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“Junpei, you’re sure you have to do this?”

“Ennea, you already know the answer.”

They were standing in the airport, Junpei about to depart for the Dcom experiment. He knew why Ennea was worried, considering who was running this experiment, but it wasn’t something Junpei could afford to miss. He was this close to finding Aoi- not even those terrorists could stop him now. Ennea just gave a resigned sigh, looking to Hazuki and Seven for help.

“You should have at least rested, Junpei. I’ve had to redo your stitches at least three times now, and with how much you love to exert yourself, you’ll probably pull them again at Dcom.”

“Yeah, Ennea’s right. You push yourself too much, Junpei.”

Hazuki was in firm agreement with her daughter, arms crossed.

 “We’ll be doing our best to look out for you, but it’s hardly like we can really do that much. If we try to poke around, we’ll be caught- and that will definitely put you in more danger. You need to be careful.”

“You two worry too much. I can take care of myself just fine, right Seven?”

“Taking care of yourself and throwing yourself into bad situations on purpose are different things, Junpei.”

The older detective shook his head, and gave a slightly frustrated look that Junpei had come to know quite well in the odd times he’d spent working with him. Deciding it was time to shift the focus from himself and onto something else, he looked back over to Hazuki.

“Hear anything from Nona or Alice yet?”

Her face fell, with an almost indiscernibly grim expression.

“Not yet, but we’re looking. Whoever crashed the meeting used a Soporil anesthetic- pretty damn similar to when we were taken last year. There’s a chance Aoi’s group got them, but we’ve got no idea why.”

Ennea was visibly frustrated with herself- made sense, considering she’d been there when they two had been grabbed.

“I’ve been sending messages constantly, but I’ve heard nothing. Wherever Nona is, I don’t think she’s been conscious at all yet. I can’t even get snippets like when she’s dreaming- she’s not dead, but it’s like her brain’s… off.”

Junpei wondered what it had to feel like, to have that connection all your life then have it suddenly cut dead. It was a blessing and a curse- knowing she was alive, but not where she was or what was happening. Perhaps things like that were why espers seemed to always be stuck with the worst luck.

He was going to say more, when his alarm started going off. He didn’t have much time, he’d need to hurry and board his plane soon… he could see worry on everyone’s faces, but he didn’t have a choice. And besides, Free the Soul had been kind enough to pay the expenses of everyone taking part in the experiment, he could hardly ignore such ‘generosity’.

He gave a quick wave goodbye before any last protests could develop, and hurried off to his flight. He’d cut it a bit closer than he’d liked, but he was on board and ready to head back to Nevada. He would have been happy if he’d never had to see that desert again in his life, but it looked like life wasn’t going to be nice to Junpei.

But then again, when had things ever looked good for Junpei?

--

The flight was long, boring, and uneventful- just how Junpei liked it. He spent it half-paying attention to a few movies, doing his best not to drift into sleep. By the time they finally touched down he was quite tired, but it wasn’t the time for that. He only has his carry-on so leaving was fairly quick, and he was pleased to find that his ride was waiting for him.

‘DCOM- JUNPEI TENMYOUJI’

A middle-aged man with greying hair and brown eyes was holding up the sign, looking relieved when Junpei walked up to him.

“Mr. Tenmyouji? Glad to see your flight went well. All but one of the other participants have already arrived, so the two of you get the last shuttle to yourselves.”

Junpei just shrugged and nodded, following after the man as he led the way. He was surprised to see a wheelchair folded up in the backseat- and wow was that guy in the other seat old… He didn’t react at all as Junpei opened the door, simply sitting and staring forwards, dark sunglasses covering his eyes.

“Who’s the old man?”

“Oh, him? He’s Q.”

“…Something up with him?”

“Well, I’m afraid he’s both completely blind, and deaf. He also has great difficulty walking, as you might have guessed.”

“And he’s joining the experiment… why?”

“It’s a part of the test- seeing how participants react to a difficult situation, as well as how those with disabilities may adapt to living in harsh environments.”

“Okay, then.”

The rest of the ride was spent in silence, Junpei staring out the window. He wasn’t sure why, but that old man… he creeped him out. He had hardly moved, and yet something about him felt as if he could actually… as though he was fully aware of what Junpei was saying. It was probably just paranoia, he insisted to himself, and yet he couldn’t shake that nagging feeling. Well, once they reached Dcom, he could just avoid him at all costs. Wouldn’t be too hard to avoid an old man in a wheelchair, surely.

It was a good few hours more before they finally reached the test site, dead in the middle of nowhere. They’d gone off-road fairly early on, and Junpei was certain this place wasn’t on any map… he’d have to hope to high hell that Hazuki and Ennea’d managed to find it, unlikely as that was.

He waited for driver to help Q into his wheelchair, and followed the two inside. The other participants were all seated at a few tables, and Junpei scanned the area.

The first table had two people seated at it, one girl who could put Hazuki to shame, and a nervous-looking boy who screamed desperation. The next table over had three, a red-haired woman, a tough-looking guy with a grumpy face, and a girl who Junpei had almost mistaken for Aoi at first glance. After that there was a blonde who looked… well, pretty generic if you asked Junpei. No, no, none of these were who he wanted to see… he could feel frustration growing, when he saw him.

Aoi was standing at the back of the room, looking like he’d hardly changed over the year. There were dark circles under his eyes, as though he’d spent many a sleepless night since Junpei had last seen him, but that wasn’t what surprised him. No, what surprised Junpei was the look on Aoi’s face. For that first split second when they met eyes, it wasn’t anger, or hatred, or even disappointment… it was fear.

Aoi Kurashiki was terrified of something, and Junpei had no idea what.

Aoi spun around and left the room, not even waiting for the middle-aged man to introduce Q and himself. The rest of the group was just as confused as Junpei had been about Q’s addition to the test group, but nobody said much about it. After a bit the man left, leaving the group in silence.

It was the generic blond who spoke up first, waving Junpei over to his table. With no reason to refuse, he walked over and took a seat.

“Hey, so you’re Junpei? Nice to meet you, man. I’m Carlos- a firefighter.”

Junpei couldn’t help but laugh- this guy was like a comic book hero or something; complete with perfectly chiseled face and perky voice. Really, it was too perfect.

“Uh, something funny?”

“No, I was just thinking how much it suited you.”

Carlos looked confused, but clearly didn’t know how to respond; not that Junpei gave him time to anyways.

“Say, do you know where Aoi went? I saw him, but he left.”

“You know the guy? He’s hardly spoken since we got here, only really talked to Sigma and Phi before stalking off on his own.”

Junpei raised an eyebrow, and Carlos realized his mistake.

“Oh, uh, Sigma’s the guy with black hair, and Phi’s the girl with white hair and glasses. It looks like they know each other. Diana’s the red haired one, Mira’s the brunette, and Eric’s the guy beside Mira. I’m pretty sure those two are dating.”

“Ah, got it.”

“But, you still haven’t answered- do you know Aoi?”

Junpei shrugged, not sure how much information it would really be smart to share at this point.

“More or less. We technically met for the first time last year, but I knew his sister when we were younger.”

“Oh, that’s nice.” Carlos gave Junpei a smile, and a pat on the back. “Well, seeing as we’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, it’s nice to meet you, Junpei! Just let me know if you need anything, I’ll give you a hand.”

“Y-yeah, uh, sure thing.”

Wow, this guy was friendly. Junpei wasn’t sure if he was bad at reading situations or just one of those ‘naturally positive people’, but either way Carlos didn’t seem to notice the mild anxiety that had taken a grip in his chest. He was going to get up and go after Aoi, when he felt a hand on the back of his chair- he turned, to find it was Sigma.

“Tenmyouji, huh? Should’ve realized you’d be the ninth…”

Junpei looked at him with mild suspicion, arms crossed. It was Phi who spoke up, clearly trying to explain Sigma’s… oddness.

“You’ll have to forgive the old man, he’s not very good at talking to people.”

“Uh, old man?”

“Oh, you just need to get a load of it. The guy says he came back from the future in order to stop some apocalypse, or something.” It was the curvy woman speaking this time, Mira. She was laughing, clearly taking Sigma’s words with a grain of salt.

Sigma, on the other hand, glared at her.

“It’s true, Mira. If things don’t change, then six billion people will die.”

“Sure, sure.”

Junpei shot a glance back at Carlos, who only shrugged and started whispering to Junpei.

“Sigma’s been like that since he got here, same with Phi. According to her, Sigma’s mind is 67, but ‘shifted’ into his 22-year-old self, or something like that?”

“aah.”

That would explain Sigma’s weirdness- he was an Esper, then. He doubted Carlos believed what Sigma and Phi were talking about, but he knew enough to know it was completely true. He couldn’t actively SHIFT, not of his own volition, and the mere idea terrified him. Between all the memories that were jumbled in his brain, he couldn’t tell anymore if it was him that’d died and jumped, or simply another version of him that he was remembering… but it didn’t matter much. He was stuck with the nightmares either way.

From the circumstances, it seemed like Sigma and Phi were fairly experienced at SHIFTing. At the very least, Sigma would have to be, if he was going to send his mind back that far through time. And if that was true, that meant something very big was going to happen here… looked like this wasn’t going to be a straightforward mission after all- he was certain he’d have to apologize to the group back home after this, if he didn’t end up dead.

Junpei was about to try once more to follow after Aoi, but this time it was something else stopping him- a soft gasp from the redhead, Diana.

“J-Junpei, your arm! It’s bleeding…”

He looked down, not even surprised at this point. He must have torn the stitches again over the flight, or something…damn, Ennea’d be pissed. He shrugged it off, trying not to let her get worried.

“It’s fine, it’ll heal itself up soon enough.”

“No, it’s not fine! Please, let me take a look at it. I’m a nurse, I can help you.”

He sighed, but resigned himself. He figured knew the healthcare type- even if she seemed nicer than Ennea, there was no way she’d let him go off without taking a look at it.

“Fine, fine.”

They split from the group, heading off the opposite way from where Aoi had gone. Diana led him to a small medical room, making him sit on the examination table while she rolled up his shirt sleeve, clearly surprised to see the bandages wrapping the wound, with fresh bloodstains soaking them.

“Junpei, what happened?”

“Eh, just a bullet.”

“What?!”

“You heard me. I keep getting stitches for it, but apparently I’m too active. This’ll be the fourth time they’ve broken.”

Diana gave him a disappointed look quite similar to the ones Ennea would give, and shook her head.

“I’ll need to take these off to examine the wound properly, ok? And if the stitches really are torn, there’s some local anesthetic that I can give you.”

“Well, that’ll be a nice change.”

“Huh?”

Junpei have a short laugh, a sarcastic grin on his face.

“Not used to the anesthesia part.”

“What are you talking about, Junpei?”

He just shrugged, and didn’t say anything more. He probably shouldn’t have even said the earlier part- he knew Ennea could get in trouble for what she did. For now, he would just shut up.

Diana’s examination went pretty quickly- it turned out only the entrance wound stitches had pulled this time, and the exit wound looked mostly healed, excluding the obvious scar. According to her, he could have those out now even, if he wanted- he agreed, and she took them out quickly and professionally.

She then went about re-doing his other stitches, after applying a gel Junpei didn’t recognize to numb the area. It was definitely quite different than when Ennea did them- he could still feel the pulling sensation, but there wasn’t the pain that normally came with. Whatever that stuff was, he’d have to recommend Ennea find some, presuming he didn’t get kicked out after all this was done. Or, again, assuming he didn’t die for whatever reason.

Finally, she’d finished and wrapped his arm once more, but she didn’t let him just walk out, standing in the doorway.

“Junpei, if anything happens, tell me okay? If you don’t move it around too much, they should be healed pretty soon, but I’ll fix them if you need me too. That’s why I’m here, after all.”

She gave him a gentle smile, before finally letting him out. He only coughed an awkward thanks before heading out- now, he could finally look for Aoi. It took him surprisingly long to find the other, despite how small the facility seemed to be. Aoi had shut himself up in one of the containment rooms and was pacing furiously, arms crossed.

“What, not happy to see me?”

He leaned up against the frame of the doorway, staring casually to hide the swirling mix of emotions inside. What could he even say?  ‘Sorry it’s my fault that Akane died’? Yeah, as if that would go over well. He figured that Aoi had to hate him- but either way, letting Aoi kill him on the first day… probably wouldn’t end too well for him. So instead Junpei just hid it all, everything about what he was feeling, and watched Aoi with a carefully lazy expression.

 “Why are you here, Junpei.”

“I came here to find you, Aoi.”

The boy sighed, visibly frustrated.

“It’s dangerous here, Junpei. I’m sure you’ve heard Sigma by now- everything he says is true. If we’re not careful, then F-“

“Something about Free the Soul, right? You’re not the only one who knows about them. But, I think Sigma’s maybe taking it a little too seriously.”

“Of course I’m not- and you have no idea what they’re capable of, you fucking idiot.”

Harsh, Aoi. I figured you’d have a little more faith in me than that.

“Oh really? And why the fuck do I have any reason to have faith in you?”

“Tch-“ Junpei bit his lip. That one stung, as much as he didn’t want to admit to it. But it was true… Aoi had no reason at all to have faith in Junpei. Because Junpei was a failure. “Regardless, I know they’re up to something. You might have your fancy network or whatever, but I’ve got information too. I’m not helpless.”

 “You could’ve fooled me.”

“That scorn- it burns, Aoi.”

“Oh, enough with the bullshit!” Aoi finally stopped pacing, turning to look at Junpei with frustration on his face. “Look, just- why are you here? What do you want?”

“Didn’t I say? I wanted to find you. Who wouldn’t, after you up and disappeared like that?”

Aoi didn’t respond, and the frustration Junpei’d managed to draw to his face had been replaced by the same careful masks Junpei had seen during the nonary game. Expressive, but… fake, most likely.

“Look, I’m sure you hate me, but we’re stuck here together, now. So sooner or later, we’re going to have to talk. See you, Aoi.”

He looked like he wanted to tell Junpei something, but Junpei didn’t let him. He stalked off back into the common room- let Aoi pace and worry. Junpei had waited this long already, he could wait a few more days to talk to the other.

By the time he got back, the only ones still there were Carlos and Phi, talking quietly. Carlos was asking her questions about Sigma, and she was clearly only giving half-answers. Junpei broke into the conversation, having a couple questions of his own.

“So, SHIFTers, huh?”

“You believe us?”

“Got no reason not to. Life’s more entertaining when you believe in stupid shit.”

“Asshole…”

Phi just rolled her eyes- and yet, it didn’t seem like she was terribly surprised by his attitude. It was Carlos who broke the silence, genuine curiosity in his voice. For someone who didn’t seem to know anything about espers or SHIFT, he sure was willing to accept all this… a comic book superhero, indeed.

“Then, are you older than you look too, Phi?”

“Well, that’s a lot more complicated. My mind’s still 22, but I came from the same point in time as Sigma. So I can confirm that everything he was saying was true.”

“He seemed to know me, got a reason for that?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can tell you, Junpei. Ask him if you want, but I doubt the old bastard’ll talk.”

Junpei shook his head, not too bothered.

“Eh, doesn’t really put me out, just was wondering. I’m more interested in if you know anything about Aoi.”

Phi sighed, crossing her arms.

“Not much. I know he’s here for the same reason we are, but he’ll only talk to Sigma about things. They don’t even seem to like each other, so I don’t really get it, but whatever.”

“Damn…”

“Well, we’re all going to have to get to know each other sooner or later, right Junpei? I’m sure you’ll get more chances to talk to Aoi.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Carlos was giving him a reassuring smile, seemingly oblivious to the tension that was setting in. Everything was pointing to the fact that something big was going to happen here, and Carlos had no idea… lucky him, Junpei thought with a laugh.

“Oh, has anyone shown you the sleeping quarters yet? You can finally put your bag down, then.”

Junpei shook his head, and Carlos got up, clearly eager to help. Phi told them she was just going to keep sitting there, so it was only the two boys who left the room.

“So, Carlos. You said you were a firefighter?”

“Yeah. Been one for a while now.”

“Sounds like you’re a real ‘hero of justice’, then.”

Carlos laughed, clapping a hand on Junpei’s back.

“Heh, not really. I just do my best to help out where I can, and that lead to me becoming a firefighter. There’s nothing really special about me, it’s just the way I felt I could do the most to help.”

“Really? Sounds pretty selfless to me.”

Perhaps he was unaware of the sarcasm dripping from Junpei’s voice, or perhaps he just didn’t care- but whatever the reason Carlos continued on as if nothing was wrong, grinning in response.

“Yeah, really. I’m just your average joe- oh, here we are.”

They entered the room, finding a rather cramped living situation. They’d passed the door to the women’s rooms already, and here there were three sections, each divided into two smaller rooms with a paper-thin wall separating them.

“Eric and Q are in the first one, while Sigma and Aoi have already claimed the other one, so you’re stuck with me.” Carlos gave a self-deprecating laugh, and gestured to the room on the left. The beds looked nicer than the ones he’d seen in building Q, at the very least… “I hope you don’t mind that I set up to the right already- the rooms are mirror images of each other.”

“No, it doesn’t matter. Left’s fine.”

Junpei haphazardly tossed his bag over onto his bed, then climbed after it to sit on it. It was a bit higher than the bed he was used to, and definitely smaller- hopefully he wouldn’t roll out of this one. The rest of the room was small and simple- a mirror, a nightstand, a clock with a red LED display, and a simple overhead light. Checking the clock, Junpei noticed that it read 21:59. Carlos’s eyes followed, examining the time.

“Wow, time flies, huh?”

“I’m going to bed now.”

“Already?”

“I’m crazy jet-lagged; I’m surprised I haven’t fallen asleep already.”

“Oh, right. Well, I’ll probably be going to bed later, but I’ll keep quiet. ‘Night then, Junpei.”

“Yeah, ‘night.”

Junpei didn’t even bother to change out of the clothes he was wearing, instead just lying down on the bunk. He’d found Aoi, finally… even if it wasn't the proper time to talk yet, Junpei would ensure that sooner or later, they would. His mind was caught up in those lines of thought, when he drifted off into sleep.

“You’re going to play… A game…”

The voice was harsh and distorted, much like the one he’d heard from Zero a year before. Who was it coming from? Junpei looked around, but everything was dark, so dark… he tried to reach out, but he couldn’t feel anything- was he falling? Yes, and he was getting faster, falling faster, faster, the ground was catching up to him… he turned his head, and he could feel something squeezing his neck. It was tight and he couldn’t get it off, it cut off his breathing- was that someone talking in the background? He was screaming, but he could hear that mechanical voice, talking once more.

It hurt, everything hurt, he couldn’t even breath without it hurting. His flesh was melting from his body, he was being choked by acid fumes as others screamed beside him. Then the bullets tore through flesh and bone, blood spraying everywhere. He looked at his companions in desperation, as Carlos and Aoi shared the same fate- no, not Aoi. Akane? How was she here?

He felt the knife stabbing him, and he collapsed much like he’d done (yet not done) a year before. He was bleeding, he was dying, but he heard something revving up… The bracelet injected him with the anesthetic and muscle relaxant at the same time, and he was suffocating. Carlos- why did he look so guilty? What had he done? He wanted to ask, to do something, but he couldn’t breath.

I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I’m dying.
I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dy-

“Junpei!”

He awoke with a start, finding Carlos standing beside the bed with great concern on his face.

“Are you alright, man? You started shouting in your sleep, it sounded like you were in a lot of pain…”

“I-I… I’m fine.”

Junpei was breathing heavily, and he had a white-knuckle grip on the sheets. Anyone with half a brain could easily tell that he was, in fact, very much not okay. He was used to the nightmares, faint memories from timelines that never happened, but this was different. Those things weren’t things that had already happened- they couldn’t be. There was no way they could’ve happened already, not if Akane was there- and certainly not if Carlos was too.

The memories were already fading, but one thing had been burned into his mind- the look of guilt, confusion, and pure horror carved onto Carlos’s face, as Junpei collapsed to the ground. What had happened- or maybe, what was going to happen?

“Uh.. Junpei? Do you want me to grab you a glass or water, or something?”

Carlos’s voice snapped Junpei out of his thoughts, and he shook his head. Even if those nightmares had truth to them, they couldn’t actually be true- after all, he’d seen Akane. He must have just resonated with the him in the luckier timeline…

“N-No, I’m fine, really.”

“You don’t look it, man.”

Even with only the dim light from the clock to illuminate his face, it was clear to see that Carlos was worried about him. Junpei eventually just sighed, shaking his head once more.

“Carlos…. Am I able to trust you?”

“Huh? Junpei, where’d that come from?”

“Just answer me, ok? Can I trust you?”

“Y-yeah, of course.”

Junpei wasn’t sure if it was just the colour of the light or something else, but he could have sworn that he saw a certain redness in Carlos’s cheeks as he started looking away awkwardly- did he have a fever, maybe? No, it had to be Junpei imagining things. They ended up just staring into the darkness in silence for a while longer, neither of them moving. Eventually Carlos moved to the door back out of Junpei’s room, but it was clear he wasn’t planning on going to sleep again just yet.

“Hey, so.. why’d you join Dcom, anyways?”

“…To find Aoi. There’s… there’s something I have to tell him.”

“Something? What kind of thing- oh wait, that’s probably personal, huh?”

“Heh, more or less.”

He’d really rather not explain to Carlos why he’d spent an entire year searching for Aoi just to apologize- better to let him just come up with his own ideas. Well, he was at least lucky that Carlos wasn’t pushing for answers- he was a decent guy, even to a complete stranger like Junpei.

“Well, I’m gonna go back to bed now. If you need anything though, just let me know. Okay, Junpei?”

“Sure thing, Carlos.”

Junpei continued to lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. The wall did enough that Junpei couldn’t hear him breathing, but hardly anything more than that- but still, that was enough. As for Junpei, he didn’t feel like going back to sleep himself. Despite what Carlos had said, there was still worry in Junpei- what had happened, in that dream that wasn’t a dream? He had to focus, to see what he could remember… Closing his eyes and resting his head on his arms, Junpei tried his best to recall the memory.

There was the faint glow of a screen nearby, and he could hear the mechanical voice of an announcer. Carlos had said something that didn’t make any sense, but Junpei just couldn’t make it out- it was this close, but the memories had faded too fast. The only thing he could recall with any sense of sureness was the face Carlos had made, and the feeling of weight on his wrist…

Wait, what?

Junpei paused a moment, trying again to recall the memory. It was getting fuzzier by the second, but there was no doubt about it- There was a both familiar and unfamiliar weight on his wrist.

A bracelet.

A knot formed in Junpei’s stomach, and he bit his lip. Whichever timeline those memories had come from, they’d come from a game like the nonary game. Between that, Free the Soul’s involvement, and Aoi, Sigma, and Phi, any possible doubt that could have remained in Junpei’s mind had been crushed.

They were going to participate in a game before this experiment was over.

Junpei didn’t laugh, but he damn well wanted to. How ironic, that after spending an entire year trying to forget about the Nonary game, he’d willingly walked directly into another one? He had no idea who could possibly be the one running that one- definitely not Aoi, but any of the others were a possibility. Shifting as quietly as possible on his bed, Junpei reached for his bag. They’d screened all of his belongings before he could enter the site, as all communication devices were forbidden, but they hadn’t found everything. Hidden among his clothes and a few papers and pens was one pen in particular that Junpei was looking for. Lotus had fitted it with a small transmitter, for sending one-way radio signals- morse code.

. -. -. . .- / .--. .-.. .- -.-- / - .... .-. . .

‘ennea play three’

It was simple, but he knew that they’d figure it out, and be watching like hawks. He would have liked to give more details, but anything else would be dangerous- in the off chance that someone intercepted the signals, anything that linked to anyone in particular could be very bad.

And the code itself wasn’t too difficult- Ennea’s twin was nona, as in nine. The things a person played would be a game, and three meant this was the third. The third nonary game would be happening…

After sending the message, Junpei tossed the pen back into the bag, and laid back down onto the bed. It wasn’t much, but he knew something at least… regardless of whatever Dcom held for them all, Junpei would be prepared for it. He wouldn’t let himself get caught off-guard like last time; this time he would trust no one. Junpei would make sure that Aoi would survive, no matter what-

No matter what.