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It goes like this:

In one moment, Junpei sees only carpet where June - Akane - was lying only seconds prior, and in the next, he’s falling unconscious. The world grows dark but he can still hear the incinerator and smell ash.

(It fills his lungs and he tries to scream, but his lungs are broken.)

Zero’s words echo in his head as the world fades.

I… have lost.

Junpei doesn’t have it in him to put the pieces together before he wakes up.

-

The first thing he registers is gentle night air blowing into his apartment.

Junpei sits up, rubbing his face. It’s sore from lying on the wooden floor. His head feels cloudy, like he’s missing a piece of his memory. The curtains brush his face and it all hits him like a truck.

He clutches his wrist, expecting to find the bracelet that haunted him for nine hours, but finds only raw skin. Junpei gags, suddenly unable to breathe.

There’s blood between his teeth.

He empties the contents of his stomach onto his knees and the floor as his head swims. Snake and Clover are dead and Akane is gone and Lotus, Seven, and Santa are god-knows-where.

And Zero lost, but it doesn’t feel that way to him. Junpei rubs his eyes to clear his vision before he throws up again.

And truth had gone and truth had gone and truth had gone.

Junpei isn’t sure how long he’s been crying.

-

The next morning is filled with apologies to his friends.

“You’ve been gone for days!”

“Dude, you look like shit.”

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Are you okay, Junpei-kun?”

Junpei has to brush off their questions about his whereabouts with a smile and a lie about family problems. They lap it up without question; those who’ve been with him since high school can believe this in a heartbeat, and his new friends will take their cues from the rest.

“Really though, sorry for not saying anything,” Junpei says, sounding like a broken record, “Hiroki, can I borrow your notes?”

After three days, he falls back into routine, and all becomes normal once more.

-

Or so he’d like to believe.

Anyone who looks at Junpei during lectures would assume that he’s taking diligent notes, but in truth, he’d tuned out the professor twenty minutes ago.

Pages and pages of numbers upon numbers spill from Junpei’s desk, but he doesn’t even move to grab them, like he doesn’t need them anymore.

2 + 5 + 7 = 14 = 5

1 + 3 + 4 + 6 + 8 = 22 = 4

4 + 5 + 8 = 17 = 8

3 + 6 + 7 = 16 = 7

And so on. The math always adds up, but Junpei finds that the results only frustrate him more. There has to be something he missed. Some tiny mistake preventing him from finding the truth.

He continues to scribble down equations that are meaningless to everyone but him.

-

It’s four in the morning when he first puts it together.

Papers and string have been strewn around his apartment, covered with numbers and connecting lines, and theories upon theories filled with unanswered questions.

He’s tracked the combinations for every door, keeping the circumstances in mind, and found an answer that makes his blood run cold.

If 0 = 6 then 6 ≠ 6. So perhaps Akane’s 6 has been flipped? It’s the logical answer. But that presents a new problem.

1 + 3 + 4 + 9 + 8 = 25 = 7 ≠ 4

The number is off by 3. Junpei shoves his pen through the paper.

1 + 0 + 4 + 9 + 8 = 22 = 4

3 = 0

Santa is Zero. Santa is Zero, and he followed Akane through every single door, and it makes Junpei want to be sick.

Really though, was there any other option? Clover and Snake (and Ace, but he doesn’t want to think about him) were dead by the time of Zero’s announcement. Akane was in his arms, and Lotus and Seven couldn’t have gotten back through the chapel before him.

Junpei tears the paper in his hands apart, shaking with a mix of fear and rage.

Then, he throws up. He’s been doing that a lot since he got home.

-

The first time he sees Seven after the fact, Junpei pinches himself twice.

He looks a bit different in the police officer’s uniform, but there’s no mistaking the face looming in the doorway to his apartment. Junpei stares up at him blankly, still not sure if he’s dreaming.

Seven doesn’t have any reservations about the situation and pulls Junpei into a bear hug, ruffling his hair.

“Good to see you, punk,” he whispers and Junpei nearly cries.

It takes a moment for the two to separate, but once Junpei finally composes himself, he ducks out of the way to allow Seven into his apartment.

The place is still a mess - he hasn’t had the energy to take down any of the papers that fill his living room to the brim - but Seven doesn’t seem to mind.

“How did you find me?” Junpei asks, scratching his neck.

Seven grins, “I wasn’t the best detective on the force for nothing. And you weren’t hard to track down. Jack one car and you’re in the system forever.”

Junpei mutters, “Seriously? I was fifteen…”

He almost laughs, but then he remembers that Seven probably hasn’t come all this way for a social call. And that his name isn’t actually Seven, but Junpei doesn’t have another name to think of him as.

Seven’s expression solemns, “Seriously. Junpei… We need to talk. A lot’s happened that… that you need to know about.”

“Like how Zero was Santa?” Junpei starts, feeling must in his throat, “I figured that out myself.”

He gestures to the disarray of papers and strings.

Seven nods, “Hole in one. You’re a sharp kid. But that isn’t all that we need to discuss.”

Junpei frowns, “Okay. Let’s… sit down.”

His couch is buried under sheets of inked up paper, but Junpei sits on them without a second thought. Seven awkwardly follows his lead.

“Akane Kurashiki,” Seven opens.

Junpei shudders, “June. What happened to her? Do you know? She… She vanished right in front of me.”

Seven takes a deep breath, before saying five words that change Junpei’s entire life.

“She died nine years ago.”

-

He lets Seven talk.

Sixteen children were kidnapped by Cradle Pharmaceuticals for use in an experiment. That was the first Nonary Game.

Seven was investigating the case and had tracked the kidnapped children to a shipyard. He managed to rescue them, only for one of the children to have doubled back, where she was taken hostage by Gentarou Hongou.

(Ace.)

The girl, Akane, later burned to death in the incinerator.

“But she was there,” Junpei finally asserts, “Akane was alive until… until she vanished from the chapel.”

Seven rubs his brow, “Hey, I don’t get it either. Maybe she had a twin or somethin’.”

Junpei doesn’t think that’s right. He knows Akane has a brother, but he was older, and they never met. He thinks he would have at least heard about a twin.

But there’s no telling now. Akane is gone. And Junpei has a pit in his stomach.

-

Junpei drops out of university the next week.

His friends ask questions and Junpei can barely shut them up with a lie about his family again. They shout their support after him, but it feels empty. None of them know.

Studying bitcoin isn’t going to get him anywhere anymore.

Seven has offered him a place to live, if he wants. And Junpei isn’t sure that he can stay in his apartment anymore.

Instinctively, he puts his hand on the wall next to the door, then rushes inside before the door can close. It never hits him until he’s inside what he’s doing.

Junpei stares blankly at the mess inside, and reaches for his phone, so he can take Seven up on his offer. He can fit everything he needs in one cardboard box.

-

“What do you want me to call you?”

Seven pauses on the staircase, a duffle bag under his arm. He scratches his chin for a moment and shrugs, “You can keep callin’ me Seven if you want. But my name’s Kennosuke Yamada.”

The name feels awkward in Junpei’s mouth. But he wants to remember as little about the circumstances regarding the Nonary Game as possible.

So he smiles up at Seven - Kennosuke - and says, “You got it.”

He lives on the fifth floor, which isn’t so bad, but Junpei wheezes just the same when they finally reach the door to his apartment.

While Kennosuke unlocks the door, Junpei balances the cardboard box in his hands on one knee and presses his left hand to the wall beside the frame.

Kennosuke follows suit, then both of them pause with the same awkward look on their face.

It was only nine hours, but it feels closer to nine years.

“Home sweet home,” Kennosuke grunts as he holds the door open for Junpei.

The apartment is larger than Junpei anticipated. He hovers for a moment in the kitchen, then follows Kennosuke through it and the living room to three - mercifully opened - doors.

They all look like bedrooms. Two of them have two beds each, only one of which looks lived in. Junpei expects to be lead to one of those, but instead, Kennosuke takes him to the one farthest to the left. All that’s in it is a closet, a desk, and a bed, but it’s already so much warmer than his old apartment.

“It ain’t much, but…” Kennosuke starts.

Junpei smiles for the first time since he woke up again, “It’s perfect. I love it.”

-

The first time he sees Lotus after the fact, Junpei thinks he might cry.

He’s standing at the sink, cleaning up from today’s lunch, when he hears the front door open.

Kennosuke isn’t supposed to be back for another hour, so when Junpei wheels around, he nearly drops the plate in his hands.

Lotus looks like a different person with short hair and a pantsuit, but Junpei knows the smug smile playing on her lips all too well.

“L-Lotus, how did you-“

She cuts him off before he can get any further. “Hazuki. Kashiwabara. Don’t call me the other name.”

Junpei stares at Lotus - Hazuki - for another moment, shaking. He still doesn’t understand what she’s doing here.

Luckily, Hazuki softens and opens her arms, “Give me a hug, Junpei.”

Junpei really does start to cry once the two of them are hugging. He doesn’t know what else to do at this point.

“Uh, mom? Everything okay?”

The embrace breaks and Junpei looks behind Hazuki to see two girls around his age standing in the doorway, clinging to each other.

Hazuki wipes her eyes quickly, “Ah, Junpei? These are my daughters, Nona and Ennea. Girls, this is one of the other people I met on… that business trip.”

Junpei almost laughs at the phrase. The way that Nona and Ennea look at each other makes him think that they at least know something is amiss.

When Kennosuke arrives home, his face lights up in a way Junpei didn’t know was possible.

-

He learns a lot just by living with them.

Kennosuke is half American. His mother is still overseas, working in a flower shop, while his father is long since retired.

Hazuki is allergic to coconut and can’t watch television before eight at night, or else she gets stir crazy.

Ennea is majoring in business at the local community college, while Nona wants to become an actress. Neither of the twins have their mother’s allergy, but they hate coconut just the same.

Junpei feels that these details pale in comparison to what they’ve all learned about him. His life has always been a fairly open book, as long as you have the attention span for it.

-

Late one evening, Junpei notices that Nona is curled up with a book. He crans his neck slightly so that he can read the title.

Watership Down

He remembers the book from his childhood. There was a dusty copy of it on the bookshelf in his father’s study. A fantasy novel about rabbits.

Rabbits. The last months he spent with Akane in their childhood flash through his mind.

Junpei feels a strange numbness form in his stomach. He’s glad that they found the people who killed the rabbits.

He remembers worrying that Akane had been behind it.

Junpei gets up and leaves for the rickety balcony that overlooks the bustling city streets.

The night air feels like a shock. Junpei bites down on his lip and stares down at the streetlights.

He knows where Hazuki keeps her cigarettes. He could light one and forget himself.

But one cigarette becomes ten becomes fifty. He doesn’t need to be hiding on the fire escape at two in the morning burning his lungs out.

Junpei wonders when she’ll be back.

-

It goes like this:

In one moment, Junpei is getting bread out of the freezer, and in the next, he’s trapped inside. He’s been working in this small cafe for a month now, and he’s being doing a good job, up until now.

The door won’t open. He can’t tell if it’s just stuck, or if it froze shut completely in the moment he turned his back. Junpei backs desperately on the door, but it won’t open.

81 seconds.

His heartbeat speeds up as the mental timer in his head counts down. Junpei screams and screams but nobody will answer him. The big freezer is a good fifty feet from the kitchen.

He can hear the phantom beeps of the watch in the last few seconds. Maybe he can still get to the DEAD before he blows up.

Junpei keeps yelling, the bread long since forgotten, until he collapses on the floor.

He doesn’t work in the cafe much longer.

-

Hazuki confines him to bed rest after this incident, insisting that if he gets up, she’ll make him stay down. Junpei doesn’t want to argue with that, nor does he have the energy to.

There isn’t much to do while he lies there, except be alone with his thoughts. And painful thoughts they are.

He misses Clover, misses her smile and her attitude. He can’t stop thinking about when he encountered her in the bathroom of the First Class cabin, all that life drained from her body.

He still has her final note in his jacket pocket. Junpei isn’t sure if he can ever throw it out.

He misses Snake, misses his wisdom and strength and unconditional kindness. Junpei always feels a pain in his chest when he thinks of Snake, of his sacrifice. The only pain that comes close to this is when he thinks of Akane.

Snake should have survived in his place, Junpei thinks.

(He doesn’t miss Ace.)

And Akane, Akane causes him only confusion and stress. Is she dead? Was she ever alive? Kennosuke’s investigation into the first Nonary Game turned up no answers.

Junpei wonders if he was in love with her. He isn’t sure. He thinks that he might have loved her ghost.

He doesn’t like to think about Akane for very long.

Sometimes, Junpei wonders what he would do if he ever saw Santa again. Besides kill him.

-

The first time he sees Santa after the fact, Junpei thinks he really will kill him.

He’s back on the university campus to return a few textbooks, when he sees the man himself, looming in the distance in a long coat. It doesn’t take Junpei more than three seconds to close his hands around Santa’s throat.

In fact, the only thing that stops him from murdering him right then and there is the fact that Santa is letting him do this.

Junpei lets go and Santa drops to the ground in a heap. Neither of them say anything for a moment as their chests heave. Santa doesn’t look like he’s getting up any time soon.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” Junpei hisses, his veins pulsing.

Santa wheezes, “I don’t know. To talk, maybe. Or to let you kill me. One of the two.”

Junpei resists the urge to kick him in the chest, “Save it, Zero.”

Santa turns his head and looks at him with haunted eyes, then pushes himself up, “No. Well, kind of. Not exactly.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?!” Junpei shouts at him, feeling an impulse to shove him back down onto the concrete.

Santa slowly stands, “I’m not Zero. I wish I was. It would make all of this so much easier.”

Junpei raises an eyebrow, “If you’re not Zero… Who are you?”

“Aoi,” he says, “Kurashiki.”

Junpei is too stunned to punch him.

“Yes, I’m Akane’s older brother,” Santa - Aoi - murmurs, “And Zero’s accomplice. I made that last announcement on the boat… because she had already died.”

The weight of Aoi’s words hits Junpei like a sack of bricks. He thinks his fist hits Aoi’s face like that too.

-

They’re sitting in the old swim club room, on opposite sides of the locker area. The building itself is condemned and will be torn down within the next month.

“You have a mean right hook,” Santa says, rubbing his bruises cheek.

Junpei looks at the mold growing on the tiles, “Talk. Before I do it again.”

Aoi sighs, “Akane burned to death nine years ago. But she also didn’t, and became Zero. I was doing everything in my power to save her life.”

“But you failed,” Junpei says.

Aoi closes his eyes, “Yes. You don’t have to forgive me, but you need to understand… she was my only family. You’d do anything to protect family.”

Junpei almost refutes him, thinking of the mother he hasn’t seen in four years and the father in ten. Then he thinks of Kennosuke and Hazuki and Nona and Ennea. And he nods.

Aoi mutters, “You chose the wrong path. If… If you had taken the right doors…”

Junpei glares, “So this is my fault now?”

Aoi shakes his head wearily, “Of course not. It was always my fault. You were going to save her… but we screwed up.”

Junpei stares blankly at him.

“In the incinerator, there was a puzzle,” Aoi says, “Nine years ago, Akane died because she didn’t have the clues. You were supposed to give her the answers and get her out. But you didn’t make it in time.”

Junpei’s jaw drops, “I what?”

Aoi replies, “The morphogenic field. The same puzzle, nine years in the future. We spent nearly a decade trying to set up the same escape game, so you could both tap into the field.”

“But I didn’t get to the incinerator,” Junpei breaths.

Aoi nods, “And Akane died in the past… and ceased to exist in the present.”

Junpei whispers, “So… I killed Akane.”

“If that helps you sleep at night,” Aoi replies.

Junpei slumps back against the wall. He can’t breathe.

Aoi adds, “I’m sorry. I know that doesn’t mean anything at this point, but I really am.”

Junpei rubs his temples and brings his knees to his chest, placing his head between them.

When he looks up again, Aoi is long gone.

-

Junpei doesn’t make it back to the apartment until nightfall. Ennea is sitting at the counter, writing away, while Nona is passed out on the couch.

According to the awake twin, Kennosuke is out working, and she doesn’t know where Hazuki is. She doesn’t ask why Junpei looks like a trainwreck.

Maybe it’s because he always does.

Junpei sits on his bed and doesn’t fall asleep. He stares at the plain brown paint on the wall all night, feeling the urge to retch.

He doesn’t have anyone else to hate anymore. He can’t channel all this anger towards Aoi. He can only hate himself.

Morning comes and he doesn’t tell the others that he met Aoi the day before. He doesn’t know how to explain the situation, or why he didn’t kill Aoi on sight.

-

Junpei doesn’t leave the house for the next few days. Nobody questions it out loud, but he gets a few strange looks.

Nona brings him soup and a wet cloth for his forehead, saying that he looks sick.

He accepts the gifts but he still feels like shit. Instead of eating, Junpei sits on the floor and scribbles down simple addition equations.

What was the path he was supposed to take? There’s so many possibilities.

0 + 5 + 9 + 8 = 13 = 4

1 + 2 + 4 + 7 = 14 = 5

Maybe he shouldn’t have insisted at looking at the Ninth Man’s body. It might have been fate guiding him towards Door 4. It might have led him to the incinerator. It might have saved Akane’s life.

It’s too late now. Junpei stares at the sea of numbers left in his wake and sobs.

-

It goes like this:

Aoi’s suicide makes the headlines.

Junpei’s does not.