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Aftermath: 12 Hours

Chapter Text

The handgun rested flat in Carlos's large, open palm. He did not realize how hard he was breathing until a hand clapped on his back, knocking the air out of his lungs.

"Don't sweat it, Carlos," Junpei said. "If there's anyone here I'd trust to make the right choice, it's you. I think you did the right thing."

Carlos raised a hand to his forehead, beading with sweat under the Nevada sun at noon. His fingers brushed against chunky strands of hair that had fallen into his face. He combed them back to no avail.

"We can… go inside now, right?" Eric asked, fidgeting with the brown cuffs and purple buttons of his shirt.

Mira raised an eyebrow. "What, and just continue the isolation experiment like nothing happened?"

"The no-communication period might have ended already," Phi murmured. She shielded her eyes to see the sun. "We have no idea what day it is."

"If it's the new year, Dcom staff will be flipping out," Junpei realized. "Not to mention, we're in the middle of nowhere. This is our only way of getting help."

As the victorious players filed towards the shelter's door, Carlos dropped one knee to the sand. He held the gun an inch above the ground before taking it back, wrapping his hands in his stretchy undershirt, and rubbing his sweaty fingerprints from the gun's every surface.

"We'll vouch for you if anything happens, Carlos," Mira promised with a small smile on her colored lips. "It's like Junpei said. You made the right decision."

"Sean, can you get this thing open?" Eric asked.

"What? W-why me?"

"Well, you're a quantum computer, right? Can't you figure something out?"

"That's not…"

On instinct, Junpei glanced around for the one he trusted would have a solution. He found she had not moved with the rest of them; she stood near where Carlos had laid the gun, her eyes closed.

"Akane?" he called. "Everything alright?"

She blinked her eyes wide open. "Junpei," she said, as if she had lost her place in this reality. "I'm… I was just contacting my brother. I wanted to let him know we were alright. And…"

She drew her hands together, reaching for the phantom feeling on her right hand. There was nothing on her finger to fidget with, to twist when she thought of a happy future.

"Hey, Junpei," she said with a coy smile, "isn't there something you need to give me?"

He grabbed his elbows and hunched his shoulders up to his ears. "God, Akane, you're gonna make me do that all over again?" he asked, rolling his eyes to seem nonchalant, but color had risen in his cheeks. The couple had summoned the attention of their fellow participants.

"You've never done it in this history," Akane teased. "I don't have anything to show for it."

Junpei gave a dramatic sigh as he plodded towards her, shoving his hand into the pocket of his jeans. "Maybe I'll actually get the hand right this time," he muttered.

"No! I liked it on my right hand," she giggled.

"Leave the door alone for a sec," Carlos said in a low voice, sending a knowing smile to his teammates. "You might wanna see this."

With his arms akimbo, Junpei cleared his throat. "Akane Kurashiki," he began lazily. "You… You've completely wrecked my life. You're the most dangerous, conniving woman I've ever met. Common sense says I should run away from you now and never look back."

He dropped to one knee. The ring glittered in the desert sunlight. For the first time in a year, he wore a true smile.

"I want to save the world with you."

Sigma cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, "About time!"

"Oh, like you're one to talk," Mira said, nudging him with an elbow. "You've got some explaining to do about you and Diana."

With a beet red face, he turned to the door. "W-we should focus on getting back inside," he insisted.

Diana covered her cheeks with her hands. There was a smile in her eyes as she watched Sigma pry desperately at the door.

"Some light conversation while we look for a way in?" Mira suggested. "When did you two find the time to—"

Phi cut her off with a gagging noise. "Have a little decency, will you?" she snapped. "They're my parents. I don't want to hear about it."

"That's one of the things I don't understand," Mira said. "Phi, you're about twenty, aren't you? So how…?"

"Oh, so that's what you meant when you were talking about really being sixty-seven years old," Carlos realized, his hand clenched into a determined fist. "So Diana's the same way? Now it all—"

"That's… that's not it." Sigma leaned his head against the door and grabbed at his scalp with both hands. "Is this what Delta felt like when he was trying to explain why he held the Decision Games? Is that why he just kept saying he had 'complex motives'?"

The door slid wide open. Sigma barely broke his fall before face-planting into the steel-tiled entryway of the Dcom facility.

Despite having no face, Sean looked guilty. He gave a start when Sigma fell, bringing his hands up to the orb on his head. "Ah, I—I'm sorry, I didn't think that would actually work," he stammered. "I just, I saw there was a keypad, but I didn't think…"

The keypad had exposed wires leading towards the door. The bolts holding it in its crooked place were askew, and the color did not match the rest of Dcom's exterior, nor what they remembered of its interior. It requested three eight-digit passwords.

Chapter Text

"I can't believe we have to spend the rest of the isolation experiment with all these damn lovebirds," Eric grumbled, hunching over his folded arms.

It was early afternoon on the last day of 2028. They had just over eleven hours remaining before communications went back online. "Honestly, I feel like it's a good thing we have all that time," Carlos had sighed. "We need to figure out what exactly we're going to tell them."

Most of the crew lingered in the communications bay, numbly discussing the next course of action. Eric had drifted to the outside hallway when he got too jittery. A purehearted robot followed him.

"What about you, Eric?" Sean pointed out, drumming his fingers against the cool steel of his helmet. "Aren't you… one of the lovebirds?"

Keeping one ear tuned to the hallway conversation, Mira got that withdrawn look about her that she had begun to wear in Eric's presence. She stretched one arm across her chest and squeezed her opposite elbow.

Eric scratched his cheek near the corner of his dopey smile. "I… I guess so," he said. "Mira, could I ask you something?"

She bit her lip and turned her head sharply away, gripping her arm tighter. "What is it?"

"Well… well, come out here, first," he said.

She took measured steps in a fine line, heels clicking against the floor. She never quite met Eric's eyes.

"Listen, I… I know this is sudden, and—and it's not the place for this, either, not the place I would have liked, anyway," he rambled, "but we, we've been through so much together in these past… in this game thing, and I just—I don't have it—I didn't bring it with me, but at home, I—I bought a ring. I…"

The tension in Mira's shoulders melted away. Her eyes went wide.

"I don't mean this to piggyback on what Junpei and Akane did, or anything, I just," he stammered, "I just love you so much, Mira. You mean so much to me, and I… I wanted to know if you'd…"

"Eric, I tried to kill you," she stated. "I did kill you. I tore out your heart, and I enjoyed it."

His smile barely flickered. "I believe in you, Mira," he insisted. "I know you're a good person."

"I killed a lot of people," she said, her voice rising. "I'm a murderer, Eric. I'm a wanted serial killer. I'm the Heart Ripper. How can you call me a good person?"

"Because," he squeaked, "because people can change, can't they? I think… I think you're a good person, now."

Mira sank as she exhaled, as if deflating. "Change, huh," she muttered. "If I've really changed, I'd turn myself in, wouldn't I?"

"N-no, you don't have to," Eric said with a wide smile. "We can run away together. We could go to a beautiful place with nobody else around, and just hide from the world in a cabin, just you and I."

Mira's dark lips quivered with a smile. When he said things like that, something faint stirred inside her. She felt aware of her own heart for the first time in her life.

"That would be… really nice, Eric," she sighed.

He shot upright, beaming. "So you'll do it?!" he said excitedly. "You'll—will you marry me?"

She gazed into his glittering, oblivious eyes. "Yeah," she decided. "Yeah, let's get married."

Sean clasped his hands together and rocked from his heels to his toes and back. "I'm so happy for you," he gushed.

Carlos glanced into the hallway, folding his arms with a smile. "That's two couples hitched," he said. "Anybody got plans to be the third?"

Moving in perfect unison, Sigma and Diana turned their heads in opposite directions. Diana's pale, freckled cheeks showed a richer blush than Sigma's.

"I hope you're not expecting anything from me, Carlos," Phi muttered. "Let's just say you're not my type."

"Not a problem. Can't say I'm really interested in romance, either," he replied with a shrug. "Let me guess, your type is a little less... male?"

Phi flushed deeper than even Diana. "I—Are you—J-just because I have short hair doesn't—"

"Nah, short hair alone wouldn't do it," Carlos agreed, hands on his hips. "But short hair that's dyed, with those boots… And something about your general presence, you know? I just get that feeling about you."

Phi balled her hands into fists and held them shaking by her side as she chewed her lip. Diana had a dumbstruck look in her blue eyes, and Sigma looked as though he had short-circuited.

"Ah, sorry, did I say something I shouldn't have?" Carlos realized. "Haven't come out to your parents yet?"

"You—you just shut it," Phi stuttered.

Mira rubbed the heel of her palm into the place on her chest under which she felt her heart thumping. After her SHIFT, she would never be the same again. For that brief moment when she had joined her companions in the morphogenetic field, she became united with their minds and hearts. She saw the world in the glorious color of human emotion. The colors faded when she returned to her own body, but the experience had awakened something inside her.

She suspected she was only assimilating emotions by patching together memories from the morphogenetic field. Despite knowing her feelings were not her own, she had never felt so human in all of her life. She lingered longest over the one called remorse.

Chapter Text

Sigma set out a long sigh. "Forty-five years," he muttered to himself. "Forty-five years for an uncertain future."

"You can't seriously believe what he said about the religious fanatic," Phi retorted. "That old fart just couldn't get over himself. He was probably so upset about dying of old age, he decided to make sure he'd live on in our memories no matter what happened here."

"Come on, don't talk about your brother that way." He ruffled her hair. There was a hint of Diana's red at the roots.

Phi shoved his arm away in a burst of hot rage. "Don't—don't talk about that," she spat. "Don't ever call him that. He's nothing to me. He's dirt."

"Okay, okay, sorry," Sigma said quickly, because this was not merely Phi's quick temper. A true fury brewed in her chest.

"I know how you feel, Phi," Diana said in her soft voice. "It's—it's hard to think Sigma and I were—"

"God, you're not making things any better!" Phi groaned. "I didn't ask to be born, you know! If you'd just kept it in your damn pants, we'd never have gotten into this mess in the first place."

"I see we haven't missed our charming daughter's rebellious teenager phase," Sigma teased.

He hooked his elbow behind her neck and pulled her to his broad chest.

"I'd go through it all a thousand more times for you, Phi," he sighed. "I don't care if you didn't want to be born. The world's a better place because you're here. I'm a better person because I met you."

She put up the façade of a struggle against his embrace, but his warmth won her over. All of her life, a part of her had craved a connection with her birth parents, or whatever else would give her a sense of true parental love. She found it in her closest friend and in the kindest soul she had ever met.

"Whatever, Dad," she mumbled into his polo.

"Um," Diana piped up, clasping her hands together, "what… what did you all want to do after the experiment is over?"

"Isn't that obvious?" Sigma withdrew his arm to cross both across his chest. He put on his signature grimace. "We have to find the terrorist before he destroys the world."

Phi waved her hand dismissively at him, rolling her eyes. "Have fun chasing someone who doesn't exist, old man. Waste another forty-five years on the cult leader, for all I care."

"Will I see you SHIFTing in from another timeline down the line, begging me to help you change the future?" Sigma replied.

"I never want to SHIFT again in my life," Phi uttered.

"Um, I'm not… I'm not really used to this saving the world business," Diana said. "Is that, um, like a full-time deal? Or do we just… go about our lives as usual, and keep our eyes peeled?"

Phi shrugged. "You don't have to go through with all this," she said. "I feel like this line of work doesn't suit you. You could just go back to… being a nurse, right?"

Sigma's eyes flashed. "Your ex," he realized. "No no no, you can't go back there. We have to get you away from him. I won't let him ever find you again, Diana, I—"

"Hey, calm down, grandpa," Phi interrupted. She slid a slender arm between Diana and Sigma. "You scare people when you talk like that, you know? Cool it."

"But that's what I'm asking," Diana protested. "I want to help find the terrorist, too. If it's something I have to completely devote myself to, that's all the better. I… I wasn't happy with my old life. I think I'd like to start over."

She smiled at her interlaced fingers. A smirk slid onto Phi's lips. Sigma never really smiled, but he glowed with something between content and pride.

"I feel like this is Akane's territory," Phi said. "You could join her secret organization, Crash Keys. She's good at figuring out how to play the pawns."

Sigma bared his teeth. "Diana is not a pawn," he growled.

"Come on, Sigma. Compared to the old woman, we all are," Phi replied. "She's the only one who really sees the chessboard. I figure I should talk with her before I decide to formally check out from this saving the world business."

"You think she knows any more about this plot than anybody else here?" he asked.

"I mean, yeah," Phi said, rolling her weight to one hip. "Hey, if I'm right, and there's never gonna be any terrorist plot, what are you even gonna do with yourself, Sigma?"

He laughed once without smiling. "What was I ever going to do?" he said. "I never thought about what life would be like on the other side of history. I just knew I had to create this history for the sake of mankind. Working to save the world is just my way of life now."

"What about the life you left behind?" Phi asked. "When you were twenty-two, really twenty-two, you shifted to the future. You shifted to the past again after the AB games, but by then, the world was devastated by Radical-6, and you were en route to the moon to start the AB project. It's been almost half a century since you've seen your old friends and family, hasn't it?"

Sigma put up a grimace, but his eyes could not hide the thoughts swirling around in his head. "I'm not sure it would ever be the same if I tried to hang out with my old friends again," he muttered. "I should see my family, I guess, but even that wouldn't be the same. I've changed. It's been too long."

Then he chuckled, holding a hand to his forehead. A wild grin crept onto his face. He laughed from his belly.

"I was in grad school," he could barely say. "It's still… it's still winter break, isn't it? I could… God, I could go back to grad school and…" He stifled a sound that could only be described as a giggle. "I could get my Ph. D., just go right back and finish like nothing…"

Diana and Phi did not see as much humor in it as he, but they cherished the sight of his pure joy. It was safe to say he had not laughed like that in forty-five years.

"You're having way too much fun just thinking about this," Phi said. "I don't know what's going through your head, but you shouldn't be allowed on a college campus. We're all joining Crash Keys right now, that's final."

Diana beamed. "R-really? You, too, Phi?" she asked, clasping her hands under her chin. "We can all stay together?"

Phi's eyes opened wide in a rare moment of vulnerability. Behind the lenses of her glasses, her eyes had the paleness of Sigma's eyes with a drop of Diana's deep blue.

"Is… that what you wanted?" she asked, barely moving her lips.

"Well, I—I know we've only spent a few days together, at least in this reality," Diana said, "but I really like being with both of you, whatever that means for this history. I think family doesn't have to mean anything—being related by blood, I mean. I don't feel like that's… inherently important, or anything. I think I—I think that's not the only reason I feel… connected to you two, that's just one factor of it."

Her chin sank lower with each stuttered sentence. She wrung her hands at the height of her belt.

"I'm sorry, I'm not making any sense," she mumbled. "Maybe it's just me. Forget I said anything."

"No, I hear you."

Sigma held a large, warm hand on the back of Diana's shoulder. He placed his other on Phi's head.

"We've been drawn to each other all across time, before we even realized who we were to each other," he said. "I've never had the word to describe what you both mean to me until now. It was family. It's always been family."

"So, what, you want us to all get an apartment together and be a big, happy, crime-fighting family together?" Phi grumbled. "Does this mean I have to tell people I still live with my parents?"

"They grow up so fast," Sigma sighed. "Our youngest daughter wants to move out already."

"I'm your only daughter," she retorted.

"Phi, have I ever told you, you're my favorite daughter?"

"Sigma, I swear to God."

Chapter Text

Junpei put on a suspicious sneer when he caught a glimpse of the trio while walking the hallway. "Every time I see D-Team, they're all hugging, or holding hands, or something," he muttered to Akane. "I know they're all weirdly related from an alternate history, whatever, but they've still only known each other for a few days in this reality. Even with the SHIFTing, it's not much time."

"That's not quite right," Akane said. She touched her chin under a wise smile. "I don't think any of us have SHIFTed to the extent that D-Team has. Remember, Sigma and Phi first met when they SHIFTed to the alternate future and participated in the third Nonary Game. After that, they SHIFTed back to when the Earth was suffering from the Radical-6 pandemic. That's when Sigma's consciousness first met Diana. She joined him on the moon for a brief period before her health gave out. It's possible that Diana regained those memories, too. That was how Sigma fell in love with her—after her death, he went on to recreate her as a robot with artificial intelligence. Not to mention, there's the history where the two of them were trapped in the facility for ten months together."

Akane watched Junpei's lower lip jut out farther and farther in a disgusted pout as she explained the way the timelines intertwined to lead to their present reality.

"Couldn't you ask the same kind of thing about us, Junpei?" she pointed out. "We were childhood friends, then I disappeared for nine years. You were only with me for nine hours, and once you found out I was the one manipulating everything, I disappeared again. You said yourself that I wasn't who you thought I was."

"You said the same thing about me," Junpei responded.

"And after all that…"

She glanced down at the jewel on the ring finger of her right hand. Junpei's pout faltered as his lips quivered towards a smile.

"Some of it is our connectedness through the morphogenetic field, it must be," Akane said. "The thousands of lifetimes we've spent together and apart, in the countless histories of this universe, all lingering in our subconscious. But I think some of it is… something like destiny. Like we're…" She hesitated, holding her finger to her lips.

"Soulmates?" Junpei mumbled. He blushed as he said it, as if the word had slipped out of his mouth in the enticing silence.

"Something like that, but bigger," Akane said, her violet eyes shining. "It's like we're always drawn to each other by cosmic forces we can't understand. It feels like the world is revolving around the two of us when we're together."

Junpei certainly felt dizzy when he was with Akane. The world spun faster when he caught sight of the ring, blurring everyone else into background noise. If he stopped to think about it, he would know that this was the reason he had wanted to leave the crowded lounge.

"So, that history where Diana and Sigma were trapped in the shelter," he said. "They got trapped because you used the X-Passes to escape alone, right? Was that the history where we shielded you from the Gatling guns in the rec room?"

She shook her head. "There was another history where the two of you sacrificed yourselves for me," she said with a muted tone. "We were being poisoned with excess carbon dioxide. There was only one—"

"Only one gas mask," Junpei recalled. "Carlos agreed to let you have it. So… you survived and escaped."

He was not looking at her face, so he did not realize how somber she had become. "That's correct," she said.

"But didn't you know they were still there?" Junpei asked. "Diana and Sigma. They were there for at least nine months, apparently. All that time, and you couldn't…"

Akane stopped walking. "Junpei," she said coldly, "do you remember what I told you after you and Carlos protected me in the rec room?"

He remembered it exactly, because those words had broken his hardened heart.

"Being the sole survivor does not make you happy," he murmured. "There's no point in living if you lose the one you love the most."

She took labors to control her breath. Her knees shook. "I'm… not proud," she said, "of what I did next."

"Akane?" Junpei breathed.

He held unsure hands out towards her. An apology clawed at the inside of his throat, begging deeper words than any language in the world had to offer. He could not say anything at all after Akane knocked the air out of his chest by falling into his open arms.

Despite all her unearthly wisdom, she had always been a bit of a crier. Junpei threaded his fingers through her hair as he willed her quiet shudders to subside. He had not gotten the chance to hold her so close in this history. There were over nine hours remaining before communications went live. If he had not heard the triplicate footsteps of the D-Team family filing into the hallway, he would not have moved in all that time.

"You said earlier you were contacting Sa—uh, Aoi. Were you in contact this whole time?" he asked after they had both calmed down. "So he knows everything that's… no, he wouldn't know, we've SHIFTed all over the place…"

"It was just for little things," Akane replied. "Remember all those odds I rattled off, with the dice and the rock-paper-scissors competitions? You didn't really think I could have done those on the fly under that kind of pressure, did you? I had him look up a few files and do some calculations here and there."

"You had a free-moving, extremely resourceful human being at your disposal and you used him for a calculator?" Junpei groaned. "Akane, he could have busted us out of that shelter and stopped this whole thing from happening!"

"I don't think so. He did want to try, but I told him not to," Akane said. "These games are always over in such a quick, terrible flash. Everything happened in such a short timespan, I don't think he would have been able to get to us before people had already…"

The others' voices drifted to them through the wall that separated the lounge from an isolation chamber. The star-crossed pair sat side by side against the wall, watching their hands intertwine. Junpei's finger absently circled the wide, clear gem of Akane's ring.

"Do you want me to move it?" Akane asked softly.

"Huh? Uh, no, no, that's not," Junpei stammered, scratching his head. "You should… I think you should keep it there. We still have a lot to do before we can…"

Akane shifted her head to the side until it just touched Junpei's sinking shoulder.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I wish you could have had a normal life. That's all I've ever wanted for you, Junpei."

"I don't want a normal life," he said. "I resent every history where you tried to give me one."

He clasped her hand under his and squeezed.

"If normal means I can't be with you, I don't want anything to do with it," he said through gritted teeth. "That's what this ring means, Akane. I want to be with you, wherever that takes me."

She still had the same smile from her youth, the one that rounded the rosy apples of her cheeks and made her long-lashed eyes sparkle with life. "Together," she agreed, curling her fingers in the spaces between Junpei's. "That goes for you, too, okay?"

Junpei blinked. "Huh?"

"You're precious to me, Junpei," she said. "I don't want you to put my life before yours ever again. This ring means wherever we go, we go together."

He tipped his head back against the wall. "Got it," he said. "No more dying. I'll write myself a note."

When he glanced at her, his eyes fell to her lips. They had been engaged for two and a half hours, yet they had never shared a kiss. Something about that felt magical, not at all for reasons of purity, but as a sign of the cosmic forces that pulled them together, that they did not need to share physical signs of affection to feel united.

He would kiss her soon. Their first kiss would be something special. It sure as hell would not be in an isolation chamber in the Nevada desert. He was mad enough that he had been forced into proposing while they were still here. Words could not describe how much he had come to loathe Nevada.

Chapter Text

"Look at those puppy-dog eyes," Phi said when she walked in on Carlos combing kinks out of Gab's wiry coat with his fingers. "Oh, and Gab's here, too."

"You trying to say something, Phi?" Carlos asked. He had a habit of puffing out his chest when he could not read another's motivations.

"Yeah, you've been acting like an abandoned puppy since couple-of-the-century went off into their own little world," she replied. "Not liking this third wheel business, are you?"

"Speak for yourself," Carlos said. "Did you come here looking for someone to commiserate with?"

"I could only spend so much time around either of them in the first place," Phi muttered. "It's not like it's any worse now. I just… like to be alone."

"Came to the wrong place for that."

The lounge was the largest room in Dcom. Carlos chose the side with the L-shaped sofa, rather than the counter with barstools on the opposite side, for his proximity to the weak-legged old mutt. The bar had never been stocked with spirits, anyway. It was purely for ambience. On an ordinary day in Dcom, this was the liveliest room in the facility.

"I figured it'd be deserted," Phi said, resting one hand on the hip of her high-waisted jean shorts. "Everyone's had quite enough of each other after that ordeal. Might as well spend my time somewhere comfortable if no one else is using it."

"But someone else is using it," Carlos said. "Don't get me wrong, I don't mind having you here, too, if you wanna stay. I'm just asking what you're really after here."

Phi let out a defeated sigh. She gave Gab a few pats before seating herself beside Carlos.

"What's up, Phi?" he asked.

"I think you're lying."

Whatever eyeliner she had used to paint her wingtips had not smudged a millimeter through all their trials. Her stare was piercing.

"You know how to SHIFT, too. You got close to Akane and Tenmyouji in all those timelines," she stated. "You're upset they've up and forgotten you, even if you won't admit it."

"They haven't forgotten me," Carlos said with a smirk. "I don't know the full history between those two. I don't think anyone ever could, not if we consider all the histories that they've ever had together. But I know how important it was for them to finally reconcile everything and just… be together. In peace."

He smiled at Phi.

"These twelve hours, while we wait for Dcom to get back to us," he said, "I've got a feeling that's the longest peace they're gonna have until we find this religious fanatic. So I'll let them spend it with each other."

Phi had not lost her suspicious stare. "You sound a lot like you're in love," she accused.

He laughed. "I don't really do love. There's too much else to think about in life," he said. "No one's ever been more important to me than my sister."

"She's… sick, isn't she?" Phi asked in a quiet voice, casting her eyes low. "You mentioned something earlier."

"No, she—well, for years, we thought she was," Carlos explained, unable to keep the giddy excitement from creeping into his voice and his smile. "But Akane told me—it's called Reverie Syndrome, what she's got—and Akane said it's not really a sickness at all, it's just all this morphogenetic stuff. Maria's just tapped into the morphogenetic field, and she's overwhelmed by it. I think Akane knows what to do to help her."

Phi pulled one knee to her chest and stretched her other foot out to rest on the glass coffee table as she leaned back. "Reverie Syndrome, huh," Phi murmured. "And you two are American, so you were getting screwed over by the privatized healthcare system. That's why you came to Dcom. The money was the incentive."

He smiled weakly. "You nailed it."

"What a bummer, huh? You went through all this crap for the money," she said, "and you never even needed it. It was a fake disease."

"You kidding, Phi?" he laughed. "This is the best thing that could have happened to me. The five hundred thousand was going to go to an experimental treatment—just a chance of saving her. Now we know how to help. Not only that, but I got to meet Junpei and Akane and all of you, plus I've got a sweet paycheck waiting for me to spend however I like."

"So that's how old doom-and-gloom boy survived the game without going psycho," Phi muttered. "You've got enough optimism for you and Tenmyouji combined."

Carlos shrugged. If the credit lay anywhere other than in Junpei himself, Carlos gave it to Akane. The faint glimpses of alternate timelines ran through his head still, but he could not think of a single one in which Junpei was alive without Akane. He thanked God that it had not happened, that he would not have to bear the memory of what Junpei might become in her absence. He scratched at his left wrist to renew sensation when Akane's hollow, fiery stare returned to his mind's eye.

"You alright?" Phi asked.

"It's nothing."

Gab happily accepted the affection they showed him in the following silent minutes. He had a loud pant typical of a dog of his age and stature that got louder when Phi slid her hand towards his belly.

"Carlos," Phi began slowly. "When he gave you the gun…"

He inhaled deeply and set his face in stone.

"Can I ask why?"

For a long time, he stood with the handgun pointed squarely at the old man's head. All of his morals told him not to take a life, that no crime deserved the punishment of death, that all humans could be saved. These ethics battled the rage that boiled at the sight of Delta's confident sneer. He wondered if Delta had thrown Carlos the gun in a power play, knowing that the firefighter's honor would prevent him from pulling the trigger. And after it all—

"I guess I don't really need a reason why," Phi said. "It wasn't easy. I know what I would've done if it'd been my choice, but I don't know if it would have been the right thing to do."

"Yeah," said Carlos. "That's what I was looking for. The right choice. I still don't know if I made it."

"But you made that choice yourself, right?" she asked. "That's all I really wanted to know. He said he wouldn't go in your head and make the decision for you. He didn't, right?"

Carlos shook his head. "Almost wish he had," he muttered. "But no. Everything that happens from here on out—what happens to Free The Soul because of what I did—it's my fault."

Unlike every choice he made in the Decision Game, this one took place in silence. He had realized since that it was because they trusted his judgment enough that they did not need to say a word. At the time, he felt terribly alone.

"Jeez, where'd all your optimism go?" Phi joked. "Lighten up. We said we're gonna save the world, so we're gonna save the world. Religious fanatic, Free The Soul, whatever. We'll stop them all."

She offered a loosely formed fist. It was tiny and pale next to Carlos's when they bumped each other.

"We should get Sean in on the Third Wheel Alliance," Phi suggested, sliding off the couch.

"Hey, that's not what this is."

Chapter Text

Meals had never been pleasant at Dcom, not just because the food was processed and freeze-dried. The kitchen table was only large enough to accommodate three or four at most, as if the architects knew that an argument would erupt somehow as soon as more than a few people sat down to a meal together. All nine were eating together now, aside from Sean, who hugged his knees on the ground beside Gab and his food dish.

"There's no reason to try to explain everything to them," Phi said. For lack of table space, she had perched herself on the counter beside the microwave, a plate resting on one crossed leg. "It's more complicated than they could understand, and it's not like they'd be able to help us with anything."

"They're going to ask questions when they find out the deaf, blind, paralyzed man disappeared from the facility," Sigma pointed out. "Not to mention, we somehow picked up a robot running on a quantum computer's processing power."

"What, didn't you mention robotics in your resume when you applied to Dcom?" Phi replied. "They'll put two and two together."

Sigma, too, had considered Sean's similarity to the projects of his own creation in another timeline. Though half of his dinner—which looked and tasted like an off-brand Hot Pocket—remained uneaten, he had to wait a while before he was able to take another bite. He could not reconcile the horror of being connected to Zero with the pride of being connected to his son.

"Zero probably cleaned up after himself, anyway," Phi said, tracing her finger around the rim of her plastic glass of water. "He knew either way it ended, he'd be out of Dcom, whether we killed him or we let him go. By now, Dcom probably has no idea he was ever here."

"We could pose a question to them," Akane said. Her eyes closed in concentration. "We ask them, 'who is Q?'"

"You think they knew?" Junpei asked.

The two shared the limited space of a single chair. The early part of dinner conversation had been spent taunting them for their economical use of space, but when Diana grew weary of standing, she sat on Sigma's knee. Mira all but ignored Eric's inviting smiles as he inched further and further from the table to expose his lap.

"No. It's more of a test," said Akane. "If Phi is right, and they don't know anything about a person named Q, we can say that we found a child called Q in the building during the experiment. We'll let them try to solve that mystery by themselves." She turned to Sean. "Would you be alright taking that name, if that comes to pass? It would only be for a brief period."

Sean bobbed his huge head up and down.

"On the other hand, if they still know about the old man, we say that he disappeared today around noon," Akane continued. "This will start to get a little hairy, and we'll have to be sure to coordinate testimony so no one suspects foul—"

"Say I killed him," Mira offered.

Her dinner lay largely uneaten next to Eric's plate. She had never been particularly social with this group, but for six hours, she was out of sorts, withdrawn to a degree they had not experienced before.

Eric's fork slipped from his hand and clattered to the linoleum floor. His eyes went wide with horror. "Are—are you kidding?!" he cried. "They'll put you in the slammer!"

"Eric, I'm going to get an explanation for why you keep calling it 'the slammer' later," Junpei groaned, his face in his palm, "but seriously, Mira, what the hell?"

"I'm a serial killer," she said matter-of-factly. "I fit the bill pretty well. Just say I killed him and I've destroyed the body. It'll check out."

"But Mira, nobody else knows you're a serial killer, right?" Carlos gripped the corners of the table with white fists. "That would mean coming clean about all of it. You'd get multiple life sentences—you'd never—"

"So what?" she said. "Don't I deserve that?"

"Of course not!" Eric protested.

"That's hypocritical," she muttered. She did not make eye contact with him again for the rest of dinner.

"Anyway, we'll stick with the plan of coordinated testimony," Akane said, forcing a smile. "And we can still say that Sean appeared in the facility, but we'll be able to call him by his real name. That should take care of the only changes since the Decision Game in this timeline."

"Do you think we can put in a few personal messages?" Carlos said. "I've… I've always wished my sister a happy New Year's, every year. I know it sounds silly, but…"

Diana beamed. "That's so sweet of you," she said. "We can do that, right? We'll say what we have to say and then ask them to route a call to Carlos's sister."

Her smile had a way of making a room feel cozy and calm. Only Mira remained tense, staring at the door to the hallway.

"Does anybody else have somebody they wanna call when communications come back?" Carlos asked. "I don't mean to hog the line. It's not… it's not really that important…"

Eric turned to Mira with an excited smile she did not even look at. "We should tell everyone the good news," he said, squirming in his seat to get her attention. "That we're going to be—"

"I don't feel well," Mira said. "I'll see you all at midnight."

The click of her heels echoed down the hallway. Eric sank in his seat, staring after the doorway through which she had vanished. His smile spread into an awful grimace.

"You guys!" he yelled, banging his fists on the table. "Look what you did! You made her leave!"

"Cool it, Eric. We didn't do anything," said Junpei, combing his hair out of his closed eyes.

"You cool it! You kept talking about the outside world and you made her feel scared," he accused. "She has to deal with all seven of you knowing her secret after we leave this place. She's scared one of you is going to rat her out to the police, and then—you'll probably tell them she killed the old man! That's what you're planning, isn't it?! Well, I'll—"

He raised his plastic plate as if aiming to somehow smash it. Junpei and Carlos jumped from their seats; Sigma, sitting across the table with Diana in his lap, could only wrap his arms around her and lean away. Carlos tore the plate from Eric's hands with one quick pull, while Junpei shoved down on his shoulders to restrain him.

"The hell is your problem, man?" Junpei shouted. The two bared their teeth at each other like quarreling dogs.

Sigma lifted Diana from his knee and nudged her back towards the kitchenette as he stood. Sean, too, rose, planting his small feet in front of Gab to protect the oblivious creature.

"Eric, listen, I know the games were stressful, but they're over now, and you can't keep lashing out like this," Carlos said. "There were timelines you got so mad, you killed people in cold blood. You've gotta calm down."

"You expect me to just be calm while you're plotting to kill her?!" Eric shrieked.

"Eric," said Sean in a small voice, "you always get so scary when you're not with Mira."

The boy's voice pierced through Eric's rage. He stopped struggling against Carlos and Junpei for a long enough moment that everything settled. Carlos lifted his hands, then Junpei's slid away, and Eric was still.

"What're you trying to say?" Eric asked finally, his voice hoarse.

"Please don't get mad," Sean said, ducking his head. "I just… You're super happy when you're with her, and you can be really nice. But as soon as she's not here—even if she's just not in the room… all of the bad stuff comes out, like it was just bottled up while she was around. I just don't think that's… safe."

Eric narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean, it's not safe?" he asked. "It's fine if we're together, right? We're going to get married. We'll never be apart."

"Even if… even if that's true," Sean protested, his small fists trembling.

Carlos laid a hand on Eric's shoulder. It was mostly a genuine, friendly gesture, but he was also about to say something dangerous.

"Sean's right," he said. "Even if the two of you are glued to the hip for the rest of your lives, that's not a good mental state for you to be in, relying on her like that. It's like you're not your own person, Eric."

Something twisted in revelation on Junpei's face at Carlos's words. "Yeah, wait, honestly," he realized, "we've been here for five days, right? But if I tried to describe your personality to someone, I don't think I'd be able to do it. You just go along with whatever Mira wants."

"You only came to Dcom because Mira wanted to, right?" Sean said.

"That's not true!" Eric's shoulders shook. "I… It was my idea to propose to her, right? I can take the lead. It's a balanced relationship."

Sigma planted his hand in the center of the table and leaned over it. "But you're not balanced."

Eric's chair rattled as he tried to squirm away from the table. "Why are you all ganging up on me like this?"

"We're not ganging up on you, Eric," Diana pleaded, twisting her fingers around the chain of her necklace. "We're worried about you. We want to help you."

She tugged back on Sigma's thick shoulder to pull him out of his intimidating stance. He straightened his spine, shifting in front of her, and folded his arms.

"You're scared of losing her at every turn," he said. "It's as though, on some level, you know you're relying on her as an emotional crutch."

Sean took cautious steps toward Eric. "Back in the shelter, you told me and Mira about… what happened in your past," he said. "There's a lot of really bad stuff you've gone through. I think, when you're with Mira, you're able to move past all that and be really, truly happy. But… I think that makes you a lot like your dad."

This was the first time Eric's plastered-on smile faded away. It had stretched and distorted in his fury until now, when his lip quivered under the pressure of the truth. His head sank while his shoulders shivered upwards.

"He… changed, when you lost your mom, right?" Sean said. "That's a lot like you with Mira, I think. Life if, for some reason, she wasn't there… you could really hurt people, even the people you love."

Eric twisted his whole body with the furious shake of his head, his hands stuffed under his arms. "That's not true!" he choked. "I'm not like him! I'm—I don't wanna be like him!"

Sean staggered back, crossing his arms in front of his hunched shoulders, but Eric did not try to rise from his seat. He sucked in gasps through his teeth and let them out on shuddering sighs that sounded a step away from sobs. The crew who had once cringed at him and called him annoying behind his back now wore expressions molded from sympathy to see the black pit in which he had lost himself.

"Hey, Eric, it's gonna be alright." Carlos rubbed his shoulder. "You can get help, okay? There's therapy and stuff for this. We'll make sure you get help."

"W-what about Mira?" he mumbled, eyes blank.

"What about Mira?" Junpei replied, patting his other shoulder. "You've gotta think about yourself right now, man."

"You can still be together," Diana encouraged. "You'll learn a healthy way to be with her, and it'll strengthen your relationship."

"You know," said Akane, "I bet she'd be happy if you did something like this for yourself."

His lips twitched into a smile, perhaps a true one.

Chapter Text

Akane sat with her spine straight, hands in her lap, ankles crossed. She always maintained a regal air when the conversation turned serious. Phi, on the other hand, kicked back on the couch with her legs spread and her arms folded, tapping her foot against the coffee table.

"I don't get it," Phi said again. "He had the power to read minds, right? Why kill off six billion people when he could just walk around, mind-hacking, and find the one guy?"

"And that's why you think the religious fanatic is a bluff," Akane murmured.

She had considered Phi's perspective already. There were several possible faults in her thinking.

"I think the biggest issue is that Delta could not expect to live much longer, no matter what we chose to do about him at the end of this experiment," she said. "Even with his extended lifespan, he looked physically as though he was near the end of his life. Our religious fanatic might not yet have hatched his ideas. Perhaps Delta couldn't survive to find him."

"I don't buy that," said Phi, gazing at a painting in calming pastels on the wall of the lounge. "Let's just say I've got it on good authority that he'd have another couple decades after this to keep looking."

Anyone else would have asked questions, but part of Akane's calm came from her understanding of the world's workings. Knowing her, she had already put together that the transporter had left one Phi in 20th century Germany to be subjected to experimental anti-aging treatments alongside her twin brother.

"Would mere decades be enough?" posed Akane with a slight tilt of her head. "There are almost eight billion people in the world. For a single person to filter through all of them would take longer than even a lifetime like his. Even if he could narrow things down by following leads, there's no telling how long it would take."

"Why do you always sound like the old woman when you're with me?" Phi suddenly snapped. "Everyone else, it's jokes and giggles, but when I'm here, you start sounding like we're doomed again."

Akane held her hand to her mouth to cover a polite laugh. "Sorry about that," she said. "It's not your fault. I feel a little more… tuned in to that timeline when I talk with you, I think."

"How do you even live like this?" Phi muttered, almost sarcastic.

The door to the lounge creaked open. Diana's smile greeted them. "Um, am I interrupting?" she asked.

"No, go ahead," Phi said. "What's up?"

"Oh, nothing, I…" She hesitated in the doorway, glancing around the room. "Do you mind if I join you, or…?"

"Sure, if you want to talk about terrorism and doomed timelines," Phi warned.

Akane giggled. "We can change the subject."

Diana was hesitant to sit in the middle of the couch between Phi and Akane, but it was the only place they had left available. First she glanced at the coffee table as if considering it as a viable seat. Eventually she smoothed her skirt underneath her as she sat, holding her elbows close to her hunched body, her legs crossed. She tucked her long, flared skirt under her legs to take up even less space.

Akane pulled her knees up and sat sideways, leaning an elbow on the back of the couch. "How are things with you, Diana?" she chirped.

"Dammit, Akane, you switched back," Phi groaned. "Why is it just with me you're so out of it? Diana was part of that bad timeline, too, wasn't she?"

Impossible as it seemed, Diana made herself even smaller, except for her eyes, which shot wide open in the panic of wanting to escape a conversation that should not have included her.

"I promise I'm not doing it on purpose, if that's any consolation," Akane replied. "We can think of something better to talk about than that history, can't we?"

Diana's spine stiffened. "Oh, no, wait," she interjected. "Could we—could I actually ask a few questions about it? I—I've been trying to talk to Sigma about it, but he hasn't really wanted to say much, and I…"

Phi looked past Diana's pleading eyes to nod at Akane. "Might as well tell her," she said.

"I know there's Radical-6," Diana said. "And… and six billion people die. There was some kind of similar game to this in the future—on the moon? Phi was there, with Sigma, and somehow that was how you were supposed to SHIFT back to now and fix the present."

Phi raised her eyebrows and gave an impressed nod. "Details missing, but that's the gist of it," she said. "What more did you want to know, Diana?"

"Well, in that alternate future, the young Sigma had to spend all those years on the moon preparing for the SHIFT, right?" Diana said. "So… since we fixed the future… does the young Sigma get to come back here?"

Her question hung in the air for a long time before Akane spoke.

"In a sense, the young Sigma doesn't exist anymore," she said. "He spent forty-five years planning the AB project and became the Sigma you know today. Sigma's completed all of the major SHIFTs we planned for him."

Diana cast her blue eyes low. "So he… he never gets to have a normal life?" she murmured. "He's not coming back?"

"He's having his normal life right now. Just took a forty-five year break from it," said Phi. "He's lucky. He gets to live longer than most humans, in a way."

"That's so cruel," Diana whispered.

"Listen, Diana, you never met young Sigma, so I'll let you in on a little secret," Phi said. "He was a dick. He was arrogant, and he made gross jokes about barely-legal girls all the time."

"In his defense, he thought he was twenty-two," Akane chimed in. "I remember before Dr. Klim SHIFTed back to make way for the Game, he asked me to write his past self a note persuading him not to hit on anybody."

"Nothing short of a bullet to the head could have stopped him," Phi scoffed. "You're not missing anything great, Diana. Grumpy old man Sigma's as good as he ever gets, unfortunately."

Diana slid her thumbs over top of each other in her lap, biting her lip. She had flinched when Phi so casually mentioned putting a bullet in Sigma's head.

"You did get to meet his younger self in the alternate timeline, of course," Akane offered. "You followed him to the moon and took care of him while he was recovering from his injuries."

"Injuries?" repeated Diana.

Akane's face fell. "Oh… there were some problems when you tried to escape the shelter," she explained. "I think there was a bomb, and…"

The phantom memory flashed before Phi's and Diana's eyes at the same time. Smothered by grief, they could not bear to move after the horrendous crash came from behind the locked door. Their hearts lifted when the door slid open, only to find blood dripping from Sigma's destroyed arms, shards of shrapnel tearing through his hazmat suit. Hydrofluoric acid had burned holes in his flesh where the suit had failed. Diana refrained from saying that Sigma would likely have to remove what remained of his punctured eye as she wrapped dressings around the wound, but both he and Phi already knew the fate that the future held in store for him.

Diana closed her arms around the empty space in front of her stomach. She wanted to feel Sigma near her, to have that reassurance that he was alright.

"Well, the details aren't important, if you don't remember," Akane said, waving a relaxed hand. "The young Sigma hadn't known you for as long as you'd known him, but you left quite an impression on him. He tends to put the world's needs before his own sometimes, but in a way, I think he was anxious to get back to you after all that time."

"He wouldn't even talk to me when we first got to Dcom," Diana murmured.

"Probably because he realized his old ways of flirting with girls were too trashy, and he couldn't figure out what to do next," Phi said, folding her arms behind her head.

Akane gazed at Diana and saw her face only a year older in another world, sallow and pale. The guilt of taking six billion lives had driven her to frail health. Sigma's panic derived from a desperate need to save her from that fate.

"Anyway, is that all you wanted to know about the alternate timeline?" Phi asked. "You want to ask Akane to join Crash Keys now?"

Akane blinked, twice, but Diana's earnest, wide-eyed smile did not disappear.

"Is Sigma okay with this?" Akane asked in disbelief.

"Yeah, the whole family wants to join up, if that's cool," Phi said. "We figure you can use as many hands as you can get. No more of this solo business, alright, Kurashiki?"

Akane flashed the ring on her right hand. "No more solo business," she agreed. "I wouldn't get into the habit of calling me Kurashiki if I were you."

"You sure you don't wanna dump him for, say, the first guy you can find who knows his left from his right?" Phi joked.

"Very sure."

Chapter Text

"Let me know if I'm bothering you with all these questions. I'm just curious about the technology."

Sean shook his head. "It's okay. I understand."

Young only in body, Dr. Klim turned Sean's wrist over and back in his large hands, wishing he were seeing something different. The material that made up Sean's exterior was none other than artificial biological tissue.

The two sat in the light therapy room, a chamber filled with electric lighting bright enough to simulate Earth's sunlight. At the onset of the Dcom experiments, each participant was assigned a different number of daily hours to spend in the light therapy chamber to test its effectiveness in regulating circadian rhythms and mitigating the space-travel equivalent of seasonal affective disorder. Junpei was one of the two who had the most hours to log per day, while Akane was in the control group that was not permitted to use the chamber. Sigma had not expected him to keep to the routine, but when he had turned on the lights to better examine Sean, Junpei trudged in behind to get started on his two hours. He lay in a heap in the darkest corner, where the lightbulbs did not quite line up to evenly coat the white room.

"It looks like all of the communicative features were combined in here, but I can't understand why," said Sigma, reaching for one of the two black circles that gave Sean his crude face.

Sean flinched when Sigma's finger came close. The doctor snapped his hand back.

"Sorry, that's almost like poking you in the eye, isn't it?" Sigma realized. "Well, that means the cameras really are located there. And I can tell you that's where your voice sounds like it's coming from."

He rubbed his fingers together at a fast pace. The friction between his callused fingers made a sound so faint, it could only be detected when it was next to the ear. He moved his hand slowly towards Sean's eyes.

"Is this getting audible as I get closer?" he asked.

"Uh-huh," said Sean, standing rigid.

"Speakers, cameras, and microphones all in one place," Sigma muttered. "The microphones might have enough spread to distinguish between left and right, especially if they're slightly angled inside your helmet. I don't know why there needs to be two speakers, but they're front-facing, anyway. The wiring layout would have been less cluttered if he'd put the speaker into a separate location, like a mouth, maybe. And putting the mics by where your ears would go. That's how I would have done it."

Sean liked the sensory information he got from running his fingers along the seams in his helmet. He traced the crack on the front face with two absent fingertips.

"Not to mention how complicated it must have been to set up the cameras behind the speakers," the doctor went on. "I suppose the locations make sense to process your surroundings with depth perception, but that seems like it would take unnecessary computing power. Not only are you constantly having to realign the cameras as you move and look around, you'd have to process two video feeds for hard edges and resolve the distances for every pair of frames—upwards of sixty images a second, maybe a hundred-twenty, depending on the frame rate of the cameras. It's a lot more complex than just estimating based on the focus and blur of a single camera with an adjustable lens…"

Sean gave him his usual blank stare.

"But you're running on a quantum computer," Sigma sighed. "Why not be extravagant, I guess."

He smiled and gave Sean a pat on his small shoulder. The boy giggled, but Sigma's smile was weak.

"I'm not sure how long you'll be running on those radio signals," he murmured. "After everything that's happened, who knows where the quantum computer is or how long it'll keep running to maintain you."

Sean slid uneven fingernails into the crack on his helmet.

"Hey, don't worry. I'm gonna help you," Sigma said. "I told you, I've designed remote AI's before. Soon as we're out of here, I'll upload your data onto some private servers and get you running somewhere we can trust."

The boy's palms squeaked as they slipped down his face. "Will that… really be me?" he asked slowly. "Or just… a copy of me?"

Sigma's chest filled with cold. "I… I'll make sure it's you," he promised.

"Forget that, Klim," Junpei said, his voice echoing off of the walls in the corner. "Just go after the real deal. Find the quantum computer he's running on and take it."

"Find it and take it, huh?" Sigma repeated. "Yeah, I can't see any possible obstacles in that plan."

Sean folded his fingers into the neckline of his striped sweater and tugged. "What's… Klim?" he asked in a very slow voice.

"My last name. Sigma Klim," said the doctor, glancing at Junpei. "But nobody usually calls me that."

"I don't really go by Tenmyouji, but that hasn't stopped you," replied Junpei.

"You will in forty years."

Sigma had actually instructed the older Junpei from the alternate time to use his last name in the third Nonary Game in order to conceal his identity from Clover and Alice. He neglected to mention that.

"What are you still doing in here, anyway?" he asked. "You're not supposed to use light therapy after eight o'clock or it'll ruin your sleep."

"What does eight o'clock even mean on Mars?" Junpei groaned, rolling over. "I could have whatever sleep schedule I want. Besides, we want to stay up past midnight tonight, anyway. God forbid I don't get Dcom their precious light therapy data after all this."

"I'm sure Mira gave up trying to get two hours today," Sigma said.

"No, I think I saw her and Phi in here before dinner." Junpei interlaced his fingers over his eyes, defeating the entire purpose of being in the room.

"Wait, you and Mira have max light hours, but Akane and Eric are the two in the control group, aren't they?" Sigma said. "Damn, Dcom sure knows how to cockblock."

"I bet Zero set that up, too. His evil knows no bounds."

Sean bobbed one hand in the air before him in an even rhythm. Although he made a lot of repetitive movements, this unfamiliar one struck Sigma as odd.

"Everything alright, Sean?"

Sean turned his neck in unsteady jerks to regard his own hand. Junpei raised his head when Sean did not immediately respond.

"S-s-something fe—" Sean's head dipped at the same time that his voice distorted.

The sight of Junpei jumping to his feet distracted Sigma from his own alarm. "Hey, Sean!" Junpei shouted, skidding to a stop at the boy's side, holding his narrow shoulders. "You in there? You still here?!"

Noise came from his speakers, but it was mostly static.

"We're losing his signal," Sigma uttered. His heart was pounding, his mind racing for solutions. "Maybe—maybe there's just satellite interference, if we wait a minute or move him, or—"

"Fuck that! He's dying!" Junpei roared.

His arms were shaking when he swept the boy off of his feet, cradling a small body half-limp and half-stiff. Terror took hold of his pale face.

"Sean, can you hear me?!" he screamed. "We're gonna get you back. I'm gonna find your computer and take it back, and I'm gonna fix it and turn it on and you're gonna be okay, alright?! I'll find you!"

"Ooooooover—tinnng…" Aside from the noise and distortion from the speakers, his pitch bent down and up, and his speech skipped. "Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeting."

"Hey, Sean, okay, just keep talking," Junpei said, breathless. "Keep saying whatever you're trying to say, okay? It's coming through, I hear you."

His knees were knocking with adrenaline; they clattered to the floor as Sean repeated his plaintive, unintelligible cry. Junpei fumbled for Sean's hand, unable to take his eyes off of the speakers.

"Overrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr," said Sean. "—ting. O—erh…" His voice fell into static.

"Over?" Junpei repeated helplessly, sending pleading eyes to Sigma. "Over what? Overeating? He doesn't eat!"

"—ot—ot—ot—ot—ot—ot…"

The repeating clip of sound was truncated to only its short o sound, and it sounded like a lifeless, robotic scream.

The meaning struck Sigma all at once. He grabbed Sean's stiff arm and pressed the back of his hand against it. Sean felt barely cooler.

"He's got no face," he realized. "There's no thermoregulation system because he's got no face. The helmet's airtight. His breathing motions are completely cosmetic."

"What the hell are you saying, Klim?!" Junpei demanded, clutching Sean closer.

"The ABT, it shouldn't be that temperature, not if he's fully robotic," Sigma said. "He's overheating."

Junpei looked up before Sigma thought to. The lights beamed down upon them, not too hot for bodies of flesh composed mostly of water, but dangerous for a robot with a conductive skeleton connected to an exposed metal dome.

They scrambled out of the light chamber. "How do we cool him down?" Junpei asked, in a panic, turning his head up and down the empty hallway. "There's the showers, we could run him under cool water until—"

"If my shithead son didn't remember to make his robots thermoregulating, I sure as hell don't trust him to make them waterproof," Sigma snapped back. "We need something else cold, something…"

"Freezer!" Junpei shouted, taking off in the direction of the kitchen.

He tossed Sean over his shoulder as he threw the freezer drawer open. The stars were aligned to make this option close to viable: it was a large freezer, close to cubic in volume, and most of the food supply had depleted since the experiment was nearing its end. Nonetheless, Sean's huge head clanged against the too-small opening to the freezer and would not enter.

"What the hell is going on?" asked Carlos through a mouthful of an evening snack, knocking his chair to the floor as he shot to his feet.

"Never mind!" Junpei shoved against Sean's stomach, trying to force the body inside without the head. "Shit! How do we…?!"

"Carlos, find someone who knows the code to take off his head," Sigma barked. "It's the ABT—the body that needs cooling, the head should be—"

"No!" Carlos yelled, stricken with terror. He stumbled backwards over the legs of his toppled chair. "We're not taking off anybody's heads and putting them in freezers! We're not doing that again!"

Sigma was startled into silence by the rare sight of cool Carlos perturbed, but Junpei did not miss a beat. "Carlos, I'm sorry you saw my disembodied head in a freezer room once upon a timeline," he shouted, "but this is a robot, and he needs to fit in this thing, or he'll—"

Carlos marched to the freezer, picked up the robot by the head, and folded him inside the drawer feet first. Just a bit of his shoulders stuck out, and his heavy head hung to one side.

"Okay," Junpei exhaled, "that's probably fine, too."

Without taking his eyes off of Sean, he flailed a blind arm behind him for a chair, which he dragged closer and collapsed into. Carlos dropped a hand on Junpei's shoulder and leaned into it. It fell to a relaxed position, followed shortly by the other.

"Not like you to get this worked up over something, Junpei," Carlos said. "You get close to the kid while we been here?"

"Tenmyouji just has a soft spot for kids that age," Sigma guessed.

Junpei's shoulders shot to his ears again. "W-what makes you say that?" he demanded.

"Same reason I call you Tenmyouji."

Their shouting had attracted the attention of the whole Dcom crew. They filed in and out of the kitchen to check on the ruckus. Sean could speak with relative clarity within a minute, though he said he had shut down motion in his ABT body until it reached a stable temperature.

"Forget what I said about uploading you to a private server," Sigma said. "We'll take care of that later. First thing I'm doing when we get out of here is making you a goddamn ventilation system."

Junpei leaned on the edge of the open freezer door, twisting the toe of his shoe into the floor. "And I'll steal your computer back from Free The Soul," he said. "Since this dumbass can't figure out how to do it."

"Thanks, Junpei. Thanks, Sigma," Sean said cheerfully, though he still spoke slowly to ensure he was understood. "Thanks so much."

"Hey, are you two trying to bribe him to stay with you after the experiment?" Mira accused. "Eric and I have dibs. Hands off."

Junpei's face went numb. "No… what? No," he stammered.

"I don't know, it seems pretty logical he'd stay with the only person who knows how to work with robotics," Sigma said with a sneer.

"Sigma, I have several very solid examples of you being a terrible father who shouldn't be trusted with young children," Phi said evenly.

"And here I thought the only fight would be over who gets to keep Gab," Carlos sighed.

Unlike the very real squabble over who would take the old dog home after the experiment had ended, this one was only a superficial argument. Deep down, everyone agreed that Sean should stay with his Q-Team family, if only for Eric's sake. Junpei did not know why, when he came to this conclusion himself, it felt like he was breaking his own heart. He never would have suspected that the answer lay with Sigma and Phi, in their alternate memories. It was likely that Junpei, in this reality, would never know the orphaned boy called Quark, no matter how it made his soul ache.

Chapter Text

Proving by majority that human nature is to procrastinate, the Dcom crew exhausted the lounge's supply of pens and pencils to complete the survey pamphlets they had been instructed to fill out throughout the duration of the experiment. "I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about this stuff in the long run," Eric grumbled to justify it to himself and anyone who was listening.

Diana twisted around in her barstool to face the whole lounge. "What did everyone else say about, um, 'general atmosphere'?" she asked, tapping the eraser of her pencil to the corner of her lips as if resisting a bad habit to chew on it. "I just… I'm not sure what it means, really. It's so broad."

"More plants," stated Sigma.

She cocked her head. "Plants?"

He banged the side of his fist against the bar counter in a steady rhythm. "More. Plants. More. Plants. More. Plants."

"Trust the guy who's lived on the moon for forty-five years," Phi sighed. She flipped to the same page as Diana and scrawled down Sigma's suggestion.

Though Diana politely polled the group on several questions, she did not ask nearly as often as Eric tried to gauge Mira's opinion. "Didn't you think the spinach and cheese ones had too much spinach?" he asked, peering over her shoulder at her answers. "And the chocolate ice cream pops were okay, but the vanilla and strawberry were really bland. Well, that's what I thought, but did you think it was okay?"

"Eric, this isn't a test," Mira groaned. "There's not a right answer. Write down whatever you think."

"But if you liked the spinach and cheese—"

She slammed his pamphlet shut and pointed at the cover. "Does this say 'Mira' on it?" she snapped. "Or does it say 'Eric'?"

Having no pamphlet of his own to complete, Sean showered Gab in affectionate petting while keeping a watchful eye on Eric, who shrank into the couch cushions. He reopened his book to write his thoughts about the spinach and the ice cream, in addition to a request for chewable vitamins instead of capsules, preferably cherry-flavored.

Junpei gave a sudden, dark laugh at his booklet. He pointed the tip of his pen to a question as he slid it to Akane. "Look, you can give your opinions on the 'selection of puzzle and activity books'," he said.

On the first day they toured the facility, Akane spotted and decided to avoid the stack of books under the coffee table. Instead, that was how Junpei chose to initiate conversation between the two of them after a year's absence. He sifted through the yellowed books and pulled out one with numbers in erratic places on the cover.

"So," he had said, dangling it in the air, "Sudoku?"

She thought that it would not affect her so deeply now that both Nonary Games were complete, but Junpei's presence was a catalyst in her reaction. The air grew too hot and thick with ash to breathe. She fell into a feverish, semiconscious haze where the flames ate her clothes, seared her flesh, evaporated her into cinders.

Junpei was gone when she awoke in the infirmary to the sight of Diana checking her vitals; in fact, he did not speak to her again until the Decision Game. Phi was at her bedside, though her face showed a desire to be anywhere else. "Sigma said you once told him something about having weird problems with the puzzles that Junpei said you found in the lounge, but neither of them are man enough to be here themselves to talk about it," she relayed with a roll of her eyes and an exhausted sigh. "Want me to throw those books on the fireplace?"

Akane heard a medical device start beeping a warning as she lost consciousness again.

She did not know where the offensive materials had gone. The next day, Carlos stopped her in the hallway to mention that it was safe to look through the puzzle books if it pleased her. In retrospect, she hoped that he or Phi had burned them in secret, as a kind of revenge against the time Sudoku once burned her.

"I should do it," she decided suddenly, speaking before she had even set her heart on the idea.

"Do what?" Junpei asked. His muscles all tightened at once; he had developed a general fear for Akane's ideas.

She turned to her other side to beam at Carlos. "Were you the one who hid those books?" she asked. "You just hid them, right? You didn't really—"

Junpei's hands came down hard on her shoulders from behind just as the memory of heat prevented her from saying the word "burn".

"Akane, no, don't," Junpei pleaded. "You fainted and you didn't even see one last time. God, I never—I'm so sorry, Akane, I had no idea it was…"

"Listen, Akane," said Carlos with a nervous smile, "there's something to be said for facing your fears, but…"

"Guys, I'm not afraid! It's just a little puzzle," Akane chirped, grinning and pumping her fists to hide the fact that they were shaking. "If I just learn how to do it, it… maybe it won't bother me anymore."

She tilted her head all the way back to see the top of Junpei's head, albeit upside-down.

"I'll be okay if you're here, right?" she said. "As long as you're here."

Junpei winced. "There's probably a better time for this, Akane."

In truth, Akane was best prepared for this confrontation at this very hour. She had effectively forced herself out of the morphogenetic field for unrelated reasons. Earlier in the day, she had spent almost a full hour immersed in the field to communicate information about the Dcom plot and its complex resolution to Aoi Kurashiki. He captured her every word, placid with relief and love, until she pressed a question she had been aching to ask him in every timeline.

Aoi, did our parents really die in an accident?

The texture of the connection changed. He was hesitant to respond, Of course.

I just heard a very different story. She had closed her eyes to strengthen her bond through the field, feeling for thoughts he tried to conceal. Was our father falsely accused of murder?

The connection snapped with the sting of a rubber band's recoil. There was silence from Aoi for several cold hours.

Like I said, he said quietly when he returned, it was an accident.

That time, it was she who cut the connection in a frustrated fit. Junpei asked twice if something was wrong. She gave cagey responses until he caught the hint. Though he had given her time alone after dinner, she came no closer to forgiving her brother, nor the justice system whose mistakes had ruined her family and, subsequently, her entire life. She did not forgive Mira, either, because Mira was not hers to forgive.

Hiding from Aoi meant isolating herself from the whole of the morphogenetic field. She no longer lived the experiences of her tortured alternate selves. She could only remember them. Remembering the inside of an incinerator was not nearly as bad as feeling her consciousness hurtle back there to relive every excruciating moment.

It was still bad, though, when the surveys were hastily completed and Carlos returned from his bunk with a book titled Easy-Peasy Sudoku For Beginners. At the sight of a grid of numbers on the cover, her mouth filled with smoke.

Junpei clutched her opposite shoulder, holding her closer. "Listen, Akane, it even took me a while before I could look at these damn things after last year," he uttered. "You don't have to do this."

Akane knew well the power of the field, but she underestimated the influence of ordinary memory. For all she knew, Junpei's voice could have come either from beside her left ear or from across time and space through the morphogenetic field. The incinerator was counting down. The lounge had once been full of people—along with Junpei, Carlos and Sigma opted to stay for moral support, and Mira watched from the bar with morbid fascination, pretending she had not yet finished her survey to shake off Eric—but now Akane was alone, so alone, but for the crazed stare of Gentarou Hongou peering through the window on the door, taunting her to receive information from a brother he had not bothered to place in the right part of the experiment.

"Junpei, keep talking," Akane sputtered as her body grew too hot and heavy to hold upright.

"Uh! I'm here, yeah, okay," Junpei stammered. "I… I can be the one to tell you how to do it, I guess? I'm honestly not that good at it, the one from the games was just… never mind."

He was going to say "easy". The numbers had made a dense forest on the screen that should have been simple to navigate, but the countdown in the empty incinerator had broken her young spirit.

She shook her head of the memory, of her psychosomatic fever, holding her watering eyes wide open and focusing on the numbers in front of her. "I can do this," she whispered.

"Okay, so you know the basic rules, right? Boxes, columns, and rows, one of each digit," Junpei said. "You can start looking at the ones that are almost full and see where the last few numbers fit in. See, this row only has one number missing, so it's obviously…"

He wrapped his hand around hers, moving the pen loosely tangled in her fingers into the shape of a five.

"And now that made it so this box has two left, so you can look at those," Junpei continued. "There's a three and a six missing, right? So look around in the columns and rows to see if one of those lines up with one of those blanks. See, there's a three in this row, so that means you can't put another three here, so the other blank has to be three, and that makes this one six."

He slid her hand across the page to point out the numbers and squares as he went, but she surprised herself by being the one to write the numbers he said aloud. She could not keep her smoke-filled head in the thread of his logic, but she could follow his instructions. The grid had more marks in it. She had completed a box. A number in the equation on Junpei's screen illuminated.

"Great, yeah, you've got it," he said. "Uh, the rest of the grid is kind of barren. W-well, okay, here's a row with…"

"You're giving her the endgame strategy, Tenmyouji," said Sigma from behind the couch. "Listen up, Akane. First thing you've gotta do is look through all the digits, one at a time, and fill in the ones you can. There's a bunch of ones in here, you could start with—"

She rested her fingertips on every five. They glowed like the face of her bracelet ten years ago, like Junpei's bracelet last year.

"Okay, five looks like it'll work, too," Sigma said, stretching a thick arm over her shoulder. "Look, that five up in the corner cuts through three of the other blocks in that box below it, right? So there's only one spot left for a five. Now carry both those fives down to the box under that, and you've got the spot for the next five. You can walk around the board like that, filling in more numbers here and there, then you go with Tenmyouji's strategy."

She found all the remaining fives. As she was writing in the last one, a tear dripped onto the page, blurring the fresh ink from her pen. She was sweating from all her shaking, from the warmth of Junpei's close body, from a sudden fever, from the white-hot flames.

"Akane, are you—are you sure you're okay?" Junpei asked. "You don't feel too good, your temperature's…"

Every breath smelled like soot. Her consciousness united with all of the espers of the world as she sank back into the morphogenetic field. She was tasting her own ashes in the air through Aoi's mouth.

The tears poured down her cheeks. "I keep going back there," she whimpered.

"Hey, I'm here, okay?"

Junpei rubbed his hand down her arm and back up to her shoulder, reminding her of her corporeality. She belonged to the universe where the incinerator door opened and her brother held her safe in his arms.

"You'll be alright if I'm here," Junpei said. "I protected you last time, right?"

She nodded, wiping tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand.

"Sigma said you could try ones next," Carlos suggested.

She saw the smiling mask of a middle-aged man with wild, graying hair and a black hole for a heart. She defeated that man. A one was only a line of ink on a page.

"It's just a puzzle," she mumbled to herself as she drew it in its proper place.

"It sure is," said Junpei. "Just keep doing them and it starts being that game from the newspaper instead of… anything else."

The strategies that her friends omitted for brevity illuminated themselves in her head as she went. She narrowed down the location of a two and a four to the same two blocks, so the only other blank in the column had to be the missing nine. An eight in one row narrowed down another eight's location to a single column, and she was able to use that to find a third eight even though she could not pinpoint the second.

"Wait, how did you get that?" Junpei asked, stunned.

"She's smarter than you, Junpei," Sigma said, kind of teasing, kind of warning.

"I—I mean, I know that, but still," he said helplessly.

Tears continued to fall from her eyes almost independent of her will, as if her consciousness from ten years ago had half-returned only to cry. Despite her tears, she managed a laugh, broken as it sounded.

"Hey, Akane, remember, you have a firefighter here," Junpei said. "Between me and him, you're practically invincible right now."

He had been waiting a long time for some sign of levity so that he could drop that joke. Akane lacked the energy to call him on it. Instead she mumbled, "Thank you, Carlos," and leaned her weight to the fireman's side. He scooted closer to meet her when Junpei's grip did not relent enough to let their arms touch.

His hand snapped to her forehead as soon as he noticed the heat from her arm. "H-hey, Junpei, she's—she's burning up."

She watched flaming geysers rush towards her.

"Yeah, I know, but it's—she just kind of does this," Junpei sighed. "She's actually better than she was a minute ago."

Cushioned between her teammates, Akane shook her head away from Carlos's hand and closed her eyes. "I'll be okay, really," she said softly. "Thank you."

"You three quit getting all buddy-buddy with each other and notice that incomplete row before I lose it," Sigma said.

Holding the pen with a firmer grip, Akane scribbled in the missing seven. There were more numbers in blue ink than black. "I can do this," she repeated to herself under her breath.

"Yeah, you can," said Sigma. "You're Akane Kurashiki. You can do anything."

She was starting to get nervous, hearing the echo of the voice in the incinerator telling her she had less and less time to escape. Ripples of heat blurred her vision. Though the illusion of a fever grew stronger, she did not lose speed. The end of a Sudoku puzzle was a simple cascade as all the remaining pieces clicked neatly into place. She beat the countdown. The door opened. Her brother was there, waiting.

Did you seriously just do a Sudoku? he asked.

Amidst the supportive cheers, hugs, and pats on the back, Akane replied, Aren't you proud of me?

There's no reason you'd ever need to know how to do one of those again, and you know it better than I do.

"Akane? Hey, you still there?"

She blinked and found Junpei's worried smile. "I'm fine," she exhaled. "I did it, I'm fine."

Carlos closed the book in her lap. "That's probably enough for today," he said. "Should I put it back under the table with the other books or keep it separate?"

"Just—just with the other books, is fine," Akane said.

In all that time, Mira had not moved from the barstool on the opposite side of the room. She sipped intermittently at a glass of juice, eyes locked on Akane, studying the scene in perfect silence. She glanced away when Akane finally met her eyes.

I found out who the real murderer was, she told her brother.

Aoi was a twisted mess of mixed feelings, blending rage and frustration with a sorrow so heavy it ripped open the seams in the bottom of his heart. It was hard to convey tone through the field, where words sounded like they were whispered by a thousand voices at once, but she heard his flat affect perfectly when he responded, Good for you.

He felt the same way, that nothing could be done to avenge their parents' deaths short of murdering the jury who had convicted their father. There could be no justice for their family.

"Mira, what are you still doing here, anyway?" Junpei asked. "It's been almost ten minutes. Eric's probably going through withdrawal."

Mira rested her emptied glass on the bar with a soft clink. "Same concept, isn't it?" she said. "Build up your resistance a little bit at a time. One easy puzzle. A few hours apart. Tomorrow, a harder puzzle, and an hour longer without me."

"You think that's the solution?" Carlos asked, still kneeling by the coffee table. "Just wean him off of you and he'll get back to stability?"

Visible through the glass of the coffee table, he fiddled with the dice in the games bin, making sure each had a one facing up.

Akane had been killed in so many different ways, but she did not feel herself torn apart by Gatling guns when she saw dice, nor stabbed in the back by Hongou or Dio at the sight of a blade. The incinerator was her first remembered death, she reasoned, and she had been so young when it happened, that it had stayed with her. During the second Nonary Game, she had been reduced to a quiet, helpless panic every time they came to the incinerator.

On the other hand, Mira had not a single true memory of her own death, but countless memories of the gruesome deaths of others. "I don't know if it's a solution to anything," she murmured. "Just… a necessary measure, probably."

Akane could read her intentions from fifty yards away, but the men in the room had a tendency to miss even what lay just under their noses.

The real killer is going to turn herself into the police, she said into the morphogenetic field.

That's good, was the curt response.

He had come to the same conclusion that Akane could not figure out how to convey to Mira, now that newfound guilt prevented their eyes from meeting. She had next to nothing to do with their tragic lives.

"Akane, where do you keep going?" Junpei complained. "Tell whoever you're talking to that you're busy, and I hate their guts."

Junpei says hi.

Tell him to go fuck himself.

"Aoi says hi," replied Akane.

Junpei rolled his eyes.

Smash your ring with a hammer. It's probably glass.

I love you, too, Aoi.

Chapter Text

Diana kept her steps light as she ran, no matter how weary she became. Though she knew she was far too light to pose any danger to the machine, the sound of her feet slamming into the treadmill made her nervous. She wondered if the noise echoed into the hallway or seeped through the walls, the rhythmic pounding driving someone to quiet insanity as they tried to read a book or have a conversation. She imagined someone marching in and finding her in her sweaty, old t-shirt and gaudy shorts, her greasy hair tied in a messy bun, and she made her stride quieter still.

Subtle as it was, she immediately caught the sound of the door opening. She slammed the power switch on the treadmill, grinding to a halt and spinning around to face the intruder.

Sigma saw her in a different light than she saw herself. Behind the sheen of perspiration and the ratty clothes, she had a doe-eyed stare and a warm flush in her face and neck. Her tired legs, freckled from ankle to thigh, shook as she turned her toes inward and tried not to pant.

"Sigma," she exhaled, gripping the rails of the treadmill. "W-what are you doing here?"

"I was going to ask you the same thing, Diana," he said, scratching his head. "I've been looking for you."

Her flush grew brighter. "O-oh? Um, what did you need?"

He shut the door behind him. Threading through the obstacle course of ellipticals and stationary bicycles, he made his way to her side. With the extra inches from the platform of the treadmill, Diana was almost as tall as he. Their eyes locked.

"So did you always come here at night?" he asked. "I thought you just weren't one for exercise."

"Oh, no, no, I'm not…" She shook her head with a shy smile, waving her hands.

Sigma leaned his arms over the edge of the treadmill's left rail. He was gazing up at Diana now, his world moving much slower than hers. She fumbled for words to fill the silence.

"I was just… I was starting to get a little tired, is all," she said, "so I thought I'd come here and wake myself up a little. So I can make it to midnight when the conjunction simulation ends. Um, what… what brings you here?"

"Nothing," he mumbled, not entirely present.

He used to make Diana anxious with his deadpan face. An abusive marriage had trained her to see a neutral expression as a ticking bomb with an inscrutable timer, ready to explode into anger with no warning. After ten lost months with Sigma, and maybe three hazy years, she had learned to read the warmth in his gray eyes.

She dropped her guard in pieces. Her hands slipped away from the rails and hung at her sides as she let herself breathe naturally, despite how hard and fast she needed to pant to soothe her tired lungs. She let her eyes wander across Sigma's face, from his intense stare to his sharp cheekbones, from his strong jaw to his soft lips. The silence lingered. Diana felt comfortable in it.

"When I first met you," Sigma started to say, but he left his story untold as his gaze drifted.

"What about when you first met me?" she asked.

She had been barely strong enough to move around by the time young Sigma returned from the future, even in the reduced gravity of the Moon. The sight of her in workout clothes with the glow of exercise was alien to him. Out of all the hours he had spent seeing his fellow test subjects safe and sound, it was this sight that made him truly realize he had changed the future. Diana, and six billion people along with her, would survive.

"Let's leave that history alone," he said. "Things are happier now."

He lifted one hand to her chin, leaned forward, and then hesitated just short of her lips. Though they had already shared a thousand kisses in worlds beyond, this would have been, in a sense, their first. Despite the calm in her mind, Diana's heart raced. Her body had no memory of loving Sigma, of lying close to him at night, of touching their lips together as punctuation in softly murmured conversations.

She felt her legs quiver with a blend of the fatigue from exercise and the lightheadedness of new love. Her left knee trembled just before it buckled. She whipped her arms back to grab the railing behind her and to stay on her feet.

Sigma's face went gaunt. He was an old man again, one who had watched her die, when he shouted her name—it sounded regal when he said it in his deep voice, always with love and reverence in his tone. In a blink, he had swung himself around the railing onto the treadmill.

"No, no, I'm okay," she said. "I just—"

She felt acutely aware of every damp spot on her skin and her clothes as he wrapped her in his burly arms, burying his face in her thick hair.

"Sigma, wait, don't," she protested. "I—I need to shower, I'm—"

"Just hold on a minute."

With her ear pressed to his chest, she heard his heart pounding even faster than hers, overcome with the fear that he would lose her again. His heavy breaths slowed along with his heartbeat. His shirt had a familiar scent.

It had been a long time since she could drop her shoulders, close her eyes, and trust. She sank into Sigma's chest with her whole weight. There was no need to fill the voids in conversation, to gauge his feelings at every turn, to feel ugly or unloved. In the span of only a few days—ten months? three years?—Diana had found the meaning of true love, and believed in it.

She lifted her chin, and they shared their first, or their thousand-and-first, kiss.

Chapter Text

The communications bay had always been set up to have three tables with three microphones each, as if in anticipation of the Decision Game teams. Never before had the Dcom participants sat in that orientation. Junpei had preferred to glare bitterly at Akane from across the room, while Sigma would sit with Phi until Diana tried to claim the empty seat at their table, then he would even elect to sit with Eric and Mira if need be, just to avoid her. Eventually, Sigma had started wheeling the man they knew as Q to his and Phi's table to shut Diana out. Sean, of course, had never before been present. He rolled his head around, swinging his small legs as he sat in a too-tall chair, to take in the sights of radio wires and antennae.

"The facility might have an electronic record of the door opening and closing, so we say he disappeared around noon," Akane was saying. "Any camera feeds have most likely been hacked or deleted so that we could be abducted for the Decision Game without raising alarm, so our alibis can't be disproven. Everyone's cleared the details of their story with their partners, right?"

"And what if the feed wasn't hacked?" Phi asked.

"Then Dcom should already know we were abducted," Akane said. "And I would have more questions for them than they have for us."

The speakers embedded in the tables crackled with life.

"This is Control," said a voice. "How's it going over there?"

He was so obliviously casual that it sounded as though he came from another world.

"Betcha missed the sound of my voice," he continued. "Well, I gotta be honest, it's getting pretty lonely over here, too."

"Okay, he said 'over'," Junpei grumbled, reaching for the button to claim the airwaves, but Akane slapped his hand back with a loud "shh".

"Feeling kinda like… howling at the moon, lone wolf style," joked the man at Control. "Speaking of which, I'm looking at it right now, and the old girl is beautiful."

Junpei's face sank into his hands as he muttered over and over, "Shut up. Shut up. Shut up."

"Never seen a moon this full, and that color…" The man gave a soft whistle. "Tonight's that eclipse, remember? What a way to end 2028, huh? The moon's this amazing red."

"If he doesn't wrap up in five seconds, I'm gonna try to take the line," Phi announced, her hand hovering over the button at D-Team's table.

"If it wasn't so beautiful, it'd be kind of ominous," the man went on. "Wish you guys could see it, too, but—"

Phi slammed the button without waiting for clearance. "'Scuse me. This is the Nevada Test Site, Phi speaking," she announced loudly, as though making sure the annoyance was strong enough in her voice that the sub-thirty-two kilobit-per-second count would still transmit it faithfully to the party on the other side of the radio signal. "We've had a bit of a situation over here we'd like to ask you about, over."

She nodded to Akane as she sat back in her seat, crossing her arms.

The response came after a five-second delay. "Sorry, did you try to send a transmission?" he asked. "It got a little clipped because I was… Anyway, you said there was something you wanted to ask? Over."

Akane sat up straight in her chair and pressed her button with two gentle fingers. "Who is Q?" she said in slow, measured syllables. "Over."

Everyone shifted in their seats as they waited for the answer.

"Q?" he asked "You mean, the man in the wheelchair?"

The tension grew. Partners in alibis locked eyes as if mentally rehearsing their story once more.

"Can't say I know, either," said the man from control. "That's something only the higher-ups know, probably. I'm just the guy who's supposed to talk to you. Uh, over."

Akane held her hand over the button, then glanced around the room for confirmation. Everyone nodded their trust.

"Do you have any surveillance footage from the conjunction period?" she asked. "Q went missing about twelve hours ago. Over."

The pause was longer this time. "Cameras in the communications bay are going live," he barked at last, with a hubbub of unintelligible noise behind him. "How the hell did a blind, deaf guy in a wheelchair go missing?! What the hell is going on here? Respond!"

His image flickered to life on the white screen in the front of the room. He was young and shaggy, with a general look of this-is-way-beyond-my-pay-grade in his desperate grimace.

Akane took the air again. "We're trying to sort through it ourselves," she said. "Were you recording footage through the conjunction period? Over."

She would not play her cards until she had seen her opponent's hand. The poor soul at Control yelled over his shoulder without sound in a long argument with an unseen party. His voice and his lips were out of sync when he turned his microphone back on to utter in dismay, "It's been hacked. The footage is all fabricated from previous clips on repeat. I…" He shook his head helplessly. "I don't know. Over."

With cameras live, there would be no more nods and glances to confirm their course of action, but everyone knew that they would be going forward with their constructed alibis. Akane started to reach for the button when the communications officer's eyes went wide and he leaned closer to his screen, jaw hanging open.

"What the hell is that?" he asked. "Next to Mira and Eric, that round thing. What is that thing?"

He forgot to say "over", but they saw him remove his hand from the talk button. Akane pressed hers and responded, "That was our other question for you. Sigma and Eric found this child stowed away in the facility today. Um, would it be best if we switched from the radio to sending communications entirely via the Internet, given the emergency circumstances? Over."

The young man called over his shoulder for silent permission, then reached for switches and plugs. The chaos of Dcom Control became constant background noise as the audio went live alongside the video feed. The two parties confirmed each other's audio and video signals.

"We noticed Q was missing around noon when Eric and I went to his room," Sigma explained. "Q wasn't there, but this boy was. His name's Sean. He's got his head stuck in a helmet and he doesn't seem to know what's going on any more than the rest of us."

"Sean," repeated the man at Control without detectable delay. "Who are you, and how did you get into this facility?"

"I don't know!" Sean cried, holding his hands to his head as he shrank in his seat. "I don't know anything. I don't remember who I am, or who my parents are, or where I live, or how I got here."

He spoke in a pathetic whimper, bringing out the childishness of his voice. They saw the Control worker's face soften in sympathy as he spoke. Junpei reached behind his back from below and pretended to scratch an itch between his shoulder blades with his thumbnail. To Sean, who sat behind him, it looked like a thumbs-up.

"Okay, can you all tell me how exactly this happened?" asked the officer. "I'm recording this call to the log. When was the last time you saw Q? Where were you when he disappeared?"

"Junpei and I took him to his room around 11:30 this morning, and it sounds like we're the last ones who saw him," Carlos explained. "Then I joined Akane in the kitchen for lunch, and we were there until Sigma and Eric came in to tell us he was missing."

"I went to the light therapy room. Mira was there when I walked in," Junpei added. "Same thing for us, we were there until Sigma and Eric came around."

"Phi and I were in the lounge while all of this was happening," Diana said. "So none of us know how—"

"I killed him."

Mira said it so calmly that the officer at Control at first did not notice what she had said. Everyone in the room whipped their heads towards her, gaping.

"Mira!" Junpei shouted. "You were in the light room when I walked in!" He gritted his teeth and stared daggers into her. "You were there the whole time."

"Sir, they're all lying to cover for me," Mira said, rising from her seat. "I killed Q and I destroyed his body. You'll never find a trace of him, no matter how hard you look."

Eric pulled desperately on her arm, tears flooding his eyes. "Mira, don't say that," he pleaded. "Don't do this."

The dumbfounded man's eyes flicked about his screen, his head sinking against one hand. "What… what did I just hear?" he asked.

"Nothing!" shouted Carlos.

"Have you heard of the Heart Ripper? That serial killer on the loose?" Mira asked. "That's me. Q was my latest target."

Everyone was standing and yelling in chaos. The young man on screen grabbed a bright red, wired phone. "This is Control, we have an emergency situation," he said into it without dialing a number, his voice shaking. "I've just heard from the test site that the test subject Q has been killed. I repeat, we have an unconfirmed report of a deceased test subject. The test subject Mira has confessed to his murder and—and claims to be a serial killer. Send emergency personnel and law enforcement to the test site immediately!"

"Mira, what the hell are you doing?!" Junpei roared, hurdling over his chair.

"Making sure the rest of you stay out of trouble so you can find the terrorist," she said. "I've already got multiple life sentences waiting for me, right?"

Eric was still clinging to her arm, tears running down his cheeks. "We were going to run away from all that," he sobbed. "We were going to get married… and be happy…"

Mira curled her fingers around his sleeve and squeezed once. "We weren't really going to be happy, Eric," she sighed. "Not after everything I've done."

"You couldn't have waited to tell everyone you're a serial killer until after Carlos got a call in to his sister?" Phi grumbled. "This is going to take hours to sort through."

This was the closest thing to get Mira to regret her confession. She snapped her hand to Phi's throat, so thin that her fingers could make it most of the way around.

"Attention, Control," she announced. "If you don't route a call to Carlos's sister right now, I'll kill Phi next. Those are my demands."

The man behind the camera yanked at his hair as he watched the new scene unfold. "What the hell?!" he cried. "I can't—route a call?! I can't take you off-camera, you'll—"

"Don't think I won't do it if you don't listen to what I say." Mira tightened her grip just enough to cause Phi to make a choked sound, motioning that she actually could not breathe. "I killed Q just like this. I'll do it again in a heartbeat."

Someone appeared over the officer's shoulders, then another. "Who's the one?" they demanded. "Who's the one that killed him?!"

"The one who's—dammit, let her go!" shouted the man, exasperated. "The one who's about to strangle Phi! Mira!"

"You traitor!"

The two other men ducked into the webcam's view and gazed directly into it, seething with rage that came from the heart. This was not a weak, general anger that someone's life had been taken away. The younger of the men—so young, he was barely a man at all—looked very familiar to Sigma and Phi. They had once seen someone with his face, who wore his blonde hair longer.

"How dare you martyr our holy leader!"

Everyone froze but Akane, who had foreseen this possibility. Dcom was a small, privately funded company, unaffiliated with governmental organizations. These two enraged workers at Control had confirmed her recent suspicions about who had been the funding party. Breaking into a sprint, she pointed to the door and waved everyone towards it.

"What do you mean, 'our holy leader'?" asked the clueless man with the headphones as they filed out of the room. "Hey, they're—where the hell are you going?!"

Sirens started going off as they stampeded through the halls, the lights flashing red. "Where the hell are we going?!" Junpei called to Akane. "We can't get out of here, it's locked, and even if we could—"

"Where are we gonna go from here?!" Phi yelled. "We're in the middle of the desert!"

"Please, just trust me!" Akane came to a halt at the locked entrance to the facility. "Sean, can you destroy this?! I'll be right back, just—everyone get outside!"

Sean screamed with a tinge of terror as he charged at the door. His fists sank into the metal. After a kick, he tore a hole through to the darkness outside. He pried it further open until it would accommodate even Sigma's broad shoulders, then slid through head-first. The others followed one at a time. Akane was the last out, but before she exited, she reached her arms through the hole and placed a quivering, confused dog on the ground.

Facing the facility were four blinding lights. They heard the sound of two idling engines. Junpei blocked the lights with his hands when he saw something moving behind the lights. A thin, white arm waved out the window of a decades-old, compact SUV, then a pink haired girl with a wide smile poked her head out.

"Oh my gosh, June! It's really you!" chirped a voice Junpei had not heard in a long while.

A brown hand with acrylic nails formed a peace sign outside the window of the second vehicle. A skinny, smartly-dressed boy sat on the hood of her van, dangling one leg off of the edge while leaning on his opposite knee. His white hair had grown out enough over the past year to pull into a short ponytail, though a few wavy strands fell in his face. He put on his unforgettable sneer when he saw Junpei again.

Sigma's jaw dropped when he peered into the cars for himself. "Clover?! A-Alice?!"

Clover jutted her lip out at him. "Who the heck is that guy?"

Akane smiled at Sigma. "Don't you remember? They told you they were kidnapped on December 22 back in the third Nonary Game. That was something I took care of before we all went to Dcom," she said. "I had my brother pull them out of cold sleep in case we needed a rescue team. Since we won't need them for the AB Project this time around, right?"

Her brother pushed himself to his feet, then hopped off of the van, his hands in his pockets. Chains and jewelry glinted in his shadow as he approached, backlit by the headlights.

"Junpei," he called in a cool tenor. "This is for last time. We're even now."

"Get in the cars!" Alice yelled. Her engine revved.

"Dibs on June and Junpei!" Clover declared, waving them over.

"I've got shotgun," said Aoi. "Room for one more. Rest of you get in the van."

Carlos had no idea what kind of baggage he was walking into when he jogged in behind his C-Team partners to climb into the backseat of the SUV. Half of the survivors of the second Nonary Game had reunited for the first time in a year.

"Mind if I join you up here?" Phi asked as she opened the passenger side door to Alice's van.

"Only if you don't hurry it up," she retorted.

Eric, Sean, and Mira squeezed into the very back of the van, with Gab seated in Sean's lap, while Diana and Sigma took the middle seats. "It's good to see you again, Alice," Sigma said. "Even if you don't know why I'm saying 'again'."

"Shut up and buckle up," Alice snapped. Her wheels skidded in the desert sand as she whipped the van around and shot off into the dark.

Chapter Text

Junpei fell into a daze at the familiarity of the scene: Clover driving an SUV—maybe even the same SUV—through the Nevada desert, while he was stuffed into a crowded backseat trying to make sense of everything that had happened to him. The most striking difference was just to his left. Every minute or so, he ran his eyes over the soft profile of her face and sighed in content. She was not going to disappear.

"I can't believe you two kidnapped me again," Clover groaned, flicking on her brights for a flash of visibility. "My parents got me and my brother bodyguards because of you guys, you know that?"

"Don't look at me," Aoi said, resting one foot on the glovebox. "Why not look at the road, for fuck's sake."

"There isn't a road!"

Junpei had thought that Akane's schemes finally came to an end when they returned to Dcom after the aborted Decision Games. All along, she had one final gambit. At last he saw her truly at rest in the backseat of Clover's car. A strand of hair fluttered in front of her face as she gave an exhausted sigh, closing her eyes. He wrapped an arm around her to coax her into leaning against him.

Carlos glanced around at the passengers with whom he had blindly elected to ride. "So," he began cautiously, "do I wanna ask how you all know each other?"

"Let's just say all of us have a tendency to get selected for terrible death games," Junpei replied. "And some of us have a tendency to orchestrate terrible death games of their own."

Aoi scoffed at the accusation while Akane gave a little shudder. Junpei squeezed her shoulder in reassurance.

"My name's Clover," said the driver, grinning at Carlos in the rearview mirror. "This is Aoi Kurashiki, Akane's older brother. We call him Santa, though."

"You call me Santa," Aoi grumbled.

"I still call you Santa in my head, actually," Junpei admitted.

"Anyway, what about you?" Clover asked, tossing her thick, pink curls over her bare shoulder. "What's your story?"

"Name's Carlos," he said. "I was with Akane and Junpei in, uh, a death game."

"Yeah, but what about you?" she pressed. There was a mischievous glint in her lidded eyes when she sent him another cheeky glance in the mirror.

He scratched his head. "Well, I'm a firefighter," he said. "I've got a little sister I need to—"

"Do you have a girlfriend?" Clover cut in.

"Give it a rest, Clover. You'll have better luck flirting with a brick wall," Junpei warned. He reached across Akane's shoulders to give Carlos a playful shove. "They had us split up into smaller teams this time, like permanent teams. We never saw everyone else until the very end. And Carlos was the one with us."

"Oooh, the third-wheeling life, huh," Clover teased. Suddenly, she bounced in her seat and whipped her head over her shoulder. "Oh, that's right! Congratulations, you guys!"

"You're gonna fuckin' crash into Alice!" Aoi yelled, stamping his boot against the glovebox to get her to face forward.

They saw the reflection of headlights on the back of Alice's van before Clover tapped the brakes and swerved to the left. Alice sent her a chiding series of beeps, to which Aoi muttered another series of curses.

"Who's getting congratulated?" Junpei asked warily. "What for?"

"For getting engaged!" Clover gushed, drumming her hands against the steering wheel in excitement. "I'm so happy for you two! I told my brother, too, and he said—"

"Wait, how—who the hell told you?!" Junpei stammered. "I didn't even—we haven't—"

He heard a soft "oh" from beside him. Akane pressed a finger to her lips and slid down in her seat.

"Akane, you told them?! How did you—?"

"She told me." Aoi folded his arms behind his head. "Don't think this makes us friends or anything."

"Santa, you guys are friends!" Clover protested. "You got along great in the Game, didn't you?"

"Desperate times," muttered Aoi.

Carlos had no idea that, as with the most recent death game, the Nonary Game's participants were primarily espers. Having heard talk of people contacting each other, he asked, "Do you guys have a cellphone?"

"Huh?" Clover cocked her head. "You need to call somebody?"

Akane jolted out of a dreamlike state. "Your sister," she realized as she leaned over to scrounge around the floor of the car, as if expecting to find a working phone lying about.

"No phones here. Those can be GPS-tracked too easy," Aoi said. "What do you need one for? I thought you were an esper."

"A what?" Carlos asked.

Aoi shoved himself upright in his seat with his feet and turned around. "You can SHIFT, can't you?" he asked. "So you're an esper. You can access the morphogenetic field."

"I told you, he only just awakened his ability today," Akane protested. "Besides, we'll all suck up his signal like this. I've got the strongest powers here, then Clover, then Carlos, then you."

Junpei crumpled in his seat. "Wait, so I'm the weakest here?" he asked. "I sent you information nine years into the past!"

"That was mostly Akane reaching you. You didn't really reach back," Aoi said. His blue eyes lazily rolled to gaze out the window. "Probably the same reason I passed the ganzfeld experiment in the first place."

"We have to work together!" Akane pleaded, pumping her fists. "Everybody, we all have to channel with Carlos to find his sister. We have to resonate our powers."

"Clover, keep your eyes on the damn road," Aoi ordered.

Carlos had sent and received messages through the morphogenetic field before, but never intentionally. He felt a warm reassurance when he felt Akane's consciousness beside him, guiding him into the overwhelming network that composed the field. Thoughts and feelings flew through his head, but it wasn't his head, it was somewhere outside of himself, but that was where his mind, too, had gone, with Akane's, and there was Junpei, and now Aoi and Clover.

He remembered how he felt the night his house went up in flames, when he reached for his sister, as if grabbing her hand in his head—no, in the field. He called her name in that morphogenetic way, wading through other lives and other worlds. Akane and Junpei pushed through alongside him, with Clover and Aoi right behind.

Maria? he called. Maria, it's me. It's Carlos. Can you hear me?

A chorus of resonating espers mimicked the sound of her voice. Carlos? she said. Is that… is it really you?

It's me, he said. It's 2029 now. Happy New Year, Maria.

The field was swirling and spinning around her, bringing messages from people across the world, from different worlds, at a terrifying pace. "Reverie Syndrome," Akane murmured only loudly enough for Carlos to hear.

Carlos, I'm so scared, Maria said, the voices trembling. I don't know what's happening to me. I'm seeing so many things—

It's okay, Maria, he promised. I'm coming back to help you. You're going to be okay. 2029 is gonna be your year.

Carlos, she sighed.

I love you, Maria, he said. I'll see you soon.

Clover smiled into her rearview mirror at Carlos. The love she felt in his heart as their minds resonated was a love she had felt before. She glanced at Aoi.

"You said he'll be there?" she asked.

He nodded, eyes closed.

"You promise?"

He shushed her and squeezed his eyes shut. After her training with SOIS, Clover could drive a car while resonating her consciousness with others in even as turbulent a patch of the morphogenetic field as the one surrounding Maria. On the other hand, Aoi lacked the concentration to access the field while carrying on a conversation. Unfortunately for him, Clover did not notice he was struggling.

"He used to talk about you after the first game," she said. "Kind of like he was worried about you or something. Well, not really worried, but… I don't know the word for it. He just always wondered what happened to you after all that. You stuck out to him more than the other kids, 'cuz you were both like the leaders on the ship game. I think you really shocked him when it turned out you were off plotting another Nonary Game all that time. He hasn't really talked about it, but I feel like now he's just more worried about you, or whatever it is."

The united pulse of their resonating minds slipped out of sync, first with Aoi, followed by Junpei and Clover, then finally Carlos and Akane separated. They fell away from one another in the field. The wild current around Maria ripped them into five different directions.

"Dammit, Clover!" Aoi growled, stomping his foot. "You made me lose it!"

"Don't worry, it's fine," Carlos said, a wide smile stuck on his face. "I… I got to really talk to her."

At the same time that Junpei raised his hand from Akane's shoulder to pat Carlos's, Akane gave his hand a squeeze. When he turned his head to see them both giving him the same, warm smile, the kind of love he had for Maria swelled and expanded to welcome two more people into his heart.

A found family is a lovely thing.

Chapter Text

"Look, just ignore him," Phi muttered to Alice. "Everything he's saying is completely true, but you can still ignore him."

Sigma held his head in his hands, exasperated after a futile attempt to convince Alice that they had met before, but not yet, but it wasn't ever going to happen in this timeline.

Alice had a smart smile on her frosty pink lips as she sent the van hurtling away from the Dcom test facility. Loose sand buffeted the underside of the vehicle, audible over the roar of the engine pushed to its limit. Phi and Alice in the front could not clearly hear Q-Team in the back over all the noise, nor the reverse, so Diana acted as relay when necessary. Though Sigma sat with her in the middle row, he was too flabbergasted by the return of Alice and Clover to play telephone.

"Aoi told Clover and I the gist of what happened," Alice replied. "Or, what didn't happen, rather. I don't really believe it for myself, but he says something that you guys did stopped Free The Soul's supervirus."

"I can't really believe it, either," Sigma muttered. "I lived that history where Radical-6 escaped. I watched six billion lives go up in smoke. And now that future will never happen."

Alice narrowed her eyes, framed with dark lashes and electric blue eyeliner. "You're an oddball, Sigma," she laughed gently. "So how exactly did you all stop the plot?"

"Do you want the full story or just the highlights?" Phi asked. "Fair warning, the full story is even more confusing than what Sigma was trying to explain."

"What, more time-traveling?" Alice said in that patronizing, skeptical voice Sigma remembered from when he desperately tried to justify why he had voted Betray in the AB games.

"More like time-jumping. It's called SHIFTing," Phi explained. "Anyway, since you're definitely not gonna buy any of that anytime soon, the long story short is we learned why Brother wanted to release Radical-6. We promised to solve his problem in a way that isn't completely stupid, and he let us go."

"what do you mean, solve his problem?" Alice asked. "What problem? What are you planning?"

"Apparently there's a terrorist who's going to start nuclear warfare if Free The Soul doesn't start their biological warfare," Sigma said. "Instead of six billion dead, all of humanity will go extinct. He's—Brother is a kind of esper, different from the ones you work with, and different from me and Phi. But, like Akane, it gives him a sort of clairvoyance. Well, you wouldn't know about Akane this time if…"

"Akane Kurashiki, you mean?" Alice asked. "Clover's told me about her. The vigilante who kidnaps nine people to close a stable time loop. Not to mention all the murder."

"Murder?" Phi repeated. Her eyes wandered as she furrowed her brow. "What are you talking about?"

Alice tapped her long, blue nails against the steering wheel as she smiled in her smug way. "She and her brother probably like to think they never actually killed anybody," she said, "but enabling and inviting someone to blow two people up and smash another's head with an axe makes them, in a legal sense, conspirators."

In another life, Sigma had known Akane for forty-five years. He knew she was the first Zero and that the Nonary Game she had organized was a gruesome one, but he had never known the details, except that Clover and Junpei had been participants. Phi, of course, had known nothing at all of the first two Nonary Games, and Diana did not know about a single one.

"Akane Kurashiki is a tricky one," Alice sighed. "At least her brother acts like a snake. Akane is all sugar and smiles while she's plotting your elaborate murder. So I've heard from Clover, anyway."

Headlights flooded the cabin from too close behind the van. Eric yelped and lurched forward, stopped by a locking seatbelt. Alice tapped her horn a few times as the SUV swerved away.

"She's not paying attention," Alice said with a smile.

"You're a government agent, Alice," Phi said. "Are you here to arrest Akane?"

Alice laughed, sweeping her jeweled fingers through her sleek, black hair. "You don't just send people like her to jail, like they're your average criminal," she said. "It's like when a civilian hacks the CIA. Instead of getting arrested, they get a job offer."

"So you'll make them work for SOIS instead of turning them in," Sigma said.

"Something like that," Alice said. She lifted her hands from the wheel one at a time to rotate her stiff wrists, jingling her golden bracelets. "But we won't assimilate them into our organization. People like the Kurashikis—the Crash Keys—they work best when they've got the freedom to move how they want to. They've just got to play nice and share information with us."

Sigma glanced over his shoulder at the SUV trailing them and at the fugitive in the backseat. "I'm afraid to ask where we're headed," he muttered.

"You say something to me, Sigma?" Alice asked.

"Are we headed to SOIS HQ right now?"

"One of our hubs, yes," she replied. "We'll need to take all of you in for questioning with our morphogenetics experts. I'm not following your story so far, but I'm sure they'll get it."

Sigma gave a heavy sigh, then reached his arm over the seat back behind him to turn to Q-Team. He made eye contact mostly with Mira.

"We're headed to the authorities. People we can trust, people who want to stop Free The Soul," he relayed. "You can answer all their questions honestly, they'll understand about the SHIFTing, but don't say more than you have to if you can help it. None of us are going to say anything… off-topic."

Mira pursed her painted lips and held his gaze with a cold glare that offered no promises. She ignored Sean's expectant stare and Eric's pleading eyes.

"So, on the topic of giving job offers to criminals," Phi continued, "how far does that opportunity extend?"

"Have you done some bad things, Phi?" Alice teased. "A little shoplifting in your history?"

"Not that anyone else knows about," replied Phi. "I'm talking about a serious case. Just senseless violence. Makes accomplice to a few homicides seem like it's not even worth investigating. What's the best chance someone like that's got for amnesty?"

"Probably to get a mental health diagnosis, turn herself in, and plead insanity, then she might be able to get something shy of a life sentence," said Alice in a low voice. "No need to beat around the bush, Phi. I know who I've got in my van."

"Does SOIS know who you've got in your van?" Sigma demanded.

"Not yet. I heard it from Aoi." She yawned, holding an elegant hand over her open mouth. "You'd have to be pretty slippery to get anything past the interrogation team. I'd advise our Heart Ripper to come clean."

Diana turned around in her seat, hugging the headrest, to see Q-Team. Sean bobbed his head from side to side in the way that they had come to understand as a smile. Gab perked up his ears and lifted his little, black nose towards her. Mira dipped her chin just enough for Diana to see it as a nod. She had heard Alice's warning.

"I-I guess this means you get to keep him, huh?" Diana said, scratching Gab between the ears. "He's sitting with you, after all. He's chosen Q-Team."

Sean turned his head to Mira and Eric. "What's going to happen to Q-Team?" he wondered.

"Hey, you can still visit me if I go to prison," Mira pointed out, plastering on a practiced smile. She had learned how to make a real one, but it wouldn't come now.

"I'll visit every day," Eric promised.

"I don't think you can do that, honey," Mira sighed.

"I'll call. I'll write."

"Thanks, Eric."

Sean fidgeted with the edges of his overall's shorts, his knees bouncing. "I," he said, cautious of the silence he had broken, "I'll visit, too. If… if that's okay?"

Mira's eyebrows lifted just slightly. "Sure," she said, a bit of shock lingering in her tone. "I'd be happy to see you, Sean."

"Yeah, we can visit together," Eric said. Hope returned to his voice and his smile. Someone had once taught him to find the happiness in every moment, and he remembered what she had really meant. His future was not as dim as he feared.

The three smiles in the backseat made Diana's heart swell up with sympathetic warmth. She turned to the ones that that warmth reminded her of. Phi was chatting away with Alice, onto lighter topics like particle physics and advanced mathematics. Sigma had an odd smile that betrayed feelings that mirrored Diana's: a bliss that could not be reasoned in words to see their child as a young woman. She was not only safe, she was happy, healthy, unbelievably clever, and a friend before a daughter.

Trying to move too quickly for the party seated behind him to notice, Sigma kissed Diana on the temple. Despite his speed, he felt a pinch on his shoulder. The angle implicated Mira. He swung his arm back as if swatting at a mosquito. Mira gave a laugh like a tinkle of wind chimes and opened her mouth to say something else teasing, when she felt chilly fingers intertwining with hers.

Memories of emotion came back to her. The way Junpei connected to Akane, and Diana to Sigma, and, in another sense, the way they all connected to each other. These feelings bubbled to the surface when she looked at Eric, and shot up like a geyser when he kissed her.

Sean started giggling. Even in the dark, Mira thought she saw Eric's cheeks turn a deep red, or maybe she just imagined it, when his face went tight and he rapped his knuckles against Sean's head with a clang that undoubtedly hurt him more than it hurt the boy. And Mira laughed out loud.

A found family is a lovely thing.

Chapter Text

The weary C-Team did not rouse from their deep sleep when Clover slowed to a stop at the side of an empty highway and climbed out of the car. She gave her petite body a full, long stretch before taking Aoi's place in the passenger seat, her knees tucked under her chin as she tried to get some rest. Aoi had suggested the switch, because he watched Clover as a second sister, reading in her yawns and slow blinks and thinking that someone had to watch out for her while her real brother was away. He drove faster than Clover, but something about his style was more precise. The SUV barely rocked after he took over, keeping his precious cargo undisturbed. Akane had started out leaning into Junpei's side, but after he fell asleep, the couple eventually rolled over to Carlos, who instinctively held out an arm to brace them. That arm had stayed atop Akane's and Junpei's shoulders as Carlos tipped his head back and let himself rest.

"Do you want me to take over?" Phi asked Alice as the van idled behind the stopped SUV. "I don't mind, I'm kind of a night owl. I can just follow them."

"I appreciate the offer, but I'm alright. Apparently, I've been sleeping for over a week," replied Alice. "If you want to help, just keep talking. This is turning out to be a pleasant drive."

The journey combined the quietude of traveling through a flat nowhere with the serenity of night driving, mixed with the warmth of a road trip with friends. As with the SUV, all of the passengers in the back of the van had long since fallen asleep, aside from the robot. Once Eric had fallen asleep—only moments after Diana—Sean repeated a faltering reach for the keypad on his helmet. "Do you need it off?" Sigma asked, kneeling on his seat to reach back to the boy. "I'll hold it, there's room beside Diana."

Sean punched in the code. He leaned away from Eric as hot air gusted from the opening at his neck. With reflexes so catlike he might have started talking in puns, Sigma grabbed the helmet before it teetered off of Sean's neck. He started to place the head beside Diana's seat, then paused, and balanced it in the crevice between their legs, facing the eyes up towards the sunroof.

"Want to watch the stars?" he said, smiling into the cameras.

In the backseat, Sean's neck bobbed up and down. With his bulky head out of the way, he carefully, gingerly leaned towards Eric. He slid one arm around the man, then another. Eric mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep that came with a smile.

Diana slid closer to Sigma, or maybe he moved closer to her, with the wobble of the van's carriage. He pressed his cheek against the top of her head and closed his eyes. Her thick hair was still a little damp because he had delayed her post-workout shower too long for an adequate blow-dry. He drifted off to the scent of lavender and eucalyptus.


Clover needed only a short catnap in the passenger seat. When Aoi brought the car to a stop in the parking garage at their final destination, she hopped out of the SUV, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. "Light!" she called as she ran towards the main entrance. "Stay there, I'm coming to you!"

But the young man keeping sightless vigil closed his Braille book without marking his place and shot to his feet. He found her by the click of her heels on the concrete and met her halfway, smothering her in his embrace. He was thin—he had always been thin, but his cheeks were sunken and his eyes were dark as if he had not eaten or slept for the nine days that Clover had been missing.

"You're unharmed?" he exhaled.

"Yeah, I told you, I'm fine!" she replied, combing a tangle out of his unkempt, ashy hair. "Sorry I made you worry all this time. Just had to go save the world again, you know how it is."

She stood compliant as he ran his fingers over her face. He smiled as he felt her grin.

Sigma was the first to climb out of the van. Diana's skirt twirled when he lifted her by the waist and set her down beside him. Eric would manage no such feat for Mira; in his sleepy haze, he misjudged the long step to the ground from the van and nearly tripped. Phi, the self-proclaimed night owl, had fallen asleep just before dawn, her soft breathing audible now that Alice had turned off the engine. Sigma stopped Alice from waking her and instead gathered her tiny form in his arms. His thoughts rushed to the very first time he had held her like this, and he ached for every moment since that he had missed. Alice did not miss the tears welling up in his eyes and gave him a suspicious look. "It's nothing," he said in a weak voice. "It's… she's my daughter."

"Now I know you're full of it," Alice muttered.

The early morning light at the end of the drive had woken Carlos, but not his teammates. He started to reach for Akane's shoulder to wake her, but he did not want to disturb the rare peace on her face. Instead, he shook Junpei gently. "We're here," he whispered.

Barely awake, Junpei took one glance at Akane and mumbled in a groggy voice that he would carry her inside. Carlos patted Junpei's shoulder and shook his head, saying that he could hold her, that Junpei clearly needed a moment to fully wake up. They both jumped when Aoi whipped the door of the backseat open, his nose wrinkled and his blue eyes fierce. "Move," he ordered. "I'm taking her."

In the moment he saw Aoi cradle Akane in his sinewy arms, Junpei understood that the Aoi in front of him was one and the same with the Aoi who watched his little sister disappear in an incinerator ten years ago. He had the same relieved peace on his face as Akane, knowing that, after all of the SHIFTs and games of death, her dangerous schemes had come to an end.

Phi and Akane both woke up shortly after being picked up. Akane pretended to stay asleep, and Aoi did not mind. Phi also pretended to stay asleep for a cautious ten seconds, feeling her father's warmth against her cheek and listening to his steady heartbeat, before making a big show of being upset about being carried in her sleep.

"Who are these new friends you've made, Clover?" Light asked, tilting his head back and forth enough to pinpoint the location of each voice and set of footsteps.

"Snake! I mean, Light!" Junpei shouted. "Hey, hey, it's me, it's Junpei!"

He shook his grogginess as he ran towards the Fields. The joie de vivre he had lost over the course of the year had returned in a single day. Before he could take more than a few excited strides, Aoi stretched out a leg in his path. He stumbled over it, but managed to stay on his feet.

"Save the social hour for later," Aoi called. "We all got business to take care of. Light, did they check your arm yet?"

Light frowned. "Aoi," he murmured to himself as soon as he placed the voice. His right hand moved towards his artificial limb. "Is there something worth checking?"

"It's ABT. Free The Soul's tech," replied Aoi. "Your arm's bugged, man. They used it to track you two down for the game ten years ago."

Light's face turned pale and stony. "How long have you known this?" he asked.

"About two years. That's how we keep finding you two." Aoi paused in his stride to slide Akane higher up on his back. "Figure at this point we can just ask your address when they have to send the invite."

"Do you mean the wedding?" Light said with a sly grin. "Clover gave me the impression that you were opposed to the idea. Have you had a change of heart?"

"No fuckin' way." He slowed to a stop beside the Fields, staring at his feet. "Listen, uh…"

He had never been the eloquent one. He did not even know the full story about why he had to do the things he did. However, his sister was insistent on pretending to sleep, and the Field siblings deserved to hear something.

"Sorry for all this shit we dragged you through," he mumbled. "This year and last."

Light chuckled. "Circumstances being as they are," he said, "I think I've already forgiven you."

"Good. Thanks." He thought Light would not know about the smile that twitched onto his face, but it came through in the tone of his voice. "That'd make the wedding awkward."

He felt a pang of a therapeutic loathing, the kind that comes from making a habit of hating something trivial, when the ring on Akane's right hand brought to mind the disastrous proposal story. Huge as the gem was, its brilliance could come from no other stone than a true diamond.


In no time at all, SOIS agents arrived on the scene, among whom Alice resumed command as if her nine-day absence had never happened. They whisked the refugees this way and that in a flurry of questions and medical examinations. Sigma got a long-due sense of relief when the agent taking statements from him nodded in calm understanding as he described having lived in an alternate universe for forty-five years before SHIFTing back to redirect the past. His questioning period was relatively brief before they formally introduced him to Light to identify and remove the tracking device in the ABT of his prosthetic arm. Phi knew enough details of the long future they had abandoned. Junpei was recounting simultaneous non-events of the Decision Game. Diana had given the vital information about Brother's origin and identity.

An expert in morphogenetic field theory consulted with Carlos for a long time, first about his newly discovered abilities, then about treatments for Reverie Syndrome. Though the IT staff failed to connect their various computers to Sean's robotic body, the network engineers were able to isolate and track the source of the radio signals he was transmitting and receiving. Mira and Eric were brought separately for lengthy counsel with mental health specialists, and Mira left the consultation in handcuffs.

"We'll diagnose her with the ganzfeld tests. All stories confirm she's SHIFTed once before," Diana overheard an agent in a white coat saying. "If she's an esper, we'll keep this on the DL and offer her a deal here. If it was just the resonance effect, then…"

Diana had been offered this deal already. Sigma and Phi had been offered the same deal, as had Junpei and Carlos. In the brief moments they shared—passing in the hallways, overlapping waiting times in the same lobby—they whispered to each other, "Did they ask you? What did you say?"

"I'm not doing it," Junpei had said. "I don't want to work with SOIS. I'm going to work with Akane."

Carlos had developed the equivalent of a secret handshake with Junpei, and he needed to enact it as Junpei grumbled those words. Once again, he pressed both hands onto Junpei's hiked-up shoulders and leaned into them until they dropped to a relaxed position. Junpei exhaled to release the last of his tension and lightly brushed Carlos's hands aside.

"What about you?" he asked.

"I can't do anything right now. Not for another year or two, I guess." Carlos sighed. "I don't wanna leave you guys to deal with this by yourselves or anything, but… Maria needs me."

"You know she's gonna be fine." Junpei gave a reassuring smile up at Carlos, cocking his head to one side. "So what'll you do after that?"

Carlos shrugged. "Of course I'd rather work with you and Akane, if I can. Whatever that's gonna mean, anyway."

SOIS would form a special subdivision of their esper unit to interface with and—so they claimed—eventually absorb Crash Keys. The espers of the Decision and Nonary Games had been invited to become the founding members of this division, receiving the resources and support of the government-funded SOIS while following executive orders from co-leaders Alice and Akane. Needless to say, the salary was nigh on irresistible.

Meanwhile, Akane and Aoi spent an excruciating number of hours in questioning, in separate rooms until the interrogation team realized they were communicating via the morphogenetic field, anyway. Everyone who walked out of that secure, soundproofed chamber had a dazed look in their eyes, holding their heads. Even the so-called morphogenetics experts could not wrap their minds around the vast extent to which Akane had traversed and manipulated the field with her brother.

"I'm going to wait until we get more information." Sigma looked cross, only because he was thinking too hard. "I need to know what SOIS wants with us, and what they want with Crash Keys."

"I think I need to wait, too," said Diana. "It's… it's a lot to take in, but if you all want to do it, then… I'll probably go with you. And if you don't, I won't, either."

"Diana, you should make this decision for yourself," Sigma said. "If you're not okay with it, then don't do it. That's that."

"I know, I know. I know that's what I should do," she moaned, massaging her temples. "But I honestly don't think I care one way or the other where I go in the end. I just… I just want to be with you."

They had the tendency to lose track of time when they stared at each other: not only the minutes falling away unheeded, but in what time they now lived, whether Sigma still had the heart of a young man and they ruled their own little kingdom on the moon together, or Diana was with child and a familial love drew them together, or they were here in the ideal future having yet to fall in love again.

Neither of them heard the door open, but they heard Carlos say, "So is that three couples hitched?"

Eric, having had only limited access to the morphic fieldset, did not stay long at the SOIS hub. He spent most of his short time in a small and comfortable office quite unlike the white, cell-like rooms into and out of which his fellow participants shuffled. The walls were painted a soft lilac with cream accents. Desert flowers perpetually bloomed below a window that let in real sunlight. He squished his toes into the plush carpet as he sat in a sofa chair across from a psychologist with an inviting smile and a deep patience.

He trailed off in his speech when red and blue flashed in the window. His smile fell away. Despite how fondly he remembered his mother, he had come to realize that her mantra was not a panacea. Smiling could not promise him happiness. There was nothing he could do to be happy again, not now, maybe not for a long while. There was no point in being angry at anyone, either. Pushing past walls he had built to protect himself from his father's indiscriminate rage, he let himself weep as he watched Mira climb into the back of one of three police cars.

Sean sounded on the brink of tears he did not have the capacity to shed. "Everyone's going to go different ways," he said, peering through a window in the lobby as the police cars drove away. "I… I know everybody has their own lives to go back to, but…"

"But you never did," finished Phi. She slouched in the farthest chair from the window, idly tapping her foot. "And this place isn't exactly offering you one."

SOIS had, arguably, cut Sean a deal even rawer than Mira's. As future recompense for locating and recovering the quantum computer that hosted his consciousness, they would borrow its spare processing power for internal use.

"You'd essentially experience all of that extra computation, wouldn't you?" Sigma had said into the hand he held over his chin. "With your AI design, that would boil down to child labor. That's insidious."

This was one of Junpei's primary reasons to distrust SOIS. "Don't think this is your only option to get that computer, Sean," he said, kneeling in front of the boy. "I'll find it, I'll take it back, and I don't want anything in return. I just want you to be okay."

"Why?" Sean whispered. "Junpei, you always—back in Dcom, too—you always sound like you care so much about me, but we…"

"I do care about you. We all do." He pulled Sean into his arms and held his little body tight. "I'm not gonna let anybody take advantage of you anymore, I swear."

Junpei had cold hands, but his body was always warm, especially his neck, which Sean felt against his right shoulder. His fingertips, textured with the artificial approximation of fingerprints, pulled gently against the static friction of Junpei's leather jacket. The soft cotton of his black tee slid smoothly past Sean's collarbones. Hours later, Sean ran his hands over miscellanea in the lobby to try to find those same textures.

"You know, lives grow."

Sean turned from the window, through which the police cars were no longer visible, to look at Phi. "What do you mean?" he asked weakly.

"I mean you're a part of our lives now, too," she explained. "Everyone in the Decision Game is a new part of my life, whether I go with SOIS or Crash Keys or just go home and take a nap. I'll make room for all of you, wherever I am. Same goes for everyone else, I figure."

He wrung his hands. "Are you sure?"

"Well, I'm probably the least sociable person you've had the misfortune of meeting," she replied, "so if I even want to keep in touch, everyone else has gotta feel the same way."

Her suspicions were confirmed when she next passed by Sigma. He came to a halt and dropped his hands on her shoulders. "Give me the most reliable way to contact you," he demanded. "Everyone's done e-mail so far, but whatever works."

Saying one's e-mail address aloud while watching as no one writes it down is an unsettling experience. One might as well be speaking into the abyss as the string of letters, numbers, and punctuation go seemingly unheeded. It did not help that Sigma had his eyes closed half of the time that anyone spoke to him.

"Oh my God," Phi said when the realization struck her. "You're memorizing them, aren't you?"

"I'll send out a master list once I can get to a computer," he replied, then continued on his way to the next round of questioning.

"Sure you don't need me to teach you how to do it, Dad?" she called after him.

He raised a hand, his fingers starting to curl into the shape of a flipped bird, but his affection got the better of him and he waved her off with a smile thrown over his shoulder.


Dusk had fallen, and most of the other participants of the Decision Game had been long since dismissed. Junpei was asked to remain at headquarters until further notice, but he went through no more interviews, interrogations, or exams. There was only one other person from the game who had not left, whom he had not seen all day.

She all but stumbled into the lobby, her eyes dead, her legs weak and stiff. Fearing she might collapse, Junpei shot to his feet and darted to her side. She almost jumped back, startled at the sight of him, and a semblance of liveliness returned to her face.

"Kanny, are you okay?" he asked in a hushed, close voice. His arms surrounded her, braced to catch her should she topple over. "What happened?"

"N-no, I'm fine, I'm fine," she insisted on a long sigh. "I'm just… I'm a little tired."

Her eyelids drooped again as she leaned into the arms Junpei had offered her, resting her head in the warm place where his neck met his shoulder. He felt her breath making a hot patch on his shirt.

"Is it over?" he asked. "Are they finally done with you and your brother?"

When she nodded, her cheek rubbed against his collarbone and the cold tip of her nose grazed his neck.

"So what's gonna happen?" He clutched her shoulder, fingers sliding into the grooves between the cabled knitting of her sleeves. "With Crash Keys, I mean. With all of this."

"We settled it. We'll…" She trailed off, her eyes fluttering closed, her body growing heavier against Junpei's chest. "I'm… I'm sorry, I'm just so tired."

Junpei guided her to the nearest chair, lowered her into it, and knelt before her, supporting the weight of her head with a hand on her cheek. "Don't be sorry," he said softly. "We can talk about all that later."

"Where's everyone else?"

"Stuck up in some hotels nearby. Eric and Carlos are heading home tomorrow, I think, and I'm pretty sure Sean's going with Eric," Junpei said. "Well, that's everyone except… except Mira."

Akane nodded, closing her eyes.

"Akane, is it… is it finally over?" he breathed.

She frowned and shook her head. "The terrorist," she mumbled.

"No, I mean…" He clasped both of his hands over her right. "I mean the games. The time paradoxes. This predestined bullshit," he said. "Just, just be honest with me, please. Is it really over?"

A smile quivered onto her lips as her long, dark lashes fluttered open to reveal her warm, violet eyes. She nodded.

Junpei's grip on her hand loosened. Still kneeling before her, he slid the ring from her finger, gently lifted her other hand, and slipped the ring back on, sealing his promise with a kiss just beside the jewel.

"Even if that changes," he said, "even if we take a wrong turn somewhere and have to go through this kind of thing again, just take me with you."

She nodded, a film of tears glinting in her eyes. "That's what this ring means," she whispered.

Having received explicit confirmation from Clover that they had indeed left Nevada, Junpei lifted himself from his knees just slightly, until his face was inches from Akane's, where he froze. Something loud and imaginary rang in his ears, and his vision was blurring at the edges as he glanced up at Akane's eyes, down to her slightly parted lips, back to her eyes, her lips, her closed eyes. His breath fell out in shudders. He planted a shaking hand on Akane's shoulder to steady himself. He drifted closer, feeling the heat from her breath, from her face itself, until he was sure enough to close his own eyes.

The infinite worlds revolving around them all slowed. She was so soft, so precious.

 


 

Subject: Re: FWD: email list

From: kanny <usagi.bunni560@gmail.com>

To: Junpei Tenmyouji <tenmyoujijunpei5@blazing.net>

Cc: siklim@ucla.edu, quamiuppiter@verity.com, carlostheextinguisher@verity.com, strawberryicecream.eb@blazing.net, girl.on.the.moon@verity.com, light@lightfieldmusic.com, clover@lightfieldmusic.com

Bcc: santa@crashkeys.com


hi everyone!! i'm so glad we all have a way to contact each other (^o^) thank you so much sigma!

i've been thinking a lot about the way i lead my life lately, or maybe i should say lives (n_n;) i've always tried to take as much hardship onto myself as i can so the fewest people have to suffer for the best future. that sort of thinking is why the history that sigma lived before he came here exists in the first place. i think it's my fault. my philosophy caused that timeline to be so long and lonely. i really should be apologizing to you in person but i wanted to tell you [both] this as soon as i found the words. you have been too kind to tell me that what i forced you into was cruel. it may have been fate, but my outlook shaped that fate, and for that, i'm sorry. i understand if you don't want to forgive me.

i thought this was the best way, i really did (>o<) but hearing what everyone had to say when delta told us about the terrorist... and what junpei's been saying for years he might not even know about (^_-) even if i think it's best for me to carry the burden by myself, other people don't think so! a lot of you are offering to help me, no matter what lies ahead, and that means so much more to me than i can ever really say. i'm starting to realize that it'll lessen the burden if everyone works together. not just because we're each carrying a small piece of a shared weight, but because just being together with each other, with close friends, makes the burden lighter all on its own.

to those of you who still want to stand by my side, there aren't words to describe how grateful i am. i'm honestly a little excited to get to work knowing i won't be alone (*^.^*) and if you don't want to get involved in this, please don't feel you need to help any more than you already have. i am already eternally grateful for what all of you have done already.

ahhhh sorry this was so long!! i didn't mean to ramble (>.<) thanks for reading if you made it here, hehe.

~akane

p.s.: i agree with sigma, let's do it \(^o^)/

 

On Tues, Jan 2, 2029 at 1:31 AM, Junpei Tenmyouji <tenmyoujijunpei5@blazing.net> wrote:

I can't believe you're still using gmail. love you.


-- BEGIN FORWARDED MESSAGE: email list --

From: Sigma Klim (siklim@ucla.edu)

To: phi (quamiuppiter@verity.com), carlos (carlostheextinguisher@verity.com), grump (tenmyoujijunpei5@blazing.net), eric (strawberryicecream.eb@blazing.net), Diana (girl.on.the.moon@verity.com), grab a beer with this guy (light@lightfieldmusic.com), clover (clover@lightfieldmusic.com)


Hey everyone. this is all the emails I could get today. I know were missing akane, mira, Alice, and of course Sean. if any of you guys can pass the message on that would be great.

Let's meet up sometime soon.

Σ