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Part One: Rage

+

“He’s a dud. Just like his brother.”

            A scream builds in Karen Travers’s throat—a hot, blood-tasting ball of noise that he forces back with a pained swallow. He hates that voice. So sweet and cloying, so full of fake sorrow. He would crush it to bits if he could, shatter it underfoot like the sedative pops the nurses used to give him. Candy red, sharded all over the floor. Candy red, burning at the corners of his vision, a rage all too monstrous for his eight-year-old bones.

            Karen twists his hands into his hair. Digs his elbows into his knees. How can they know that Luka’s a dud? He’s a toddler. He barely talks. He still slobbers on his toys. The other day, he chased Karen around the courtyard with a mouthful of grass and spat it all over his hospital whites. How can they tell a kid like that isn’t a psionic? 

            “His scans looked fine until now. I’m sorry, Mrs. Travers.”

            They’re wrong. Everyone grows into their powers. Maybe not him, maybe not the other kids in the Dud Ward, but Luka is different. There is a shimmer in his eyes that Karen doesn’t see in his own, the small, bright promise of a gift.

            “At least he’ll be with Karen.”

            Karen presses his back into the wall, so hard the cinder blocks leave bruises on his spine. The world swims. The air quickens, reeking of bleach and latex and cauterized flesh. He dents his nails into his skull, grounding himself in the pain. Still, the future taunts him. He closes his eyes and sees Luka in the Dud Ward, his small, pale body jammed full of tubes and wires, a bloom of pink electrode burns glaring out from beneath his bangs.

            Karen does not cry for his brother; the doctors stole his tears from him long ago. But he grieves him, grieves the happy normal life he deserves—the one this world denies to Karen.

“Hey, are you okay?”

            Karen pulls his head from his elbows. A girl stands over him, her hands bent curiously behind her back. She’s younger, else her cheeks are still round with baby fat, sporting a blunt helmet of yellow hair and a rumpled Suoh Elementary uniform. Concern blears her violet eyes; something about her makes Karen want to melt through the seams of the tile and disappear.

            “I’m fine,” he lies. The nurse and his mother have gone quiet, now. Mother must be doing paperwork. Signing Luka’s life away to the doctors and nurses and all the sharp, brutal things they wield. “Go away.”

            The girl plants her hands on her hips. A gear seems to shift within her, turned by defiance. “Nuh-uh. I’m not going away until you tell me the truth.”

            “I don’t even know you.”

            “I’m Alice Ichijo, daughter of Director Tatsuki Ichijo,” the girl—Alice—says, her chin tilted up and chest puffed out.

            Karen glowers at her. “Director of what?”

            “This hospital, dummy,” she says, her voice high and petulant. “How did you not know that?”

            “I’m too sick to remember names.”

            The words taste strange in his mouth. The doctors here don’t like the word sick. People without powers are “duds” or “bell peppers”—empty things, parts of a bad batch. Things can be tweaked into conformity. To call him sick would beget care, and caution, and a dud has the privilege of neither.

            Alice frowns. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t very nice.” She crouches beside Karen, stockinged knees to the cold tile floor. “What kind of sick?”

            “Just sick, okay?” Karen shoots back.

            “Can I catch it?”

            “No, you idiot,” Karen snaps. “Just get out of my face. It’s not like you can do anything about it.”

            “I can be your friend.”

            Karen grumbles. “That’s not going to fix anything.” Especially not my brother.

            “Yeah, but who wants to be sick alone?” Alice counters. “Whenever I get sick, my mommy and my big brother are always there for me. And sometimes my friends from school call me through the Visions. But if I’m really sick, I usually can’t talk much.”

            “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

            Alice gapes at him. “You’re so mean!”

            Karen shoves his face into his arms again. “Didn’t I tell you to go away?”

            “I can’t hear you,” she says. “All I hear is elbow.”

            Karen doesn’t budge. What an irritating little girl.

            “You really should look at people when they’re talking to you, Karen.”

            The sound of his mother’s voice sends Karen rocketing to his feet. She stands behind Alice, Luka propped on her hip, clinging to her. He seems dazed, on the verge of a nap. Their mother’s blotchy face is pulled into a scowl.

            “You’re supposed to be in your room,” she continues.

            “I wanted to see Luka.”

            Luka smiles at the sound of his name. Karen winds his hands into fists—his strength frays.

            “We’re going to get him checked in,” his mother says. “Tell your friend here you’ll see her later.”

            She’s not my friend, Karen wants to say, but then his mother is following the nurse down the hall, carrying Luka away from his brother, towards his fate.

            Alice, left in their wake, looks down at the floor. “Your brother…”

            “Yeah,” Karen mutters. “He’s sick, too.”  

            Alice’s head snaps up, a shadow in her eyes. She throws her tiny body into Karen’s and winds her arms tightly around his waist. 

            Heat flares in his cheeks. “What are you doing?” he exclaims.

            “I’m hugging you,” she says into his shoulder.

            “Why?”

            “Because you’re sick, and that makes me sad, so it probably makes you sad, too,” she explains, so precociously sure of her words, “and when people are sad, they need hugs. Simple.”

            Slowly, he returns her embrace. Her cardigan is itchy and her hair smells like fake strawberry and playground sweat, but something about her drives the rage away, if only for a moment, while she pats her tiny fingers against his back.

            Maybe it really is that simple.

+

Two weeks later, Alice returns with her father. She finds Karen during the Dud Ward’s lunch hour, where Karen and Luka and a handful of other scar-smattered, powerless kids eat watery soup and apple slices in a cramped activity room. Alice catches Karen’s eye through the door’s latticed slat window, and when a nurse’s aide leaves to grab more apples, Karen slinks out behind him.

            Alice’s smile nearly splits her face in two. She grabs Karen by the hand and pulls him around the corner, into a secluded hallway. “We’re going on an adventure,” she declares, her voice buoyed on all the gusto a seven-year-old can muster.  “I bet you’ve never been to the gardens before.”

            Karen’s brow furrows. “You mean the courtyard?”

            “No, dummy. The gardens. Come on, this way.”

            She drags him down to the end of the hall, past tight-seamed labs and supply closets, through the unmelodious din of beeps and drones and screeching gurney wheels, to a narrow back stairwell hidden behind a set of white double-doors. Her shoes squeak up all five flights of rubber-coated steps.

            They burst through a second set of doors into a hot, airless hallway. Tinted windows suggest vague shapes of an outside world, an inky profusion of sepia and shadow. Potted trees shroud the exit, but Alice moves nimbly around them, jamming her elbow into the door’s push-handle.

            Karen’s eyes water in the sudden bright—he can’t remember the last time he went outside. The mid-autumn air carries a chill, but the sun is warm, leaving thumbprints of heat on the highs of his cheeks.

            The gardens teem with sound and color: the wind rustles late-blooming shrubs, families roam the paths with their talkative children, a staffer naps beneath a leaning red maple, a half-eaten bento box left open on her lap. 

            Alice leads Karen further into the gardens, down a narrow, muddy spit between a row of young junipers. Beyond the trellised garden wall, the Lokusho City skyline gleams with a daunting brilliance. Black rock mountains form a hazy parabola behind it, like the whole city lies scooped in an earthly palm.

            “It’s so sunny out,” Alice murmurs. “The Extinction Belt must be high today.”

            “The Extinction Belt,” Karen echoes. He hasn’t seen it since he was Luka’s age, but he remembers the way his mother would speak about it, drawing the curtains on the days it’d hang low, as if the great oil slick in the sky could come raining down and seeping through the windows, spawning Others from every crack and seam in the house.

            Alice cranes her neck, the sunlight a cast of white ink on her pale face. “Look up, Karen. Can you see it?”

            Karen obliges. The sky is a diluted sort of blue, forming wide seas between tufty white clouds. For a moment, he sees nothing, and he wonders if the Extinction Belt is just like the Visions, invisible to duds, another breach to carve them off from the rest of humanity. But then new colors appear: greens and pinks and golds, moving in hooked curls from the edge of one cloud to the next, like the shimmer in a soap bubble.

            “It’s kind of beautiful,” Alice muses.

            “And dangerous,” Karen replies, though he can’t hide the awe in his voice.

            “Very dangerous,” Alice says.

            She drags him around the garden, pointing out all her favorite flowers, telling him that if you lean in and listen close, you can hear them whisper their secrets. Karen can’t fathom what kind of secrets flowers would have to tell—but he listens, anyway, and when the Dud Ward nurses come walking by, calling Karen’s name, the tall red stalks of the spider lilies shield them, and it feels like gratitude.

+

Karen is twelve years old when a new boy comes to the Dud Ward. He wears a black school uniform and a pair of white gloves, his silver-blue hair swept in an impeccable wave to one side. His features are delicate, almost girlish—the rusted fire in his eyes doesn’t match the chill he effuses. He isn’t a new patient; his wrists are bare of the double-white bands Karen and the other duds wear. Whoever he is, Karen aches to know.

            But before he can glare him into coming over to his side—the way he does with the other kids, with Alice—two nurses are grabbing his hands and strapping him into a wheelchair.

            He stopped fighting back years ago. If he endured, he could sleep away the pain. If he endured, he got to see Alice.

            They roll him into a blank, square room padded with blocks of dense foam. A standing contraption waits at the center, made of rubber-shielded metal that forms a perfect brace for his body. Electrodes drip like tentacles from a stabilizing crown. Karen knows what’s next, yet his stomach still lurches. Adrenaline screams at his body to run.

            But he can’t. The nurses unshackle him from the wheelchair and fit him inside the exoskeleton, glue the electrodes into place on his forehead. They adjust his body like he’s a machine part out of place, muttering their strange, mechanical jargon over the snatch and pull of Velcro.

            A doctor steps in behind them. She wears a spotless white lab coat and a tense expression, her blond hair pinned in a severe bun. Karen’s seen her before, pacing the ward, peeking between the thin gray curtains that divide their rooms.

            “Good morning, Karen,” she says. The door hisses closed behind her. Locks. One of the nurses hands her something off a tray—a syringe, spired in a gleaming needle. “How are you feeling?”

            Karen scowls at her, defiantly silent.

            “Today could be a big day.”

            “That’s what they say every time.”

            The doctor turns the needle in her hand as she walks towards him. He hands his head, and she brushes his shoulder-length hair away, baring his neck.

            “This is an enzyme that binds to psionic hormone reuptake receptors,” she says, positioning the needle. “We think it will keep your body from inhibiting your abilities.” 

            “I don’t care what it does.”

            “If it works, you get to go home,” the doctor chirps. It sounds like a lie. She slides the needle in and out of his neck, sending pain racing through the muscle. He turns his head to hide his grimace.

            The doctor trades the used syringe for a second. Karen is used to this one: a high dose of psionic hormones, swimming around in a putrid orange solution. If he weren’t so fraught, he’d barely flinch at the needle trespassing his arm.

            “Very good, Karen,” the doctor croons. Acid laces her sugary tone. “Now, let’s have a little faith, all right?”

            She disappears inside a tinted, box-shaped room at the other side of the testing chamber. A desk microphone sputters to life.

            “Tune to three.”

            Karen’s body chills. Tuning. He feels it before it starts, a persistent ghost of fire in his brain, chewing away the myelin on his nerves.

            The dial cranks. Electricity rips through the wires and into his brain. He grinds his jaw so hard it slips out of place, the crack of cartilage a faint distraction from the explosion between his ears. The world goes white, then red, then rearranges itself in hazy, haloed color, as if lit from within.

            He blinks. Visions flicker at him in red and yellow flashes, crawling up the walls like spiders. He moves his jaw, but no words come out. Is this…the world? A constant assault of shallow light, blaring messages he can scarcely piece together?

            “Tell me what you see, Karen.”

            He doesn’t have the words. Yet there are words all around him, bright strokes falling down the pages of the walls—benign, senseless messages that boil over in his head.

            “I…I see…”

            “These are Visions. This is how we see the world. How you’ll see it, always, when we’re all through,” the doctor says, her voice clipped with static. “Try closing your eyes, now.”

            “Why?” Karen counters.

            The dial cranks again. Another shock hits his brain, bringing a rush of saliva to his mouth. Karen clenches his eyes closed against the pain, and the Visions leave specters on the backs of his eyelids.

            “I want you to imagine a tiny light at the center of your forehead. This is your power—your psionic gift,” the doctor’s voice guides him. “I want you to imagine that light growing, blooming out like the petals on a rose. Imagine it finding all the dark spaces within you. The parts that ache for power. The parts that know, in the soft red marrow of your bones, you are made for more. Let it wrap them in its roots. Let your gift come home.”

            Karen’s face scrunches. Heat rises through his blood, and it feels like hope.

            He can be normal.

            He can be like Alice.

            “Tuning to five.”

            Crank. His body jolts, his face weeping drool and sweat. Black spots threaten his light—a deep wave of pain drags him towards unconsciousness.

            “There are conflagrations within you, Karen. We are going to find them. Hone them. You must stay with us.”

            Every muscle in his body coils. His hairs stand on end. His veins turn to currents. Laughter crackles on his wet lips. This is power, or the beginning of it, finally simmering to life.

            “Alice,” he murmurs, “I’m going to—”

            Crank.

            Karen screams, a horrid, ragged-edged sound. His light explodes into a thousand glassy pieces. Pain rips hot, serrated shards through his skull.

            He opens his eyes to blank gray walls, then tumbles headfirst into darkness.

+

When Karen wakes, there’s a body in the chair beside his bed. The boy from before, dressed for school. He takes an expectant posture, his hands folded neatly in his lap; the calm on his face defies his youth.

            Karen props himself up on his elbows. There’s no one else in the room. “Who are you?”

            “I’m Fubuki,” the boy says, his voice strangely soft. “It’s nice to meet you.”

            “How did you get in here?” Karen asks.

            “I asked politely,” he says. A darkness crosses his face, like the shadow of a passing cloud. “You’re burned.”

            Karen shrugs. “It happens.”

            “I can help you, if you want.”

            “Usually the nurses just—"

            Fubuki doesn’t let him finish. Ice feathers over his fingertips, shrouded in a glittering expulsion of frozen air.  He leans forward and traces them along the lacework of Karen’s electrode burns. Karen gasps through clenched teeth; his arms break out in chicken-skin.

            “Does that hurt?” Fubuki asks. His voice is as gentle as his unfrozen hand, the one rested over both of Karen’s. His gloves are soft, made of a silky, waterproof mesh. Thin red strings keep them tethered to his sleeves.

            “No,” Karen assures him, his gaze riveted on the strings. “It’s better than those creams they give me. Those always make it worse.”

            “I’ll let my father know.”

            Karen squints at him. The ice on Fubuki’s fingers starts to melt under the heat of Karen’s skin—droplets slide like tears down his face. “What’s that going to do?”

            “My father owns Spring Pharmaceuticals,” Fubuki explains. “He comes here to make sure the patients are taking well to their new drugs. My sister Arashi and I just tag along after school.”

            “Do you know Alice? She’s Director Ichijo’s daughter.”

            Fubuki nods. He wraps his shirtsleeve over his hand and daubs the ice-water from Karen’s brow and cheeks. “Alice is my neighbor. We went to Suoh Elementary together.” Fubuki’s eyes take a sparkle—recognition. “You’re her ‘sick friend,’ aren’t you?”

            Karen freezes. “I…yes. She thinks I’m here because I’m sick.”

            “She talks about you all the time. Karen, her sick friend from the hospital,” Fubuki says. “We went to a shrine the other day, and she left an offering in your name.”

            “Why would she do that?”

            “Probably because she wished you were there with us.”

            Karen flinches. He hasn’t been to a shrine since he was Luka’s age, but he can imagine it, a little red building somewhere on the quiet, Other-prone edges of the city, damp with fresh rain and shrouded in a golden flame of ginkgo trees. It feels like a dream, a mirror-flash of a future he cannot have.

            “Can you make me a promise, Fubuki?” Karen asks.

            “Only if we pinky swear.”

            Karen narrows his eyes.

            “I’m kidding,” Fubuki says, an easygoing smile on his lips. “Whatever you tell me, I’ll keep my word. We’re friends, now.”

            Karen’s chest flares with an unfamiliar warmth. Friends? Alice is his only friend. And Luka, but Luka is his brother—he didn’t get a choice in that matter.

            That’s just what Fubuki offers him. A choice. They can be friends, or Karen can shirk his kindness and pretend he won’t spend the next few days, weeks, months waiting for Mr. Spring and his children to return to the OSF Hospital.

            “Don’t tell Alice I’m a dud,” he confesses.

            “Okay, then. I’ll tell her you’re a bell pepper.”

            “That’s the same thing!”

            Fubuki bursts into the strangest timbre of laughter Karen’s ever heard. “Goodness, Karen. We need to work on your sense of humor,” he says. “But you have my word.”

            “Wait—Karen?”

            Karen just stares at him.

            “I hope you tell Alice, one day. She really likes you.”

            “She won’t like me if she knows I’m a dud.”

            “She’ll like you less for keeping secrets.” Fubuki rises from his chair, leaving Karen slack-jawed and fumbling for a rebuke. “I’ll see you soon, Karen.”

            And he does. The next time Alice sneaks down to the Dud Ward, she has Fubuki in tow. They begin a routine of sneaking around the attending nurses, slipping into the gardens and courtyard during Karen’s meal breaks and rest hours. Fubuki, Karen learns, is uncannily good at keeping secrets.

            But Alice is more perceptive than she lets on. When Karen finally scrounges up the guts to tell her he’s a dud, to his horror—and maybe, after a while, to his relief—she reveals, without a hint of her usual fanfare or drama, that she knew all along.

+

Karen Travers is thirteen, now, and at last, he has power. Not of his own, but the doctors have found in him, through all their years of tuning and prodding and setting his brain on fire, the ability to copy the gifts of others.

            They call him the “Brain Eater,” and he is, all things considered, a horrific success.

            Two OSF soldiers sit in the chairs across from him. Red helmets with opaque black visors disguise all but their mouths and chins. They offer small tastes of their power between their hands—water and electricity, deadly in combination.

            Karen steals them with ease. Power rushes through his blood, gathering like a storm cloud in his brain. His nameless blonde doctor watches from across the room, her mouth slightly upturned. Karen shuts his eyes and lets his power grow, his body the steadfast eye of a typhoon. The OSF soldiers promptly leave their chairs to take shelter in the control room.

            “You’re doing great, Karen,” the doctor calls over the rush of helixing water. “Now rein it in.”

            Karen furrows his brow. Control is always the hard part. The tide dips and surges against his arms, threatening to fly off. He closes his fists and imagines the water sinking into his palms, the lightning joining the pulses in his nerves.

Power becomes blood. Blood, running down the shower drain. Blood, sliding through a butterfly needle. Blood, pounding in his brain.

The air around him shatters, and the storm disappears in a flash of mist and heat.

            He sinks to his knees—stunned, not spent. His body aches for more.

            “You can close your eyes a while if you want,” the doctor says. “Recharge. I’ll bring in the next candidates.”

            Karen anchors himself amid a shuffle of footsteps and nurses’ quiet whispers; the new powers settle in the pores of his bones and harden there. Two new soldiers enter the room.

            “Are you ready, Karen?” the doctor asks.

            He opens his eyes, and instead of soldiers in the chairs, it’s Alice and Fubuki.

            Their psionic gifts bloom rampant about their bodies, jagged gardens of translucent ice and stone. Inner light makes stars of their eyes, their faces soft, willing, relenting—how did these two rich brats become every beautiful, treacherous thing that makes his heart race?   

            They are the world to him. Whatever lies beyond this final test, these hospital walls, is only so good as their lives burning on within it.

            Alice offers her hand, first. “It’s okay,” she says. “You won’t hurt me.”

            “Alice…”

             “I mean it, Karen,” she says, indignant as ever. “Let’s do this. Take my power. We already bought you a movie ticket for tonight, so you’d better get yourself discharged.”

            He chuckles. Fubuki and Alice have been talking about this for weeks, taking him into the city after his final test. He’d be lying if he said the daydream hasn’t gotten him through a grueling week of testing and training.

            “It isn’t like you to hesitate,” Alice prattles on.

            “It is when it’s you.”

            Karen’s own admission startles him—but Alice is unshaken. She grabs his hand and sticks their palms together, and the stones conjured by her genesis gift dig into his flesh.  

            White light blooms at the meeting of their skin. Her power is warm and soft-edged, the sort that gathers yarn-like in his heart before unfurling its way to his brain.

            “Go on,” she pushes. “Make something. Anything.”

            She removes her hand, and he cups his together—heat bubbles and pops in the space between them. Shades of red and green sprout from the lingering glow. They harden into reedy stalks and glossy petals, thin stamens crowned in gooey pollen.

            Spider lilies.

            Alice beams. “My favorite!” she exclaims. Unsure of what to do, he hands them to her, and she clutches them to her chest.

            “I’m sorry, I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“They’re perfect,” she says, a fresh haze of pink on her cheeks. “And look! I’m totally fine. Fubuki will be, too.”

            Fubuki extends an ice-rimed hand. “We’re here for you, Karen. Always.”

            A shot of boldness steadies him, and he isn’t sure if it’s from Alice’s blush, or Fubuki’s kind gaze, or an inseverable twist of both. He slams his palm against Fubuki’s—his friend’s power rakes a deliciously cold path beneath his skin.

            Karen flickers his fingers, and the floor turns to ice around them. Tiny glaciers jab into the air, sharp bas blades. Snowflakes float up from the frozen tile.

            “I knew you could do it,” Fubuki says. His red-brown eyes glimmer with pride. “You can borrow my power whenever you want, you know.”

            “Mine too!” Alice exclaims.

            “Let’s finish this up, alright?” the doctor calls across the room. “Make the power yours, Karen.”

            Fubuki nods, goading him. Karen stretches his hands, then rolls them into fists—the ice sublimates into the air. A chill lingers, matched in the feeling coursing his body, the triumphant cold of a new psionic power.

            Karen slumps in relief. Fubuki and Alice rush to his side, taking hold of his arms to steady him.

            The doors to the testing chamber blaze open. Doctors and nurses and other Dud Ward patients come rushing in, hands flapping in asynchronous applause. The blonde doctor walks across the room and kneels to meet Karen’s eyes.

“Congratulations, Karen,” she says. “You’re going home.”  

            But Karen isn’t looking at her. A tiny, white-clad body pushes to the front of the gathering crowd. Even at a distance, Karen can tell his face is aghast.

            Karen opens his mouth, but no sound comes out.

            I’m sorry, Luka.

+

            Karen learns quickly that the OSF is always hungry for new blood. They took Fubuki’s sister at thirteen, another girl from their school at twelve. Karen and Fubuki are scouted at fourteen. Alice goes a semester behind them; at her father’s behest, she trains in the Seiran division, and after one night of tearful goodbyes, it will be two years before they see her again.

            Something strange happens in their years without Alice. Fubuki, always so delicate, hones astonishing strength. He aces their training exercises. His lanky form fills out. His dainty features become a beauty Karen can’t look away from, no matter how hard he tries.

            He isn’t the only one. The girls in his class adore him. It’s nauseating, the way they throw elbows to partner with him in training, or sidle up to him at dinner, or swirl around him during social events like moons without worlds, desperately seeking an anchor.

            Karen realizes far too late this nausea is envy.

            Their instructors had warned them about this. Unnecessary feelings, the internal aches and needs that come with growing up. Karen brushed them off. As far as he knew, he was immune.

            And maybe he was immune to the other kids in their cadet class. But not to Fubuki. Each year, his want grows, a ravenous, festering thing, barbed with pain and joy alike.

            Karen can’t have him. At least, not yet. So, he chases him in other ways. They grapple for the top spot in the class, often going head-to-head in combat, or leading rival platoons on simulated missions. They spar after class, and on days off—Fubuki is always there to help him test a new power he’s stolen. Heat tinges their gazes between battle. Sometimes, Karen catches Fubuki staring at the v-shaped indents of his hips, the swell of his thighs against the garters that hold up his boots, and it gives him enough adrenaline to last a week. It feels like it could last forever, this intoxicating back-and-forth, each fight a step towards something more.

            But graduation arrives before they know it, and with graduation comes a boiling uncertainty. Will they be in the same platoon? What if Fubuki is sent to Seiran? Will he leave him behind? Will he—and Alice—forget him?

            These things shouldn’t matter to Karen. He came here to fight. To redeem a childhood of powerlessness. To set an example for Luka, who’s only just been tuned to a power of his own. But it will all be easier with Fubuki by his side.

            The night before graduation, Fubuki meets him on the roof of their dormitories, the place that housed so many of their heated spars. Beyond the ledge, Suoh is a lurid moonscape, alight with Visions and neon and fluorescent bulbs winking in yet unshuttered windows.

            “It’s not like you to miss a party,” Karen says as he walks towards Fubuki, his arms crossed. Fubuki turns back to him briefly, and though it’s too dark to tell, Karen knows he’s smiling.

            “This is better than a party,” Fubuki says, and for a moment, Karen’s heart races. “It’s perspective. After tomorrow, all this is ours to protect. It’s kind of daunting when you think about it.”

            “I should’ve known you were bringing me up here to wax philosophical.”

            “Not exactly,” Fubuki says. “I’m nervous, Karen.”

            Karen blinks. “It’s not like you to be so vulnerable.”

            “Says you. You know, our classmates think your only emotion is anger.”

            “That’s because it is. Most of the time. Our instructors really know how piss me off.”

            Fubuki laughs, and the city carries the echo. “You’re incorrigible, Karen,” he says. “But I really am nervous. We don’t get platoon assignments until tomorrow. What if…what if my new platoon doesn’t like me? God, that sounds stupid when I say it out loud.”

            “You’ll be fine,” Karen grumbles. “You’re so popular.”

            Fubuki scoffs. “What makes you think I’m popular?”

            “Don’t play dumb, Fubuki. You see how the girls in our class fawn all over you. Surely you’ve thought to put one of them out of their misery.”

            “I don’t follow.”

            Karen rakes his hands down his face. “I mean take them out, Fubuki. On a date.”

            “A date?” Fubuki sputters. “Karen, I’m—"

            “You’re what?”

            Fubuki breathes deep, and Karen echoes. His heart drums in his ears.

            “I’m in love with Alice.”

            Karen deflates. His stomach drops to his toes. The world tilts off its level. Alice? Their Alice?

            He swallows hard, fighting a rush of tears. Of anger. Of course Fubuki loves Alice. Who wouldn’t? She’s cute, and sweet, and smart, and maybe he hasn’t seen her in two years, but that doesn’t mean Fubuki hasn’t been sneaking off to see her without him, romance blooming between them while Karen misinterprets every one of Fubuki’s lingering glances.

            How could he be so unbelievably dense?

            “I’ve loved her since we were kids,” Fubuki continues. “Our parents were so happy; it’ll be good for business, you know? Spring Pharmaceuticals and the Ichijo medical dynasty. I mean, they’d never force me if I didn’t want to. They’re just lucky I love her so much.”

            “You’ll marry her once you’re both in the OSF,” Karen says. It should be a question, but it sounds like a surrender, instead.

            “No. We’ll serve our three years, as mandated, then get married when we both turn twenty,” Fubuki explains. “At least, that’s the plan. Things are…complicated.”

            “They don’t sound complicated.”

            “Well, they are,” Fubuki says. The shortness in his voice startles Karen. “I brought you here because I hoped I could get you to understand.”

            “What? Does Alice have cold feet? That’s not like her,” Karen snaps. “I’m sure she’ll marry you, Fubuki, if that’s what your sorry, lovelorn ass is worried about.”

            Fubuki stiffens. “You really should let me talk, Karen.”

            “I am letting you talk. You’re just being stupidly oblique, like always,” Karen says. He keeps his eyes on the foggy horizon, as if the lights and clouds and sharp shadows of buildings might offer some escape from this nightmare of a moment. “Don’t leave me hanging, Fubuki. Spit it out.”

            Fubuki stays silent. Karen watches him curl and flex his hands, the red strings on his gloves moving like nervous tendons.

            “Whatever. I’m not waiting around for you to get your shit together,” Karen declares. He turns heel and heads back for the rooftop stairs.

            “Karen, wait!” Fubuki calls.

            “I just said I’m not waiting around,” Karen mutters, even though he knows Fubuki can’t hear him.

            His eyes burn, a flinch away from tears, yet he finds an odd comfort in the viscous shadows of the stairwell. These feelings will pass—they may blister and weep and rot before they do, but they will pass. Until then, he will bury them, deep, and pray they don’t go to root in the dark.