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"Why do you always throw the game?" they will ask, near the end of his interrogation. They will call it a mission debriefing. There won't be a table or chair, no bargained glass of water. The entire floor will be nothing but wall-to-wall concrete, bare walls; above the broken skyline outside there will not be a single star.

I can't remember.

He won't see their faces. This place will seem to stretch on forever, stark and empty and bleak. That's why they choose it, though the gesture will be redundant.

"Why you lose?"

Whether I even like to play.

 


Monday morning, 06:44. Koizumi Itsuki switches off his alarm clock before it begins to sound. The light slanting through his window is pale, grey with the promise of rain. The foundations of space-time are brittle but holding. Koizumi has not slept, but high school students go to high school on Mondays, so he rolls from his bed and makes it up neatly enough to impart the impression someone were there to approve. Twenty minutes later, he has showered and dressed and styled his hair with the calculated indifference expected of a young man his age, and by then there is a black sedan waiting outside his mansion block to ferry him between one stage and the next. Koizumi does not forget his umbrella. He does pause for longer than usual at the mirror by the door, where his reflection smiles back to him with amiable vacancy. He thinks, This is also you.

 


North High, 15:53. Rain drums against the windows of the clubroom. Othello pieces clatter on the gameboard with inordinate force. Asahina is losing extravagantly while she wonders why her opponent's focus skitters at the edges of the table like a bird too nervous to perch. Kyon worries his lower lip between his teeth intermittently, but it's not because he considers his moves, and Koizumi does not indulge that wandering gaze with a single moment of eye contact.

"This Saturday," Suzumiya is saying, "we're going to the aquarium, so keep your afternoons open. Mikuru, I brought you the penguin hat, like that anime--no, don't wear it now, it's thematic, we'll save it--"

"Can we expect you to pay for those tickets?" Kyon mutters back, absently. Koizumi does not need to look to know he is fidgeting with a gamepiece in his palm, that he is shifting restlessly in his chair. Derailed, Suzumiya prepares to launch the assault of her answer, but Koizumi pushes back his own chair and all eyes turn to him at once.

"Suzumiya-san," Koizumi says, carefully demure. Kyon's hands have stilled, the gamepiece trapped in his white-knuckled fist. His bare forearms are prickled with gooseflesh. Koizumi's hyper-awareness of this is purely somatic, some peculiar frisson of nerves synchronising to a foreign body; even now he does not look directly at anyone. "Regrettably, I have relatives visiting from out of town at the weekend, so I will be unable to attend our next Saturday meeting. I do hope you'll forgive my negligence with regards to my club duties...."

"Family obligations can't be helped," Suzumiya concedes with a sour expression. "You'll make it up later."

His posture is perfectly bashful. "Of course."

Koizumi lays his hands flat on the table. Suzumiya tosses her hair. The meeting is dimissed.

Koizumi excuses himself first, so that there is no discreet opportunity for anyone to call after him.

 


22:10, Agency headquarters, ground floor lobby. Koizumi's mobile chimes in the silence.

Do you even have any relatives?

The building's halls are empty; when Koizumi drops the phone back into his pocket, his smile benefits no one in particular.

 


It has always been Koizumi who unfolds the boards between them, though. When he sits instead with quiet attention at the next club meeting and offers no such past-time aloud, Kyon does not insist. They don't have a conversation because Koizumi does not start one, and Kyon wouldn't dare with an audience close at hand. Presumably Kyon has nothing to say to Koizumi that he wants anyone else to hear. Koizumi has nothing to say to Kyon at all.

The meetings last only an hour; Koizumi's body is accustomed to far greater tortures. It's easy enough to endure something so trivial as his pulse trembling at the base of his throat. It's easy enough to smile and leave right on time.

 


He is careful. He has always been so very careful. No one confronts him until Thursday evening, when a senior colleague insists he join her in the pristine white breakroom he never otherwise frequents--some perverse parody of a social call. The hum of the fluorescent lights and the stench of stale coffee wrench unbearably behind his eyes, just at the brink of nausea. His companion pours herself a bitter cup but does not offer one to him, which sets his few remaining nerves on edge. The Agency is not known to indulge even small acts of mercy.

"You should be careful," she says, stirring serenely: three sugars, no milk. Her smile is bland and sweetly forgettable. Her nails glitter when she raises the cup to her lips, rosy pink, impeccably manicured, and Koizumi quells a sudden impulse to knock the cup from her hands, returns instead a perfect carbon copy of her smile.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."

She would never pursue it further, not with anything so artless as a proper directive. "You look tired," she notes instead, with only the faintest suggestion of a frown, as though he is unworthy of even false sincerity. "Don't overdo it."

Koizumi Itsuki is the only field agent who reports for duty every single night. His flat is under 24-7 surveillance. He doesn't sleep. He has scrupulously avoided isolating situations. He hasn't responded to his text messages and soon he will probably stop reading them, too.

Every day he feels less like a human being and more like a wire, tensing, tensing--

"I can't ignore the threat posed by the recent frequency of incidents. I'm only doing my part." He ducks his head with modesty, half because the gesture is appropriate, and half to hide the revulsion he can't otherwise keep from his eyes.

"You're very dedicated to our work," she agrees. She touches his shoulder when she brushes past him and he is mostly sure he does not give her the satisfaction of flinching. Mostly.

He can't help it, though, not when he feels the tremors begin anew shortly before midnight. He still checks his phone. He's beyond caring what it says, only that it might be the last thing he reads.

If you keep this up she is going to notice

Still, sometimes he has to laugh.

 


(Saturday night will be worse than other nights, though beyond a certain point it becomes pointless to differentiate the fluctuations. It's all just a question of scale. The opposition will level Taito-ku before it's suppressed, one private apocalypse across hours of crushing black skies and a rain of glass shards and dead traffic lights clawing at wrong angles from crumbling streets, but Koizumi's injuries rarely manifest physically, so they won't slow him for more than a day or two in normal space. The girl who sits behind him in homeroom says he really should sleep more, but she never pursues it past the reward of his smile. She'll copy his homework next week, and he'll pretend to lecture her about ethics. He'll forget her name again when their seats change. Or he could forget everything else, sooner.

He never wonders whether this is all worth it, because that stopped helping a long time ago.)

 


Asahina is absent on Friday. Kyon is the first to leave the clubroom, which is uncharacteristic but worth no immediate concern. Suzumiya, who takes far less pleasure in bullying the unflappably acquiescent, follows in a huff shortly after.

15:43: Koizumi is left alone with Nagato Yuki.

She never moves from her chair. Her presence is still and quiet and completely oppressive, the approximate density of a neutron star collapsing primly in the corner. Koizumi expends no unnecessary effort to engage her in conversations, but her finger is poised just above the page of her book, frozen mid-turn, so he sets his jaw and waits for her to speak. He likes Nagato, most days--but most days they are never alone.

She looks up only after Suzumiya's echoes recede from the hall. Her glasses flash opaque as they catch the waning sunlight, obscuring her irises entirely. "You should know," she says, in the disinterested monotone that provokes some inchoate urge deep within him to scream, "the Data Overmind considered your hypothesis, and discarded it for comparative lack of empirical support."

Something twists hot and hard in Koizumi's chest. His affable face never falters, but only by virtue of habit; it's pointless to prevaricate with an Interface. "You should mind your own business," he suggests through his teeth.

"Insofar as these potentialities effect temporospatial flux," she says, "that was precisely our intention."

"Fuck you," Koizumi agrees with a smile.

He does not slam the door behind him; there are clubs still in session nearby.

 


It's an alcove outside the gymnasium building, not remotely justifiable as a convergence of their schedules; Koizumi takes the circuitous path deliberately. Kyon must have planned it, must have followed him. The thought shivers through him with a curious mixture of tenderness and terror, but mostly he wonders that it somehow escaped his notice when nothing ever escaped his notice, before. Has he changed so much already? Or is it wishful thinking after all, to think he was ever anything else but this?

Surely it must have mattered, once, but all he does is fight and he's so tired. Everything is spinning away from him too quickly, so that the whole of this conversation feels more like a dream, like stumbling through the pitch and yaw of invisible waves.

"I don't--" Kyon starts to say, but a visible shudder sweeps over his shoulders and he seems to abort that train of thought. He falls back on accusations, which must come easily to him these days. "You're avoiding even the club outings now!" There is hostility in the tense curve of his spine, in his fists. Koizumi wonders with sudden stab of perverse elation whether Kyon will actually hit him, this time. "Isn't that... isn't this your entire job?"

"You take a sudden interest in Agency affairs?" Koizumi murmurs, fighting the urge to brush his fingertips to his own cheeks--where they are not swollen from where they have not yet been bruised. Kyon's scowl should not be so fascinating. Koizumi closes his eyes, feeling seasick.

"I don't understand you at all," Kyon snaps from the dark. Koizumi braces for the sweet shock of pain, but Kyon doesn't punch anyone, still. He doesn't touch at all, but he is standing so close Koizumi can feel the huff of air from his voice, level but thrumming with what must be torturous restraint. It would be so nice to yell, after all. To be yelled at. But there are too many ears around to hear it. "Why did you even--This..." he wavers again, and Koizumi could pass out from the heat of him, real or imagined, pressing him back to the wall. The cold brick is grounding, at least. "What is it you even want?"

Why don't you tell me, Koizumi thinks, opening his eyes to stare now at Kyon's mouth. His eyes are dark, his lips are so excruciatingly near. Tell me what I want and I will want that.

What the hell does that mean?

He doesn't know anymore, not for sure. Only that he's still one manufactured square in a sliding tile puzzle, shifting into line with someone else's whims. One piece can't know the whole of the picture. Even his pretences will be pointless in the end.

They are going to send me away, Koizumi realises, and everything abruptly grows still. They're going to take this away and there's nothing he can do, there's nothing, nothing

"Stop," Kyon says, shaking him by the shoulder, and Koizumi nearly collapses from the resultant crash of dizziness in his skull. "Stop it. Answer me. What's going on?"

I have to go, Koizumi says. Maybe says. It's a whisper; Kyon might not have heard. I have to go now

For just one breathless, spinning, horrifying moment, Koizumi thinks Kyon might actually stop him. But the sun is warm and mercilessly bright mere paces from this alcove. The bells will sound at any moment to remind them where and what they are, his one reliable avenue of retreat.

Kyon doesn't believe in the end of the world, yet.

 


(what he can't seem to forget are those first weeks of year zero, when he folded each night in the crushing silence of his room with a gun's barrel cold on his tongue, sourly metallically real, and he wants so badly to touch, even just to brush the loose strands of hair from Kyon's brow, but he doesn't, he shuts his eyes and draws back, because he is probably in love and it hurts)

 


High school students go to high school on Mondays. Suzumiya's watchful eye lingers at their periphery with suspicion, so Koizumi makes the customary offer of chess. The match does not last very long.

"You're losing on purpose," Kyon hisses at him in the endgame. Kyon keeps his head down and darts brief, sullen looks over the table, the sweep of his eyelashes so dark and fine on his cheeks that it swallows attention like an infinite fractal curve. When Kyon curls his fingers into his palms Koizumi feels the phantom impression of nails digging into his own skin, blurring beyond recognition some fundamental boundary between visual and kinaesthetic impressions. Suzumiya wrestles her time-traveller by the window, indifferent. Shadows shift and fracture around them.

Koizumi has slept fewer than two hours a night in the past two weeks. He bites down on his tongue, and smiles only after he tastes blood. He says, "You overestimate me, Kyon-kun."

Kyon moves a pawn into place. He wets his chapped lips, a flicker of savage red at his mouth, and says, "I never estimate you at all."

"Hmm," Koizumi murmurs, tipping his king on the board.