. For better or worse, they were irrevocably entwined. And even if he didn't know it yet...Shuichi wouldn't have it any other way.