The sun blazed high in the sky, ribs of light parting the canopy above them and boiling the water in the earth into a heavy, humid mist. For the party of travellers, it was like struggling through a low-rent version of hell—sweat slicked their hair to their heads and their clothes clung to their bodies like jealous lovers, chafing in all the wrong places. For Kurisu and Okabe, forced into physical contact hour in and hour out, the heat was nothing short of torture; by the time they both gave into the inevitable and stripped off the heavy top of their coveralls, even Daru lacked the energy to snigger. Plus, blushing turned out to be excellent for heat loss.
By midday, the group had lost their battle against Gaia and were forced to take shelter in the lee of an overhanging rock. Okabe’s eyes were half-closed as he struggled to stay upright, forcing her to surreptitiously grab him again just to keep him stable. It fooled no one. Worse, the humidity prevented sweating, so his fever had risen higher than ever. The rest of them were struggling too. Not even a drop of water remained in the flask and Kurisu’s throat was dry despite the dampness in the air; when she ducked out of sight to check, her urine was a dark orange. Another problem to solve, and one that threatened to render all others moot.
Growling, she drew back her foot… and stopped herself just unleashing her frustrations on the arboreal life. It would be just her luck to break a toe and then—unable to walk—she really would die out here, a shrivelled corpse all that was left of everything she had been and aspired to be.
A throbbing sensation made her realise that she was clenching her teeth.
With a rustle and an inarticulate shriek, her foot plunged into a clump of green bamboo, the childish action snapping some and relieving just a little of the weight that threatened to crush her. She would have simply turned and headed back to the others, but something nagged at her: the cut bamboo was bleeding. Oozing a clear fluid that looked suspiciously like…
She took a broken one and put the torn stem to her lips.
It was disgusting; warm and with a bitter taste that betrayed the liquid’s origins, but it flowed down her throat easily enough. Water! If it were not a waste of fluids, she would have cried a little. Instead, she pulled on it, sucking in a mouthful of fluid before it went dry. Digging her fingernails into the other end and pulling the top off yielded another mouthful.
Tossing the waste aside, she practically sprinted back to the others. A sullen Daru was watching over Feyris, while Okabe leant against the smooth rock and Eiri seemed to have relaxed her inhibitions enough to doze in the shade.
‘Psst. Did we bring a knife on this trip?’ she hissed in Daru’s ear, too low for Feyris to make out her words. Probably. That chip couldn’t pull off something like that, could it?
Doubtless the man would have shrugged, but lethargy and the need to keep his aim steady turned the motion into a simple jerk of the head. The meaning remained obvious, however, and she was forced to search through all three rucksacks herself before finding the steel penknife nestled away in a corner.
Thus equipped, she headed back to the bamboo patch and hacked at another of the weakened ones until she could pull it away and check the insides. Sure enough, the interior was full of brackish water, forcing her to clamp her hand on the cut stem before the precious liquid drained away uselessly. Inconvenient, but still… she’d found water! All she needed now was a few of their flasks and they’d be set for days.
Having run back to camp, she explained as much to Daru. He actually cracked a smile, before wincing as a lone drop of sweat ran into his eye.
‘We kept all the flagons in one bag, so that’s golden, but there’s no way you’re cutting through fresh bamboo with those scrawny arms. Here, take this.’ He handed her the tranq pistol while she was fuming and too wrongfooted to protest. ‘Keep an eye on the maid and a’milking I will go.’ A snicker and he was gone, too fast for her to say a word. Leaving her with Feyris.
Kurisu looked into the face of her tormentor.
‘Avoiding me?’ Feyris asked, her lip curling. ‘I thought I was going to have to contrive something.’
Kurisu stammered, but couldn’t find anything to say. Her mind was caught in the same snarl as before … so many ways this could end, and not one of them was one she could bear to choose.
As though reading her thoughts straight from her eyes, Feyris sighed. ‘So that’s how it is. Well, I’ll make this easier for you.’
No passion, not even cruelty.
‘Twenty four hours, or I tell all.’
A psychologist dealing with a recalcitrant subject.
‘And you know what’ll happen to you if I do. So make your decision quickly, Makise Kurisu, lest I make it for you.’
Her heart clenched, seemingly pulling the blood from her head into a tight, hard ball of fear. The world faded and distorted as her head swam, with twin scalpel-steel orbs as the only constant.
She was snared, and her trapper was reeling her in.
Thumpa Thumpa Thumpa.
So caught was she that the truth didn’t dawn on her until long after it should have. Those sounds weren’t her heartbeat, they were far too loud for that. Moreover, they weren’t from within so much as…
With newly cleared eyes, Kurisu saw Feyris’ sudden aggression for what it was—a feint. She’d heard the helicopter before anyone else, hidden her cuffed hands behind her back and taken advantage of the moment to step out from under the shade of the rock and into the bright sunlight.
‘Wha- what are you doing?’
Caught, Feyris’ smile only widened. Her amusement was almost maternal, keeping a secret from a child too innocent to understand it. She twisted, a little, showing a glimpse of something clasped in those clever, dangerous fingers. As she had yesterday in the farmhouse, Kurisu took a step forward. And as then, a glint of light revealed an awful truth: a sliver of silvered glass that took the light of the sun and threw it as a beacon upward into the heavens. Ready to call down the Organisation.
Feyris winked, and her lips pursed into a rosebud. ‘Shhh…’ Unspoken was the promise she had made before:
Say nothing. And everything will be okay.
This was it.
While the brain of a genius twisted itself in knots, her limbs acted on their own. An abortive step forwards, hands reached out to do something, anything.
Kurisu caught herself. Frozen in utter paralysis as the helicopter quested overhead.
With a battle cry somewhere between a yell and a shout of pain, a lanky form tackled Feyris around the knees and she toppled. Still handcuffed, spitting like a monstrous feline, she managed to bring the glass shard across the face of her assailant, slicing a neat line through the flesh. He recoiled, and Feyris loosed a savage kick. It knocked him back, all the air in his lungs expelled in a strangled croak. A rib snapped.
Though all else was still, her lips screamed. ‘Okabe!’ And, finally, she flew forward.
Makise Kurisu wasn’t a brawler. She couldn’t throw a punch. Couldn’t take one either. Couldn’t even remember she had a gun in her hand. All she could do was hurl herself at Feyris and pray it was enough to stop her killing Okabe.
Against even a normal fighter, this would have been suicide. But her opponent was no ordinary combatant; rendered numb to pain and injury, capable of a manic strength that risked tearing muscle and tendon from bone. Also handcuffed, five-foot-nothing and forty kilos soaking wet. Kurisu’s weight was enough to bowl her over, sending the two of them tumbling into a bush that collapsed around them with a crack of snapping limbs. The shard of mirror dug into her thigh as Kurisu yelped in shock and confused hurt, lubricating it with slick crimson. Like soap in the tub, the glass slipped out of Feyris’ fingers and fell into the undergrowth.
The woman squirmed underneath her, writhing like a boneless snake in her inexperienced grip. Only a primal instinct let Kurisu release Feyris’ arm in time; the woman’s teeth clicked shut where her hand had been. But now Kirusu was off balance and a mighty heave from Feyris was enough to roll them over. The last things she saw were white teeth drawn back from snarling lips as their owner’s face impacted her with enough force to drive every thought from her head.
When she woke, the copter was gone, Feyris was unconscious with a blue-black mottle that ran from her eye to her split lip and Daru was nursing his bleeding knuckles.
The water flagons lay where they’d fallen. Kurisu’s only achievement was no more than a moist patch of earth.
Think of it like a holiday, Okabe had said. After bullet wounds, gashes, infections, dehydration, blisters and an impromptu hike across nearly a hundred miles of Japan’s forests, the bag of medical equipment she’d brought looked decidedly malnourished. But it was all she had, so she cut the last bit of bandage they possessed off the roll and did her best to knot it around her thigh … only for her hands to spasm uncontrollably as the material pressed against the wound. The pain was enough to elicit an undignified whimper, but she tried again and again, gritting her teeth.
It was useless. There was only one way this was going to work, and she knew it.
To her left, her companion turned to look vaguely in her direction. His eyes seemed to have lost focus, as though peering at distant forms glimpsed through a murky fog. They concentrated better after a few blinks, giving her a little courage.
‘Put your hand here, she instructed as she held the bandage loosely against her thigh. ‘A-and you better not try anything weird, okay? I’m just being practical here!’
It took a few moments for this to percolate through his brain. Finally, his lips twitched in the ghost of a smirk. ‘… … hah. Next time … buy me a drink first,’ he said, before wincing as the motion pulled at the cut on his cheek. Though his voice was in as sorry a state as his smile, even the echo of their old bickering was like a balm; one she rather needed since he’d already used up all their painkillers.
Then he actually leant close, and any comfort she might have found in his presence was obliterated. He stank. Of sweat and dirt, yes, but mostly of rot—the same smell she remembered from pulling off an old plaster. A reminder of just how badly she’d fucked up.
Nothing to be done about it now, she told herself firmly. All she could do was learn from her mistakes, get herself patched up, and get him to Ka-whatever Base. A nagging voice told her that there was no way he was getting there in his condition; she locked it up and stuffed it in the box, along with the swift-chasing agony that made her fingers shiver and tremble as she tied a jerky knot and pulled it tight.
‘Thanks,’ she sighed, leaning back against the rock and letting her breaths slowly transition back from gulping air to something vaguely normal. ‘And you can let go now. Really,’ she added, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to. Part of her was tempted to simply leave his hand there. In a time and place where everything seemed so complicated, the simple warmth of a human touch was almost irresistible. And if things go badly, a little voice said, this might be the last time—
Into the box.
Oh. That’s why he wasn’t moving.
Okabe’s eyes had fallen closed; his hand was limp when she took it in her grip. For a moment, she feared that— No. His chest still moved in shallow breaths, while her own was coming in sharp gasps as though a hand was reaching into her chest and yanking on it again and again. With a start, Kurisu realised she was close to tears.
There was something she had to do. Something she had to say to him before—
‘Okabe … I … I did this. This is my fault, all of it.’
The words were the ones she’d never wanted to speak; pure undiluted truth. At first they had to be forced from her lips, syllable by syllable, but as she talked they began to flow of their own accord as though eager to escape their confines.
‘I made the time machine. The design was mine. The construction was mine. The testing… mine. Because I didn’t have the guts to say no, everybody suffered. You, Mayuri, Suzuha. Daru and Moeka and Ruka. Feyris and Eiri. I don’t think there’s a single person in the world whose life isn’t worse because of me.’
Her grip on his hand had changed. Where once she had held it by the wrist, checking for a pulse, she now cradled it. Entwining his fingers with hers.
‘And I can’t even tell you this to your face. I’m … I’m scared, Okabe. Even though you said you trusted me… even though Daru lets me use his nickname again… I know that if you ever find out what I’ve done, you’ll never forgive me. Well, I guess we’ll see soon enough. Got to test those hypotheses, right?’
Okabe began to stir. It was fair; her speech was anything but lulling. Kurisu laughed bitterly. ‘Honestly, I used to be scared you’d just shoot me when you found out, but right now I don’t think we’re going to survive long enough for it to be an issue. I just don’t want to die with you hating me.’
‘… … Kurisu?’ His eyelids fluttered.
‘Oh. Hey. Sleep well?’
‘… … we aren’t going to die.’ He squeezed her hand with his. She hadn’t realised she was still holding it. Honestly, his grip was too weak to call it a squeeze, but the gesture made her smile slightly less forced.
‘You caught that, huh?’
‘… … only a little. Did… you want to tell me… something?’
Her lips trembled. Perhaps loosing her secrets once had eased their passage. But the price of that catharsis was higher than she could bear to pay and so she did the only thing she could:
Kurisu pressed her lips to his, and drowned her secrets with the taste of salt.
When Kurisu woke the following day, it was obvious that Okabe wouldn’t be walking anywhere. Twisting and turning, his hair matted down with sweat and his face contorted in suffering, he remained deaf to anything beyond his own agony. Any attempts to wake him produced mere instants of lucidity, and frequently not even that.
The rest of them were little better. Eiri remained as blank as ever, but Kurisu had seen her remove her boots last night and the mass of blisters beneath; today, the girl moved with a noticeable limp. Daru was moody, irritable from hunger and threw dark looks at her as Okabe’s condition declined. Kurisu herself felt an aching, snarling void where her stomach had been and found herself reminiscing even about stale bread. Her thick, rasping tongue had begun to pick up a sweet taste in her mouth: ketosis, as her body dug into its emergency supplies… even some of her muscle mass had been sacrificed after two days with no more than the smallest scraps of nourishment. Every now and then a wave of dizziness would sweep over her, suggesting the onset of serious dehydration.
Only Feyris seemed unaffected. Doubtless she felt her time was running out, though, because she’d given up any hint of subtlety—her eyes followed Kurisu constantly and every time the two made eye contact Feyris would glance meaningfully at her own wrist, where a watch would normally lie. Only around Daru did she feign passivity, as she did now.
‘Shit, this isn’t going to work,’ Daru muttered as he made another attempt to wake his friend. A futile gesture as his reluctance to harm Okabe further meant he treated him like a porcelain doll.
‘Fine. We’ll do it another way,’ he continued. ‘Makise, make yourself useful for once and take all the food and water stuff out of the rucksacks. Dump everything except the compass and whatever you haven’t wasted from the med kit, shove what’s left in a bag.’
What?! How were they supposed to get more supplies if they had nothing to carry them in? She opened her mouth to argue but Daru cut her off. ‘Don’t. Don’t. Listening to you has basically screwed us over pretty well so far and I’m not doing it any more. Just… just do what I tell you to and we might not actually die here, got it?’
Water-starved blood flowed sluggishly to her cheeks, flaming at the brutal reprimand, before she shot him an incendiary glare and stomped off to burn their bridges.
The sun was still climbing to its zenith, yet it felt like they’d been walking forever. Up ahead, Daru struggled onwards with Okabe slung over his shoulders. His footsteps were heavier than they should be, and he stooped with the weight.
Kurisu trudged dutifully after Feyris. Or was that the other way round? The jailor and the jailed. The caught and the captor. She wasn’t sure who was who anymore. But the gun was in her hand, which counted for something.
Eiri was walking… who knew? Behind them? Probably. What did it matter where the girl chose to die?
Hot. Empty stomach. Dry mouth. Sore legs. Blisters. Want to sleep now, please.
Into the box with you.
It’s getting dark.
The four of them marched long into the night before even Daru had to admit they needed sleep. It was risky—they’d pushed themselves to the limit. The chances that they’d wake and be unable to continue, like Okabe, were non zero but more than balanced by the extra distance they’d make from being rested.
The logic was impeccable, but all Kurisu could think about was the chance to stop walking and sleep for a while. So, because the world hated her, she got first watch. Eiri had dropped like a stone the moment she’d removed her pack and Daru was implacable—no argument could be made. She didn’t bother.
Nor was she the least bit surprised when, after ten minutes or so waiting for Daru to fall asleep, Feyris said simply, ‘Kurisu. It’s time.’
A couple of days ago, hearing that from her would have sent Kurisu into some sort of nervous fit—paroxysms of guilt and fear. Now she just sighed. ‘It’s rather past time, don’t you think? The only one in any state to hear my secret is me.’
The woman inclined her head. ‘Maybe I did give you too many chances. Would you have freed me if I’d pushed you a little harder?’
‘I don’t know. I never did make up my mind. But I won’t do it now—at least then I can die with something resembling dignity.’
Feyris hummed in a non-committal sort of way.
‘You don’t seem too upset,’ Kurisu said, after a few moments of silence.
‘I took out the Valkyrie’s leadership. I’ve served my purpose. But I’d still quite like to live, you know, so won’t you consider my offer one more time?’
Kurisu sighed, fighting back the need to sleep. A few darts were left in the gun; it would probably be worth using one just to get Feyris to slumber through the night. Her thoughts mostly thus occupied, she corrected Feyris somewhat absently. ‘I told you I’m not doing it. Anyway, you’ve pretty much lost all your leverage, so there’s really no reason I should.’
‘Oh? Haven’t you forgotten something?’ Feyris asked slyly. ‘The carrot’s as important as the stick. Okarin doesn’t have to die here anymore than we do.’
The reminder really shouldn’t have startled her as much as it did. Truth was, she had forgotten, or tried to… How could she not? Fear had kept her trapped, balanced on the knife edge between suicidal nobility and doomed pragmatism, but hope was all too enticing.
‘You’re trying to get to me through Okabe?’ Her lips twisted in tired amusement. ‘Am I that obvious?’
‘Yes. Of course, he’s no better.’
With anyone else, she thought idly, this conversation would be incredibly awkward. She’d blush, and stammer denials (if only because part of her liked having people ask). But she was too tired, and Feyris knew her right down to the deep and murky depths. Even with so much on the line, this was almost … comfortable.
Perhaps it was the dehydration talking, but it seemed to Kurisu that she and Feyris could have been very good friends.
Of course, the chipped woman was doing that on purpose.
Feyris spoke again, bringing her attention back to reality. ‘The key’s in the bag that we kept. I saw Daru slipping it in.’
‘Yeah, and if I used it I’d be betraying everyone. Okabe, Daru, Suzuha—.’ She caught herself before she mentioned a name Feyris didn’t already know. ‘Everyone else I’ve hurt, or let the Organisation hurt.’ She looked Feyris in the eye. It was too dark to see a chip, but she fancied she saw the glimmer there. ‘Even you. I can’t. I-I won’t.’
‘He’s the head of the Valkyrie, isn’t he? I suspected even before Iida, you know. Okabe started acting so oddly before I was kidnapped… Then brainwashing, time travel, ‘Operation Valkyrie’… it was just like one of his fantasies come to life, although I don’t suppose this is quite how he imagined it. If you let him die here, your rebellion is just as doomed as if you take my offer. You aren’t betraying anyone.’
Just failing them, Kurisu thought bitterly.
‘And the other reason is this,’ Feyris said, a clinical note reemerging as the velvet glove wore through to the steel beneath. ‘Because all of those people you talk about—all six billion of them—don’t mean a thing to you and you know it.’
Kurisu felt sick.
‘That’s not true,’ she said, very quietly. ‘I care. It’s my fault, I have to redeem myself, I have to save them!’
‘Oh? I’ve watched you so carefully over the last few days, Kurisu. Remember the farmhouse? Your face … I saw horror there, and sorrow; raw and fresh. You think you could feel that for six billion people? Try, if you can. See if your psyche can take it.’
A muscle throbbed in Kurisu’s jaw as she ground her teeth together. ‘I can’t. You know I can’t. But I still care, because I’m not a monster like you!’
Feyris tilted her head to the clearing where the others slumbered, white teeth flashing in the moonlight. ‘More than you care about them?’
Half her life in a cell, alone and afraid. What little words were conveyed to her from her masters only caused her suffering: reminding her of the consequences of disobedience or expressing a satisfaction that heaped remorse atop her shoulders. To be taken from that, to laugh and be laughed at, to speak and be spoken to… It was no wonder she’d felt the sting of betrayal so deeply in Iida, nor that she’d fallen for him so far and so fast.
Kurisu turned away, knowing that her shame was written on her face.
After a long moment, she felt Feyris behind her. ‘We rarely feel the things we should,’ the woman whispered in her ear. ‘And love of all kinds tends to make us weaker in that respect. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.’
Kurisu nodded miserably.
‘Will you release me, then? I kept another mirror. I’ll save them, I promise.’
‘Atta girl. The key’s in the bag, remember?’
So that was it, she thought as she reentered the clearing. All that resolve, all that resolution and this is the person that Makise Kurisu turns out to be. Nosce te ipsum: know thyself. Now she knew.
Laid on soft leaves beneath a tree, an unconscious Okabe writhed. They were out of pills, and the agony of his wound and her botched field surgery was enough to reach him even in the depths of unconsciousness. Kurisu watched, feeling oddly detached. None of it would matter once she freed Feyris.
Was this how Hououin Kyouma felt all along?
She remembered the passion in his eyes, the despair. No, it wasn’t. Proof, as if it were needed, that he was better than her by far.
Daru and Eiri were utterly still, and fast asleep, with the bag lying close to the former. Perhaps her newfound detachment from this world went both ways, for not a single twig cracked nor leaf rustled as she made her way across to where Daru slept. She slipped her right hand into the bag, careful not to let anything rustle or clink, and found the keys in one of the bottom corners.
A hand like a manacle closed around her upper arm. Daru’s eyes were open. ‘I knew it.’