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Predetermined Futures, Stolen Moments, and Whatever Always is Supposed to Mean

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January, 1996. Karen.

Karen was accustomed to regret. The elder sibling to guilt, with its bitterness that lingered on the tongue and its persistent, dulled edge. It was entirely without mercy, wielding a jagged slice that cut deep with painful, cruel intent. Familiar, almost to the point where he welcomed its stinging, malicious touch with open arms. It was a reminder. Something to keep him focused.

Because as he mulled the previous day over — deliberating over each and every choice he’d made, every word he’d voiced, just to corroborate it all against the other axes — he found he’d been too relaxed, too light. Too carefree.

Reckless.

Filled with what if’s and should’ves, all the possibilities that he should have followed, Karen came to one definite, indisputable conclusion.

He should’ve kept his distance from you

He should have ignored you yesterday, back there with Alice, with your insignificant, irrelevant presence that seemed so determined to be anything but.

He swallowed, but the guilty bitterness lingered, and his heart twisted in his chest. Your safety was entirely inconsequential to Alice’s, to Fubuki’s. For all Karen knew, completely unaware and without even a sliver of information, your existence was a detriment to those he loved. To instruct you to avoid Suoh 9 Line was useless, unnecessary, a waste of precious seconds he would never recover. Never be able to use for Alice, for Fubuki.

Why did he try to protect you? He didn’t even know you.

But you could, a voice whispered in the back of his mind, obnoxious and taunting and new.

No, I can’t, Karen quipped back, as if talking to himself inside his head wasn’t a clear indicator of a decline in his sanity. The beginnings of a headache had begun to pound a rhythm behind his eyes, and he almost felt like he was being torn apart. By two warring sides of him, voracious beasts, equally unyielding and extraordinarily stubborn in their ideals.

There was that one that was inexplicably drawn to you and your mysterious existence, fuelled with warm curiosity and hopeful, trusting intrigue. Naïve. Idiotic. And stupidly loud.

Then there was the other, nourished on cold, hard facts and logical conclusions, that felt frosty and unsettled, deeply perturbed by you. And, in the rationale so coolly calculated, felt so damn certain you were a risk. An interference. A distraction. Something he couldn’t afford, not again, not when this axis would be a success.

You were nothing but an infuriating problem he’d just have to ignore, lest he allow you to become consequential.

Distance. That was what he needed, so crucial to the future he yearned for, with the strings of fate, the threads of this axis, that seemed resolute in unravelling despite all his efforts to weave them; the hourglass sands of an envisioned future intent on flowing through his fingers no matter how hard or how tightly he cupped his hands.

Distance to research your presence in this axis from afar, with absolutely zero communication.

Distance to figure you out.

Distance to refocus. 

☆——☆——☆—★—☆——☆——☆
Later in January, 1996. You.

Anxiety welled up in your chest, but alongside it, a delicious feeling of anticipation. Your platoon operator had just alerted you, the message notification momentarily blinking in the corner of your vision, of the first suppression mission assignment you’d had in a long time. Too long. 
The last week, following your platoon transfer, had been quiet, calm, and for the most part, uneventful. It was as if the extinction belt had seen your predicament and spared you, graced you with time to settle into your new platoon, to feel welcomed and comfortable. 

But the days had gradually, slowly enough you’d failed to notice until now, weighed on you. You became a bubbling mess of tension, brimming with pent up energy that just couldn’t be expended by scheduled patrols or training exercises or platoon bonding picnics (because those were apparently a thing).

You read through the notification one final time, feeling the excitement in your blood dissipate slightly, and met up with the other members of your platoon.  A suburb on the outskirts of Suoh was crawling with Others like an infestation, and the extinction belt had descended just far enough to disrupt communication from headquarters.

The only issue was, in some freak, unfortunate weather event, it was raining. It never rained, not in the city, even in the height of winter.

That, and you’d drawn the shortest possible straw of the entire platoon. The buddy system had been implemented due to the inability for your operator to properly guide you, in order to remain safe and prevent any of you from dying tragically from an Other. You were paired with Karen.

You attempted to remain optimistic. This pairing meant you would have little work to do, knowing from the conversations you’d shared with Alice that his Other suppression skills rivalled that of even the Septentrions.

Soon, Alice’s words unfolded before you as you watched Karen fight, taking advantage of the brief moment of calm after the Vase Paws burst into red petals. It seemed effortless, the way he used each of his copied psionic powers in conjunction with one another — flipping between them within the same second, even utilising multiple at the same time — all whilst taking out the Others with brutal, expert precision. And to think he only had a year’s experience on you. It was almost inconceivable.

Almost.

You were unable to place why, but somewhere at the back of your mind, it seemed as if you already knew. It was inexplicable, and didn’t contain even a sliver of sense, yet you couldn’t push the thought aside. After all, the answer lay just beyond your grasp, tauntingly, mockingly out of reach. Things like that tended to be difficult to ignore.

With the question lingering on your tongue, irritatingly unanswered, you felt tempted to ask how he managed it. But the last thing you wanted was to approach him, especially during a suppression mission. You were yet to shake that foreign feeling that his presence always set off, and weren’t exactly eager to experience it more than necessary. That, combined with your apprehension towards him. Karen was always so hostile towards you — not the same simple indifference or minor annoyance he treated the other platoon members with — and it had been a full eight days since you’d first met.

Alice’s warnings echoed in your ears, loud and crystal clear over the crashing rhythm of the rain, and you sighed. He certainly was unyieldingly stubborn, and if this wasn’t a prickly exterior, you wouldn’t know what would be.

Distracted, you almost didn’t hear the swishing noise behind you, nor the familiar click of heeled shoes, over the rain. Another Vase Paws, come to enact its revenge for its fallen comrade.

You moved immediately upon noticing, shifting your weight to turn, weapon at the ready. But, overconfident with Karen’s skills replaying in your mind, you hadn’t accounted for the rain. Your foot slid on the slicked pavement, ankle just about folding in on itself, and you cried out as you fell to the ground.

The Vase Paws towered above you now, its foliage extremely close and much too personal. It struck out before you could react, red heel digging into your abdomen. Pain bloomed across your side, sharp and startling and just as dangerously red as the creature’s glossy heel.

You cried out. With your good leg you kicked the Other, knocking it off balance for a few seconds. Just enough for you to teleport out of the way.

With the adrenaline flooding your senses, stress wavering your limbs, agony spreading like wildfire through your gut, you didn’t manage put much distance between you and the Other, landing yourself directly in a puddle barely two blocks away. But at least you couldn’t possibly get more wet than you already were, your clothes fully saturated from the torrential rain alone. What you did manage to do, however, was buy yourself some time, a few crucial moments. Just enough for you to take in the sight of a dozen more of the Paws running your way.

You cursed, reaching to your hip only to realise, with a sinking heart heavy with dread, that you’d dropped your weapon. It was unreachable now, trapped in Vase Paws territory. Equally trapped, with no way to fight back, you screamed. It felt pathetic, quiet and all too futile over the rain. But hopefully, it was just loud enough for you to be heard.

Just enough for Karen to rescue your sorry ass.

You hadn’t decided whether or not you were fortunate to have him sprint over to your side, sending a blast of ice shards — the cryokinesis copied from Fubuki — towards the swarm of  Paws approaching. It sent the horde scrambling away, gaining you some time.

He glanced down at you and swore. “There’s a hideout nearby.”

“But– but what about the rest of the Others?”

“Fubuki and Alice can handle themselves. Unlike you.”

You gulped, feeling his ire wash over you like a scalding wave. The salt of his words stung, but it was the temperature, a blistering, caustic flare, that truly made you flinch. Karen’s disappointment dug into you along with his arm as he pulled you up to your feet. A second later he was stepping away, walking faster than you could manage, too fast.

“Hurry up,” he snapped, as if you weren’t desperately attempting to matching his pace with a limp and a bleeding gash across your side that screamed with every minute movement. “If you’re not going to use your power, then keep up.”

“I can’t,” you argued, finding the protest applied either way. You had no hope of teleporting in this state — your mind a writhing mess of stinging, agonising red, red, RED,  barely able to keep itself together — nor would you ever be capable of keeping up.

Karen then cut you off, pausing in his stride for just long enough to scoop you into his arms. Your back rested against one arm, whilst the other was hooked under your knees. His pace only quickened without you holding him back, sending you jostling in his grip. Your side burned in protest, but you resisted the urge to cry out, focusing instead on remaining calm, conscious, and observant.

You thought you could feel the pounding of his heart against your shoulder, rhythm an echo of your own, though you were also thinking about many other things. Things that made your heart rate climb, too quick to match his any longer.

You thought of how Alice and Fubuki were faring, how troubled they’d be when they discovered your injury. You knew it was futile to try and hide it from them, that you’d never manage to do so, but you hoped you might still be able to spare them from needless worry.

You thought of Karen and all of his perplexing, unexplainable resentment towards you. All it had taken was a moment’s stumble, one single slip up — literally — and, with a heavy heart, you knew you’d never be able to curb his hostility. Not after this.

And you thought of how both of you were absolutely soaked from the rain, with blood further darkening the blacks and greys of your uniform. You’d gotten some on his, too, but you found you were glad about that. But perhaps you were also slightly delirious from the pain.

You shook your head, as if to return to reality, and realised you’d arrived at the hideout — with its thick, impenetrable door entirely unmistakable. It hadn’t been an exaggeration when Karen had said it was nearby. You’d essentially been directly on top of it.

He wrenched the door open with what you assumed was psychokinesis, before striding through the entrance. In an instant, you felt your heart slow in your chest, beating calmer now. You’d made it to the hideout. You’d made it to safety. You hadn’t gotten yourself killed. Close, but not quite.

Then Karen dumped you, unceremoniously, onto your feet. You stumbled, bracing yourself against the wall, fist pressed tightly against your wound. It relieved the pain, if only slightly, for a brief moment.

“Seriously, what’s your problem?” You questioned. With the pain throbbing through you, words came out harsher, more caustic, than intended. But perhaps it was for the best — he only appeared to acknowledge you when he felt animosity towards you. Riling him up might be the sole way to get him to communicate.

My problem? Have you seen yours?”

A moment of silence passed, red-hot and burning. You used it to take in his words, feeling them slid under your skin, all provocative and aggravating. Purposely goading, as if he wanted this altercation to intensify rather than be solved, soothed. As if he wanted to fight you.

“You think I intended to slip?!”

“It certainly seemed like it! Your head wasn’t screwed on tight enough, and you let that wave of Others through!”

“Is that your way of telling me I was distracted?”

“If you need me to spell it out for you, yes.”

“As if you’ve never been distracted,” you retorted, a laugh rippling through you. It sent your side screaming, and you fought down a hiss, but you’d be damned if you let that stop you now. “I bet that last reprimand you got from the captain was from one.

“You’d be wrong, as always.” He was a liar, and a poor one at that — the words lacked his usual unwavering icy truth, the chilled distance that was always present between fact and fiction, especially with him.

You met his eyes, hoping to catch him further off-guard, hoping to gain the upper hand and best him. But all you found was fire. Intense and scorching, a hatred more potent that you ever could have expected. It burned into your retinas, his trained gaze of green and red, and your heart sunk. The familiar, unfathomable thing was absent, incinerated.

Suddenly, you could no longer find it in you to match his animosity, the heat burning in your chest, flaring the tip of your tongue, simmering in your veins, all melted away in the presence of his. All that remained was the agony in your abdomen and your ankle, alongside the growing heaviness in your heart. The weight of your words replaced the sparks in your mouth, stamping out any lingering embers. “I’ll do better next time,” you promised, voice soft now, small. Without light. You turned away, concealing your limp as best you could as you made your way to the bathroom and closed the door.

You grabbed the towels from the rack and hobbled over to the toilet, pulling the lid down. Then you lowered yourself onto it, wincing with the pain. All the adrenaline coursing through your body had dissipated, leaving you with a sharp, throbbing ache where the Other had sliced your side with the razor edge of its heel.

Your vision was blurring, either from the pain of it all or from the non-lethal blood loss, and you bit your lip. You didn’t want Karen to hear you cry out and assume you were even more pathetic than he already did. You peeled your uniform up, away from the wound.

A knock sounded out on the door. “You forgot the first-aid kit.”

His words no longer held the heated anger from earlier, seemingly wrung empty of its heat. They felt nothing but cold now, chilled and unemotional. Indifferent. Distant. At least it was familiar.

You hesitated for a second, contemplating. Then you moved, cringing as you pressed a towel over the gash. You decided to rise above the argument and offer him your trust. To extend an olive branch. You knew Karen wouldn’t. “Come in. The door’s unlocked.”

A few seconds passed, and, with disappointment already filling your gut, you thought he might have already left. Had just deposited the kit on the floor and walked away, perhaps even to return to the fight. Had left you. You wouldn’t put it past him and his aloof, uncaring demeanour he showed you.

But then the door creaked open, and Karen stepped past the threshold.

His eyes, still all hues of green and red and something else — it was back! — took in the sight of you hunched over, clutching a towel to your side, and he didn’t even do you the courtesy of appearing phased.

With his face remaining impassive, emotionless, blank, he placed the kit on the vanity and opened it. He retrieved a few items and handed them to you. In silence.

“I can manage from here, but thanks,” you said, keeping your words steady and calm despite the stabbing pain, accepting the bandages with shaky hands. You hoped he didn’t notice.

Karen still hadn’t spoken, and you wondered if his rage remained, simmering below the surface. Maybe it was lingering disappointment, your dangerous blunder on replay in his mind just as it was in yours. There was also the chance it was regret instead, bitter and stinging, a lament to being partnered with you, to having you in his platoon, to having rescued your pathetic brain from becoming a meal for the Others.

Perhaps, if you were unlucky enough, it was a retched combination of all three.

Pushing the thought aside, you focused on the ache in your side again, and realised the towel was stained a lovely, fresh shade of red. You reached for the pile of towels you’d grabbed earlier, taking two. You reapplied pressure to your side, hoping this towel would take longer to ruin, and threw the other to Karen.

He caught it, sending you a confused look, one brow raised. Still silent, unspeaking.

“I thought… I thought you might want a towel. You’re dripping all over the tiles, and it makes you… well. Look like a drowned green rat.”

Karen frowned, dried off his gloves, then discarded the towel on the floor behind him. He stepped forward, taking the bandages from your hands and crouched before you.

“I said I’d manage–“ you began to protest, but it was little use. You were weaker than him, with or without your injury. He was already moving the towel out of the way, examining your wound.

“It’s not dangerously deep, but you will need stitches,” he said. “I can do them for you now, unless you want to wait and be treated at the hospital.”

Karen was suddenly, inexplicably, talkative. You didn’t know what had loosened his tongue, but you weren’t complaining. Focusing on his words made ignoring the pain, pushing it aside, significantly easier.

“I- uh,” you began, hoping that you weren’t hallucinating with the blood loss, and he had just asked if you wanted stitches, words tinged with a single flicker of possibly-imagined sympathy. But if he were offering, that surely meant he understood what he was doing. That he was capable. That he could be trusted. “I don’t want to wait.”

He didn’t answer, only reached over to the kit to pull out some alcohol swabs. You bit down on your lip as he disinfected the wound, attempting to not cringe at the sharp, stinging pain that cut through you. He hadn’t even offered you painkillers. At least your pained haze left the process as little more than a blur.

Eventually, Karen stepped back, looking over you. His gaze lingered on your gauzed abdomen for a moment too long. Then you realised he was done.

“That’s because you don’t deserve to bleed out.” He gestured at towards your wound, the stitches concealed by the dressing. At the help he’d just provided.

Then he leaned forward, hand outstretched, and flicked the bandaged area. You winced, but refused to cry out. “And that’s because you’re a goddamn idiot.” 

☆——☆——☆—★—☆——☆——☆
January, 1996. Karen.

Karen walked out of the bathroom without another word, leaving you there.

Regret crept up his throat, choking his airway with its familiar, overwhelming pain. He couldn’t breathe — not in there with you, but not now, either.

He could still feel your skin against his fingers as if the barrier of his gloves were nonexistent, irrelevant — your warmth scorching through the fabric, feverish and burning, stained a dangerous, heart-stopping shade of red. He hadn’t washed his gloves yet.

For the first time in an incomprehensibly long time, for the first axis after an unfathomable, countless number of timelines, the blood on his hands made his heart drop. Blood that wasn’t Alice’s. Wasn’t Fubuki’s.

He sent a brain message to them both, blunt and rushed and overly succinct, but it conveyed what was necessary. It was unlikely for them to still be suppressing the Others — by now, they would’ve defeated them all — and they’d arrive soon enough. With them here he would be able focus.

He just had to wait.

Karen stalked his way to the hideout kitchen, throwing his gloves into the sink. He curled his fists, tightening them until he suspected his knuckles were on the brink of bursting, and swallowed thickly. Yet the regret lingered, unyielding, persistent, excruciating, in his throat, on his tongue. Guilt, harsh and bitter and just as merciless, rose up like bile to join it. 

He squeezed his eyes shut, clamping his hands down around the edge of the counter, fighting for a few meagre breaths. Perhaps he wasn’t as accustomed to regret as he thought.

Those few seconds after he’d walked in haunted his mind on replay, even when he reopened his eyes and trained his gaze on the mess in the sink. Even when he reached out, hand trembling, to turn on the tap, as if its water might wash away the stains the memory had soaked into him.

He recalled the way you’d looked at him as if through a fog, curling in on yourself with a towel pressed tightly into you. Red, that terrible red, blooming across it. It has taken very fibre of his being to resist speaking to you, to remain quiet and maintain his essential, necessary distance.

He’d tried, but in the end, he’d failed.

Your poorly concealed hisses of pain, laboured breaths, and strained words all made his efforts futile. He couldn’t help it — that stubborn, curious, incessant part of himself was drawn to you too strongly, agonised by your pain. And it was unrelenting without anger to silence it. It made him want nothing more than to relieve your suffering, to soothe you, to be your comfort. To close the distance he so desperately required and offer you the help you more desperately deserved.

It was Karen who was the goddamn idiot. Not you. Never you.

He couldn’t even find it in himself to call you insignificant or irrelevant. To label you a little more than an inconsequential distraction when you truly were any but. To believe for even another one of his precious, crucial seconds that you were detrimental.

Karen was wholly unable to explain why he couldn’t manage to maintain his distance, to focus on his original plan, the future he needed. He thought it was inexplicable, without even a single sliver of sense, and yet he still couldn’t push the thought of you aside.

And he didn’t know why, but he no longer wanted to.