respice, adspice, prospice

nc-17 | major character death | disturbing content | domestic violence | child death



chapter 1: sigma

They had all agreed that there was no point in waiting for Dcom staff to reestablish contact, or relying on them for transportation out. Akane was sure that Free the Soul had its claws dug deep into the entire experiment, and Carlos, Mira, Junpei, Phi - hell, everyone - thought waiting around for them was possibly suicide.

Once Akane knew her physical location, she had tapped into the field to get her brother to come rescue them. It took over an hour for them to arrive; the backup team had purposefully kept their distance, in the event Akane and company had failed in a particularly explosive or horrifically viral fashion. Since none of the former participants felt safe reentering the facility (as Sean had put it, Th-th-there could be b-b-bombs in there!), they were slightly dehydrated and heat sick when Aoi arrived, but otherwise physically okay. A quick field test determined none of them were infected with Radical-6, and then they were off to a hospital to be checked out. All of them were given clean bills of health.

Diana, however, had fainted when a police officer had walked by in the hospital lobby, handgun prominently holstered at the waist. She said she was fine upon regaining consciousness, but the doctor insisted that she be admitted for overnight observation.

(It was probably nothing. It was likely just as Phi had said; Diana must have great insurance and the hospital wanted to milk it for all it was worth.)

Sigma stayed by her side, long after visiting hours were over. He didn't know if they let him stay out of kindness for her or because nobody wanted to try to remove him. Nobody was going to remove him. He talked with her while she was awake and watched her while she slept, holding her hand the whole time. Holding her hand felt safe. It wasn't something only lovers did. At one point a strand of hair fell across her face and he had to resist the urge to brush it away. Ultimately, she was right; he was -

No. He wasn't a coward. It didn't matter what they were to each other in different histories, different timelines. In this one, he was just a guy she had trapped with for a week. A week that had likely traumatized her. He had no right to be pushing her into anything. She might want nothing to do with him once she settled back into her normal life and had time to reflect on the insanity of everything.

The thought made him ill, but he knew if that was her choice, he would have to accept it. He would accept it. She had already endured a relationship with a man who refused to accept "no" for an answer.

It just wasn't fair, that he would go through all this, suffer through all this, and not be able to have a chance with her. Forty-two dammed years (mostly) alone on the moon, watching humanity nearly die out, moving back and forth in space and time, dying and jumping and dying again, losing her over and over in one timeline after another, he deserved some fucking happiness with the only woman he had ever really loved, in any history, in any time.

But as Zero had reminded them, life was unfair.

He left her side only once, when Phi arrived to take his place. Diana was peacefully sleeping, her nose and cheeks slightly pink from a mild sunburn. Phi wrinkled her nose as she plopped herself down in the chair he vacated. She put her feet up on the edge of Diana's bed as she pulled out a dog-eared book.

"Hey!" He scolded Phi in a harsh whisper, gesturing to her feet.

"Relax, grandpa. I won't wake her up. Go do whatever it is that you urgently need to do. But maybe get a shower first. I'm surprised she could sleep with your disgusting body odor in the room."

He left, reluctantly, wondering if he would ever get past his fear of turning around and finding Diana gone.

-

Neither he nor Diana felt they could really go home. The last place he wanted to be was a college dorm, and Diana had gotten word that her ex had broken into her apartment, looking for her, while she was gone. Akane had set them up in a hotel - separate rooms - and made sure they each had their bags from Dcom, with all their personal items and clean clothing. Phi would be staying in the hotel as well; of the three of them, she actually had somewhere to go, but she said she would feel out of place there.

Part of him wondered if it was just because she wanted to stay near him and Diana. There hadn't been any serious conversations yet. And aside from their tearful embrace in the shelter, no mushy, maudlin family moments. Phi continued to be just as she ever was and probably would ever be. But sometimes he would catch her looking at him or Diana with an expression he'd never seen on her face before, an expression he couldn't quite describe. At those times, he would just resist the urge to wrap his arms around her and tell her that he was so damn proud of her. That he couldn't have hoped for a better daughter.

Phi would probably just roll her eyes at him, call him an asshole, and tell him to stop being an idiot.

He made one stop in between the hospital and the hotel, entered his room with the key card Akane had given him, and made a beeline for the shower.

After checking three times that the door was definitely locked.

And then moving a chair in front of it.

He wondered if he was stuck with this paranoia, too.

They probably didn't have to worry about people coming after them. Maybe. Carlos had probably made the right choice.

Once he no longer smelled like a man who had spent hours in the desert, crammed into the back of a crappy van with no air conditioning, and then glued to a hospital chair, he changed into clean clothes and let himself into the adjoining room, where Diana would stay.

He took the bags Aoi had left on her bed and moved them to the chair, instead. Then he carefully took the bouquet of white tulips out of the bag from the store and laid them propped up against the pillow. The scented candle went on the nightstand, with the piece of cake next to it. It was probably against the hotel's rules to have candles in the rooms, but he didn't care.

Maybe he was trying too hard.

He wasn't trying to seduce her, truly. But when she lay her head down for the first time to sleep away from the experiment and the game and the hospital, he wanted her to feel comfortable and safe. Cared for.

He checked the time and took care of a few more things before hurrying out; he wanted to be there when she was released.

chapter 2: diana

Diana poked at her lunch. She was actually hungry, and was maybe the only person on the planet who liked hospital food, but she didn't feel like finishing her sandwich. She had fallen asleep with Sigma explaining how difficult it was to program empathy into robots, his large, warm hands wrapped around one of hers. When she woke, Phi was in his chair, muttering to herself about cats and quantum states.

She was still adjusting to the fact that this girl - who wasn't really much younger than she was - was actually her daughter.

Or at least, a reconstruction of her daughter, whose consciousness had travelled through space and time after being frozen in a pod for forty-five years, after possibly being adopted by another reconstruction of Phi, which might make this Phi somehow her daughter and her granddaughter, sort of, which meant Phi calling her father 'grandpa' all the time was almost kind of correct, if you looked at things a certain way.

Her ex-husband had put her in the hospital twice. The first time, she had believed his tearful apology and his promise that it would never happen again, and she had lied. The second time, she told the police everything and had him arrested. On both occasions, friends had stopped by, but she feigned exhaustion to keep them from staying long. She had been embarrassed. But in this situation, it had been ... nice ... to have someone stay by her bedside. Hold her hand. Tell her stories.

"He'll be back soon," Phi said, without looking up from her book.

"Oh." Diana felt her face become warm. "I wasn't -"

"Uh-huh."

So she nibbled at the roast beef, took the crusts off the bread, and pushed around her salad on the plate, trying not to look up every time she heard footsteps approach the hospital room door. She'd already been disappointed by a nurse checking on her, someone who had entered her room by mistake, and then the orderly bringing by lunch.

Phi had clearly showered and changed, and Diana was envious. Her hair felt greasy and she longed to be wearing normal clothes again. They sat in mostly silence; Phi had answered most of Diana's questions when they had been sitting in the lobby the day before, waiting for Sigma's examination to be over with. Phi hadn't asked her a thing, although Diana thought she sensed that she wanted to.

"Your last name is London?"

"Huh?" Diana glanced down at her hospital bracelet. She had insisted it go on her right wrist, with a vehemence that startled the staff. Next to a barcode that would allow any medical personnel to pull up her allergies, diagnoses, and other relevant data, it had London, D. in large blue letters. "Oh, yes. Didn't I introduce myself when we met?"

"You probably did. I just realized, 'London' means 'house of the moon', doesn't it?"

"Um, I think it's 'fortress of the moon', actually."

"Hmm." Phi turned back to her book. "Appropriate."

Diana wasn't quite sure if Phi was making fun of her or not. She heard footsteps approaching her door again, but she didn't look up this time.

"Don't everyone get up to greet me all at once. It's overwhelming."

"Oh, Sigma!" She tried to keep the surprise out of her voice, but the briefest expression of something - hurt, maybe, or disappointment - crossed his face, making her think she hadn't succeeded.

"Did you think I wasn't coming back?"

"Oh, no, Phi said you were. I just ..."

Phi folded over the corner of page she was on and tossed the book in the chair as she got up. "And I think that's my cue to go get the doctor."

Sigma sat on the edge of her bed, pulling her hand up and onto his knee. "I didn't want to wake you. I figured you'd know I was returning. How are you feeling?"

"I'll feel better once I can get out of here and get a bath."

"You can do that once you get to the hotel. It's not that far from here. We could walk, if you wanted."

She grimaced. "Oh, that would be nice, but I must look disgusting."

"Ah, Diana, how are we doing today?" As her doctor entered, Diana saw the relaxed expression on Sigma's face fade. His grip on her hand tightened.

"Were all her tests okay?" he asked, not taking his eyes off Diana's.

"I believe so, but I can verify that if you'll let me borrow her wrist."

Diana could feel how reluctant Sigma was to let go. Dr. Ayers was gentle as she slipped a hand under Diana's wrist, angling the hospital bracelet so she could scan the barcode easily. The moment she lay Diana's arm back down, Sigma reclaimed her hand; she could feel him trembling slightly as they waited for the results to pop up on the doctor's tablet.

"Ah, yes. Your electrolytes are back to normal. I do see some indications that you might have a mild case of anemia, although I didn't see any record of it in your medical history."

Diana was acutely aware of Sigma next to her, his hand squeezing hers so hard it almost hurt, his face going pale, his breathing accelerating. He was panicking, and she wasn't sure why.

"No, I've never been diagnosed, but I haven't been eating as well as I should have been in the past month or so. I could try iron supplements, right?"

Dr. Ayers spent a few moments tapping away on her tablet. "I'm sending in a prescription that you can pick up at the pharmacy on your way out, but how about you try returning to a healthy diet first? The front desk will give you orders for more bloodwork. Try just eating well for a couple weeks, and your levels are still off, start the supplements. They can have some side effects."

Diana put her other hand over Sigma's and gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'm sure everything will be fi-"

"Should she be getting discharged, then? Should she stay longer for more tests? What if you missed something?" His voice rose with each sentence.

"Mr. Klim -"

"Doctor Klim."

"Sorry. Diana is fine. Even if she has a form of anemia that isn't related to her diet, it's likely very treatable. Right now, she just needs to get rest, drink plenty of fluids, and make sure she eats three balanced meals a day. I'm going to finalize your discharge, Diana. Just make sure you check out at the desk."

The doctor patted Diana's arm lightly and gave her a warm smile before walking past Phi, who had been hovering in the doorway, unnoticed until how. Phi crossed her arms over her chest and sighed in Sigma's direction.

"You really don't have the right to call yourself a doctor in this history. Actually, do you even have a right to call yourself a doctor in your history? When did you have time to finish your Ph.D. after the apocalypse?"

Diana barely heard Phi's words, or Sigma's grunted response; Sigma's attention was so focused on her that she found it hard to breathe. It reminded her of the first time they met at Dcom, where he stared at her so intently she thought her face must have turned the color of a tomato.

Usually if someone was staring at her like that, it meant she hadn't done a good enough job covering up the bruises.

At the time, she couldn't figure out what she had done to get the attention. She didn't think she was ugly, but she wasn't the kind of woman who captivated men. The minute she met Mira, she figured all the male attention in Dcom would be fixated on her. She had felt embarrassed and confused and something else that she hadn't understood until much later.

chapter 3: sigma

In spite of her worry about how she smelled - which really wasn't that bad once she cleaned herself up a little and got a change of clothes - they walked to the hotel, her hand in his the whole time. It seemed more ... intimate than just holding her hand at her bedside. It certainly was more possessive. Even with oily hair that was pulled up into a messy ponytail and a sunburned nose, clad in baggy gym clothing, she looked beautiful.

And now that mankind would survive - and it would survive - she had four billion other men to pick from. Men who weren't mentally more than twice her age and rather fucked up from spending two-thirds of their lives in a fucking tin can on the Moon.

"Um, Sigma, did we pass the hotel?"

"Shit." They were half a block down the street from it. "Sorry, I was thinking."

"I don't mind. The fresh air is nice." She put her other hand on his bare arm and he regretted not wearing tighter pants that could have helped hide what that did to him.

When they reached the door to her room, he fished her keycard out of his pocket. "This is yours. Mine is right next door, if you need anything. Phi is four rooms down, that direction."

"Oh. Oh, okay."

He thought he heard disappointment in her voice; had she assumed they would be sharing a room? Or maybe she was just surprised that Phi was so far away. It had been at Phi's insistence. I want to be far enough down the hall so that I can't hear them. Akane had only smiled, but Sigma had felt his face burn. He had been glad Diana hadn't been there to hear it. People were making too many assumptions, too many jokes at their expense. She had been through a lot, and he knew Junpei's snide comments and Mira's little insinuations had embarrassed her on the ride to the hospital.

He hesitated for a moment before following her in. "The door over here ... connects our rooms. I'm going to leave my side unlocked, but you can lock yours, if you w-"

"Tulips? Sigma, did you do this?" She brought her hands up over her heart, resting her chin on them as she stared down at the bed with big eyes and a huge smile. He had missed that smile.

"I remembered you used to like them."

"They're beautiful. I love them." She picked up the bouquet and held it to her chest. "I hope you'll tell me more about this timeline where we spent time together."

His stomach lurched as he was hit with memories of the last time he saw her, just like that; given how much she had loved flowers, it was only appropriate for him to have buried her with them. His hands had shaken as put the first shovelful of dirt over her, but he couldn't bear to let anyone else do it. Nobody else had the right.

"Well, enjoy your, uh, bath. Your bag is right there. Akane's brother retrieved our things from Dcom."

"Okay. Um, after that ..."

"Yes?"

Diana bit her lip. "I was hoping we could get something to eat? Doctor's orders, after all. If you're hungry, that is. I-I-I can pay for it. You and Akane have already been so nice, getting me this room, and I-I don't know what your money situation is, but I make a decent salary at the hospital. I assume my wallet is still in my bag. I ... I should probably make sure nobody from Dcom used my cards to drain my account, though, shouldn't I?"

"Dinner sounds nice. You don't have to worry about my 'money situation', though. It's not an issue."

He knew that, in another timeline, he had eventually reached a point where that smile didn't make him weak in the knees, didn't bring up butterflies in his stomach, but just made him feel loved, happy. But now, in this history, in this time and place, the smile on her face at that moment felt like it would wreck him.

They agreed that he would pick the restaurant while she cleaned up, and then he returned to his room, where he tried to slow his heart, steady his hands, blink back tears.

-

Diana seemed easy to please when it came to food. Or at least, she had been, when their meals consisted solely of rations delivered quarterly to Rhizome 9. Even in Dcom, she was the only one who didn't complain about their food, which was always either horribly bland or ridiculously salty.

Before the apocalypse, he had been content with a steady diet of fast food and ramen noodles, like every other college student in America. Even though she was barely there in the beginning, Akane had been the one to insist the rations include a wide variety, including gourmet selections, and it may have turned him into a bit of a snob.

Sigma had found a decent place only four blocks from the hotel, with steak, fish, chicken, even vegetarian options. His Diana had loved red meat, and he couldn't think of a reason why she wouldn't here, but he honestly couldn't remember what menu she had selected back at Dcom. All the damn food looked alike, anyway, except for Mira's vegan rations - that seemed really odd, in retrospect - which had actually, surprisingly, looked good.

They had probably still tasted like shit, though.

He was startled by a soft knock at the door between his and Diana's rooms. "It's not locked," he said, as he initiated shut down of the hotel's computer.

"I remember you said that, but I didn't want to just barge in."

"It's ..." He lost his train of thought the minute she opened up the door and he caught sight of her. He was certain he had never seen Diana wear anything like this during their stay at Dcom. The flowing skirt, the ornate blouse, the vest, the bird cage dangling from her neck, her hair pinned up - if he didn't know better, he'd think it was Luna standing in front of him.

"Is this too dressy? I can change. I just ... well, I packed this in case there was a ... party or something on the final day, and I never got a chance to wear it. I just ... love this outfit. I probably shouldn't have spent so much on it, but I thought it was so pretty."

"You look perfect, Diana."

There was silence for several moments, until he saw her cheeks turn red as she averted her eyes. He stepped closer and offered her his hand. If she was tired of his need to touch her, it didn't show as she accepted it.

"Shall we go?"

chapter 4: diana

She always felt guilty when she couldn't finish a meal, but she had seen the red velvet cake on her nightstand when she picked up the scented candle to take in her bath - after carefully making sure that there were no smoke detectors she might accidentally set off - and she wanted to save room for it. It was absolutely her favorite dessert in the world.

Sigma's meal was barely touched, although it was probably due to the fact that he'd been talking nearly nonstop. Maybe she was wrong, but Diana got the feeling that he hadn't actually liked living on the Moon very much. But he seemed to like talking to her about it, maybe because it made her so happy to listen to him. From time to time, a shadow would cross his face, and she would get the feeling he was remembering something unpleasant, so she would guide him to a different topic.

His passion for robotics was evident. He spoke of the detail that went into designing the appearance. He made her laugh with stories of glitches from programming gone wrong.

"You're going to be a great father," she blurted out. It was such an odd thing to say - he was already biologically a father and his ... surviving child was beyond the age of needing childrearing - but she could imagine him crafting his GAULEMs with the same devotion one uses to raise a son or a daughter.

His face fell and she could almost feel shame and sadness coming off him. Or maybe it wasn't 'almost'. Phi said people who had connections could transmit to each other.

"I've said something wrong."

"No. No." He covered her hand with his for the first time since their dinner had arrived. "I ... I ..."

"Please, don't feel pressured to talk to me about anything. Go back to what you were telling me about before. You were going to tell me how you thought a GAULEM could spontaneously develop sarcasm."

The haunted look in his eyes didn't fade right away. But by the time he was finished telling her about the time Akane managed to give a robot a complex about being naked - in spite of being only a metal frame - resulting in him insisting on wearing Sigma's boxers in the lab, he seemed to be more like his old self again.

Except for the way he kept glancing up and around every couple of minutes, like clockwork. It made her anxious.

"Do you really think we're in danger?"

Sigma had been scanning the room for possibly the hundredth time. Her question brought his attention right back to her.

"What do you mean?"

She carefully lay her fork down on her plate and wiped her mouth with the napkin. "You asked for a table near the back. We're close to the emergency exit. Since it's just the two of us, it would have made sense for us to sit across from each other, but you pulled out the chair for me here, tucked away behind this partition, and sat there on my left. I thought maybe you ... you seem to like holding my hand, but you're right-handed, so that doesn't really work while you're eating. Someone walking by the restaurant couldn't peer in and see me, but you have a full view of most of the dining room, part of the lobby, and the front door. You can see the emergency exit in your peripheral vision, and if someone were to come through it, you'd be able to put yourself between me and them. You're constantly looking up, like you expect someone to arrive. And when I was in my hotel room, I got an odd feeling that someone had been in there, poking around. Nothing was missing, but if I had to guess, I think someone might have been checking for places to hide surveillance equipment. It could have been Akane or her brother, since you said he brought my bags, but I think it was probably you."

Sigma just stared at her, blinking, mouth slightly open. She slid her napkin off the table and into her lap, looking down at it, feeling guilty all over again.

"When ..." She cleared her throat. "When you know someone is stalking you ... I learned the best spots to sit in public places, in case he showed up. The best vantage points. Escape routes. Not that I really went out much. But my ex-husband didn't know I was going to Dcom, and there's no way he could know that I'm here. So you can't be looking for him. Do you think someone from Free the Soul is looking for us?"

The waitress chose that moment to stop by, offering to refill their glasses. He politely declined for both of them and requested take-away boxes. Once she stepped away, he sighed heavily, his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. To answer your question, Akane doesn't think so."

"But you...?"

He drew in a deep breath before answering. "I don't know. Akane's probably right. I think things would have been worse if Carlos ..."

Their waitress returned with boxes and their check; Sigma pulled out several bills without even looking at it and told her they didn't need any change. Diana carefully put their leftovers in the boxes, and then in the bag, grateful for something to do. When all the food was packed and their plates were neatly stacked in the middle of the table, she met his gaze, surprised to see a small smile on his face.

"I just remember you telling me how servers could always tell you were a former waitress from how you tidied up the table."

It still surprised her slightly, when he revealed he knew details from her life, but she was getting more used to it, and it no longer unsettled her. There was no more of the terror that had paralyzed her, in another time, when he told her everything he knew about her past with her ex. Even though she hadn't actually lived through it, she could recall the fear that maybe Sigma had been spying on her for him, that the man she had started to fall in love with was actually the enemy.

chapter 5: sigma

He was angry with himself, desperately trying to keep that emotion from displaying on his face as they made their way back to the hotel. He didn't want Diana thinking for a second that he was angry with her.

Their first year together on the Moon, even though it was forty-plus years backwards and forwards and sideways, he remembered clearly how she'd startle so easily at loud noises. He had slammed his fist down on a workbench in frustration once, shattering a glass and knocking books to the floor, and she had fled the room. He found her in the garden, tears staining her face, staring at the saplings they had planted the day before. That was when she had started to tell him about her abusive ex-husband. He had wanted to throw the whole AB project out the window, Radical-6 be damned, and go find the bastard.

He found out later the fucker hadn't survived the outbreak. Sigma never learned if he died from the illness or the explosions.

There were myriad things that would have damned Sigma to hell, if such a thing existed, but he imagined being glad the abusive shithead was dead in that timeline, and regretting that he would live in this one, wasn't high on the list.

He had wanted to embrace her when she began to reveal her past, but had been too scared to touch her, too scared of triggering something. Sigma had had a temper then - fuck, he had a temper now - but he had tried his best not do anything that might trigger unpleasant memories. Towards ... the end ... she had seemed to have recovered well from the psychological trauma.

He made it a point not to violently stab the elevator button with his finger.

He could have been more careful. He should have been more careful. He would always want to protect her, from anything and everything, but not at the expense of making her fearful of her own shadow. Now on top of dealing with the situation with her ex-husband, trauma from the shelter, and the horror of having gained memories from a dozen unpleasant timelines, Diana was probably worrying about terrorists coming after her.

Fuck. Would he ever not fail her?

"Don't be angry with yourself, Sigma. Please."

He glanced down at her, relieved at least that she showed no signs of distress. While in the shelter, she seemed to have had an anxious expression permanently etched on her face; thankfully, she seemed much more relaxed now. She tightened her hand around his as they arrived at the door to her room.

"I don't want you scared to live your life, Diana."

He let go of her hand so she could swipe the keycard to her room. As the door swung open, she looked up at him, her head tilted down, her lower lip trapped between her teeth. If this were anyone else, he'd assume they were trying to look seductive, but with Diana, he knew it was a sign of her being nervous. She set the bag with their leftovers on the floor and stepped closer to him, hands up as if to lay them on his chest. When she was so close he could smell her shampoo, his hands moved to her hips, without even consulting him for permission. She stretched up on her tip-toes as he leaned down, his heart feeling like it might explode from his body as their lips touched for the first time in this history.

It was barely even a kiss, at first. He was frozen in place; her lips were trembling slightly. When he felt her hands on his arms, sliding up to his shoulders, he lost it.

Sigma wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close as he maneuvered them in the room, kicking the door shut behind them. She gasped in surprise and he took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, his mouth slanted against hers. It was familiar and novel and he almost felt like crying with relief. It was so rare to get a second chance, so implausible that he would be able to reunite with her decades after burying her corpse. She was here, alive, warm in his arms. His real arms.

He heard her saying his name, this time with concern, and he realized he was crying. She guided him to a chair and tried to get him to sit down, but he wouldn't let go of her. He couldn't.

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm here."

And then somehow, they were lying on top of the sheets on her bed, Diana on her back, Sigma half-sprawled over her, tears falling from his face onto her shoulder. She was trailing her hands up and down his back, whispering soothing reassurances. The words eased him into sleep.

chapter 6: diana

Diana jerked awake, then instantly regretted it; a sharp pain shot through her shoulder. Panic seized her, but only for a moment as she took in her surroundings. Her arm had apparently fallen asleep as a result of a one-hundred and eighty-eight pound man using her as a body pillow. He had woken when she did and he turned to look at her, his face inches from hers. His cheeks were still blotchy and his eyes were puffy and red.

"Sorry," Sigma mumbled.

She hesitated for only a moment before tilting her head and pressing a soft kiss to his lips. "There's nothing to apologize for. Well, except maybe cutting off my circulation."

He shifted his weight off her and she cringed as the tingling sensation spread through her arm. He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling, a blank look on his face. She swallowed hard, not entirely wanting to have him confirm what she was starting to suspect. The way he had clung to her, the way he had whispered how much he had missed her as he cried in her arms, the way he had shied away from questions about what exactly she was doing in this other timeline of his.

"The history where you came from - I'm dead, aren't I?"

He blindly fumbled for her hand. "It was ... you're going to be fine. There were very specific circumstances."

"Did you ever ... talk to anyone about what happened? Losing someone you ... it's hard on anyone. It seems like you've kept a lot of your feelings bottled up for a long time."

Sigma laughed bitterly. "You're asking me if I ever had grief counseling to deal with your death? It wasn't covered in our shitty health insurance."

Having him say it so bluntly made her heart skip a beat.

"I-I don't just mean a professional. Did you ever talk to ... Luna, was it? Or Akane? You said she was there sometimes."

There was a long pause where they just lay there in silence. Once her arm felt normal again, she propped herself up on her elbow, watching him, his chest rising and falling with each breath. His grief seemed raw and fresh, but she suspected that she had been dead in the other history for a while. If they ended up pursuing a relationship here, in this time, and something happened to her, she would want him to -

I want the two of you to keep on living.

She squeezed her eyes shut to push away the unpleasant memory from the shelter.

"Luna, sometimes," he said finally. "But it never felt right. And Akane ... she was sympathetic at first. Until it started to interfere with my progress."

"You could talk to me about it."

"Diana ..." Sigma turned to look at her then, a pained expression on his face. The thought was clearly upsetting to him.

"Only if it would help. Or if you wanted to." She put her hand over his heart, and almost instantly, he covered her hand with his much larger one. It didn't seem like he was going to speak, so she slid over and carefully lay her head on his chest, his free arm wrapping around her.

"Everyone believes in god during a tragedy."

"Is that a line from a book?" she asked.

"I'm sure I'm badly paraphrasing something. It's not an original thought. Everyone cries out to god when they're in pain, wanting to know why, assigning blame, or asking for something to change. I don't believe for a second that there's a god in this universe, or any other one, but when you were dying, I begged for him to take me instead."

She lifted her head, her heart aching as she saw unshed tears in his eyes. His grip on her tightened as she shifted on the bed, as if he was afraid she would leave.

"I'm not going anywhere," she whispered, kissing his chin, his cheek, his temple. "I won't disappear."

"I've fucked everything up." His breathing was ragged.

She brushed her lips against his forehead, his nose. "Everything is going to be okay. You haven't messed up anything."

"I wanted to give you time to get perspective on things, to get your life back to normal."

At that, she stopped, pulling back so she could make eye contact with him.

"Sigma ... I wasn't happy with my 'normal'."

Three loud bangs on the door startled them both.

"Diana? Are you in there? You were supposed to meet me for brunch ten minutes ago."

"Shit!" In spite of the fact that they were adults, nothing had actually happened, and he was still fully clothed, Sigma hopped off the bed and glanced around like he was searching for a place to hide. Diana gave him a confused look, and he frantically gestured to the door. "I don't want our daughter to catch me in here!"

She couldn't help herself; Diana burst out laughing.

"Hey, Diana, what's going on? Are you okay? I will break this door down if -"

"No! No! Everything's okay!" She stumbled off the bed, her foot getting tangled in the sheets, nearly sending her to the floor. She pulled open the door and leaned against the doorjamb.

"Do you know you have boxes of food sitting outside...?" Upon seeing her, Phi's expression changed from concerned to confused. "Did you ... sleep in those clothes?"

"Well, I - oh." Diana had stepped back to catch a glimpse of herself in the hotel room mirror. Her skirt was wrinkled, her shirt was half-untucked, and the bottom two buttons of her vest had come undone at some point. There was a run in her stockings and she was only wearing one shoe. Strands of hair had come out of her previously carefully done-up braid, and one of her barrettes was missing. The little bit of mascara she had put on yesterday was smeared under her eyes. "Um, yes."

Phi narrowed her eyes at Diana. With the index finger of her right hand, she pushed against the hotel door until it hit the wall, revealing Sigma standing next to the bed, looking similarly disheveled and a little panicked. She sighed and threw up her hands.

"Seriously?" Phi sounded irritated, and Diana wasn't sure why. Surely she wasn't opposed to her parents having a relationship. Right?

"Sigma and I were just talking."

Her gaze shifted from Sigma to Diana, to the bed, with the pillows and blanket in disarray, and then back to Diana.

"Right. This looks like the kind of 'talking' that my chemistry partner and I were doing in the high school bathroom in the tenth grade."

"Tenth grade?!" That snapped Sigma right out of his embarrassment. Maybe that had been Phi's intention.

"What can I say?" Phi held out one hand, palm up. "There are a lot of genes on the X chromosome related to social and sexual development, and we all know where I got one of those from. Apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It's so sad when old people get senile. I'm saying I'm sure your tenth grade exploits were much worse than mine."

His face turned beet red as he glanced over at Diana. "H-H-Hey, quit making me sound like some man whore."

"The fact that you specifically used 'man whore' instead of just 'whore' implies that you consider whorish behavior to be something exclusive to the female domain. What an old-fashioned, antiquated notion."

"I am implying nothing; that's an inference on your part!"

The absurdity of the entire situation got to be too much for Diana. Her giggles were soon the only sound in the room, but the corners of Phi's mouth were upturned just slightly, and Sigma's eyes had a light in them she hadn't seen before.

chapter 7: sigma

It was hard to concentrate on what Akane was saying.

After Diana had changed and splashed some water on her face, she had left for brunch with Phi. Akane summoned Sigma to her hotel room soon after. Supposedly, she already had leads on the alleged religious fanatic who was supposed to exterminate the human race, and she was talking about preparations they needed to make.

Sigma was fucking tired of preparations.

"It hasn't even been a week, for fuck's sake. Can you give me a goddamned week?!"

This Akane wasn't quite as used to his angry outbursts as her future self was. Is going to be. The English language didn't really have the right verb tense for things that happened in what is my past and your future. Except now this would (probably? hopefully?) be his future, too, and the past he remembered would be consigned to a different history.

Fucking SHIFTing.

"It could be too late in a week."

"Are you fucking kidding me? If it were going to happen this week, Delta could have just mind hacked the guy, problem solved! If he was telling the truth and he thought the only way to stop him was to release a pandemic, that means it's not happening tomorrow, or the next day. The fucking end of the world isn't - wasn't - whatever - scheduled until April."

Akane closed her notebook and set it and her pen aside on the bed. She held her index finger up to her lips, usually a sign that she was contemplating a problem. Sigma kept pacing; he was anxious enough even without her wanting him to jump right back into the whole 'saving the world' business.

Did you tell her yet?

I haven't had a chance, Phi. And keep your voice down.

You need to tell her.

It can wait until she's recovered from all this bullshit.

Not if you're already ... 'talking' with her. She has a right to know who she's getting involved with.

You make it sound like I'm a serial killer.

No, Sigma, I'm saying, this could hurt her later on, if you don't tell her now.

It's not even a certainty anymore. Didn't Junpei say they must have created 216 different timelines when they threw the dice? Thousands of timelines probably branched out of those games. We may not even have recovered memories from all of them. I don't see a reason to upset her now over something that might not even happen.

If you don't tell her, I will.

Those had been Phi's last words to him before Diana emerged from the bathroom and the two of them went to the hotel restaurant. He and Phi didn't have the same kind of connection that Akane had with her brother, or Junpei. And even if he could reach out and touch Phi's mind, he was fairly certain she would make sure there was a giant KEEP OUT SIGMA sign posted.

Still, he had been trying to send a single thought - give me time - to her, on the off chance that maybe it would get through.

"Have you talked to Diana yet?"

"Don't. You. Start."

"Phi's concerned. She doesn't want to see you hur-"

He stopped pacing and spun around to face her, fists clenched so tightly his knuckles were white.

"I would never hurt Diana."

Akane tilted her head, tapping her finger against her lips. "In one history ... you badgered her to push a button that ultimately blew up the facility and killed her, Phi, and anyone else who was alive at that point. Then there was the one where you encouraged her to fire a gun at your head, even though you knew there was a 50% chance there was a live round and it would kill you. I believe in the timeline where the round was live, she killed herself out of guilt right afterwards."

"What?" He could feel the blood draining from his face. He hadn't known that. Phi had spoken to him about the history when a hooded figure - Mira - had stabbed them all, but she hadn't volunteered anything about the time he died in the Trash Disposal Room.

"My point is, you have hurt her. Unintentionally. Just like you could now."

"This isn't even what I came here to talk about." Sigma drew his hand across his throat to indicate the discussion needed to be over. Having Akane lecture him on not hurting people was fucking ridiculous. "What did Aoi find? Was it true? Were all the traps disabled? Everything gone?"

She sighed heavily, but did not attempt to return to the previous topic. "From what he could determine, yes. Some areas were inaccessible. My guess is, whatever Delta couldn't easily remove, he just blew up. His team definitely couldn't find the computer, or the transporter."

"...shit."

"That ... is a succinct way of putting it."

His phone beeped. He pulled it out of his pocket and read the message on the screen. Didn't. You need to. P.

"I need to go."

"Sigma."

"The apocalypse is on hold. I deserve a damn vacation."

He grabbed his jacket and moved to leave before she could argue. After opening the door, though, he paused.

"While we're on the topic of not hurting Diana ... she doesn't need to know any details from timelines that she's not aware of."

With that, he left, slamming the door behind him.

chapter 8: diana

For maybe the fifth or sixth time since sitting down to eat, Diana shivered and glanced around the room. This hadn't gone unnoticed by Phi.

"What's wrong?"

"I ... I don't know. I keep thinking ... I'm hearing Sigma's voice." She bit her lip. "You must think it's silly."

She looked up to see Phi absentmindedly poking at her French toast, while staring at a spot just over Diana's left shoulder.

"I don't think you're being silly. When you hear his voice, what is he saying?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe 'hearing' isn't the right word. I get a sense of urgency ... but also something like ... frustration at ... impatience? I feel like if I turn around, he'll be right there. Is this ... maybe something to do with the morphogenetic field?"

"Possibly. Actually, probably." Phi put a forkful of egg in her mouth and then picked up the salt shaker, trying to unscrew the top. Just as Diana was going to offer to help with ... whatever it was she was trying to do, the shaker flew out of Phi's hand and landed a few feet away, rolling under another patron's table.

"Shit. Well, that was probably going to be a stupid analogous demonstration, anyway. SHIFTing and telepathy, they both utilize the field. As SHIFTers, we can send our minds through it from one body to another, one timeline to another. People who can use it for telepathy send or receive their thoughts or feelings through it. It can work from one person to another, or from one version of themselves to another."

"So, are we all telepathic, too?"

"I don't think being a SHIFTer automatically makes you telepathic, or vice versa, but honestly, I've never tested it. I don't know if I'd want to know what's going on in other people's minds."

Diana understood that sentiment entirely. If she was sensing what she thought she was picking up from Phi...

"Would you have a problem if your - if Sigma and I pursued a relationship in this timeline?"

She hoped Phi would sound surprised, immediately declare that she had no problem with it, that she just wanted them to be happy. Her heart sunk when she sat across from her in silence.

"I-I-I know we've only known each other for a small amount of time in this history, but ... I ..." Diana trailed off, her throat tightening as her eyes began to water. It didn't make sense to her that Phi would be unhappy at the thought of her parents getting together. It felt more like staying together. Did she blame them for the horrors of the Decision Game? On the ride to the hospital, Eric had muttered something about how none of this would have happened if Sigma had 'kept it in his pants', before Mira had elbowed him. Maybe Phi felt the same way. Maybe everyone felt the same way.

"It's not that. I've only known him for a short while in this history. More than anyone, I understand the kind of connections that form when you've SHIFTed through time with a person. I just don't know how much time you guys have spent talking - actually talking."

Unpleasant memories bubbled up in her mind, but she didn't push them away this time.

"We spent a lot of time talking in other histories, Phi. Before we ... in the history where you were born, he told me he knew people had died because of things he'd done to prepare for this. He said ... he said that was part of why he was so desperate for his mission here to work. He couldn't let those people have died in vain. He carried a lot of guilt, and towards the end - maybe it was the delirium, but he would say sometimes that he was a horrible person and deserved to die."

The lump in her throat forced her to stop. He had gone without food the longest, so he had started to fade before the rest of them. He would slip in and out of awareness, telling her that he was sorry, that they were all doomed because of him. His GCS was E1V1M1 when Phi had stopped breathing, so he was mercifully spared from having to watch Diana try CPR, even though she barely had the strength to lift her head. He had probably died unaware of her failure to revive their daughter, and the fact that she was probably in a coma herself or maybe even already dead when Delta passed. Even though the body Diana was in had never lived through that, she could remember it with crystal clarity.

Knowing what she did now - that she was dead in the other history - she couldn't help but wonder if she had been one of the casualties, and that's why Phi was uneasy.

"We never got rescued, did we?" Phi asked, her voice soft, trembling.

Diana shook her head, trying to breathe normally and keep her eyes wide so the tears didn't fall. She wanted to convey to Phi that they had tried, everything and anything they could possibly think of.

"I'm glad he spoke to you about the past," Phi said, finally breaking the silence. "I think it goes without saying that he's not a horrible person, but I understand why he might feel that way. What I want him to talk to you about, though, is the future. Where we go from here."

"You mean with the fanatic?"

"No. Just ... I'm not trying to upset you or ... it's just something he ... needs to talk to you about. He ... he wants me ... to give him time ... so he can talk to you ... himself." This time she was the one who sat up straighter in her chair and looked around before muttering, "If that's you, Sigma, get the fuck out of my head, now."

She flagged down the waiter and paid the bill before Diana could even protest.

"It's Akane's money," her daughter said in explanation, with a shrug, as she typed away on her phone for a few seconds. "Speaking of, I am supposed to be meeting with her in fifteen minutes."

"Oh." Diana tried to keep the disappointment from her voice. As much as she was dismayed by the fact that Phi wouldn't be more specific about whatever this was, she had hoped they could go for a walk, or just go somewhere and spend time in each other's company. She had missed so much of her daughter's life and she wanted to make up for lost time. But hopefully there would be chances for that later.

Phi did walk Diana back to her room. She awkwardly pulled Diana in for a hug, but after a moment, she relaxed in her embrace.

"I don't understand how your smell can be so familiar to me. There's no way the neurons in my brain when I was just a few hours or days old could have possibly retained the memory."

"Well, if the woman who raised you really was the Phi that originally materialized in the transporter, then it's possible her pheromones are similar enough to mine that what you're really remembering is that scent. So really, you'd be remembering yourself, I guess. Is it weird that conversations like this no longer weird me out?"

Phi pulled back, a ghost of a smile on her face. She headed in the direction of Akane's room and Diana stepped into her own. She stared at the door that separated her from Sigma, curiosity battling with wariness. What could the future possibly hold that was worse than anything they had gone through to this point?

Maybe it had something to do with the young Sigma. Maybe he had a girlfriend waiting for him, or ...

Suddenly it was like there was ice water in her veins. If his consciousness came here from the future, then it displaced the consciousness that properly belonged in that body. So what happened to the young consciousness? Was it stuck there in the future? What if it wasn't?

She didn't bother to knock; the door was unlocked. He was lying on the bed in his jeans and a t-shirt, staring at the ceiling with a worried look on his face.

"Your younger self is coming back here, isn't he? You're going to disappear."

He let out a shaky exhale, but wouldn't look at her. She took it as confirmation, turning away from him as she rested her forehead against the wall. With one hand over her mouth to stifle her sobs, she let tears she'd been holding back loose. It made sense, now; Phi didn't want her to have her heart broken when Sigma SHIFTed back into the future and his body was inhabited by some young guy who didn't know who she was, who wouldn't want anything to do with her, who probably did have a girlfriend he couldn't wait to get back to. She heard him getting off the bed and felt his arms wrap around her from behind.

"It's not a certainty. I ... I think my SHIFT connection's been cut."

She blinked and she was back in the shelter. She could smell blood on her hands and she pushed him away as she turned to face him - just enough to touch his side to reassure herself that he wasn't bleeding. He was watching her with equal parts confusion and concern as the words echoed in her ears, as she struggled to swallow the bile that was rising in her throat. It was just like in the hospital, when she had seen the gun; for a moment, she could see Sigma's pale, bloody face in front of her. He was standing right there, alive, but he was dying at the same time, rasping out his final words, going limp in her arms.

Then everything went black.

chapter 9: sigma

He caught her when she collapsed, panic coursing through him as guided her to the bed. She looked deathly pale, but when he put two fingers on her neck to check her pulse, her heart was racing. It looked like the exact same thing that had happened in the hospital, but he didn't know what triggered it. Her eyes were moving beneath her lids as if she was dreaming. He shook her gently to try to rouse her, to no avail. His gaze darted from her face to the clock on the nightstand, watching time tick by. After three minutes, her eyes finally fluttered open.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"Oh. Panic attack. Sorry."

He mentally kicked himself; he had seen her have them before, in other histories. The glassy eyes, the trembling, the shallow breathing that became hyperventilating, finally falling unconscious - it was obvious to him in retrospect. He had been so fixated on his fear that she was ill that he hadn't even considered it.

"Y-Y-You've said that to me before. About your connection being ... being cut."

While dying, he assumed; he couldn't remember saying it. She lay back down, as if drained, and took his hand, pressing her fingers against his wrist, relaxing a bit when she felt the steady flow of blood rushing through the vein. As the color returned to her cheeks, he leaned over and kissed her forehead.

"I'm here," he whispered.

"Until when?"

"Hopefully I'm going to be here for a long, long time. But I can't be one hundred percent sure," he admitted.

She looked stricken and he lay down next to her, pulling her into his arms. She put her head on his chest and this time she was the one clinging to him.

"Is this just a feeling you have?"

"It's hard to explain."

"You'll try?"

He ran his hand up and down her back, trying to calm her down.

"From the moment I came to in this timeline, I could ... sense my younger consciousness. That's probably not the best word, but I can't think of how else to describe it. It's not as if I could see what he was seeing, or hear his thoughts, or feel his emotions. I couldn't tell you what was going on where he was. It was just ... you know how if you put on music as background noise while you're working, eventually you're not really aware of the music anymore? You're not actively listening, but if someone came in and turned it off, your awareness would snap back to the sound. Or sudden lack of sound, rather."

It was a crap explanation but she seemed to get it. "So your other self was like background noise."

"Yeah. I knew there was a possibility that this would be a one-way trip. If we did manage to create a timeline where the outbreak never happened, then my younger consciousness might snap back to the Radical-6 timeline, instead of the new one I found myself in. The me that travelled to the future has to complete the loop and travel to the timeline where ... where I failed."

She lifted her head, her chin resting on his chest, and he could tell from the blank look on her face that he had probably lost her.

"So ... there's only one timeline where the other you is in your body - or your other body - waiting to come back? But if your consciousness can split going forward to make different universes, can't it split to go to ... backwards ... or ... I mean, I'm just ... I don't understand."

"I've been studying this for two-thirds of my life, and I don't even understand it all. I do know that when we woke up in the shelter and discovered the Force Quit box had been opened, I realized my connection with my other consciousness was gone. It's fuzzy, but I think I noticed it during the vote, too, when you picked C-Team."

She blanched. She had been insistent at the time that she didn't know why she voted that way, and knowing what they did now, he suspected their son had forced her to do it, but she still bore the guilt.

"I probably sensed it in other timelines, too. Well ... I must have, if I said something to you. I think I lost the connection in that timeline because we were going to ... going to die, and incinerate the Radical-6 in the facility in the process, preventing an outbreak. When we left there and came to this timeline, nothing changed. I couldn't sense him. I still can't."

"You said you noticed your ... connection was gone when you saw the box was open?"

"Yes."

The blank stare had morphed into a look of outright confusion. "We hadn't activated the self-destruct yet. How could you experience consequences of our actions before we performed them?"

"Phi could probably explain this better than I can. She's good at -" He stopped himself before he said 'dumbing things down'. Diana was definitely not dumb. "- translating for laymen. Or laywomen."

"So it is just a feeling you have." She looked sorrowful again, and he could see tears welling up in her eyes.

"No, it's a hypothesis. A hypothesis backed by evidence. When we were trapped in the shelter for ten months, I didn't SHIFT in that timeline. I ... I didn't tell you, but I was worried I might. I even wrote a note to myself, explaining the situation and apologizing to him. And, well, telling him to not ... to not be a total fucking prick. He's not - I mean, I wasn't a bad guy, not really, but he - I - we - it took a while for me to grow the fuck up."

A smile twitched at the corners of her lips but didn't quite form.

"But I didn't. I stayed with you right ... right until the end. That's why I think I'm not going back."

She slowly caressed his face, running her thumb over his lips. He held back nothing, letting his guard completely down. He was hopeful, anxious, scared, maybe a little desperate, too, but he let her see everything, including his arousal at her touch.

"Are you ... are you okay with that? Staying here? It sounded like ... like there were people you would miss."

He couldn't deny the sadness he felt when he thought about Kyle or Luna. Even the Lagomorph - he'd grown fond of that little fucker, as strange as it sounded.

"I will, absolutely. But there are still timelines where they're alive, and I hope maybe they're even happy."

"The ... the other you ... I want you to stay, but I also feel - I mean, is it cruel to ... I don't know what I'm saying. I want both of you to be happy and safe."

He didn't really know how to respond; one of the downsides of SHIFTing, of knowing about the alternate timelines, was knowing that there would always be other versions of you, somewhere, who were miserable, in pain, or dead. Even if his younger self could slide into a safe and happy world, there were hundreds or thousands or maybe an infinite number of Sigmas who would never get a happy ending.

"I love you, you know," she whispered.

Of course, she would be the brave one, the one to say it first. He felt ill at the idea of losing her - again - if he SHIFTed away. Another downside of SHIFTing - being scared that another Sigma could break into his life at any moment, sending him to die. At least, if that happened, he'd die knowing she was alive. And he didn't think there was any version of him in any universe that wouldn't completely and totally love her. It was more terrifying to think about another Diana SHIFTing into this timeline.

"It's not a guarantee. That I'll be able to stay, I mean. I wish I could promise you that, unequivocally. I can't. You should know that. You can still walk away, and I won't blame you, but if you're willing, and all I get are those three months ... I'm a selfish bastard, Diana. I want them."

He held his breath, forcing his arms to relax around her, trying to summon the strength to be able to let her go, if that was what she wanted.

"I want them, too," she said after a long, torturous silence. "I don't want to cause the other you pain -"

"He became me. I won't lie and tell you it was paradise, but ..."

Some of her anxiety seemed to be abating. She kissed him, almost chastely.

"Maybe ... maybe if you have something to make it worth staying, to anchor you here..."

He pushed her back onto the bed and covered her body with his, watching for any sign of resistance or discomfort. She didn't try to stop him; in fact, she put her hands on his hips and pulled him towards her. He kept most of his body weight on his knees and arms as he leaned in and brought his mouth to her ear.

"I love you, Diana. In any history, in any timeline."

She turned her head and sought out his lips; he resolved not to break down like a bawling baby this time.

chapter 10: diana

Her body and her mind were at odds with each other. Her mind reveled in the familiarity of his touch while her body was overcome with the novelty of it all. Her body appreciated the agonizingly slow pace with which he removed her clothing, while her mind screamed for him to just get on with it.

The weight of the anxiety and fear wasn't entirely lifted from her mind, and she was sure it was the same for him, but if their time was limited, she didn't want to waste it worrying. She wanted to enjoy every moment of this. She wanted to lose herself in him, have them become so entangled that there was no way his consciousness could leave her. She didn't like the idea of any Sigma suffering but ... she was selfish, too. This Sigma was hers and she wanted to keep him.

She wanted him naked, too, but he seemed to be determined to kiss every patch of skin as it was exposed - even the scars that she presumed he'd seen dozens of times before - and as tedious as it sounded in theory, it was anything but in practice. He reluctantly abandoned her breast to trail his lips down her stomach as he unzipped her skirt and pulled it off her.

"I need to see you," she groaned.

He sat back on his knees and started to take off his shirt, but she stopped him, wanting to do it herself. She spared him the torment of his sluggish pace and quickly divested him of it. As soon as that was done, he was hovering over her again. She let her hands trail down his chest, feeling the muscles twitch under her touch.

"Satisfied?" he murmured against her lips.

"I will be when these pants are gone."

She had never been particularly ... assertive with partners in the past, but emboldened by memories from another history, or maybe just the way he was looking at her, she unzipped his jeans and slipped her hand in, cupping him through his boxers.

"Oh, oh, wait," he gritted out.

She jerked back her hand as if burned, fumbling to offer an apology.

"No, no, I just ... uh, if this is going to go any further ... ugh, I know this isn't really sexy pillow talk, but I need to go buy some fucking condoms."

"I have some in my room. I, um, got them yesterday."

His eyes widened and she felt a flush rise in her cheeks, which was rather silly, given their positions. He smirked at her and kissed a spot behind her ear before whispering, "You naughty little minx. Where exactly in your room?"

The tone of his voice as he teased her made her shiver. She squeezed her legs together. "N-N-Nightstand."

He was up and off the bed in an instant, practically running the short distance to the door connecting their rooms. Without him, she suddenly felt cold and exposed, so she tugged the blanket over her body. When he returned, he tossed the box on his own nightstand and ditched his remaining clothing before joining her under the blanket.

He got rid of her underwear and then they were finally, entirely naked against each other. She could feel how hard he was against her thigh as he slid his fingers into her. She was about to tell him she didn't need it, he could obviously feel how ready she was, the past few minutes - not to mention the past few days - had been more than enough foreplay, when he pressed against the sensitive spot on her inner wall and she arched up off the bed, crying out.

"God, you're so fucking beautiful like this. One day, I'm going to do this to you right in front of a mirror, so you can see how fucking gorgeous you are when you come. And I'm going to make you come."

Her mind was well-acquainted with how vocal and ... explicit he could be in bed; her body was overwhelmed. Diana didn't think it had ever been touched with such veneration. She squirmed underneath him, tension building, threatening to tear her apart. Even though it was Sigma, even though she trusted him implicitly, there was a touch of fear at losing control.

But then she realized the feelings that were overwhelming her weren't entirely her own. She could sense his joy, his nervousness, his adoration, and she wondered if he could sense her emotions, as well.

"Yes," he said, to the question she hadn't verbalized. "I can feel ... oh god, just like that, Diana. You're safe. You can let go."

It was almost exactly same thing he'd said to her the first time they'd made love in the shelter. Maybe it was the same thing he said every first time, in every history. It was as powerful a trigger as any of her unhappy memories. She tried to kiss him but then her neck was curving backwards, her toes were curling, her fingers were clutching at his biceps, and she was seeing stars.

His face came back into focus, his eyes were shiny with unshed tears.

"Hey, no more crying," she murmured.

"Look who's talking." He kissed her cheek and that was when she noticed it was damp. Then his hands were shaking as he fumbled with the condom. He accidentally tore the first one, then struggled with the packaging on the second. He was about to try tearing it with his teeth when she stopped him and took it from him.

"You could impair the structural integrity if you do that."

"It really shouldn't turn me on as much as it does when you talk like - oh, fuck."

His hips jerked when she slid the condom onto him. Then he was inside her, moving with that same agonizingly slow pace he had when he stripped her bare. His gaze was locked with hers, to the point where she didn't even want to blink. It was like she was surrounded by bright, warm, blue light. He angled her hips so he could hit her still-sensitive spot with each thrust, but it was the connection to his mind that was driving her towards another orgasm.

He got there first, his rhythm faltering, his arms trembling, as he moaned so loudly that Diana was glad none of the other survivors were anywhere near his room. After a moment, he twisted his arm in between them, managing to rub her clitoris, providing just enough stimulation. With their minds joined, she couldn't tell where his pleasure ended and hers began.

He disposed of the condom after withdrawing from her, a task that required him to leave the bed. But he quickly returned and she wasted no time in curling up next to him, her head resting on his chest.

The connection between them had started to fade - maybe strong emotions intensified it? - and a thought crossed her mind.

"Um, can anyone pick up on thoughts inside that morphogenetic field? Is there a chance we were broadcasting that to ... well, everybody?"

"No," he declared, with certainty. But then he paused and said, "I'm almost completely sure."

"Oh god."

"Look, Akane is a pretty powerful receiver and transmitter, and she's never mentioned to me anything about being able to eavesdrop on other people that she doesn't have a connection with. If she was capable of something like that, it'd make our jobs a hell of a lot easier."

"So we're probably fine?"

"If we were broadcasting, I'm sure Phi will tell us tomorrow. Akane probably won't be able to look at us without blushing. Junpei will make a snide comment and Carlos ... I don't know about him."

She brought a hand to her face and groaned.

"I'm sure it's okay. Don't worry."

The blanket had slipped down around their waists and she was starting to get cold, so she pulled it up and over them. He rubbed her arm to soothe away the gooseflesh there. Worry about the future tried to intrude on her thoughts, but she refused to let it.

"What do you want to do for the rest of the day?"

She glanced over at the window and the sunlight filtering in through the curtains. She had actually forgotten it was only early afternoon.

"I don't know. I've never been here before. I don't know what exactly is here."

"We could go for a walk and see where that takes us. Things are going to get serious very quickly here, Diana; we should enjoy as much as we can while we can."

She rested her hand over his heart, not sure if he was talking about the situation with the fanatic or the situation with him, or maybe both. Either way, she couldn't afford to waste her time with him.

chapter 11: sigma

He sat down on the edge of the bed after hitting RECORD. The lump in his throat was proving to be difficult to get rid of - this being his third attempt at recording the message - but he was running out of time.

"If you're watching this, the first thing I should tell you is that Akane didn't actually kill you. Or me, really. She just did that to get you to SHIFT."

To get you to come here, and take my place, and send me back to my cage on the Moon.

"This is your apartment. I took the liberty of moving you in here. And I got them to let me do your defense early, so unless you fuck up royally on your final exams, you have your PhD. You're welcome. You need to lay low - or better yet, get out of town - the first week of May, because you're supposed to be in Sweden at a family reunion."

He had stopped talking to the camera and was fixated on a spot on the floor. This wasn't even the important stuff he needed to talk about.

"We were successful in stopping the outbreak. You still have your arms and your eye. There's other shit going on, but Akane can give you the update on that. What you need to know is that in the other room, either sitting or sleeping on the couch, is a woman who ... who is very important to me. To us."

His fists were clenched so tightly that his nails were digging into his palms.

"Her name is Diana, and when you first see her, you're going to mistake her for Luna. She was the ... inspiration for Luna. She's going to be very upset when she finds out that Phi and I are gone."

The fact that Phi would likely also be SHIFTing back there was little consolation. She'd be in a strange new world where everyone she ever knew back on Earth was dead and she was stuck with him. If he had a choice, or if only one of them had to go back, he'd gladly return to Rhizome 9 if it meant Phi got to stay here. She was an innocent. She deserved a chance at a normal, happy life, much more than he did.

"I'd like to believe that if you come here, I'll at least SHIFT into the future of this timeline, but I sincerely doubt it. That would dislodge a different Sigma and would just get too fucking complicated."

It wouldn't be fair to that Sigma, either. He would have lived in a timeline where, hopefully, he was happy and healthy and still had Diana, and then suddenly be thrown into the apocalypse.

Fucking SHIFTing.

"Oh, and she's not going to remember it, but Phi is your fucking daughter, asshole. So knock it off with the sleazy comments. Don't pull that shit with Diana, either. I know what you're going to think when you see her, and you damn well better not actually say it out loud."

It wasn't right to be taking out his frustration on the other him; that Sigma had been abducted, had his body hijacked, had been forced to play the Nonary Game, had died, had jumped, had died again, had seen the artificial arm he didn't know he had cut off, had seen entirely too many dead bodies, and just generally had been through hell.

"I don't expect you to just pick up where I left off. Diana's not expecting that, either. I'm just asking that you ... talk to her. Spend time with her. Build a friendship and see where it goes. She's ... she's the kindest person you will ever meet. She's smart and generous and ..."

He closed his eyes, determined not to cry on this fucking stupid fucking tape to his goddamned fucking stupid fucking self.

"Just give her a chance. But if you're thinking about trying to lie and pretend you didn't SHIFT in here, just to make her feel better, don't. I'm sure she'll try to test you and there's no way you'd pass. She had nothing to do with the Nonary Game or any of it, so if you're upset about that - and I'm sure you are - don't take it out on her. She had to endure something called the Decision Game, which was about a hundred times more fucked up than any of the Nonary Games."

He stared down at his hands. There was probably more he needed to say, but he couldn't think of it. Diana could fill him in on anything he missed.

"I guess that's it. I know you've just been through a very traumatic experience, but ... you still have a chance for a happy ending."

He got up, but paused just as he was about to press STOP.

"Oh, if you have a headache - and you will - take the Advil on this nightstand. Don't touch the Tylenol in the medicine cabinet."

The lump in his throat was back, and he felt a tear escape and run down his cheek. He wiped it away angrily as he stopped the recording. He closed the laptop; there was already a note on the cover that said 'WATCH THIS VIDEO'. Other notes on his nightstand, the bathroom mirror, the toilet lid, the door, the window, and anywhere else he could think of, prompted the other Sigma to watch the damn thing before doing anything else.

Phi had a similar setup in her apartment. They had both recorded messages for Diana, in case they were gone by the morning.

He lay down on his bed. He was exhausted, but he didn't want to sleep. Maybe if he stayed awake, he could fight it. He certainly didn't deserve it, but maybe if he tried hard enough, he could stay.

chapter 12: diana

Even though Sigma had been fairly certain he remembered the approximate time he had SHIFTed back from the Moon, they had decided they would all isolate themselves for the entire twenty-four hours of April thirteenth.

Or, at least, until something happened. If something was going to happen.

Phi was in her home, Sigma was in his bedroom, and Diana was in his living room.

On April eleventh, they had spent the day together as a family, with Phi picking the places to eat, to visit.

On April twelfth, it was just the two of them. Sigma had taken Diana to the botanical gardens, then to her favorite restaurant, and then they had stayed in bed for almost twelve hours, making love to each other in almost every conceivable way.

She had insisted that Sigma shower and change his sheets before he effectively quarantined himself.

Just before midnight, they refused to say goodbye to each other. Diana had told him she loved him; he returned the sentiment and told her he would see her on the fourteenth, and when he did, he would say, I told you so. Diana had planned to sleep normally after that, but anxiety kept her awake until almost nine in the morning; she slipped in and out of sleep after that, in spite of her attempts to stay up.

They had discovered that when one of them was asleep, the other couldn't sense them in the field, so she tried not to panic during the times she jerked awake from a bad dream and couldn't feel him. They had debated whether or not to reach out to each other and ultimately decided against it. Although Akane believed the telepathic connections were entirely a psychic phenomenon, she couldn't definitively rule out it having a biological basis. If Diana's body - regardless of which version of Diana was in it - could communicate with Sigma's body - regardless of whether it was inhabited by Sigma senior or Sigma junior - then Sigma junior might be freaked out by a strange woman suddenly invading his mind. As far as Diana was concerned, Sigma was worried that if his connection with her was dropped in the middle of a conversation, it would frighten her. He told her he thought it was best if they stayed in complete isolation, physical and otherwise.

So she didn't actively seek him out, but whenever he was experiencing intense emotion - even if they weren't in close physical proximity - she had become accustomed to being able to feel him in the back of her mind, whether she was trying to sense him or not. She had learned how to block him out but made no effort here. Fear and agitation floated in and out of her mind.

The problem was, based on what he had told her about where the other him was coming from, those emotions could fit either Sigma.

At a little after two in the afternoon, even though she and Sigma had both agreed they wouldn't see each other until after midnight, when it was officially April 14th, she couldn't resist going to his door and listening. She didn't hear movement, so she cracked it open and caught sight of him on his bed. She couldn't tell if he was unconscious from making the SHIFT or just asleep.

She closed the door and returned to the couch, trying to distract herself by watching medical dramas and identifying errors.

Around five-thirty, she tried to eat something - cereal and milk - but her stomach wasn't cooperating. Feeling guilty, she drained off the milk in the sink and tossed the soggy cereal in the trash.

As it got closer to midnight and he still hadn't emerged from his room, she let herself get her hopes up.

At some point, she fell asleep again; she woke up and the clock said it was six in the morning on the fourteenth and it didn't look like Sigma had come out. She stood outside his bedroom door and was just about to knock when she heard a small groan. She froze, her heart pounding so hard she could hear it in her ears. She knew Sigma had left instructions for the other him to watch a video, so she strained to hear if it was playing or not.

Then she heard the telltale creak of his bathroom door. Water running.

She backed away, her hand over her mouth. If he hadn't SHIFTed, if he was still here, certainly he would have come right out and said something to her first thing. Even if he had to urinate, he would have popped his head out to say, hey, I didn't SHIFT so don't worry but I have to take a piss. Right?

She had done her best to prepare for this, complete with practicing a speech, but she realized that if the other Sigma was here, she wasn't ready for this at all. She tried to not jump to conclusions. She was feeling immense relief from him, after all.

Although that could be the other Sigma, too, once he learned he was free from Rhizome 9.

The door opened and she panicked. He looked the same. She hadn't heard the video, but maybe he had woken up earlier and already watched it. He didn't look confused. He was wiping his damp hands on his pajama pants. Before she could say anything, he closed the distance between them in two large steps and engulfed her.

"I told you so. I'm still here, Diana."

Her heart leapt; her mind begged for proof. As if he anticipated it, he stepped back, holding her hands and staring intently at her. She cleared her throat.

"What did you give me for my birthday last month?"

"Your birthday isn't until June 24th," he said instantly, rattling off information at a fever pitch. "You're a Cancer. You say you don't believe in astrology but you think the description of a typical Cancer sign is pretty accurate for you. I'm a Capricorn and apparently we're compatible signs. I think there's a little part of you that believes in it, even though you know the science is completely wrong, but you worry I'll think you're silly or stupid if you admit it. I'd never think you were stupid, Diana. Silly ... sometimes."

She felt her body tilting to the side and he quickly pulled her back into his arms.

"You can ask me anything. You have two middle names - Olivia and Lynn - because your parents thought it would be cute if your initials spelled 'doll'. You hated it when you were younger. You still think it's ridiculous but you won't even consider changing your name because it was the one your parents gave you, and you don't feel it would be right. Your parents died three years ago in a car crash and that's probably why you rushed into your first marriage, even though you were already having doubts. You wanted a family of your own. You have a mole under your left breast that I think looks like a pumpkin. You -"

She cut him off by pulling him down for a kiss, which he ended too quickly for her liking.

"You believe me?"

"It looks nothing like a pumpkin," she choked out. She was tired of crying - they had done too much of it in the last few months - but at least these were happy tears.

He reached into his pocket and brought out a silver ring with a small diamond. He pressed it into her palm and closed her hand, and that was when she realized the ring was wet.

"I'll understand if you're not ready for this now and you want to wait. I just want you to know that I love you and I want to marry you, and this stone may not be as big as the ridiculous one on Akane's ring, but it's a promise to you that I -"

"God, Sigma, shut up. Of course I'll marry you. But do I want to know why it's wet?"

He let out a sound that was half-sob, half-laugh. "I hid it in the acetaminophen. I knew you'd never look in there because you're allergic. When I pulled it out it was covered in white dust, so I had to wash it off. I meant what I said. You don't have to agree to this now."

"Shut up," she whispered as she kissed him again. This time they were cut off by her phone; it was Phi's ringtone. "If you didn't SHIFT, then she's still here, too, right?"

Instead of answering, he picked up the phone off the table. "Is this my malnourished harpy daughter?"

Whatever Phi said - Diana presumed it was some vulgar insult followed by her calling him grandpa - made him laugh. He nodded at Diana and reached out his hand. Before she took it, she slid his ring onto her finger, not surprised that it fit perfectly.

"Now all we have to worry about is saving the world," she said softly.

(fin.)