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When Everyone Around You Leaves

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At precisely three forty-three in the morning, the world ends. No one notices. Most of the children are fast asleep in their beds, and those that aren’t are lost in the chasms of the internet. Teenagers are almost homogeneous, but some are out at parties and playing mature games in the waning hours of the night.

 

No one sees the adults disappear, but they know they must have. There’s just no other explanation. Nothing else in the world explains why everyone over the age of eighteen is just suddenly gone.

 

Some will figure the adults dispersed into the air. Others will think a disease did it, but none are around to see it happen.

 


 

Takashi Shirogane is not the exception to the rule, no matter how much he wishes it so.

 

He wasn’t awake to see it happen, and he wasn’t even aware that it had happened until he showed for school and no one was there to teach him. He’s a fourteen year old boy, but even he knows that this is bad, despite the feeling of absolute and utter freedom.

 

He doesn’t want the liberty adults have. He knows he isn’t ready for it, and it looms like a predator would over it’s prey. 

 

Apparently, the rest of his school doesn’t agree with him. Most of the students are laughing with joy as they observe their new-found freedoms. They’re waltzing around the school, mocking impressions of their former teachers and parents.

 

Takashi just stands there, frozen.

 

He doesn’t understand how they’re taking this so lightly. It’s as if they think this is a dream come true. All Takashi can think about is what if his parents don’t ever come back?

 

He isn’t sure he’s ready for the answer.

 

Takashi is so lost in panicked thought he doesn’t notice the girl walking up to him until her face is inches away from his own. Tearful eyes are boring stubborn holes into his as she says, “we need to fix this.”

 

But what is there to fix? They don’t even know what the problem is. He tells her as much, and her frown tightens. A vague sense of familiarity drifts over him, and he wonders why she’s talking to him, out of all of them. She doesn’t know him, of that he’s sure.

 

“Help us fix this,” is all she says, her melodic voice cracking at the end. Her eyes are pleading, desperate and wild like the dying wind, and Takashi has to look away from the raw emotion in them.

 

He can’t say no to her. Ever since he was in preschool, his ability to say no has waned away like sand slipping out of an outstretched palm.

 

Instead, he says, “give me a moment,” and he walks into the nearest classroom, ready to scream and cry and laugh all at once.

 

The girl doesn’t walk in, but she hovers anxiously at the door frame. She’s pretty, all wide eyes and long dyed hair and a pouty lips, and Takashi’s ears go pink. He recognizes her, vaguely, from the bi-weekly student council meetings he attends with Matt.

 

At that, his eyes widen, and he moves for the girl.

 

“Do you know where Matt is?” He ends up half-yelling, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking.

 

The girl, for her part, is remarkably calm, a far cry of the borderline-hysteric girl who’d begged for his help. He knows, in the back of his head, that this is not the way to go, that he shouldn’t be hurting or shaking anyone and that he just needs to calm down, but he can barely hold himself together and fear is crashing on him like a tsunami hitting the sand (and, like sand, his parts are scattering before him).

 

“Calm down,” the girl says and, inexplicably, he does. Shock does strange things to a person, he’s coming to realize. He hardly recognized the girl in front of him a moment ago, but now he’s beginning to see her more clearly. He doubts she recognizes him, with how manic he’s being. She’s tougher than she looks. Takashi can tell because whatever stupor she was in she broke out of while Takashi fell into his own. Her surface personality radiates wisdom and power and he feels horribly small against her, despite being more than a foot taller than her.

 

“I know where your friend is. Matthew Holt, right?” He nods palpitantly in return and she gives him a reassuring smile before she continues, “he’s fine.”

 

Takashi is swallowed in relief. She gestures towards the Science Hall.

 

“Come with me.”

 


 

They walk in silence, the only sound the soft pitter-patter of sneakers on a polished floor. Takashi takes a moment to reflect, and a realization dawns on him like the sun dawns on a mountainside. He tries, and fails, not to shudder.

 

She sends a questioning look his way.

 

“Pig heads on sticks,” is all he says, and it’s all he needs to. The girl’s eyes widen in acknowledgement, and then they narrow in what Takashi could only refer to as stubbornness.

 

“No. That won’t happen. We’ll make sure of it. With or without your help, we will.” At that last part, it seems more like she’s trying to reassure herself more than anyone else, but either way he believes her. Whoever she is, she’s strong, and she will succeed, of that he has no doubt.

 

Her lean arms push open the metal doors in front of them, and they are both met with a dozen or so peers sitting in a semicircle, all facing the pair. Every pair of eyes bombards their own.

 

A gasp rings out.

 

“Shiro!” A very familiar voice yells, and suddenly he’s on the floor, his best friend squawking and sprawled out on top of him. While the fear swallowed him, the relief courses through him tenfold. Matt is okay, and in that moment, that’s all that matters.

 

Takashi sighs, soon growing tired of being laid on, and promptly rolls over.

 

Now being the one on the top, he straddles his friend and grins, fingers flicking together in a motion that only means “Tickle Time,” no matter the day or apocalyptic event. Matt squeals in terror like a guinea pig does in delight, and Takashi’s day suddenly gets a whole lot better as Matt’s breathless laughs radiate through the room.

 

It isn’t just Takashi that starts to relax, he notes. In truth, he isn’t that surprised; Matt has a way of calming people down that he probably inherited from his father.

 

He flinches at even the mental notion of Samuel Holt. The man was military-raised and a genius NASA scientist. Takashi, like many others, would kill for him to be here right now. Well, he wouldn’t kill, but he might do something equally as heinous, like tickle his best friend for tackling him to the floor.

 

“Get off, get off, get off−” Matt chokes out through his laughing, and Takashi looks at him, visibly unimpressed. The smaller boy groans with despair and goes limp as the tickling continues.

 

Well, it continues right up until Matt starts tearing up. Then Takashi can’t continue because he’d be the mean one, and everyone knows that Matt has to be the mean one of the two.

 

Takashi flops off of the smaller boy, who sighs in solace. Slowly, the reality of the situation filters back in, and Takashi feels a lot like Atlas, except instead of a normal world on his shoulders it’s a world of tiny, helpless children.

 

And then, a sickening thought occurs.

 

Matt seems to be thinking the same thing because at the same moment Takashi croaks out “Pidge,” he’s saying, “Katie.” Matt’s little sister was a six-year-old hurricane of a girl, with hair cut just like his and glasses equally as large and dorky. She went by two names, Katie at home and Pidge at school, and poor Matt could never keep up.

 

Katie or Pidge, they needed to get to her. She was six, she was at a school without any adults or kids over the age of ten, and she was all by herself.

 

Takashi walks over to the girl from before.

 

“We need to go to the school,” he says, and she looks at him in confusion and concern. She turns to the boy she’d been talking to before, a tall boy hair whiter than her's and thin wire-rimmed glasses. His eyebrows contort like professional gymnasts above his eyes, clearly conveying “we are already at a school” without any words.

 

Takashi sighs and tries again, blushing at the knowledge that he clearly looks (and sounds) like an idiot.

 

“The elementary school.”

 

This elicits a response from around the entire room, gasps of realization coming from every corner. One girl chokes up and starts crying, worryingly mumbling about the safety of those little kids. Honestly, Takashi can’t blame her, as she isn’t wrong to worry, and he's almost to the point of tears, too.

 

The boy with the flexible eyebrows turns to him. His hair is drawn back in a loose ponytail, and his brows are furrowed indiscernibly. He looks a lot like the girl who’d brought him here, whoever she is, and Takashi spares a moment to wonder if they're related.

 

“And how would you suggest we get there? Unless, by some miracle, you can drive.”

 


 

It was by some miracle that Takashi Shirogane knew how to drive. By law, he wasn’t supposed to know, but his father was an auto mechanic and his mother was an engineer and it would be a blight on the family name if he didn’t know.

 

That was what led him to one of the most luxuriously blase vehicle he’d ever laid his eyes on. Luxurious in the sense that it was the principal’s car, and blase because it was a white Chevrolet Express. Despite the car’s inherent misgivings, it would do. Meaning it would fit the nine of them.

 

From YouTube videos and several Walking Dead binges, Takashi knew nine was a big number, especially for a group of middle-schoolers. Tensions could arise or people could turn on one another or they could all get into a crash and die and - well, a lot of things could go wrong, especially with such a large group.

 

As if sensing this, Matt’s arm ropes around his shoulders as he pulls him in for a tight hug and he turns, whispering, “you can do this, Shiro.”

 

It's all he needs to hear.

 

The Eyebrow Boy introduces himself as Lotor, the girl as Allura, and everyone else is given a name and face of their own, too, and Lotor gives Takashi the key to the van. He unlocks the car and they all clamber in, like little rats running from a feline.

 

Takashi starts the ignition.

 

A shift in the rear-view mirror and one seat adjustment later and they're off.

 


 

Sitting in a car with eight other people is incredibly awkward, even more so if the people you’re riding with are complete strangers, save your best friend. 

 

Takashi isn’t the only one who thinks this. Clearly, he isn’t, when the boy Matt's left says “awkward” in a quiet drawl with a long suffering sigh at the end. The girl sitting behind the boy snorts in agreement. 

 

“...so, how is everyone?” Lotor asks, and Takashi almost feels pity for him over the irritation when the car falls silent. Almost, but not quite.

 

Again, Takashi is not alone in his personal musings.

 

“Seriously?” The boy in the passenger seat, who seemed pale at first but is actually quite tan, says, and Takashi downright giggles . Uncharacteristic, maybe, but it seems that the end of the world brings the strangest things out of people.

 

Lotor, not so oblivious after all, breathes a mumbled sorry and shrinks a little. The pity that Takashi felt previously spikes like a jolting heartbeat, and he sighs. He goes to speak but someone, not for the first or last time, beats him to the punch.

 

“You’re fine. I think today’s been a little stressful for all of us.” He lets out a breath, glad that someone else is trying to calm the tension, whoever they are. He doesn’t have a moment to glance back to see who it was because if he does, he’ll certainly crash.

 

Even though he doesn’t look, he knows that everyone in the seats behind him is nodding. There are some things that you don’t have to see to know they happened, like waking up and finding your parents gone.

 

“You think? I’ve got siblings at school, siblings that just fucking disappeared and my parents are gone, maybe forever!” Takashi flinches, a full-body motion that jerks the car a foot to the left when he arm pushes against the steering wheel. It was bad enough for him with his parents gone, but to wake up and find that your siblings vanished into the night? He can’t imagine it.

 

“We all have loved ones missing. But right now we can’t worry about that--” Allura, ever the diplomat from student council’s hectic debacles, starts to speak up, but Takashi can tell the boy next to him isn’t really listening. He can’t blame him.

 

Takashi can feel the tension thickening in the air. Not for the first time, he remembers that nine, in the world of the apocalypse, is far too big a number.

 

Are you for real right now ?! Because if you are, I swear to fucking god−”

 

“Lance, come on man. Let her finish.”

 

No! If I couldn’t fucking finish telling to my mom I loved her when she disappeared, then little miss princess doesn’t have any right to finish talking to me.”

 

The temperature drops, and Takashi has to stop himself from shuddering. He saw it happen? From what he’d gathered (which, honestly, wasn't much), no one saw it. No one.

 

He’s about to ask, but Allura does it for him. Everyone’s always a couple of seconds faster.

 

“What on earth do you mean ‘I saw it?’” Everyone in the car, maybe everyone in the world, holds their breath in anticipation.

 

Lance, for his part, seems oddly subdued. A half-glance and it looks like he’s crying, but Takashi can’t be sure. He doesn’t dare look away from the road for more than a moment.

 

“Exactly what I said: I saw it. I was talking to my mom about...something, and I, well, I was about to say, “I love you, mom,” but she just vanished. One blink and she was gone, clothes and everything.” Lance chokes out, quietly, as though it physically pains him to say it out loud. Takashi doesn’t blame him.

 

That’s...unsettling, at the very least. Takashi had thought that maybe there was something in Lance’s answer that would explain some things, but now he only had more questions.

 

“What do you mean? Like, completely gone?” 

 

“Where did they all go?”

 

“Did you do something to make this happen?”

 

Takashi tenses. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, can’t blame Lance for however he reacts to that. But, it seems that his worries are for naught because Lance just cries harder 

 

He tries to think of a way to ease the tension in the car, but comes up blank. So, he does what he always will do when the going gets tough: he gets going. Takashi presses the gas pedal a little harder, turns a little sharper, and thinks about everything except for why the few cars on the road are empty.

 

He succeeds, mostly, until someone starts speaking.

 

“So, like, I don’t know any of you, except for Shiro, and that’s like, totally fine, but I’d really like to figure out what in the fuck is going on. And I figure that, well, the only way we can really do that is by working together, so, if it isn’t like Armageddon taboo, I’d like to know who all of you are.”

 

Matt’s words cut away at the wall of tension like a siren luring sailors towards oncoming rocks. Except, since it’s Matt, it’s a good siren leading sailors towards treasure-filled caves and peaceful islands. Takashi smiles at the road.

 

It takes a moment, maybe more than one, until people start talking. Their voices are hesitant and quiet and maybe a little shaky, but they’re communicating and Takashi knows that’s the only way they’ll ever get anything done.

 

“I’m Hunk, Hunk Garrett. I’m Lance’s best friend,” he adds in at the end, too quick, probably to reassure Lance that despite almost everyone being gone, he isn’t alone. Takashi appreciates it, and, with a furtive glance at Lance, he can tell that Lance does, too.

 

A breath, and another kid (because that’s what they are, kids banded together like a cluster of fireflies alone in the lonely dark) speaks up.

 

“My name’s Veronica−I’m Lance’s sister−, but I have to ask; who’s Shiro?” A girl says, and Takashi feels his cheeks heat up. Ever since grade school, Matt had taken a liking to calling him “Shiro.”

 

The name itself isn’t that embarrassing, honestly. What is embarrassing is explaining that Takashi Shirogane, student council vice president, has a nickname that’s more fit for an anime protagonist than a middle-school boy.

 

(Which, in truth, was probably where the dreaded sobriquet came from; Matt loved Eastern animation with a passion that could rival even the most obsessive Otakus.)

 

Takashi sighs and steps up to the plate, saying, “that would be me, unfortunately. My name’s Takashi Shirogane.” He only grimaces a little when he talks, and he’s proud of that.

 

The girl lets out a sound of acknowledgment, and they move on.

 

Shay, Rax, Lotor, Allura, Lance, Veronica, Hunk, Matt, and Takashi. Not the oddest bunch, but far from normal. Far from ideal, too, and they all know it. Takashi can drive, Allura can negotiate, and Shay knows basic first-aid; that’s all the artillery they have at their disposal. Well, not all of it, but it certainly feels that way to Takashi.

 

In reality, he knows that the others also have their advantages. Matt’s disturbingly good with tech, Hunk might be too with how he was fiddling with the engine system of the car earlier, and while he doesn’t know what the others can do he knows he hasn’t seen all they have to offer. 

 

To him, it doesn’t feel like it matters much. So he can drive? At some point they’ll run out of gas, and he knows that gas only lasts for so long before it expires. So Allura can guide politics? What happens when kids start fighting and they don’t have any weapons? Just because Matt can manipulate tech doesn’t mean that the internet or power is going to last, and just because Shay knows first-aid doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods yet.

 

With the way the odds are, they won’t ever be. 

 

It’s with that very thought in mind that Takashi decides to take a pit-stop at a nearby gas station.

 


 

The fuck?” A boy with curled, ash-blonde hair glares at them with utter distaste down the barrel of a shotgun. The others are pressed back behind him, eyes wide as they stand behind their unofficial leader like chicks flocking to their mother, all curious glances and anxious twitches. 

 

When Takashi became the leader he doesn’t know, but he knows he doesn’t like it in the least. He’s hardly a teenager , let alone someone else’s guide, and the responsibility is one he isn’t sure if he can bear.

 

Regardless, now it not the time or place, not as he faces the front end of a gun. He knows how guns work, that bullets penetrate the skin through their blunt power and leave shattered bones in their wake. He knows this, in theory, but just as he knows that a child can and will use a weapon, seeing it actually happen is an entirely different story. The thought of seeing it, just the very idea, sends him shuddering (a lot of things seem to do that lately).

 

“G-get out. Now. Leave, right now.” The boy’s growling, crooked teeth bared like a cornered dog as he stands in the entryway of Hodgkin's Gas Station, a crude and, seemingly, empty building. Apparently, it’s not as empty as Takashi had thought. 

 

It’s clear the boy’s scared, and Takashi can’t find it in himself to blame the kid. (Never, he can never blame any of them.) He’s probably the same age as Takashi himself, but he’s smaller, thinner, gaunter, and hungrier in a way that makes him think of stray cats in the winter.

 

He wants to help the kid.

 

“Hey, it’s okay, calm down. We’re not here to hurt you,” Takashi says, but he knows the boy won’t believe him no matter how placating his gestures are. It’s there, clear as the cerulean sky after a spring rain, that this kid has already faced that which Takashi fears.

 

Because Takashi knows how fragile the line between power and leadership is, how the difference between responsibility and fun can also be the difference of life or death, he fears. 

 

Because he knows and knows and knows that pig heads on sticks are so easy to make and that children without rules with either make their own or waste away, he fears.

 

He fears, and it’s obvious that while he was fearing this scrawny boy was some facing that fear in real-time, and that somehow he won. But God, it’d only been hours since the world had ended, and this kid was way too scared for this to be shock or horror or normal, regular fear. This was ingrained , and that knowledge alone scares Takashi more than anything.

 

It’s not the only reason he fears, of course. There’s still a gun inches from his face and the world is crumbling beneath his feet. And, there’s still a world with so many missing people, and Takashi doesn’t know if he’ll ever know what to do about it.

 

But it’s still something that he thinks about, while he has a half-moment (seventy-five, seventy-six seconds pass with the boys just looking at each other, not quite ready to do anything more than see).

 

“My name’s Shiro,” he says and the boy eyes him. Be this any other situation, on any other day, and Takashi might’ve laughed at the knowing look the boy gave him. It was clear that this kid knew of at least one T.V. show with a “Shiro.”

 

“S-sure it is. Now, get-get out!” The gun, which had been lowering as the boy eyed him, jolted back up, almost smacking Takashi right in the face as it swung wildly in the boy’s shaky hands and Takashi knew. He had to make a decision, before anyone else could.

 

He could go, backing up until he got to the car with a quarter-full tank and he could run away from the boy with purple glasses and dark blue eyes that was holding a shotgun level to Takashi’s chest.

 

Or he could stay, and he could take the boy’s gun or a brick or a stick and he could fight this terrified child. He knew, if he really needed to, he would win. Takashi could snap this frail little boy’s spine over his knee in an instant and he could crush his skull without too much give. 

 

He could do a lot of things, a whole lot of very bad things, and no one would stop him. No one could stop him, and he could kill anyone that tried. He could be king, and he could be emperor, and no one could say otherwise. Takashi could be a tyrant.

 

God, but it’d be so easy. He could take the boy in a moment, and use the boy’s weapon to gun down the people around him. Matt, Lotor, Lance, Allura, and everyone else would be crushed beneath his feet. For more than a minute, the lure of power lusted over him, and he teetered the edge of reciprocating.

 

“Do what’s right, not what’s easy.” He’d read that, somewhere during a timeline he could hardly remember, and it stuck with him. Still, it was gnawing at the inside of his chest like a dog chewing on a bone.

 

He was at war, but on either side was himself and no one else, and for a split second he was unsure which side would return victorious.

 

The moment, like all others, passed, and suddenly Takashi could breathe. He knew his answer.

 

He wasn’t going to run. He wasn’t going to crush those at his mercy, and he wasn’t going to fight a scared little boy in a half-abandoned, shoddy service station.

 

The name Takashi meant a lot of things in a lot of languages, but Shiro liked this one the best because it meant hero, and that’s exactly what Takashi was planning on becoming (after he filled the car’s gas tank and got a snack, that is).