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“Carlos…. Am I able to trust you?”

“Huh? Junpei, where’d that come from?”

“Just answer me, ok? Can I trust you?”

“Y-yeah, of course.”

Junpei was dreaming, but for once, it wasn’t a nightmare from other timelines. It was of that first night at DCOM, when Carlos had spoken to him after that particularly bad nightmare. They were both silent, hardly visible in the soft light from the digital clock, and yet Junpei felt a strange sense of calm- he didn’t know why, but he’d believed Carlos when he said he was trustworthy.

“…pei? Junpei? Hey, you awake?”

He groaned and rolled over to find Carlos shaking him awake, and opened his eyes to the reactor room. It looked like he was the last to wake up, but he didn’t stand right away. Of all the times to remember something so specific… why now? Could it… could it have to do with the nightmare he’d had back then?

No, he was just being paranoid. He’d probably only thought about him because Carlos had been trying to wake him up, that was all. There was nothing more to it, so he decided to move on.

By the time he stood up and glanced around the room, Carlos and Aoi had dispersed as well, looking at other things. He decided he might as well do so too, and went for the door- locked, obviously. It was hardly like he could’ve expected any better result, really- who would put them all in a room like this, then forget to lock the door? You’d have to be a pretty sorry excuse for a Zero to make a mistake like that.

“Huh… says here that this reactor automatically supplies energy to this facility- it’s got enough power to keep going for years without any outside input.”

Aoi had set down the manual he was flipping through, and had turned to look at Junpei and Carlos, who’d gathered beside him.

“Well, you don’t think Zero plans to lock us in here for years, do you?”

Carlos shuddered at the suggestion, shaking his head.

“Sure hope not.”

There was not much else to talk about, which left them standing in awkward silence. Eventually, Carlos decided the best thing to do would be to check his watch.

“No way, it’s already the new year… twenty-two years since Maria was born… never thought there’d be a time when I wouldn’t be there to wish her a happy new year. This sucks…”

Carlos had sighed, and was looking at the floor. Whoever he was talking about, she had to mean a lot to him…

“Is she… your girlfriend?”

“No, my little sister… She fell ill ten years ago, and was in the hospital ever since. I stopped by every day to tell her good morning and good night… they were really important to us. I’m… I’m all she has, now.”

The grim mood had worked its way over all three of them now, none exactly sure what to say. Junpei had shoved his hands into his pockets, so that neither of them would notice he’d balled his hands into fists. That was… that was too unfair. It wasn’t exactly the same, but Maria’s story reminded him too much of Akane… Junpei briefly wondered if they might have been friends, had they known each other as kids- no, he couldn’t possibly know that.

“Oh, that’s right…”

Aoi was scratching the back of his head awkwardly, looking at Junpei. It seemed that he wanted to change the topic, and Junpei couldn’t blame him at all.

“Happy new year, Junpei. Akane… she wanted to tell you that for nine years. I’m not her, but…”

Aoi was looking away, and Junpei bit the inside of his lip. Why would Aoi tell him that? There was no reason… no reason at all for Aoi to care about Junpei’s feelings. And yet… despite everything…

“You say that, but… what can I say to that?”

“Well, you could give him a proper response. Isn’t he important to you?”

Carlos was smiling softly, and Junpei was certain his face had flushed red. He shook his head quickly- perhaps a bit too quickly- and looked away.

“N-no, it’s nothing like that. He’s just… he’s just an acquaintance.”

“Really? And here I’d figured you guys’d dated at some point…” Now all three of them were blushing, clear embarrassment heavy in the air. “Ugh… sorry, I guess that made things awkward, huh? I, uh.. just wanted to know how you guys were connected. The best way to build teamwork is to know who your partners are, after all…”

“Heh… just like a firefighter.” Aoi appeared to have overcome the mood first, and was chuckling softly to himself, but Junpei could only sigh. “Well, let’s just leave it at that- let’s focus on finding a way out now, how ‘bout?”

All of them nodded, and split up to search the room. The first thing they all noticed were the two drain covers sitting out- they mutually agreed it’d be better to cover them up, and started with that right away.

“Heh, well, now we’ll be safe from alien attacks.”

“Not much help if it’s the kind that come bursting from your stomach, though.”

They were both chuckling, glad to have caught each others references, but Junpei was doing his best not to stare. Sure, Alien was a classic, but for both of them to have seen it? It was a pretty old movie- 1979, if he recalled correctly- so he wouldn’t have expected that from either of them. He managed to resist the urge to talk more about it, though- now was hardly the time for his random movie trivia.

They’d moved on from the drain covers, allowing Junpei to distract himself with the various valves and pipes on the walls. Some of them looked fully frosted over, which meant they’d have to hope that whatever was inside hadn’t frozen as well. It was probably part of the puzzle, but it still didn’t bode well regardless.

“Matches? What, are we supposed to warm the room with these?”

Aoi had picked up a matchbook, and was looking at it scrupulously. Whether he didn’t trust the matches or he just wanted the room to warm up, Junpei didn’t know for certain. Both options were certainly plausible, at the very least.

They didn’t speak much for the next while, simply trying to figure out how to get the gas and power valves to turn on. The instruction manual Aoi had found earlier didn’t seem to do much in terms of explaining the rest of the room, so they had to go off instincts. AKA, if a light turned on, they’d just assume that was good.

Junpei next went to examine one of the red cabinets, pulling out a fire extinguisher. Carlos was quick to identify it as a freezing extinguisher, and they set it on the ground by the control panel. They’d probably have to use it eventually, but there was no reason to lug it around now…

They found that the lower drawer just had a block of tin, although they had no idea yet what it could be used for. It was set down by the extinguisher, for later.

There was more time spent just fiddling around with the switches, until they finally managed to open the other cabinet, obtaining a key mould, as well as a puzzle. Carlos made  fairly short work of it, earning them a couple of strange plugs.

“…Sink plugs, do you think?”

“Well, I can hardly imagine where else you’d be able to put them. Don’t look like they’d fit up your nose.”

“Yeah.”

Junpei and Carlos were examining them, but he noticed that Aoi was giving them a funny look- what was his problem? Was there some joke they were missing out on? Well, whatever it was, it was probably unimportant. They put the plugs in place, ignoring whatever had been on his mind, and grabbed the tin block and the moulds. It looked like they could probably make a key from one of the furnaces in the room, if they did things right. They began with lighting the one on the far side of the room, and the effect was quite pleasantly fast- the room had warmed up pretty quickly, as had the frozen pipes. Well, some of the pipes at least- the ones near the main control were still visibly frosted over.

Curious, Junpei went to test one of the sinks, but it was no good. If they needed the water, there was probably no way they’d be able to get anything with the pipes frozen like that… for now, they’d best keep focus on the key project.

It seemed like that’d been Carlos and Aoi’s plan also, as by the time Junpei got over there, they were already pulling something out.

“That was fast.”

“Yeah. Shouldn’t complain though, the faster we get the puzzle pieces, the faster we can leave.”

“True.”

Looking around again, Junpei noticed something particularly obvious that he’d missed earlier- a tall blue pipe with a valve on it. He managed to turn it with a bit of effort, and he heard movement once he was done- looked like he’d been wrong about the water, then. It should flow now…

“Gimme a P?”

Junpei turned and looked at Carlos, who was staring at the pipes on the wall.

“P.”

His head whipped around to Aoi, who responded.

“Gimme an I!”

Encouraged by the response, Carlos got a bit louder.

“I!”

“Gimme a P!”

“P!”

“Gimme an E!”

“E!”

“What does that spell?”

“Pipe!”

Junpei had joined in, against his better judgement, and the three of them spent a solid thirty seconds just staring at each other, before splitting up once more to search the room.

“That was…. weird.”

Neither of the others seemed to want to acknowledge what had just happened, so Junpei figured he wouldn’t either.

After he finally started moving again, he started looking at a large lever, standing beside the windows that overlooked the reactor. It looked like the key they’d made would fit in pretty well, so he called for Carlos and Aoi, one hand already stationed on the lever the second Carlos handed the key over.

“Well, I’m ready to pull it. You guys ready?”

“You look… pretty excited there, Junpei.”

“Hey, you can hardly blame him. Kinda reminds me of those old giant robot anime, like Gundam or Evangelion.”

“Wait, Carlos, you know those shows?”

Once again, it was hard for Junpei to hide his enthusiasm. Why were they talking about the things that interested him right now? Perhaps completely oblivious to his internal struggle, Carlos nodded and answered his question.

“I like machines. My sister’s not a huge fan, but she likes watching anything on TV.”

“You really care for her, don’t you…”

Junpei saw Aoi’s face fall, and he cut in before anything more could be said.

“You’re taking too long, pulling it!”

The moment he did, the shutters around the reactor closed. Carlos and Aoi both looked at him, but he only shrugged- Zero wouldn’t have given them the option if he wasn’t supposed to do it. They took a bit more time to realize that they could now use the water to power up the main control, and had to solve another puzzle once they did so, this time featuring Greek letters. When they solved that one, the core in the center lit up and started spinning- it worried Junpei, but he had to hope that was what was supposed to happen. Doing so had unveiled another puzzle, after all… so probably.

This one took a while as well, plenty of trial and error, but they eventually figured it out. Unfortunately, that seemed to be unlucky for them, as it set off an alarm- ‘EVACUATE OR SHUT OFF POWER’, the screens said. The core was spinning, and Junpei couldn’t help but wonder if it was destabilizing or something. Well, whatever was happening, it wasn’t good…

It was Carlos who ended up saving the day, grabbing the extinguisher from earlier and using it on the drainage ditches. It didn’t look like it had frozen much, but it was enough to stop the current for now, and for now was good enough.

“Phew…”

“Too close for my liking.”

Aoi and Carlos both breathed out sighs of relief, but Junpei’s attention was caught by the sound of a door opening. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the door out, but it was still something to check…

“Yea- AAGH!”

Aoi had taken a step forwards, but he hadn’t accounted for the ice still on the floor. His foot had slipped out from under him, and ended up touching the water, giving him a bad shock.

“Shit! Aoi! Aoi, are you alright?!”

It didn’t take him more than a second to kneel down beside the other boy, pulling him backwards. He was unconscious, but he was still breathing- thank goodness for that. Carlos had crouched over as well, with a worried look on his face, but Junpei did his best to reassure him.

“He’s ok, just unconscious. He should wake up soon…”

“That’s good… we should see if we can get him out of here, though. Get him to one of the couches.”

“And how do you suggest we do that? The door’s still locked, Carlos.”

“We need to check out that room, that’s all.”

It made sense, and it was the only option they had left, so Junpei shrugged and agreed to it. He propped Aoi up beside a wall far from the water, somewhere he couldn’t fall over and get hurt again, and joined Carlos in looking at the screens.

“The… AB game?”

There were rules on the screens, and a lot of them.

Players: Carlos and Junpei

Stand before the monitor and vote to either [A: Ally] or [B: Betray].

You MUST vote at the same time.

If the timing is off, everyone in the shelter will be executed.

You both start with 3 BP.

This number will change based on voting results.

Following that, were more screens with graphics explaining the points. If both of them allied, then both got three points. If one allied and one betrayed, then the ally lost three, while the betrayer gained six. Finally, if they both betrayed, then neither of them would gain any points.

“The prisoner’s dilemma…”

Junpei had heard of it, of course. But what reason could Zero have for making them play it now? There was no way Carlos would pick betray, which meant it would make little sense for Junpei to betray him. They continued onto the next screens, but they were far less comforting. If you hit 9 BP, then the door would unlock, but if you hit zero, then you’d be executed… with an anesthetic in your bracelet……

A chill ran down Junpei’s spine as he realized why that sounded so horribly familiar. Wasn’t… wasn’t that what’d happened in the nightmare, back then? Had… had Carlos actually betrayed him? No, that wasn’t possible. Just because it’d been in a dream, that didn’t mean it actually happened.

The final screen was the worst, however.

Beware: others will share the same fate as you.

→ If Carlos dies, Diana and Sigma will die as well.

→If Junpei dies, Aoi and Phi will die.

Make your choice carefully.

Both Junpei and Carlos looked at each other, clearly unsettled by the game’s rules. Junpei wanted to trust Carlos, he felt like he could trust him… but could he really? Yes, yes, stop worrying Junpei. You can trust him.

“Ally…”

“… Or betray… fuck! Just how far is he willing to go to fuck with us… Zero, you bastard!

Junpei kicked the base of the voting machine. It wasn’t like doing so could solve anything, but it could at least let out his frustrations a little bit.

“Well, we hardly have a choice, right? We both need to pick ally.”

Carlos was giving Junpei a confident smile, hands on his hips. Junpei nodded, but he couldn’t shake the uncertainty at the back of his mind. The image of Carlos standing over him, watching as he started to suffocate, had pushed its way back into his mind. He had to tell himself it wasn’t real- there was no way it was real. It was just coincidence, or maybe it was from a timeline that was much further removed, but it couldn’t be from this one.

“Hey, Carlos… do you mind if we just check on Aoi first?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

They headed out of the room, and back over to him. Junpei knelt beside Aoi’s body to check his breathing and pulse, making sure they were still stable, before deciding to just sit beside him.

“You know… this guy right here is a complete idiot.”

“What?”

It clearly wasn’t what Carlos had expected him to say, but Junpei didn’t let him express any more of his confusion.

“He’s too noble for his own good, really. Everything he’s done, everything for the past ten years of his life, has been for someone else. Aoi… when he was young, his and Akane’s parents died. He was still just a kid, but he took over as her dad, too. He decided to become her Santa Claus- he did anything just to make sure she’d keep smiling.”

Junpei pulled the box from his pocket, staring at the familiar rectangular shape. Now wasn’t the right time, but it gave him some comfort anyways.

“He’d work all year, saving up money, and then each December he’d get her to write a letter to Santa. Then, with the extra money, he’d make sure to buy her a gift. But then… I….”

Junpei’s free hand tightened into a fist, and he had to bite his lip to keep his voice even.

“I… ruined it all. If I’d never met Akane, then… then she’d still be alive right now.”

“Junpei, that’s…”

“It’s true, Carlos. That’s why… that’s why I decided I would do anything to make him happy. No matter what it meant for me, I decided that all I wanted was to make it up to him. I can’t give him back his childhood, I can’t give him back his sister… but I still want to do whatever I can for him. I swore that to myself a year ago.”

They were both silent for a while, but it was Carlos who eventually moved first. There was no point in delaying the inevitable, so they had to play that game- they were going to play, and they were both going to pick Ally.

….right?

“Alright, make sure you don’t mess up on the timing.”

“I won’t. You don’t either.”

“Ok then. Three…. Two…. One….”

They each pushed the buttons, and waited for the results. They displayed on the screen with little delay- but Junpei’s heart stopped when he saw them.

CARLOS: 9BP

JUNPEI: 0BP

“Y-You- Carlos, you-“

He could only stare at him. Why? Even more dumbfounding however, was the look Carlos was giving him. If anything, he looked more horrified than Junpei.

“What? No… Junpei, I just thought- I expected you to hit betray, to protect Aoi…

“……Carlos… you bastard.”

“I- I just wanted to protect Diana and Sigma! That’s all!”

SHUT THE FUCK UP, YOU MURDERER!

Junpei screamed at Carlos, his voice hoarse and raw. Carlos had betrayed him. He’d promised… he’d broken his promise. He’d said he was trustworthy, but Junpei would never trust him again.

“J-Junpei, please, listen to me-“

He was going to say more, but he felt the needles in his bracelet activate. His body instantly felt heavy, and he fell the ground, unable to support himself properly.

“You… liar… you said… I could… trust you……”

He’d been stupid to trust him. He’d been stupid to trust anyone. Aoi was the only one Junpei could trust. The only one who would never betray him. Aoi was the only person who was worth anything. Only Aoi, only him.

“I’ll…. never forget this… Carlos…… I swear… I’ll kill you for this…… no matter what………”

If it had just been him, then he wouldn’t have cared- Junpei was expendable. If Carlos had only wanted to sacrifice him to escape, then Junpei would have been fine with that. But Carlos had killed Aoi, and that was unforgivable. Absolutely unforgivable. Even if it took him a million timelines, he would kill Carlos for this.

RaaaaAAAAGH!”

The sound of metal on bone rang out through the small room, and Junpei could see Carlos crumple to the floor from where he’d collapsed. His vision was blurring, but he could see him- Aoi, in the doorway, with the fire extinguisher.

“You bastard! How dare you kill him! How fucking dare you!

Aoi was screaming, and repeatedly slammed the fire extinguisher down on Carlos’s head. Blood was splattering all over his body, and he could hear the sounds of Carlos’s skull being smashed in- there was no way he was living through that. Looked like just Diana and Sigma would be spared, then… better them than Carlos.

By the time Aoi finally stopped, Junpei could hardly keep his eyes open. He forced himself to look up at Aoi, standing beside him- there was a hollow sadness in his eyes, and a resignation to death that Junpei was far too familiar with.

“Junpei…”

It was all Aoi could get out before he collapsed forwards, landing on top of Junpei’s corpse in a blood-covered heap.