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The eye of the storm

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Arata raised his head and squinted against a headache that pulsed from the back of his skull. A degrade, and a bad one for him to be this disoriented. Not that he could remember what had sent him back in the first place. That was odd; normally the events that sent him back were so awful that he didn't think he could ever forget them. Maybe he died in his sleep? That seemed unlikely.

He was in the Engima office, more specifically, his cubicle. His computer was on, and his monitor displayed lines of code that was just out of focus. He could see his glasses' frames and they felt pretty solid when he tapped his hand against the right arm, so his vision must still be recovering from the degrade. His hand moved from his glasses to his temple and he pressed his fingers against it, trying to remember what he was doing. Ultimately, he decided it didn't matter. He just had to find out what Shina was doing in World's Odyssey, and then he'd remember what was going on. Her character was pretty distinctive, so he thought he'd find her pretty quickly.

He didn't. It was like she wasn't there at all, but she had to be because why else would he have degraded to this moment if she wasn't in danger. He searched again, and again, checking his spelling when the third search revealed nothing. He'd lost her, and if he was lucky she was in the Strain Area. Except, the Strain Area wasn't in World's Odyssey either now; he could see where he had patched that out, and that was a question because how and when did he do that?

Arata put his hand to his mouth, and felt cold. He must have messed something up, and now he was in a timeline where everything was wrong. He'd have to go back further, to a point that he recognized, and he didn't know when that was. He stared at his screen, fingers buried in his hair and pulling, as he forced himself to think of contingency plans. None came to mind apart from degrading the timeline until he found her again.

"Did you lose your work?" Shina said from behind him. Arata's breath caught. She shouldn't be there. She should be trapped inside World's Odyssey, lost to him forever.

He turned around, knowing she should not be there. She was, hair tousled and damp, and face a little flushed from the shower she had just taken. Or, perhaps, she was flushed because she was embarrassed by his rising to his feet and reaching towards her. He realised what he was doing, stopped, and shoved his hands back into his pockets before sitting down again. He no longer had to degrade the timeline again and again to save Shina. He had saved everyone already.

"Sorry. I - I thought something had happened." He shrugged, looking to the side. He couldn't make eye contact with her after embarrassing himself like that. "I guess I was half-asleep."

"You mean all asleep," Shina sat down next to him in Tokiwa's chair. This close to him he could smell the soap on her skin. It turned out that the soap in the women's bathroom was the same as the men's. That was weirdly comforting. "You sounded like you were having a bad dream when I left."

Arata didn't remember falling asleep, let alone dreaming. He scrubbed at his face with the heel of his hand to try and pull himself back together.

"And you didn't even wake me." He meant to sound playful. It just came out flat and lifeless.

Shina grimaced.

"I tried," she protested, "but you were really asleep."

"Shit. Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. It's been a long week." He reached an arm up to stretch out a kink in his shoulder. "I'll have a shower too, see if that wakes me up."

"That's a good idea. We need to get the master for World's Odyssey ready as soon as possible!"

That startled a laugh out of him. At least Shina's laser focus on her projects hadn't wavered even when he had a meltdown in front of her. Before she went missing, he'd found that side of her equally endearing and incredibly frustrating, depending on what harebrained idea she'd come up with that time which he'd have to find a way to implement. Now, it was all endearing. Apparently rewinding time tens of thousands of times drove you a little insane. Who knew?

"What? What's so funny?" Shina wanted to know.

"Nothing," he said, and went for a shower. When he came out, she was gone, which was weird. Hadn't she stayed behind to work? Arata shook his head, certain he would never understand Shina, and went back to his cubicle to continue coding.

November brought a hint of frost in the air, and Arata arrived at work a little early to loiter outside and breathe the cold air. It'd been a long time since he had experienced snow. It felt like years. He'd never done the math to work out how long he had spent looping time and again, because he suspected the cumulative total was decades, and that knowledge would break him. So he stood, breathed in the November chill, and existed in this moment.

Then everything went dark.

"Guess who!"

Someone had covered his eyes with their gloved hands, pulling down on him slightly as they did so. The fabric pulled against his skin, and Arata froze in place; it was too awfully familiar and as his breath hitched —

—he lifts his head from the metal table in complete darkness. Someone else is in the room with him, but he cannot see them.

"A pleasure to see you again, Mizunashi Arata," a man drawls. There's static around his words, so they must be transmitted through a speaker. Something's being held to his neck. It's sharp and cold, and Arata knows without having to look that it must be a knife. He doesn't move. It's more that he can't move. He's frozen in place under a cascade of memories from multiple timelines, and he does not know which timeline he's in now. Is this the one where Aphesis are distracted before they can do more than cut his ear? What about the timeline where they break his nose? Or he bleeds out while they watch dispassionately? There are too many possibilities, all of them awful, and all of them he had lived before. He struggles against his bonds and —

—someone was saying his name. It sounded like they'd been saying it for a while. He wasn't in Aphesis's interrogation room, and his hands weren't tied behind his back. They were holding Tokiwa's wrists, her fingers splayed helplessly against the force of his grip. Horrified, he let her go and she brought her hands up to her chest. He could see the bruises already starting to form and he felt sick.

"I - I -" he started before he couldn't say anything more.

"We'll talk about it in a bit," Tokiwa said. She was staring at him wide-eyed. He'd scared her, and he didn't think Tokiwa knew how to be scared. She still held her hands up to her chest, cradling them against an ache. He'd done that, and he didn't even remember why he had done it. "Just - just stay here a minute. Okay? I'll be right back. Promise me you'll be here."

He didn't trust himself to speak, so he nodded jerkily. She turned on her heel and ran into the street. It was cold where he was standing, but he had made a promise to Tokiwa he'd be here when she came back, so he folded his arms against the wind and snow, pressed his forearms against his chest to try and steady his breathing. He'd had moments of disorientation before, but he'd never completely lost control of himself like this before.

The bones in her wrist had bent under the force of his grip. Arata shuddered, and told himself to stop thinking. It wouldn't help. Not now, anyway.

By the time Tokiwa had returned, two paper cups in hand, Arata's breathing was back under control. He took the cup she offered him, holding it in both hands so that his shaking didn't spill its contents on the ground.

"You okay now?" Tokiwa asked, and to his horror flashed a grin at him.

"Sorry," he muttered to the ground. "I don't know why I did that."

"You know, I've got some theories but it doesn't matter," Tokiwa said. She was looking right at him, as if she really saw him. It was terrible but he owed it to her not to look away. "I'm sorry I scared you."

Arata shook his head.

"Tokiwa. I'm fine. You don't have to worry over me like that."

Tokiwa snorted. "Really? Because every other time I do that you get annoyed. You sigh, you tell me I'm being stupid, sometimes you even swear at me if you're in a really bad mood, but you always know it's me. You don't start hyperventilating in the street."

"I wasn't hyperventilating," Arata protested.

"Look at your hands. You're shaking."

Arata did not look down at his hands. He knew they were shaking, because all of him was. He gripped the cup more firmly, the paper flexing under his hands. The liquid inside slopped onto his hands and he made a face.

"It's cold," he said. "That's normally what happens when you're cold."

Tokiwa rolled her eyes.

"Seriously, Arata, what gives?" she pressed. Then she frowned and added, more gently, "Did something happen to you?"

For a brief, insane moment, Arata considered telling her about degrading. Tokiwa had been nothing but supportive in all of the timelines, courageous in ways he could never be. If it was something that could be fought, then she'd be the best ally he could hope for.

Then he discarded the idea.

"Just … personal stuff I'm working through," he offered finally.

"Yeah?" Tokiwa said. "Well, if you ever want to tell me, I'll listen. I can't promise I'm a good listener, but I'll try."

"I know," Arata said, and meant it. "If there was anything you could do something about, I'd tell you."

"Aw, that's sweet." Then she grinned. "Now drink your hot chocolate before it gets cold."

Arata looked down at his cup and grimaced. Hot chocolate was sticky and sweet, and clung to his teeth for ages afterward. He had made his opinions on hot chocolate perfectly clear to Tokiwa over the years, and yet it still didn't seem to stick.

"Ugh, what's wrong with coffee?" he grumbled.

"Nothing, except when you live on the stuff," Tokiwa said breezily. "Don't lie, I've seen the coffee cups on your desk. It's like you're collecting them."

"You could have just asked me to clean my desk off," Arata pointed out.

"Besides, your blood sugar needs the help." Tokiwa smiled. "Drink up!"

He did. The hot chocolate was exactly as sweet and sticky as he assumed it would be, but he felt less shaky afterward. He nodded at Tokiwa, who grinned back, took his cup and tossed it in the bin before they went inside.

December brought a new phenomenon to Sagami City: an hour every night where everything froze in place. Arata was spared from this citywide automatic shutdown only by sheer luck: he had been tinkering with the program that triggered a degrade on his death and had accidentally tripped the macro to exclude him from whatever was causing this. He sighed, and switched programs to the one that defined Sagami City. There were some weird programming bugs in there, things he hadn't seen before, so Arata took a moment to compose himself before he started debugging. It took him a while, but he finally came up with a patch he could apply. He did so, and waited for it to take effect.

Then someone knocked on his door. Arata slammed his laptop closed and shoved it into his messenger bag, preparing to jump out the window and make a break for it. Then he heard Shina on the other side of the door.

"Mizunashi, let me in! I know you're awake, the lights are on!"

Well, that much was true. The rest of the city was pitch black and silent, and the light from his screen would have been a beacon. Arata cursed himself for his stupidity. Just because he could degrade the timeline as necessary didn't mean he could make stupid mistakes. He shouldered his messenger bag just in case, took a breath, and opened his front door.

It was Shina, still in her work clothes, but had somewhere picked up a sword that she held with practiced grace. Her buggy was tangled around her leg, and although her hair was mussed and her glasses askew, she grinned at him fiercely. Perhaps she remembered her time in World's Odyssey, or at least only the good parts.

"Hi Shina," Arata offered. "You can come in if you want."

He stepped aside and she walked inside. He then closed the door behind her, locked it, and considered whether any of his furniture would serve as a barricade. Maybe he should look into that in the morning. There were so many things for him to look into that it made him tired to list them all.

"Don't just hi Shina me," Shina said. "What are you doing here? Why are you awake?"

"I live here?" Arata pointed out. Then, "Why wouldn't I be awake? I've got admin rights."

"Admin rights?" Shina echoed. "Like a program?"

He decided that he wasn't going to be able to barricade his door after all, and hung up his messenger bag on his chair.

"Yeah. You know all that occult stuff Tokiwa talks about? It's just a bug that I can iron out with enough time. The patch will take soon."

Shina stared at him, open-mouthed.

"You have a buggy like me? Why didn't you say anything?"

"Because I don't…?" Arata said, puzzled. "It's just programming. Anyone could do it."

"Somehow I doubt that," Shina said.

"Well, maybe not you," Arata conceded.

Shina glared. "I could, if I wanted."

"Sure, sure. I'll remember that when you want me to spend six weeks recoding the entire game because you don't like the choice of underwear. Again, no-one can see it, it's irrelevant and a waste of time."

"I know it's there," Shina protested. "It's my vision, and I am God for this project!"

"Yep, you sure are," Arata agreed. Past experience meant that he knew better than to argue with that.

Shina was quiet then. That was never good, especially given that she had a sword in one hand and the buggy around her leg was making weird noises. The latter was particularly creepy. Arata really needed to find a way to patch that out as well. He looked outside and saw distant lights turn on; evidently what he'd done earlier was working.

"Well, I guess that worked," he muttered, looking to the skyline.

"Hey, Mizunashi," Shina said finally. He turned around to look at her once more. "Is this what was wrong with you last year? Why you're so jumpy all the time?"

He looked down at his feet. He didn't want to see her expression, or her to see his. He thought about telling her everything: the degrading, Aphesis, the Ludens. He thought about telling her that he didn't know how old he was anymore, that when he woke up he didn't know when he was. He thought about telling her about Lydia, who no-one remembered, and how she had left him a book and pen that showed him the ephemeral nature of their world. He wanted to. That was why he decided he shouldn't, because if he told her, he'd have to tell her why she didn't remember any of it and he couldn't tell her the many ways she died before he worked out how to save her.

So he told her a little truth to avoid the big one.

"Yeah. I've been trying to fix all the weird things that keep happening here. It's a lot of work."

"Yeah, especially for someone like you."

"What's that meant to mean?" Arata wanted to know, stung. "Are you criticising my work ethic?"

Shina shook her head. Arata only realised now that her sword was stained with something black and thick, like ichor. He looked at it, swallowed, and looked away. Perhaps there really were monsters in the streets of Sagami City. He'd have to tell Tokiwa she was right. Later, when everything was fixed.

"No, that's not it at all." She sounded so sad. "Mizunashi, why didn't you say anything until now?"

He didn't know, so he half-shrugged with one shoulder.

She looked torn for a minute, before putting her sword away. It disappeared. Arata didn't know where, but assumed it was the same place that RPG characters' weapons went during cutscenes. He'd have to tease that out later. Yet another thing to be done tomorrow. Then she stepped towards him, arms outstretched.

"Uh. What are you doing?" he said, taking a step backward. "We're not doing this."

He froze in place when Shina, having evidently decided that they were doing this, hugged him. It felt strange and Arata was exquisitely aware of his body trembling in response. He didn't know where to put his hands so he kept them by his side.

"You've been scared all this time, haven't you?"

"Oh God," he moaned in embarrassment, because she was completely right and he did not like it. "Why are you doing this?"

"Shh, just stop being you for a minute, okay?"

He stopped, went silent, and let her hug him. If he was being honest with himself, it was nice having someone hold him like this. He closed his eyes, because it would be the wretched capstone for the last several months for him to start crying while the project lead gave him the first hug he'd had in decades. He would not do that. He wouldn't be able to live with himself afterward.

"I know it's weird," Shina said to his chest, "but I'm really glad you told me the truth!"

"Sure," Arata mumbled, because he hadn't and felt bad for it.

She squeezed her arms around him, and then stepped away. Arata stood stock still, feeling really awkward. He could feel where Shina had hugged him, the sensation of touch lingering, and he didn't really know what to do with that. He lifted his glasses to rub at the bridge of his nose, more to do something with his hands than because his face ached.

"Besides," Shina went on. "If you kept going on like that, you wouldn't be able to make a baby with me!"

Arata groaned and took some solace in the fact that while his walls were thin, his neighbours could not hear her say that right now. Only Shina would refer to a video game program as her baby.

"I really wish you wouldn't say it like that," he complained.

"Like what? They are my babies!"

"I know. I know." Shina's particular brand of insanity was familiar territory though, and the knot of anxiety that had been driving him on had loosened. He found himself smiling at it.

Shina was looking at him, eyes wide with delight.

"What?" he asked, folding his arms once more.

"You smiled. You haven't done that in ages."

She might be right. There hadn't been many things to smile about that year. Still, he hadn't expected to worry her because of it.

"Yeah. I suppose not. It's been a long year."

"Easier now that I know what's going on."

"I guess," he said, surprisingly tired now that that small truth was out in the open. "I'll walk you to the station. The train should be running by the time we get there."

"No," Shina said, surprisingly firm. "You're staying right here. I can take care of myself, but I'm not sure you can take care of you."

"Say what you really think," Arata muttered, but he had to concede the point. Shina had a sword and magic, and obviously could take care of herself given she already had when Sagami City was at its most dangerous. He, on the other hand, wanted to sit down on his bed and not get up again. "Message me when you get on the train, won't you?"

"You need to not worry so much," Shina chided him on her way out the door. She messaged him anyway, taking a photograph of the train's interior to prove her location. The following message, sent a minute later, was Everything will be okay! Arata wasn't so sure about that, but as he let himself sit on his bed, phone clutched in his hand, he wanted to believe it anyway.