In the middle of January, Sigma rolled his head towards her from his hospital bed and accused her of acting cold and aloof to seem strong. He knew her well, but not well enough. Aoi was closer to the truth when he took her into his arms for thirteen silent minutes, knowing that she needed it. She was not putting up any fronts. She was dead inside.
She let go of the doomed world and sank into the morphogenetic field, a place of infinite possibility, asking the same question she had asked before she let go of that which she held most dear.
Must I do this without him? she pleaded. Is there really no other way?
She felt a withered, cold version of her own hand touch her fingers and lead her forward.
The feel of the moon was pleasant on her feet. Her strides were long and lofty. She wore her ring on her left hand, alongside a wedding band.
A voice flooded her ears and she looked up from her shoes. Gray took his hair soon after the apocalypse, sprouting up all over in stark contrast to his dark brown. Sigma was different; he went elegantly silver from the temples outwards, and only after a decade since the outbreak.
The two yelled at each other constantly. And then he turned, deepening the wrinkles beginning to form in his face, towards her, and yelled again.
“This is insane. This is sociopathic,” he roared, waving his hands at the bracelets they were designing, needles distended. “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore, Akane. You’re… you’re evil.”
He would come to that conclusion about her no matter when in this timeline they met. He, too, would mistake her new demeanor for coldness instead of all-consuming sorrow. Perhaps it was selfish of her to delay his hurt by forty-five years instead of letting him find out and move on sooner. Perhaps she needed to be selfish to protect the remaining shards of her broken heart. But above all, it was the only way to groom him into a willing participant for the final Nonary Game.
Will he find happiness? she asked next. Please, if we can’t be together, please let him be happy.
She saw the boy whom she had seen before in her visions of the Nonary Game in 2074. She saw his bright smile, and it reminded her of a fearless boy she once loved. Across from him was an old man, his body frail and his hair thin and white, but his smile was genuine.
The boy called him Grandpa.
Now this was selfish, she knew, this feeling in the pit of her stomach that twisted and hurt when she came to terms with the fact that he might have found another woman and started a family with her. She wanted that life with him, more than anything. It took all of her remaining willpower not to run away from the AB Project and be with him, even if they could not survive the outbreak together. Those few months would be enough.
Yet at the same time, he was her sole motivation. If she could pull this off, he would be able to live in a happy world. They would live there together.
Who wins Junpei’s heart in this universe? she asked.
Her right wrist was starting to ache and tingle from untreated tendonitis, or carpal tunnel, or something—Diana would have known what exactly, but she had been gone for over a year now—when she handed a heavy envelope to Carlos. He took it in his left hand. They were both wearing rings.
“I’m sorry,” he said when she froze, her eyes locked on the tarnished silver band. “I know he asked you first.”
“No,” she said with a broken smile, shaking her head. “I’m happy for both of you. Please… send him my love.”
“He would send his,” Carlos responded, lifting her chin with a warm hand, “if he knew where I was going.”
Carlos, she mused. He can be my liaison.
He could be more than that.
“Can you show it to me?” she whispered.
Somewhere along the way, they fell into a dangerous pattern. He kissed her, and she felt Junpei. He absorbed her movements so that he could return home with a lying smile and kiss his husband like the girl of his all-but-abandoned dreams.
She did not often hear the low, creaking voice of her older self speaking directly to her. Most of what she knew, she had to find out for herself by exploring the field. But she heard a message once she discovered this forbidden moment.
Yes, Akane, she said. This is the only way you will both survive the next forty-five years.
Carlos became Akane’s agent the moment Junpei lost consciousness outside of the site of the Decision Game and Akane kept speaking.
“Don’t bring him to the medical tent here,” she said, her back to Carlos as she slowly walked away. “I don’t know how the virus got out, but it’s here. If you stay here, you’ll die. Make sure you both get as far from here as you can.”
Her face was no longer human, but an elegant mask. For the first time, Carlos was seeing Akane as Junpei had seen her for the past year: as the lovely woman who destroyed not just his heart, but her own, for the sake of a world she carried on her unearthly shoulders.
“Will he forget everything?” Carlos breathed, crouching beside the broken boy lying on the ground. “The Decision Game, the Dcom Experiment, seeing you again—everything?”
“I can only hope.” She closed her eyes for longer than a blink. “Please don’t tell him what happened. He needs to forget me. It’s the only way he’ll make it through this. He can’t know how close we came to… to being together.”
“You’re not okay with this, either,” Carlos accused, rising to his feet. “You’re hurting just as much as him. You’ll do this because you have to, but it still hurts.”
He did not know when or how he noticed she was crying in the darkness, but she did not resist when he ran to her and wrapped her in his arms.
“Carlos… I’m so sorry,” she uttered. “You’ve been… a true friend. But I—I have to do this alone.”
“He would do anything for you, Akane,” Carlos said. “I would do anything for you.”
When she looked up, her tears glistened in the light of the full moon emerging from the shadow of the tainted Earth. “Then… please,” she whispered. “Take care of Junpei.”
Ten months of solitude, of trying and failing to foil Zero’s plans, had changed Carlos in a small way. He knew how much bigger the world was than he, that there were some things he could not fight. Akane was one of those unstoppable forces.
He gathered Junpei in his arms. He thought he heard a whispered goodbye before Akane walked a solitary path through the sand.
Even as the drugs flooded his body and dragged him to the ground, he was so full of fight for the girl that he loved. He woke in that same fiery spirit as if it had not been almost twenty-four hours since he passed out, spouting curses as he stumbled through an unfamiliar bedroom in the dark. Carlos rolled his weary body off of the sofa, feeling a tension headache building under the furrow in his brow.
When he opened the door, Junpei was crouching by the foot of the bed, peering underneath. One of his pockets was inside out. He snapped his head up when he heard the door hinge creaking, and his face went white.
“Aw, shit,” he groaned, holding his head. “Shit, shit, shit, shit.”
He staggered to his feet amidst the pile he had made on the ground of the sheets and blankets. His face shifted to bright red.
“L-listen, dude, I’m sorry, I don’t—I don’t remember what happened last night, anything,” he stammered, “and I need to leave. I have to get to fucking Nevada in—I can’t find my—” His nervous fidgeting froze for an abrupt second. “My… my wallet. My keys. Any of my shit.”
“They’re gonna ship our stuff back from Dcom,” Carlos said, leaning against the doorframe. “I told them to send your things here.”
Junpei stared Carlos in the eye for the first time. His gaze drifted downward, then snapped back up. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
Carlos closed his eyes and let out a heavy sigh. It felt harder to stand.
“Name’s Carlos,” he said. “It’s January 1st. The Dcom Experiment is over.”
He thought about telling Junpei he was lucky to even survive, but at those words, all the life drained from his face.
“It’s… it’s over?” he uttered. “No… no, that’s not… That’s not possible. I was supposed to…” He looked on the cusp of tears, if his soul had not been sucked too dry to weep. “I was gonna see her again.”
His swimming eyes found Carlos, and as if he had just remembered he was in the presence of another man, he flipped a switch and channeled all of his sorrow into misguided rage.
“I was gonna find her!” he roared, clenching his fists as he stared Carlos down. “I looked for her for a fucking year—for ten fucking years, trying to—!”
Carlos could not be stayed by the knowledge that Junpei did not remember him, did not remember their friendship. He walked forward and clapped a hand on Junpei’s bony shoulder.
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
Junpei shoved Carlos’s arm away. “Where is she?!” he demanded. “You know, don’t you?! You’re one of those—”
“I don’t know,” Carlos stated. “I want her to come back, too, Junpei.”
Something about his tone, or the deep sorrow in his green eyes, or the affection he poured into Junpei’s name when he said it, made Junpei soften. He gave a shuddering sigh to expel what rage he could.
Carlos did not explain much, just the necessities. Things had gone wrong. A plague had escaped the facility and it would engulf the world within months. Junpei frowned and opened his mouth to ask how Carlos could know the future, but their eyes met and her name drifted between them, unspoken yet understood.
“She’s trying to stop the virus, isn’t she,” Junpei realized.
“I don’t know for sure,” said Carlos. He knew a little more than he was letting on, but he thought it best not to say anything.
Maybe that was the true moment he became her agent: when he kept her secrets from Junpei.