In the middle of January, Sigma rolled his head towards her from his hospital bed and accused her of acting cold and aloof to seem strong. He knew her well, but not well enough. Aoi was closer to the truth when he took her into his arms for thirteen silent minutes, knowing that she needed it. She was not putting up any fronts. She was dead inside.
She let go of the doomed world and sank into the morphogenetic field, a place of infinite possibility, asking the same question she had asked before she let go of that which she held most dear.
Must I do this without him? she pleaded. Is there really no other way?
She felt a withered, cold version of her own hand touch her fingers and lead her forward.
The feel of the moon was pleasant on her feet. Her strides were long and lofty. She wore her ring on her left hand, alongside a wedding band.
A voice flooded her ears and she looked up from her shoes. Gray took his hair soon after the apocalypse, sprouting up all over in stark contrast to his dark brown. Sigma was different; he went elegantly silver from the temples outwards, and only after a decade since the outbreak.
The two yelled at each other constantly. And then he turned, deepening the wrinkles beginning to form in his face, towards her, and yelled again.
“This is insane. This is sociopathic,” he roared, waving his hands at the bracelets they were designing, needles distended. “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore, Akane. You’re… you’re evil.”
He would come to that conclusion about her no matter when in this timeline they met. He, too, would mistake her new demeanor for coldness instead of all-consuming sorrow. Perhaps it was selfish of her to delay his hurt by forty-five years instead of letting him find out and move on sooner. Perhaps she needed to be selfish to protect the remaining shards of her broken heart. But above all, it was the only way to groom him into a willing participant for the final Nonary Game.
Will he find happiness? she asked next. Please, if we can’t be together, please let him be happy.
She saw the boy whom she had seen before in her visions of the Nonary Game in 2074. She saw his bright smile, and it reminded her of a fearless boy she once loved. Across from him was an old man, his body frail and his hair thin and white, but his smile was genuine.
The boy called him Grandpa.
Now this was selfish, she knew, this feeling in the pit of her stomach that twisted and hurt when she came to terms with the fact that he might have found another woman and started a family with her. She wanted that life with him, more than anything. It took all of her remaining willpower not to run away from the AB Project and be with him, even if they could not survive the outbreak together. Those few months would be enough.
Yet at the same time, he was her sole motivation. If she could pull this off, he would be able to live in a happy world. They would live there together.
Who wins Junpei’s heart in this universe? she asked.
Her right wrist was starting to ache and tingle from untreated tendonitis, or carpal tunnel, or something—Diana would have known what exactly, but she had been gone for over a year now—when she handed a heavy envelope to Carlos. He took it in his left hand. They were both wearing rings.
“I’m sorry,” he said when she froze, her eyes locked on the tarnished silver band. “I know he asked you first.”
“No,” she said with a broken smile, shaking her head. “I’m happy for both of you. Please… send him my love.”
“He would send his,” Carlos responded, lifting her chin with a warm hand, “if he knew where I was going.”
Carlos, she mused. He can be my liaison.
He could be more than that.
“Can you show it to me?” she whispered.
Somewhere along the way, they fell into a dangerous pattern. He kissed her, and she felt Junpei. He absorbed her movements so that he could return home with a lying smile and kiss his husband like the girl of his all-but-abandoned dreams.
She did not often hear the low, creaking voice of her older self speaking directly to her. Most of what she knew, she had to find out for herself by exploring the field. But she heard a message once she discovered this forbidden moment.
Yes, Akane, she said. This is the only way you will both survive the next forty-five years.
Carlos became Akane’s agent the moment Junpei lost consciousness outside of the site of the Decision Game and Akane kept speaking.
“Don’t bring him to the medical tent here,” she said, her back to Carlos as she slowly walked away. “I don’t know how the virus got out, but it’s here. If you stay here, you’ll die. Make sure you both get as far from here as you can.”
Her face was no longer human, but an elegant mask. For the first time, Carlos was seeing Akane as Junpei had seen her for the past year: as the lovely woman who destroyed not just his heart, but her own, for the sake of a world she carried on her unearthly shoulders.
“Will he forget everything?” Carlos breathed, crouching beside the broken boy lying on the ground. “The Decision Game, the Dcom Experiment, seeing you again—everything?”
“I can only hope.” She closed her eyes for longer than a blink. “Please don’t tell him what happened. He needs to forget me. It’s the only way he’ll make it through this. He can’t know how close we came to… to being together.”
“You’re not okay with this, either,” Carlos accused, rising to his feet. “You’re hurting just as much as him. You’ll do this because you have to, but it still hurts.”
He did not know when or how he noticed she was crying in the darkness, but she did not resist when he ran to her and wrapped her in his arms.
“Carlos… I’m so sorry,” she uttered. “You’ve been… a true friend. But I—I have to do this alone.”
“He would do anything for you, Akane,” Carlos said. “I would do anything for you.”
When she looked up, her tears glistened in the light of the full moon emerging from the shadow of the tainted Earth. “Then… please,” she whispered. “Take care of Junpei.”
Ten months of solitude, of trying and failing to foil Zero’s plans, had changed Carlos in a small way. He knew how much bigger the world was than he, that there were some things he could not fight. Akane was one of those unstoppable forces.
He gathered Junpei in his arms. He thought he heard a whispered goodbye before Akane walked a solitary path through the sand.
Even as the drugs flooded his body and dragged him to the ground, he was so full of fight for the girl that he loved. He woke in that same fiery spirit as if it had not been almost twenty-four hours since he passed out, spouting curses as he stumbled through an unfamiliar bedroom in the dark. Carlos rolled his weary body off of the sofa, feeling a tension headache building under the furrow in his brow.
When he opened the door, Junpei was crouching by the foot of the bed, peering underneath. One of his pockets was inside out. He snapped his head up when he heard the door hinge creaking, and his face went white.
“Aw, shit,” he groaned, holding his head. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.”
He staggered to his feet amidst the pile he had made on the ground of the sheets and blankets. His face shifted to bright red.
“L-listen, dude, I’m sorry, I don’t—I don’t remember what happened last night, anything,” he stammered, “and I need to leave. I have to get to fucking Nevada in—I can’t find my—” His nervous fidgeting froze for an abrupt second. “My… my wallet. My keys. Any of my shit.”
“They’re gonna ship our stuff back from Dcom,” Carlos said, leaning against the doorframe. “I told them to send your things here.”
Junpei stared Carlos in the eye for the first time. His gaze drifted downward, then snapped back up. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
Carlos closed his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. It felt harder to stand.
“Name’s Carlos,” he said. “It’s January 1st. The Dcom Experiment is over.”
He thought about telling Junpei he was lucky to even survive, but at those words, all the life drained from his face.
“It’s… it’s over?” he uttered. “No… no, that’s not… That’s not possible. I was supposed to…” He looked on the cusp of tears, if his soul had not been sucked too dry to weep. “I was gonna see her again.”
His swimming eyes found Carlos, and as if he had just remembered he was in the presence of another man, he flipped a switch and channeled all of his sorrow into misguided rage.
“I was gonna find her!” he roared, clenching his fists as he stared Carlos down. “I looked for her for a fucking year—for ten fucking years, trying to—!”
Carlos could not be stayed by the knowledge that Junpei did not remember him, did not remember their friendship. He walked forward and clapped a hand on Junpei’s bony shoulder.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Junpei shoved Carlos’s arm away. “Where is she?!” he demanded. “You know, don’t you?! You’re one of those—”
“I don’t know,” Carlos stated. “I want her to come back, too, Junpei.”
Something about his tone, or the deep sorrow in his green eyes, or the affection he poured into Junpei’s name when he said it, made Junpei soften. He gave a shuddering sigh to expel what rage he could.
Carlos did not explain much, just the necessities. Things had gone wrong. A plague had escaped the facility and it would engulf the world within months. Junpei frowned and opened his mouth to ask how Carlos could know the future, but their eyes met and her name drifted between them, unspoken yet understood.
“She’s trying to stop the virus, isn’t she,” Junpei realized.
“I don’t know for sure,” said Carlos. He knew a little more than he was letting on, but he thought it best not to say anything.
Maybe that was the true moment he became her agent: when he kept her secrets from Junpei.
i'd like to dedicate this chapter to everyone who has written ZEcret Santa fics because y'all gave me life. i'm a new man. have some weird angst.
also: sorry in advance for the ending.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The first time it happened, Junpei was drunk.
Carlos had left the mail out on the kitchen table—it had come late, but at least it came at all most days—before a night trying and failing to save lives. Some of the infected took to arson to smite themselves, and that was straightforward to counter, but the fire department had also started responding to distress calls for any people seen on rooftops, bridges, train tracks, and the like. Although Carlos knew the ways to talk a person away from a suicide attempt, the virus changed the game. There was no lingering thread of doubt to snag onto to stop a Radical-6 patient from ending their life. They were committed to their fate.
Some of the guys stopped wearing the contamination suits for these runs. In the time it took them to suit up, a person would die. There was no point to suiting up when the infected person would be gone by the time they arrived.
There had been three calls tonight. There had been four deaths, and none saved. Carlos wore his protective gear—he made a promise to Junpei to always wear it—and hated himself for every life it might have cost.
Junpei knew more than an ordinary person about the supervirus. It had turned him into even more of a recluse, if the fallout from losing the one he truly loved was not already enough to shut him indoors with his cheap liquor.
“You know where she is!” he screamed, waving a torn envelope in Carlos’s face. “S’her brother’s—s’her brother’s—you liar!”
It was five minutes and countless caught and dodged punches before Carlos understood what Junpei was yelling about. The return address on the envelope was a P.O. Box used by a stock trading company run by an Aoi Kurashiki, brother of the girl whose name seemed impossible to say in the dark cloud filling the apartment. The envelope, which Junpei had torn open despite its being addressed to Carlos, contained correspondence from that very girl, though even she did not sign her name, as though she knew of this longing so deep it ran into hatred.
It was because of the nature of the message—a very impersonal and somewhat cryptic notice of locations and radii to avoid on April 13th, 2029—that Carlos was able to talk Junpei down from his rage. He promised that this was the first he had heard from Akane since the Dcom experiment ended two months ago, and after five more minutes of arguing, Junpei’s fury stemmed from a new source as it simmered down into that black feeling neither of them could shake off.
“Why’d she send it t’you?!” he demanded. “Why didn’ she… Why won’ she…”
Junpei could only cry with enough drink in him. His body started wavering and sinking as he struggled to hold himself up along with the weight he carried on his shoulders. He was so destroyed by this, by her, by everything that had happened to him.
And Carlos knew the other side of things. “She loves you, Junpei,” he promised.
And Junpei did not believe him. He shook his head and a tear fell out of his left eye.
Carlos did not know where the urge came from. He could count on one hand the number of times he had had this impulse in his entire life, and on a single finger the number of times he had acted on it before. Perhaps it was something about the way Junpei had fallen into a sticky pit of inconsolable rage, or the tears gleaming on his cheek, or the look in his eyes that told of a boy who thought no one in the whole world would ever love him again. Carlos slid his hands up Junpei’s cheeks, just far enough to tangle his fingers in unkempt hair, and held him still with a kiss.
He eased off of the desperate pressure after a second or two—it was hard to know how much time was passing when his pulse was no longer keeping a steady rhythm—and neither man moved. Their lips stayed in tenuous contact, feeling out the space of this uncharted territory.
It was Junpei who pressed forward with another kiss, slow and tentative to begin, but soon all Carlos could taste was the poison of his alcohol, and he was drunk.
Junpei did not remember it the next day. Carlos did not bring it up. Instead he stared at a map of southern California and watch the way one of those forbidden circles overlapped with the location of Maria’s latest hospital, the one they had transferred her to after the old one became contaminated and converted into a quarantine.
She promised, at the end of her letter, that she was going to find a way to combat Maria’s Reverie Syndrome despite the blockades of the growing pandemic. She had a month and a half to keep that promise.
The second time was in the rain.
It was a downpour so strong, Carlos wondered if God was trying to cleanse the world of the plague with a biblical flood. The mud swallowed most of his shoes and enough of the front wheels of his car that they spun in place, spraying dirt.
He had run off the county road in the middle of the night to avoid an oncoming car that had swerved into his lane and consequently wrapped itself around a tree. Carlos started to run after the woman who leapt out of her car and ran into the woods to seek her death in a new way, but he was so tired, and he did not think he could stand to find another dead body, not tonight.
“You push, I’ll steer?” Junpei called lazily from the window. “Since you’re already outside and everything.”
He had already seen so much darkness in this world that the pandemic could not reach him. His detached manner had bothered Carlos at first, the fact that he did not seem to care at all that all of these people around the world were dying. Now, Junpei was an anchor, or at least a constant, in this world that kept slipping further and further. At least he remained the same.
He had started coming with Carlos to visit Maria. He needed to get out of the house for reasons other than to buy liquor, he said. He was quiet at the hospital, standing off to the side as Carlos talked to Maria and hoped she could hear. As of late, he started fighting in person the battles Carlos fought every night over the phone: convincing the hospital to relocate Maria without giving an explicit reason. Radical-6 presented so many complications from both the risk of transportation itself and the scarcity of local hospitals that had not become strict quarantines.
In the car rides, he cracked jokes that made Carlos crack a rare smile and kept vigil for errant plague victims trying to orchestrate their suicides on the local highways. It was Junpei who had pointed to the approaching headlights with a feeling in his gut and said, “Watch out for that guy.”
Carlos pushed. He had stopped working out as of late. He had not yet lost much of his muscle mass, but his endurance showed its dwindling form when the first of many shoves left him winded.
Junpei got out of the car, shaking his head and squinting as the rain blew into his eyes. “Nothing’s moving,” he said. “Just gotta get that left wheel up and we’ll be gold, see? Let’s do this.”
Within minutes, he was panting and cursing at his rain-slicked phone when it failed to load results for his query “how to get car out of mud”. There may have once been cell service on this stretch of highway, but the blackouts and dead zones were creeping up all over the country where maintenance engineers died on their way to work and no more dared to follow. It was hard to tell when the Internet failure came because of network connection failures, distant power outages, or abandoned servers.
They shuffled positions a hundred times. Junpei jiggled the steering wheel around to try to flatten the mud down around the wheels. Carlos clasped both hands under back right corner and pushed with a lifting motion as if he could carry the car out of the ground. They rotated, they switched sides, they got low, until Junpei clamped Carlos’s jumper cables together and tied one end around the fully rotated steering wheel. He coiled the other end around his forearm, yanking the cables taut to keep the wheel turned.
It should not have worked. It was a stupid idea. But Junpei believed in it, and Carlos wanted to believe in anything, and maybe that made them shove harder than ever before. They shouted in delight when they felt the car budge forward, screaming through the pushing until the car bobbled up onto the pavement. Junpei threw his greasy, muddy arms wrapped in jumper cables around Carlos’s neck, and Carlos wrapped his around Junpei’s waist, and they paused when they each realized where their lips were going, but for no more than a tenth of a second before they went there anyway.
They did not talk about it. But Carlos stole glances to his right and kept finding a smile on Junpei’s glistening face.
The third time came after a second first time, which came after Carlos found out he was not done lying to Junpei. No, he would lie to Junpei for years and years, if their lives lasted so long.
“Arrive at the hospital at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,” she said. “Please allow six hours for treatment. Do not bring anyone with you.”
She hung up before he could get a word in.
To get to the hospital by eight, he had to leave by six-thirty. This was as good an excuse as any to keep Junpei at home. “It’s about relocation stuff,” he fibbed to a groggy Junpei as he shrugged on his buttoned shirt. “Might be gone for a while. I gotta go now.”
Somewhere between the second and third times, they had started sharing Carlos’s bed instead of rotating turns on the couch. Carlos was not sure how that began, but it was a comfort he could no longer sleep without.
She was a vision at Maria’s bedside, a little wisp of a thing, sitting perfectly still and upright in a folding chair, wrapped in a dress befitting a woman forty years her senior. Her face gave a nervous twitch when she saw Carlos and she tried to turn it into a smile.
Carlos wrapped her in his arms again, after two-and-a-half months of painful distance. He was surprised that she felt solid against his chest.
“Junpei doesn’t know?” she whispered.
“He knows I’m here. He doesn’t know you are, too,” Carlos responded. “We need to get her out of here—she’s in range of one of your—”
“When she leaves this hospital, it will be with you,” Akane stated, icy determination in her eyes. “I will cure her. I will send her home.”
She was still nestled in his arms, her small hands still pressed against his shoulders. Close enough to lift her chin and kiss.
She did not resist, but after a second or two, she snapped away in surprise, holding her hand over her mouth. Junpei’s ring was still on her finger.
Carlos had feelings for her, of course, though he was not sure he could call them romantic. He had forged bonds of trust and teamwork with her and Junpei over several harrowing timelines, then waited out ten long months to see them again, only for her to walk away into the night. He may not have been in love with her, but he missed her dearly.
And something else that he only put his finger on after neither of them could speak for the next ten seconds.
“From Junpei,” he said.
She blushed and struggled with a smile as if she had not worn one in months and had forgotten how exactly she was supposed to put it on.
His job was to watch the door for the doctor and call Akane back to reality if anyone came in who might find her trancelike state suspicious. As she delved into the morphogenetic field, a place Carlos had all but abandoned after the turn of the New Year, Carlos watched his baby sister’s face twitch with discomfort as a stranger poked around in her head.
He held her hand. He held Akane’s hand.
Maria did not awaken before Akane’s time was up. She was shaky on her feet as she rose from her chair and apologized for not working miracles. With a coy smile, she rolled onto her toes and pressed the softest, gentlest kiss to his lips.
“For Junpei,” she replied.
Carlos could never forget that perfect touch. It rolled through his head on repeat as he drove home down barren roads, passing the wrecked cars gathering rust on the roadside. “It’s like bodies on Mt. Everest,” Junpei had said. “You know, if you die past a certain elevation up there, it’s too risky to try to bring your body back, so they just leave you there. There was a whole Wikipedia article about all the known dead bodies on Mt. Everest. She used to send me links to creepy stuff like that all the time when we were kids.”
Wikipedia was running in what the curators called emergency mode, where only the top ten thousand most-visited articles were kept live. The rest had been shut down. Mt. Everest bodies had not made the cut.
Junpei leaned forward from the couch to the viewpoint of the front door when he heard Carlos walk in. “What’s the news?” he asked.
“News?” Carlos repeated dumbly.
“Is she gonna move?”
“Oh, uh, no. No. Didn’t work out.”
There was something stronger than sympathy in Junpei’s eyes, something that pulled him to his feet and towards Carlos, something that brought his warm hand to Carlos’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “You alright?”
Perhaps this was the moment Carlos truly became a double agent. He pressed Akane’s kiss to Junpei’s lips. Junpei devoured it, starved of her affection, though he did not rightly know it was hers.
“How many times are we gonna do this before we call it a thing?” he exhaled when their desperate lips parted.
It turned out that April 13th was not the day Carlos should have been worried about, and that led to another time. It was not the fourth time. Carlos forgot when the fourth time was, and the fifth, and the fifteenth, and the fiftieth. This was just among those times.
He was not a man anymore. He lost most of himself when he lost her. He lost hope. He lost happiness.
Junpei’s feet pounded across the floor, rattling the rickety furniture, when Carlos sank to his knees with the phone in his hand, ceasing to hear anything. There was a bubble of denial inside Junpei’s arms, where the words from some secretary at the hospital must have been a mistake, his sister was too far from the quarantine to become infected, and wasn’t Junpei so warm against his back, how nice.
He caught some words about a proper funeral being impossible because of the risk of infection and then the phone fell out of his hand.
Junpei picked it up and picked up the conversation with a voice that was strong, steady, and a little bit angry. It sounded nice inside his chest against Carlos’s ear if he blocked out the meaning of the words. His eyes felt wrong when he closed them; they were burning with something he barely recognized.
At some point, Junpei must have stopped talking, because now his mouth was in Carlos’s hair, then on his forehead, then on his salty cheek. The realization of who could have infected his baby sister struck him.
“We can’t keep doing this,” he told Junpei weakly, blocking his face with his hands. “I… I might be sick.”
Junpei pulled Carlos’s hands away by the wrists, staring him down with his tearstained eyes. “If you die,” he whispered, “I’m going down with you.”
I've been neglecting this story for a little while and I was worried I was gonna let it die, but then the inspiration to keep writing it came back to me! And that's the tale of how I realized I literally can only write for this when I'm feeling depressed. Neat, right??
(it gives me something to do, which is really helpful when depression is like "hey how about you just sit around and do jack all day". i'm good.)
Junpei took care of things for a little while after that. He bought the groceries and did the chores. The liquor drained slower. He packed the car and drove them out of range of the red circles on their U.S. map.
Then came doomsday, and Carlos could not afford to mope anymore, even when all hope seemed lost. He was surprised to see a tear roll down Junpei’s cheek when the static-filled broadcast on the A.M. radio reported the fates of five reactors across the nation.
“Is this her?” Junpei whispered. “She… she wouldn’t do this, would she?”
“No,” Carlos said. He had reasons for believing in her—she would not have planned to detonate a reactor so close to their apartment, to Maria—but his lips were too heavy with guilt to say more. He remembered what Junpei had said to him after they escaped from the site of the Decision Game. By remaining inert for ten months, by not stopping Zero II, he had let this apocalypse happen.
Most of the broadcast was dead air, but they left it on to fill the silence with static and so they would not miss it when, every few hours, the tally of destroyed reactors mounted higher and higher as information fought its way to a single source. Junpei checked off each red circle as the exhausted radio operator named them. “Wonder if I should call in and save them the damn trouble,” he muttered. “How are they even calling in, getting this information? Everything’s fucking dead.”
The nuclear fallout was far from their minds. The only thing they knew was that this had cut off their power supply. It was a chilly April day, the kind that swings back in from the depths of winter to remind the world that summer is still a ways off. Carlos started the truck for heat when their drafty hideout in some forgotten plains of Nebraska chilled over after the blackout shut down their three space heaters. As they listened to the radio, Junpei reached over and turned the key back down to save the gasoline that they knew would become a commodity. They huddled together under two layers of blankets, curled around a battery-operated radio they found in a closet that Junpei bewitched into operation.
“It’s gotta be radio, isn’t it,” he muttered. “Everyone radioing each other, playing telephone till it hits the guy running this station. Shit, we need to figure out how to work radios—we gotta get on this network.”
“You figured out that radio,” Carlos mumbled, nodding to the softly crackling device that Junpei was squeezing with both hands.
“I mean, sure, I get electronics, I went to school three years for engineering,” Junpei said, “but radio has a whole code to them and shit. And this one’s just a receiver, it’s not—”
Junpei cut himself short. His eyes went as wide as the moon. Carlos watched his lips repeat the word “receiver” without sound.
And then, out of necessity, but also inspiration and trust, he finally told the whole story of how he had loved and lost Akane Kurashiki. He repeated Lotus’s anecdotes about recognizing shapes in black-and-white images, about human consciousness being connected in a way too complicated for said humans to understand, about the theory of receivers and transmitters in the morphogenetic field and the way Gentarou Hongou had tried to study it, about how he had once saved Akane Kurashiki’s life across space and time and after everything they had been through he still did not know whether she was using him the whole time and just tossed him aside as soon as he—
“But the—the field, you’re saying,” Carlos said. It was hard to force words out of his mouth these days, but interrupting Junpei’s dark spirals was a reflex that depression had not yet eaten away. “The morphogenetic field. You’re saying we can send messages through it?”
“I did it once,” he said. “It was only because—she was in danger, and I was in danger, and everything was—Santa said it’s danger and epiphany, something like that. And the whole world just got fucking nuked, so there’s the fucking danger. The whole world’s gonna be tapped into the morphogenetic field now more than ever.”
That was how Akane had explained the upsurge in cases of Reverie Syndrome: a preemptive response to crisis in individuals with the capacity for morphic resonance. Maria could have been their radio antenna—an esper so powerful she was constantly experiencing multiple simultaneous worlds.
“Forget radio. Maybe we can use this.” Junpei held a hand to his chin, deep in thought. “We… we need to find more espers. Receivers.”
Two receivers were idle underground two nights before doomsday, standing in the presence of two transmitters, though they could not see the second yet.
“Just a couple minutes left,” Aoi mumbled, hooking his thumbs through his belt loops. “She’s probably gonna feel cold still, but she’s fine.”
Akane had already exploded at him for compromising the security of the AB Project by allowing their guest into the only restricted area of the Crash Keys bomb shelter. He was only supposed to stay here for the week, to give them peace of mind that he had survived despite everything. He was not supposed to enter the room with the treatment pods, and Aoi was certainly not supposed to defrost the second pod, even if it was “only gonna be a minute, Akane, she won’t wake up.”
When the lock came unlatched at the end of the defrosting process, Aoi hoisted up the cover. He took Light Field’s hand and brought it to Clover’s cheek.
“We need her to survive this whole thing, okay?” Aoi said in a weak voice, biting his lip to keep it from trembling, after Light fell to his knees, wracked with silent sobs, as his thin, white fingers found his sister’s face again after nearly four months. “She can’t… she’s gotta stay here.”
It was a false promise, but that was only because Akane was still feeding him white lies about the nature of the AB Project, like, “It’s going to be another Nonary Game, but it won’t be as gruesome as the other ones,” and, “If everything goes according to my plan, no one will die.”
What she did not mention was that this Nonary Game would branch out into four times as many doomed timelines as the second, and that Clover would die so many horrible deaths across all of them, and Akane herself would resign herself to a coldblooded murder in two-thirds of the timelines before the Game even started. Little things that he did not need to know.
Aoi showed the same bad habit. “She just needs to stay till November,” he said. “Then she’ll be good to go. Crisis averted or whatever.”
Of course, the face that Light was touching would stay frozen for another forty-five years. The transporter would recharge from when Akane and Junpei used it on New Year’s Eve, and then it would be ready to receive Clover and Alice from the successful timeline of the AB Project.
Close as they were, and much as he loved Akane, Aoi started to fade out of her visions of the future within a decade. She knew she would spend her final years on the Moon with Sigma, and she wondered if that was after a final falling out with Aoi. She could contemplate this awful possibility with cool curiosity as long as she stayed in the same room as Aoi and Light and wanted to keep finding reasons to be mad at her traitorous brother.
“I just wanted him to know!” Aoi yelled when, after the pod was sealed and frozen once more and Light excused himself to another room, the shouting match resumed. “It was fucking killing him. I know you’re thinkin’ ahead forty-five fucking years, but the rest of us are still livin’ in the present like normal human beings. Seven months is a fucking long time to—to lose your little sister. Eleven months, Jesus Christ.”
“We have to make sacrifices,” Akane retorted, folding her arms. “God knows I’m making sacrifices.”
He grabbed her by the shoulders with pain in his eyes. “I know, and I love you, and I’m sorry, but you can’t make people make sacrifices without tellin’ ’em why,” he protested. “He gets it. He knows this is important. We can trust him.”
“You don’t know that, Aoi!” she shouted. “This timeline is impossibly fragile. If you do this sort of thing without telling me—the slightest breach could—”
“Alright, fine, you don’t trust him,” he cut in, “but I do, and I know what it’s like to lose your little sister, so I ain’t leaving him in the dark about this, and if you think that’s a bad idea, then you’re blinder than he is.”
Akane had teased Aoi about having a crush on Light when his name kept coming up between the first two Nonary Games. It had been funny to her then. Once Aoi got past his teenage years, he became a good sport about it, riffing on his own misguided affections. Now it was Akane who could not find it funny anymore.
“What about your new fucking boyfriend, huh?” Aoi snapped. “Who the fuck is he and why’s he get all your secrets? He’s fucking living with your fiancé. No way in hell he’s not spillin’ everything soon as he gets home.”
She fumed at the accusations, which should have been her first clue that she was growing too attached. “I can see the timeline,” she shot back. “I know Carlos can be trusted.”
“Okay, well, I can’t see timelines,” he replied, throwing his hands in the air, “and I ain’t fuckin’ comin’ to you askin’ permission for every single thing I do, and now you’re talkin’ about how you can fuckin’ just jump timelines any-fuckin’-way, so how about I just fucking live my fucked-up life, and if I do somethin’ that messes up your shitty project, you just hop up and get the fuck out?!”
In her fit, she wanted him to sound selfish, inflexible, and ignorant, but everything he said was reasonable and plausible. The air had time to cool before she could think of a response.
“Because I want you to be with me,” she murmured.
“I’ll still be there. That’s how timelines work.”
“But what if you’re not?”
She saw her final years on the moon from an angle she had never before dared to ponder. Her eyes got hot as they fell to the ground. They were in each other’s arms in seconds.
“Look, Akane, I trust you, okay? I trust you, I wanna help you, I love you,” he said. “I ain’t tryna sabotage your plans or whatever. You gotta take care of your project, I get it. I just wanna take care of the world we’re livin’ in right now.”
So when Akane, her co-conspirators, and her three frozen captives took off to an abandoned moonbase to prepare a different future, Aoi gathered their leftover resources, the fruits of his liquidated assets, and got ready to kick ass and survive the apocalypse with Light on his team. The two trained receivers were exactly the assets that Junpei was scheming over, and one day, they knocked on his door. Junpei looked like he was seeing a ghost when a thin, white-haired boy in a leather jacket showed up with a carton of gasoline in each fist, wearing a smug grin.
“Hey,” he said. “My sister kicked me outta the house. Can I crash with you?”
Junpei could not speak. He gave several stuttering starts, unable to put into words the overwhelming mélange of terror, bewilderment, and betrayal elicited by the sight of his lost love’s older brother, and he gave up even trying once he noticed the man he once called Snake walking up behind. Carlos, who had not initially accompanied Junpei to the sounding door because he was not wearing a shirt, came over to see what the commotion was, saw the supplies in Aoi’s hands, and invited them inside. Junpei fell into a daze until they were all settled in front of the fireplace and Aoi was explaining just how little he knew about how to find Akane.
“I guess I know more about what she’s up to than you guys,” he said over a mugful of canned soup. “But then she up and left, day after the whole power plant fiasco. Didn’t tell me anything. Probably ’cuz I gave a few company secrets to this loser. Honest to God, I got no fuckin’ clue where she went.”
His eyes had warmth like he was telling the truth, but Junpei had also been tricked into believing his charming, genuine smiles when he was one of the propagators of the second Nonary Game. The few glances Junpei took away from Aoi were to Light, who maintained an easy smile over closed eyes, inviting him to trust.
“So that’s why you came here?” Carlos guessed. “You wanted to team up with Junpei to try and find her?”
“Nah, I ain’t gonna go chasin’ after her.” He shot a sneer to Junpei. “Unlike some people, I just let her have her space if she wants it. She’s got her plans. She’ll be fine.”
Junpei jolted. He could not figure out how to begin to refute Aoi’s accusation—he knew Akane was fine, too; it was not about protecting her; Aoi did not understand the pain Junpei felt to live without her, with this hole in his psyche, after everything they had been through together in time across time—so nothing came out of his mouth when it shot open.
“We ain’t stayin’ for the long haul, though,” Aoi said, elbowing Light. “We got a little mission. You’re probably wonderin’ why Clover ain’t here.”
Junpei’s heart skipped a beat. He had noticed she was missing, of course, and thought it strange, but when Aoi stated it out in the open, the worst possibilities came to mind.
“She’s perfectly fine,” Light assured him before he could jump to any conclusions. “We’ve arranged a rendez-vous in November. In the meantime, we thought we’d respond to your distress beacon.”
Carlos frowned, and Junpei blinked. They exchanged glances, as if wondering whether the other had done something without his knowledge.
“Junpei,” Aoi said, drawing Junpei’s gaze to his smug grin. “Me and Light are receivers, buddy. And you’ve got a history of transmitting a lot of information without knowing it.”
“We know you’re thinking of orchestrating a worldwide network via the morphogenetic field,” said Light, “and we’d be happy to assist you in assembling it.”
“How did you meet Junpei, if you don’t mind my asking?” Light said. “You’ve been so quiet, you almost feel invisible to me.”
Carlos was not keen to tell the story of how he had met Junpei, so he was happy to have Light’s second statement to latch onto instead. “I feel invisible?” he repeated with a nervous smile. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, has no one mentioned? I’m blind.”
No one had mentioned. It had been about ten hours since he and Aoi had arrived. Carlos found himself with his jaw hanging open, and he hastily tried to shut it, before realizing that Light could not see it anyway.
“I also have a prosthetic arm, if you haven’t noticed that either,” Light added, lifting his left hand. “That should be all of my anomalies. Physical ones, anyhow.”
“How—how’ve you been getting around if—”
“A combination of other senses. Please, Carlos, enough about me,” Light said with a warm, self-assured grin. “I wanted to know more about you.”
Light was correct; Carlos had been quite reticent for the past month. He started simple: his name, his hometown, his pre-apocalyptic occupation. Light always looked fascinated, almost enraptured, when absorbing new information, which may have been what enticed Carlos to talk about the perils of his job over the last few months. The conversation turned dark and heavy. With Light’s hand on his tense shoulder, Carlos spilled the guilt in his heart to a stranger, because he could never tell this to Junpei.
“I had a chance to stop all of this,” Carlos uttered. “I had ten months. Why couldn’t I do something?”
“I sincerely doubt that a single man could have stopped a plague,” Light said. “What makes you think otherwise?”
“Do you know how the virus got out?”
“Aoi has talked about it a little,” said Light. “No one has the full story, but… something terrible happened during an isolation experiment in Nevada. I understand Junpei was involved, but he has no memory of it at all.”
“I was in that experiment, too. I still remember it,” Carlos said. “I tried to save Akane and Junpei and everyone by traveling back in time ten months, but… I didn’t stop Zero before the experiment began. He’s the one who planted the virus. I could only get there in time to free Akane and Junpei. Because of me, the virus got out, and now…”
“Now, hold on,” Light interrupted, raising an eyebrow. “How does that mean that any of this was your fault?”
Carlos blinked. “Oh… the time travel… there was…”
“No, the time travel, I can grapple with.” Light folded his arms and leaned back in his seat. “I understand there were branching timelines involved in the experiment, correct?”
Carlos nodded dumbly.
“I assume you’re nodding.”
“No worries.” Light had such a pleasant smile; Carlos hoped it was as genuine as it looked. “So, you found that Akane and Junpei were in danger in this timeline, and you traveled back in time in order to find a way to save them from that fate?”
Carlos caught himself in the middle of a nod and said, “Yeah, that’s it.” He had not realized how much he had been avoiding speech until a blind man could not read his nonverbal communication.
“Then consider the following.” Light lowered his head, deepening the shadows in his pale, angular face. “Had you found a way to stop Zero, which is an improbable concept in and of itself, you may have prevented the release of the virus. We cannot even know for sure whether that’s true.”
“But still, the experiment—”
“Yes, you would have stopped the experiment from happening,” Light agreed. “But you came from the timeline in which Junpei and Akane were endangered in that experiment, therefore its existence was always incontrovertible. By stopping Zero, you would have branched off to a new, experiment-free, virus-free timeline. In the timeline you left behind, Junpei and Akane would still be in danger, and no one would come to their rescue, because their only hope for survival had moved to a different timeline.”
It took a while for the words to sink in. Although Carlos had followed Light’s reasoning without issue, he could not yet believe that, in fact, he was free from the guilt that had been pressing down on his back for the past four months. The weight did not float away all at once, but in little pieces. Every time he blinked and found Light giving him a gentle smile, he found a little more love for himself.
“Does that make sense?” Light asked.
“Y-yeah. Yeah, it does,” Carlos breathed. “I just need a minute to let it all sink in.”
“I hope that will take a weight off of your shoulders,” Light said. “Although, from what I can tell, it seems as though they are capable of carrying quite a lot of weight. Impressive.”
His fingers glided across Carlos’s rippling muscles with an inquisitive touch before he rose to his feet and moved to the next room with grace in his stride. Blind.
Junpei had expected most of the information on contact points for a morphogenetic network to come from Aoi. The Kurashikis had always had their way of knowing everything they needed and getting everything they wanted. Instead, Light not only listed the names of fourteen surviving transmitters and receivers living in the United States, but also had to gloss over details because “although I’m not sure my contract is still valid during an apocalypse, I know some potentially compromising government secrets.”
And apparently he played the harp.
“But—your left hand is…”
Light smiled, raising his prosthetic. “I usually—well, I used to wear a robotic attachment with sufficient fine motor control,” he explained. “But electricity is hard to come by these days, and I certainly wouldn’t want to waste it when I’ve already got one perfectly good arm.”
He brought three arms with him in total: the plastic-like replica whose only function was to look like a real arm from a distance; the soft, heavy, and incredibly life-like robotic prosthetic, with its charging cords and batteries, as a hope for a brighter future; and an austere contraption of mechanical cables and titanium boning with a weathered metal claw at the end.
“It’s functional,” he said when he heard Junpei moving towards the table on which he had laid the last of his collection. “I don’t tend to make friends as easily when I wear it, however.”
“I wouldn’t blame the arm,” Junpei quipped.
“I see you’ve not lost your wit, despite everything,” Light said with a smile.
“Y’know, I’ve only known you for a few hours, if you tally it up, and I already know this is a really pot-to-kettle kind of moment.”
When Light laughed, a warm feeling came over Junpei that he did not know how to explain or articulate, until Light said the words aloud.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know you better, Junpei,” he sighed.
Aoi was less subtle, though it took a few hours alone for him to show his intent.
“Jesus fuck, how are you this incompetent?”
Junpei opened his eyes just to glare at Aoi.
“What part of ‘clear your mind’ is so hard?” Aoi taunted. “You’re still thinkin’ so hard I can almost hear it.”
With a pout, Junpei grumbled, “Kind of have a lot to think about these days.”
“What, you mean you just think about all this crap nonstop?” Aoi cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes, grinning. “No wonder you look like shit.”
Junpei wrinkled up his nose. He gathered his hands into fists, but thought better of throwing them anywhere. Aoi would probably wipe the floor with him even if he were not so tired, and he was so, so tired. He had not known how draining it would be to learn how to control his esper abilities so that he could receive from the morphogenetic field. Light had started the lesson, but Aoi had picked it up after the first hour. They were creeping up to three hours now.
“Akane doesn’t even think about her shit all the time, y’know.”
He hated how Aoi could just say her name as though it were nothing, as if it did not feel like fire coming out of his throat, as if the very sound of it did not bring back this horrible, empty feeling in his stomach. And he said it so often.
“Nothin’ to gain from worryin’ about it all day.” Aoi had an easy, carefree smile as his gaze drifted to the cloudy window. “We’d play games all the time to take our minds off it. Video games when the electricity was good. Board games when that started gettin’ shifty.”
“We don’t have any board games.”
“Yeah, dumbass, I’m just givin’ an example,” Aoi retorted, rolling his eyes. “What, you need me to come up with a distraction for you?”
“I dunno, maybe!” Junpei yelled, throwing his arm out towards the window Aoi was so pleasantly watching. “It’s snowing. It’s May and it’s snowing. I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. We’re talking about a nuclear winter. We were getting along without running water or electricity and just when I thought, maybe this is gonna be okay, I have to start thinking about the fact that there’s going to be a global famine even if the virus cut the population in half already, because nothing is going to grow. And meanwhile no one—not even you—no one knows where—where—”
He jumped when he felt Aoi’s hands clap down on his shoulders. “Wow, listen to all that shit you can’t control,” he said. “C’mon, Junpei.”
“What, you expect me to just—just stop thinking about it, just because I can’t do shit about it?” Junpei grabbed Aoi’s wrists and wrenched them off of him. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to stick my head in the sand and hope it all turns out okay. If we don’t do something, the world is fucked.”
“If you spend every waking second thinking about how fucked the world is, you’re fucked,” Aoi shouted. He grabbed Junpei’s face, pulling down his cheeks to exaggerate the bags under his eyes. “Look at yourself, man. The stress is gonna kill you before any goddamn food shortage does. You gotta stop thinkin’ about it for five damn seconds.”
“I can’t not think about it, you idiot!”
Before he knew what was happening, Aoi was pulling his face forward into a hot, fierce kiss. He had never wanted to punch Aoi. He wanted this, this angry kissing, the hair-pulling, the fists closing around their clothes and tugging, the tongue-lashing—
Junpei’s feet went cold all at once. When he snapped away from the kiss, Aoi had a glassy look in his hungry, half-open eyes. For a split second, Junpei could see all the ways Aoi resembled his little sister.
“What the fuck are we doing?” Junpei whispered.
A delighted smirk slid slowly onto Aoi’s face. “Distracting you,” he breathed. “Is it working?”
“What am I doing?” Junpei uttered, holding his head in his hands. “I—I’m—I’m in love with your sister.”
“Yeah, well, that didn’t stop you from shackin’ up with your hot new boyfriend.”
“He’s not my—”
“Oh, give up.” Aoi jabbed him in the shoulder, slid the hand down to his elbow, and pulled him closer by it. “I’m supposed to believe you and that hot slice of human perfection are just some heterosexual best buddies, bros bein’ dudes, livin’ together in the wilderness, sleepin’ in the same bed completely platonically—”
“You and Light do the same thing! You literally went on a road trip together! You’re—”
“Yeah, because we’re dating, you dense piece of ass.”
Junpei’s mouth fell open in the middle of his sentence. Aoi laughed in his face before seizing the moment to give him a long, deep kiss that sent chills all down his spine.
When Aoi pulled away, he trailed kisses along Junpei’s cheek on the way to his ear, where he whispered, “I’ll let you kiss my boyfriend if you let me kiss yours.”
That had been the feeling fluttering in his heart when he saw Light smile and laugh. He did not realize it until this moment, when he melted into Aoi and demanded another kiss from him, and another, and another.
Junpei figured out how to clear his head, but that turned out to be more of a personal victory for his mental wellbeing than a way to receive from the morphogenetic field. It was Carlos, idly listening in as Aoi and Light tried to coach Junpei through the basics of receiving, who started to hear the cries for help coming from somewhere inside and outside his head. He had always been able to hear these voices when hot, smoky air rolled across his skin and scratched his throat. In fact, he was stoking the fireplace when he first heard it.
He dropped the poker.
She had said not to leave the basement until all food ran out and we had no other choice. The Cooper plant was miles and miles away, but close enough that she was worried about the fallout if it exploded. We never found out whether it exploded, not officially, because the power cut out while we were listening to the radio. Maybe that was news enough.
I had not left the house since March because she wanted to protect me from the virus. She said it would be too much for her to see me go that way.
At the top of the staircase, I saw sunlight from beyond the opened basement door.
“Cooper,” Carlos sputtered. “That’s… that’s the one in Nebraska.”
Junpei caught him by the shoulders before he could spring to his feet. “What’s going on?”
Carlos shrugged him off, pulled to the dim light coming through the window in the door. “I heard someone,” he said, eyes wide. “They’re nearby. Cooper Nuclear Reactor.”
“Who? Where?” Junpei demanded.
Maybe Mom never told me we were low on supplies, and she left to get it before I woke up so she would not worry me. Maybe the fallout was worse than we thought, and the radiation destroyed her as soon as she went outside. Maybe she had carried the virus all this time and now it had taken hold, giving her that vacant stare, making her say strange things like Dad did before he—
A tug on his arm held Carlos back. He yanked it back with enough force that he should have been able to overcome Junpei’s hold. The grip did not relent.
“We have to help,” Carlos protested, fighting for the door. “It’s a kid—his mom is—”
“I know, man. I hear ’em too.”
It was Aoi’s hands holding him back. There was so much pain in his cold stare that it seeped out and hurt everything it touched.
“Kid in the basement can’t find his mom, right?” Aoi sighed. “You gotta learn to let it go.”
Carlos’s brow furrowed. He opened his mouth only to find he had no words. He could not let it go. He did not know why he had to let it go.
Light’s hand was slow to settle on his shoulder, unsure of where exactly it would find its target. His hand was cool, not cold, but somehow it felt like ice. He cast his pensive gaze low to the ground, the gaze he could cast without opening his eyes.
“Even if we could make out their location,” he said, “going there would pose too much risk for us. The mother has likely started showing symptoms of the virus, which means the child is undoubtedly—”
“He’s just a kid!” Carlos yelled.
The vibrations felt strange in his throat. He never yelled. Half a lifetime of being Maria’s big brother had taught him to hold back his voice, to be gentle. But he was shaking, and everything inside him was rising like steam, and when he yelled, he could let some of it out.
Junpei squared himself in front of Carlos. The light from the door caught in his stray locks of hair like a lopsided halo. He swallowed and placed his hands on Carlos’s shoulders, the way Carlos used to do for him to try to help him calm down.
“It’s like at the fire station, remember?” he said softly. “By the time you respond to the call, it’s too late. You’re just putting yourself in danger by trying to go out there.”
If Mom did not return, I would likely die on my own. It was not as though any of us had any more experience than anyone else in how to survive the end of the world. I just knew I could not do it alone.
Carlos held his breath to keep the shouting inside. It found its way out in time, through his eyes.
That was the first night that all four boys huddled together on one bed. Light and Aoi both were instrumental in coaxing Carlos into fleeting bouts of sleep. Junpei could only offer empty comforts and keep his arms wrapped around Carlos’s waist, cheek against his back.
Light could dole out an itemized list of reasons why there was nothing that could be done. Aoi was a more intangible, yet crucial support. Aoi held a hand to Carlos’s cheek and nodded as he spoke. Aoi talked about all the feelings those cries from the field stirred up in him, how it made him think of his little sister, too, and how hard it was to let go.
“We were supposed to create a network,” Carlos said, holding his head as his legs curled up towards his chest. “We were supposed to help people.”
“Alexander Graham Bell didn’t invent the telephone and immediately have reliable contact across the nation,” Light murmured. He had lain himself along the headboard, offering his body to prop up their flimsy pillows. “We’re still developing the means. We won’t be able to instantaneously enact a support system.”
“You look at everything you’ve got and you think, why can’t I do more?” Aoi said, stroking Carlos’s jawline with his thumb. “You probably think that more than anyone. Your whole job was about saving people. You just wanna help. And you’re gonna help, Carlos, you’ll get there. We’ll all figure this out. We’ll all make it so this never happens again.”
Junpei felt Carlos’s abs tighten, then he heard the sound of a kiss breaking.
It was not fair to be jealous. He had kissed Aoi, too. He had not said explicitly that Aoi was allowed to kiss Carlos, but he had not refused, either, so he had no right to cling possessively to the man he had refused to call his boyfriend.
Once Carlos got through those jitters of a tense body falling into sleep, Aoi pried Junpei’s clasped hands open. He pulled one to his lips. Junpei realized then that he did not know whom he was actually jealous over.
In the nights that followed, their mood was lighter. Aoi was boisterous and demanding, and Light’s flirtatious side came out in a wonderful surprise, and they all shared more kisses than they could count, each with a different personality. Junpei could almost fill the hole she had left in his heart by finding more and more people to love, by thriving in their affection.
Aoi and Light both were a feast for the senses, Aoi with his raw heat that made the room spin, and Light with his perfectly timed and calibrated touches to push every button. Junpei still treasured Carlos above all, perhaps as Aoi and Light treasured each other. Carlos had a special touch to his kisses, a surprising softness, something slow and gentle that seemed to make the whole world stop and turn a new way. By watching as Carlos kissed Aoi and Light, Junpei knew that Carlos reserved those perfect kisses for him alone.
Junpei did not know that Aoi had only asked for permission to kiss Carlos as a retroactive formality. The deed had already taken place.
“Can you keep a secret from Junpei?” Aoi had asked, before leading Carlos into a closet, yanking on the collar of his shirt, and engulfing him in a fiery embrace.
Carlos, too, did not think of Junpei as his boyfriend. He thought of himself as only a stand-in, because he could never replace the one truly in Junpei’s heart. He thought he could play this role without conflict because he had never wanted to pursue a romance of his own, not until Aoi’s hands were running down his back and nestling into the pockets of his jeans, sliding up his thighs and inside his shirt, circling every chiseled muscle.
“Okay,” Aoi panted when they were both too out of breath to continue. “Wanna hear the secret now?”
One night, while Carlos and Light lay with Junpei sandwiched between them, each peppering him with kisses, Light teased that it was obvious when Aoi’s affections were genuine by the way he tried to play it off with a joke when he was nervous.
“It’s Akane,” he said. “I know where she is. She told me to tell you if you promise not to tell Junpei.”
It was a test, of course. Aoi said she had gone down to Antarctic research labs. Carlos did not buy it for a second. The northern hemisphere’s summer months were approaching, which meant the beginning of Antarctica’s deadly winter.
So he did not tell Junpei, and Aoi saw that he did not tell Junpei, so Aoi trusted him with the truth just before the visitors made their inevitable departure.
“You’ll hear from her when you can get a shuttle up to visit, now that I made a receiver outta you,” Aoi told him as they were packing up their supplies to continue a search for Clover. “Still can’t tell Junpei.”
As Aoi pecked him on the cheek, Carlos decided he would tell Junpei what he damn well pleased. He had learned a little bit about love from having three boyfriends at once, and that had taught him how deeply in love with Junpei he really was, no matter who was number one in Junpei’s heart.
“She’s out of reach of the virus. I don’t know much more than that,” Carlos said. “I’ll try to get more updates out of Aoi as time goes on. I’ll keep you posted, I promise. I don’t wanna tell you too much in case he hears you through the field again.”
Carlos was the receiver, and Junpei the transmitter. Nestled next to Carlos under a blanket, Junpei made contact with the boy in the basement that Carlos had heard.
“Hey,” Junpei said. “You’re not alone, okay? You’re gonna be alright. There’s a lot of people still out here, and we all wanna help each other survive this. We can hear you. You’re not alone.”
I had been without my mother for a full week now. I was not coming down with the virus. I was going to survive. I was not alone.
this work isn't dead i swear. i consciously dislike my melodramatic depression writing as i write it but as long as i keep having depression this work will not die.
content warnings for casual homophobic """Christianity"""
Junpei winced as he gripped Carlos’s forearms and pulled. He had called his right his “good leg” for the past fifteen minutes, but perhaps that was only true by comparison. The left still throbbed with the slightest movement. Lacerations in his arms stung as though they were being pulled farther open by the gentle tug of Carlos’s warm hands.
“You okay?” Carlos asked when Junpei finally made it upright, wobbling on his rolled ankle.
“I already said I was okay,” Junpei grumbled. “Just get me to the car and I’ll wait there till we head back.”
“You’ll wait?” Carlos repeated, gritting his teeth. “Junpei, you need to get your leg looked at now.”
Junpei rolled his eyes. “Dude, we were only at it for an hour before I fucked everything up,” he groaned. “Stay here and keep digging around. You’ve done this with me enough to know what to look for by now. And you know how to not fall through the floor like a goddamn idiot.”
Though they had only been at these scavenging missions for the past three months, they had seen the abandoned buildings become more decrepit before their eyes. The weather turned wild for days at a time without rhyme or reason. Even the mild rainfall was still strenuously acidic. The warehouse that had been stable yesterday had given way under Junpei’s feet today. Carlos had carried him out of the wreckage, a short while after Junpei heard the sound of his own name in Carlos’s most terror-stricken scream. The echo still rattled in his chest. He could barely stand to meet Carlos’s eyes.
“We need to get more stuff,” Junpei pleaded quietly. “It’s been a bad week.”
Though the solar panels were reliable, the output was low with all of the ash in the atmosphere. Junpei’s makeshift circuit switcher could only keep the power on in the building for a few hours at dusk and dawn, less than that if they needed to charge the electric cars. He did not want to waste the electricity he had stolen from the complex to drive out here. Someday they would need enough power to light up a sunless farm.
“We can’t get anything more from here,” Carlos said. “It’s too dangerous. It’s a loss, but it’s not your fault it’s a loss. Alright?”
“We’re down to two blades on the shitty windmill, Carlos,” Junpei begged. “Just… just get something for the blades, okay? We’ll work on stuff to finish the new one later.”
Carlos sighed. With a slow, steady motion, he brought Junpei’s weight closer to his chest. In a sea of ash and collapsed buildings, they shared a long, silent kiss.
“Whatever I can get in the next half-hour,” Carlos said. “I’ll carry you back to the car.”
Junpei flushed. “I—I can walk if you help me, I said I—”
His heart raced as Carlos crouched under his chest and swept him off of his feet into—naturally—a fireman’s carry as he stood back up. It gave one last pound when Carlos gave him a pat on his rear end.
“Gay, dude,” Junpei barked up at Carlos, his face beet red from all of the blood rushing to it.
“Just trying to get a good grip,” Carlos replied, patting him again, lightly squeezing.
They kissed again once Junpei was settled against the passenger seat of the compact car, his legs dangling out the door. “I miss your pickup,” he mumbled as Carlos combed debris out of his hair. “Coulda sat in the back all stretched out.”
There were some things they missed that were nice to talk about. There were too many things they missed that they only cried about in silence.
“November, now, isn’t it?” Junpei said, squinting into the rusty clouds.
“November 1st,” Carlos said with a nod.
Junpei smiled and closed his eyes. “It’s her birthday.”
“Hey, don’t fall asleep yet, Junpei. We should give the heads-up to HQ.”
“I know, I know. Jeez.”
He could not sleep through the throb in his leg, but he came close. Clear-weather weeks were grueling. His stomach often went emptier than it should. But every night he fell asleep in Carlos’s arms, knowing he was helping people survive in some small way.
He opened his eyes when he heard the scrape of metal against metal as Carlos tied down sheets of steel to the wimpy roof rack. Unable to hold back his curiosity, he tried to scoot off of his seat to appraise the goods. As soon as he let out a little grunt of discomfort when he jostled his knee, Carlos jumped down from the roof and urged him back inside the car with persuasive and ticklish kisses running down the back of his neck. He rode home with his broken leg stretched across the front seats, foot sitting in Carlos’s lap.
The dinky car could hit all of a mean 97 miles an hour on pavement. It dipped down to 82 off-road. Junpei and Carlos both agreed it was probably more energy-efficient—or maybe just more fun—to cut corners between perpendicular highways by running off into the dirt a little bit. They always drove back home on the wrong side of the highway to exploit the shortest overpass routes. “That’s how we do it in Japan,” Junpei had said when he first elected to take the unusual path.
“Should I pull up to the curb and let you off?” Carlos asked as he pulled into the parking lot of abandoned vehicles. “Or park and carry you in? We’ll want the parts outside for the windmills anyway.”
“Park and grab me a shopping cart,” said Junpei.
Carlos pried open the inactive automatic door to the Super Target in Omaha, Nebraska as Junpei slowly cart-surfed into the vestibule, laughing and grimacing. The light filtering through the cloudy sky cast murky shadows in the shapes of the three Frankenstein’s windmills barely rotating on the roof, hideous creatures of mismatched scrap metal and rusty parts. Junpei was the brain behind the circuitry and safeguards that wired the power generated by the turbines and the solar panels directly into the building.
As soon as they cleared the doorways, Carlos jogged in behind Junpei, interlaced their fingers on the cart handle, said, “Get your feet up,” and sprinted down the aisle to the back of the store. The barren shelves raced past at such a speed that Junpei’s laughter blended into exhilarated screaming.
James was the first to poke out of his aisle fort to see them. He had a smile on his youthful face already at the sound of Junpei’s good spirits. He darted off to holler the news of their arrival to the whole store before Carlos even needed to nag him. He had already told the store about Junpei’s injuries and what supplies would be brought back.
They had a lot of names for their apocalyptic shelter. An early one was the esper market, because that was how both Carlos and James heard about it: when one of the women hiding out in the hypermarket unintentionally transmitted her location to the nearby receivers with the idle thought that we could house a whole community in here. By way of the morphogenetic field, the superstore extended an invitation to all local survivors. Espers no longer outnumbered the common folk in the shelter, not after a number of search and recovery missions dedicated to finding anyone in the area who could not hear their psychic calls.
One of those ordinary folk was something of a resident nurse. She was a young mother who had that pleasant Southern hospitality that somehow twisted into something burning cold whenever she had a remark about how two young men should not be riding around on a shopping cart so close together, holding hands.
“Mary, my leg’s broken,” Junpei sighed. “He was just helping me get back here.”
Her brow had a knot of real concern. “I’m just saying y’all should be more careful about the example you’re setting for the children,” she warned as she dabbed antiseptic in Junpei’s open cuts. “They see you… touching each other, and it gives them those sinful thoughts, too. I don’t hate y’all for being homosexuals, you understand, but you can’t be influencing the children like this.”
Junpei’s pain had lowered his threshold for patience. Carlos watched him reach his limit as though he were watching the world’s slowest trainwreck.
“What’s wrong with the kids seeing two people finding a way to be happy when the world’s ending?” he groaned.
“Well, hun, it’s sin. It ain’t right. It goes against God.”
“You really think God is watching us anymore?” Junpei snapped.
Carlos fell into a sudden step forward, closer to the two of them. “Junpei,” he interjected cautiously.
“You think God is still there?” Junpei went on. “You think He’s up there watching humanity rip itself to shreds and saying, ‘Yup, all according to plan’?”
Some days, Junpei said such familiar words that Carlos wondered whether he had regained his memory of the Decision Games. It always seemed to be Akane’s lines he was recalling.
We may be in the timeline that God abandoned.
Maybe, some days, they were both hearing her voice through the field again.
“The Lord always works in mysterious ways,” Mary insisted. “You understand this could be a punishment for all the people living sinful lifestyles—”
“Mary, there’s nothing more I want than to be living a God-fearing, heterosexual life with the woman I love more than anything in the world,” Junpei shouted, “but God took her away from me.”
Although Carlos knew he should tell Junpei to calm down, to stop yelling at Mary, his mouth felt frozen. He remembered this feeling from the depression that had claimed him throughout April and May—although perhaps it had never let him go.
He trudged away to the sounds of Mary once again preaching heterosexuality on the grounds of repopulating the planet. Despite the faulty rhetoric, the words sank deep into his psyche, deeper than he had ever let them get before.
The large central aisles were kept clear for navigation. The rest of the aisles were divided among the survivors, barricaded by rearranged shelves or, in Junpei’s and Carlos’s case, the boxes of ninety-three gaming consoles. As one of the earlier parties to arrive at the shelter, they had had a wide selection of aisles to claim as their personal quarters. Without question or discussion they chose one in the entertainment section. Though they would not dare waste the electricity to play any of the hundreds of video games surrounding them, the aisle felt like home.
James, who also appreciated the ambience, came to visit their little apartment from time to time. He heard about the esper market before Carlos and Junpei. Despite their promise to make a detour to pick him up on their way to the shelter, James instead threw as much of his little remaining food supply into a backpack and biked eighty miles to Omaha, following an old trail along the Missouri River.
“Nebraska’s pretty flat and all. It wasn’t that bad,” James had said with a shrug when they finally met in person in the toy aisle, where all of the kids hung out during the day, and where James slept at night, without a family left to return to. “It only took a couple days, and it woulda been really out of the way for you guys to come get me, so.”
“Can’t believe he thought he wouldn’t make it on his own, back then,” Junpei had muttered one late night. “Kid’s got some fight in him.”
Carlos sank into the mattress laid out in the middle of the aisle, burying his face in one a decorative throw pillow from the home and design section. He did not want to share the bed with Junpei tonight. He did want to share the bed with Junpei tonight, but he wanted Junpei to want it, too, and maybe Junpei did not, not really, not as much as he would like to share the bed with someone else.
Carlos had always known this. He shoved it into the back of his head, tried to stay in the present moment, found himself believing in Junpei’s smiles and kisses and tentative confessions in the middle of the night. He knew Junpei would never stop loving Akane—Carlos himself could not stop loving Akane—but he thought, just maybe, he was good enough.
He could hear the squeaky cart wheels from the other side of the store. He listened while they grew closer and louder. As they did, he stuffed his face deeper into the pillow.
“Carlos,” Junpei whined from the other side of the Nintendo-Sony barricade. “Help me in. I’m wounded.”
In response, Carlos groaned into the pillow. He sounded tired enough to excuse the length of time it took to motivate himself to stand up. Their usual way past the console wall was to climb the shelves like a ladder and jump back down on the other side. By the time Carlos made it over, Junpei had dragged himself all the way up to the third shelf from the ground, despite a brace around his ankle and the wrap on his knee. Carlos hoisted him up to the top shelf, dropped down to the other side, and held his arms open for Junpei to carefully slide into.
“Didn’t mean to wake you up,” was Junpei’s only apology for trying to scale a shelf in his condition.
Carlos sighed. He lowered Junpei slowly to the mattress, eyes locked on the wraps on Junpei’s leg under his rolled-up jeans. “Is it broken?” he asked in a flat voice.
“She said probably fractured, but we’d need an x-ray to know for sure,” Junpei said. “Don’t exactly wanna hit myself with more radiation these days, even if we had the tech. I’ll just assume the worst.”
Carlos nodded, stood, and turned back to the exit.
“Wait, where you going?”
Junpei’s eyes were so alive, the color was liquid, with a desperate plea swimming in the pools of deep red. Carlos could not breathe. If he kept looking into that stare, he thought he might drown.
“Windmill,” he responded with a shrug. “I was just… resting. I should go help the guys patch it up.”
“Hey, wait, c’mon…”
Junpei snatched Carlos’s wrist and tugged him back. Carlos crouched down to his level without thinking. Before he had time to process what was happening, there were lips in his face. He tried to kiss back, but Junpei could tell. Junpei pulled back with disappointment in his eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
“It’s nothing,” Carlos mumbled. “It’s… stuff on my mind. Nothing. Sorry.”
He had been plenty affectionate earlier today, his teasing kisses flowing freely, but now the gestures would not come. This sudden cold spell was not one that would disappear with time spent alone or focused on other tasks. When his thoughts were not consumed by Junpei, they were consumed by doubt.
He was barely any help with the windmill. Junpei was the brains behind the operations, the hero of the shelter, the man who turned wind and sun into electricity, who could send messages reverberating throughout the whole camp with only the power of his mind. The makeshift windmills were the designs of another man, a middle-aged tinkerer, but even he conceded that Junpei was the man keeping this whole place together.
Carlos just held pieces of sheet metal in place while others more skilled operated the soldering iron.
Long after he had worked to physical exhaustion, he pushed himself further, waiting for the fatigue to deaden his spinning thoughts. When the skies gave a gust and the blades began turning, Carlos felt almost nothing but pain, certainly not the infectious joy spreading through the rest of the repair crew. If he felt anything else, it was because he had not worked himself hard enough to be numb to that doubt, the doubt that made him not want to return to the video game aisle, despite the desperate need to rest his weary body. He wanted there to be more for him to do, to work himself until his body gave out entirely and he fell directly into unconsciousness, or maybe worse.
He kept a physical distance from others, held his breath when they came near, covered his coughs and sneezes, because he was still not entirely sure he did not have Radical-6. Most days, he still craved death.
With every step towards the electronics department, towards Junpei, it felt as though more of his radioactive body had decayed into lead. It weighed down his legs and his stomach and poisoned him from the inside. He should never have attached himself to Junpei like this in the first place. He should have learned never again to hinge his happiness, his very will to live, on another person, not after losing Maria.
He took a slow, quiet step up the shelf and peered over the wall of consoles. Junpei lay face-down on the mattress, limbs splayed out, blankets in disarray. In this extended respite from hearing more lies and half-truths, Carlos tried to resent Junpei for his insincerity. Instead he felt only fondness, slowly rising along with the motions of Junpei’s chest as he breathed.
His breaths were slow, but not even.
His fingers curled into fists at the edges of the pillowcase. He slowly lifted his head. Both his face and his eyes were red and shining.
“Are you gonna leave?”
Carlos opened his mouth, but his head was blank.
“I can’t—I can’t do this without you, please,” he begged. “I need you, Carlos, I… I… I need you. Please don’t go.”
The word go got stuck on loop in Carlos’s head. He did not know where that word led. Where would he go? How? Why?
“I’m sorry.” The rest of Junpei’s words were muffled; he had shoved his head back into the pillow. “I’m such a piece of shit. I—I’ll do better, okay? I won’t… I won’t break my fucking legs like some dumbass who can’t—”
He cut himself off. His voice had gone hoarse.
“Please. I’ll do anything.” His hands slid under the pillow and pulled it closer to his face, smothering his painfully soft voice. “Please, just stay with me. Please. I’m sorry.”
“Junpei, are you apologizing for getting hurt?”
“I—I don’t know, not—not just that, that’s…” Junpei swallowed when his voice would not stop cracking. “I… what I said to Mary. Everything I said to Mary, all that shit I started with her, too. I’m sorry. But I—when I said I wanted to—that wasn’t—I didn’t mean—”
He pressed his hands to his eyes and sucked in slow, shaking breaths.
“I can’t do this without you. I… I don’t… I… n-need you, Carlos.”
Carlos was too tired, in too many ways, to think, or even to feel. His numb heart gave one slow, vague pang when he saw Junpei’s tear-streaked eyes turn towards him.
“But what happens when you find her?” he mumbled.
Junpei did not move, not even to breathe for the first few seconds. His hand started towards his eye just as his face broke into a grimace of even deeper pain.
“What if I never find her?”
It was barely a “what if” at this point, in Junpei’s mind. The world he knew and loved was decaying around him. At its center was Akane Kurashiki, and she was gone, too.
He reached out his hand. Despite the shame weighing on his arm, he lifted it towards Carlos, fingertips trembling.
Carlos’s body moved on its own. He blinked and he was on his knees beside Junpei; he blinked again and Junpei was in his arms, clutching his shirt and shaking. There was a sensation in his heart like cool water on a terrible burn: the slightest relief from unbearable pain, and the dread that came with knowing this reprieve was only temporary. He felt needed, if not loved, and that was nice. But he would never be enough for Junpei. He could never heal Junpei’s broken heart the way she could.
I need you, Carlos.
He almost did not notice her entrance. She was so soft, and she had stolen his memories of the sound of Junpei’s pleas to ease into his head.
Leave while Junpei is still recovering. Tell him it’s to rescue a distant survivor in need of shelter, she said. You will be gone for nine days. Everything is being arranged for you.
He would never heal Junpei’s broken heart.