Chapter 1: Clover
He looks tired. He always looks tired these days. Junpei finds himself hanging in the doorway anyway, just watching, somehow still feeling like a visitor despite of how long they’ve known each other.
But it’s better this way. It’s better for him not to see the longing in Junpei’s eyes, the way his hands curl into fists at the thought of revenge, finding the man who did this to them, taking that man by the shoulders and shaking him back and forth, screaming in his face until his voice gives out, how could you, how could you do this, she was my friend, she was innocent, she didn’t deserve it.
“We need bread. I’m going out.” He steps into the kitchen, steeling his resolve and placing a shaky smile on his lips. A peace offering. Please don’t hate me for this.
Carlos looks up from the paper, his tired eyes meeting Junpei’s. He can see the shadows underneath, the worry and sleepless nights. But nothing can stop him now, not even the thought of all those hospital bills he’s leaving Carlos alone with, or how they had learned to be at least glad that they had each other through this.
“Alright,” the words come out toneless and soft, so much that Junpei has to strain to hear it. Carlos turns back to the paper, but Junpei can tell that he isn’t really reading it.
So he pulls on his coat, struggling to give the moment the sense of finality that it deserves, hoping the universe could just give Carlos this one small mercy despite all he’s gone through. He doesn’t know what’s more cruel, for Carlos to not see it coming, or for him to somehow know and let Junpei go anyway.
This is a goodbye. It’s a goodbye, but it doesn’t feel like one. So he grabs his wallet and turns away. He wishes for one wild, breathless moment, that he could put this all aside and just go out and buy bread like he said he was going to.
He spins around, almost too eager for Carlos to call him back, for him to figure out Junpei’s plan and tell him how stupid he’s being, I need you, how could you do this to Maria? How could you leave us like this?
Carlos’ eyes are searching him, scared and listless as they often were these days, and he offers a brief smile despite the energy it seems to take from him. “You’re a good kid, Junpei.”
It breaks his heart. Doing this will hurt Carlos more than anything Junpei could have said to him. Doing this is something he might never be able to go back from.
But instead of saying any of that, he nods, forcing a smile and a laugh, and he says, weakly, “it’s just bread, dude.”
The first rule of bank robbery is to have fun and be yourself.
Santa shoves the bag in his hand and he doesn’t need to be told, he just runs. Flashing lights and screaming sirens fill the air around him and blur his vision as he makes it out of the bank, Santa and All-Ice following close behind him. Where’s Clover? She should have been right across the street, that’s where they left her.
“Fuck,” Santa spits, looking around wildly, “Where the hell is Clover?”
Junpei ducks into an alley, holding the bag close to his chest. His heart beats violently in his ribcage and every moment he spends outside and not in the car sends another wave of adrenaline and vulnerability shooting through his veins.
“She fucking ditched us,” Santa seethes, one step ahead of him as they race through the alleyway. They’re in between cop’s shift rotations and they bank they chose is a little farther away from the heart of the city and it’s the middle of the god damn night, but none that means anything because every moment they spend on foot and not inside the car narrows their chance of survival inch by inch.
Junpei stays quiet, gripping the bag with white knuckles and trying to ration his breath. He can hear the bank’s sirens still, from the next block over, but he shoves the sound from his mind and focuses on running instead. Running, he can do. Running is what he’s good at.
The second rule of bank robbery is to always have a backup plan.
But he slows his pace, wanting to stay by Santa. He could run faster than any of them, but he doesn’t know the way and isn’t good at making decisions under pressure. And besides, Santa has more experience than him. He’ll know how to fix this.
“What’s plan B?” He calls over his shoulder as they round the corner. A car horn blares at them, but Junpei doesn’t stop.
“Fuck if I know,” Santa pants, “We’ll jack a car. Keep an eye out.”
“Just--” Santa slides over the roof of a car and darts across the street. “Looks like she split. Stop asking so many questions and just run. ”
So he does.
He know he’s putting too much distance between him and Santa, but running is the only thing in this dumb plan that he knows how to do, so he focuses on the feeling of the ground under his feet, leaping over fallen garbage cans and weaving through traffic, propelling himself forward until he spies a parked car in a rather quiet street.
He’s in front of the woman in seconds as she nudges the door shut, and she hardly has time to scream as he uses his momentum to push her away from the car and harshly onto the ground. Her orange hair is a splash of light against the black road as she twists to look up at him and in the next moment two things happen in quick succession:
One, his hand reaches his gun and he points right at her fiery orange head.
Two, she completes the throw and her keys skid right down the road, under the golden street lights and straight into the gutter.
His gun clicks and she freezes, turning back to look at him with wide blue eyes as the color drains from her face. She’s afraid. She’s watching him quietly and he pushes his feelings away, fighting the urge to cast a panicked look over his shoulder. Did Santa follow him? Or was he picked up? Or caught? Or maybe he took a wrong turn?
He doesn’t want to shoot her.
“Stay on the ground,” he tells her, his voice strained and quiet. “Please don’t move.”
“Hey!” Right on cue, Santa rounds the corner, glancing wildly around as he jogs up to Junpei, spitting out a string of curses as he glares at the woman and tries to catch his breath.
“Nice of you to finally show up,” Junpei says, as casually as he can manage with his heart pounding, with the gun in his hand. He tries to portray an air of confidence, like this was all meant to happen, and he isn’t about to cry. But for all the woman knows, it was.
He beckons towards the woman, doing his best to hide the way his nerves leap when Santa’s eyes lock onto his. Nodding, Santa takes his place, holding the woman in place with his own gun as Junpei draws his tools out of his bag and gets to work. He tries his best to steady his breathing, but it doesn’t work. The last time he did this, there was significantly less pressure.
Well, here goes nothing.
He takes the screwdriver from his tool bag. It isn’t what he usually uses, but he dropped his spark plug the last time he did this because his hands were shaking too much, because there was too much pressure and he was still a newbie and had only jacked pontiacs before that, and now how was he supposed to do this new car without studying how to disengage the alarm system beforehand?
Shit. Right. His hands are shaking again. He can hear sirens in the background. They’re running out of time.
He hates being out in the open like this. But the good thing about late nights and the neighborhood they chose is that they have time to improvise like this. If they had tried a stunt like this in the capital, well, they would have been slammed onto the pavement the moment they realized Clover wasn’t in position. What happened to her, anyway?
“Tenmyouji,” Santa growls, “Hurry the hell up.”
He places the screwdriver on the corner of the window and braces himself, one, two--
On three, he jams his hand against the base of the screwdriver and the glass shatters. Before it has even reached the ground he has a hand inside unlocking it, and he throws the bag in the back seat.
Distracted, Junpei leans over to unlock the door for Santa and pulls two slips of metal from his pocket, one sleek and one jagged, jamming both of them and turning once, twice, three times, fighting off panic as the car stalls. If only she hadn’t thrown her keys down into the sewer. Santa opens the door, standing with one foot inside, pointing the gun at the woman from over the roof. Junpei looks at her from the side mirror, freezing for a moment as he catches the fear in her eyes as the she stares into the gun, the way her hands are held up, they way her entire body shakes.
On the fourth try, the car starts. Junpei jerks the car into drive and wastes no time in hitting the gas, hearing Santa curse again as he pulls the door shut, just as they they whip around a corner.
Too fast, too fast. They almost tip.
“Get it together,” Santa snarls, clutching the grab handle and leaning into the turn, his shoulder pressed up against the window as the tires squeal against the wet road.
“Sorry sorry sorry,” The words come out in a rush as they swerve around a car, finally putting some real distance in between them and the bank. There aren’t many cars on the road. The number on the speedometer creeps up and up and up.
“This is a shit show , do you know that?” Santa snaps, loudly. “This is a disaster. Take the next left and lose this idiot behind us before the next light.”
He glances at the rearview and realizes that they’re being followed. He takes a sharp turn into an alleyway and winces as the police car doesn’t make the cut and smashes into the corner of the alley.
“Don’t get onto the bridge,” Santa pulls on the wheel and they speed past the ramp. “It’s a death trap. Just keep going to the parking garage.”
“I don’t know the way,” Junpei blurts, panic spiking in his voice as he clips the curb and the car jostles. His hands are shaking on the warm leather of the steering wheel, his leg trembling as he presses on the gas, his breath caught in his throat as they speed through another red light and the oncoming car skids to a halt, the driver leaning heavily on the horn.
“I’ll get us there,” Santa says, calmly, staring at the road ahead.
“How?” Junpei cries. “You don’t know it either! The only one who knew how to get there was Clover.”
“I’ve lived in this city my whole life, jackass,” Santa shoots back, “Just do what I tell you to, okay?”
“O-okay.” This time he can’t hide how his voice shakes.
He hears sirens all around him, but he can’t tell where they’re from. Are they even really happening at all? What direction are they coming from? He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s going to get them both killed.
“Just keep going straight,” Santa commands him, his voice now strangely confident compared to how frazzled he had been earlier. “They’re going to throw a spike strip into the road and you’re going to fishtail to the left, got it?”
“How do you know that?”
“Ask questions later,” Santa’s dark eyes stare into the road, the glow of the street lights catching on them in sharp, steady bursts. “June’s coming to pick us up.”
The leather of the steering wheel is warm under his sweaty grip. He tries to loosen it, but finds that he can barely move his hands at all except to tighten the fist he’s made. He used to be really strict about ten and two. His old driver’s ed instructor would be ashamed if she knew what he was doing now.
“This is insane,” Junpei hears himself say, but it doesn’t really sound like his voice or like it’s coming from him at all. The adrenaline pouring through his veins has lifted him directly out of his body.
But he doesn’t have time to think about it, because he sees the intersection and he sees the spike strip and he doesn’t think, he just pulls the wheel and holds his breath. The smoke and squealing of tires fills his ears, and he waits for the sudden pop, the jerk forward and the stop, or maybe for a roll and his skull to crash against the road, or for him to be pulled out of the car and slammed onto the hood, drop your weapons, drop your weapons!
But instead, his car clips the strip and sends it spinning into the path of another police car, which hits the strip with a thump and costs them two trackers in one move. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. How had Santa known how it was going to play out?
“Nice,” Santa says, just as Junpei floors it.
“The city needs to hire more police officers,” Junpei gasps. “How many was that? Five, six?”
“Lucky for us, they don’t,” Santa grumbles, “They might have been scattered trying to track All-Ice, too. Who knows?”
Junpei hears a siren warble over his head and he dips into another alley, wincing as the side mirrors scrap along the brick. But it seems just wide enough to get through, and he grins in satisfaction as the police car attempts to follow them but doesn’t fit and gets wedged into the mouth of the alley.
“We’re good.” Santa sighs, “We’re good. We’re golden. Pull in here. Hurry.”
Junpei is still jittery, and he moves just a bit too fast through the empty parking garage, sliding unceremoniously in between two spots and jerking the gear into park. Santa is already outside and jogging towards the car waiting for them in the time it takes for Junpei to register that the car has stopped at all.
Junpei pulls his bag from the backseat and yanks his makeshift key from the ignition, pushing the door open with shaking hands and stumbling across the parking garage. He covers the distance as fast as his wobbling legs will allow, ignoring the fact that at any moment the garage could be full of sirens and colorful lights and it could all be over, and there would be nowhere to run, all because he was too slow to walk a few feet. He can sprint five blocks but can hardly make it across a parking lot.
His screwdriver, shit. Did he leave it in the car? Did he drop it again? That was his only other back up. He’ll have to put a handful of screwdrivers in his bag just to prepare for next time. But he pushes the thought from his mind and scrambles over to the black car, pulling the door open with trembling hands and tossing himself into the backseat, his mind too blank and exhausted for him to think of anything as at other than to be grateful that he’s not driving anymore.
June adjusts the rearview mirror. “How was the ride?”
“Horrible,” Santa answers, slumping into the seat. “If you knew it was going to go so wrong, why didn’t you say something?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she smiles, “you have to think you’re in danger for it to work.”
“Well, shit,” Santa says, “I knew how it worked and the danger still felt real. Tenmyouji looks like he’s going to pass out.”
They drive away slowly, casually, exiting the parking garage and pulling onto the street, catching the end of a yellow light and stopping at a red one a block later. Junpei’s eyes glaze over and he’s suddenly more tired now than he’s ever been before in his entire life.
Akane laughs, her eyes searching his in the rearview mirror for just a moment before the light flicks to green and she pulls forward. “And how did he do? First time driving, right?”
Junpei opens his mouth, but no words come out. Akane laughs. Her voice sounds like music, and despite the circumstances, he finds himself relaxing.
“Yeah, and I never want to see him do it again,” Santa shudders. “Oh, and we left a witness on Maple.”
Akane and Santa share a glance for only a heartbeat before she looks away, swiping on her turn signal. “I’ll look into it later. Also, we’re all staying at the base for a little bit.”
Santa lets out an aggravated sigh, “What is it this time?”
Akane doesn’t take her eyes off the road. “We’ve got company. It’s what held Clover up. You’ll meet him once we get inside. But since this job went so off the rails, we’re going to limit movements for a few days. That means no one leaves the hideout until it’s all clear.”
Akane's voice sounds strangely serious and Santa picks up on it. He frowns. “Is he that close?”
“Closer than I would like,” Akane answers, coolly, “I guess it’s true what they say, that seven’s a lucky number.”
Santa shakes his head, but the frown doesn’t lift. “So, what happened to Clover?”
“I think she picked up a bug.”
“Like a stomach bug?” Junpei blurts, confused.
Akane laughs, loud and sharp and clear, and he can see Santa roll his eyes in the reflection of the class. “No, silly,” she says, “like a lice infection. We’re all gonna detox this weekend. Make our new friend isn’t trying to rat us out.”
Santa stretches. “You think he’s one of Seven’s crew?”
Akane pulls to the side to allow a police car to speed past, sirens blaring. “If he is, that means that he’s gotten much closer than we had thought.”
“Why let him in at all then?” Santa asks, watching her closely. “Why take the chance? If Clover brought us an undercover cop, then we’re going to have to go back underground. Why are we even returning to the base at all? And then stay there for the next few days? We’ll be sitting ducks.”
“I like Clover’s new friend,” Akane says, simply. “He’s an animal lover. He kept trying to get us to call him a cat themed named. We paired him with Phi, so he’s now Sigma.”
“He has a partner already?” Santa frowns, incredulous. “How long did you have to know this guy before picking us up?”
“Only a few minutes,” Akane answers, shyly, “But don’t worry. Everything is going great.”
Santa crooks an eyebrow and doesn’t comment. Junpei doesn’t want to be a nuisance, so he holds all his questions inside his throat until they almost start to burn.
He’s been with the Crash Keys for a few months, and in the business of car stealing for longer, but one glance from Akane was enough to make him feel like it was his first day all over again, and even with all his experience, he still knew nothing.
Still, there’s so much he doesn’t know about the way Akane functions. Everyone else seems to be okay with her leadership. They follow her directions, they don’t question things they have every right to, and everyone operates like they know something he doesn’t, like some inside joke he isn’t privy to. He had chalked it up to how long they had been working together, but after tonight, he can’t quite justify it to himself the same way.
How had Santa known so much about there the police would be, how had he anticipated Junpei’s own moves almost before Junpei himself realized he was planning to make them? It just doesn’t make sense. But he had known that she was smart. This is Akane Kurashiki after all, and you don’t get a reputation like hers by being a fool.
But this just doesn’t make sense. They seem to have entire conversations without speaking a word. Or Akane will tell them to do something specific at a certain time, and they just do. Everyone trusts her and it always turns out alright in the end, because people follow her specific instructions. It’s freaky.
Junpei doesn’t remember her being like this. She’s changed a lot since middle school, of course, everyone does. But this seems a little drastic. And if she was part of a crime ring back then, he thinks he would have suspected something. How did such a kind, sweet girl end up in a life like this? And why did she let Junpei be part of it?
“I know,” Akane says, suddenly, her voice loud in the silent car as she hits the break and shifts the gear. She sighs, frustrated and seemingly unaware that she had spoken aloud. She sweeps a lock of hair out of her face and glares at Santa, who glares back.
“Do it, then,” Santa mutters, grabbing his bag and sliding out of the car, closing the door harshly behind him.
The engine is still growling at them, filling the car with it’s noise, and Junpei gets the keen impression that he isn’t supposed to leave yet. So he waits, nervous under the intensity of Akane's eyes on him. Her face is impassive, but he can’t shake the feeling that this has something to do with his performance today.
“Relax, Jumpy,” she says, though her face is still blank, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. I just have a few questions, is all.”
The rumbling of the car in neutral makes him nervous, like she hasn’t yet decided what gear to put it in. He tries his best to meet her eyes, but he has to look away. What is he even worried about? This is Akane. She wouldn’t do that to him.
“Santa told me you left someone behind,” Akane says, carefully. “A witness. She saw the whole thing. Why didn’t you stop her?”
“W-why didn’t Santa?” Junpei asks back, defensive and a little bit paranoid under her unwavering gaze.
“Santa was being considerate,” Akane says, “He knew that shooting her would only spook you more. But do you see how this creates more problems for us? She clearly saw both of you.”
He wonders how she can be so sure of what Santa was thinking. But she stares at him, waiting for an answer, and he isn’t brave enough to talk back so he nods in sharp, choppy movements.
She looks away. “I guess I just thought you were different,” she admits, “I didn’t think you would be so nervous.”
That much is true, though he is a bit ashamed of it. This is the first time he’s outwardly panicked like that. It was his first time behind the wheel with such high stakes, but still. It’s a far cry from the cool, distant person he’s tried to become. (What would Carlos think of him now?)
He pushes the thought away, pushes away the rush of complicated emotions that follow. Does that mean he’s really still just a scared kid, even after doing this for so long?
“Sorry,” the words spill out. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. It just took me by surprise.”
Akane must find something endearing about it, because she shakes her head and lets out a breath. “Just as long as you’re still with me on this.”
He meets her eyes. “Of course,” he says, hearing a surprisingly vulnerable honesty in his voice, “that hasn’t changed. Today just caught me off guard. I’ll be ready for it next time.”
She bites her bottom lip, her eyes wandering for a bit as she thinks it over. He thinks about how its just going to be more chaotic and high stakes the next time he has to get behind the wheel. Can he ask Akane to count on him then? Can he promise her that he’ll be ready? (He has to. It’s what he came here to do.) He doesn’t feel nervous, looking at her, but he can’t seem to look away.
In the end, she can’t seem to find an solution to their problems, so she just shakes her head again, chasing the worry from her mind and letting out a ragged sigh. She cuts the engine in short, jagged motion, not moving to reach for the door even after the silence fills the air.
“If you’re going to keep doing this with us,” she says, calmly, “you can’t be making more problems. You have to start solving them.”
He blinks at her as the silence stretches on, feeling guilty now that the adrenaline has finally waned, residual anxieties still turning in his stomach. He wishes he could say something here that he really means, something like: Sorry, I wish I had shot that innocent woman when I had the chance. I wish I could just shoot her and not think about any of the other innocent people I could be killing with just one twitch of the finger, or how I would feel if that were me or someone I care about, or how I did feel when it was someone I cared about.
Or he could open his mouth and say: Sorry, I didn’t meant to be disloyal and I absolutely would pull the trigger for you, Akane Kurashiki, for you and anyone else in the Crash Keys, if it meant getting us out safe or achieving our goal.
But both of those would be lies and they know it. So he just sits and lets the silence fills the car and thinks about how people used to kill themselves with cars and carbon monoxide in the days before emission controls.
“Don’t worry, Junpei,” She soothes, though it still sounds strained. “Maybe I was expecting too much of you. It’s a learning experience and a minor setback. We’ll just have to wait a little longer than I would like for this to die down.”
She sounds like all the teachers he disappointed in grade school, with his penchant for getting into fights and his inability to sit still.
Finally, she reaches over and exits the car. After a moment, he does, too, grabbing his bag and his tools and trotting up beside her as they cross the garage and make their way to the elevator where Santa is waiting.
“I know you’ve got a good heart,” Akane says to him as she staring ahead, “but that’s not going to help you here. You should know that by now.”
He stays silent, trying his best to keep pace as they near the elevator. Santa nods to them, jabbing the button, and they wait silently until the silver doors slide open, letting him into a closed box with no exit.
“So, Clover left us to go pick up boys?”
“As if,” Clover protests, crossing her arms. “He just got in and wouldn’t leave. Made me drive around looking for his cat.”
“It was an emergency,” the newly dubbed “Sigma” clarifies, faltering a bit when all the eyes turn to him. He shrugs, which proves to be difficult with his hands tied behind his back. “Luna was trapped under the paw-ssenger’s seat and Gaulem was still m-hissing.”
“You named your cat Gaulem?” All-Ice raises an eyebrow. “Like from Lord of the rings?”
“That’s Gollum,” Phi interjects from across the table without looking up from her screen. “It’s completely different.”
Santa rubs his temple. “And why didn’t you just kick him out? You had a gun, Clover.”
Sigma and Clover share matching shocked expressions. “There was a cat .” She repeats, as is that made it any clearer.
“So?” Santa gestures, “You didn’t have to leave and go looking for the other one. You left us there and took the getaway car. I thought poor Tenmyouji was going to have a stroke.”
“Well, I’m sorry,” Clover says, not sounding sorry at all. “But I wasn’t going to just shoot him when there was a cat in the car. What if I missed? I’m not a barbarian.”
“You were at point blank range!” Santa throws his hands up, exasperated.
“The noise would have drawn attention to her before the sting was completed,” All-Ice points out. “It would have brought the cops to you at the worst possible moment, which would have screwed us over even more.”
“See, Clover?” Santa says, “Why can’t you defend yourself like that? I wouldn’t be mad if there was even an ounce of sense to what you did today.”
Clover shrugs. “All-Ice and I are a team,” she says, “And besides, she didn’t have any problem finding me. I picked her up a few blocks over and brought her here.”
“And you brought this dipshit along? What’s your reasoning for that?”
“Hey,” Sigma protests, weakly, before being ignored completely.
“Dude’s got a photographic memory,” All-Ice says, “Also, he was really into it.”
“I’ve always wanted to die in a heist,” Sigma explains.
Phi snorts. Santa silences Phi with a glare. “This isn’t funny,” he says, “none of this is funny. This guy has no training whatsoever. We don’t even know if he’s trustworthy. It’s bad enough that we have one rookie on the team, let alone two.”
Junpei swallows uncomfortably as all eyes turn to him. For a moment, no one says anything, and the only sound is a soft rhythmic thumping as June continues to count the money at the head of the table, piling the money into identical stacks and ignoring their conversation completely.
Phi looks up from her tablet. “Did you get your cats back, at least?”
Sigma’s face lights up. “Yeah,” he says, “Luna’s in my hood right now and Gaulem’s on my lap. They’re both super pissed at me for the car ride. They hate that.”
“How did the cat even get in the car?”
“Oh, uh,” Clover finally manages to look ashamed. “That one’s on me. I opened the door. Luna’s just too cute. She came right up to me.”
“No, but why were they even outside?”
Santa lets out a breath, rubbing the bridge of his nose to ward off an oncoming headache. “You people,” he says, his voice tight, “are going to kill me one of these days. What is this, a circus?”
Akane puts a hand on his shoulder, speaking up for the first time since they entered. “Everything turned out alright,” she soothes, “Clover, you’re off driving until we can trust you again.”
Clover nods, but seems thankful that she got off so lightly, so she keeps her mouth shut. Everyone turns to Akane, the humor in the air slowly drying up as she commands their attention.
“Who’s going to replace her?” Akane brings a hand to her cheek and tilts her head in thought. “Any volunteers?”
Everyone looking at her looks away. They’ve all got their roles, and they’ve been working with Clover as the driver for so long that no wants to abandon their position to replace her. It’s a stressful, high stakes job that she’s got, and it’s a lot of pressure for one person.
“Tenmyouji’s been looking for more responsibility, isn’t that right?” Akane smiles at him from across the table and he feels his stomach twist, his blood going cold. This is because he let that woman get away, he just knows it.
Santa scoffs. “Him? He barely held it together today. And he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if I wasn’t there with him.”
The rest of the group refuses to look at him, much less vouch for him. Maybe they don’t want Akane attention to be directed at them, or maybe it’s because he’s still so new that no one really cares what he does, or if he’s even there at all.
“But we trust him, right?” Akane meets his eyes from across the table. “Tenmyouji’s a good sport. And Clover can teach him her tricks before our next job. And we’ll have plenty of time, since we have to lay low for a while, thanks to her.” She claps her hands together. “I think it’s a fair trade. Any questions?”
Santa looks at her. It seems like he’s the only one willing to talk back to her or contradict her at all, but even he has his limits. Junpei’s heard rumors that Santa was the first person she recruited, and he’s been with her the longest. Either way, Santa’s his only hope for getting out of this.
“It’s not that I don’t trust Tenmyouji,” Santa says, slowly, “It’s just that we both know the problem you have with reaching him.”
“No worries,” Akane chirps, “He and I are going to work on that. We’re going to spend some bonding time together. I think it’ll be fun, don’t you?”
She’s looking at him now, so he nods, stiffly.
“Is this a sex thing,” Sigma blurts.
“Alright then,” Akane says, clapping her hands together and ignoring the outburst. “You should all go get some rest. We had a busy day today. Sigma and I are going to stay here and have a little cat-- oh, I mean chat.” She laughs, “See? He’s already rubbing off on me.”
No one says anything, Clover and Phi quickly moving to take Gaulem and Luna from Sigma. The cats meow at the sudden movement, but quickly acquiesce to their new handlers as everyone filters out of the room. Junpei casts one last look behind him before the door swings shut, and it’s just enough time to watch as the nonchalant grin Sigma had carefully maintained finally fades from his face. He watches Akane carefully, like a caged animal, as she pulls up a chair and leans forward.
The door swings shut with the quietest of clicks. Junpei turns away.
He had first met Akane Kurashiki in sixth grade. Some eighth graders had been picking on the school rabbits, which had upset her, and so he had confronted them and they beat him up for it. He gave her a doll. That’s all he remembers. That’s all he knew about her, until a few months ago.
He wasn’t very good at stealing cars. But he was better at doing that then he was at going to college, so for a while, that was his primary source of income. When he’s not nervous, he can break into a car as casually and smoothly as if it really was his own. And it was the only way to get close to people who would know how to get to the head of Cradle Pharmaceuticals.
The steps are relatively easy and there are different ways to do it. Given enough time and options, he usually starts with a thin strip of metal, flexible but just enough. He works it in between the bottom of the window pane and the door, sliding it side to side until he finds the groove. Pop, and the door is unlocked. Then it’s just a matter of starting the car. Hot wiring usually takes time he doesn’t have, and he knows just how to drill the ignition without damaging it. Then you stick the screwdriver in and turn, and you’re on your way.
Of course, cars have gotten a little more complicated these days. But if he studies, he can usually anticipate how to bypass the alarm and break the steering lock. That’s what his usual jobs were. Planned robberies, something like this, as high stakes and pressurized as it is, he has no way of preparing for. He didn’t ever plan to enter this side of crime.
It started because his dealer had a score to settle with "June". She has quite the reputation, and she’s managed to piss off more than a few people. Junpei had heard them talking about her, without knowing who it was at the time. She had eyes everywhere, they would say, she was always one step ahead. She had ways of knowing what was going to happen. The nicest thing they ever called her was a clairvoyant, or a witch. The not so nice things, well...
His old dealer had a grudge and so he enlisted Junpei to plant a tracker and a recording device in her car. It wasn’t the first time he had done something a job like that, and to be honest, he didn’t care much for the specifics of who his victim was. He wasn’t in the job for the morals. He just did what he was told. Maybe if he had done less studying about the car and more studying about it’s owner, he would have been prepared to have a gun shoved in between his eyes, the hand on it just moments from pulling the trigger.
But she had hesitated. If it had been anyone else, someone who’s mind wasn’t as sharp, they might not have reacted in time. But Akane Kurashiki, with all of her foresight and knowledge, still seemed surprised to find him in the driver’s seat of her car. He might have been luckier than he remembered being. If Santa was with her, it could have gone down differently. She might not have hesitated, then.
She had remembered his name. She had remembered everything about him. He was almost shocked to see how she lived now. The Crash Keys were powerful and elusive, so good at what they did that even the more experienced of his bosses were hardly sure that they existed. If their mysterious leader could elude the black market so well, then she was definitely out of reach of the cops. It brought a sort of comfort and awe along with it's fear, and it was an entirely new risk of it's own. The only other group on par with them was Free the Soul, but there's even less known about them, even with the Crash Key's combined knowledge.
At the end of the day, despite what he had heard, it was Akane. He knew her. She knew him.
There hadn’t been any protest at his inclusion. The Crash Keys believed in Akane. They did what she thought was best. All he needed was a new name, and he was all set.
It isn’t his real last name, of course. When he and Akane were little they would talk about marrying each other. But they couldn’t agree on who would take the other’s last name, or if they would hyphenate it. So eventually, they just opened the phone book and choose a name at random. And it was agreed, that when they married, that was the name they would take. A new start. A little fairytale life.
Junpei had almost forgotten about it. There seemed to be a lot about them that he didn’t remember.
It was painfully obvious how little he actually knew about their business. He wasn’t a stranger to crime, but the scale they operated on was much larger than he had even imagined. He still wasn’t sure if he was cut out for it. But there was no backing out. He wouldn’t get a second chance. She wouldn’t hesitate again.
Most of the group trusted Akane and didn’t care, but it took Santa a while to warm up to him. Actually, before today, he hadn’t put up with Junpei at all. But maybe now that he’s proved his worth, he’s earned some of Santa’s trust as well. Well, it doesn’t matter what he thinks of Santa. Akane trusts him, and that’s all that matters. That’s all that ever matters. It’s the only real rule of this place, to listen to Akane.
He’s done a few small jobs for them in the months after he had joined. Most of it involved getting cars for them beforehand and parking them in the proper garage. A lot of behind the scenes work. He would research which cars to use, uninstall some of the safety mechanics, hop up the engine. Cutting the limited-slip differentials makes it harder to drift, sure, but the improvements in traction and stability might make all the difference in the world.
You could weld it to improve the drift, but don’t come crying to me when you snap the axle, he remembers saying. The real wheel drive makes it worth it. What an idiot he had been, thinking he was on their level at all.
Santa quizzed him on what to do right up until Clover parked the car. Most of the instructions boiled down to, “just stand there and look threatening, wave the gun around but don’t wave it around too much, and just let All-Ice and I do the talking. Make sure none of these good samaritans feel inspired to be a hero. You’re not going to pull the trigger, but they don’t need to know that.”
The robbery was actually the smoothest part of this night. It’s when they got outside to see Clover not where she’s supposed to be did things go wrong.
He doesn’t know when All-Ice split from them, but he would have liked a warning. If he had followed her instead of Santa, he would have been in the car with Clover and Sigma en route back to base instead of scrambling through the dark streets without a plan. But he supposes that if he did do that, there’s no telling what might have happened to Santa. At least this time, everyone got out alright.
But he’s going to have to do it again. He’s going to have to be the one at the wheel, thinking fast and making crazy maneuvers. He’s going to be there, and they’re all going to be relying on him to get them to Point B alive and without the cops on their backs.
Why did it have to be him? Punishment aside, Akane should know that he isn’t suited to be behind the wheel. Maybe she trusts him, but the rest of the group has only known him for four months. They have no reason to trust him. And once they see that he has no idea what he’s doing, they’ll have even less of a reason to trust him.
This is insane. Why not All-Ice? She was a constant on their jobs. She could crack a safe in under a minute. She used math to do it, she had explained it to him once when they were waiting at a drop site, but Junpei hadn’t been able to keep up. And besides, All-Ice (this is where he thinks she got her code name from) is always cool under pressure. It’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking under her stoic demeanor, but she never panics, or takes her eye off the goal. Surely someone with such steadfast concentration and quick, logical thinking would be better suited as a driver.
Actually, scratch that. The one time All-Ice’s expression changes is when she’s looking at Clover. And even then, it’s just the faintest of smiles.
He’s only had to stay in the base for more than a day once before, and that was because one of their contacts got taken in by the police. Luckily, nothing came from it and the danger passed, but it hadn’t stopped Santa and Akane from being extra cautious with what they told people and who they bought from in the following weeks.
The less he knows about the Crash Keys, the better.
Staying in base mostly meant finding ways to entertain yourself. Akane didn’t enforce many rules, and she didn’t even seem to care if you went off on your own. She always seemed to know where everyone was, and what they were doing. She’s probably bugged the place. There’s probably a camera watching him right now.
But laying low was fine. They’ve never made a mistake this huge before, and Junpei can feel his head start to hurt from stress when he thinks back to all the evidence he might have left behind that could be traced back to him. He should have been more careful. That stupid screwdriver. Luckily, most of the blame falls on Clover, which means that as long as he doesn’t do anything worse, he should be able to fly under the radar for this one. Probably.
Oh God, he’s going to be the driver for their next operation. That’s going to be him, having to call the shots and memorize the route and bear all the blame when it inevitably goes wrong.
He hears voices through the wall, cutting him off from his worried thoughts, but he can’t tell what they’re saying, even as they pass the door. After a moment, Akane knocks and enters, and waves when she catches him staring.
“Good, you’re still up,” she says, coming to sit next to him on the old mattress. “We have a lot to talk about. What a crazy day, huh?”
He stares at her. He gets the feeling that this friendliness is a facade, that she’s hiding something much more dark and sinister underneath. But looking at her now, he can’t say for sure. He wants to believe in her. He wants to, and yet the doubts in the back of his mind lingers.
She smiles when he doesn’t answer. “Speak freely, Jumpy,” she says, using his childhood nickname. “You know I’d never hurt you, right?”
“I mean,” the words tumble from his mouth all jagged and broken, “You did- today, just now-- You made me a driver? I can’t do it, Akane.”
She nods thoughtfully, so he continues, leaning away from her before he even realizes that he’s doing it.
“We both know I can’t do it. If this is about the woman today then, I’m sorry, I just, I couldn’t--”
“Jumpy,” Akane says, “Relax. Everything will be fine.”
“I mean, I don’t--”
“Who else would you have me replace Clover with?” Akane asks, acting as if he hadn’t spoken. “Sigma? He’s too new. Phi still can’t run reliably. All-Ice is needed inside the bank. Would you rather take Santa’s place leading the operation?”
He stares at her.
“No,” she says, smiling, “this is the best placement for you. You know cars, and I know you.”
He narrows his eyes. “You do remember that that’s not why I’m here, right?”
She nods, reflexively, “I know,” she soothes, “and as soon as I find something new, you’ll be the first person I tell. But I still need you to do this for me.”
“Why do we even need to rob places anyway?” he asks, “what’s the money for?”
“Bribes,” Akane answers, easily, “People don’t just give out information for free. We need materials to bypass Cradle’s security.”
He tears his gaze away. He knows Akane likes to keep her secrets, and every bit of information she gives him comes along with the unspoken understanding of trust between them.
“It’s a complicated thing,” she assures him, “there’s a lot that goes into it. Our informant tells us that one of the executives is a gambling man. Isn’t that interesting?”
She’s trying to assuage him. He makes a noise of agreement. He knows how that will go. With enough bets and enough money piled on, eventually they’ll start dealing with information, and if enough of a rapport is built, they might even get something good out of it. Akane has done it so many times before. She just knows people, knows how they work and what they’ll do.
“I’m sure he’ll tell us what we want to hear,” she says, “Whether he realizes it or not.”
“And then we’re one step closer to destroying Cradle Pharmaceutical. That’s what we all want, right?” She smiles at him.
He stares at her, somehow unnerved despite the reminder of their common enemy. Innocent bystanders like that woman today might end up dead for them to get what they needed. Is it worth it? Should an innocent, unconnected person die so that the guilty could be sentenced? Can he sacrifice someone he doesn’t know to achieve that result?
“But,” he shakes his head and finds his nervousness returning, “driving like this-- it’s different. You can’t plan for it. We only got away today because of dumb luck. Because Santa had enough experience to anticipate where the police were waiting. Because he happened to know how to get to the garage. I couldn’t do something like that on the fly.”
Akane watches him calmly throughout his rambling, moving only to make herself more comfortable on the bed, tucking one foot underneath her and leaning back.
“Junpei,” she says, when he’s done, “You know how Santa knew where to go today? It’s because I told him.”
He frowns. “You don’t let any of us wear wires,” he points out, “and he seemed just as surprised as I was when the plans changed.”
Akane shrugs, “I knew that the plans were going to change. I let them change. If I didn’t want Clover to leave and bring Sigma back to us, I wouldn’t have let her. I would have stopped her before she even set foot in the car.”
“But you didn’t,” Junpei says, “You didn’t, and you knew it was going to go wrong."
“And you thought that was okay, to gamble like that. That woman today, we stole her car, she could have died--”
“But she didn’t,” Akane says, “I knew she wouldn’t.”
“Well,” Now he’s just confused. “If you knew, then why am I getting in trouble for it?”
“You’re not in trouble,” Akane assures him. “You’re the driver. This is the quickest way to get you in front of the wheel. You were always meant to replace Clover. She can be too rash and unpredictable. But you’re the key to all this. You wouldn’t have opened the door for that cat today.”
She’s right. He can imagine it, looking down to see a pair of pale yellow eyes peering up at him. He would have looked away, conscious that black cats were bad luck, and if Sigma had asked him about his other missing cat, he would have said he didn’t know.
She nods again, satisfied. “See? It was always under control.”
“But how?” he asks, “Even if you had somehow known that Clover would leave, it doesn’t mean that you knew that I would choose that woman’s car to steal, or that I would even turn down that street at all.”
“You’re right,” Akane says, “I didn’t know. And we have to fix that.”
“I’m not here to be a driver,” he protests.
“You’re here to do what I tell you,” Akane responds, “that’s what you agreed to when you joined the Crash Keys. I’m helping you reach Cradle, and you help me out in return. That seems fair, I think.”
She talks so calmly. It’s like she knows what he’s going to say before he even says it. Like she knows it before the thought has even entered his mind. How can she know these things? The room is dark, illuminated only by a lamp in the corner, and he can see the way the shadows play on her pale face, how they catch on her dark eyes, the bridge of her nose. She’s staring at him so intensely, and he feels a keen sense of danger in the room. Not of her physically, no, but just how much she knows
“I’ve heard,” he stutters, “I’ve heard people say you were clairvoyant.”
She nods, patiently, “I know,” she says, “I’ve heard it too. But that’s not it. Tell me, have you heard of the Morphic Resonance Theory?”
“It’s like telepathy, right?” He frowns, “but it’s pseudo-science. It isn’t credible.”
“Let’s not worry about that yet,” she says, “we’ll start at the basics. Tell me what you know.”
She lets out a soft laugh. “The theory goes that all of humanity shares a collective memory through the fourth dimension in Minkowski spacetime, the Morphogenetic Field. People who are in tune to this medium are called espers, and they use the field to send information to other espers, as well as other potential versions of themselves in different timelines. Are you with me?”
“Okay.” She brings herself closer to him, settling into a more comfortable position. “There’s a lot we don’t know about it. For most of the espers in the Crash Keys, you’ll probably be able to share memories with them, and vis versa. In time, the field will lend itself to you in other ways.”
“Like a hivemind?”
She ignores him. “As you develop the skill, I will look into other timelines and send you the information you need. For example, telling you which hallway to turn down. With enough practice, it all should happen before you have a chance to even recognize it.”
“Today was a test run,” Akane says, “and lucky for us, you passed. You’re a good driver. You’ll do what I tell you to. Maybe it’s because you trust me, or maybe it’s because you don’t know how to make decisions for yourself.”
“There has to be an element of danger, right?” He thinks back to the one time he had read about Sheldrake’s theory, back when he had been trying to investigate what happened to Maria on his own.
She runs a tongue over her teeth. “Bank robberies are a very high stake operation, right? A lot of variables, a lot of danger. You really feel like you could get caught at any moment.”
He nods. “But don’t both parties need to be in danger?”
“That would be the best way to make sure we’re working at our full potential,” she admits, “When the time comes, I would love to go to Cradle with you. But it’s hard for me to control the fates of six different people as well as my own.”
“Why have so many people involved, then? It just seems like more variables.”
“We have only the people we need,” she says, “even Sigma was always meant to be a part of this.”
He can’t think of anything to say to this. He can’t believe that she could think so far ahead, planned everything down to the second.
“It’s only helped us, so far,” Akane continues, “We have a very thin paper trail connecting us to these bank robberies. It helps me figure out guard rotations and camera locations, how to avoid the things that go wrong in every timeline but this one.”
“But for things to go right in this one,” he says, “there has to be a timeline where things go wrong, right? Where we don’t all make it out.”
Akane shrugs. “Things like that happen every day. Most people don’t even know to think about it. That woman today, there’s a timeline where Santa shoots her and it sends you into so much of a panic that you can’t start the engine and the cops find you. But that woman doesn’t know any better. She doesn’t know to be lucky that this is the timeline she’s in.”
“But still,” he hears himself say, “That means that the other version of her died just so we could get it right. You would do that to her?”
“Would I let that woman die you that you and Santa could survive?” Akane asks him, her eyes trained on him, and he can’t bring himself to look away. “Maybe another version of me wouldn’t be comfortable making that sacrifice. But I’m not her.”
He swallows, “What if it were me, then? What if the time comes where you have to let me die so that another version of me could live?”
She cocks her head, “What if I’m talking to the version that lived right now, then? Wouldn’t you be glad that you got to go on living?”
“Not at the cost of me,” he says, “or other people.”
Akane sighs. “Junpei,” she says, “people die every day, you wouldn’t even know it even if it did happen. But I don’t have a hand in all of them. I’m not trying to play God. I only do what I do to protect the people close to me. And that includes you.”
He looks at her. She says it like he should feel lucky that he’s included in that. He doesn’t know what to say. For a long moment, the only sound in the room is the humming of the bulb inside the lamp.
He can’t say that he wasn’t intrigued by her. This ghost from his past that had suddenly reappeared in his life, offering him a path into a world with her in it. And he took it. Of course he did, he’d have been a fool not to. He had been making progress on his own, but it was stubborn progress. Investigating took a lot of intuition, to know who to trust and who was about to betray you. In a way, it was always easier to betray first. It was safer that way. There was nothing that could surprise him.
And for the most part, he had been right to do so. The information given to him was purposefully misleading, but with the Crash Keys it was already vetted. They had more access to resources, and much more influence than one person. Akane’s group was farther ahead on the Cradle Investigation that he had ever hoped to be. She was cunning and powerful, and she knew things that no one had the right to know.
“I know it seems like a lot,” Akane says, “But you have this potential inside of you. I know because other versions of me have showed me that you can do it. And also because I trust you.”
He thinks about it. To be so close to the end now, so close to reaching Gentarou Hongou himself-- he can’t give up now. He abandoned Carlos in order to get to where he is now, and he can’t give up when that his goal is finally in sight.
What he wants doesn’t matter. It’s what he needs to do. But still, the lingering doubt in his mind persists, a logical voice reminding him that even if he is on board for this, his driving skills might not be enough. He doesn’t think that fast.
But maybe if he can get Akane inside his head, he won’t need to. No one could get this far by themselves. But Akane reaches beyond the cosmos, so of course he has to follow her. It’s the only chance he’s got. He’s known that from the moment she spared his life and invited him in. He just has to figure out how to flip the switch and turn on the morphogenetic field.
His survival comes down to it. It’s been a year and a half since he left Carlos, and now it’s almost over. If he can make this work, then all of it will have been worth it. He’ll get to go home, even if Carlos doesn’t accept his apology or want to see him again. Cradle will pay for what they’ve done, and that will make a difference. It has to.
But the answers don’t come to him in one night. They don’t come to him at all, and he stares out into the darkness until his eyes hurt, thinking about car exhaust and hospital bills. Even when the morning light reaches him, it doesn’t bring him any revelations. In fact, he can hardly feel it at all.
He dreams-- he doesn’t want to. It’s just something that happens, even sometimes when he’s still awake, he can see it: blank, glassy eyes, her head rolling limp to one side, Carlos’ horrified, shaking voice a he just tries to say her name, as he holds her and tries to speak and all Junpei can do is stare, thinking that he knew this was going to happen somehow and he did nothing, chalked it up to a stray thought, a baseless anxiety, and now-
Maria’s eyes drift close. They don’t open again.
She’s so young, Junpei thinks, staring at her pale face. She’s his age, that could be him, any other day that would have been him. He needs to get up. He has to be there for Carlos. His roommate, his friend, he needs to do something, say something. But what can he say?
“Someone did this,” Carlos’ detached voice reaches him, “Who? Who would do this to her?”
Junpei doesn’t have an answer. He just sits and stares, and the question hangs in his mind for years after, haunting him, and he thinks about her lifeless eyes and thinks- Who’s responsible? Who did this?
It starts out as it always does. Maria. He remembers shaking himself from his reverie, calling the police, his hand on her cold wrist, searching for a pulse. And then the hospital, tubes and wires and shining tile floors, Carlos telling him about oxygen levels and brain activity and a police investigation that keeps turning up nothing.
Carlos isn’t angry. He’s calm and analytical, his voice floating emotionlessly through the air, his pale blue eyes blank and unfeeling, and Junpei hates it, he hates it so much that he starts to feel angry in Carlos’ stead. He starts to feel angry and vengeful and it quakes through him, but it makes him feel alive and it’s good , even if he can see the grief stirring in Carlos’ when he looks at him from across Maria’s still form on the bed.
He doesn’t feel guilty. He’s doing something. He’s being productive. He’s going to find some answers. He’s not helpless, not like Carlos is. He isn’t giving up.
And Carlos, kind, sweet Carlos, with his gentle hands and quiet laugh, turned into something quiet and exhausted and still-- it isn’t right. The way his shoulders slump, the bags under his tired eyes, the way he can hardly find it in him to say his sister’s name, it isn’t right.
He sees an echo of annoyance when Carlos looks at him sometimes, but Junpei doesn’t know what he’s doing wrong. This is what he’s supposed to be doing, if anything. Carlos is the one who’s doing it wrong. Carlos wanted to know who did this? Junpei will give him his answers. It’s the only thing he can do.
But it becomes apparent that the deeper he searches, the more there is to it, and soon he knows that it’s something he won’t be able to go back from. He can’t live both lives. He can’t have anything that could be traced back to Carlos and Maria.
Maybe the right thing to do would have been to stay with Carlos, to support him, to put the past behind him and let go of grudges and hold the brain activity charts in his hands until they wrinkle at the edges, but he can’t do that.
So he leaves. He needs to finish this, he needs to know, even if Carlos doesn’t. He doesn’t leave a note, or anything that can be traced back to him. He just pays the rent forward, gathers his thing, and one day, he just leaves.
He gave in to his weakness only once, when he had put just enough distance in between himself and his old life, but not enough for any of it to feel final or fair. So he called one more time, maybe just to give some closure to his departure. That’s all he wants from any of this. It’s stupid. He said he wouldn’t do this. He prays for the answering machine to pick up, his anxiety mounting with every pull of the dial tone. And then, finally--
Hey it’s Carlos, looks like I missed your call. Just leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Junpei’s heart aches, so much so that he almost forgets what he wants to say and when the beep sounds he opens his mouth and for a careful moment, nothing comes out.
He clears his throat. “Hey Carlos,” he says, quietly, “I’m... I couldn’t keep it a secret. But I have to leave. I… I guess you won’t see me again after this. Sorry.”
He wonders if he should say something else. He thinks of the voice in the answering machine, so laid back and bright, and how different Carlos is now. Someone stole that from him, and Junpei is going to get it back. And just like that, his anger is back, and he grips the phone tightly in his hand.
“You don’t have to call me back,” he says, quickly, “you won’t be able to reach me.”
Why is he still talking? Why is he doing this to Carlos? Hasn’t he suffered enough without Junpei making it worse? The poor guy has already lost his sister. And Junpei just has to drive the knife in deeper, doesn’t he? That’s all he’s good for. Making things worse.
He’s said everything he had to. Everything else is just extra. Is he hoping that it’ll make a difference? That Carlos will keep this message, and replay it back when he’s lonely? Is that what Junpei wants? To be another ghost in Carlos’ life?
That’s not fair. Hang up the phone.
He opens his mouth, and closes it. He can’t give Carlos any details that might be used to track him down. But somehow, he’s still reluctant to end the call. The silence stretches on, but he still doesn’t hang up the phone.
“I wish,” his voice is weaker this time, “I wish I could say that I’m doing this for you or Maria. But if I really wanted to do anything for you I would be there to support you through this. I mean--”
He closes his eyes. “Sorry. Bye.”
The line goes dead. The silence fills the car, an empty and crushing finality.
Then the dream-memory changes into something that isn’t his. It’s just smoke in his mouth, in his throat, the scent of burning flesh and hair, and someone screaming for their brother, a young girl, Junpei realizes, the flames licking at her tearstained face, her voice shrill and hysterical.
He doesn’t recognize her. It’s hard to see through the pouring black smoke, with the dry heat on his eyes making them sting. He wonders whose memory is it. It doesn’t feel like something he owns. The girl looks straight at him.
He wakes up.
The sun has yet to rise when he finds himself in the center of the warehouse. Long grey shadows pull at every corner, and it’s filled with such a still quiet that Junpei almost forgets where he is. It’s been a year and a half since he’s seen Carlos. Two years since the accident, and then he left to track down the culprits.
It was selfish and stupid of him to leave, but he did it anyway. Maybe the universe just wanted to hurt Carlos by taking two important people from his life in quick succession. Maybe that’s the reason for all this, and it’s not Junpei’s fault at all.
He’s learned a lot in two years, but none of it is comparable to what he’s learned since joining the Crash Keys. There’s only so much he could do on his own, but Akane, she’s smarter, she has connections, and he’s learned more from her in four months than he had in all of his time spent investigating on his own. After all she's helped him with, and all she wants is return is for him to become a driver, how could he say no?
The elevator creaks open in the hallway behind him, and despite himself, he tenses. He left his gun in his room, because he’s an idiot, but also because it doesn’t feel right to carry it around when there’s no danger. But of course, that can change at any moment. How could he forget something as basic at this?
He slides off the table but doesn’t have a chance to go far before Akane rounds the corner, a tray of two coffee cups in hand. She starts, her hand drifting to her side, but it falls limply against her hip when she recognizes Junpei, and she laughs.
“You startled me,” She says, moving around him and putting the coffee on the table. “I didn’t expect you to be up so early.”
“Yeah,” he says, moving to stand beside her, “I didn’t expect everyone else to sleep so late.”
Akane laughs again. “It’s 5:45,” she tells him, “there’s only one coffee shop open at this hour. I’m always the first one in.”
He finds himself relaxing, smiling at the interaction. It’s so casual, so normal. He takes the other cup from the cardboard tray, feeling it warm the palm of his hand.
“One cream, two sugars,” Akane says, pulling up a chair and crossing her legs. She takes a long sip of hers. “That’s your order, right?”
“Yeah,” he says, hiding his face in the cup as he takes another sip. It’s too hot. It burns his tongue. He grimaces. He sees her looking at him, and he remembers their conversation last night. Is she still looking for an answer, some sort of confirmation that he’s still on board?
“Yours is just black, right?” he blurts out, “nothing added.” He takes a moment to wonder why he’s suddenly so sure of it, even though Akane’s never spoken to him about this before.
“Mmhmm,” she hums, “it’s good that I have something sweet here to balance me out.” She winks.
He sits down heavily in the chair, faster than he had meant to, and his coffee spills onto his fingers at the sharp movement. He hisses quietly, doing his best to wipe the scalding liquid off of his hands and onto his jeans.
He suddenly feels very weird and out of place, as if the moment they’re sharing is inappropriate somehow with the dreams he had had, two warring memories in his head. It feels wrong to be joking around like this when he had caused someone he loved so much pain, as if he could do something like that and then still want it for himself. He feels entirely too aware of it, and once again he is reminded of the complexities of Akane Kurashiki.
But maybe something about the morning makes him relax, making the night before already seem so distant and nonsensical. It wasn’t really him that was panicking and near death, skidding around the city streets. It wasn’t him who was arguing with Akane, trying to understand why she would trust him with something as big as a role like that, or why he would even trust himself with it. From the morning perspective, it seems like someone else entirely.
Akane smiles again. Her eyes are distracted. He doesn’t know what to do. His coffee is still too hot, so he just holds it in his hands, searching for something to say to distract them both.
“How did you know I was up?” He settles with, switching the cup to his other hand.
Akane shrugs. “Just had a feeling,” she says, as cryptic as ever.
He takes a sip of his coffee. It burns his tongue. It’s quiet in the room, the only sound is the almost imperceivable movement of Akane tapping her fingers on the table, deep in thought. He spends that time draining his coffee, feeling himself awaken more and more as the time passes, as the caffeine has time to reach him and take effect.
“Who’s Carlos?” Akane asks suddenly, sipping her coffee, and the question sinks a weight of dread in his stomach.
The flush of nerves and apprehension scatter all of his thoughts, and it takes him a moment to even try to find an answer to her question. Through it all, Akane sips her beverage and stares ahead, and doesn’t seem to wonder if he’s going to answer her or not.
“He,” Junpei tries. “He was just--” his pale blue eyes catch the moonlight through an open window. He smiles with chapped lips and he’s tired but still happy to see him, bent over a textbook in his living room at three am. Carlos is back from a long shift, and Junpei stayed up to study but he mostly stayed up to see him, and his test isn’t even for a week and he never studies anyway, and they both know this.
“Denny’s is still open,” Junpei says as a greeting, his mouth moving on it’s own. “I’ll drive.”
Carlos smiles again, exhausted but genuine and his voice is rough from lack of sleep and he say, “That’s the best thing I’ve heard all night.”
“He was just a friend,” Junpei finishes, lamely. Akane looks at him, her brown eyes sharp and sympathetic and he tries to ignore it, tries to fight the way he hates that she feels sorry for him, that she knows what’s going through his head. He fights to pull himself from the memory before it can take hold of him, but it’s too late.
“How did you two meet?” Akane’s stealing looks at him from over the rim of her coffee cup, and he thinks about her and he thinks about Carlos, so complicated and different from one another and yet still Junpei is here, doing this for both of them.
But her voice isn’t pointed or prying and she doesn’t seem to be trying to get something from him. She’s just curious, and he can tell by the slump in her shoulders, by the smear of purple under her eyes, she wants to know and he almost wants to tell her the real story.
He opens his mouth. “I was friends with his sister. We had a class together at a nearby college. We would study together sometimes and work on projects, and it was just easier to go back to her and her brother’s apartment.”
Carlos’ Adam apple bobs as he takes a sip of water and Junpei pries his eyes away, and he catches the way the fluorescent light shines on his slicked back hair, a few strands fallen loose and Junpei thinks about what his hair would look like messy and wild, with his hands running through it, the other clutching the sheets--
No no no no. His tears his eyes away. The way his white tank top lays on his chest, the way his hands rest on the sticky table, his forearms his face his lips his voice--
Junpei looks at the floor for the rest of the night.
Akane nods, prompting him when he doesn’t speak. “And Maria?”
Carlos plays with the rolled sleeve of his shirt, idly. He shouldn’t wear pink, Junpei thinks, it washes him out. Ha. Maria must be rubbing off on him, he didn’t know shit about fashion before he met her.
They look through the menu and It isn’t an uncomfortable silence, and Junpei hates that, too. If it was uncomfortable, it would be a lot easier to kill these feelings, to make excuses to not hang out together. But being with Carlos is easy. He hates it.
“Yeah,” he says, bringing himself out of the memory before it can go too far. His throat is dry for some reason. He coughs. “Maria. Right. We hated that class. That’s how we met, actually. She just heard me complaining and jumped right into my conversation.”
That’s how Maria did things. She let herself in. She invited herself into Junpei’s life, after all. He didn’t ask for her to be there. He didn’t ask for any of this. It would have been a lot easier if he had never met Maria, if he had never met her or her brother and had just continued going to uni until he inevitably dropped out and started selling hot dogs on street corners like how his parents always told him he would end up.
That was supposed to be his life. Unfortunate, pitiful, but not unexpected. Now it was all those things, but for all the wrong reasons. He was supposed to be some cautionary tale against not choosing a good major, not some cautionary tale about the life of crime.
His lips quirk at the thought. There’s a lot of late night TV shows about criminals. He used to watch them a lot, because he couldn’t ever sleep or he was waiting for Carlos. It didn’t really mean anything. He never remembered any of the stories or even entertained the thought that he might one day be one of them.
“She,” he tries to speak through the roughness in his voice. “I don’t know. She was just. Likeable. Friendly.” He lets out a hollow laugh, “we were complete opposites.”
No, that’s a lie. He had been like her too, freshman year. Goofy, trusting to a fault, even sarcastic in the same way she was. At that point he had still been young and college was all he had to worry about. That, and his bad fashion sense. Maria had twisted her lips distastefully at his puffy electric blue vest over a plaid button-down combination. She had been going to school for fashion merchandising, it was no wonder she knew how to dress.
As far as his logic went, he liked the colors blue and red, so he wore it a lot. It was her that tried to fix his image, and now that he thinks about it, he might not have blended in as well as he’d thought he had. Maybe she had picked him out right away.
“We were friends for four years,” he pauses, thinking back to her glazed, sightless eyes, “I mean, I still consider us friends. I saw her brother a few times before then, but I didn’t really get to know him until senior year of college.”
Akane props her chin on her hand. “What was that like?”
“What, senior year?” he shakes his head. “Crazy. A bunch of projects and seminars. Maria and I were just glad to be done. It had all gone so quickly, and we were almost there.”
His stomach twists at the thought. They both wanted it so much. It was hard work, and a lot of it, but they were both working their asses off just to make it through. It was almost fun, in a way, practicing speeches and presentations to an audience of one, making flashcards and coffee and throwing pillows at her to keep her awake, and having her kick him in the ribs with a socked foot in return.
They didn’t have any more classes together at that point. Their different majors had put them on two different tracks, but they still were able to remain friends. By that point her fashion advice had finally sunken in, and he just owned a lot of black, a lot of jeans, and a worn leather jacket. All dark colors, but it seemed to suit him. It was much different than the colorful disaster he had been when he first entered the place, at any rate.
“Didn’t you go to college?” he asks her, suddenly, “You must remember how it was.”
Akane shakes her head, her eyes distant, “I didn’t have time,” she tells him, “I had other things to worry about.”
He sees papers spread on a dark oak table, Akane is smiling benignly as she gathers them, stopping only to extend a hand to a person seated in front of the desk. The woman shakes her hand, cooly, but doesn’t speak. Akane keeps her face neutral. This is the first of many steps. She’s rehearsed it in her heads so many times before today, she just needs to make sure it goes right.
“So,” the woman says, feigning nonchalance, “I hear you have intel on Free the Soul?”
Akane hides her amusement, reaching over to pull one of the pages from the far side of the desk, tucking it into her pile. It’s the file on the mandrake root. She put it there to make sure Alice sees it. And by the way Alice’s eyes follow her, she knows she has. Alice leans back, but Akane can see the first light of real interest in her eyes, the way her gaze sweeps over the rest of the loose pages on the table, actually trying to read them this time.
“I know some things,” Akane answers, cryptically. In truth, she does need Alice’s help in this, but the deal will hinge on Alice feeling like she benefits more from this than Akane does. “But I need your help to really make this stick.”
“Hmm,” Alice’s brown eyes sweep over the table again, picking up carefully placed phrases such as “Coffin of Ancient Priestess Recovered in Al Haram,” and “The Secret to Amen-Ra: A Study on Saponification.”
“You’ve done your research,” Alice says pointedly, catching on to the placement of the articles.
“This is an important meeting,” Akane admits, reaching over to collect a file on the Cells Alive System (CAS). “I want it to go well.”
“That’s something we have in common,” Alice replies, a similar hint of amusement in her eyes as Akane continues to stack the papers in her specific order. “This is impressive, yes, but it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Why should I cooperate with you and not any of the other people who want my information?”
“Because,” Akane says, reaching the last of her papers. She evens them out along the face of the desk. “We have a lot in common.”
She hands a file to Alice, who takes it and flips it open and begins to read. After a moment, her eyes dart up to meet Akane’s with the light of a new understanding between them. The room is silent for a careful moment as Alice continues to read the file. Evidently, she’s seen enough, because she looks up before reaching the end of it and her stoic face breaks into a sardonic grin.
She sets the file down, open on the table. “You’re right,” she says, her earlier aloofness gone, leaving only a keen interest in its place. “It’s good to finally meet you, Akane Kurashiki.”
Akane smiles easily in her victory. “Likewise.”
“What the fuck.” Junpei hears his voice but his eyes are still looking at something completely new, both seeing and not seeing. “What the fuck. What was that? Was I in your head?”
Akane giggles. “That was a long one,” she says, “I almost thought you had just zoned out on me.”
“Oh my God,” Junpei reaches for his coffee. It’s gone cold. “What the hell was that?”
Akane taps her empty cup on the table. “Welcome to the Morphogenetic Field,” is all she says.
Junpei’s mind was bursting with questions. “But, that’s not-- But. what?”
Akane smiles tiredly at him, waiting for him to find an order for his thought.
“It’s that easy? I thought there had to be danger involved,” is the first thing he says, the rest of his questions already crowding the back of his throat.
“This was just a result of us resonating, Jumpy,” Akane says, “our minds are connected to the field and each other. It’s so...intimate.”
He blushes at that, and Akane laughs. She had probably said it just to embarrass him.
“Get your mind out of the gutter,” she scolds, light heartedly, “it’s a lot different when it’s a life or death situation. There’s no long exposition, it’s just information hitting you... hard and fast.”
“Stop,” he stutters, hating how red his face is, “You don’t have to phrase it like that.”
She giggles again. He ignores the heat on his face. “This is good,” she says, sobering. “You’re on the right track. Soon we’ll have more control over exactly what we show each other.”
“So you didn’t need me to tell you about Carlos and Maria at all, then. You already knew.”
Akane shrugs. “I knew a little bit. But I don’t know the details. Seeing a dead girl in your memories is different than hearing you tell me about who she was.”
“She wasn’t--” he flinches, “She isn’t dead.”
Akane notices the change in tense. Of course. She notices everything. “I didn’t want to pry,” she soothes, running a fingernail along the edge of the table. “And you know some things about me that I haven’t told you about, right? It’s an even trade.”
He thinks about fire and the sharp scent of gasoline, a house going up in flames. Things he shouldn’t know. Things he isn’t allowed to.
“Is it really so…” Junpei trails of. “So safe? How do you know for sure that people can’t eavesdrop?”
Akane frowns, thoughtfully. “It’s true that there’s a lot we don’t know about the field,” she admits, “But I’ve been working with it since I was a child. That’s longer than anyone here. So I think I’ve gotten the hang of it.”
“But how do I know that the information I send is going to you?” he tries, “what if there was another esper in the room? Wouldn’t they receive it as well? Like Bluetooth.”
“You’re only trying to send it to me. And right now, that’s all you’re able to do. Maybe with more practice you could reach out to other espers, but it’s rare for receivers to have partners other than their transmitters.”
“So the morphogenetic field is like…. One big group chat.”
“A universal group chat. Messages are sent to pairs or small groups. But if you can read a message without knowing either of the members in particular, then you’re just resonating with the field as a whole, getting a lot of random information.”
“So if the NSA taps into a network and reads our texts… then that’s also resonating.”
Akane smiles. “That’s right. But there are so many text messages being sent out all day into the field as a whole. They wouldn’t know how to find just us, to pick up out out of millions. That’s why you have to add people to your contacts. Like we just did.
“The morphogenetic phone.”
“If I send information to you accidentally then...The morphogenetic butt dial.”
“Sure. The Crash Keys is just one small group of people that can share information with each other with our minds.”
She makes it sound so simple. “And this is just easier than being facebook friends.” He was joking, but Akane nods.
“There are some things that you just can’t say. And the brain works much quicker than you realize. You’re brain takes in information and sends it away at a high speed. By the time you found words and spoke, I will have already known what you were going to say. In this business, it saves us precious time.”
He nods. “And you use it to rob banks.”
“We use it to realize to realize our goals. The bank was just one task on a complicated list of steps to take. Come on, Junpei, you knew that one already.”
“I did,” he feels a dry smile at the corner of his lips. “It’s so sci-fi. You could do a lot of good with a power like that.”
There’s no real assignments for the day, but after his talk with Akane he realizes that he does need to become closer with the rest of the Crash Keys. This entire operation is based on his ability to make friends, and considering how private and closed off they are from each other, it’s amazing to think that they’re supposed to be able to share the intimacies of their minds by the end of the month.
It’s so strange. Why do they bother using code names then, if they’ll probably know each other’s real names by the end of this from all the telepathy? He thinks about what Akane had explained to him. Emotional closeness helps, but physical proximity is important, too. Which is why he needs to take advantage of having everyone in one place.
He thinks the hardest of the group will be All-Ice, Phi, and Santa. All-Ice and Santa seem to be two of the older members, and definitely more closed off. Besides that, all three of them have experience that he doesn’t, and are definitely smart enough dodge his questions from a mile away if they wanted to. But he supposes they don’t really have a reason to keep him at arm’s length.
They just need to be close enough to have their brains linked together. Easy peasy. He might not ever receive any information from them, but they just need to have that connection.
He finds Alice-- All-Ice, he has to keep reminding himself. It’s weird to think that her real name is so close to her code one, but it’s probably easier to remember that way. She’s with Clover. He tries to think of a time he had seen the two apart, but comes up empty.
They look up when he walks in. Clover waves awkwardly at him, looking uncomfortable as he approaches. Gaulem blinks at him from Clover’s lap, tilting his chin up as if to ask him to scratch it.
He doesn’t. He just sits near them, and no one says anything. A part of him wonders why he’s even doing this. It seemed a lot simpler in his head, but now that he’s here he’s hit with the acute realization that he’s never had a purposefully pointless conversation with either of them before. It’s usually all business, relaying a message, doing his task and getting out. What is he supposed to talk about? Work?
“So,” he says, “Any, uh, advice?”
All-Ice blinks at him. “On driving? Keep your eyes on the road. Green means go, yellow means go, red means go. Don’t stop for anything, is what I’m saying.”
Clover laughs, “Try not to die,” she says, “I usually just do what June tells me. I guess it can’t hurt to be familiar with the car you're using.”
All-Ice nods. “Always be where you’re supposed to,” she says, shooting Clover a look. “Just stick to the plan. Clover is great at that.”
“If I stuck to the plan, then we wouldn’t have Gaulem here to play with,” Clover says cheekily, running a hand down the cat’s tabby back.
“I could have bought you a cat,” All-Ice says, leaning forward, “that’s what we should use this money for, hmm?”
Light’s hands glancing over the harp strings, the thin music filling the air as Alice’s warm breath wafts against her cheek as she leans in to whisper something to her. The light in the cafe is soft and golden and Clover can smell Alice’s perfume at their proximity. They shouldn’t be seen together so soon after their last job, but here they are.
Her pink lips twist into a smile and she gently pushes Alice away with a hand on her shoulder, entirely too aware of the potential danger. Her hand lingers there even after Alice has returned to her seat. Alice reaches a hand up to cover it, a knowing smirk on her lips.
Light hesitates for just a moment before the next chord, and Clover knows him too well to think that it was just a simple mistake. Light doesn’t make mistakes like that. He was listening, thinking, trying to guess their guest’s identity before the song ended. He was always paying attention.
Clover is grateful for the reminder. She had been too giddy with excitement at the thought of having Alice here in the cafe that she had almost forgotten about her brother’s careful vigilance. She’ll just have to take care to keep the rest of the visit as casual as possible, and make sure the lie she tells him at the end of the day is just as easy and natural as the truth would have been.
Clover blushes, leaning away and casting a quick glance in Junpei’s direction. All-Ice follows her gaze and straightens up, the playful glint in her eye gone completely as she turns to regard Junpei.
“That’s all there is to it,” she says, a note of dismissal in her voice, “Just drive fast.”
“Um,” Junpei says, squirming under her impatient gaze, ashamed at the information he had just uncovered. “Thanks,” he bleats, as they keep looking at him, wondering why he hasn’t fled the scene yet.
He stumbles over himself in his haste to leave the room, taking just enough steps down the hallway to ward off their wandering ears. He presses his back against the wall and exhales, trying to chase the discomfort he feels at having perused their memories like that. It’s probably rude to do that without asking.
But how is he supposed to breach the topic? It’s not like he chose to do so. He can’t help it that Clover was remembering her weekend when he chose to look at her. Or maybe she did? Did she mean to send it to him? But why? He doesn’t want to know about that, it’ll just make it harder for them to be crime colleagues.
Or is this just going to happen every time he looks at someone? Should he just walk around with a paper bag over his head?
It’s going to take some getting used to . Akane’s whispy voice wanders through his mind and he wonders if it’s from a memory or just another side effect of all this Morphogenetic Field stuff. It’s going to be a lot, at first.
He can’t even tell the difference between a memory and telepathy. This is going to drive him crazy.
Okay. Okay. Relax. This is nothing he didn’t already know. Alice and Clover are flirting. What else is new? That was kind of an open secret. Now he just knows a few more details. No big deal.
He feels his shoulders drop. In any other situation, he would have known that about them already. It would have been explicit common knowledge. The only reason that they haven’t said anything is because there’s no reason for them to. It’s not related to the Crash Keys. It’s not a secret, either. If he asked them about it, they would just shrug and ask him why he wanted to bring it up.
This isn’t even about them. It’s just the fact that he can look someone in the eye and read their memories. That’s definitely a first.
“I’m not that good at it, myself,” Phi says, not looking up from her computer. “I’ve honestly only used it a few times. Most of my work is behind the scenes, and when it’s not, I think on my feet well enough.”
“But you’ve accessed the field, right?” Junpei tries, “How did you do it?”
The light from the screen glints in Phi’s glasses, “Hmmm,” she says, “I suppose it started sometime after I witnessed my parents being murdered by a mugger.”
From the other side of the room, Sigma laughs, “That’s Batman’s backstory,” he explains, as Luna swipes at his finger, “We watched the movies last night.”
Junpei sits on the bed as Sigma continues to play with Luna with a shoelace. The kitten springs up, paws flailing wildly as she attempts to grasp the string.
“So you two have been getting along,” Junpei notes, watches as Sigma pulls the string away at just the last moment, sending Luna crashing onto his lap.
Phi doesn’t look away from her screen as she answers. “June told me to keep an eye on him. So we’ve been watching movies. I think we’ll do Lord of the Rings tonight.”
“You said we could watch “Cats Don’t Dance,” Sigma whines, “what do I need to do to purr-suade you?”
Phi throws a book at him.
“Hey!” Sigma squawks, scrambling to catch the book as it hits him in the center of his chest, “be careful. You could have hit Luna.”
“My bad,” Phi says, going back to typing.
Sigma sighs, “No one here has a sense of humor,” he tells Junpei, forlornly. “But what about you? I don’t think we’ve met yet.”
“I’m, er, Tenmyouji,” he says, almost forgetting his code name. He watches, distracted as Luna begins to climb up Sigma’s shirt, her claws poking holes in the fabric.
Sigma grins, unconcerned. “I like the code names,” he says, “it makes it seem so legit. Like an action thriller.” He deepens his voice for dramatics, “You can call me… Death Blade…”
“I thought you wanted us to call you Catsanova?” Phi calls from across the room. Sigma makes a face.
“Yeah, because I’m an amazing lover. And also because you guys said no to Doctor Mew,” he says, “But that was before I knew what kind of operation you were running, here. This is so crazy. I can’t wait to rob a bank.”
Junpei shifts his weight, uncomfortable, but Sigma doesn’t seem to notice the quiet, for he keeps talking.
“I love it. Stealing from the government. Like, that’ll teach you to make me take out student loans!”
Junpei catches Phi’s eye from the reflection of her computer screen. After a moment, she looks away. Sigma is still talking.
“Listen--” Junpei interrupts, shying away when Sigma’s eyes return to him. “It’s true that this is...um, a high stakes operation. Like something you might see on T.V. But you probably should watch what you say. I mean, don’t tell us anything that could give away your identity.”
And don’t say anything that might humanize you, because then Junpei will have to live with this knowledge if something goes wrong and Sigma doesn’t survive it, like, why does he have student loans? Is he going to college? Where? For what? Is he going to be a doctor? These are all questions he doesn’t need to be wondering about.
“Butch Cat-ssidy,” Sigma says, ignoring him. “That was a good one. He was an old bank robber. Is it too late to change my name?”
“You can’t change your name, dumbass,” Phi says, “And Tenmyouji’s right. I already know too much about you. Like how Homeward Bound makes you cry.”
“It makes everyone cry,” Sigma insists, “When Shadow comes home at the end...man… How does it not get to you?”
“Because I’m a,” Phi pauses, “what was the term you used, a malnourished harpy?”
“That’s right,” Sigma says, scratching behind Luna’s ear as the cat curls up on his chest, “Phi got her feelings surgically removed.”
“One more step closer to becoming Robocop,” she deadpans.
“I keep telling you, Robocop has feelings. His human brain was left intact. How many times do we have to have this conversation?”
Phi lets out a breath. “Those are Murphy’s emotions. It’s Murphy’s brain in Robocop’s cyborg body. Two completely different characters.”
Sigma slams his hand on the mattress with a thump. “Robocop using Murphy’s brain to function means that Murphy’s brain is his brain, if he exhibits Murphy’s emotions then those are Robocop's emotion.”
Phi spins around in her chair. “Murphy’s emotions being shown through robocop are still Murphy’s emotions! It’s Murphy feeling those things and having those reactions.”
“Robocop doesn’t have a heart is what you’re saying?” Sigma sounds outraged, “Robocop doesn’t call to donate after seeing those really sad ASPCA ads?”
“Wait, hold on, are you saying that if someone gets a brain transplant then they’re an entirely different person?”
“We can’t go down this fucking rabbit hole again, Sigma. And no, because in that case the brain would be working with the new person’s hormones. Robocop doesn’t have hormones, he’s a robot.”
“Robocop didn’t go through puberty, is what you’re saying.”
“That’s not-” Phi sighs.
“I’m just gonna put you down on a list of non believers,” Sigma nods, “right after the guy at the deli last week and right before the Governor of California.”
“How many people have you had this conversation with?”
“It’s a discussion the entire country should be having.” Sigma nods to himself, satisfied.
They lapse into silence. Junpei doesn’t really know where to look, but it feels weird to just leave after that bizarre conversation, so he stares at the floor and tries to think of something to say. He’s spend the better part of the hour with them and he hasn’t received anything from the Morphogenetic Field.
That’s probably a bad sign, but it makes him feel relieved. Maybe he doesn’t want to know more. If that’s what their conversations are like, who knows how much weirder the things they aren’t saying are?
He can hear the rapid clicking of keys from where Phi is typing, and he looks over at her. She doesn’t notice his gaze, or she doesn’t think to say anything. He’s too far away to see what she’s doing, but he does see a wikipedia page open. Does he want to know? Not really.
He thinks about Clover’s brother. Junpei hadn’t even known that he had existed before today. And now here he is, entirely too aware that Clover has a brother that cares very much about her. Even if Light can manage on his own, it still wouldn't be easy with Clover gone. Blindness aside, he would be crushed if he knew that she had put herself in danger. They both still need each other. They’re all that they have left. Clover doesn’t want to hurt him, but she has to do this. He just can’t know, and it’s safer this way.
(How does Junpei know that? He couldn’t have gotten that much information from just a few seconds of a memory.)
But why is Clover putting herself in danger like this? What makes her want to pursue this road? He knows that Alice is in it for her father, but what could Clover possibly want? He could ask her, if he wanted to. He could ask her and she might tell him, or show him. That would give him the answer he needs. But at the same time, the thought of knowing so much about her scares him. It’s a lot of responsibility.
Sigma makes a cooing to the cat sitting on his chest, breaking Junpei out of his thoughts.
“Sigma,” Junpei says, “I’m not asking because I’m curious and I want you to answer this as vaguely as possible. Don’t you think there would be anyone looking for you? Is it okay for you to just stay here? You’re still new to all of this.”
For once, Sigma doesn’t jump at the chance to speak. He looks at Junpei silently for a long moment, before turning his gaze away. He seems to be taking a lot of time to think about it.
“No,” is what he finally says. There’s something funny about the way he says it, but Junpei had instructed him to be vague, so he isn’t going to pry.
“You’re talking this all pretty well, either way,” Junpei remarks, “You don’t think any of this mind reading stuff is weird at all?”
Sigma shrugs. Or, he does the best he can without disturbing Luna. “I’ve heard of weirder things,” he admits, “the brain is a strange place. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more to it. Like esper abilities that haven’t even been discovered yet. I think it’d be cool to do research on that.”
“You should do research on curing your cat tic, instead,” Phi says.
“That’s a clawful thing to say,” Sigma scolds, frowning as if to force the seriousness from the air. “There’s no cure for magic, Phi. Everyone knows I was cursed by a magic cat when I was a kid.”
“Only because you won’t shut up about it,” she mutters, almost too low for Junpei to hear. Junpei tries not to notice that Phi had offered Sigma an escape route and he had taken it almost immediately, directing the conversation off topic and allowing Phi’s banter to keep it on that route. Maybe they’re closer than he had thought. How is it possible after only a day?
“It’s my tragic backstory,” Sigma says, “It’s the only interesting thing I had going for me. Well, until meow, that is.”
Junpei blinks at him. “What do you think June’ll have you do?”
Sigma shrugs again, “Heck If I know. Maybe she’ll use me as muscle. I’m very cat-theltic.”
“That’s it.” Phi stands up, and before either of them can react, she scoops the cat off of Sigma. Luna meows in protest, as does Sigma, whom Phi silences with a glare.
“Take this cat for a while, will you?” She says, dropping Luna into Junpei’s lap. “I can’t handle another one of his puns.”
“Me-owch.” Sigma gets another book thrown at him, for his trouble.
Junpei stands, unsure of how to hold her but aware that he had been given a clear sign to leave. Luna squirms in his arms, her claws poking through his shirt as she tries to twist out of his grip. She seems to relax after a moment, however, getting used to his hands on her. She sinks into his arm, kneading her front paws into his stomach, and he ignores the pain the best he can.
“Aww,” Sigma cooes, “That means she likes you, Tenmyouji.”
“At least someone does,” he says, swallowing the pain the best he can when Luna starts to gnaw on his finger.
He closes the door behind him, but lingers still. He can hear Sigma and Phi talking in low voices, but it’s not enough to know what they’re saying. He’s about to keep walking when he hears something else, instead.
“….Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”
It’s raining on the day she buries her mother. She would think it were cliche, if she cared for things like that. If she cared for anything at all, even the prayer that the priest was droning on about, then it would be an improvement. But as it is, all she can do is stand with her fists clenched at her sides, with her nice shoes muddied in the rain, as her other mom stands next to her with the umbrella and whispers, “Sweetheart, we can get through anything.”
It would be easier if she could believe her. It would be easier if she could do any of this in a normal way, even grieve in a normal way. If she could take her remaining mother’s offered hand, if she could text her girlfriend back, then maybe something about this would get easier, this weight lifted off her chest.
“We will survive this,” her mother says, fervently. A promise. An oath. A stubborn thought she clings to, even now, even when they had both said the same thing during chemo and yet here they all are anyway.
“….Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over….”
And even with all those thoughts in her head, even with the promise of a normal life so tantalizingly close, Phi knows what she has to do. She thinks about the way this will hurt her mother, but she thinks about all the good it will do to all those who are still suffering. This is the only way she can avenge her mom. This is the only way she can ever be at peace.
She can prevent this. She has all the tools to do so. No one else will be denied the medicine they need because of one man’s greed. She’s going to burn Cradle Pharmaceutical to the ground. She’s going to make them pay for what they’ve done.
“…..Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever…”
Tomorrow, she will meet Akane and tell her yes, she will sell her soul to the Crash Keys and be honored to do so.
Santa blinks at him. “You want me to what?”
Junpei winces as Luna climbs across his shoulders, her claws digging into his neck. “I just wanted to say hi. And for you to take this cat from me, please.” Also, please help me establish a pseudoscience mind connection with you, please and thanks.
Santa raises an eyebrow, unimpressed, but after a moment he relents, sighing as he reaches to pull Luna off of him. The young cat clings to Junpei for just a moment before giving up. She quickly warms to her new handler, busying herself with chewing on the end of the thin black scarf that’s looped around Santa’s neck. Santa holds the cat like he knows how, without any of the awkwardness or fumbling that Junpei had.
She pulls at his scarf and kicks at it with her back feet, and Santa watches it coolly, as if none of this was currently happening. Unlike Junpei, who’s now covered in cat hair and scratches and unable to look cool at the same time.
He takes a moment to think about what he had seen. He’s grateful for what Phi allowed him to view, but he still feels bad. It feels wrong to pry into other people’s minds, even if doing so strengthens his own connection to the field. He knows that they’re all linked as espers, but shouldn’t they get to chose the information they release out into the field?
She should be allowed to keep things to herself. But he supposes it’s her decision. She must have known what he had come in there for. Not a memory, but a connection. And now it’s been established, and he can at least be thankful for that.
Santa lifts a hand to pet under Luna’s chin. Luna stops attacking his scarf, distracted immediately by the attention, and falls into a deep, steady purr, her eyes blinking shut. Junpei tries not to feel jealous.
“How do you do that?” Junpei asks, watching as Luna’s head lolls calmly over Santa’s elbow. “She wouldn’t sit still with me.”
Santa doesn’t look up. “You just have to know cats,” is all he says. “Is that what you came here to ask me?”
“No,” Junpei sighs, “I wanted to ask about the morphogenetic field. You’ve been around June the longest, so I thought maybe you would know more about it.”
“Making the rounds, huh?” Santa pauses to think, before nodding to himself and moving out of the doorway, a silent invitation for Junpei to enter. He accepts, sitting carefully on the edge of a nearby chair, not wanting to speak and say something wrong just as Santa was ready to open up to him.
Santa’s room is arguably much bigger than the ones he had been in before. Clover and Alice had been the bigger section of the warehouse, the room they use for meeting and planning. In was a large gray room, empty except for a long, sturdy table surrounded by chairs, and a chalkboard in the back that Akane sometimes used to draw diagrams.
He doesn’t know what Clover and All-Ice’s room looks like, but given the lack of space and how close they are, he thinks they might just share a room. It’s what Sigma and Phi are doing, except the two of them seem to have more of a roommate arrangement going on.
But Santa doesn’t seem to have any problem with space. His room is large enough for even a small book case, unlike Phi’s. Where she had to stack her books beside her computer, Santa’s desk is clear. Above it hangs an old cork bulletin board, with a few things pinned there that Junpei’s too far away to read.
And, unlike the other rooms, he has places for two people to sit which isn’t a mattress, which is already an update from the cramped, narrow rooms he had been in previously.
Santa pulls up a chair with his free hand, the sound tearing Junpei from his thoughts as Santa sits a little too close for comfort. But he doesn’t seem to mind the proximity, nor does he notice the dozing black cat in his arms. “You’ve heard from the others today, right?”
“That’s right,” Junpei says, a little unnerved by Santa’s scrutiny. Did he know that because of the field? “I couldn’t really figure it out. All-Ice and Clover tried to be helpful, but Phi and Sigma didn’t really tell me anything outright. But now I’m wondering if Robocop has feelings.”
Santa’s stares at him for a long moment before rolling his eyes. “I guess it is a little worrying that you’ve just now began to access the field,” Santa mutters, “You should have figured it out long ago.”
“Well hey,” Junpei protests, “It’s not like you guys were in a big rush to tell me.”
Santa pauses. “That one’s on me, I guess,” he shrugs, “I thought you were just the car guy. No offense, but you don’t exactly look like much.”
Junpei feels himself deflate, “Thanks.”
Santa scratches behind his head. “Don’t take it the wrong way,” he says, “I just didn’t guess that you were really so important to the entire operation. I mean, you showed up like, what, a few months ago?”
There must be something about the look on his face, because Santa keeps backpedaling. “Okay, well if it makes you feel any better, you at least have a grasp on the esper stuff already. You keep sending me memories of that bad Santa Claus drawing you saw in Walmart last December. Everytime you think of me, I get to relive that memory with you. So thank you, really.”
“It was a funny picture,” Junpei relents, “and I don’t mean to send it to you. It’s not my fault you named yourself Santa.”
“Yeah, well, I did,” Santa grumbles. “I’m Santa Claus. Gotta go make a wish come true, and all that.”
“Santa doesn’t grant wishes. He’s not a genie.”
Santa swats him on the side of his head with his free hand. “Shut up,” he says, “that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
Santa stills for a moment, his hand reaching down to scratch behind Luna’s ear. Junpei’s eyes are drawn to the burn scars mottled across his arms, where the skin is warped and puckered from the old injury. He’s never been close enough to see them with such detail. He thinks that even with the help of the morphogenetic field, no quite one knows how Santa got them, except for maybe Akane.
Eventually, Santa just shrugs, unaware of his scrutiny. “I really liked the holiday as a kid, is all.”
Junpei drags his eyes away “Like childhood innocence thing? You don’t really seem the type.”
Santa rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, obscuring the scars. “What type do I look like, then? Answer that carefully. Actually, don’t answer it at all.”
Junpei leans back. Luna finally gets bored of Santa and begins to struggle out of his grasp. With little resistance, Santa deposits her onto the bed and she begins to explore with tentative, careful steps. They take a moment to watch her, her black tail sticking out straight behind her.
-her pale wrist on the dark oak floor, next to a splash of orange hair. She fell with her arm facing up, her green scrubs rolled up to clearly show where he has to put the needle in. It feels bad to knock her out but Akane didn’t want him to kill her. Whatever- she always has a soft spot for Tenmyouji. It’s not his job to question it.
This woman, whoever she is, won’t remember this. Maybe she’s the drinking type, and will chalk it up to that. But he doesn’t think so. The rest of the job is simple. Easy. She might even wake up before her shift starts. But he doesn’t think so.
Santa seems surprised. “Oh,” he says, looking lost. “You’re better at this than I thought.”
Junpei frowns, a vague headache building behind his eyes. “This isn’t going to be an everyday thing, right?”
“No,” Santa says, “June just instructed us to help you out a little to establish a connection. Believe me, I don’t think anyone is that willing to let you know all our secrets without a direct order.”
They take turns looking at the floor. Junpei’s head is actually starting to hurt from having to process all of this information.
“You know, Tenmyouji,” Santa continues, “I wouldn’t tell you anything I wouldn’t want you to hear. And that includes the Morphogenetic Field.”
Junpei blinks at him. He doesn’t know what to say. After it becomes apparent that he isn’t going to get a response, Santa rolls his eyes.
“I mean,” he says, “I get it. I do. Knowing things about people means that you humanize them, and then it’s not too great when things go poorly for them. And that goes double for our industry. But it’s different now. Because of what June can do. So we need to trust each other, because it helps us resonate and boosts our esper abilities, which helps her get us out of whatever situation we’ve ended up in.”
“Sure” he says as Santa glances at him. “But I mean, we’re not supposed to say anything too specific about ourselves, but we’re also supposed to get to know each other? Like, we all know each other’s real names through the field, but we keep using these code names?”
“You never know who’s listening to a verbal conversation,” Santa says, “hence the code names. And If someone was using the field to spy, June would have known it way before hand. You have to have bonded enough to resonate, and June doesn’t let just anyone do that without screening them first.”
“But still, you can’t really be sure.”
“You can’t be sure about anything, Tenmyouji.”
“I guess so.”
“It will be fine,” Santa shrugs. “The field will come so naturally to you that you won’t even have to think about it. You’ll notice when you’re not around espers.”
He thinks back to the shared memory. The red hair, the nurse’s uniform, and then he places it. “That’s the woman from yesterday, right? The one I let go?”
“What happened?” Junpei blinks at him. “You didn’t kill her?”
“No.” Santa looks away. “We couldn’t just let her go to the police. She saw us pretty clearly. I don’t know if you heard us talking about it, but the detective in charge of busting us has actually managed to hit a stroke of good luck in recent weeks. We didn’t want to continue the trend. A witness account of both our faces is not what we need to be dealing with.”
“So what did you do to her?”
“We have a drug that erases memories.” Santa studies the wall. “It’s not an exact science, but it’s better to have too much than too little. At the most, she’ll most likely remember driving home from work and waking up on her bedroom floor. Then she’ll think her car was stolen.”
“When did you do it?”
“Early this morning,” Santa still doesn’t look at him. “June stopped to get coffee on the way back.”
“Oh.” Junpei remembers. That’s why she had been out so early. It wasn’t just for coffee, after all. Why had he believed that so easily?
“Diana didn’t go to the police right away- she was probably afraid that we were watching her. And it’s a shame, but,” he sighs. “At least she’s alive. She won’t know a thing.”
“It’s better than her being dead,” Junpei says, just to convince himself. He fails. He and Santa share a similar glance.
“I don’t like it,” Santa leans back, casually. “But what can you do? And it’s over now. One less thing to worry about.”
“One less thing,” he echoes. “What about that detective?”
Santa lets out a breath through his teeth. “Seven,” he says, grimly. “That’s what we call him. You know why?”
Santa grins at him, bitterly. “We’ve had many detectives on our case over the years, but he’s only the seventh to get close to the truth. The only saving grace we have is that he’s never seen our faces. But he’s sharp. He’d put two and two together.”
“And the first six?”
Santa winks at him. “They didn’t get too far.”
“How long does it usually go on for?”
“We’re close to the end,” Santa looks wistful, “of this entire operation, I mean. Once we’re through with Cradle we’ll all go underground and lay low for a while. Disband the Crash Keys, probably. It’s too much to risk.”
“Oh,” Junpei hadn’t thought about that. He’ll probably be all on his own again after this is over. What will he do then? Go home? Live among normal people and hope that he’s never recognized?
He pushes the thought away. Cradle being gone will be a good thing. It’ll mean that he succeeded, that it’s finally over. He’ll get to go home. Maybe-- maybe Maria will even be awake to greet him. He feels a pang in his chest when he thinks about it. He probably won’t ever be able to tell her or Carlos about what he’s been up to for the past two years, but that doesn’t matter. He’ll get his life back when this is over. Everything will go back to normal.
Santa studies him. “Close, isn’t it?” He has a knowing glimpse in his eye, and at once Junpei understands just how similar they are.
We’re both doing this for other people, he thinks, and we’ll both be glad to see the past done with and laid to rest.
“Yeah,” he says, worried about the things he seems to know subconsciously. Luna pounces on a fold of the sheets on the bed, her small claws hooking onto a loose thread. Santa watches her, lazily, the silence in the room bordering on hopeful and uneasy, a careful peace on this common ground between them.
The job was simple. All of his jobs are simple. That’s because he’s talented as hell. That’s why they chose him for this. Because he’s quick and unassuming. He’ll be in and out and still have for a coffee run before his client is expecting the confirmation. He’s dealt with trackers before. They’re all the same, really. But he knows just how to disguise them in plain sight. It’s because he knows cars. It’s insane how many people would rather hire him than bother to learn it themselves.
Black Sedan. 6GDG487 license plate. Don’t let the owners catch you in it. When the job is complete, wait for our call after the time limit, and speak only the password. Which is blueberries. Payment will be delivered to you upon confirming successful installation.
The door swings open. The parking garage is empty, and that’s because whoever owns it is in a meeting, and will continue to be in that meeting for at least another forty minutes. That’s plenty of time. He can do it in five.
It’s some business woman’s, he thinks. It’s that woman that everyone is always talking about. Her and the Crash Keys. That’s all they ever talk about. That, and God Damn Cradle Pharmaceuticals with their death grip on that new drug. He remembers one of the many conversation he’s heard about the topic. From what he knows about it, it’s old news. Happened way back in 2018. He was only in middle school then, but these people are still bitter over it. But that’s not why he’s here now.
“Did you see what the CEO is doing?” he remembers one woman asking, as he sat waiting for his next assignment. Her ruby red lips twisted in distaste. “He’s inflating the hell out of it. Bastard.”
“You just wish it was you sitting on that monopoly,” the man barks out a harsh laugh.
Junpei keeps his eyes down, picking at a fingernail to feign distraction. But he recognizes the man’s voice. Junpei’s done a few jobs for him before in recent weeks. But it’s hard to see the man’s face through the smoke in the room.
It’s a good gig, but the best part is this moment, when they talk amongst themselves and assume that he doesn’t care or isn’t listening. He thinks they should be more careful. He would be, if he was them.
The second woman lights a cigarette, “I hope he chokes,” she says, “He better hope that I never meet him on the street.”
The first woman cackles, “You think Gentarou Hongou walks on the street with all the commoners? Him and all his fucking money? He can probably get airlifted to the grocery store. Wherever the hell he wants to go.”
The second woman breathes out a puff of smoke. “I’m still pissed that he figured it out before us.”
“He found it in some sort of root, right?” the man interjects, “And what were you looking into? A.C.E mixtures? You were way off.”
The woman scoffs and rolls her eyes. “They say he stole the formula from one of his scientists and then went after her family to keep her quiet. Well, the bullet in her skull was also what kept her quiet. The rest is just collateral.”
“Damn. That’s cold.”
“Couldn’t risk it, I guess.”
“I wonder what else he’s hiding?”
The smoke in the room is starting to make him nauseous. One of the women waves a hand to try to clear the air, and he can see gold bracelets and a ring with large gemstone on her finger glinting in the low light. Junpei slouches in the chair, again uninterested in the conversation around him. They don’t talk about the kidnappings or the Morphogenetic Field theory, so all possible leads dip back into obscurity.
But the smokescreen in the room provides a good cover and obscures the identities of the people around him, not that he’s trying to memorize their faces or anything. It’s just a convenient thing to do, given that he’s bored and has no place in their conversation.
“Five,” at the sound of his code name, he looks up. The man slides an envelope at him from across the table, nodding curtly, once, when Junpei takes it, and then turns to leave.
“Another job?” His old employer abandons his conversation to turn to look at Junpei. “You sure are a busy guy, fiver.”
“Well,” he says, coolly, ignoring the way the smoke catches in the back of his throat, “What can I say? People need me.”
“You jack cars, right?” The woman with the gold jewelry asks, leaning forward in interest.
“That’s right,” he says, trying not to cough.
“Huh,” the woman says, the gray smoke swirling around her face, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He stands, unsure of how to respond. The conversation turns away from him once more, and he slips away, glad to be away from their attention. They’re not interested in him, not really. And the farther he is from that smoky room, the better he feels. Even if the smell of it still clings to his clothes and seeps into his hair.
Of course, he had to change and wash his hair before the job. Not because of personal hygiene, but because he knew that the scent of leftover smoke in the car’s interior would alert his victim that something had gone awry, that someone had been in there before. Even with that stop, he still has plenty of time to get the job done. It’s where he is now, quickly unscrewing the panel underneath the steering wheel.
There are more obvious places for a tracker, like under the carriage, in the trunk, or even just sitting in the glove compartment. But most people don’t go searching beneath the dashboard for no reason. They don’t regularly take apart their steering wheels. And Junpei has done it so many times before that he knows exactly how to put it back together without arousing suspicion.
He puts tracking devices in the retraction slot of a sunroof, behind the wheels, and sometimes in parts of the hood. The last one was tricky due to the heat that can accumulate, but he hasn’t been noticed yet.
The tracker fits neatly below the dashboard, and he tucks the wire to the recording device neatly among the rest. This is all child’s play. It’s not really where his interest lie. It’s just a means to an end, just like everything is. He watches for the flash of light to let him know it’s turned on, and then the tracker goes dormant again. It’ll stay like that until the car is turned on.
He doesn’t really know what he’ll do once he gets the information he needs. Hire a hitman, maybe? He hasn’t thought that far ahead. Right now, he doesn’t need to.
Relieved, he quickly fixes the panel back on, taking one more sweep of the car. He hadn’t gone that far in, and his gloves prevent any leftover fingerprints, but it seems that there really can’t be anything in here to connect him to the act. That last part isn’t necessary, or part of his job description, but he likes to do it for himself. It wouldn’t be any use if he’s the one who gets in trouble for this. He’s just the messenger. Just a guy doing his job.
And he still has twenty minutes before anyone is meant to be here. God, he loves parking garages. They’re so quiet and isolated. This would be a lot harder to do if it were out on the street in broad daylight. At least this way he can have his privacy.
Sighing softly, he gathers his tools and pulls himself out of the car, makes sure the doors locks, and closes it gently, with a click. It’s only when he turns to walk away does he notice something is wrong.
The woman holds her gun steady and smiles politely when he finally notices her. In the time it takes for it to register, he knows that he won’t have time to think of what comes next.
But nothing happens. He sees her hands tense on the gun, the cold smile on her lips still there, frigid and unwavering, but nothing happens. He stares at the barrel of the gun until his vision blurs, until he’s almost too sick of waiting. He’s about to ask her what she wants. He opens his mouth to speak, wondering if she’s going to ask for his employer or if he’s worth anything if she tries to ransom him, but her voice reaches him first.
“Junpei? Is that you?”
He looks at her, fighting off panic. He thinks that in this moment, anyone in this situation would want to claim that they’re Junpei, of course they are, just to save their own lives. He wonders if maybe she has an ex-boyfriend that shares his name, and maybe in that case it’s better to not be Junpei, instead.
Her grip tightens on the gun. He doesn’t have anymore time to think.
“Yeah,” he says, swallowing his nerves. “That’s me.”
The woman watches him with unreadable eyes. “You don’t recognize me,” She says, “You don’t know who I am.”
“No,” he says, searching her deep brown eyes for anything that could give him a hint to her identity. “I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for?” She asks, a note of dark humor in her voice, “that I watched you plant a tracker in my car, or that you don’t seem to remember my face?”
He blinks at her, “I think I’d remember a face as pretty as yours,” he says, a slight tremor in his voice. Maybe the threat of death is making him bold. Or maybe flirting is the way to get out of this?
This woman claims to know him. Maybe it was a one night stand he doesn’t remember. Maybe that’s what she wants out of this. If he pretends that he wants her, too, then maybe he can get out of this.
She cracks a flavorless grin, “What a charmer,” she teases, “You bugging my car, and me with my hand on the trigger. It’s a real meetcute.”
He smiles nervously, pressed up against the car, eyes darting between her and the gun.
She sees him watching it, so she says, “I’ll put this away if you promise not to run. I think you know what will happen if you do.”
He nods. There’s no way for him to get away fast enough, not with her in point blank range.
She puts the gun into her bag. Almost immediately, his shoulders sag in relief. In the time it takes her to do that, he quickly sweeps his eyes over her form, hoping to find something that could clue him in.
He can’t see anything. She’s just dressed like a businesswoman. Once she realizes that he doesn’t know her, she’s going to regret her act of mercy. She’s going to be disappointed that he doesn’t have a better memory, if it’s true that they have met before. She watches him calmly, now, as he tries to think, but he knows that his time is running out.
Stop panicking, he tells himself, just think. But there isn’t any amount of thinking that’s going to tell him something he straight up doesn’t know. Eventually, his time is going to run out and he won’t have any answers for her. Shit.
But then something catches his eye. It’s a charm. It’s towards the back of her bag, so he hadn’t noticed it at first, but the closer he looks, the more it sparks a sense of familiarity within him. It’s a little charred around the edges, but it’s still the same. He knows now, exactly who she is.
He blinks up at her. “Kanny?” he asks, his voice layered with disbelief. “Akane Kurashiki?”
She nods, and the smile on her face blossoms into something more genuine. The last of her tension fades, and she leans her weight to one side, adopting a much more relaxed posture than before.
“It’s been a while, Jumpy,” she says, “I was worried, for a moment there. What gave it away?”
“The doll,” he says, “the one I gave you back then. You still have it?”
“Oh, yes,” Akane says, gesturing to the bag. “We named it June, remember? That month was the last time we saw each other.”
“I remember,” he says, hearing the warmth in his voice. And it’s true. He remembers his face full of bruises and the way she had smiled at him back then, on the hill overlooking the town. “It was when those assholes went after that cat, after what they did to the school rabbits.”
Akane sighs, “And you,” she says, a nostalgic note of scolding in her voice, “trying to fight them off all on your own.”
He grins at the memory. He can’t believe it’s been so long. It’s not that he had forgotten about that day. It’s just been a while since he’s had to think about it. But it’s nice to see her again.
“Yeah, well,” he says, shrugging, “I was a reckless kid.”
“And you still are,” she notes, “you didn’t even realize that I was here, watching you break into my car.”
“Why did you let me?”
She giggles. “You were already underway when I got here. At that point, I didn’t want to get my car interior dirty, so I waited for you to be done. But I didn’t really know it was you until I saw your face. Lucky for you, I waited.”
“Yeah,” he says, “Lucky for me.”
She looks at him. “What happens if you don’t plant this tracker in my car?”
He shrugs. “I don’t get paid, I guess.”
“They don’t have anything on you?”
“Not really. I’m expendable. My clients are always aware of the possibility of failure. Especially when it comes to dealing with, uh, more important cars. To be honest, I suspected this car belonged to some CEO or something. I never imagined that it belonged to you. What did you do to get on so many people’s shit list?”
She laughs. “That’s a long story,” she says, “Why don’t you take a ride with me, and I’ll tell you about it?”
“Okay,” he says, “I’ll, uh, disable the recorder first.”
She smiles again. “Please do.”
“Yeah, yeah, no worries,” he babbles, distracted by her smile. “This would, uh, probably be a lot faster if you just unlocked the door for me this time.”
“Oh,” she seems to realize this as well, for it takes her a moment to search through her bag and find her keys, and as soon as the car beeps he gets to work again underneath her steering wheel.
She peeks over as he works. “The dashboard, huh?” She muses, “not where I would have looked. That’s a smart place to put one of those.”
“Yeah,” he says, from under the dashboard, “It’s a tricky thing. But no one’s first instinct is to take this thing apart, even if they have a reason to believe that something’s wrong with their car.”
“That’s smart,” she says, “You know a lot about cars?”
“Yeah,” he says, sitting up with the recorder and the tracker in hand, “It’s, uh, what I do.”
“Hmm,” she says, her eyes thoughtful as he screws the panel back on. “Interesting. And not exactly legal.”
“Nope,” he slides out of the driver’s seat, dropping the wires and his tools into his bag. “It’s not. But, what can you do?”
“You can come work for me, instead,” she says, watching the way his hand lingers on the zipper of his bag. “We could use a car guy like you.”
“Well, what do you do?” He asks, instead, picking up his bag and moving around the front of the car, making his way to the passenger’s seat.
“You’d help us get cars,” Akane says, “What we do with them varies. But it would be good to have someone who really knows how they work, inside and out. You think you could do that?”
He slides into the passenger seat and closes the door, feeling his bag resting in between his feet. He looks over at her, sees the way her dark brown hair rolls over her shoulder and sways down her back as she moves to ignite the engine. When she catches him looking, she smiles again, and he smiles back, more relaxed and at ease than he’s been in a long time.
“I could do that,” he says, easily. This is how to play this game. And who knows, maybe this will be more helpful than anyone in that smokey room would be.
She steals glances at him in between stops in traffic. They can’t seem to keep their eyes off each other. It’s like they’re making up for all the moments they’ve missed over the years, taking in every small change that’s graced their features. It’s amazing to see how much she’s matured since he’s last seen her.
She’s different now, an adult, but it’s still her. He can see it in her still, despite the coldness in her eyes that had been absent from their last meeting. But despite all of that, looking at her still fills him with the same warmth that it had all those years ago, when they were children.
“It’s great to see you again,” he says, quietly, watching the slope of her forehead, the curve of her small nose, the way the light catches in her eyes.
It’s the first rush of relief that he’s felt in a long time. It had been tiring work, the year he spent out on his own He had become so accustomed to not being able to trust anyone, to having to work so hard only to make such precious little process, to having been fed false information and face setback after setback. Every mistake he made just reinforced the thought that he can’t go back to Carlos until he makes some sort of progress, until he’s done what he’s set out to do. He can’t show up on Carlos’ doorstep just to admit that it was all for nothing, that he’s wasted everyone’s time.
But with Akane here, everything changes. He finally feels like he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. Just looking at her is enough to ease him of those burdens. He would have never expected finding her here, and it feels like finding a familiar face in a strange land, someone he knows he can trust, someone who knows him already just in a glance.
He hadn’t realized just how constantly worried and stressed he had been about watching his back until he was suddenly without it. What a simple relief it was to have a conversation with someone who already knows him, one that isn’t strained or laced with double meanings or traps.
The sun is setting outside, washing the car in a warm orange light. It catches on her eyes when she turns to him again, bringing out the lighter flecks of color within them. He wants to stare at her forever, to take in just all the ways she’s become the woman she is now.
He wants to know every part of her, her life, who she is. Akane Kurashiki. Disappeared one day, and here in front of him once more. It seems surreal to see her again. It was if she had died and come back to life just to meet him again.
They stop at a red light. Akane reaches across and lays a hand on his arm, a warm, comforting weight. “It’s good to see you, too,” she says, softly. “I’m glad to see you. I think you’d be a great addition to my team, and… I’ve missed you, Jumpy.”
He feels himself smiling at the use of his childhood nickname, “I’ve missed you too,” he says, still in awe of her presence, in awe of the way the sunset highlights her features. “I can’t believe just fifteen minutes ago you were going to shoot me in the head.”
She laughs, and it sounds like wind chimes, clear and sweet. She pulls away from him, returning both hands to the steering wheel as the light changes, and he finds that he misses her touch.
The sun continues to burn in the late afternoon as they pass between the buildings. Just them, here in this moment, chasing the dying light as the sun reaches the horizon, as she tells him about how her life is now, about the Crash Keys, and she asks him to join, and he can’t think of anything easier and more natural in the world than telling her yes.
This is too hard. The thought comes back to him time and time again. Driver. Just when he had thought he could escape it, it rounded the corner to find him again. Any time he finds himself relaxing, thinking that he could maybe grasp this Morphogenetic Field stuff and be who he’s supposed to be, the thought comes back that everyone’s lives will be depending on him if he can’t learn to drive like he needs to.
He wishes that he could have found it in him to tell Akane no. To put his foot down, to really make her try all her options. But maybe he’s no good at being contrarian, or maybe he really does see that there isn’t another way. No one else can take Clover’s position. And if they play their cards right, then this places Junpei in a key spot of the Cradle Operation. This puts him directly into the action. That’s what he wanted, right? That’s why he’s doing this.
How does he stay here and explain to Akane the way his heart is sick, when he looks at her and thinks about how he had left Carlos to deal with his life crashing down around him all on his own? How could he leave Akane in the middle of their operation, when she needs him the most, to go back to Carlos, look him in the eyes and tell him that he ran away from the fight again?
He can’t run away again. He can’t turn away when others need him most. So he has to become the driver that Akane needs him to be. He needs to do all of that for her, and explain the way that he misses Carlos but doesn’t feel guilty about being with her even though he thinks he should be.
He and Carlos were never officially dating. It was a question they wandered around, circling it with never any clear intentions to find the answer. But Junpei thinks that if their worlds hadn’t turned upside down, if Junpei hadn’t cursed himself with his own self exile, that it would have lead somewhere.
But it was easy being with Akane, in the months since he met her again. She seemed to understand why he needed to do this, why it was more important than any of the other things he needed to do. She seemed to understand why he couldn’t sit still, and in some way she needed him to be like that, she needed him to be there with her. He doesn’t claim to understand it, but it’s nice to be wanted, either way.
He doesn’t have the words to explain the relief that fills him when he looks at Akane and thinks about how she understands him without judgement, how she doesn’t tell him to take the high road, to forgive and forget, to be the more noble presence. She doesn’t lecture him about getting his hands dirty. She’s in this fight with him, they all are. And in a way, that comforts him much more than learning to forgive ever would.
But he wonders. Is Carlos struggling with hospital bills? Does he still find the time in the day to be a firefighter and visit Maria at the same time? Does he come home from late shifts, looking at the kitchen table in a vain hope that Junpei would be there? If Junpei did come home one day, would there be no questions asked? Would Carlos just invite him inside, and not pry at all?
It would be crueler for it to be that way, to know how much he had taken from Carlos, how much his absence must have hurt him, and be welcomed back anyway. It would be a bigger relief to see Carlos angry and resentful at the way Junpei had only been thinking of himself. It would be everything Junpei deserved.
But he appreciates Carlos and Akane as two different eras of his life, both needed but one better suited for the way he is now, and the job he has to do. It’s his purpose. It’s molded him into something he must become, a part of the Crash Keys, the harbingers of Cradle’s destruction.
And if he has to cast aside any goodness still left inside him, then that’s what he’ll do. Still, he wishes he could send a message to Carlos, just to let him know he's still okay, still alive. That he's still thinking of him, and some days, it's all he can do.
Another chapter for character building!
Chapter 3: Seven
There's some violence in this chapter and description of blood, so heads up!
Gentarou Hongou. That man, wherever he is- it’s impossible to say. He takes good care to stay out of the spotlight, and it’s a wonder that the world even knows his name. The notorious CEO of Cradle Pharmaceutical. He sends representatives to press conferences and patent signings. He has people for everything. If Junpei saw him on the street, he wouldn’t know to recognize him.
And for good reason, too. Someone like Gentarou Hongou can’t just walk out into public and tell people who he is. He’s one of the most hated men out there after what he did to Soporil Beta. It was a drug that people needed, something that could have revolutionized medicine. Scientists had been trying to create it for years and years before Gentarou cracked the code.
Junpei doesn’t know how he did it. For most people, that part remained a mystery. It’s where the controversy started, after all. How could this man make such a landmark discovery and not share his research? How could he make such a stride and keep it to himself, make sure it was only available for the wealthy elites?
But all attempts to recreate Gentarou’s methods were futile. Whatever he had discovered, he kept it so confidential that Junpei would bet that even the top executives don’t truly know what it is. Which is all the more reason to get it out. This is something that people need, and he inflated the price and made sure it was inaccessible. He kept a careful eye on any further findings, going so far as to defund any research that might have gotten close to the truth. The people that needed the drug never got it. It was as simple as that.
Or at least, Junpei wishes it could be. It would be nice to say that he’s doing this simply to be noble, that Crash Keys is a selfless, greater-good kind of group. But the truth is, everyone here had been affected personally by Cradle Pharmaceutical and Gentarou Hongou. And everyone wants to see the CEO dead.
It went farther than the drug. That was just a cover. The real problem surrounding Gentarou Hongou was his involvement with Free the Soul. It was the cult that did his dirty work. It was the cult that was responsible when scientists turned up dead in their homes, when his competitors disappeared off the market without a word, when random children were abducted for the sake of conducting trials and experiments. It was Gentarou who pushed Free the Soul’s hand. He funded them with the money from the drug, and in return Free the Soul had flourished.
Gentarou Hongou exists as an idea more than anything. People love to hate him almost as much as they actually hated him. He represents corporate greed, and all the types of things that college students love to get worked up about. But the Crash Keys don’t exist to dismantle capitalism, as much fun as it would be.
But that’s the truth of the matter. He wishes there could be some easy, exciting way to tell this. Some profound, bombastic affair that gives the situation the dramatics it deserves. But the truth of it can all be written out in one simple sentence:
It’s just a waiting game. That’s it. At this point, they are just trying desperately to string their findings together into one cohesive plot. Most of the work had been done before Junpei even joined the Crash Keys, and he’s in it for the last stretch before the finish line. The bank robbery he had taken part in was the last of many strategically planner capers.
Maria’s voice bouncing with laughter and exaggerated shock. “Carlos! You didn’t know?”
Carlos opens his mouth, a tired, well worn light of amusement in his eyes, but before he can respond, Junpei cuts him off.
“That’s practically blasphemous!”
“Say you’re sorry! Apologize to the funyarinpa!”
Carlos rolls his eyes. “I thought the funyarinpa was that thing from the Rorschach test.”
“That was last month’s, Carlos,” Maria says, patiently, “do try to keep up.”
“R.I.P Rorschach Funyarinpa,” Junpei says, “Gone but never forgotten.”
All of this is just a means to an end. He has to keep reminding himself that this isn’t his life, not really. His actual life is waiting for him on the outside, when all of this is over. This isn’t who he is. This criminal, this isn’t him. He’s exactly who Maria knew him as. He’s still someone Maria would recognize.
Carlos wouldn’t want revenge. He always was the more mature one, of the two of them. But Junpei wants to make them pay. He wants to do something, just so he doesn’t have to spend another day sitting by Maria’s bedside and being useless. (A familiar turn of guilt in his stomach. He should be there right now to support Carlos through this. But he isn’t- and hasn’t been for two years. Whatever Carlos has gone through since Junpei’s absence, he’s had to do it alone. And isn’t it easier that way? What has Junpei ever done except make life more complicated?)
He doesn’t need to think about that right now. He needs to focus on fueling his anger, letting it eat at everything it has. It needs to consume him-- he can’t have it any other way. He needs to feel it so deeply that it roots out any other doubt, a single, steadfast pounding in his ear. For Maria. For Carlos. For himself.
He wakes up with a headache.
Akane pins a photo on the board. It’s been as blown up as it can be, without getting too pixelated. She takes a moment to let it sink in, watching the group as the first spark of interest reaches their eyes, as the sudden understanding pulls their shoulders forward, perks their heads up.
“Gentarou Hongou,” Akane says, clearly and quietly, her voice commanding the room. “This is his face. This is the first time he’s been careless enough to let us see his face. He usually hides away in his tower- and that’s where we’ll find him.”
No one speaks. It’s almost surreal to think that this is actually happening. After all this time of talking and planning, and here he is. They have a target. They have a target, they have a way to bypass security and get into the computers. They know the layout of the building inside and out, they know every detail of the executive’s lives. The only thing they don’t know is the man inside that picture.
Junpei looks at the picture, trying to glean what he can from the poor quality. It doesn’t tell him much, but even the slight blur cannot hide the hardened edge to his eyes, the inhumane glint. It’s not a secret that Hongou takes good care to cover his tracks and remain hidden. But this is the man behind it all. Someone like that, what could he be thinking?
Junpei tries to feel determined.He tries to feel like this is a proper resolution to all their hard work, that this moment has the gravity it deserves. He looks around the room and sees a similar hardened resolve on the faces of the people he’s just begun to know. He wonders how it would truly play out if he had to place his life in their hands-- if they had to rely on him for theirs. Could he come through when they need him?
He’s had such precious little time to know them. In the time since his acquaintance with the morphogenetic field, he finds himself understanding things more and more. It comes to him in moments of deja vu, times where instinct overrides his original plan, or he follows a strong urge into something that inevitably turns out to be correct. But is it enough, when the end of their investigation draws so near?
“That’s him,” All-Ice says, cooly, “You’re sure?”
Akane nods. “It matches all intel that we’ve received so far. And you know how thorough we are. That’s him. He’s almost never in his office.”
“A picture might seem like nothing, Santa interjects, “But it’s a big deal If we did this carelessly, without knowing his face, it could easily be derailed. We could mistake him for one of his executives, or vise versa. We have a clear target now, and he’s a dangerous man. This is the last piece we needed.”
"Lotus will get us in on the ground floor," Akane says, "We'll have security clearance all the way to the top. He'll have a one o'clock meeting that'll give us two hours to work."
“If I can interrupt you for just a second there-” Sigma winces as all eyes turn to him, “I’ve heard a lot about this guy. I know I’m still new, but it’s no secret that this is one shady motherfucker. So we’ve chosen the exact day that we know he’s going to be there in order to break in and steal his life’s work? Doesn’t that seem like tempting fate?”
“Perhaps,” Akane shrugs, “But it'll be that much easier to kill him when he's right there."
“I mean, that’s all fine and dandy, but this is just a blurry picture of him,” Sigma frowns, “This dude is so slippery that you’ve been tracking him for so long and we’re sitting here getting excited over just knowing what he looks like?”
Akane arches an eyebrow. “Your point?”
Sigma’s eyes flicker downward, submissive. “I just,” he says, losing steam as he senses Akane’s good graces wane, “This is just the illusion of progress. We’re not really any closer to the day we take action. It’s a picture.”
“It will be much easier now,” All-Ice points out.
“I just want to know what the actual plan is,” Sigma says, “Are we all really going to just walk in there and log onto his computer, click on the neatly labelled file called “Secret Formula,” and then just gonna dox the CEO of Cradle Pharmaceutical?”
“Two birds one stone,” Phi says, sounding bored. “After Cradle falls, it’s going to be that much harder to track this guy. He’ll be near invisible, more so than he already is. We can’t shoot him after and we can’t get rid of him beforehand without ruining our chances to leak the formula. We have to to both at once”
“But what about the other-”
“Sigma,” Akane interrupts. ”You’ve been here for what, a two months? Maybe cool it with the questions.”
Sigma frowns. “Two months? I’ve been here for at least-” Something in his face changes, subtly. “Oh,” is all he says, faltering. “Right. Nevermind. My apologies.”
No one seems to know what to say to that.
“He does have a point,” Akane says, slowly, after a moment of silence. “We are going to ruin his life’s work on the one day that we’re sure that he’ll be there to see it. We’ll have to be prepared for everything.”
Sigma leans back in his chair, shaking his head, strangely relaxed in the tense atmosphere. “This lack of planning is a 100% Sigma Klim certified maneuver and I am so proud of you guys. Just go for it. Believe in yourselves.”
“Thank you, Sigma,” Akane says dryly, in her please-stop-talking voice, “We’re glad to have your approval.”
“One more question,” Sigma raises his hand sheepishly, averting his eyes to Akane’s blatant glare. “Does he have a code name?”
“Sometimes we call him Ace,” Akane smiles, “in folklore, it’s the card of death.”
“I’m glad to have you on board,” Akane says, pointedly, “Now, may I continue?”
It’s raining hard when he sees Akane again. They don’t all live together in their secret crime warehouse, though he supposes that would make for a great sitcom pitch. Underground vigilantes with a found family trope and a quest for justice, only when they’re not fighting over the remote.
Ha. Maria would have laughed.
He doesn’t really know what the Crash Keys do when he’s not on call. Akane had told him once, he thinks, that though taking down Cradle is the biggest goal, there’s a lot of other things to do in the meanwhile. A lot of tiny steps that lead up to the big downfall. Small parts to the big picture. He’s not usually involved in this.
Before recent events, he would only hook them up with a stolen car every once and awhile. Apparently, he had been so good at that that Akane had decided to plunge him head first into the heart of their operation. But then again, that had been her plan all along.
She hired him to steal cars, but she never expected him to steal….her heart.
Damn, Maria would have laughed at that one too. He should be writing these down for when he sees her again.
Hey Maria, it’s been a while, huh? In the year you’ve been asleep, I’ve gone to the dark side and attempted to murder a millionaire and disband his cult in the name of justice. But nevermind that, here’s all the funny jokes I thought of that went to waste because no one there appreciates my humor.
His burner phone rings twice. He calls her back. She picks up on the first ring.
“Meet me at the docks in a half hour,” Akane says. He can hear a car engine in the background.
No radio? He thinks, but she’ll be missing all the hot summer hits.
“Please focus, Tenmyouji,” she sounds tired.
“Right. Yes. Sorry.” He looks at the scotch in his hand. He would have liked to enjoy it, but it looks like he’s called away by the siren once more. Also, his head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. Maybe he shouldn’t drive. But he can at least make it to the docks.
“I’m gonna walk,” he says, “Clear my head.”
“Good idea,” she says, “I’ll meet you by the ice cream shop.”
“The one with free sprinkles?”
“What other one would it be?” it seems he’s managed to coax a weary smile out of her, “I’m not an animal.”
“Right, my apologies, your majesty.”
“Go sober up. I’ll see you there.”
“Okay. Don’t use the morphogenetic field and drive.”
Wow. He hangs up. Tough crowd tonight. Maria would have laughed. She would be right here wobbling around his living room because she was always a lightweight. She would be dragging him to some bar and getting them both so wrecked that they had to call Carlos to pick them up. And instead, Junpei is drinking alone in an apartment he hates and she’s fucking asleep and might even be dead by this point. By the way he’s acting, he might as well be dead too.
Would revenge matter if Maria was dead? Would any of it matter? Maybe he should drive over to see if he can find her grave. Maybe he should see if Carlos is still around, crawl up those steps to his door just to say, Yeah, as if I’d move back here. You seeing how I live now is worse than how I abandoned you. I might be terrible, but you have to admit that being here is worse than me being gone.
Yikes. Mean and self loathing is not a good look on him. It’s time to sober the fuck up and go get ice cream with his crime boss. Maybe they’ll discuss his resume or his performance last quarter.
Such a shame, he was really looking forward to sleeping in the bathtub tonight. It takes a step out of the hangover process when the toilet is right there and the cold shower hits him as soon as the nausea does. But maybe it’s better to cut himself off before it gets to that point, and go plan their next heist instead.
He gets halfway down the block before he realizes that he forgot a rain jacket or an umbrella. Looks like he doesn’t need to shower tonight, right? Does that count? He thinks he might catch a cold, but he can’t remember if that’s a real thing or just something that happens in TV shows and period dramas.
By the time he makes it to the docks, the rain had settled into a drizzle, misting over the churning gray water, and the rest of it absorbed into Junpei’s socks. He squelches down the boardwalk, uncomfortable with the way his jeans are cold and wet.
Akane raises an eyebrow when she sees him.
“I’ve sobered up,” he announces, wobbling slightly.
“I can see that,” she says, “I guess we can share my umbrella.”
“Didn’t the mind connection tell you that I was going to be an idiot?” He sits down on the wet bench next to her. She seems to be trying to make herself as small as possible, perched on the edge of the soaked wood as if to save her outfit. As if to make a point, he’s sitting ankle deep in a murky puddle.
She sweeps her hair out of her eyes. “If I tried to course correct every time I thought you were going to be an idiot, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else at all.”
“I’m taking that as a compliment,” he says, “set up a google alert everything you think I’m thinking about something dumb.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she says instead, ruining the joke. He rolls his eyes. When is she going to learn to stop taking everything so seriously and just sit in a puddle like what he’s doing? Come on, Akane.
They spend a moment looking out into the water. The sky is a pale gray, and he thinks that someone who was better at describing things might call is the underside of a city pigeon's wing, or a fog of cigarette smoke in a dimly lit parlor.
But it is a little nice, being here with her. The cold air is helping him a bit, and he can smell the salt from the water when the waves splash up against the splintered brown wood. There isn’t anyone around this late in the day, with such bad weather. She seems fine with it, the silence, his company. All of it.
He almost doesn’t want to ask why she brought him here. He wants to sit here and pretend that this could be a normal thing, that they are both normal people caught in the rain, meeting each other for the first time in a story that will be cute enough to retell at their wedding. That they won’t ever kill anyone, and instead they can talk about their favorite ice cream toppings or what happened on The Bachelor last night.
But instead, she looks down at her phone and types something out. And he can tell by the tension in her shoulder that she doesn’t stop thinking for a minute. That none of this could ever be normal for her, and she can’t even let herself entertain the possibility. It makes him sad, looking at her and thinking about the burdens she’s placed upon herself.
“It’s a gift, you know,” Akane says, looking up to stare out into the water. “What I can do. I don’t see it as a burden.”
“You shouldn’t have to do it.”
“I’m glad to,” she says, “It’s the only real chance we have to put an end to all this.”
He looks away. It would be so easy if that weren’t true. If there was some other group that they could hand off responsibility to, some simple way to clean their hands of this. Akane has to be around the same age as he is, and yet she’s been involved in crime for years, even when he was still back home living his normal life. He was entering college, befriending Maria, and Akane was watching her house burn down. That’s the difference between them.
“I wish it wasn’t like this,” he says.
“I wish Ace would have a change of heart, release the formula for soporil beta, turn Free the Soul over to the police, and then throw himself off of his penthouse suite onto one of his luxury cars ninety floors below,” she says.
“Well, we can’t have it all, can we?” (Wait- Ninety floors? Are they going to have to climb all those stairs to get to him? Like Rapunzel up in her tower?)
“That’s why we have to do this the hard way.”
He thinks about all the things he’s learned about her through the field, things that have never been spoken between them. How did he know about what happened to her house, if she’s never told him outright? How much does she know about him that he’s never said aloud?
He looks at her again. Her hair swept out of her face, her tired, determined eyes. She is poised, calm, ready for anything he could think to say. There’s nothing he could do to surprise her. She looks over to him, smiling faintly. He can see the hint of warmth in her eyes, and he thinks that maybe it’s harder to be Akane Kurashiki than anyone else.
“Is there a timeline where that happens?” he asks her, “where Ace solves our problems for us and then launches himself straight into hell and then we get to go back to being normal people?”
“Anything’s possible,” she says, “Maybe there’s one where everything about this has been one elaborate practical joke, and we’re all on a prank show right now.”
“That would be fucked up.”
She laughs. “It would. I wouldn’t mind, though.”
He thinks about it. The curtain sweeping back and there’s Maria! She apologizes for doing that to him, but his reaction was priceless! Junpei doesn’t think he would be even be mad. It would just be enough to agree that everything that had happened was one big crazy nightmare, a failed pilot for a show that was never going to air.
And then Carlos, behind the scenes in an exclusive interview, agreeing that it was the funniest thing ever to watch Junpei agonize over his decision, to go off into self imposed exile and return only with blood on his hands, that everyone was in on it the whole time. Morphogenetic field, no, Akane’s read the script beforehand, that’s all.
He sighs. There’s a fog settled over the pier, as the last of the evening light fades. He can feel the wet chill as the moon comes out, and though he can’t see any stars above him, he knows they must be there, cold and distant all the same.
Akane stands up slowly.
“Walk with me,” she says, and doesn’t wait to hear his answer before she sets off down the dock.
He has to jog to catch up, but he can tell by the resolve in her eyes that she’s gone back into business mode.
“This is going to be tricky,” she says, “there are a lot of variables that need to go exactly right for us to survive tonight.”
“Oh,” he says, “And you brought me?”
“You’re my best chance at survival. I don’t understand it,” she shrugs, “that’s just what the field shows me.”
He glances at her, nervously. “What are the chances of survival, exactly?”
“Slim, but they’re there. Many times we die in a shootout. Sometimes we’re taken captive, and sometimes we get arrested, because Seven is prowling around the area. Just be aware of it.”
He checks over his shoulder, as if to find Seven stalking them behind a lamplight. “So why are we doing this, then?”
She shrugs, tightly, and says nothing.
He looks at the way she clutches her closed umbrella. “You’re nervous. Is this about what Sigma said?”
Her hand twitches.
“You know that was a week ago, right?”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” she admits. “He’s right. We don’t know enough. We’re not nearly where we need to be by this point in the operation.”
“And tonight is the key to all that?”
“Free the Soul is planning a drop off,” Akane says, keeping her voice low, “We have to find out more about what their overall mission and it's connection to Cradle.”
“You say that so casually," he says, trying to keep up with her brisk pace.
She shakes her head, “the information we learn from tonight will be put into the Field for another version of myself to learn from without having to take this risk. It all gets recycled."
"We can't do any good if we're dead."
"Usually I wouldn’t risk it, but a lot of versions of me also don’t want to risk it.”
He takes a deep breath. “So we’re in the timeline that drew the short straw?”
Her gaze hardens. “We’re in the timeline that’s going to try. Are you ready?”
He tries to absorb some of her seriousness, suddenly glad that his buzz had worn off by now. This isn’t something he would want to attempt tipsy, and he’ll need all of his strengths, from the way Akane puts it.
“What are we doing, exactly?”
She lets out a breath. He’s not used to seeing her nervous, but from the way her fingers tap the handle of her bag, she’s more out of her comfort zone then she’d like to admit. “Infiltration first. It’s a stealth thing, so I really wish you weren’t soaking wet, but I guess it’s too late for that now. Get in, stay undetected, get out.”
She gestures to her bag. “I have some car jacking materials, if we need it,” she says, “But our first main obstacle is going to be Seven.”
“What about him?”
“We’re going to have to talk to him tonight. He’s already on high alert, and we won’t be able to get around him, so we’re going to pretend to be engaged. Okay?”
What? Is that really the best way to get past him? He shrugs and holds out his hand. “Anything you say, my dear.”
She stares at his hand for a long moment, almost too long. She just looks tired, but determined.
Finally, she grabs his hand and interlocks their fingers. “Shall we?”
They walk another block before running into Seven. He can tell by the way Akane’s eyes narrow, by the way every inch of her seems to be pulling away from him, like some sort of survival instinct that’s saved her all this time.
He puts his arm around her waist, and she leans into him slightly as they walk, their shoulders bumping together. He wonders if she’ll say anything, if they do manage to manage to get within earshot, or past him, even. But Akane doesn’t give him any hints, she just smiles sweetly as Seven looks over to them, a flicker of suspicion in his eyes.
“Evenin’,” Seven grunts, “A little late to be out, isn’t it?”
“A little rainy, too,” Akane laughs, a little hitched. “So far, none of this has been going to plan.”
Junpei shakes his head, surprising himself with how easily he grins. “She’s been saying that all day. She should know by now that her plans never work out.”
She turns to him, crossing her arms. “I got you, didn’t I?”
“I never said that was planned.” He cocks an eyebrow at her. This is almost too easy.
Seven relaxes at their banter, “Puppy love?” he guesses, a hand reaching up to scratch behind his head. “That’s sweet. You might want to clear out of here for the next few hours, though.”
“Oh no,” Akane gasps. She sounds devastated, a hand reaching up to cover her mouth. He would be impressed with her acting skills, if he had time to drop the charade. “This is awful. I was looking for the park where we first had our first date.”
This is so cheesy. He's not actually going to fall for it, is he?
Seven glances around, as if to find the park had sprung up beneath his feet overnight. “Well,” he says, sounding doubtful, “I suppose you might have time for that. I dunno if it’s the one you’re looking for, but there’s one just past the warehouse here.”
Akane smiles, “That’s the one,” she says, “That spooky abandoned warehouse was best romantic backdrop.”
Junpei hears himself laugh, but it doesn’t sound as authentic as Akane’s, “That’s my pudding-toes,” he says, grabbing her hand again, “always with the jokes. Why don’t we let this man get back to his construction work, and you can tell me all about that creepy place.”
Akane waves to Seven again as they pass. “Bye!” she says, “Good luck with whatever you’re doing!”
Seven nods to them again, turning back down the alley, and Akane makes them walk three more blocks before releasing his hand, sighing in relief, and punching him in the arm.
“Pudding toes,” she echoes, shaking her head.“Gross.”
“Hey, it was the best I could do,” he breathes out the rest of his nerves. “I could think of more, though. Don’t you even worry about that, Poodle-butt.”
She walks out ahead of him instead of answering, leading him through the industrial complex with a casual finesse, even though he can barely tell the buildings apart.
"How did that even work so well?"
"He's a fan of cheap romance," Akane says, "He watches Hallmark movies with his stepdaughters."
"How do you know so much about this guy?"
"Surveillance," Akane says, cryptically, before beckoning him into the alleyway. “Okay,” she says, “sober up again, we’ve got a job to do.”
“Right,” he says, “stake out and learn their plans. Have you done this before?”
“Never this bold,” Akane says, handing him a revolver from her purse. Its heavy in his palm. He tucks it away. “We’ve sabotaged Free the Soul before, but it’s usually more roundabout, planting bugs, stopping shipments, stuff like that.”
Her eyes darken. “A new drug that we’ve been unable to identify. Sometimes stolen children and teenagers as well.”
His throat goes dry. “Do we know what they’re doing with it?”
She presses her lips together. “Not enough. We can’t let them have too much of a free reign. That’s what we’re doing here. In an hour, Free the Soul will show up.”
He can feel the wind on the back of his neck, “And just you and me, taking them on. Tenmyouji and June against the-”
“No,” she interrupts, “we’re not going to engage at all. The guns are just backup. How it usually works is that they have a group drop off, and a few stragglers stay behind to guard it until another group picks it up to move it to the next location. We’re going to find a secure place to hide out and just spy on them, and wait until the coast is clear. But we have time to scope it out before then.”
“Okay,” he says, “What are we still doing out here, then?”
She looks at him, intense in the darkness. “I thought you would be more nervous,” she admits, “That’s the impression I keep getting from you.”
“I’m nervous when we don’t plan,” he whispers, “this, right now, is planning. So I can do it.” He’s almost surprised at his sudden devotion. If Akane, who’s searched the universe for answers, thinks it’s a good idea, then who is he to argue?
But he looks into her eyes and sees an uncharacteristic uncertainty there, so much so that it surprises him.
“Hey,” he says, frowning, “we can do it.”
“I know,” she breaks eye contact, “I was just thinking, I really wish this is the timeline where we do.”
He grins, “What was it you were telling me when you asked me to be a driver? These things happen every day? Don’t think about it?”
She shoves him, lightly. “It’s different when I say it,” she scolds, “I don’t know where Mr. Confident is coming from all of a sudden. Last time you drove for me you looked like you were going to have a heart attack.”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he says, “The morphogenetic field changed me.”
She seems to steel herself, at that, straightening her shoulders and turning back towards the warehouse.
“You’re right.” She takes a deep breath. “You’re right. Let’s go. Can you believe Seven is three blocks away investigating the wrong building?”
The hallway is dealthy quiet, and Junpei knows that should be a good thing, it means that the shipment isn’t there yet, but it still puts him on edge. He feels as if every footstep is too loud, even the slight creak the window had made when they opened it was enough noise to give them away.
But they progress slowly, cautiously, and his first hint that something is off reaches him at the split in the hallway, two branching paths. Akane had lead him thus far and he had followed obediently, watching the silver glint on her hair as they passed through patches of moonlight. They took steps in twos like twin heartbeats, two by two until he passed her, until he frozen by a certain rush of dread.
It locked him in place, this cold feeling, this alarm blaring through his head that something was wrong. But he couldn’t find the words for it or figure out where this feeling was coming from until he glances at Akane. She watches him silently, seeming to understand something he doesn’t, and she nods.
“I-” He opens his mouth to say something but finds himself out of breath, out of the words he needs to describe this incredible sense of dread that had overtaken him.
She nods, “Go, Tenmyouji,” she whispers, “It’s the Morphogenetic field communicating with you. Follow your instincts. I can stake them out by myself for now. Just be quick and be careful.”
He almost doesn’t hear her over the roaring in his ears, over the impatient drum in his head telling him he needs to go, now. He doesn’t even notice the moment he sets off running, his feet propelling him down the hallway with reckless abandon. But he doesn’t think about the noise he’s making or that he’s sending Akane off alone, he just thinks about the place he needs to be and he runs.
He doesn’t know why he’s so sure of this, or why his former calm was replaced with such a heart pounding panic, but if the field is calling him, then he has to answer. He wonders what could be so important that it needs him to abandon Akane, what another version of himself saw that could be so important. Maybe going in with Akane is what seals his fate, or maybe what lies at the end of his search is the key to the entire night.
But he doesn’t get a chance to think more on it, too overwhelmed by this sudden sense of dread and urgency that he needs to be there on time, he’s almost too late. His brain is jostled again by the dire sense of urgency. It turns his stomach to ice, and his hands sweat around the gun as he inches closer and closer.
The first door is locked. He knew it would be, but he desperately tries it anyway. It’s not the one he’s looking for. The ninth door he tries moves an inch before jamming. His heart leaps in his throat, and his hands almost shake too much for him to grab the door handle again. Still the door doesn’t budge.
That means it doesn’t have a lock, someone must have tried to prop it closed from the inside. He kicks near the handle, it’s where the door is the weakest. He knows this somehow, he knows this and he knows everything and he kicks the door in definitively and his stomach drops because he’s seen this before.
He’s seen this before, he had known it was going to happen but he let Maria go by herself anyway. How had he known? How come he didn’t warn her?
There’s nine of them. He can see their forms in the darkness, slumped against the floor. Nine of them. Unconscious, asleep, or dead. His hands won’t stop shaking. He can’t draw a breath.
Carlos had gone to him when Maria didn’t come home that night, and Junpei had worried too but he kept it to himself for Carlos’ sake, and in the following months he would continue to keep it to himself until it drove him away. But Carlos was worried and it was too early to go to the police so they went out to look and they searched all night and found nothing, and that was when it sank in.
The first light of worry reached their eyes just as they continued to search when the sun came up, now with the heavy, unbreakable thought that something terrible had happened.
Again, he moves without noticing as he crouches by the nearest person- a child, he notices, his stomach twisting at the thought. Just a boy, nine or ten, his hands tied behind his back and his head laying limp against the floor. He feels entranced, looking down at this boy with the sick thought that it was Free the Soul that had done this to Maria, and had continued to do it to countless other children.
Junpei is almost afraid to touch, afraid to find out if his skin is cold and clammy, or what he would do if this room turns into a crime scene and his fingerprints are found.
It was Free the Soul. They did this. They ruined Maria’s life, who knows what she saw in the day she went missing? What did she have to go through to get to come home to them? How much more does she have to go through before she can see her brother’s face again? What did they do to her?
These children, are they hurt? Is he too late? Despite this aversion, he can’t bring himself to leave. It’s this sick realization that he is standing at the crossroads again, having failed somehow a second time, and if this boy really is dead then Junpei will have failed and everything he had done until now would have truly been for nothing.
If this boy is dead then Junpei would have really accomplished nothing by targeting Cradle. Innocent children were still suffering in the time it took to do all of this planning with the Crash Keys. What good has he really done if this child was still allowed to be kidnapped? He looks at the boy, his golden curls spilling onto the floor, a brown hat cast astray as he slumps over.
With shaking hands, Junpei reaches over, hardly daring to breath as he takes in the way the boy’s eyelashes glance against his cheek, the way his lips are slightly parted and cracked.
Carlos had reached her first, her name spilling from his lips as if he hardly had the strength to say it, and he almost looks afraid to touch her, afraid to be seeing this. His eyes are wide as saucers as Junpei crouches down and thinks about how strange it is that he had thrown her into the danger alone.
Her skin was icy beneath his warm hand and he could see the veins crisscrossing under her pale wrist, and he holds two fingers there as Carlos simply watches, silent and still like his sister before him. She was the only one they found. Were there others that did not survive? Why did they leave her for them to find, and no one else?
The boy’s wrist is cold, but after a moment, Junpei finds a pulse. He sags in relief, releasing a breath that seems to take up his entire lung capacity, and for a moment he sinks into the ground, unable to hold himself up or even draw a breath. But he gets himself together, and he doesn’t think about Carlos in the emergency room, pale and unable to speak. He doesn’t think about the way he had looked at Maria’s still body, the way he had cried when they found out that she was comatose but alive.
It was the not knowing that was the hard part.
The rest of the children are alive as well, and in his inspection of them he notices that they each have a sturdy black bracelet on. It doesn’t seem to have a clasp or a purpose, as it isn’t turned on and for some reason, this is a relief to him. Nothing has happened to them yet. He’s suer of this, somehow, and he doesn’t know why. Why does the sight of the bracelet fill him with such dread?
He’s out of the room before it even registers, hardly aware of the way his feet pound against the ground, the way his breath is ragged in his throat as he passes door after door in desperate pursuit. Akane. Akane. He sent her in there alone. Free the Soul must have found her.
The stuttering click as the gun jams. Akane’s eyes, surprised and afraid, and that’s all she gets before-
Three gunshots is good, he thinks. Only one gunshot would have been much worse. There’s more fire now, too much for him to detect how many guns are in the room, and the closer he finds himself to the noise, the more raw, unfiltered information flashes through his head, too fast for him to truly take notice of.
…. Radical Six is an extremely contagious nanovirus….
They’re thoughts that don’t make any sense, and he doesn’t have a chance to stop and ponder it, lest it distract from his running. It’s like someone turned on a radio, like he’s in tune to some new frequency.
….Participant 5 of the most recent Nonary Experiment, trial #146, was the first to display immunity to the virus. In the subsequent trial, the antiviral Axelavir, produced by Participant #5’s antibodies, will be introduced to provide further incentive for morphogenetic field access. If this succeeds, Brother will move on to the last stage of his plan. Humanity will reach the field or die. It’s how it will always meant to be.
Brother will use the virus to cleanse the world of the unworthy and sell the antidote to only those who have reached the field and can join us on the next plane of existence, a new world of Brother’s making….
….With these two hands, mankind is saved….
Then three things happen in quick succession.
The stream of information is cut short, leaving a static, hollow emptiness as he bursts into the main floor of the warehouse. How he had known it would be there, or how he had know exactly where Akane would be, was a mystery that did not occur to him. He doesn’t slow his pace as he nears, and he sees from the corner of his eye that her gun jams just as the man in front of her turns to aim, just as Junpei tackles him to the floor.
The man is taken by surprise but quickly recovers as he topples over. They wrestle for a bit, Junpei managing to kick the gun out of the man’s grasp just as the man knees him hard in the stomach. But Junpei doesn’t let go of his grip, clawing at the man’s wrist in an attempt to stop him from going after Akane.
It all happens in a flash, the man rips his arm free and reels his arm back. The force of the punch knocks his head against the concrete floor and for a moment all sound is replaced with a sharp ringing, throwing Junpei so far from his body that he doesn’t even feel it when the next few punches land.
Even when his nose breaks with a crunch, all he can do is lay there, stunned, and when the weight is suddenly removed from his chest and he tries to split out all the blood that’s been pooling in the back of his throat only to find that he can’t, it’s sticky and congealing, and he tries not to gag from the taste of it and the way his head is spinning and the shrill piercing noise in his ears.
And then Akane is there, pulling the man back by his lengthy blonde hair, her eyes sharp and cold as she plunges the knife into his back and lets him drop, hardly sparing the man a glance as she moves to Junpei’s side.
She tilts his head up to look at her, and he doesn’t know how to explain that he’s alright, it’s just that the lights are too bright and his nose is broken and he can’t hear a thing as her worried hands flutter over him checking for injuries.
The ringing in his ears doesn’t let up, and the blood coating his mouth is almost more nauseating than the way his head had connected with the concrete floor, and he’s in so much pain that he barely registers the way her lips are moving but no sounds come out.
He had heard that a cracked cheekbone hurts like a bitch, that head injuries bleed a lot, but this seems just excessive at this point. He wants to make a joke about it, but the words don’t come to him in order, and his nose is bleeding too much to say anything anyway. He can’t remember the last time he was in this state, especially around Akane, if not for--
The reminder sends him lurching forward, in a laugh turned cough as her hands glance over him, and he has to try three times to get the words out even though she keeps telling him not to speak.
“It’s just,” he wheezes, “this is. Like with rabbits? Remember?”
He laughs again, god his fucking face hurts, and Akane’s hands still on his shoulder. He hears her take a deep breath.
“Junpei,” she hisses, “Calm down. Relax.”
And he does. He sees her lips drawn tight from stress and the way her hand is now clutching his shoulder. He looks at her and gives her a bloody smile, but the concern in her eyes doesn’t fade.
“You came out of nowhere,” she says, “It all happened so fast. If you had been a moment later, I-”
“I saw,” he says, doing his best to stem the bleeding, “the field showed me.”
She nods to herself, “that makes sense,” she says, “but thank you. For showing up in time.”
The pain is shoots through his skull but he finds himself smiling back anyway, and then wincing as the movement only serves to punish him for it. “That’s what I’m here for, I guess,”
She brings a hand up to his face. “Look at you,” she says, but she still sounds sad, “you’re a mess. Just like back then.”
“I taught them a lesson, didn’t I?”
Her eyes search his, and she sighs. “What am I going to do with you?” she says, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
He blinks at her. “I do for you,” he says, simply, and from the way her eyes shine he knows it was the right thing to say.
She squeezes his shoulder. “I wish you didn’t, sometimes,” she says, breaking eye contact, “I wish you could have just stayed away from this life.”
“Would you be happy with that?”
She shrugs, half heartedly, “We all have to throw ourselves into danger for this to work,” she says, as if reassuring herself, “But that doesn’t make it easier to watch.”
“I know,” he takes her hand, “There wasn’t time to think. And if there was, I wouldn’t have hesitated.”
She looks at him, gently, and it makes his heart stutter. Who knew all it took was a near death experience to get them to bond. He can’t believe he was afraid of what she could do, how much she knows. This is Akane. It’s still her, even with mind powers. She didn’t ask for this any more than he did.
He then remembers they have a dead body next to them, and he throws a panicked glance to the side. The man’s blonde hair is splashed against the concrete and Junpei can see the handle of a knife sticking out of his back.
“One of the clones brought a knife to a gunfight,” Akane explains.
“Were they supposed to be there?”
“Not quite,” Akane says, “I managed to take most of them out when they spotted me, but this whole thing could have gone better.”
“Well,” he says, feeling the way his abdomen hurts from where the man had pinned him down, “we’re alive, and we got the information we needed.”
“You’re right,” Akane says, “But I don’t want to stick around here any longer. Can you stand?”
Slowly, he does. His dizziness seems to have lessened, but he still finds himself leaning on Akane a bit as she leads him away. He wonders if his face will start to swell. He can’t imagine that he looks good right now, covered in dried blood with his face bruised and sore. They make it out of the main room and back into the hallway they had come from when Akane freezes up, her nails digging crescent moons into his forearm and when he looks up, his heart stops as well.
Seven is standing at the end of the hallway, gun drawn and ready.
For a moment, no one speaks.
“Step away from each other,” Seven commands. “Let me see your hands”
Hesitating, Akane pulls away from him, her face drawn and still. He glances at her, but she doesn’t look back. He can tell by the look in her eyes that she is trying to find a way out for them. He can tell by the tension in her shoulders that she hasn’t found it.
Seven draws closer to them. Junpei can see him radio again for backup, and his panic increases. He feels the gun on his hip, unused, and he wonders if that’s what he needs to get out of this situation. But there’s no way for him to draw it before Seven pulls the trigger, and he isn’t keen to try it. So he lets the moment draw out for as long as he possibly can, trying and failing to think of a way to get them out of this in one piece.
He casts his mind out into the field, but in his panic, he comes up empty. Maybe he had used up his morphogenetic quota for the day, or maybe Seven’s piercing gaze has driven any sort of focus clean out of him. Either way, they’re running out of time. Seven on his own is one thing, but once his back up arrives it will be much harder for them to escape on foot.
Seven steps closer. Even if he hadn’t just had half his face broken, Junpei doesn’t think he could take him. Seven is a mountain of a man, tall and sturdy, and with him on full alert, there’s nothing that could give him the advantage.
He glances at Akane again, the wasted adrenaline making him lightheaded. His mind is empty, void of the constant pressure of the field that he’s grown accustomed to. There isn’t any supernatural interference to help him out here, no images of other timelines or instincts to point him in the right direction. He simply looks back at Seven as he approaches and really, truly feels it sink in that this is a situation he doesn’t know how to get out of.
How would he have done this before he knew about the brain stuff? What’s the good, old fashioned, tried and true way to get someone to stop pointing a gun at you? How could he have let himself have so much faith in Akane and the morphogenetic field when he’s had to survive on his own instincts before he joined the Crash Keys?
This is his own fault, he thinks, as Seven is nearly in front of him. His own fault, for not coming up with a backup plan, for trusting Akane to think of everything, for letting himself get caught here. With the two of them compromised, Crash Keys might still be able to carry out their mission, but it seemed nearly impossible.
Junpei’s mind comes up blank once again-- there’s no way for him to use the proximity to his advantage with a gun trained on them. Seven could pull the trigger way before Junpei could connect a punch.
He can see the scars on Seven’s scowling face, dark pink tendrils sliced along his cheek. And then another one by his eye, deep and permanent. The scar has clipped his eyebrow neatly in two, and seems just far enough to avoid gouging out his eye entirely. All it does it serve to make him seem more intimidating, but Junpei doesn’t let himself wonder just what had caused those scars, or what Seven had done to survive them and not come away with worse than that.
Seven isn’t looking at him. His hardened gaze is trained on Akane, searching her over and over again, his frown deepening with each appraisal. It would bother Junpei, if he could stop holding his breath, but as it stands, this prolonged pause is the only thing saving, the only thing in between them and decisive action.
But maybe Seven had caught a glimpse of Crash Key’s mastermind, before, and knows to be cautious now. The last six detective could have found a way to tip him off. And maybe when Seven finds the answer he’s looking for, Junpei would find himself wishing that he had made him pull the trigger, instead.
And then, just like that, Seven stops walking. The look on his face changes.
“It’s you,” he says, a note of awe in his voice. “You’re that girl, the one from years ago.”
Akane looks up at him through her eyelashes, her gaze sharp and analytical as she draws the moment out. He can see her press her lips into a thin line, he can see her narrow her eyes, but she doesn’t say anything.
Seven frowns again, the hand on his gun loosening fractionally as he continues to point it at them. “Can you tell me what happened in there?”
“Are you sure you want to ask these questions while my hands are still free?” Akane glares at him, and to Junpei’s surprise, Seven relaxes his stance further.
“How did you even end up here?” He asks, his eyes still wide in surprise.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Akane bites back, “isn’t that what you told me?”
Seven lowers his gun again. Junpei hardly dares to breathe, but Akane doesn’t make her move just yet. He can see Seven’s eyes moving back and forth, as if trying to piece together the logic that would place her in front of him yet again.
“Do you think it’s connected to that case?” Akane asks him, and Junpei can tell by the darkness in her voice that she already knows the answer.
Seven frowns again. “You being here makes me think it is,” he says, gruffly “But I can’t be discussing it with you. Not here, of all places.”
Akane sighs, “You’re going to have to do better than that,” she murmurs.
In movements almost too quick for Junpei to follow, Akane reaches forward, pulling Seven forward by the wrist and pinning his arm behind him. She uses the bulk of his weight against him and throws him on the floor with admirable strength. Despite the difference in stature, she still somehow manages to pull the gun out of his trapped hand.
It would be easy for Seven to escape, given his size and strength, and he had begun to shake Akane off and get his feet back under him just as he feels the cold steel of Junpei’s gun pressed against his forehead.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Junpei hears himself say. HIs voice doesn’t sound like it’s connected to him. No, this isn’t something he would do, not something he would say. He wouldn’t get himself into this situation at all, and there’s no way he would react in time. Therefore, none of this is really happening to him.
He tightens his grip on the gun. He could do it, he should do it, pull the trigger and deal with the mess after. He could save their lives and get them out of there in one piece, alive and ready to strike back at Cradle, deliver the justice they’ve always deserved.
This is bigger than any of us , he thinks, bigger than me and Akane. Bigger than one detective.
What’s one sacrifice? What’s one sacrifice for the good of many? They can’t afford to be caught here tonight. If it ends here, then everything they had just learned would have been for nothing. And Junpei can prevent that, with just one twitch of the finger. They can’t afford to lose here. There’s too much at stake for one man to ruin it all.
He looks into Seven’s eyes. He can see himself reflected back, intense and focused in a way that seems so unlike him, and yet still something he had known about himself for a long time. But he doesn’t mind the power he has now, and if it comes down to choosing between Seven and Akane, well, there’s only one of them that will go on to complete a mission that actually improves the lives of others.
There’s only ever one choice to make.
There isn’t any fear in Seven’s eyes. He doesn’t seem to wonder if this will be the last thing he ever sees. He doesn’t try to say anything to beg for his life, he simply stares at Junpei, and Junpei wonders what shows more humanity in this moment, to spare the life of one person, or to go on and improve the lives of a thousand more.
Junpei lets the gun slip out of his hands.
In the next moment, Akane has reared back, bringing the butt of her gun crashing down on the back of Seven’s head. The detective doesn’t have time to think or be grateful that his life was spared, he simply goes limp underneath her. Akane darts over to Junpei, dragging him to his feet as he stumbles. She picks up the gun he had dropped and shoves it in her bag before pulling him away, forcing him to match her speed as his mind spins over the choice he had just made.
His exhausted, numb feet find a rhythm, struggling to keep up as she drags him down the hallway. He doesn’t know why he decided not to shoot. One moment he had been so sure of it, and in the next, it seemed like the dropping the gun was only thing for him to do. It was as if something had forced him to drop it, As if some strange pressure had infiltrated his body and steered him down the path he was on now.
But he doesn’t have too much time to dwell on it before Akane drags the thought from his mind, pulling him hand in hand, around corners, coaxing him through one more window and into the night beyond.
The cold air hits him in a rush, and it’s almost enough to wake him from his stupor. The world seems to be moving twice as fast, his vision blurred around the edges as as Akane drags him stumbling through the alleys in a complicated series of twists and turns he couldn’t hope to replicate.
She brings him splashing through puddles and wrapped around corners, with their matched panting and steady footsteps the only sound in his aching head. It almost serves to calm him, the steadiness of the escape, if not for the constant pounding in his temple and the way his chest constricts more and more with each turn.
He can hear her muttering to herself under her breath as flashes of searing red and blue lights enter his vision, pulsing in the darkness as they duck through the alleys. The lights sear through his aching head, the pain making it near impossible to see. He thinks that if they had waited just a few moments later than they did, then they would have been stuck in the warehouse or caught trying to escape.
She pulls him into another alley, this one sheltered by a series of shrubs and plants as it opens to the street on the other end. He stumbles to a halt, struggling to steady himself in the dark hall of bricks. He blinks stubbornly, trying to focus on a puddle on the ground in an attempt to bring it’s gleaming surface into focus.
He hears himself let out a strained breath, his hand in hers, still shaking. He imagines how he must look right now, wide eyed and bloodied in the moonlight. But Akane doesn’t let go of his hand. She reaches up to brush a few sweaty strands of hair away from his forehead, her nostrils flared in a long exhale.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, as quiet as he can manage, “I couldn’t do it. I didn’t pull the trigger.”
“It’s alright,” she says, and he’s surprised to her how shaken she sounds. “It’s alright. It worked out. We’re fine.”
“I should have--” he hears himself say, his voice pitched upward, “if I had just-”
“The bullet could have hit me at that proximity,” she says, careful to keep her voice low as she continues to unstick his hair from his sweat slick forehead. “if you hadn’t been there after I pinned him, Seven would have thrown me off and we would have lost our chance. And we’d be running through the alleys covered in blood right now, which would leave a trail.”
Something in his chest releases at the sound of her voice. “Akane,” he says, a curious note in his voice, something he can’t identify. It sounds like a plea, almost. Please.
She squeezes his hand. “We can’t stay here,” she whispers, her voice warm and slow. “I have your tools with me. There’s a camry just outside this alley. The owner keeps the doors unlocked.”
“They lock automatically,” he bleats, barely able to think as she hands him his tools.
She shakes her head, “he disabled it. Something about safe neighborhoods, or something.”
He lets out a breathless, wheezing laugh, making his headache spike. “Idiot. Let’s go steal his car."
He trips over his foot and nearly faceplants on a metal garbage can, if Akane hadn’t pulled him back at the last moment.
“On second thought,” she says, “maybe I’ll drive.”
It doesn’t take her long to start the car. She must have some background in it already, for all it takes is a few directions from him before the engine jerks to life in short, spluttering movements. He can hardly find it in him to pay attention, and he chides himself for it. He should be on the lookout, alert for all possible dangerous so he can protect her, but the moment he sinks into the seat all thoughts are chased from his mind and he can’t help but close his eyes.
The engine is loud, but it feels far away, muffled like as long as he doesn’t open his eyes he won’t really be here right now, and none of this will even be real.
He wonders what Carlos is doing. At home, maybe, making dinner for one, eating a cheap microwaved meal by himself. He used to have standard for that kind of thing, used to have people in his kitchen to help him and taste his cooking, but maybe even the activity itself is too much of a reminder of how empty his kitchen is now, how Maria had left and inadvertently taken Junpei with her. In and out of Carlos’ life, but they did it together at least.
He wonders if Carlos misses him. He wonders if the feeling that makes him want to cry right now is because of that or his swollen face, instead. He misses Carlos. He misses the way he would worry about him, he misses his gentle hands and his warm smiles, and the way he would look at Junpei, as if everything between them was a secret just for them to share.
He misses it. The feeling pulls in his chest and almost overtakes him, and he thinks that being apart and having the feelings stay so strong is harder than having the feelings slip away. If he could mourn the loss, that would be fine, but the separation aches the same way it did the minute he walked out.
Did Carlos look for him? Did he look for him just like he looked for Maria, to try and get Junpei to come home? Did he go to bed thinking about what he would say to Junpei if he ever saw him again? Junpei can’t help but wonder if those thoughts began with I forgive you or Junpei, how could you?
Or did he understand, maybe, on some level, that the pain of seeing Maria in that state was equal to the pain of staying away? Could he understand how Junpei hadn’t quite anticipated just how strong this longing would be, hadn’t been prepared for the reach of it’s depths. Maybe Carlos could understand that, on some level, or maybe he would horde that bitterness just as he has housed his anguish when Maria had first closed her eyes.
He opens his eyes to a light pressure on his cheek. The lights of the gas station swim around him before coming into focus, thankfully, and he notices that the night is still pitch black around them.
Akane clears the blood off his cheek with a wipe, careful to keep the pressure off his broken nose. Her touches are light and precise, and he hardly feels any pain at all.
“Look at you,” she murmurs, and he wonders how it’s possible to feel this way about two people at once without feeling jealous of the two emotions. How it’s possible for him to look into Akane’s brown eyes and know that she’s got his back, that she’s in this struggle with him, that they’re going to get each other through this, just as he would look into Carlos’ gaze and feel all the safety and warmth that came with the overwhelming sense of home and acceptance. These two parts of him, these two feelings that reside in equal parts of his heart, they don’t feel heavy or distracting. It just feels as if it was meant to be there.
He takes a deep breath, filling his lungs for what feels like the first time in hours. He blinks, slowly coming back to himself, and he finds Akane looking at him, worried and wistful in the dark, illuminated by LED lights of the gas station and the fluorescent lamps with clouds of moths around them.
She smiles, tired, “we’ve known each other through a lot of different timelines,” she says, “I think this feeling of familiarity is just a part of that.”
He sighs, “I’m not confused,” he says, answering the unspoken question, “I know how I feel about both of you. But it doesn’t stop me from wishing things were different.”
Akane leans forward, adjusting her position. “I’m not trying to compete,” she says, “But I think we could go a lot of good things together.”
He finds himself mirroring her, “Even if you only get some parts of me?”
“I’d be happy to have it,” she says, “any part you want to give.”
He meets her half way, pressing their lips together in a soft, lingering kiss. It means thank you , and I’m sorry , and I promise , all at once.
“You saved me today,” she says, pressing their foreheads together, “I should have been more open with you from the start.”
“I didn’t know better,” he says, “I didn’t know how to read you back then. But you’re still that girl I used to know.”
She kisses him again, one more time, and this time it feels like longing and regret, but he misses it when she pulls away, back into the driver’s seat. He misses her warmth, so close to him but still so far away.
She starts the car and laughs, low and sweet. “We’re going to see this through to the end together, aren’t we?”
They drive until the sky begins to brighten, a telltale bluish hue before the sunrise. It turns the shrubs dark, the world quiet and still as they find themselves parked at at cliff overlooking the ocean. The air is cold and sharp even for a summer twilight, the world muted and still despite the distant hush of the waves on the shore. Even it’s rhythmic push and pull seems quieter somehow, as if out of respect for the sleeping hours.
He pulls himself onto the hood of the car when Akane cuts the engine, feeling the rumble quiet beneath him. In a moment, she slides into place next to him as if she was meant to be there, and all they can do is look out into the endless blue expanse, unable to brake the blanketed hush in the air around them.
“They’re getting away with it.”
She isn’t supposed to be hearing this, but she can’t make herself turn away-
-“Hey, the man says, you’re one of the lucky ones.”
What about my parents, she wants to ask, were they just not lucky enough?-
-Her brother’s arms are wrapped in bandages, and she’s too afraid to come near him, even when he calls for her. It doesn’t look like her brother with the hospital gown, with those wires, with words like “second degree burn” in the sterilized air around them. But the detective gently nudges her forward so she does, even though she’s afraid that he’ll blame her for it. But it’s still Aoi, even if he smells like a hospital, even if she swears she can still smell the smoke in his hair, it’s still him. It’s all she has left.
I’m sorry, he says, and she wants to say back, what are you sorry for? It’s all my fault.
The memories hit him fast and disjointed; quick, glancing blows that barely connect or make much sense, as if Akane can’t bear to think about it long enough to even complete the thought transfer. The raw emotion in the glimpses he caught is enough to leave him breathless, and he looks over to find her with tears in her eyes as she stares out into the water.
“I thought,” Akane says, her voice thin and vulnerable, “I thought it would be easier if I could show you what happened, but I can’t.”
He leans back as much as he dares, conscious of his weight on the engine. “You don’t have to.”
“I want to,” Akane admits, “You tackled that Left clone, willing to give your life for me, but you don’t even know the whole story?”
“I don’t need to,” he sighs, “I didn’t do it for your story.”
“I know,” she leans into him, “I just hate seeing you in pain.”
He winces at the reminder. In the time it took them to drive away, The fracture in his cheekbone has translated into a black eye, the rest of the bruises mottling his cheek and blooming across his puffy nose. The soreness and swelling seemed to have settled, but he’s reminded of it every time he tries to make a facial expression.
He thinks about Seven, unconscious on the floor. He know that they’re enemies, but Junpei can’t help but feel sorry for him. He seems like a good guy, and it’s not his fault he doesn’t know the whole story. It’s not his fault that he’s destined to never catch them. He just seems like any other cop, determined to uphold the rules regardless of who it hurts and who it protects.
No, it’s not Seven’s fault that he doesn’t know better. Junpei thinks that if he didn’t know all the things he did, he might have even come to admire him. It can’t be easy, trying to bust the Crash Keys. Seven will probably never know that he had been so close to his goal, staring two of its members right in the face that night.
He sighs. He doesn’t feel bad for sparing him. He knows it was the right thing to do, and even more surprisingly, Akane knows it as well. He had thought that she would be harder on him, like she had when he had spared Diana’s life. But she seems different now then when he had first driven for her, and he can’t quite put a name on it.
In his time in the Crash Keys, he had only ever known Akane to be a terrifyingly competent albeit controlling presence. There was a slight unease in the way the group operated, all of them reaching the same conclusion without a word being spoken. It was like a well oiled machine, and from the outside, it made Junpei wonder if there was any real sense to it at all.
But it’s different now. Maybe knowing this part of her has caused him to trust her more, but it’s caused him to trust himself as well. He’s taken action whereas he might have hesitated before this, but he supposes that even the field is still someone giving him orders, whether it’s Akane or another version of himself.
He wonders how Akane feels. She had trusted him to go on this mission, after all, just as she had trusted that they would both get out alive. And they had, somehow, through a series of key coincidences that could not have happened twice.
He thinks about it, just how much of the night’s events had been left up to chance. He would not have discovered the children unless a version of him had done so in another timeline, and pushed him down that path. He wouldn’t have been able to anticipate Akane’s gun jamming if he had not seen it himself previously, nor would he have been able to react in time. But with the field, he had somehow known it before it even registered, a buried instinct controlling his brain for just the briefest of moments.
Even putting the gun in Seven’s face had been muscle memory, to some extent. As if some other version of him hadn’t been fast enough, so this version of him had already known what to do to right that wrong. Everything that had happened tonight, every success they had, happened because another version of themselves had failed.
That’s how the field works. That’s how it will work, including the day they find themselves at the heart of Cradle’s headquarters. Given how many versions of this must have been down this same road, or failed to even reach where he is right now, how many had even made it to Cradle itself? When he finds himself in the thick of it, will he be the first version of himself to do so? Is he destined to fail, is every success they’ve had so far just a way to set up the timeline where they actually make it?
He can hear the breeze shifting through the leaves behind him as Akane leans into his side, tucked away like she was meant to be there. She leans her head against his shoulder, in the crook of his neck, and he thinks about dawn over the ocean and the rest of the Crash Keys, so close to their goal and yet so unaware of what exactly it entails.
But he finds that he enjoys the warmth of her body next to his, and with it he relaxes, staring out into the ocean beyond. It’s wide and dark, and he isn’t sure if he would be able to see the land beyond even if it had been lighter out. The periodic hush of the waves on the shore is enough to get him to drift off, and he finds himself leaning into Akane’s weight at his side, the two of them pressed up against each other, keeping the other upright.
The loose strands of her hair tickle his nose as he breathes in and closes his eyes. Another thing that should have been normal. Another life they didn’t get to have.
“I was twelve years old,” Akane’s voice drifts from below him, but he doesn’t open his eyes. “When you’re that age, you don’t think about anything outside of what you know. My entire life consisted of going to school and making friends. But there was so much happening around me that I was unaware of.”
He peeks an eye open to grasp her hand, gently, and she interlocks their fingers one more time, accepting the motion.
“I didn’t ever notice that anything was wrong,” she says, and he starts to smell gunpowder, though he knows there isn’t any there. It’s just a memory. “I didn’t even have time to react. One moment my life was normal… and then my house was a crime scene, and then it wasn’t even there anymore.”
He rubs his thumb along the back of her hand. It’s the only support he can give.
“Later, I learned the truth. My brother never told me. I think I must have found out through the field somehow,” he can feel her shrug, “Cradle Pharmaceutical had hired my mother to lead the research team in finding a compound to produce Soporil Beta. She theorized that it could be done with a certain strain of Mandrake root, just like the one that had recently been found in the tomb of an Egyptian priestess, Amen Ra.”
“So they stole it,” Akane exhales, “Cradle used Free the Soul to raid the archaeologist's site. Alice’s father was killed in the crossfire. My mother was the one to find the specific root that was able to produce soporil, and… she kept it."
Akane takes a deep breath and pulls away from him, prompting him to open his eyes. “I don’t know why she did it,” Akane says, staring out into the water, “Maybe nothing would have happened if she had just reported what she found. Maybe she knew that Cradle would use it for evil. Or perhaps she realized just how much money she could make with a discovery like this. Enough so that her family wouldn’t struggle anymore. Enough to pay back for the life she had inadvertently taken in the process.”
Akane pulls her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them, pulling away from him and curling in on herself. “Or maybe Cradle would have tried to keep her quiet no matter what happened. But the action caught the attention of the higher ups, and so Cradle argued that she had no right to keep research that they commissioned. My mom wanted to release the formula to the public and she threatened to take them to court over it.”
Her voice gets thinner. She needs to take a breath, but she doesn’t. She just keeps pushing forward, blinking hard and staring stubbornly out into the ocean below. Junpei finds himself cold without their combined body heat.
“Free the Soul shot my mother and stole her research, and then killed my father for getting in the way,” she says, her voice blank and still, “they must not have known about me and Aoi. They set the house on fire to erase the evidence.”
“We have to go!”
Her brother takes her by her arm and drags her through the hallway. Black smoke is pouring to the ceiling, making her cough, and she stumbles along obediently even as the smoke catches in her throat and makes it hard to breathe. She still doesn’t understand what’s going on when Aoi picks her up, darting through a kitchen already engulfed in flames. What’s that awful smell? Where are mom and Dad? How could this have happened? This is her home, this is all her stuff, everything she’s known up until now is going up in flames.
Her throat is raw, and she can hear herself crying out of terror, choking and coughing out on smoke filled sobs even after they make it outside. And for a moment they simply cling to each other, desperate to catch their breaths as flames pour out of another shattered window.
She coughs violently, struggling to her feet, dizzy and wheezing. The Jumpydoll. The one Junpei gave her. It’s still in her room, oh no, oh no, no. She needs it. The though hinges in her mind as she she staggers, still weakened from smoke inhalation but she stumbles forward anyway and almost makes it to the door before Aoi catches her and drags her back.
“What are you doing?” He hisses, his grip nearly cutting off her circulation as she attempts to twist her way out of it. “Akane!”
“I have to go back,” She gasps, “The Jumpydoll- I left it in there!”
“The what?” he coughs, “That voodoo thing?”
“It’s not voodoo!” She almost rips herself out of his grasp. “Jumpy gave it to me! I can't leave it there!”
Aoi bites back a sigh, “Akane,” he says, quietly, sounding incredibly tired. “You can’t. It’s gone now.”
“No!” she cries, tearing herself from his grip with a surprising amount of energy, ignoring the scratches on her arm from where he had tried to anchor her. “No! I have to!”
She can see it clearly in her mind, the places the fire hasn’t touched yet. It leads almost perfectly into her room, she can run in, grab the doll, and be back! She can do it!
Aoi latches onto her again, “Akane, please,” he says, a hint of iron in his voice as he forces her to look at him, and after some more struggling, she does.
He looks disheveled and tired, but it’s more than that. It’s the look in his eyes, so calm and sad despite the smoke and ashes around them. Even with the way he’s still breathing heavy, with the soot smudged onto his face, or the places where his pants had caught fire, the way his hand had been burned by the door handle, he seems overwhelmingly sad, just looking at her.
“It’s gone,” he voice cracks, and she pulls herself away one more time and falls backwards when her legs give out.
“I have to,” she weeps, her hands fisted in the burnt grass, “I have to. I need it. Please, Aoi.”
He must not have been thinking. Later she will wonder over and over what had made him change his mind, just what she had said to him that made the risk suddenly worth it. Maybe him retrieving it for her was just as stupid as her asking for it, but maybe it was a piece of her innocence that neither of them wanted to give up. Maybe he thought he could preserve it somehow, her childhood, her faith in the world, if he would just do this one thing. Or maybe he thought that it could just be that easy. Not as easy as leaving it behind would have been.
But she’ll never ask what thoughts went through his head. Maybe the reality of it was that he wasn’t thinking at all when he said it, it was just something he decided to do and then put all his focus on surviving, and doing this one thing for her.
He wavers for only a moment before muttering, “Fine. Just stay here.”
And then he runs in, his shirt pulled over his mouth and he doesn’t look back to see if she’s even stayed there or not. Later she will feel guilty about making him do it, she’ll think about burn scars and smoke inhalation and with how much they had lost in one night, she could have lost him too.
But for now, the only thought on her dazed mind is Aoi inside the house. It’s like she can see him, pulling himself over debris, wheezing as he races the flames back up to her room. He’s halfway up the stairs when Akane feels a gut-lurching rush of dread and in the next moment, Aoi stops short. Akane feels a rush of relief. The ceiling was about to give out. In the time it takes her to think that, a beam had crashed down in front of Aoi.
He had known to stop at the same moment that she knew he had to! From then on she leans into her instincts, leading Aoi to thinner patches of smoke, somehow, and even directing him straight to the Jumpydoll when he reaches her room. She hardly dares to breathe until he escapes the house again, collapsing on the grass when his legs give out.
She rushes over to him, her eyes wide with worry. For a few minutes, all he can do is try to breathe, coughing out short, shallow breaths as the sound of sirens fill the night air. She can see firemen in the front yard, and she knows that she should go over them, but she’s afraid to leave her brother’s side.
She falls to her knees, looking at him, the first weight of her guilt finally setting in. The charred Jumpydoll was clutched stubbornly in his shaking hands, and he seems unable to release it even if he wanted to. He scrunches his face up in pain, each breath costing more and more of his energy. She can’t stop watching the quick rise and fall of his chest, how he seems to fight for each breath, and how he can’t even manage to say a word or even look at her.
She did this to him. His arms are burned, the wounds weeping a clear liquid, and it almost makes her sick just looking at it. She did this to him, she hurt him. She can feel his pain, and it almost overwhelms her. She can feel the tears bubble up as she nudges him, her movements getting more and more frantic as his eyes flutter closed.
“No!” she screams, her voice raw and cracking, “No! No! Aoi, wake up!”
It’s her screaming that draw the firemen to her crouched form. They find her hanging over her brother, shaking him and calling his name, and she fights for him all the way to the hospital, all the way until a nurse tells her that he’s going to be okay. And even though she hears it, nothing about this feels okay at all.
She clutches the Jumpydoll in her hand, ashamed and embarrassed of what she had done to her only remaining family. How could she have hurt him like this? What can she even do now, but wait for him to wake up?
The detective tries to talk to her but she doesn’t let him, she just stares at her brother in the other bed, stares at the tubes and needles until the moment she finds him looking back, and it breaks one last part of her that she had remained unbroken until now.
Junpei feels her crying before he’s even aware that he’s back in his own head. For a wild moment he’s unable to tell whose they are, Akane’s, or his own.
“I’m sorry,” Akane says, her shaking voice reaching him just as his vision returns, “I just wanted you to know, I wanted to share it-”
He pulls her into a hug as the last word escapes her mouth, and she gives in easily, clinging to him and pressing her face into his shirt. He can feel her shoulders shaking so he holds her tighter, and for a moment all she does is cry.
“I can’t believe I did that to him,” Akane says, her voice muffled, “I almost lost him.”
“You were young,” Junpei tries to console her, “You weren’t thinking.”
She shakes her head against his shirt, “It was such a stupid thing to do. All that, just for the Jumpydoll.” She lets out a hitched laugh.
His first instinct is to make a joke, but the thought dies in his throat. He just buries his face in her hair and thinks about the way he’s seen Aoi talk about Akane, the way he looks at her.
“He still loves you so much,” Junpei tells her, “You’re his sister. He would do anything for you. He couldn’t blame you for that.”
“I wish he would,” Akane says, “It would be easier if he had just told me about how stupid I was being, but all he did was talk about our parents being gone.”
“That couldn’t have been easy, either.”
Akane shrugs, “I didn’t really understand it,” she says, “It took a few years for me to really start missing them.”
And he lets her cry, lets her tell him about it until her voice is hoarse and weary. He doesn’t let go until she pulls away.. “It gave me access to the field,” she says, her voice watery and thin and she sounds as if she's still trying to convince herself. “It's what I needed to start the Crash Keys.”
She leans back against the windshield, casting a long forlorn look out into the distance. “Releasing the formula to the public is what my mom wanted,” Akane says, “it’s what I want, too. But mostly, I want Cradle to regret the day they let me live.”
He feels himself shiver as another gust of cold salt air reaches them, the ever present crashing of the waves as their only witness. He thinks about Aoi and Akane, and Phi and her mother, and all the people that came together just to personally see Cradle destroyed. There’s no doubt in his mind that Clover and Alice, and even Sigma, could have similar stories that drove them to such a length. And he’s one of them. He pictures Maria’s still form. None of this had to happen.
“You say we’re close to the end,” he says, remembering the comment that had spurned the whole night, “What’s changed?”
Akane sighs, visibly trying to shake off the vulnerability, but he can see by the way her eyes are lined with red that the regret won’t ever truly leave her.
“We’re on a time limit now,” Akane says, “One of the potential days my brother and I had thought of to enact the plan is almost upon us, and with our new insight on Radical Six, we have no choice but to take it now.”
Radical Six… . He tries to remembers what the field had relayed to him in the warehouse.
“We can’t afford to wait,” Akane continues, “if Free the Soul releases the virus before we enact our plan, we’ll have an entirely different problem on our hands. Years of planning, for nothing. Wasted in a moment.”
“What do we know about Radical Six, though?”
“Quite a lot, actually,” Akane says, “The clones were pretty chatty by the time I got there. It’s a airborne virus created by Cradle that makes the infected commit suicide. Their plan was to release the virus and then market the cure only to people who had reached the morphogenetic field or to those who had the money to pay for it.”
“That’s some comic book evil shit right there,” he hears himself say, but his voice is too cold and dry to inject any humor into it.
Against his will, (but then again, most recollections seem to be this way, recently) he thinks of Maria, and then of the children he had found in the warehouse. There were nine of them there, and the field had informed him that it was because of something called a Nonary Game. Cradle was conducting them in an attempt to know more about the field, but also to test the limits and effects of their new virus.
He shudders. Is that what had happened to Maria? Kidnapped for some careless, unethical experiment? Used as a human lab rat? What had even happened to her to reduce her to such a state?
Junpei takes a shallow breath, anger stirring in his veins at the thought of the senseless destruction it would cause. All those people, dead or infected, all because a corporation wanted to make some more money. He feels so useless, sitting here while Cradle still thinks they’ve won unopposed.
“I just can’t stop thinking,” he says, his voice tight in the darkness, “About Maria. What they did to her. She must have been a participant of one of those Nonary Games, right? LIke those children I found.”
Akane nods. “You may know more about it than me,” she says, “I actually received a lot of my information about it through the field from you. But yes. I had been running the Crash Keys already when she was taken. Back then, Cradle was only using the experiments to see if they could manipulate the field. The experiments...weren’t good, Junpei. From what I gather, they’ve trapped your friend in it.”
“Trapped her? In the Morphogenetic field?” He can feel the tension in his shoulder, the familiar agitation stirring up at the thought of more victims like Maria. He has to be one of the people to put a stop to it. If he doesn’t go to the headquarters, who will? Crash Keys is the only way to find peace.
Akane nods again. “It’s called Reverie Syndrome. Brain activity is actually very promising in the comatose state, but for whatever reason, the patient doesn’t wake up.”
“So,” he says carefully, his voice suddenly thick with emotion, “What can you do about it?”
Akane leans against him one more time, their shoulders touching. “I’m sorry, Junpei,” she says, “there’s not many that know that the Morphogenetic field even exists, so not a lot known about Reverie Syndrome, much less how to cure it.”
“So,” his voice is barely audible, “She’s just going to be like that forever?”
“I’m sorry,” Akane murmurs, “I wish I could tell you something different, but I just don’t know the answer to that.”
His chest hurts, and he takes a controlled, deep breath.
“I don’t even know what she went through,” Junpei says, “I don’t even know why it had to be her. And even if I do all of this, she might not ever come back.”
He leans back against the windshield. Destroying Cradle won’t solve his problems. Revealing their cult ties won’t make any of this better. At the end of the day, even if he does everything right, he’s still going to be right back where he started. Everything about it has been useless from the start.
“I did this to to Carlos for no reason,” Junpei says, “I always sort of knew it. It just wasn’t good for him to be around me.”
“Don’t say that,” Akane says, softly.
“It’s true,” Junpei says, “I couldn’t do anything for him. I couldn’t keep him positive or find him any answers. And now all I’ve done is add on to the people missing from his life.”
The sun starts to break over the horizon, the golden light breaking over the shore but unable to reach them yet. He thinks about himself, torn and yet resolute, still running from home, and he thinks about Akane and the home she had no choice but to leave behind. He thinks of someone sitting on the other side of that ocean, so close and yet worlds away.
“If something happens to me,” his eyes hurt, his entire face is sore, but it’s different than that. It’s a bone deep weariness, as if succumbing to something that’s been chasing him for a long time, a possibility he can no longer run from.
He swallows, and tries again. “If something happens to me, could you find Carlos? C-could you just find him, and tell him what happened to me and where I went, and that I always cared about him, so much that I almost couldn’t take it? And that I’m sorry I missed out on his life, and if Maria’s woken up by then, then I’m sorry I wasn’t there to see it. I’m sorry I was missing for so long.”
Akane pulls him towards her, “of course,” she says, “I’d let him know just how important he is to you. He wouldn’t spend the rest of his life wondering.”
Junpei lets out another shaking breath, “thank you,” he says, his eyes stinging suddenly, “I guess that’s the best I can ask for in these circumstances.”
But it doesn’t feel like regret, it feels like relief. At least this way Carlos will still get some closure, even if it comes in the form of a memory. And whether Carlos wants that memory or not is up to him, but the least Junpei can do is offer it to him. At least this way he knows that he won’t leave this earth without someone back home knowing the full story. At least there’s one last thing he can do for Carlos, even if he isn’t there to see it.
“It won’t come to that,” Akane says, her voice strong and sure. “I won’t let it. I won’t let any other version of me have you. This is the timeline where you get to go home.”
“You think so?” He doesn’t dare to hope, “You think we’re that close to success?”
“I do,” she says, “And we have to try. Destroying Cradle is the greatest mark of good we could ever hope to have on this world, in our lifetime.”
He shakes his head. He had begun this thinking that he could fix it all if he found the people who did this to Maria and delivered justice. He had thought it would grant him some peace, some resolution that had been he had been robbed, something he was personally owed. thought I could fix this if I found the people who did this to Maria, but it doesn’t feel better at all.
“Carlos doesn’t care about Cradle or Free the Soul,” Junpei sighs, “He only ever cared about keeping Maria safe. This has been my fight from day one.”
“You haven’t done anything you can’t go back from,” Akane says, as the morning light reaches them, “Even if we do turn up nothing, even if you go home empty handed, you’ll still have learned something about yourself from all this, and isn’t that a good thing?”
He tries to pull his tired mind to a string of cohesive thought, but fails. “I don’t know,” he says, “I just don’t know.”
“I think it is,” Akane says, “And I think Carlos would be happy to see you again in whatever shape you’re in. All these experiences you’ve had have changed you, and Carlos would see that.”
“What if it’s changed me in a bad way?” he argues, his voice faltering. “I was different back then, and I was angry, but at least we were together. Now I’ve gone and done this all without him.”
Akane looks at him “Sometimes you have to leave to find what you were looking for in the first place,” she says, “like Maeterlinck's Blue Bird.”
“The bird escapes at the end. Happiness is always just out of reach.”
“Happiness had always been back home,” Akane corrects, ”but it was only through their journey that Tyltyl and Mytyl learned how to see the bird and appreciate that they returned to what they left behind.”
But there’s nothing she can say to ease this grief. Her words aren’t enough to make him somehow able to make that trip home, to find Carlos again and tell him he was wrong. That he was wrong to have left, that it was all for nothing after all, that Maria’s condition never had anything to do with his quest for revenge. But even if that ends up to be true anyway, at least Junpei can know that he went down with a fight. If destroying Cradle is the one good thing that can come of it, then Junpei has to give it everything he has.
If nothing else, at least he’ll have that.
He had spent so long trying to convince himself that leaving was the right thing to do, when he had known all along that he was just putting his own resentment over Carlos. He had known this and had decided he didn’t care, that what he was doing was more important in the grand scheme of things. He had decided this all on his own, as if he were the only one that mattered.
His face hurts and he’s tired, but he sits on the hood long after the heat had seeped away and it had ceased being comfortable. He sits there long after Akane’s weight on his side makes his arm goes numb, until he’s had just enough time to think about the night he’s had and all that he’s learned, if not for himself than for some other version of him that’s somehow managed to do better than the sorry state he’s currently in.
What does he wish for that other version of himself? To be him, first of all, and if not, then to be able to do all of the things that this version of him cannot. It seems like an impossible task, but if the universe really is that senseless and chaotic place, then there has to be some organization of the cosmos that allows him to get it right. There has to be some version of him that has the strength to stop running, to stop searching for what’s always been exactly where he left it, where he’s always known it to be.
But it isn’t this version of him. Wherever that perfect Junpei is, this version of him hopes him the best. The current version of him is cowardly and unable to quit in hopes that some other version of himself will somehow be able to. Wherever that better Junpei is, this one hopes that it’s everything he wants it to be.
This version of Junpei just has to live in the world he’s in, the one where unjust things happen for no good reason, where he can abandon the ones who love him, where he can know deep down that at the end of the day, all of his running does nothing to help him. And he can know all of this, feel it reverberate within his soul, and still refuse to turn back from the path he’s chosen for himself.
The morning light washes over their stolen car, their slouched forms, their weary, tear stained faces. It pours over the forest behind them and all that they had learned, and it leaves Junpei feeling more exhausted than ever before.
second base is just sharing ur traumas with each other
“Firemen have to have all their gear on in ninety seconds,” Carlos suggests, and Junpei thinks, but how fast can you take it all off, that’s the real question.
Carlos pauses mid sentence. “You’re not listening,” he says, “The fundraiser is next weekend, Junpei.”
“Sorry,” Junpei steals a french fry off his plate, as if to compensate for his own short attention span. “I don’t know how much money you’d get by putting clothes on really fast. Taking it all off in ninety seconds, though, that might raise you a few bucks.”
Carlos pauses, caught off guard, before quirking an eyebrow at him. “This is a family friendly event,” he reminds him, a teasing gleam in his eyes.
Junpei shrugs, suddenly very interested in the french fry in his hand, “Well, you asked for my input,” he turns the fry over, “only you can save the firehouse. Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Carlos laughs, quietly, under his breath, and it makes Junpei’s heart freeze in his chest. He shoves the french fry in his mouth, but it is suddenly starchy and dry and tasteless.
Carlos notices the change. “Oh, come on,” he laughs, “you can talk about taking my clothes off without batting an eye, but now you’re freezing up?”
“Shut up,” Junpei says, feeling his face burn, “It’s different.”
“Different how? I don’t get you, sometimes.” Carlos shakes his head, still grinning.
He could lean across this sticky diner table and close the gap between them. With one hand perched on the napkin dispenser, his shirt trailing in his forgotten club sandwich, he could tilt Carlos’s face towards him and end this strange feeling in his chest in one quick motion. With leftover french fries and iced coffee in his mouth, it would be the grossest kiss of all time, but at least it would be better than just sitting here thinking about it.
“It’s different,” Junpei says, his voice weak and small, “it’s you.”
Carlos’ gaze softens, “that’s sweet,” he says, “I’m--”
Carlos’s phone vibrates. He flips it over on the table, a reflex, and his face immediately changes, business mode again.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I really should take this.”
“But you’re not on duty right now.” He tries not to pout.
“I’m on call,” Carlos says, apologetically, “If they need me, I mean, I’m close by already- and what if I don’t go? Can you get a ride back?”
“Yeah,” Junpei says, and Carlos is still looking at him, asking for permission, and Junpei knows he would stay if Junpei asked him to, so he relaxes. “It’s fine. Go and save the day already, what are you still doing here?”
“Thanks Junpei,” Carlos leaves a crumpled twenty on the table, “You’re the best.”
“I’m keeping the change, asshole,” Junpei says, grinning as Carlos tugs on his jacket.
Carlos laughs, relieved. “You always do.”
He drives them home long after the sun had risen. He feels steady inside the car, with the road thrumming beneath his feet, with the engine growling down the road and not another car in sight. It feels nice to be out on the open road, away from the city traffic. He likes to think that it could always be like this, that they could never go back to the city and instead live their lives in the moments in between. They could live like this and never think about the past and how it controls their future.
Inside the car, the space where time doesn’t really exist, this pocket dimension where all their problems wait for them outside. As if the longer they are in motion, the less likely it is that real life could catch up to them, that they could take all the time they need and only resume their lives the moment the car door opens and invites reality in.
Akane has her eyes closed in the passenger’s seat. Leaned back, curled up, her chin tucked into her chest. Her sweaty hair had been pulled into a side ponytail, and Junpei can see the way it curls into her face, the frayed brown strands framing her cheeks, her jawline. Her eyes carefully shut, her eyebrows relaxed and still, her dry lips slightly parted. Even in sleep she appears to still appears to be thinking, still scanning the timelines that branch ever onward. He sees the way the late morning light cast itself on the bridge of her nose, on stray strands of hair suspended in the light.
He wants to reach out and touch her, but he keeps his hands firmly on the wheel. They drive steady and prompt, to the last stage of their plan, onwards towards the moment they can’t take back.
Hi, this is Maria! Looks like I'm busy right now so feel free to leave a message and I'll call you right back.
"Maria, Carlos says you didn't come home last night. Just checking in to make sure everything is okay. Call me back."
"Hey, it's been a few hours. I know you have your phone on you. Whatever happened, it's going to be alright. At least call Carlos. You know he needs you."
"Maria, it's Junpei again. This isn't like you. Please just answer your phone. Carlos and I are worried sick. No one knows where you are. ...... Please just call me if you get this."
"Just let us know you're okay."
[This user's mailbox is full and can no longer receive messages. Please hang up and try again, or press 0 for more options.]
The energy in the warehouse is a tense, dead weight on his shoulders. It’s draped around everything, thick and heavy in the air they breathe, in the way they look at each other. It’s in the way no one seems to say a word, but are still so busy anyway, fingers clicking over keyboards, burner phones pressed into shoulders. It’s the glances they give each other, a warning and a reassurance in just a moment of eye contact before moving on to the next item on the checklist.
The final preparations have driven them into a controlled frenzy, an entirely internalized pressure that manifests in the way the group all moves around each other from room to room. It feels as if they’re leagues below the surface of the ocean, that the warehouse is their submarine, the only safe haven from the thousands of tons of pressure outside that would crush them all in a second after even the smallest of leaks. But still they can feel it pushing on the walls, waiting for the slip.
If anything, this pressure seems to heighten their senses, as if the morphogenetic field is working to synchronize in their thoughts, their actions, passing information along to Akane, double checking all their plans and back up plans and back-up back up plans and then redistributing it back among the group.
There isn’t a person here who couldn’t relay the plan down to even the most minute detail. They all know it intrinsically, instinctively, and if they all were to say it at the same time they would all have the same inflection, take the same pauses, end on the same millisecond.
One last quiet moment, he thinks, as he looks at the old burn scars that snake up and down Aoi’s arms. One last quiet moment was all they had, and all they ever will have. Everything will be different after tomorrow. Clover presses car information into his hands. Whether a success or a failure, the Crash Keys will be disbanded, its members gone underground. Even in their victory, he might never see these people again or work in the same room as them.
Even in their highest of moments, they would still be hunted, and would have to be more careful than ever before. He wouldn’t have a group to rely on or watch his back. It might not even be safe for him to resurface back to civilization at all, after tomorrow. The thought makes his stomach twists. Phi looks over to him before he can even register the feeling himself.
He starts to think that he would follow Akane, if he was able to. He would try to look for her in the aftermath. It would be better than trying to survive on his own. If he can’t have his old life back, nor the one he has now, then what will he have?
Akane and Sigma have their heads bowed over the table pouring over the building blueprints once more. He seems to be strangely insistent on the presence of a third security camera in the CEO’s office. Junpei can see him gesturing, short, controlled movements as not to disturb the perfect productivity in the air.
“You have to trust me,” Sigma is saying, “I don’t know what the variable is yet, but we narrow it down each time.”
(“We called it the Spacetime Human Internal Fluctuating Transfer,” he says, “SHIFT.”)
“One security camera?” Akane frowns, “is that really enough to doom an entire timeline?”
“Do you want to risk it?”
Her frown deepens. “It doesn’t feel right. It has to be something bigger than that to create such a discrepancy.”
(SHIFTing preserves more information and experiences between timelines. It can preserve an entire personality, as a consciousness makes the jump to a new timeline and reintegrates into its new body. Two sets of memories. Things that have already happened and have yet to happen at the same time. A cat that both is and isn’t dead.
It really is.)
“Again, do you really want to risk it?”
Akane doesn’t say anything to that. Or if she does, he’s already moved too far away to hear it.
All-Ice and Phi are going over hand to hand combat with Clover. How to get out of a headlock. Ten things not to do with a gun pointed at you. Ways to avoid being manipulated into snitching on the rest of the Crash Keys if you get caught. He should listen, but he’s distracted by something. It’s a waning, hesitant presence. He can almost sense it, this gap in the air somewhere, and he thinks that if there’s a way to prevent the disaster, then there’s a world where he has to live through it first.
Which is the one he would rather be in? What’s more fair, to have to live with the reality they’ve made for themselves or the chance to try again if it’s for a good cause?
He doesn’t have an answer.
Akane finds him before he leaves the warehouse. She pulls him aside, and her eyes are shining with hope. It makes his heart feel lighter, like all of this could mean nothing as long as she keeps looking at him like that. So he cups her face in his hands and kisses her long and slow, as if that could somehow mean everything he wants it to.
But the look on his face must say everything she wants to hear, because he thinks for a wild moment that everything might just be okay. There’s no one who could know more than Akane. So when she tells him that they’ll succeed tomorrow, he looks at her warm brown eyes and knows that she must be right. It’s amazing how just a few moments with her shakes the unsettled feeling in his chest.
Just by proximity alone he feels calmer, and he knows that he can handle anything that happens tomorrow as long as she’s there to walk him through it. And she will be. Inside his head, alongside his heart, anywhere she wants to make her home.
Tomorrow will change anything. But he thinks about his hands tangled in her soft hair and he thinks that if there’s just one thing that stays the same, then the rest won’t even matter.
“I’ll be with you,” she says, “you won’t have to worry about a thing.”
And then she kisses him again, and he wishes more than anything that he could stay in this moment forever.
But the morning finds him anyway. He wakes up, takes a shower, brushes his teeth. It feels like something he should be doing, not something that needs to be done. He does all of this because it’s a routine, it’s normal, as if normalcy was what he needed right now.
His apartment is dark and still. It barely feels lived in, as if he hadn’t allowed himself to fully move in yet, to unpack boxes or even sit on the couches. It feels like he’s holding his breath as to not disturb the dust that’s settled, as if even that had more of a right to be here than he did.
He glances at himself in the mirror before he leaves. He looks normal, tired. Almost like the college student he once was, if not for the tension and worry he carried in his face. He can’t shake the way his expression is drawn and still, the way his eyes bore heavy into his reflection, unable to look away. He imagines Maria beside him. What would she look like now, if she was allowed to have the time that was stolen from her?
“You would have wanted it,” he says, as if to assure himself. His voice raspy and unused to talking this early in the morning. “You would have been right here with me.”
Maria would have been angry. For herself and the life she didn’t get to have. For all the pain Carlos went through, for all of the children Free the Soul didn’t return. She would have been angry for their sakes. She always did feel a lot for other people. Junpei, however… he’s just not the type.
He used to be, he thinks. Back when they met he would have had the energy and outward drive he needed. But he’s still fighting for her. He’s just more tired, these days.
So he has to do this for her. She would have been at the forefront, protesting and sabotaging and throwing herself into harm’s way, had it been him. She would have been right alongside Akane, trying to unravel Gentarou Hongou’s head and guess what he would do next.
She would be livid, she would be passionate, she would be throwing her head back when she laughed and slamming her fists on the table when making a point, and she would be fighting back. Now he has to do everything she can’t do. He has to be the person she would have wanted to be. He has to live her life alongside his own.
He pulls his hoodie up over his head, locks the door behind him, and leaves.
He picks up the phone on the third ring. “Hullo?”
“Hi,” his mother’s voice is meek, already wilting, “how are you.”
She doesn’t phrase it like a question. She demands it. But she doesn’t ever press him for the real answers. I’m good, he tells her. It’s what he’s supposed to say. It’s in the dialogue they’ve shared over and over again. The same stilted conversation. The same lies.
“I’ve been busy,” he says, tying his shoes. “I’ve been keeping my mind off it.”
She doesn’t even sigh like she usually does. She lets the silence hang in the air, a pensive, disappointed thing. They both know better. But maybe she’s still hoping. Maybe that’s why she calls.
There are many things he could tell her in this silence. He could tell her all about Crash Keys or Free the Soul, about the day he’s about to have, about the only reason he picked up the call at all. Usually, he lets it go to voicemail. He’s been ignoring her for months now. They both know the routine.
“Are you….getting along well?”
They dance so nicely around the question, like they’ve rehearsed it. She keeps trying and he keeps evading her, and no matter how many times he’s had this conversation, no matter how many timelines he’s jumped through, this one thing stays the same.
He thinks about the Crash Keys. The alter ego they gave him. “Sigma” sounds like someone who could have that normal life. He’s someone who could make connections, who could laugh things off and always find the wrong comment for the right moment. It would be easy if he could be like that all the time. It would be too easy.
But this real version of him can’t afford that.
“And your research?” His mother asks, tentatively. She thinks this is going well. He feels bad for her.
(Hi again, the voicemail always starts, its your mother. You know that. You just changed your number, though, so in case you didn’t. Hi! (false cheer,) everyone here has been asking about you. I always find something to tell them, but it would be great if we could have a moment to catch up.
(The next part is interchangeable)
Would you want to….
- Meet up for lunch somewhere?
- Set a time to video chat?
- Take a walk down to meet my friend Susan’s new cat?
- Just send me a text to let me know you’re alright.
- Come home please, just so we can talk about this?
I know you’re busy, the voicemail says, I just miss you. Call me back if you can.)
“You know I’m done with it, Ma,” he says, on autopilot. She wants to hear that he’s left it behind. She wants that reassurance. But he’s lied to her since the day it began.
“I know,” his mother says, carefully. “I just wanted to make sure, after...what happened.”
He sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose with his free hand. This is why he doesn’t answer her calls. It makes him sad.
“So we won’t have a Dr. Klim in the family,” his mother’s voice hitches. It’s supposed to be a laugh, but it sounds like a repressed cry. “That’s okay. You never needed to be one for us to be proud of you.”
“I know,” he says, quietly. He knows it, and that somehow makes it worse. He wishes his mother’s love could be enough. He wishes he could turn off this drive inside him and just find a way to be satisfied with his mother’s unconditional support, as if that could ever be what he needs it to be.
She’s gone quiet again. So why don’t you come home? She wants to ask. What are you still out there looking for? He knows her by now. He knows what she thinks about it, what she really wants to hear. But he can’t tell her. Not yet.
But maybe someday soon, he could call her first. She would pick up on the first ring and he would say, I did what I had to do, I’m done, I’ll taking the next plane home. And she would welcome him back and not ask about it and he wishes more than anything that it could be that way.
I did it again, Ma, he would tell her I threw my life away. I tried to let it go but I couldn’t and it got me again. Even after my research on the morphogenetic field had driven everyone away, my family, my girlfriend, everyone I could trust, I still let it catch me again. I didn’t care if it was ethical. I just had to do it. I thought if I used myself as a test subject, it would be fine. And I was right. I’ve learned more about the morphogenetic field here than I ever could if I had stayed within the binds of moral and ethical academia. It’s a wonderful thing.
We rob banks, he would say, we steal and cheat and we use our minds to do it. It was everything I hypothesized, in action. It was everything stuffy professors and dissertations could only theorize about. I isolated myself for theories, but this time I isolated myself for proof. And I have all the proof in the world, I have all this potential inside myself. It’s amazing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s this beautiful little secret, all to myself.
“I joined a hiking club,” he lies, impulsively, “it’s why I’m up so early. We’re about to set out.”
He doesn’t know why he does it. Maybe he wants to make her feel better. Maybe he craft that narrative she can fall back on. So if he doesn’t call back, or if he never picks up the phone again, she can think that he’s busy with his normal life, instead of the alternative. And maybe he wants to feed into this lie she seems so desperate to believe. If she wants to build the reality that he’s perfectly adjusted and not addicted to finding out more about the morphogenetic field, then that’s fine.
And maybe if she really believes it, then he could believe it too. Maybe the field could work that way instead, where instead of the narrative that he’s sold himself to June, he could actually be living a perfectly suitable life, the one his mom picked out for him. Maybe he could be that person he pretends to be, that doesn’t have a care in the world, that doesn’t take a thing seriously.
But he wants this more than he wants any sort of normal life. He wants to know what June has in store. He wants to know what his brain could do. And if he had to sacrifice his doctorate to do it, then he’ll do just that. Even without the official status, he’s still a doctor. Dr. Klim. It suits him.
“That’s good,” his mother says, encouragingly, “I won’t keep you for long, then. Tell me all about it when you get back. Promise you’ll call?
“I will” Dr. Klim says, distracted, “I’ve gotta go.”
“Alright then. Bye. I love yo-”
He hangs up. He never has the nerve to say it back. Not when he knows that he’s betraying her like this. Hanging up on her is always easier than the silence that follows. She told him to quit and find something he enjoyed, something that didn’t seem to suck the life out of him. But instead all he did was move halfway across the country to continue his research without her seeing it. And he doesn’t feel guilty for it.
But enough brooding. This isn’t like him. This is just what happens when his mother calls. It makes him feel old, like he’s missing out on something. Like a piece of him, once so natural and easy, has been eroded away. Like he sold it for a plane ticket.
But he can do both. He can have his research and his life. He doesn’t have to give anything away. All in all, this has always been about him.
He locks his door behind him. His Sigma persona, the one the Crash Keys gave him, is almost too easy to slip into. It makes him feel younger, like the person he was before his research took hold. The person who didn’t know what the morphogenetic field was, who wasn’t engulfed in finding the answers. But that person, whoever he is, is gone now.
He walks confidently into the morning, into the day that everything changes. He walks further into someone he doesn’t want to be. But he doesn’t have a choice anymore. His jumps through the timelines have given him almost all the pieces he needs for the Crash Keys to succeed today.
So he doesn’t look back. He can’t afford it.
LXQ LHC NMR
She punches the numbers in confidently, not sparing him a second glance. They had interacted with a practiced coolness as if they both weren’t aware of just who the other was.
“A lot of meetings today, eh Hazuki?
She frowns at the use of her real name, but doesn’t look away from the keyboard. “I’ll be with you in a moment, sir,” she calls, her voice clear and steady.
She types in another password and the door clicks open. The man lets himself behind the counter, saying something about making her job easier in the time it takes Lotus to enter the letters for the second code. She leads Junpei through silently, but he can tell by the tension in her shoulders that the Crash Key’s informant is less than pleased at the addition to the party.
For a few long moments, the only sound is Lotus’ heels clicking across the floor in steady intervals. Her shoulders are back and her gaze is sharp and focused ahead. In contrast, the man beside her has his hands shoved into his pockets, and matches her pace with a leisurely stride.
“I would just let myself in with the executive’s card key,” the man explains, “but I suppose we’ve got to give our secretaries something to do, don’t you think?”
The man appears at Junpei’s side. He’s of considerable bulk, with a large gray mustache taking up a good portion of his face. His eyes are bulbous and half hidden by his wirey gray eyebrows, his cheeks porous and blotchy, and he’s peering down at Junpei with a vaguely interested expression.
“One of the new partners?” the man guesses, “Good luck out there. We don’t make deals with just anyone.”
“Thank you, sir,” Junpei says, after a moment, “I’ve prepared a lot for today.”
“Glad to hear it,” the man grins, his teeth an unnatural white, contrasting with the sunken, stained yellow hue of his face. “I do hope you’ll impress us.”
He grins, shakily. “I hope so, too.”
The man laughs and turns the corner without offering a goodbye, and Junpei watches him go for a moment before turning back to glance at Lotus.
“Kagechika Musashidou,” she explains, “one of Cradle’s top executives. He’s rarely around, but when he is he never misses a moment to make my job harder. He’s here today for the big meeting.”
And while he’s there, along with Cradle’s three other executives, the Crash Keys will being doing their work to unravel their empire out from underneath them. No pressure, though.
“Sounds rough,” he says.
She shakes her head instead of answering. “Bad luck that he saw you,” Lotus says, stopping in front of a seemingly random door. “Hopefully that’s the last you’ll hear from the higher ups today.”
Junpei pauses. He knows she’s someone that Akane paid off, someone that leaked information on security cameras and how to unlock doors, but he finds himself wishing he could spend more time talking to her. Her confidence and straightforward manner makes him wish she could be with him the whole way, telling him what to do and what to say.
She has two daughters, his age, he thinks, the morphogenetic field casting a wide net between them. Right now, she’s looking at him and thinking about their situations, how different they are. But it’s a risk she’s decided to take, helping them. It’s the least she can do. Or maybe it’s because she knows that if it was her daughters, she would be right there alongside them.
He pulls himself together and nods at her. She narrows her eyes. “Be quick,” she says, “and don’t hesitate for anything.”
She turns swiftly down the hallway before he thinks to respond. He pushes the door open before there’s time for doubt to set in.
Aoi is sprawled out on one of the chairs. “Great,” he says, “you’re right on time.”
It doesn’t feel real, yet the stakes are there. Junpei supposes it’s because they have yet to do something they can’t go back from. There’s nothing keeping them from calling it off right now, he thinks, as the elevator creeps up and up. There’s nothing stopping them from deciding the risk is just too high. It’s not worth the jail time. It’s not worth the effort. Let’s just go home.
It doesn’t feel real when Sigma and Phi fall into step behind them. A carefully measured distance. A practiced nonchalance. It doesn’t feel real when he catches Clover and All-Ice with matching suitcases, when he sees them scout the hallway ahead. It doesn’t feel like he’s one of them, like any of this could be happening to him. He’s just Junpei from undergrad. He’s just average Junpei, here to avenge his friend and topple a corporation. He’s just Junpei.
But no one says a word. Not even Sigma, who usually has a joke for everything. He’s uncharacteristically quiet in a way that seem more unnerving than casual, like he’s waiting for something. Even Phi beside him has done a better job at feigning disinterest, with her thumbs hooked into her belt loops. It seems natural on her, like this could be any other day.
All-Ice and Clover fall naturally into step with each other. Junpei thinks about how they had traced the route over and over again with their inside information, how they the follow the trail of disconnected security cameras like a constellation. Ace’s office as the north star. Orion, shining bright ahead of them, beckoning them on. The path is laid out before them without being spoken aloud.
They pass the first layer of security, a pilfered key card swiped through without betraying the nanosecond worth of glances they all swap as the light turns from red to green. And then All-Ice, in front of the door that changes everything, their last chance to turn back and have something to say for themselves. He can’t believe they got up there so quickly. He should have had more time to hype himself up. More time to really make sure this moment can mean something, that he can make this last.
But the meeting is a company wide affair, meaning that the majority of the building is deserted in favor of the larger rooms. It’s a big deal, you see, to unveil the next drug that will ruin countless lives. Everyone will need to be there for it.
The numbers go in quickly, even without anyone there to question their presence. The passwords are all entered with memorized efficiency, and Junpei finds himself holding his breath, staring at the floor and wondering why a billionaire doesn’t have better sense of interior design. This tile with those walls? Despicable.
It’s the only chance he’ll have to see it up close, he supposes.
He expects the air to be different inside of Hongou’s office. It’s too quiet, this far up, with the bulk of the business being handled floors below, right under their feet. It doesn’t feel real to have made it this far without being challenged, and a part of him knows that this is also the Crash Key’s doing. He wonders how far they’ll make it, if everyone in this building can be paid off so easily.
He doesn’t get to see much of the inside, but he imagines it to be of the highest grandeur. He, Clover, and Sigma are stationed outside, on guard. Clover at one edge of the hallway, Sigma on the other, and Junpei guarding the door. He can hear whispered conversation behind him, but for the most part a heavy hush lies over the team as the morphogenetic field absorbs the bulk of communication. The air is charged with it, and he can feel his own senses straining to pick up on the invisible synapses passing overhead.
He hears the rapid clicking of keys in a few sharp bursts. He hears Phi mutter under her breath before the clicking continues. He wishes he could crane his head around to see what they’re doing, but this isn’t his part of the operation. This isn’t why he’s here.
Everything comes down to him later. It’s up to him to get them out. The car he’s prepared is waiting at an exact location, and everything about it was under his control. The model, the changes to it, everything is suited for him. It’s about getting the Crash Keys out in one piece, listening for Akane, and leaning into the pedals, perched and ready.
He hears a clicking noise, followed by a soft exhale of breath. Sigma and Clover look back at him, as if on cue, and the silent realization that All-Ice has opened the safe elicits a renewed surge of relief and anticipation as the second part of their mission continues on.
All-Ice had memorized a long series of numbers for the combination. Finding it at all had only been due to her skill at mathematics, a feat that only she could accomplish. At least she can know that she’s done what she’s set out to do. She’s given the Crash Keys what they’ve asked her for.
Phi types the first password in. LXA QNS GDQ. Junpei knows this like he has eyes on the back of his head. He can see her biting her lip, her eyes zig-zagging across the screen as her hands click across the keyboard. He can sense their presence behind them, he knows the way Aoi is watching, calm and level and sure, an undercurrent of iron with every nod and signal. This is his life’s work. This is the project that his sister had entrusted him with.
He can even feel Akane in the back of his head, tirelessly perusing the field. He can feel her in communication with the rest of the Crash Keys, as if the link between them could physically be seen or felt. But they’re all here breathing in tandem, thinking the same thoughts.
And then the gun clicks and everything freezes.
He can feel them tense behind him, but he wills them forward anyway as he turns to look towards the end of the hallway. Clover’s lips are pressed tight, frustrated by her position as she’s urged forward with the barrel of the gun trained on her head. She stares straight ahead, and it’s only as she gets closer does he catch a glimpse of the man behind her.
Teruaki Kubota, Akane’s says into his head, her voice low and composed, another executive. That’s two of four, Jumpy.
The message is clear. She’s entrusting this to him, and by extension Clover. Two of four. Where are the others? Are they near? He doesn’t want to alert them.
Sigma has abandoned his post at the end of the hallway and slips behind Junpei, into the room. Junpei feels a flash of annoyance at his sudden urgency. They don’t need a warning. Akane has already told them what they need to know.
The man’s hands are shaking, Junpei realizes, as he slowly draws near and Junpei struggles to think. His hands are clenched tight around the gun, his eyes unfocused and his face slick with sweat. He doesn’t want to shoot. He doesn’t want to be responsible for taking another human life. But Junpei can’t let him in the room. Who will fold first?
Another password, Phi’s voice his tight with stress in his head, Another one, why?
Calm down, Sigma doesn’t sound like himself. We just have to think.
This doesn’t surprise Junpei. Nothing surprises him anymore. Not even when Clover twists around and slashes at Teruaki Kubota’s neck in one smooth motion, as the blood spills onto the garish tiles and she twists the body away from her, the gun pulled out of reach.
Kubota jerks a few times and attempts to talk but Clover doesn’t release her grip until he drags long wheezing breaths through his torn throat. She drops him on the ground and stares at him for a long moment before turning back to Junpei, her gaze dark and hardened, her hands clenched into fists. He stares at the blood pooling behind her.
EQD DYR NTK, Sigma types, BQZ RGJ DXR. You should know the last one by now, Phi.
And she does. The computer lets them in. Junpei gags on the scent of blood in the air.
Teruaki Kubota is dead. He was here and he was alive, but now grabbing at his throat and coughing on the floor. He hesitated instead of using his hostage, and the hostage used him instead. It all happened so quickly. He had them by surprise but Clover knew he would hold back, that he was unpredictable but uncommitted and she could use that, so she took the knife hidden on her and she gouged out his throat to keep him from talking, and now he’s bleeding out on the floor behind them, his eyes glassy and still. She knew that would happen and what she had to do and she did it, and now a man is dead.
And that was all it took. All of that in the span of ten minutes. A moment that could have ruined their entire operation, sewn back together because Clover knew what she had to do to keep them on track.
He can see by her pale face that the event has distracted her more than she realizes, that her focus is startled and might not return. She’s thinking about her brother. She’s wondering if she can really go home after this, if she really has it in her to hide this from him.
I’ve got it, Phi’s hands fly over the keys, it’s here. Sorry this took so long.
It’s not unexpected, Junpei thinks, taking a step inside the office after Clover. It’s not unexpected. (her eyes are a little hollowed, and she didn’t get away without a light spray of blood on her). Cradle would add more security if they had reason to suspect something was coming. If they had reason, such as a tip from Free the Soul after one of their shipments was interrupted, after an outpost was attacked by suspected members of the Crash Keys, they would add more security. More guard dogs. And Gentarou Hongou would never stray far from his post.
They’ve got the mandrake in the vial. They’ve got the soporil files downloading, the formula in their grasp. And a man is dead, the thick iron stench of blood steadily filling the air behind them, an ominous, ever present reminder of the price so far. But there’s still one more thing to do, and a choice to make.
As if on cue, everyone turns to Aoi, whose brows are furrowed in thought.
“We have what we came here for, technically.” He murmurs, “And I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to. We could leave right now and call it a victory.”
“We came here today because if we waited longer, we would have to fight off Radical Six, and we can’t afford that,” All-Ice says, “But right now, that’s still their trump card. We need to take it from them.”
“It’s strange that there’s no one here,” Sigma says, crossing his arms. “I’d have thought we would attract more attention by now. I mean, a man is dead. It’s been too easy.”
The Crash Keys share a glance.
“So we should make it harder for ourselves?”
“The meeting today is a floor below us,” Junpei says, “The executives are all together. It might be to reveal the virus.”
“So they have it on them,” Phi removes her flash drive and tucks it away, “we thought it would be here in the office, but it’s not. The only way to get it is to go and physically take it from them.”
Everyone’s eyes are trained on Aoi. They’re working on borrowed time. Every minute they spend with their goal accomplished and a man dead out in the hallway is time they don’t have. This is a reckless decision to make. Radical Six and Axelavir had always been a part of the equation, but it’s such a recent development that it doesn’t have nearly the same amount of thought and planning that stealing soporil had.
But they won’t have a second chance for this. Soporil won’t matter if Radical Six hits the streets. They have to keep going. They have to try. Even if it’s a death wish. Even if it’s the last thing they’ll ever do. Aoi seems to reach the same conclusion, and he leads them out of the office without a second thought. As if on cue, Phi hands Clover the flash drive. All-Ice holds the vial in the other.
“You two go,” Aoi says, turning back to look at them. “I know you set up a way out with June. This way, even if the rest of us don’t make it out, this is still a success. We’ve freed the formula.”
Clover frowns. “We can’t just leave you after all this.”
“You’re quite literally going into the lion’s den,” All-Ice points out. “You’ll need all the backup you can get.”
“I know,” Aoi says, “And this isn’t about me trying to be noble. June knows how we need to play this, and you two need to go. It’s our safest option. It was always the back up plan for you two.”
Clover and All-Ice share a glance. “Fine,” All-Ice says, curtly, “But I didn’t come all this way to miss out on the action. I hope you know that.”
“You two might be the only ones walking away with your lives, if you leave now,” Aoi says back, “Take it up with June later.”
And then he turns away. Junpei can feel Clover and All-Ice’s annoyance rolling around inside them, but at the same time, they know that Aoi is right, and this is the course of action they need to follow. Even if it’s not the plan they preferred, it’s one that was prepared beforehand, and that still gives them an edge.
But All-Ice and Clover slip away in the opposite direction, soundlessly rounding the corner until they’re out of sight. Junpei feels himself sigh in relief. If they can get out of the building without blowing their cover, it buys more time for the rest of them. That is, until the body in the hallway is discovered.
Junpei is almost shocked at how little he cares for the loss of life. It was such a quick thing, and yet it hardly distracts him at all. It’s the constant reminder that this will all fall apart at any moment. The evidence that will press them for time is splayed out in the middle of the hallway, lying in wait.
As if thinking the same thing, Aoi picks up the pace.
- white cap, purple bottle, that’s Axelevir. It’s in the safe.
A man died. Clover killed him to buy them all time. And Junpei understands that. He had spent so long reassuring himself that he still had morals, and now all he can do is shrug at the thought of Teruaki Kubota dead in the hallway.
For some reason, this knowledge only serves to comfort him. He’s one of them. He can do this. He won’t back down from the reason he started all of this. He can see it through no matter what the consequences, or what he’s asked to do.
But maybe they’ll be thankful to have less people for what happens next. He doesn’t know how he could be so sure of something like that. So far he just feels like the designated driver to a particularly dangerous party he isn’t allowed to join in on. Junpei just isn’t sure why he has to be a part of it at all.
Couldn’t he have just put a podcast on and waited in the car? He wants to laugh at his own nervous, hysterical thought. The silence in the air seems to heavy for him, otherwise. He can’t shake the feeling that every step is somewhere they weren’t meant to tread. They’re on enemy territory, and every moment wasted is one they’ll pay for later.
Junpei feels himself starting to get a headache from the long pull of adrenaline and nerves. Aoi stops short suddenly before leading them down a different hallway. He mutters something about his sister and giving directions under his breath before unceremoniously pulling open a seemingly random door.
The room is dark and messy, from what little is illuminated from the hallway light. He can see loose bits of technology strewn about, haphazardly littering the floor with little rhyme or reason to their placement. Junpei can see boxes full of bracelets and rounded panels with scanners on them.
There’s loose puzzles, or what appear to be puzzles, scattered around the room, as well as a mannequin propped up in the corner next to some test tubes and bunsen burners. He can see a stack of children’s sudoku book, and it only serves to make him angry. Is this some sort of joke?
What is this place? It seems mostly abandoned, like a storage room of some sorts. They begin searching for the safe Akane had pointed out to them, but with the clutter in the room and the dim light, it’s hard to know where to start. Junpei finds himself near a hoard of boxes, shifting through them and pushing them away, and he thinks that if the Cradle executives were smart, they would have just left the bottle in the room by itself. It would be near impossible to distinguish, that way.
Aoi lets out a ragged breath. “The meeting is over,” he says, his voice strained in the darkness, “We’re out of time. We’ll have to settle for finding the Axelavir and getting out. They’ll have Radical Six, but we’ll have the cure.”
The real message is unspoken. They should be out already. Their window is closed. With the meeting over, one of the executives will return to the office or look for Kubota, and what they find will only make the extraction harder for them. If they were to get out in one piece, they would be gone by now. Like Clover and All-Ice were.
“First we have to find it,” Phi says, darkly. Junpei can see a cloud of dust rise from her corner of the room as something heavy shifts.
“And then we have to get it out of the building,” Sigma’s voice sounds from nearby, “With the executives prowling about. Just chuck it out the window, if it comes to that.”
“Definitely don’t do that.” Aoi sounds distracted but resigned in the shadow of the room.
Junpei opens a box. It’s full of files, none of which seem pertinent to their current search, but he flips through a few anyway. They’re profiles of people he doesn’t recognize, teenagers and children of all ages, with seemingly no pattern between them. He opens another file. Rows and rows of kidnapping victims, all thrown into a forgotten utility closet.
He closes the box. He doesn’t want to read Maria’s profile. He doesn’t want to see what little regard they had for her life. How they used her and then threw her away. How they considered her a success to be comatose and not dead. He doesn’t want to see her name, her entire life, reduced down to a code and a file number.
All these children whose parents are still searching for them. All these children who don’t get to go home, whom Cradle hides away and won’t even let their families be at peace, after years and years of experiments. All of these people who don’t get to have closure, who didn’t ask for Cradle to ruin their lives.
He has all of their names. Here in his hands, he has the names of every one of them. Children who died without justice or explanation. A file and a number, as if that’s all that remains of them. Where are they, Gentarou? What did you with to them? Can’t they even have a proper funeral? What did you do with the bodies?
He doesn’t even realize his hands are shaking with the thoughts of Maria thrown out on that dirty warehouse floor, limp and cold and filthy, and that she was lucky to be that way. He thinks of her eyes, distant and hollow, and he thinks of the way she always used to throw an arm around him when she saw him, how warm she was curled up next to him, asleep in the backseat.
He thinks about her in the hospital bed. He thinks about the bills, and Carlos’ sunken eyes, and Maria’s cold hands in his.
Gentarou deserves to suffer for what he did. Suffer just like she did. Just like all of those children. I have to punish him. For all the innocent lives that were lost...sacrificed to one man’s greed.
One last thought cast out to the universe, as if the morphogenetic field could ever be so kind as to grant him just this one thing. As if any of the timelines could cross in a such a way that would give him that chance, as if this could be the one where it all falls into place and Gentarou Hongou could know exactly what he’s done to them.
The door swings open, casting a bright light into the room, cut by a large imposing shadow.
Maria, Junpei thinks, helplessly, angrily. I wish there was a way to save you. I hope this makes up for it.
“So this is the Crash Keys,” Gentarou Hongou sounds disappointed. “Picking through my trash like raccoons. I see.”
Gentarou walks carefully around a discarded box. “When they said you were in the building, I must admit I had expected some trickery from you, given how you had eluded us in the past. But here you all are, waiting for me after dumping poor Kubota in the hallway.”
He nears the center of the room. “But no worries,” he grins, sharkish and inhumane in the dim light, “he was the expendable one, after all.”
No one says a word, spurned to stillness by the man’s presence. Someone who had only existed in thought for so long, now in front of them. A man they had only ever spoken about in codes, encrypting their thoughts and covering their paths. All of that effort just to catch a glimpse of his face, and here he was in front of them, well aware and comfortable in his power and control.
Gentarou Hongou invites himself in, dictates the conversation. He controls their lives, and he knows it. There isn’t a flicker of fear in his eyes. There’s nothing they could do to him that he wouldn’t be prepared for.
Well, Junpei feels the gun tucked into his hip. A bullet might do it.
Aoi is in the corner of the room by the door. With Gentarou in the center, he could raise his gun and shoot and it could all be over. But for whatever reason, he hesitates, his eyes trained on the CEO, wide and full of unbridled hatred. He tracks his every movement with hungry, spiteful eyes. But he doesn’t strike yet. He just watches, crouched and patient. Like a hunter, biding his time.
“ You’re going to thank me for the gift, right?” Gentarou takes no notice to Aoi’s glare. “I let you take Soporil Beta from me so easily, after all that effort to contain it.” He shrugs, “truth is, the other executives grew soft and voted to release the formula anyway. I think it’s better to have it be stolen from us than to just give it away, I think. Makes us a victim to domestic terrorists.”
A shrill beep.
Phi’s hands dart away, but all eyes in the room are trained on her. She sucks in a breath at the weight of their gaze, her eyes connecting with Sigma beside her. She’s perfectly still, as if that could be enough to shake their focus.
Gentarou cocks the gun. Behind him, Aoi tenses, prepared to spring. “Careful,” Gentarou taunts, “That’s an important safe you’ve got there. You wouldn’t want to find out anything you shouldn’t know.”
A partner… Akane’s voice drifts into his head, A partner… Does Free the Soul has a seperate leader? They must use the field, of course. Did they know we were coming? Is that why Hongou let us take soporil that easily? He gave it to us. He handed it over….
Damn it. Gentarou’s presence alone is enough to increase the foreboding in the room to maximum. It makes it harder to think straight. Even the energy he carries is powerful, as if there’s nothing they can do to fight him, to strike back in a way that really hurts, or to ever truly be one step ahead. It could all be over right now. The only thing keeping them alive is Gentarou’s whim.
Junpei narrows his eyes. Why is Gentarou here? He certainly has the resources to have someone else take care of it. Even the police would be better suited to be here right now, or the cult that follows his every command. But for whatever reason, he didn’t call for backup. He didn’t mention a thing about the building being surrounded, or their escape.
He seems that curious about their existence as they are his own. Could he really just want to see the Crash Keys function with his own eyes before he destroys them? What other reason does he have for stalling them here, giving them time to plan? Is it all a game to him? Does he even entertain the thought that he could lose?
Out of nowhere, Sigma’s hand darts forward and he types a series of numbers into the trackpad. A sharp crack fills the room, making them flinch, and Junpei feels his breath catch in his throat.
“Shit,” Sigma breathes, his voice laced with pain. “Shit. Okay. Phi, listen to me-”
The safe beeps again, having accepted the second password.
A second gunshot. Junpei’s heart lunges into his throat.
Junpei can hear labored breathing. “You think….death will stop me?” Sigma pulls himself up, propped against the wall, his pained gaze trained on Gentarou. “There's no information in the world that just stays in one place.”
“There’s no way for you to have known that,” Gentarou says, baring his teeth. “It was a preventative measure after Crash Key’s recent meddling. But I know what you’ve done. The morphogenetic field is a gift that wasn’t meant for you.” Gentarou strides forward. “I won’t let you have what’s rightfully mine. I’ll cleanse the timelines of your corrupt influences.”
Sigma coughs. “Humanity's minds are connected,” he rasps, “Another version of me will find you...There’s nowhere for you to run from us.”
Gentarou aims the gun at Phi.
In the next moment, Aoi tackles Gentarou to the ground. He reacts with surprising speed, but in the intensity of the moment Junpei finds himself distracted, even as Aoi fights for them. He watches as Aoi struggles to pin him, as Gentarou lands a punch, and he wonders what the point of it is. He could have pulled the trigger and been done with it. There were already two gunshots in this room, the sound piercing the silence.
He startles at the sudden thought. It tears him from the scene in front of him, the number cements itself into his mind. He moves almost robotically as he crosses the room, as if something had reached into his brain and taken control of him. He watches as his hands reach towards the dial pad on the safe, punching the number in in sharp, sure movements. The door swings open just as he knew he would. Junpei dips his hand in and retrieves the bottle, finding it to be exactly how Akane had described it.
“You...you got it.” Phi glances over to him, her eyes wide.
“The third password,” Sigma murmurs, “Tell me, for next time…”
“You...” The words get stuck in Junpei’s throat when he sees the mess of blood on Sigma’s chest, how shallow his breathing is, how his eyes are bleary and unfocused. “It won’t be any use to you now.”
This is what death is, he thinks. This is why it’s different from Kubota, from the Free the Soul clones. This didn’t have to happen. It doesn’t have to be happening right now, but there’s nothing they can do to stop it. All he can do is watch as Sigma’s breathing gets slower and slower, more ragged with each turn. It’s going to be final. There won’t be anything they can do now to change the fact that Sigma will die.
“Tell him, Tenmyouji,” Phi says, her voice tired and still.
Quietly, Junpei repeats the numbers that had appeared in his mind just moments prior.The moment stretches for just a bit too long, and he begins to worry that Sigma might not have heard him. There’s no time left, he thinks. There’s nothing they can do for him.
Finally Sigma nods, his eyes glazed and unseeing as the blood continues to pool.
“I should have let it go to voicemail,” he sighs, his rueful voice barely audible. “That’s where today went wrong. And I said I’d call her back, too…”
His tired voice drifts off, and Junpei can’t bring himself to look at his face any longer. He hears Phi take a shaky breath.
Across the room, Aoi cocks his gun and shoves it against Gentarou’s temple. For one loud moment all he can hear is Aoi’s angry panting, breaking the stillness in the room. Junpei turns his head to catch one last look at the CEO. His eyes gleam in the light, wild and cruel and senseless.
“This is for my sister,” Aoi snarls, and he paints the wall red.
It has none of the finesse and poetry that the moment deserved. It was angry and quick and then it was over, and the mission then became what it always was, a murder.The smell alone is almost enough to take Junpei right out of his body. It’s strange to be in a room where so much death has taken place.
He sees himself stand up. He pulls Phi to her feet. She lets out a strange noise from the back of her throat, looking down on Sigma’s still form. She says something to him.
He can’t hear you, Junpei wants to tell her, It’s too late for that.
He had read somewhere, (had he read it? Or did the morphogenetic field lend itself to him just now, confusing other peoples memories with his own?) that when you die, hearing is the last sense to go. He wonders if Sigma had heard the shot that rang out, if he had known who the recipient was. He wonders if Sigma would feel better knowing that, or if he has any sense of what his efforts were worth at all. Did he die for something? Or did he die because a millionaire ran out of patience, and now both of them were dead with nothing else to show for it?
There’s shattered glass on the floor. It must have broken during the fight. That’s no good. What if someone steps on it? He picks up as many pieces as he can, aware of how slow his movements are, of the blood coating the shards and seeping onto his hand. He’s the only one in the room who’s recovered enough to approach the former CEO, but it’s no big deal. The danger is gone. He’s not the CEO anymore. Now he’s just nobody. Just a man. Just a dead body.
All of this effort to remove a name from a face. Now Gentarou Hongou is just a thought. Just a wikipedia page. Now it won’t matter what he did or didn’t do. The future will go on without him in it. This is what they wanted, isn’t it? They’ve successfully removed someone from existence. Go team.
He can’t bring himself to feel bad for the man. He just picks the glass up, because it feels like something he’s supposed to do. He collects the shard in his hand and he doesn’t look at the body at all. He doesn’t try to think of a reason why this had to happen or turn it over or take it’s pulse or see it’s face. He just does what he feels he has to.
Someone lays a hand on his shoulder. Aoi. His face is pale but determined still, his shoulders drawn tight around his ears. Junpei shows him the glass. It feels important. Like he’s forgetting something.
“An airborne disease,” he hears himself say, his voice muffled and distant, “he must have had the vial on him. It’s just bad luck.”
“We’ve been exposed to it, is what you’re saying.” Aoi looks sickened by the thought. It makes Junpei want to laugh.
Yes, a one act play contained to this room. Five characters, two dead, three condemned. Can they open the door and risk infecting humanity? Can they shut themselves in and risk infecting themselves? The sickness is in the air now. It’s inside of them.
“Snap out of it,” Aoi orders, and he brushes the glass shards out of Junpei’s hands and onto the floor. “Don’t be like that. We’ll think of a way out.”
“We have the cure,” Phi reminds them, appearing at Junpei’s side. He can’t get over the fact that they’re standing over what remains of Gentarou Hongou. With Radical Six alive in the air, it feels like they lost.
This is a victory, Junpei, Someone says. He can’t tell if the voice is coming from inside his own head or not. We don’t know how the virus works yet. We can go back to base and replicate the formula, vaccinate ourselves and be fine. This is much better than having the virus in our hands and the cure shattered on the floor.
That’s a very good point, he wants to say. Very well put. Very logical.
And then someone has taken him by the arm and is dragging him away. Come on, they say, we have to go.
He finds his way out of his daze somewhere in the middle of a flight of stairs. Aoi hops the railing and he can feel his own feet skidding down the steps, barely catching them with his heel as he rounds the corner. He stumbles over corners and nearly trips multiple times, if not for Phi yanking him back at the last moment.
Their footsteps are loud in his ears as they wrap around the stairs, and he recalls someone telling him that the building is on lockdown due to the gunshots and the police have been called. But now all he can hear is his pulse in his ears and his breathing harsh against his throat. He coughs and thinks about how it’s no longer about succeeding, it’s about getting out alive. Getting the cure into safe hands. Radical Six is inside them. Deliver Axelavir.
Get out of the building. Get the cure to someone who knows what to do with it. Go home to Carlos. That’s all he has to do. It seems so simple now. Easy steps to follow. Cause and effect. And he really, really wants to do this. That should be enough, right?
They reach the basement and he concrete silence is deafening. It feels like a coffin. The solid walls around him do nothing but make him feel trapped. It leeches all heat from him, and he can’t help but visualize the entirety of Cradle Pharmaceutical HQ above him. All those floors of people above his head, barricaded in their office, unaware of what’s transpired.
The only reason they have the escape route that they do is due to their inside help as well, and their descent into the basement had been fortunately uneventful due to the protocol put in place.
He can hear muffled sirens outside, reminding him of how close they are to the street. The passage laid out for them is drilled into the sewer. The money from the bank is what paid for it. But it’s hard to think about any of that, or how he played a part into it. He ducks in and they block the entrance again.
He can no longer hear the sirens but he knows they’re there. He imagines them above him, along with tires against hot pavement and a crowd of flashing lights. As if the entire city was about to descend on them, all perched and ready for the moment they emerge from the underground.
They aren’t safe yet. But every step away from the building makes Junpei feel better, and so he turns corners without second thoughts, lead on by a instinct he knows to trust by now. He can feel Akane’s presence with him, urging him on, and his lungs burn from the effort as he finds the manhole their car is parked beside. This is the last part of their mission today, and maybe one the most vital one of all. He’s responsible for what happens next. But he feels ready, more confident and prepared than ever before.
It isn’t hard to leave the sewers. It isn’t hard to find their car exactly where it was supposed to be. It isn’t hard to slide into the driver’s seat, ignore the passerby pointing at them from across the street, wait a moment for Phi to slam the door shut from the back seat, and put the car in drive.
It isn’t hard at all.
He peels away from the curb, the road running faster and faster underneath him as they gain speed. He weaves in and out of cars, takes note of the red and blue light filling his rearview mirror.
Humanity’s minds are connected. Phi’s voice echoes in his head. She seems to be trying to figure something out. Could we make the jump if we needed to? All of us?
He takes a sharp turn, chasing the thought away. He feels Akane in his head, leaning into it as if she were here alongside him. She urges him forward and he can feel it without words. She wants a left here. He takes it, the car rising up from the momentum, the tires straining and screeching against the road. He knows just what this car will do. He knows just what Akane wants. It’s as easy and natural as breathing.
He lets out a breath. The path back to the pick up area is outlined neatly in his head, stained into his mind’s eye There’s nothing he knows as easy as driving. He knows this car exactly, just what it can do, just what it can take. It’s a flexible thing, good at turns, light and fast. It’s what they need to dip in and out through traffic, to get off the main roads. He can see the route they need to take as clear as anything.
And for a few long moments, he does everything he’s supposed to. Akane lays out the path before him and he follows it. The cop car pokes out from behind the corner and he has already turned to evade it. They’re setting up a blockade on the next block and he’s already turned to avoid it. They try to herd him but he won’t let them block him in.
He feels his foot on the gas, steady and sure. The engine roars at the pressure but it feels more comforting and steadfast than anything else today. The buildings blur beside him. There aren’t any other variables. There’s nothing that can surprise him. There’s just himself and the car, and the job he has to do.
In such a short amount of time his brain has been opened up, unspooled and examined. He’s accessed channels of thought that prepare him for every situation, and he turns neat semi circles and drives until the sirens fade, and the only thing he can see for sure in the tunnel vision is the road before him and the place he needs to reach.
Everything is perfectly timed. He knows what will happen before it does. He knows how to avoid it, how to be the best version of himself. This is the timeline he was meant to be in. This is everything he was meant to be doing. Every other Junpei before him failed so he could have this moment. Everything before him was made to prepare him for this.
There’s just one thing.
He pulls onto a road that’s supposed to be clear only to find a row of cars waiting for him. It’s a tribute to his quick reflexes that he can turn in time and duck into an alley. He spins out onto another street and pulls them close between two cars. He feels his mirrors clip the sides, but he can’t bring himself to focus too long.
It’s okay. He can readjust. He can fix it.
He floors it again when he notices his speed lagging. He feels unsettled, and he tries to recover, but the constant view of the cops in his rear view only serve to unnerve him more. He can’t shake them, even when he turns the car the way he knows how, even as he watches them collide behind him. There’s always another one to take his place, always another route for them to surprise him with. How?
He shakes the frustration as another road is blocked off, narrowly avoiding the trunk of his car.
Akane is a carefully controlled panic in his head, scanning and rerouting as his window of time gets smaller and smaller. He should be farther away by now. He knows it, and it’s a incessant itch inside his brain. He’s not where he’s supposed to be.
He’s entirely too aware of the cop cars on other blocks, recovered and pointed in his direction. Behind the buildings they’re to the left of him, to the right, slowly herding him towards a way he isn’t sure he wants to go.It’s going wrong. He doesn’t know how to fix it. He doesn’t have time to think. He grits his teeth and pulls the wheel again.
But he doesn’t have time to plan. Everywhere he turns they’re there waiting for him, until a moment where he looks out onto the road and sees them all lined up behind them. He takes the ramp onto the bridge at the last moment, darting in through sidelined cars, the pit in his gut only growing at the sight of the line of police behind, in front of him.
And then, after one careful moment, his heart plunges into his stomach.
All of his routes have been blocked off. There’s no way for him to get through the line of police cars at the end of the bridge, and no way to turn around and face the line closing in behind him. He’s trapped on the bridge. He trapped himself.
Don’t slow down, Akane’s voice is urgent in his head, There’s one more way to fix this. I need you to do this for me. One more thing.
Anything , he thinks, wild and frazzled at the line of police at the end of the bridge, closing off the exit. And then the row behind him, quickly closing in. he’s at the end of the line. He failed them. He was supposed to get them out, and he couldn’t. But he doesn’t slow down as he nears the blockade.
Don’t hesitate for a second.
I won’t. He feels his hands on the wheel, his eyes trained into the road beyond.
Everything is going to be okay, I promise.
It was a failure from the start. He didn’t have a chance once he turned them onto the bridge. But he didn’t have a choice either, in dooming them all. It was something that was meant to happen. But there’s no going back. There’s no fixing it. The mistake had been made without him knowing it. There was no instinct to save him, no way of knowing just where he went wrong.
He wishes he could apologize to Phi and Aoi. They didn’t sign up for this failure. What happens next will be his fault entirely. Phi and Aoi did everything right. They had all the security passes, all the right passwords. It’s not their fault that they ended up here.
Good. Now drive off the bridge.
And he does. He pulls the wheel without thinking, ignoring every instinct that tells him to stop, that there’s another way out. Everything telling him otherwise is discarded, and he places his trust fully in Akane. Akane knows what he needs to do.
Because he understands everything, he really does. Even if he does this, he won’t truly die. He can’t die. This is the only option they have, to throw away the sickness and the cure, to send everything they’ve learned out in the field so another version of themselves can try again and do so much better. They have to make that sacrifice. They have to make that choice.
Time seems to slow down as he presses hard onto the gas, how he thinks that this isn’t a defeat at all, but another type of victory. He won’t die. He’s alive. He trusts Akane more than anything, and he knows she’s right.
Looks like I won’t see you again, Carlos. Maybe you can forgive me for it one day, if you can hear me now.
Phi and Aoi are screaming but he can’t hear a thing. Their voices seem muted and far away. They’re unimportant, not even a factor, and the only thing he knows with perfect clarity is Akane, sighing inside his mind.
Thank you, Jumpy.
(No, no, you fucking asshole-)
Aoi will understand one day.
(Don’t you dare-)
I love you. Both of you.
( Don’t! )
They hit the guardrail and cut clean through, careening over the edge. In between the screaming and chaos around him, there’s a fear, an overwhelming sense of mortality in just a moment of weightlessness. If he had an extra time to think, in the seconds suspended before gravity, he would think it was peaceful. He would think that it’s what he deserves.
The water rises up to meet up him. It slams into the car with a resounding boom. There isn’t time to think.
He’s dead on impact. His neck snaps back. He doesn’t feel it. He doesn’t feel anything.
Akane closes her eyes. But she can still hear the echo of the windshield breaking, the cold water rushing in. And then, nothing.
The connection is severed. She can feel them leaving her head, one by one. Phi goes first, before they even hit the water, just like Akane knew she would. Moments later, Junpei goes with her, pulled along by Phi’s sheer force of will. And for a careful moment, her brother fights to survive, his consciousness flickering in and out, still entangled still with hers at the very end, until he too, is free. But he fought to stay with her. He didn’t want to go.
But then he’s just gone. All of them.
There’s a silence in her head. It’s never been this way before. She’s so used to their presence around her, their thoughts and feelings a light pressure on her own. She could always feel them around her, the reassurance that they were there, that their minds were interconnected in a way that can’t truly be explained or reasoned with.
But now her mind is empty. All she has is her thoughts. She’s distantly aware of Alice and Clover, but their connected seems muddled and unimportant compared to the screaming grief and anguish in her head at the thought that she killed off half of her family, sent them all to their death on her orders. But it was the right thing to do. Even if the loss shakes her to her knees, even if she can hardly bear to comprehend just what is it is that she asked Junpei to do.
She takes a moment, just one, and sobs. She screams so loud she's sure that every other version of her can hear it and know just what is it she’s done to them.
But she can’t dwell on it any longer than that. She doesn’t have time to think at all. It’s because she’s done with planning for the future. It’s over. She’s lost. She’s giving them a better life. A second chance. It has to be enough. It has to be worth an apology, and everything else she’ll never get to say.
Thank you for dedicating yourself for my cause. It means more than I could ever imagine. I’m sorry it wasn’t enough, that this wasn’t the right timeline for it to happen. I wish more than anything that this was the right one, but the timing wasn’t right.
This whole time, she was in a bad timeline. No matter how she tried to prevent it, they were doomed from the moment they left this morning. That’s all there is to it. There won’t be a chance to try again. Some other Akane will live the life she’s always dreamed of.
But this is a sacrifice that she’s had to make a thousand times before. It just didn’t feel like it had to be her, specifically. Every other Akane in existence has also felt this powerful grief, and she isn’t special for it. But that doesn’t make it fair.
At least this way, she can still save them. They still get to live. It’s the last thing she can do for them.
She stands up. The warehouse has been emptied, evacuated. Jumpy didn’t leave her anything to remember him by this time. But she still has the doll, and that will have to be enough. Everything valuable she now carries on her back. Everything else is gone.
She drives slowly away. Behind her, the warehouse goes up in flames. By the time anyone else gets there, there will be nothing left but the charred remains. Maybe Seven is still their case. This is the big break he’s been hoping for, after all. He’ll be sure to recognize Junpei. Her connection to it will come shortly after.
She wonders if he’ll spend the rest of his life tracking her down. She almost hopes that he does. Or maybe one of the remaining Cradle executives will want revenge. Either way, one of them needs to give her life purpose again. Otherwise, she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
It’s a victory. Cradle has been destroyed, Alice and Clover will put the formula for soporil in the right hands. Somewhere, Sigma has entered a new timeline to try again, just like he told her he would. The world keeps moving. The timelines keep crossing. Somewhere, another version of her will thank her for this gift. She has gasoline on her hands and fire in her eyes and she did it so the Crash Keys can have a fighting chance in another world, one she doesn’t get to see.
She doesn’t search through other timelines. It would hurt too much. So she stays in the present, in this cruel moment she’s chosen for herself, puts her foot on the gas, and drives. It’s all she can do, for the rest of her life.
god i've been waiting all year to write these scenes
Chapter 6: Akane
He looks tired. He always looks tired these days, she thinks.
She's seen his face before, through Junpei's eyes. She's known the way Junpei's heart ached with longing when he looked at him, when he felt so strongly he wasn't sure he could take it, she's been there too. She's been there, seeing what he saw, sometimes unable to distinguish his feelings from her own.
They were entangled together on a quantum level, and now. Silence. Separation. Now her feelings are entirely her own. All her thoughts, all to herself. It feels lonely. It feels quiet. She still isn't used to it. She doesn't think she'll ever be.
"You said you knew Junpei?" Carlos' eyes are guarded as he leads her in, and Akane doesn't blame him. He should be guarded. She's a stranger, after all, and maybe the wariness will make what she's about to tell him hurt less.
"Yes," Akane says, stepping inside as Carlos relents from the doorway, "he's told me a lot about you."
It's strange. Even with Junpei gone, there are still bits leftover from the field. It makes her feel like she knows Carlos already, as if she's visiting an old friend. There's something familiar about the apartment. She already knows the layout of it as if she's lived in it her whole life.
There's the couch where Junpei and Maria cried over the Spongebob movie on their last day of senior year instead of partying. There's the kitchen where Carlos and Maria tried to bake a cake for Junpei's birthday while he pretended to still be asleep in the living room. That's where Junpei would wait until early hours of the morning, perched on the bottom step to wait for Carlos to get back, so they could find a simple moment for each other in the time before the sun rises.
It feels like she's lived here with them, but she hasn't. She has no right to these memories. She's a tourist in their lives. And Carlos watches her, curious as he closes the door. She can't tell what he's thinking, but he must know that she's come with bad news. Why else would Junpei not be with her?
I know you, she wants to say to Carlos. I know you and the way you move, how you think. Junpei's not here anymore but I've known you through him for a while, and this will only makes it all hurt more.
She perches on the chair in the kitchen. He sits across from her, as if this was a business transaction, and yet it still feels wrong. She's not supposed to be here, occupying this space. This is a part of Junpei's life that she wasn't meant to exist in. It was something he revered and treasured, the innocence he had locked himself out of. It was a fondness she hadn't earned quite yet, and here she was anyway, intruding on the past.
"For my own safety, I can't tell you much about what we were doing," Akane says, staring down at the table.
It's faded and stained on the surface, and she wonders if they kept it that way for nostalgia's sake or their own inability to buy a new one. Perhaps it's rude to stare, but she can't shake her gaze from it. She looks at the venn diagram of coffee mug stains, the way they snake across the grain. Years and years of the same routine soaked into the wood. Days and days of such a simple constant, and she sits in front of it, an intruder on their carefully maintained routine.
Carlos is quiet, waiting. He must be willing patience, but the way his blank gaze is trained on her only makes her feel more guilty. After seeing such emotion in them through Junpei's memories, it startles her to be regarded with such formality, such distance. But of course. He has no reason to like her, especially not now that she's bearing such awful news. He must view her as just another thing that kept Junpei away. He wouldn't be entirely incorrect, to hate her now.
She crosses her legs and forces herself to meet his gaze.
"Junpei died last week," she shoves the words out of her mouth, ignoring the thickness in her throat, the way the sentence seems to physically scrape the roof of her mouth. "He told me that if anything were to happen to him, I should find you and let you know."
It's almost imperceivable, the way his face falls. His expression crumbles, as if whatever shaky beam of hope that had been holding him up for all this time has finally been ripped away. Any tenuous grasp he had had seems to have been swept out from under him, and for a while all he can do is flounder and search for something that no longer existed.
He stares at her from across his kitchen table, lost and almost dumbfounded. Does he find it strange to have lived a whole week without knowing that Junpei was gone? Does he think that if something like that had actually happened, he would have already known it somehow, felt it in the air when it happened?
She wonders if she's seen this sight before through Junpei's eyes. If anything he had seen could compare to this moment of unbearable loss right now. But nothing that Junpei's seen could have prepared them for this. For a moment he seems angry, his lips pressed together and his expression darkened, but he shakes his head and the moment passes.
It must not compute, she thinks, it must seem so simple, yet so inconceivable. But he was here yesterday. But he was here two years ago. But it feels like I just saw him. And yet none of that means anything, all of a sudden.
"Oh," the word slips out so quietly she almost can't hear him. It sounds like a sigh, like he's found something he's been looking for for a long time, as if he can just now entertain the thought in it's entirety. "Oh."
"I'm sorry," she says. It feels like she has to. "I'm sorry, I--" I took him away from you.
She could never say that aloud to him. She's suddenly morbidly glad her resonance with the Crash Keys has been severed and torn from her. The privacy can be useful, if not a bit lonely. There are things Carlos doesn't need to know. There are things she needs to keep to herself in order to survive this.
But is hasn't been long at all since the disruption. She's had to live around it, as if it's been amputated from her. Something invisible inside her is missing, and she doesn't know what to do will all the thoughts in her head, sometimes. There are gaps in her thoughts where she's waiting for someone to interject, there are times where she knows that Phi or her brother would have the information she needs. But now she has to do it all on her own.
"No," Carlos says, blinking, as if his need to comfort her is much greater than his loss, as if reassuring her could give him the purpose he needs to make sense of all of it. "No, it's not your fault, I just, I..."
He trails off. His eyes are wide, and so blue, and she suddenly understands why Junpei had been so entranced with them. There's an honesty in them, a sense of goodness that makes her understand just why Junpei had been so determined to protect him, to guard that goodness in any way he could.
"I don't understand," Carlos says, uselessly, still blinking at her.
"I know it's asking a lot of you," Akane says, suddenly more tired than she's ever felt. "But I can't have my face seen by many people. This is the number for you to call to go down and make funeral arrangements." She presses the paper onto the table between them. A bridge, a peace offering. She hates to even say it, as if speaking it into existence could possible compare to what has happened.
He glances down at the paper and seems to deflate further. He doesn't seem to even want to touch the paper, but he reaches out slowly, folding the paper into his palm. He doesn't look at it, he just stares ahead, held together with every ounce of willpower he possesses.
"Anything you could tell me about where he's been would be an enormous help," Carlos says.
It's a plea, like he knows that he can't make her say anything. That she could walk out right now, his only connection to Junpei's whereabouts in two years, and he would be powerless to stop her. He would be left with only the thought that the answers had been right here in front of him, and he had let it slip away. Just another thing to walk out that door.
"Tell me first," she says instead, her voice as kind as she can make it, "tell me how you are. How the past year has been. I need time to get my thoughts in order. But I promised Junpei I would find you."
Carlos looks at her as if she has the answer to every question in the world, as if there's nothing she doesn't know. The reverence almost unnerves her, before she imagines the position he must be in right how, his desperation to know almost drowned out by the staggering sense of loss in the room.
"I was fine," Carlos says shortly, "Just the thought that he was out there somewhere would help me when I needed it. If he had to be away from me in order to process all this, in order to find himself again, then I thought would be okay with that."
Carlos blinks a few times and looks away. "But I'm not okay," he says, "I feel like he threw his life away for nothing at all. I don't know a thing about him or who he was anymore. And then one day he was gone, and I hadn't even done anything to help him."
"You did more than you know," Akane says, and she doesn't know if the wretched feeling inside her is her own or Junpei's ghost occupying her thoughts, hovering in the room and watching the weight of his absence set in. "He adored you. Everything about you. It was what got him through."
Carlos shakes his head. He opens his mouth, and then closes it, and shakes his head again. "I should have done more," he says, softly.
He could have gone home, Akane thinks , Carlos would have welcomed him back at any moment. There was nothing keeping him away, nothing that he couldn't go back from.
"Junpei made his own choices," Carlos says, "I know that. There's no one who could know what was going through his head."
Akane flinches, causing him to look over to her, curious. She knows that she can't begin to explain how the field works in this context, but she feels guilty for knowing that side of Junpei, for having it all to herself when Carlos is in front of her and left only wondering who Junpei had been in those last few moments.
Carlos' eyes are dark with sorrow, with memory, and she knows better than to ask.
"I'm not a stranger to death," Carlos says, solemn and still. "There are people we can't always save. Sometimes we're too late to a fire. People don't make it out. People who don't make it through the night."
It would be easy, she thinks, to resonate with him now. She senses the opening, to peer into his mind and view the memories he's reliving secondhand. But she refrains. It's his privacy, and it's not her right. Not after she's done this to him.
"I should have paid more attention," He shakes his head now, as he stares down at his lap. His hands, the ones Junpei had thought to be so gentle, curl into fists. "I should have done more to keep him here. I don't know why he thought he had to leave. I don't know how he thought that that would be better."
She sighs. If Junpei were here right now, all of this anger would wash away. He's trying to process this, understand the change he had just gone through. If there was any bit of logic to it for him to grasp, he would cling to it, use it to pull himself back together. But there's nothing that could make Carlos understand this better unless Junpei had said it to him himself.
She wishes he could. She wishes she could speak with his voice, to let Carlos know that not a day went by where Junpei didn't think of him. But none of that would make this any easier to live with. None of that would change the fact that Junpei was gone and there's nothing in the world that would bring him back. Nothing she could say would make this better.
"He just left one day," Carlos says. "I wasn't angry then. I was never angry at him for it. But now I think maybe I was saving it all for this moment."
Akane looks at her lap. She wonders if Junpei could see through her eyes right now, what he would say. Could he understand just what he's done to other people? Would it have been enough to change his mind?
He presses his lips together. "He didn't give me any warning. How was I supposed to know he was saying goodbye?"
What could I have said to make him stay, to prevent it, to save him?
Don't put that on yourself.
He looks up at her. She feels the tears burn at her eyes, and she takes one more deep breath. She wants to shut her brain down. She doesn't want to resonate with Carlos, to think his thoughts. Her grief is entirely her own, separate from his. And yet that unifies them anyway, as clear as if he had said it aloud.
"Junpei made his own decisions," Akane forces herself to speak and sound confident, composed like she knows she can be. "You said it before. You'll need to say it again. You'll need to keep saying it everyday until you know that this was not your fault."
She's used to being a leader, but this is something else entirely. She doesn't have anyone left to lead. All her life she had her brother by her side, but she'll have to go forward alone. She'll have to find her way. But maybe her commanding presence could do some good here, if it wasn't for the topic and the general sense of loss. If not for that, she would think that she was perfectly capable of rebuilding herself from this wreckage.
But something about Carlos tears her walls down. It must be his connection to Junpei. She shouldn't know this part of his life. It was something entirely his own. But Junpei's gone by her own doing, and she inherited this from him. There's nothing she can do to make it right, but she has to stand by it anyway.
Finally, the tears break, rolling down Carlos' face. It makes something in Akane's chest ache, an understanding between them, and she misses Junpei now in this moment more than ever. He would know what to say. He would know how to introduce them to each other, how to make them work. But he isn't here to make this easier for her. He isn't here to show them how easy this could be.
She misses the way he would look at her, how gently he would hold her as if she would be gone at any moment. It made her feel special and wanted in a way she hadn't thought could ever be available to her. But of course. It was always meant to be him. She misses his touch and his attentive, awestruck gaze. It's as if something is physically missing inside her now. It feels like she's wandering around blindfolded after having him there to lead her for so long.
There was something reliable about him, his laid back presence, the way he was always watching, thinking, trying to figure her out. It was in even the smallest moments, the way he would reach behind his head, the way his eyes would follow her every movement. He was inherently hers, in almost every timeline she could see.
He wanted to know her, and for a blind, startling moment, she wanted him to know her too. It was something she trusted him with, and in return he also extended the offer. It was such a careful understanding between them and yet such a simple thing, to know each other. To know another person.
She trusted Junpei. She trusted him and the way he thought and how he saw the world. She wanted him to be her partner, to be by her side in what lies ahead. He allowed her to know him and she was honored to do so, and for a time it seemed that everything in the world had aligned to allow them to be on the same wavelength. It was the happiest and lightest she had been in a long time.
Did he know that? Did he understand just what it was that he had done for her, the monumental weight he had lifted off her back? Just being with him was enough. She was lucky to know him, to have someone who wholeheartedly believed in her, who would follow her anywhere. It made her feel younger, as if all her responsibilities would wait for her outside of the moment.
She knew he would leave, but she always thought it would be to go back home. She never imagined a timeline where no one would have him until it was right in front of her, until it was the only option left. So she had cast him out into the unknown and he had gone willingly.
She didn't know it would hurt like this. The absence of the Crash Keys around her is raw and smarting even now, and she is often overwhelmed at the thought that she'll have to live the rest of her life like this. That this pain will only faded into a dull, echoing ache, there for her to carry around in every quiet moment, every time she thinks back to the day she sent them to their deaths. And they had gone willingly. They had trusted her until the very end, and she will always grateful and indebted to them for that.
The next timeline will be kinder. It will give them everything they didn't have in this one. She knows this, and wills it to be true. The next timeline will have everything she couldn't give to them. She needs this to be so, so that everything she gave away could have some sort of meaning to it. So that it could all be worth it.
Everything they left behind will be available to them once more, and they can try again and truly live the way they want to. They've earned it, and sending them to the next timeline is the only way she can pay them back for their loyalty and dedication to her.
The next Akane will protect Junpei in her stead, but she'll never have him completely. She'll never know him like she did. What she had was something entirely her own.
"He was trying to do right by you," Akane hears herself say, "he wanted to do something that provide some sort of justice to what happened to you and Maria."
"Justice," Carlos echoes, quietly, as if trying to wrap his head around it, "what can I do with that? I didn't ask for justice. I didn't need it. I only needed him."
"I know," Akane says, "I know. He gave it everything he had."
They look at each other for a long moment. Maybe he understands, she thinks, maybe he can know in just one look, that they were the same. That they could connect two parts of Junpei they had known, that had been given to them, and the emptiness left when all of him was taken away.
"Maria didn't need him to do that either," Carlos continues, his voice shaking, "She wouldn't have wanted this. We just wanted him to come home. We wouldn't have asked any questions. It would have been enough just to have him here."
"I know," Akane says, "I know. It isn't fair."
Carlos looks away.
Maybe she's betraying Junpei by not telling Carlos all the details. Maybe she's betraying his memory but not telling him about how Junpei drove off that bridge because she told him to, because he trusted in her and in all the timelines that follow. Maybe she should tell him about how Junpei had seen the timelines stretch out so much bigger than himself, and he had trusted in the cosmic nature of the universe that it would somehow verge to bring them together again.
How can she explain all of that, when she's sitting here in front of Carlos feeling so small and insignificant? How can her actions have any deeper meaning when the disaster is already over? The timelines fan out, but they'll do it without her, and they'll do it even after she's gone. She was a fool to think that she could ever control the way fate moved.
Every action she took to do so turned out to be a set up for another version of her to succeed. Everything she's done was stolen from her and used by a version of her that didn't earn it. And now here she is with nothing to show for it.
For a wild moment, she wants to tell him anyway, just so there can be another person out there who understands what she had gone through to exist in this moment. Maybe he can hear her story and decide that Junpei's sacrifice was worth it after all. Or maybe it would only hurt more, to know that so much effort went into taking Junpei away, that even with all the calculations and colluding they did, this timeline still only served to make sure that Carlos was the version of himself that didn't get to have him.
Maybe knowing what she and Junpei had gone through together would give Carlos closure and let him move on from this. Maybe it's something that he would keep to himself, the only thing still stitching him together. Or maybe it's what lands her in federal prison when he phones the police the moment she steps out of the room in a wild, vindictive moment.
It's a risk she can't afford to take. She still feels her survival instinct thrumming through her veins, pushing her through every moment, rebounding harder in every heartbeat. Survive, survive, survive. Do better. Live through this.
She didn't get this far just to be careless now. So she can't say a word about what really happened, or what they had seen together.
"I don't want to hear about his last moments," Carlos says, "I don't want to know how it happened. I just want to know, did he seem okay? He was so restless before he left. I didn't know how to help him."
"You did help him," Akane says, "But the Junpei I knew never wavered. He had a purpose that he believed in. It's not much, but he wasn't lost anymore."
He hardly seems to hear her. "This didn't have to happen," Carlos says. "What happened to Maria was tough, but I just thought we would have each other through it. I thought, at least there's that." He lets out a sharp, toneless laugh. "And I thought it would be enough."
Something inside her twists violently. This is wrong. This isn't Carlos. Jagged and bitter, this isn't him. A piece of him has been shut off, chipped and fallen away. She did this to him. The guilt is almost too much to bear.
This is something he'll never get back. The part of him that knew Junpei, that part of his life was officially over, contained in it's own part of his memory. It's something he's never had to experience before in all of its depth. But this isn't forever. She has to believe that. This won't be enough to ruin him. She can't be responsible for it.
Carlos seems exhausted, as if drained by everything that's going on around him. He rests his head in his hands and for a long moment, he stays perfectly still. He seems smaller somehow, as if weighed down by this terrible knowledge. It's as if he physically can't hold it all inside him, this empty realization that Junpei is gone.
"Was it...was it an accident...?" She can hardly hear him, his voice small and distant. "What could have happened that he felt he couldn't tell me about? I'd have to think it was unexpected, why else wouldn't he call me?"
Akane closes her eyes, the silence between them heavy and loud, filling the space in her head until no thoughts get through, until there's nothing for her to know but this frail, strained unity between them. The possibility of death was a risk they all took, and Junpei had still gone in without saying goodbye.
Maybe he had thought that it couldn't happen to him. Or maybe he just couldn't bring him to reach out to Carlos again just to tear himself away again. Maybe his heart couldn't bear the thought of hearing Carlos' voice and having to know that it might be for the last time. Disappearing without a word was always easier than the alternative.
"I'm sorry," he says, his voice muffled through his hands. "This is just a lot to take in. I haven't seen Junpei for two years and now here he is in my life again somehow."
"Junpei was someone who believed wholeheartedly in what he was doing," Akane says, slowly, her eyes still closed. "He chose to leave and he chose to do what he did, up until the very end. He went out there to fight for you and for himself. He was brave and good hearted and clever and I.... I loved him for it."
Carlos sighs. "I loved him for it, too," he says, "Every day. Even when I thought I didn't. Even when he was gone."
She wishes suddenly, more than anything, that there was something she could do for him. That there was something she could give him that meant more than this. He would never have Junpei's last moments. He wouldn't have his last days, or even the last year of his life. Akane is his keeper. Akane was the one who saw him through until the very end. At least when she said goodbye, she knew it would be forever. Carlos didn't get to have that.
"I just," Carlos' voice wavers, "I thought it would get easier. I was through the worst of it. But now you're here and every feeling I thought I had gotten over has come right back to the surface. I thought time would make it better, but it hasn't. I still feel the same way towards him. Loving him only feels worse now that I know he's gone. Time hasn't changed that at all."
"I'm sorry." She opens her eyes to look at him, to be in this moment in all its cruelness.
"Don't be," Carlos looks up at her, his eyes red rimmed. "Feelings are how we know we're human, right?" His shoulders shake as the sob ripples through him. "It's how I know I'm alive. That all of this is real."
"But God," he breathes, "I wish it wasn't."
Awareness comes slowly, and then all at once. Still, it's hard to get reacquainted with after being away for what feels like ages. His eyelids, his hands, every breath that fills his lungs, it all belongs to him. He almost wants to stay in this cocoon of darkness, unconscious and unaware. But he doesn't get to have that luxury.
The fluorescent lights pierce him, blinding him as he sits up. His body feels heavy, as if gravity was intent to keep him down. For a while, all he can feel is how tired he is, and then he becomes aware of the eyes watching him.
Akane watches him with interest. "Welcome back," she says, shuffling some papers in order on the table.
He frowns, finally becoming aware of his surroundings. The warehouse looks just as he last saw it which is only slightly less perplexing than how Phi is picking her head up beside him. But he doesn't get a chance to ponder it for too long. Aoi crosses the distance in quick strides, and Junpei finds himself stumbling back almost automatically.
"You! You killed me, you asshole!" Aoi grabs him by his shirt collar and pulls him in close. He's seething, his eyes narrowed into slits, "what the fuck was that?"
"Answer me," he says, as Junpei continues to stare at him. "Tell me what the hell were you thinking. I just want to know."
"I," Junpei's brain stutters into motion, "I don't know. We just. There wasn't any other way to get out of it."
He shoves Junpei. "We had it, though! We had the formula, the cure! Do you know how hard that's going to be to do twice?" He shoves Junpei again. "We were so close. And we failed because of you. Because you decided to murder us at the last minute."
"No," Junpei opens his mouth, "No, I had to."
"No, you didn't," Aoi grabs him by the collar again and pulls him in, "you didn't even think about it. You just killed us all for nothing."
"It wasn't for nothing," he says, leaning back, "the timeline was doo-"
Aoi slams him against the wall. Junpei can feel his head bounce lightly against the concrete, but all he can focus on is the rage in Aoi's glare, the way his lip curls back into a snarl. "And who's fault was that? It was your shit driving that got us into that situation!"
"I, I know," he says, "She asked me to. I had to do it."
"So?" Aoi leans into him, his voice wavering, "That doesn't mean-- This isn't what I wanted."
"I'm sorry," Junpei says, "The timeline was a failure. There was nothing we could do to fix it."
"And that was the answer your clever brain thought of?" Aoi lets him fall, taking a step back as if to physically restrain himself from going any further. "Fuck you. We weren't going to fail until you got behind the wheel."
"I didn't-" he stammers, "the decision wasn't easy to make. Death is better than being caught."
Aoi's hands curl into fists at his side. He seems to be barely holding himself back, trembling with the effort.
"Better how?" He spits, "better to have her in that timeline alone? I was supposed to protect her! Now we're dead and she's the one that has to live with it. She never stops to think about that part."
"She said to do it," Junpei tries, "And I trusted her. I'm sorry."
Aoi shakes his head, his teeth gritted. "So what," he says, "so what if she said to do it? That doesn't mean you have to listen. That you can't think for yourself."
Junpei stares at him, at a loss for words. Aoi doesn't seem to notice the world around him, or the other version of his sister watching from across the table. That's not what this is about. He didn't ask to be brought along to the new timeline. He wasn't consulted and he didn't get a choice or a warning. Junpei knows that he would have stuck by Akane until the bitter end rather than have to succeed on his own. This was never about the operation. This was about his sister.
Aoi seems to sag under the weight of it, turning away as if he can hardly stand to look at Junpei. He staggers a few steps before sinking into a chair. He stares listlessly at the floor, as if suddenly feeling the true weight of what had happened. It seems as if all of the fight has gone out of him. It's a far cry from the level headed second in command he had been before.
Phi speaks up, looking over to Sigma. "Did you know this was going to happen?"
"Yeah," Sigma says, "I'm sorry I couldn't warn you earlier. The timeline failed as soon as June and Tenmyouji went to stake out that cult warehouse."
"There had to be a timeline that did it," Junpei argues, feeling the urge to defend his Akane's decision. "And it had to be us."
Sigma looks over to him. "And you're okay with that? You don't feel any sort of loss for what your actions indirectly lead to?"
Junpei falters. "June knew about that risk," he says, "there was always a possibility. She did the best she could with the circumstances."
"If there's no failure, there's no success," Phi says, "But we know better now."
"Yeah," Sigma says, his expression brightening. "I've got all three passwords for the safe. And you have ones for the computer, right?"
"So there's no room for doubt," Sigma says, "The next time we go at it, we won't waste any time. Each attempt gets smoother and smoother."
"And if we fail," Phi says, "we'll try again in another timeline?"
"That's right," Sigma says, "June and I figured it out a few timelines ago. I told her about SHIFT theory, and we decided to put it to the test."
"I'm sorry," All-Ice cuts in, "Care to enlighten the rest of us as to what the fuck is going on?"
Sigma looks over to her, as is suddenly remembering the rest of the Crash Keys. "Oh," he says, "yeah, uh--
"Let me see if I have this straight." Akane finally finishes sorting her files. "You, Phi, Tenmyouji, and Santa are all from a timeline where we attempted the Cradle heist and failed?"
"But thanks to SHIFTing, which we now know is real, you've now jumped through enough timelines to retain enough information that our attempt will be the most probable one of a complete success?"
"Well," Akane says, "that sure saves us some time, doesn't it?"
"That's the point," Sigma says, leaning back, "And now this information can get dispersed around the field, so even other timelines won't have to fail like we did."
"And how did you fail, exactly?"
"Tenmyouji drove us off a bridge," Phi says, "technically. But really we failed when Sigma got shot. It's not a success if one of us has to die for it."
Sigma seems strangely touched by that, but he doesn't mention it. "Like I said, I had told June about SHIFTing. She must have figured out that Phi also had the ability, so she created the life or death situation needed for it to activate, and Phi brought Santa and Tenmyouji along for the ride."
"Did the other June count on that happening?" Clover seems intrigued by all this. She keeps looking between them. "You guys don't look any different. But you're not really the same people we we're talking to earlier, either."
"I think she knew," Akane says, "one of the suspected effects of Radical Six is that it compresses the brain's energy to make jumping between timelines easier and more efficient. You were all exposed to the virus, right?"
"Could that be it?" Phi frowns, "in such little time?"
"It's said to effect the perception of time too. And it's our best explanation," Akane says, "you say that you've retained more with this jump than usual, and as a bonus you dragged Tenmyouji and Santa along the with you."
"Like two morphogenetic hitchhikers," Sigma adds, "I wonder what the limit is?"
Akane grins at him, "Still with that research? How many timelines are you going to drag it through?"
Sigma shakes his head, "I'm so far removed from my original one," he says, "there's no going back now. I'll just keep getting displaced by another Sigma if I stop now."
Junpei finds himself distracted, overcome with a certain exhaustion and sadness that reaches deep down into him. He can feel it in his bones, this ache, and he wonders if it's because he doesn't belong here. Maybe the universe is trying to physically eject him from this timeline, or maybe the universe just doesn't care what he does.
He looks over to Aoi, who still won't make eye contact with anyone. He seems drawn, as if the fight had gone out of him. And Junpei does feel bad for that. But a part of him must understand that going to jail would have just trapped the information in this timeline. With this, they're closer than they've ever been.
But that doesn't make it any better. It won't feel like a real victory, even if this timeline is identical in every way. That doesn't change the fact that they left Akane in her timeline alone, to fend for herself and deal with their defeat, their deaths.
It's then Junpei realizes it. He must have been distracted before, but now he knows just what it is that feels off about all of this.
It's his head. It feels empty, quieter than he's used to. He can no longer hear the Crash Keys chattering around him. He's no longer in tune with their thoughts. He looks around the room, to Aoi who will never trust him again, to Akane and Sigma who seem to know more about each other than him, and even to Clover and All-Ice and Phi, who still seem like strangers even though they all look the same.
It's because they are different, he realizes. They haven't experienced the same things together, shared the same information. Memories he had from them in other timelines seem sacred because they had chosen to give it to him. Now it seems like he doesn't know them at all.
The connection is gone. He's disconnected from the morphogenetic field. The shift must have been too much for him to take, he thinks, as he looks around the room. These are the Crash Keys in front of him, but they're not his. It's not the same.
Akane was right, when she had first told him about all of this. There is an emotional component to resonance. He can't connect with any of them without thoughts of the other timeline filling his head. He can't let his guard down like that. He can't stop thinking about the ways they're all so different. What has happened in this timeline that he isn't prepared for?
He feels his face, suddenly aware of the lack of bruises. His nose is whole, not crooked from being broken, as he had become accustomed to. He and Akane must have not scoped out the Free the Soul drop off in this timeline, he thinks. And they won't have to take the risk now that the members from the old timeline are here to tell her what she's missing.
He feels an acute sense of loss at that, for some reason. It's inarguably a good thing to not be exposed to unnecessary danger and Seven, and this way Cradle won't be tipped off to their meddling, but at the same time, he misses the intimacy it had fostered. This Akane hadn't chosen to share her story and her traumas with him. She didn't learn about Carlos because Junpei had decided to trust her with it. This Akane didn't live through it with him. She's not his partner the same way his Akane was. It's too different.
It's then when he understands Aoi. He wishes she could be here now. His Akane deserves to see their success. She deserved it more than any of then, and instead the universe had just decided to take more away from her. Still she had tried so hard to help them all, even with the knowledge that they would fail, she had never stopped trying and thinking of ways to save them up until the moment where she decided to send them away.
He doesn't know if he should thank her for that yet. He just feels lost and alone, like too much has changed within the Crash Keys, even though not much has changed at all. It's because he's been ripped from the morphogenetic field, or maybe it's because his heart has been taken out of it.
But he used to live his whole life without the morphogenetic field. He just can't remember what that's like now. How did he live without the reassurance of everyone else in the air around him, connected by that invisible thread? It seems too strange to think about now.
But this is his life now. This is how he lives. From now on, and for the rest of his life. He looks across the table to an Akane that isn't his, to a group that doesn't know him, to Aoi, who will never be able to look at him without thinking about what he's done.
"Anyway," Sigma says, "This is the timeline we're in now. This is what's real."
Aoi stares at the ground. His face blank, his eyes darker than Junpei's ever seen them. He just sits there, tense and silent and still. He hardly looks like himself.
This is what they've earned for themselves. This is the price of Junpei's decision. He thinks back to his Akane, and wonder what she's doing now. Maybe if they think of each other enough, it could be enough to bring them back together. Maybe it would be enough to just have her in a thought, in the space between words. Just one glimpse of her would be enough, just to let him know that it's alright, that their decision was the right one.
But there's no going back now. He can't undo what he's done to them. All he can do is look out across the table, to an Akane who is at once so close and yet farther away than he could ever hope to reach.
He finds them later, still sitting in the main room of the warehouse. Even the base itself seems weird to him, though it is physically identical to the other one. Everything about this new timeline feels like it wasn't meant for him, like everything is just a fraction off. It makes him feel like he's an imposter. He wonders what the original Junpei would think about this. He wonders if he is the old Junpei, and just hasn't realized it yet.
His head hurts. But he enters the room anyway, causing Akane and Sigma to look up from their conversation.
"So," Junpei says, sitting across from them, "Are you the Sigma from my timeline?"
Sigma tilts his head. "Yes and no," he says, "I have all of his memories, but I have my own life here too. It just happens to be very similar throughout all the timelines. All the Sigmas that join the Crash Keys have very similar lives that allow them to do so."
"But my timeline isn't your original one," Junpei says, "did you know about the Crash Keys before you were asked to join?"
Sigma nods, "I learned that much from a previous timeline, too," he says, "it wasn't hard to convince my cats to go outside. I always had an eye on them. Gaulem wouldn't have mew-ved from on top of that dumpster even if I paid him too."
Beside him, Akane seems to be deep in thought. He would wonder if she's avoiding him, if it didn't hurt to look at her so much.
"It feels like I was just at Cradle," Sigma continues, unaware, "I still remember what getting shot feels like."
"How is it?" He's only half paying attention. This Akane is almost identical to his in every way. Her eyes, her hair, the way she sits perched on the chair. But there's something colder about her, something less personal.
Sigma shrugs, "Not gonna lie, it kinda sucks," he says, "but I'm here now without any holes in my chest, and that timelines gone now. Who's to say it ever existed at all outside of our heads?"
"Don't say that." Junpei makes a face, looking away just as Akane turns her cool gaze to him, their eyes meeting for just the briefest of moments.
"it's just a thought," Sigma shrugs. "When nothing is permanent, it's hard to put too much faith in anything but yourself."
"Isn't that what you should put the least amount of faith in?" Junpei asks, "Since you could be SHIFTed out at any moment. You're resigned to just pushing the problem onto another timeline for another Sigma to worry about. The other Sigma didn't ask for it and you don't know that you can trust to know what they'll do or if they have the same values as you."
Sigma laughs, "Good point," he says, "I guess that's a dilemma for another Sigma to solve."
"I'm glad you're here, Junpei," Akane says, softly. She sounds as if she's coming out of a trance, her eyes glazed and far away. "I've been looking towards the other timelines for guidance, and asking Sigma about what he's seen in his travels."
"And," Akane echoes, "we've been discussing a variable that exists in each timeline. There's one thing that narrows down whether a timeline succeeds or not. For a while, we've struggled with it, but now we've got another strategy to try."
"Simply put, the strategy is you," Sigma says, "We don't know for sure, but we think that maybe your presence is what sends a timeline haywire. I mean, there's no way for you to know unless you're there, right?"
"If a tree falls in the forest, and all that," Akane says, "if Tenmyouji isn't here to see a timeline fail, but a timeline only fails when Tenmyouji's in it, does that mean we'll succeed?"
"That doesn't make much sense at all," he protests, confused by the way they glance at each other.
"There's also the problem of the morphogenetic field," Akane says, "Tenmyouji, I don't know if you've noticed it, but we aren't connected anymore."
He frowns. Of course he's noticed it. If this was his Akane, she would have realized it right away. Also, every use of his code name by her makes his skin crawl. It's so impersonal, even if Sigma is right there.
"I'm still me," he says, a bit forcefully, "I was on the Cradle mission. I was ready to give my life for it, and I did. It's not my fault we're here. It's not my driving that did it. Akane asked me to and I followed her until the very end. I would do the same for you."
He doesn't like the way they look at him, like they don't know him. He doesn't like the implications that his experiences mean nothing, or that it pales in comparison to what they know. So what if he can't send it through his brain anymore? It's still real.
"I know," Sigma says, "you've given a lot to the Crash Keys. We're not doing this because you weren't good enough. It's just another strategy to try."
"It feels personal."
"It isn't," Akane looks at him. It's her, but it's not. It's like he's looking at a stranger. As if she doesn't value him unless he's linked into the morphogenetic field. Like that's all he's good for. His Akane knew better. His Akane knew him better.
Is this what it used to be like? Had he once been like this to her, doubted and easy to let go of? He had once been wary of her, unable to read her, and it seems that he was right to do so. Without the emotional connection or the morphogenetic field, she doesn't fight for him to stay. She looks professional, composed. He hates it. This isn't what it was supposed to be like. He came to the new timeline to try again, to be a part of the Crash Keys and to go back to Cradle himself.
He came back with a mission, ready to devote himself to the Crash Keys, and now a foreign Akane is looking at him like she doesn't know him and telling him to go home. She's talking to him like he's expendable, telling him that it's his fault the timeline fell apart, as if he wasn't ready to give everything to see them succeed. As if his efforts didn't matter.
He feels sick, looking at her. She doesn't understand it. She doesn't know about Carlos, or about Maria, or about what going home really means for him. She's thinking strategically. That's the only way she can think right now.
"If it turns out we do need you," Sigma says, "then another version of you will experience it in another timeline."
"I won't get to SHIFT again," Junpei says, his voice hard and tense. "This is my timeline now. I'll never get to see this succeed."
"You get to go home," Akane says, "You might be the only version of yourself to get this chance."
"Don't say it like I'm lucky," Junpei spits, "you don't know the first thing about it."
Akane looks saddened at his tone. Her hand drifts up to card through her hair, and she sighs. "You've told me a bit about it," she says, "we were starting to get close. But I won't mention it if you'd rather I didn't know such things."
"No," Junpei shakes his head, frustrated by all this. "It's not you. It's not your fault. I just. I killed us in the other timeline. I was ready to take that risk. And now I've got nothing to show for it."
Akane seems thoughtful. "I know you've feel like you've got more to do here," she says, "but Sigma is right. You've done enough. You've turned a defeat into a second chance. You brought Phi to us."
"I," he falters, "I should do more. I haven't... All this time, and it needs to be worth something. You can't tell me that I left him for no reason, that I spent all this time with the Crash Keys when I didn't need to be here at all."
"No," Akane says, "if you had not joined the Crash Keys, I would have died at the hands of a Left clone when my gun jammed. If you had not joined the Crash Keys, it would have been that much harder to escape the heist just before Sigma joined us. We needed you for that. But that's over now."
"Not everyone gets this chance," Sigma looks wistful, "So go home while you can. Another version of you will see it through your eyes and be want it more than anything, while you take it for granted."
"Go, Tenmyouji. You'll always be special to me, but this is not your fight anymore."
He stares at them. He wishes there was something he could say to explain it to them and prove them wrong, but he comes up empty. There's no strain of logic that could counter the fact that if they want him gone, he has to go.
After everything he's been through, he might as well go find Carlos. He's got nothing left to lose. The Crash Keys will never be the same to him. Sigma is so far removed, Phi hardly seems to care about the difference between timelines. He's not that close with All-Ice and Clover, Akane seems like a stranger, and Aoi won't even look at him anymore.
She's right. His actions have ruined his standings here, but it's also given them a better chance at succeeding. That was what the sacrifice was. Every Junpei throughout the timelines have gone through something like this. In the bigger scheme of things, his actions now hardly matter at all.
He thinks of Sigma, constantly switching timelines. Running from having to face the reality of his actions, never having to stick around to see the consequences. He thinks of Sigma who always looks towards the future and never back, and he begins to understand.
Leaving Carlos alone is always worse than coming back to face the consequences of his disappearance. Leaving Carlos to claim his body at the morgue will always hurt more than coming home would. This is his only chance to apologize to for what he's done, for all the timelines he can't apologize for. Asking for a second chance will always be harder than chasing an ideal would be.
It's time to stop running. He doesn't feel ready, but it's the only choice he has left.
"Okay," he says, through the incredible sense of uselessness building inside him, "okay."
"Oh, Tenmyouji," Akane says, and the pity in her eyes is almost too much to bear. "I wish you could see it. You're one of the lucky ones."
He doesn't feel lucky. But he thanks her anyway.
So he leaves. He does it without fanfare or any grand departure. He doesn't announce it or try to make it special when he knows it isn't. The Crash Keys decided they didn't have a use for him. They've given him a gift, the ability to leave, but it feels more like an insult. But he doesn't think about any of that anymore.
He just starts the car and drives.
This feels impossible. It feels like everything he said he wasn't going to do. He's coming home a failure, but worse, he's coming home having not been able to try at all. No matter what Akane tells him, he's going home with nothing to show for it. He’s going home without ever really saying goodbye to his Akane.
But that's not the worst of it. He doesn't have a script in his head. He doesn't have any words to say that would make all of this mean anything. He can't even begin to explain what he had been through in a way that makes sense to himself, who just experienced it, much less someone he hasn't seen in two years.
Carlos, a lot has changed while I was away. I drive like a maniac now. I learned how to shoot a gun. I know cars better than I know you, and that's just sad actually.
It just feels stupid when he says it like that. He went through all that, died and then didn't, just so he can go home with nothing to show for it. He went to destroy Cradle and he came back knowing that it wouldn't matter at all if he did or not. Carlos never cared about any of that.
Carlos, it was useless! Everything I did meant nothing. I put you through all of that for no reason.
But if there's one constant, it's the hum of the engine, the road beneath his feet. It's the rush of air filling the car through open windows, buffeting his face and chasing all his thoughts away. It's the speedometer creeping up and up as if to outrun all the memories he's left behind.
He no longer has the morphogenetic field pulling thoughts from his brain, broadcasting other people's lives into his head. He doesn't need it. He never needed it. But it's too quiet now, and all he can do in its absence is think about the conversation that will follow.
It makes his heart hurt to think about it too much. He can't decide what's worse, for Carlos to have coped incredibly well, or for Carlos to have needed him so much that it only made his absence sting more. But maybe it would be better if he had moved on with his life and processed Junpei's abandonment so much so that it would hardly make a difference if Junpei comes back or not.
A Carlos who had understood his anger and discarded it and now doesn't care where Junpei is or what he's doing is much better than one who's had to go through half of what Junpei did. In that case, showing up on Carlos' doorstep wouldn't elicit relief, or anger, or any emotions at all. All he'd get is a door in his face. Maybe it's what he deserves, for treating them that way.
Maybe Junpei needs this more than him, then. He doesn't think he could handle it if Carlos refused to even talk to him. But if he needs to stay away, that's what he'll do. He just needs one conversation to show for it, and he'll be alright.
But maybe it won't be like that either. Maybe Carlos didn't cope at all in those two years, maybe he sat and festered in his anger, let it build inside him until he too was angry at the world for what it did to him, for Junpei for leaving without a word, for whatever had reduced Maria to such a state. Maybe Junpei will find him like that, bitter and hollow eyed, with every light inside him having finally gone out, and a new target to take it out on.
No, that would be worse than anything. Carlos could never be that cruel. Nothing in the world could make him that way.
The most probable one is that Carlos will welcome him back and hear him out, and then want to have a healthy discussion about their feelings or something. Junpei just doesn't feel like he deserves any of that-- not acceptance or rejection. Any forgiveness Carlos gave him would feel like too much to take from him.
Junpei doesn't know what he wants, only what he has to do. He flexes his hand on the wheel, having gripped it too hard for too long, and shakes the thoughts from his head. There's no point in trying to predict it.
And then there's Maria. Just the thought of her earlier had sent him into a state. His chest had tightened like a vice at the thought of her having died while he was away. And then he had barely been able to see at the thought of her waking up sometime in those two years to find Junpei gone with no idea as to where. He misses her so much even the sound of her name is enough to bring it all back. He can't imagine how he managed to be away from her for so long, or how he could spend the rest of his life like this.
If Maria was awake, they would need him to help them then more than ever. They would need him because he was such an integral part of their lives that it would feel strange to move on without him in it, to move on while he was still away chasing a phantom, the mere idea of revenge. Carlos and Maria could have had their normal lives back for a while when all Junpei was doing was torturing himself with his own decisions and living in the past.
What if they don't forgive him for it? What if Maria answers the door, looks at him and says, Junpei, I woke up and they told me you were gone. My best friend. Why didn't you wait for me? Did you really give up so easily?
He turns the radio up as high as it will go and tries not to think anymore, begging for just anything to chase these thoughts away.
But in the end, that doesn't make it easier to find himself in the city he grew up in. It doesn't make it easier to drive down the streets he used to know by heart just to find how it's changed. Stores that had once been a constant had been shut down, new ones opened in its place. Shops he doesn't recognize seem bustling with activity, and the people who've lived here now know it better than he does, having been removed for so long. But it's only right for him to feel like a stranger in his home, after all this time. He doesn't know why he expected anything different.
Thankfully, one thing is right where he left it. The last thing Akane had done for him was to confirm that Carlos' address had not changed, that he had thought about moving to a cheaper neighborhood, but the money Junpei left him had proved to be enough. At least there's one good thing he did.
But it's a blessing and a curse. He ditches his car exactly where he was instructed to and takes the rest of the journey on foot, hoping that the sounds of the city could distract him from what lies ahead.
And then all too soon he finds himself in front of an familiar door, just one step away from everything he had left behind. Could everything else have stayed right where he left it, too? Can he walk into the apartment to find that nothing is different at all, that no time has passed? Carlos could be reading on the couch, hardly having to look at him to know he's there, and just say Oh, Junpei, there you are.
Could it really be that easy? As if he was never gone, as if he can pick up right where he left off? He feels jumpy, as if Carlos could appear at any moment, from around any corner.
He's only making this harder on himself. He knows this, so he knocks three times on the door, his stomach twisting itself into knots at each knock with the thought of no one answering, or worse, of no one being home.
But the silence prolongs enough to confirm just that, as he stands out in the hallway of a life he had left behind. How dare he just assume he could walk back in as if he would ever be allowed there again? He has to ask them for it. He isn't owed a single thing.
But he turns around to leave and then stops. His heart stutters to a halt in his chest and all he can do is stare, because there he is.
Two years hasn't changed him much, and just the thought it enough to shake Junpei's resolve. Just looking at him brings back every feeling he thought he had buried with a vengeance, rushing back to the surface so fast he thinks it might be enough to break through his ribcage, and it seems like too much to just be standing there looking at him. After all the distance between them, this few feet is the hardest of all.
"Oh," Carlos says, blinking, "It's you."
"I-it's me," he says, his voice tight and wobbling, barely keeping it together. He opens his mouth, and then closes it again. What can he say? That he did what he set out to do? That he didn't even get a chance? That he failed so hard the universe ejected him from the timeline and then barred him from the operation all together?
Carlos opens his mouth, and then closes it again, seemingly at the same loss for words as Junpei. It's Carlos, but it's different somehow. He seems stronger, more alive than he was the last time Junpei had seen him. There's a light in his eyes that had been missing before, as if this is a version of Carlos that had been missing the moment Maria couldn't be found, long before Junpei made the decision to leave. He hasn't seen Carlos like this for longer than he's been away.
Junpei feels dizzy at the rush of emotions. Cradle suddenly seems to have happened a lifetime ago, to someone that isn't him, and he can hardly remember just why it was that he had put this off for so long. But in a way, he does understand. Any contact with Carlos over the years would have shaken him so thoroughly that he doesn't know how he would have survived it, the pull in two seperate directions.
"I," Carlos is spurred into motion, as he hastily fishes for his keys, "You can come in, of course, I, sorry, I-- I wasn't expecting this."
Junpei steps aside as Carlos hurries to unlock the door, failing to stick the key in the hole about six times before Junpei laughs through the nerves and the tightness in his throat and lays a hand on Carlos' shaking grip to steady him.
The contact lasts for only a moment, but it calms the air between them, making his hair stand on end. Just the briefest of contact must say everything he needs it to, for in the next moment Carlos has pulled Junpei into a tight hug.
He's so relieved he could weep from it, but he wraps his arms around Carlos and presses himself in as close as he can His heart is pounding in his chest, and the sheer relief he feels is almost enough to pull his legs from out under him.
After a moment, it almost does. He steadies himself against Carlos, who pulls away, breathlessly. It's all they can do to just look at each other, to be in each other's presence, and Junpei wishes more than anything that this could be all they need to explain away the past two years.
"It's you," Carlos says, his eyes wide with disbelief. "You're here."
Junpei wraps his arms around him, tucking his face into his chest to hide his face. He hugs him as if that could say everything he wants it to, as if he could find the words to explain how the smell of his cologne feels more like home than this apartment could ever be, how he's missed him more with every moment he spent away.
He's almost overwhelmed by it, and all he can do is wonder just how he had managed to be away from it for so long, how he had thought that anything about chasing Cradle Pharmaceuticals could ever match up to the ease and simple joy of just being with Carlos, just having him near.
"I missed you so much," Junpei says, his voice barely audible through Carlos' shirt.
Junpei lets out a watery laugh, but he isn't really crying until Carlos hugs him back, and he thinks that all this time maybe this was all he needed. It doesn't mean that his actions didn't have an affect the way they are now, that they don't have things to talk about. But it means that he's accepted in whatever form he's in, whatever story he carries with him. It's such a simple thing, to have someone who still knows him intrinsically, after all this time.
"I'm sorry," he tries to speak through his tears, "I'm sorry I left. I'm sorry I stayed away."
Carlos shakes his head. Junpei can hear Carlos' voice vibrate through his chest. "It's a brave thing, coming home," he says, "I'm glad you could make it. I'm just so glad to see you again."
That’s not good enough, he wants to say. It doesn’t do anything for the sudden core of sadness inside him. But with it, every emotion he's suppressed has surged back. Every quiet moment where he thought of Carlos, every word he hadn't said, ever regret he's had is pushed through to the surface once more, and he can't find the words to explain everything he's feeling in that one moment.
Carlos takes notice. Of course he does. Even after two years apart, he still knows him. “You’re sad,” he says his brows creasing with worry, “Is it- it’s just, you’re here--”
“I know,” Junpei interrupts, “I came back for this. For you. I just had to ruin a lot of things in order to get this chance.”
Carlos seems to understand that, but he still seems uncertain, worried around Junpei as if suddenly aware of everything he had experienced in his absence that changed him, all the things he’s learned that put this distance between them. The two of them are probably more different than they realize, the time that’s passed having affected them in even the smallest of ways.
But eventually, Carlos pulls away. He unlocks the door as Junpei tries to find a way to speak past the tightness in his throat, to find a way to put into words how much this all means to him.
As if anticipating it, Carlos lifts his hand. "Don't," he says, "there's someone you need to see first."
And he opens the door, and there she is.
She doesn't notice him right away. She sits on the couch with her head bent over her phone, and when the door opens she says, "Carlos, someone was knocking on the door just now but I didn't get up 'cause you said you'd be right back, and--"
Maria looks up and the words die in her throat. She just stares at him, her expression changing ever so slightly, almost unreadable for just a moment before she bursts into tears.
"Oh my God," she says, blinking hard. "Get over here. Finally, Junpei, you idiot." She rubs her eyes and lets out a teary laugh. "My emotions are just out of control these days. Stupid brain chemicals."
He can't stop himself from crying a second time just at the sight of her. There's no way this could be real. He never allowed himself to entertain the thought that everything could end up just the way it has.
There she is in front of him, sitting up and speaking and alive, and all of a sudden he remembers just how scared he had been for her, just how terrifying the experience had been, the sight of her laying so still on that hospital bed with no one to answer for it. He remembers thinking about how there had to have been something he could do, and setting out to find it.
And he can't even make himself move, so all they do is cry and look at each other as she beckons to him with increased urgency.
"I’ve been waiting for so long," she says, "move it, you jerk. Don't just look at me."
Carlos nudges him and so he does, though his feet stumble like they're walking through a foot of wet cement. He almost falls onto her lap when she pulls him towards her. For a moment they try to talk over each other, and then they fall into silence, and then they laugh. He sits close to her, still reveling at the sight of her animated and awake and here beside him.
"Hey, this is a big improvement," Maria says, "I could barely string a sentence together when I first woke up."
He looks over to Carlos.
"Over a year ago," Carlos supplies, "I have the exact date but at this point she's spent more time awake then asleep. They said it was a miracle."
"I...I missed it," he says. Already she seems healthier than how he had last seen her. Her skin, her hair, everything about her. It just seems to incredible to be real.
"Yeah, well," she says, "I missed you. I couldn't believe it when my brother said you were gone. Like, where could you go? I'm right here."
He opens his mouth but the words don't come out, just this frail noise from the back of his throat. But you weren't here, he wants to say, and no one knew where you'd gone. How can he find the words to explain just how terrifying it was to look at her and see that she wasn't there at all, and she might not ever come back? And all he could do is sit in one place and watch as the two people he cared about the most fell apart in front of him?
He looks between them, still unable to process the fact that this part of his life has managed to survive untouched, that everything he left behind is still here waiting for him to come back to them with no questions asked. He left like a coward and they had managed to pick themselves back up in his absence. If feels to good to be true, like this is all a dream.
All this time Maria was awake and waiting for him and he didn't even know about it. One day Carlos was without either of them, Junpei having disappeared without a warning or explanation, and now he's here with both of them again. He's got back everything he lost. Even if he had to go through it alone.
But Carlos' only choice was to continue his life as best he could, even with two pillars torn out from under him. Live his life the way he always had, this time completely alone. Groceries and hospital visits and TV marathons without the constant noise he had grown accustomed to, and he could only wonder if this is what the rest of his life would be like.
But then one day, one random day of the week just like any other, he had been making himself breakfast when he got the call. At first his heart had dropped into his stomach at the caller ID and he had braced himself for bad news. But he forced himself to accept the call anyway. He could hardly entertain the thought of having to lose Maria for a second time, his little sister, but in the next moment his eggs were left forgotten on the stove and he was pulling his coat on as fast as he could.
He tells Junpei all of this with his eyes glistening, and he can hardly take his gaze off either of them as if he still can't believe that they're both real and in front of him.
Spikes in brain activity might mean nothing, they had said, but each one was occurring in closer and closer intervals. And then one day, Maria opened her eyes. The next day, she was listening to music. Her eyes were following the doctor's movements. She could move her neck. She could repeat words back to them. She was having limited, one word conversations.
Her eyes had lost their glaze, and though she didn't always have a grasp on language, she was alert and communicating. It became less of a worry that she was still asleep, and as the months went on she only became more alert. After speech and physical therapy, both of which are ongoing, she was able to hold a conversation with Carlos, to recognize him and understand him. She was able to say her brother's name and feel his arms around her.
It was the happiest he had felt in a long time, Carlos recounted, it was like the universe was giving him a second chance. And for a while, everything was perfect.
But then she asked about where Junpei was, and he had to tell her. It wasn't that he didn't care, he tried to explain, he cared so much it scared him, sometimes. It wasn't because he didn't want to see her. They would just have to wait for him to be ready.
It didn't make it easier. But at least they would have each other this time.
Carlos tell him all of this as he sits beside him on the couch. With Maria curled up on one side, and Carlos' hand in his on the other, their fingers interlocked, Junpei hears about all the time he had missed and only feels guilty for it, that he could do all of this to them and still come back to unconditional forgiveness.
But Carlos' presence is a steady, gentle thing. His light touch and the feeling of Carlos' hand in his provides such a casual reassurance, such an easy, simple thing that it moves Junpei more than he has the words for. It's everything he had missed, given back to him with no grudges or resentment. It's more than he deserves.
Junpei can't imagine how he had managed to go without it for so long. Every moment he spent away now seems much more unbearable in comparison to how easily they fall back into each other.
He missed Carlos more than he has the words for. Everything about him left such a gaping crater in who Junpei was that now that he hardly even realized it until he was back. He feels like himself again. He has words for things he didn't even know were missing in the first place. With Maria sleeping on his shoulder, it almost makes up for everything he had to do to get to this point. Almost.
But with every thought of Carlos, one of Akane comes not long after. With every thought of how he feels right now, he can't help but think of Akane, picking up the pieces he had left behind. She didn't ask for the duty. She just did it, carried on even after he was gone. And he'll never be able to see her again, to thank her for this moment she made possible.
She'll never know just what she did for him. All these things he'll never be able to repay her for. She gave him this reunion. She gave him time to be with Carlos. She deserves better than what she’s left with.
All those moments they spent together that are alive only in his head. But it still feels strange to be without her. He finds himself wishing he could introduce them and share this part of his life with her. He finds himself searching for her connection in his head, a stable, soothing presence. If he could just find her then he could show her everything he was feeling and experiencing.
He finds himself wishing, not for the first time, he could talk to her just to make sure she's alright. It doesn't feel fair that he gets to have this while she's alone in the original timeline. After going through so much with her in his head, he feels the absence more acutely now, as if another half of him is missing, the only one who could really tell just what had happened over the years.
It still feels strange to be without her. It’s strange to have to work around it. She’s affected everything, the way he thinks, how he views the world. He’s not used to living like this, in a world without her. It seems like such a short time that they were connected, but somehow he can’t imagine life without it.
She had been the only one who knows who he had been during his time away, who understands the places he had gone to in order to reach his goal. She had been there with him in the Crash Keys, and only she could truly share the experience and tell the same stories. She's left behind, and the gap feels wider than ever when he thinks about the time he had missed, when Maria was awake and he was away.
But even all of his relief of being here doesn't bury that unsettled feeling inside him, the unfinished business. Even without them around, he still wonders about the Crash Keys, about their mission, and he wishes them success. They've earned it.
His Akane had earned it more than anyone. She's earned it still, alone in that timeline, and the world will refuse to give it back to her. But one day a timeline will succeed without any bargains or technicalities, and she'll be able to see it in its entirety. It'll be everything she deserves, everything she didn't get to have.
There's a balcony by the kitchen. Maria used to put her plants there, but it's barren now, with hardly room for a folding chair. So he and Carlos crowd into the condensed space, their shoulders touching as they look out into the evening city.
The cool breeze of late summer fills the air around them, with the yellow glow of the kitchen to their backs and the city beyond, and he had told Carlos the story as the sky darkened around them. He had started from as close to the beginning as he dared, and he hadn’t skirted around any details. And Carlos had listened patiently through it all, only saying that it sounded like he’s been through a lot when Junpei finally finished. And then they had fallen into a pensive, companionable silence.
He looks out into the evening, the time just after the sun sets, and he thinks about the timelines out there, even the ones where he doesn't get to know any of them at all. He looks down to the people below him. All these people with their own lives, on their way home from work, visiting friends, walking their dogs. All these people that exist in the same time he does, occupying their own little pocket of spacetime. That's all they can claim for themselves. In the everlasting expanse of the universe, all they get is one moment.
They were close to not having this moment at all, and in three years time they'll have so many moments that this one might not even stay in their memory. His time with Akane felt like it was cut short, but maybe that's all they were meant for. Maybe she was just meant to be something he chased, to catch a glimpse of and hold onto, but not for too long.
She'll be out there, wherever she is, searching the stars for answers, and he'll be right here, ordinary Junpei from planet Earth, here one moment and gone the next. How could he compete with someone like that, how could he even be in her orbit? Akane Kurashiki knows things he could only ever dream of and for one cruel moment he was close enough to see it too, to look out and see infinity right alongside her.
It's a lonely, terrible business, he decides, to live like that. But still he wishes he could be by her side, to make it that much easier. Maybe somewhere there's an Akane Kurashiki who never accesses the field, and doesn't know to feel lucky to do so.
"What are you thinking about?" Carlos' eyes are a cool blue against the dusk, and Junpei watches the shadows grow longer on the street below, the darkness stretching more with each moment before he can find the words to say just what he needs to.
"It's just strange," Junpei says, looking out into the night, "I had set off to do all of these things, and now I'm back here without having accomplished any of them."
"I don't think that’s a bad thing," Carlos says, "You seem different now. Quieter, more thoughtful."
"I am different," he says, "But every day I’m going to wonder...”
He can feel Carlos' eyes on him, a gentle presence, attentive but not prying, and Junpei sighs. "It's just a part of my life that's over, I guess."
"That doesn't mean it's not important," Carlos says, "I would have liked to meet her, since she had such an affect on you. And it sounds like I'd have to thank her for being there for you when you needed someone."
He looks out into the city. It would have been nice, he thinks, if Akane could have this peaceful domestic life. He wonders if she would have wanted it.
"I mean," Carlos nods, deep in thought. "You said it yourself, all we get is a moment with each other, in the grand scheme of things. Everything comes to an end sometimes. Just look at you. You're not the person you were at the start of all this, are you?"
“What if I’m not,” he says, “Is that okay?”
“I don’t think anyone stays the same,” Carlos says, “I’m not going to lie and say that we don’t have things to work on after this. But you’ve seen a lot and have only been back for a few hours. I just want to enjoy this moment with you.”
He looks over to Carlos. He's not the same person at all, he wants to say, because he's not from this timeline. He's an interloper. He wasn't meant to be here. Every moment they pass together was stolen from a Junpei who deserved it just as much as he did.
But maybe that Junpei is still here. Maybe the SHIFT created a hybrid, having experienced the other timeline and not experienced it at all, at the same time. He certainly has the memory of breaking his nose, but his nose right now is still whole. Does that mean it didn't happen? Does it make his time there worthless?
His shoulder is warm from where he leans against Carlos, and after a moment he leans in further, his head pressed up against Carlos' shoulder. He can see the lights of the city beyond, the noise of the people below him still seeming muted and far away.
"I'm sorry I left," Junpei says, "I shouldn't have just gone without giving you a proper warning, not after what happened when Maria stopped returning our calls."
Carlos looks out into the night. "I know," he says, "I've had my time to come to terms with it. I was angry with you, for a bit. I didn't understand how you couldn't see that I was struggling too, or how you could think that I would be any easier with you gone."
Junpei sighs, "I don't know," he says. "I guess I thought I could make a difference. I thought that if I went out and made someone pay for what happened, then maybe it would be easier or it wouldn't happen again. I didn't want them to think that they could just do this and get away with it. But it didn't get easier. But more I found out, the less sense it all made."
Carlos is silent. For a while, all he can do is count the buildings, and think about all the people who live in this city, and all the lives that Cradle had destroyed.
"I was hurt by it," Carlos says, after a few minutes, "I was hurt by it, but mostly I was just worried. I don't think I would be able to handle it if you and Maria were gone."
"I shouldn't have put you through it," Junpei says, "I shouldn't have kept you in the dark."
"I just," Carlos sighs, "I thought we would get through it together. I thought we would be together through all of it, that you would be there to see her wake up. It hurt her too, Junpei, you not being there."
"I know," Junpei says, "I just thought if I could find a meaning for it to have happened, then it would somehow make it easier to understand. But it didn't. It just made me more angry to know that there wasn't any reasoning behind it at all. People are just evil."
"So you came home?"
"More or less. I just had to learn when I've done everything I could, when there's nothing else I can give."
"And did you?"
"I did," Junpei says, as the stars peek out above them, "I gave it everything I had."
"That's all anyone can ask of you, then."
Junpei looks over to him. The golden wash of the kitchen light behind them only accentuates his features, and suddenly it feels like no time has passed at all. It feels like it could be any other night, like he was never gone. He can't remember the countless nights he and Carlos had spent out here after he got back from a call, not wanting to wake Maria but still wanting to linger in each other's presence for just a bit longer.
They were constantly aware of it, and for a while it was enough to just be near each other, to try and understand each other the way they knew they could. And even after the time that had passed, the timelines he had crossed to find Carlos again, they still fit into each other as easy and naturally as if he had only been gone a day.
"Hey," Junpei says, "we're going to be alright, won't we?"
Carlos looks over to him, his pale blue eyes twinkling in the light, "I think so," he says, "I'm just glad we get to try again and do it right this time."
"I know," Junpei says, grabbing his hand once more, "I've been through a lot just to have this moment with you. I'm going to fight to keep it."
"That's the best thing I've heard in a long time," Carlos smiles, his voice low and deep in the cool blue dusk. "It's good to have you back, Junpei."
Junpei smiles. It's the easiest thing in the world, being with him.
Three days later, the formula for Soporil Beta hits the market. Cradle Pharmaceutical collapses, the company gone under and the CEO found dead on the top floor, the only casualty. A domestic terrorist group called the Crash Keys had unveiled evidence surrounding Cradle's connection to a cult labeled "Free the Soul," as well the names and information of kidnapping victims from the past five years, all found in Cradle's headquarters. The company is undergoing federal investigation and the search for the Crash Keys is also underway.
Junpei hears the news and he grins inside, the way people grinned when Nixon's helicopter lifted off the south lawn for the last time. Carlos and Maria seemed to understand just by the way he watches the news, that this is what he had been waiting for the whole time.
He finds himself thinking about them, in the months that followed. He can only hope that this timeline had everything they were missing from the other one, that they've learned things that make it all worth it. He knows that Akane and Aoi will still need each other, even if it's different now. He knows that Phi and Sigma will continue to search the timelines for answers, to learn just what it is the morphogenetic field can do. And at the same time, Clover and All-Ice will have each other, linked together in every capacity, ready for their next investigation.
The Crash Keys keep moving, dispersed into the underground, only having passed through each other's lives for a second. It feels like he's the only one that's standing still, that he has everything he's been searching for.
But there's still a part of him that wonders, even now, what his life could have been like. He had caught a glimpse of this contentment with Akane. For just a few precious moments he had had her entirely, and a part of him still wishes he could have both. He finds himself looking back towards Carlos and Maria and finding it strange that they've never met her, this person that was by his side for such an important part of his life. How could he have gone through all of this and not have her, even now?
He wonders how she would have interacted with them, if she would have fit into their lives the same way Junpei had. He wonders if they would have made room for her just like they did him, if she would want to know Carlos in that same capacity, if she could find the humor to match Maria's, if he could somehow have them both in the same breath.
But he hears Maria laugh in the other room, he hears Carlos talking on the phone to the fire department, and he sits at the kitchen table and stares at the coffee mug circles stained into the wood. A cup of coffee for every day he was gone. He thinks about the timelines and he still wishes he could find a way to thank her for this gift she's given him.
He's settled in nicely in the months that followed. The autumn was kind to him, allowing him time to breath again, to find his place in their lives. It gave him time to explain everything he had seen, to allow him and Maria to fall back into rhythm with each other, to let him and Carlos really learn just how to be together.
But all he can do is start his day, and be present in every moment he has. He has to live the life she's allowed him to. He can't waste a second.
So he gets up from the kitchen, away from that worn down table, and he says, “Hey. Can I take you to lunch?"
Maria cocks an eyebrow at him without glancing away from the TV. "Are you sure you don't want to go with your boooyfrie--"
He throws a pillow at her, cutting her off.
"Junpei," she scolds, tossing a glare in his direction. "This is not how I raised you. And I can't believe you're still wearing that shirt. I thought I burned it a long time ago."
"Yeah, well," he says, walking in front of the TV. "I've had to go back to shopping for myself."
"I can see that," she says as she tries to peer around him. "it's disgusting. You disgrace me."
"So we're going shopping this week, is what you're saying?"
"Duh," she says, "you've undone all my hard work."
"I've got to give you something to do," he says, waving as as Carlos comes downstairs. "can't have you getting bored on me."
"God forbid," she says, "next thing you know, you'll have to talk to me or something. Remember when you caught the flu and I played jenga with you over and over to make sure you wouldn't get bored?"
"Yeah," he laughs, "All I wanted to do was sleep, but no, Junpei wake up, we have to play jenga!"
"What a noble sacrifice," Carlos says, tugging his coat on. "I remember you got sick immediately after that."
"But hey, we're really good at jenga now," Maria insists, as Carlos helps her into her wheelchair. "And Junpei somehow remembers to get his flu shot every year since then, so it was worth it."
It's snowing lightly outside, but not enough to stick to the warm roads. He gets into the passenger seat and waits for them, looking through the windshield at the city beyond. Just another normal day for everyone around him. He can see people splashing through intersections, and with every day that passes he begins to feel more and more at home, like he's really one of them.
"Oh, that reminds me," he says, as Carlos starts the car. "In the Robocop movies, is there a difference between Robocops emotions and Murphy's? Since he's using Murphy's brain."
They take a moment to think. "But Murphy isn't gone," Maria says, as they peel away from the curb. "He's just in a new form. Like, Murphy is Robocop. He was traumatized into becoming him. They're the same."
"Robocop's not his own separate entity," Carlos says, nodding, "I agree. He's just a new version of Murphy. So they are his emotions because they're the same person. Or robot."
"So Robocop isn't the state of being a robot, it's an identity?"
Maria nods, sagely. "We all have a potential Robocop inside us, just waiting to get out."
Carlos flicks his turn signal on. "That's a terrifying image."
Junpei catches her eye in the rearview mirror. "Right next to our inner child is our inner robocop."
Carlos frowns. "Is that what the movie was trying to convey? It's been a while since I've seen it."
"Ooh," Maria says, "Movie night!"
"Movie afternoon, more like," Carlos says. "Does that answer your question, Junpei?"
"Yeah, I think so" he stretches, "Good job team, we've solved the debate of the century."
If only Sigma was here to see it, to add this new evidence into the equation. Junpei shakes his head.
"I'm glad you're back, Junpei," Maria says, quietly, reaching over as far as she can. "I've missed you."
He takes her hand and squeezes, "I've missed you too," he says, "I really did."
And for a moment, this is all he needs. He sits back in the passenger seat. His hands aren't on the wheel. He has nowhere else he needs to be. He just sits and watches the city go by, and it's all he needs. It's enough.
It's been a while since he's thought of it. His life had gone back to normal so quickly that he almost took it for granted that it could be this way.
Akane had always hated the cold. Back in elementary school she would come to class bundled under layers and layers, as if she was wearing everything she owned on her back. And then she would still look so cold that Junpei had to give her his hat anyway, just to stop her from pouting.
What would he say to that little girl if he could meet her now? What could he say to an Akane that still had her innocence, that didn't know a thing about how fast a house could go up in flames? There's no way for him to know. He just looks out into the snow flurry, and thinks about where she is now, and how she's coping with the cold.
As if sensing it, Carlos looks over. "Are you thinking about her?"
He had told Carlos the details much earlier than he had thought he would, the story spilling out in hushed tones in the early hours of the morning soon after he had returned. He had thought he wouldn't, that this was something he could keep all to himself, but there's nothing he wants to keep from Carlos. He wants to share this part of his life with him. He wants to know if Carlos could understand this feeling, what it's like to need two seperate people in the same way, so utterly and completely.
And all Carlos had done was listen, listen and think and in the end say that the heart has room for many people, and that he’s sorry that there wasn’t a way for her to be with him now. Then he had tilted Junpei's head back and kissed him softly, and it was everything Junpei needed to know.
He meets Carlos' eyes, "Yeah," he says, "I think a part of me always will be."
But he feels the engine hum, he feels the dry heater blow onto his face, and he hopes that wherever Akane is, that she knows that the new timeline was worth it. Every mundane, perfectly normal moment he has here was something she bought for him. Her sacrifice wasn't for nothing, it's what enabled them to succeed. Even without it, she'll always have a part of him. Even if they failed in every timeline that follows, she'll always have him.
No matter what he's feeling, he wishes that a piece of it could drift off into the universe and reach her. That a thought could be powerful enough to span the timelines if he only believes hard enough, that it could mean everything he wants it to mean, and more.
And if he could just have that, then he doesn't need anything else. There's nothing more in the world he could ask for. He sees the clumps of snow collect on the windshield and does his best to enjoy every moment that's been bought for him, to live for every second he can't give back.
But maybe they'll find each other again someday, in another timeline. If there's one thing the universe can do for them, it's to align their stars just a little closer together for the next time around. For a world where they can have each other like they deserve, where no one has to sacrifice for the other to be happy.
He catches glimpses of it, sometimes. People on the street, strangers with long brown hair, and he'll swear for just a moment that it's her. That she could be seeing him through someone else's eyes, that the morphogenetic field that connects them could be enough to let them know that no matter what the other is doing, they're still connected in a cosmic sense. Somewhere in the universe, they'll always be searching for each other. He was just lucky to have her for those two years, to know her and have to let her go.
Junpei looks over at them, suddenly aware of the silence in the car. Carlos watches him in amusement, as he seemed to have zoned out for the rest of the drive. But he doesn't ask any questions. He already knows.
He tosses Junpei the keys.
"You're driving us back," Carlos says, as he opens the door and steps out into the cold. Junpei can't find it in him to respond, so he cradles the keys in his palm and joins them on the sidewalk.
This is the moment he chose for himself. This is the life he fought so hard to get back. So he joins them on the sidewalk, he meets Carlos' patient gaze, and he grins.
"Hurry up, I'm cold," Maria whines, nudging him with her elbow. "Are we ready to go?"
And he is. He takes one step forward, and then another.
....and we're done! Thank you so much to everyone who kept up with this fic as it was being updated, and to everyone who goes on to read it in the future :D