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Beneath the Lilac Tree

Chapter Text

His brother was waiting for him, standing outside the building in the evening shadow beneath the lilac tree. His hands were deep in the pockets of his coat and his face was set in a stern mask, a serious meaning he couldn’t quite decipher. Noll always hid his outward emotions, but usually Gene had no trouble seeing them in his brother’s stoic face. Now, however, was different. Whether Noll was upset, agitated, or genuinely calm, Gene couldn’t tell.

When the taxi pulled up to the curb he strode forward, calmly. Gene hopped out of the vehicle and hurried around to the other side, opening the door.

"Let me," Naru said, and bending toward Mai’s unresponsive body, slid her out of the back seat gently and picked her up, cradling her to his chest. Gene fished in his pocket for some money and paid the cab driver, who as he waited, was giving both the twins very suspicious looks.

"She’ll be all right?" The man asked, a trace of doubt in his voice.

"She’s just exhausted. She’s been studying really hard," Gene assured him, wincing inwardly at the fabrication. He’d offered better lies to his adopted parents than to this stranger. The man nodded dubiously, took the money and slowly drove away, glancing at them through his mirrors.

"Gene," Naru called, and Gene turned, following his brother who had already climbed halfway up the stairs toward Mai’s apartment landing.

"The key's in my coat pocket," Naru said, turning his right side toward his brother. Gene reached into the jacket pocket, ignoring the implications of his brother’s possession of the key, removed it and unlocked the door.

Stepping inside the apartment, he realised the sun had nearly set and that night would soon be upon them. Her apartment was all but dark, a sliver of dim light coming from the parted curtain of the window.

"Get the light," Naru said, moving both on instinct and following the dim illumination. The door to her bedroom was partially open and he was able to slide it with his ankle until the was space wide enough for the both of them to pass through. Crossing the room in several short steps, he lay her down gently on her futon and adjusted the pillow beneath her head. Carefully lifting her legs, he removed her shoes. He then pulled her comforter over her body, watching her peaceful face and the steady rise and fall of her breathing before turning back toward the other room.

Naru returned to the main room, sliding the door shut behind him and returning to the entrance to hang her coat on a hook near the door. Gene was waiting for him, leaning against the kitchen counter, biting his lower lip in an unusual expression of unease. He’d turned on the main light in the apartment, the once dim room now filled with the warm luminance.

Naru set Mai’s shoes on the mat near the door and then slipped off his own before turning his gaze to his brother. He stood for several moments in silence before releasing a sigh, turning to sit at the kotatsu and resting his head against his hands.

"That was utterly reckless. How could you do something so careless?"  He finally said, though his voice did not sound angry or accusatory. He had chastised his brother countless times before, but if anything, his tone now was pained, as if he was the one who had done it instead. Naru raised his gaze once again to meet his brother’s. "Looking into her memories like that without consent. An unwilling mind is a very dangerous thing. You should know that better than anyone, Gene."

Gene released a long sigh. "I’m sorry. I just meant to take a little look, but... I couldn’t let go. I didn’t mean for that to happen."  He exhaled again, heavily. "She must have psychic abilities, Noll. That wouldn’t have happened unless she did."

Naru sighed, gesturing for his brother to join him at the table, who did, moving slowly across the room. "Perhaps. But they’ve only ever manifested when you’re around, Gene."  He turned his gaze toward the window. Behind the curtains he could see the lavender hue of dusk in the sky. When he spoke again his voice seemed strangely hollow as if he was uninterested in the topic at hand, though Gene knew that was far from the truth. "Perhaps that’s the extent of her capabilities, being receptive to your power. Precognition, postcognition. Astral projection. And she did a jourei cleanse without any real guidance. After you stopped visiting her, she only had her intuition to rely upon."

"Her abilities went dormant?"

"You could say it like that."  Naru pursed his lips together and dropped his head, once again, into his hands. "I’m sorry, Gene. I should have explained everything properly. I just.. didn’t know how."

Gene smiled wanly. "Do you feel like explaining now?"

"Of course. As much as I can."

"What happened the first time?"  Gene asked quietly. When Naru frowned, not comprehending, Gene repeated himself. "The first time Mai died?"

Naru inhaled sharply.

"Tell me everything."

"Didn’t you already see it?"  Naru tipped his head toward Mai’s room.

"I saw a lot, and... I think I understand now," Gene admitted. The anger he had felt before had evaporated as he slipped through Mai’s memories. "But it was only from her perspective. And I want you to tell me. I want to hear it from you."

Naru turned his sour gaze back to the tabletop. "How she died? How I came back?"

"Let’s start with how she died."  Gene gazed at his brother calmly. "The first time. I didn’t see that."

His brother sat in silence for several moments before speaking suddenly. "She was killed by a man who broke into her apartment." Naru traced his finger against the flat surface of the kotatsu. "They thought he was... looking for money, or something like that."

"In this dingy place?  What did he think he could find?"  Naru gave him an exasperated look and Gene held up his hand. "Sorry, it’s just... ridiculous that anyone would try to rob this tiny apartment."  He sighed. "I guess he found her instead."

"Yes." Naru stared forward but he wasn’t focusing on any object in particular. He was so very grateful Mai didn't have any memories of her death. And here they were, sitting in the very room that event would have occurred. He exhaled deeply and willed the thoughts from his mind. "I made my decision several days after I heard the news."

"You didn’t act on impulse."

Naru ran his hand aimlessly through his hair at the back of his neck. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. I didn’t exactly think it through. It was nothing I’d ever considered before."

"Lucky git."  Gene’s mouth twitched in a grin. "You always were such a determined idiot."

"I prefer the term genius," Naru said, a smirk lifting his lips.

"And we both know preferring something doesn’t change a matter of fact,” Gene snorted. “I suppose you know how you did it, then? Turning back time can’t be such an easy feat. Not for most people, at least," he added.

"I had a hypothesis." Naru shook his head, speaking slowly with uncertainty.

"Your PK was part of it, no doubt. PK without restraint."  When his brother nodded, Gene frowned. "You killed yourself to come back here," he accused. "Who’s reckless now?"

At his words, Naru smiled thinly. "In the end, it was nothing more than an idea built out of curiosity. And things went differently this time. I don’t know what that does for the idea."  He sighed. "I was certainly never expecting to test it again." His eyes softened, filling with regret. "I should have. This is what I should have done all along."

Gene shook his head. "If it didn’t work and you wound up dead, I’d never forgive you."  He frowned sternly and shook his finger at his brother threateningly. "You’d have to spend eternity with me but I’d always be mad at you."

"Really?"  Disbelief was evident in his voice.

"I mean it. And from Mai’s memories, it looked like you had your fair share of visits to the hospital."

Naru shrugged nonchalantly, folding his arms and resting them in front of him on the table. "Once or twice."

Gene leaned his elbow against the table as he gazed at his brother, a mirror image of himself. It had been strange to see: a figure that looked so similar to his own being, acting out a life in Mai’s memories that he hadn’t been fortunate enough to see. He'd noticed immediately his brother had always worn black. Noll had never been one to dress brightly, but the fact that there had never once been grey or blue slacks, a navy sweater or a formal white buttoned shirt had called attention to the mourning clothes. Surely, just as he would never forgive his brother if he let himself die, Noll had never forgiven himself for his own death.

Gene exhaled, suddenly feeling the weight of the pain his brother must have borne. Noll had always been serious, always mature beyond his years. Necessity had required that he be responsible and his intelligence had allowed it. They’d had their share of hardships in the orphanage and growing with a comparatively irresponsible brother, of course Noll had needed to grow up quickly. Gene knew his brother never laughed or smiled enough and his eyes held a hidden sorrow that only he, and now Mai, could see. That sadness would always be there, he knew, no matter how well he hid it behind his stoic and arrogant exterior.

"I suppose it all makes sense now."  Gene frowned again. After Mai’s death, he realized, his brother must have had the singular desire not to lose another person so precious to him. Except as to when that part had happened, he still didn’t know. "Well, not everything. Honestly, the only thing that doesn’t really make sense is why you came back for her in the first place. How you two ended up together all of a sudden."

"I suppose it doesn’t, does it."  Naru’s lips twitched upwards. "Of all things, I have stopped being curious about the nature of love."

"But you two hadn’t seen each other for quite a long time, right?"  Gene pursed his lips, running his hand through his hair as he tried to sort through the memories he had seen. "How long had it been since you’d seen her?"

"I hadn’t seen her since I left Japan."  His twin let out a slow breath. "It had been eight years. Eight years with absolutely no contact."

Gene looked at him skeptically. "What, after all that time you suddenly realized you’d loved her all along?  Noll, that doesn’t make sense. Especially for someone like you."

"I... was utterly convinced when I left Japan that she had fallen in love with you."

"You dumbass," Gene rolled his eyes. "I can’t believe you were so stupid. I saw her confession, and I saw you turn her down. That was low, Noll, and rude. Even for you."

Naru looked annoyed. "I did... come to realize that it was an unfair thing to say to her. That I should have believed her. Even if she didn’t have a reason, I shouldn’t have discarded her feelings so quickly."

"A reason," Gene snorted. "Everyone knows you don’t need a reason to love someone, Noll. Everyone."

Naru winced at his brother’s judgment. "As time passed I realized I cared for her but..."  He shook his head. "Even then I wouldn’t have called it love. Perhaps I didn’t know. But I did.. think of her, often, over those years. I often wanted to contact her, but I was sure she’d have moved on. Everyone from SPR had gone their separate ways. Why wouldn’t she, as well?"  He turned his gaze back toward the window, watching the sky darken as he spoke. Gene remained silent, listening to him speak.

"When I’d heard that she’d died, I was almost surprised how upset I was. Perhaps that was the first time I thought my feelings could be something more than just passing nostalgia. Perhaps I had loved her and had held onto that over the years. Though I didn’t let myself think about that too much. Most of all, I wished she hadn’t died."  He released a large sigh, his shoulders rising and falling as he exhaled. "I didn’t want her to die. I wanted to always know that she was out there, living happily, even if I wasn’t there to see her. That was my motivation."

"So you went back."  Gene said softly.

Naru nodded. "I wasn’t sure what I would do to make sure she didn’t die again, eight years into the future, but I had to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. I thought I would have a day with her and that we would still part to go our separate ways. I wasn’t expecting things to turn out as they did."

His gaze turned distant as he recalled his own memories. "Our trip to Tsuruga was surreal. Honestly, I don’t know why I decided that we should go there in the first place. But it was very fitting. The moment I saw her I knew she remembered the future. She had the eyes of an older woman in an adolescent body. And she was much calmer than she would have been at sixteen, more reserved. As she’d known the time that had passed, I thought surely she would have discarded her feelings for me. But she had felt the same way I did. Not knowing exactly what we felt but longing to see each other again all the same."

"And you asked her to come to England with you."  Gene sighed, rubbing his hand through his hair. "And the rest, they say, is history."

"You said that you saw a lot," Naru started, faltering for a moment before continuing. "What exactly did you see of Mai’s memories?"

Gene swallowed. "Well..."  He hesitated, looking at the table guiltily.

"Think of it as research,” Naru encouraged. “If anything, I’m curious to know how her mind reacted to your intrusion."

"She seemed to know what I wanted to see," Gene began. "There was very little that wasn’t related to you. She went straight for the memories of how you met, and somewhat haphazardly continued forward from there. Mostly I saw her memories from when you were in Japan; when she worked for you. Bits and pieces of cases and the other people you worked with. And memories of when you met again, after you turned back time."

"Memories of when she came to London?"

Gene frowned slightly. "Yes, but she didn’t focus on that, not initially. Only when she began to lose consciousness."

"What happened then?"

"It was strange."  He shook his head slightly, closing his eyes. "Well—unexpected, I guess. When she passed out, Noll, the vision continued. It changed but it didn’t stop immediately. I could tell that her mind wasn’t guiding me as it was before. I saw you and Mai, with Martin and Luella. I saw your wedding. I saw the birth of your child."

Naru swallowed, his throat suddenly tight. "That... that hadn’t happened, Gene. Neither of those things happened."

Gene stared at his brother, the color slowly fading from his cheeks. "You mean..."

"That wasn’t the future Mai and I experienced. It could have been the future we would have had."

"Or the future of this time."  Gene said, voicing his brother’s unspoken thoughts.

He nodded. "Yes. Our future."

The two brothers sat in silence for some time. Gene finally broke the stillness. "I guess..."  He swallowed. "That makes sense."  He sighed slightly, his face relaxing as he smiled at his brother. "I’m glad, Noll. I’m glad that you love her. That you have her love."

A flash of guilt formed on his brother’s face. "I’m sorry."

Gene’s reaction was immediate. "No. Don’t apologize, stupid. You love her and she loves you. Don’t be sorry about that."

"It only took you a day to begin to like her," Naru said, his voice strained. "I worked with her for a year before I began to realize what I was feeling, and I didn’t completely understand until I left. Until she died, eight years later. I couldn’t bring myself to act on my feelings before that moment."  He sighed, rubbing his fingers against the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes. "Eight bloody years and she never once questioned me, as you are now. She should have. She had no reason to believe me."  He sighed again, softly, his words dropping under his breath, barely audible to his brother’s ears. "I am not deserving of her love. I never was."

Gene frowned, seeing his brother’s pained expression. Eight years that he had held onto the memory of his dead brother, of himself, before even considering the fact that he could continue to live without him. "You’ve loved her for a very long time. Perhaps," he started, "when I thought I was beginning to like Mai, it was simply that I instinctively knew how precious she was to you. I felt deeply attached to her, almost immediately. But it was different than how I usually feel with girls. It was..."  He paused, thinking. "Maybe it was just real friendship. Mai welcomed me and treated me like a friend from the very beginning."

He willed himself to believe him. "And I suppose you are psychic," Naru said, his mouth twitching in a lop-sided grin.

"I am psychic," Gene agreed, laughing softly and draping his arm around his brother’s neck. "Surely I’m imagining it, Noll. If I didn’t know better I’d say you smile more than you used to."

Instead of his smile vanishing as it used to when attention was drawn to his brother’s facial expressions, if anything, Naru’s face lightened. "Certainly, you’re imagining it."

 

*******

 

Naru had helped himself to Mai’s cupboard and had brewed cups of tea for both of them. The brothers sat at the kotatsu, their conversation continuing as they drank, interrupted only once when Naru went into Mai’s bedroom to check on her.

"Still asleep."

"Do you think we need to worry?"

"Not yet," Naru said as he seated himself, shrugging slightly. "Using her abilities always exhausted her."

Identical faces turned when a phone began to ring. The sound was coming from Mai’s jacket, hanging on the wall near the door. Gene watched as Naru rose smoothly to his feet and crossed the room, removing the mobile from the coat pocket as it continued to ring.

"It’s one of her friends from school," he announced, looking at the screen.

"Are you going to answer?"  Gene asked tentatively.

"No, I won’t. I just hope she isn’t missing plans."

The ringing had ceased and the phone chirped after several moments of silence. One missed call, the screen declared.

Stepping into Mai’s kitchen, Naru set the phone on the counter and opened the cupboard. "I’m feeling a bit peckish, how about you?"  It was getting late and neither had eaten anything substantial since midday.

"I could eat something," Gene admitted. The takoyaki he’d eaten in the park was already a distant memory.

Rising slightly on the balls of his feet, Naru pulled out a box of crackers from an upper shelf. "I’m sure Mai won’t mind," he said, seeing Gene’s odd expression. "We’ll buy her some replacements."

"It’s... not that," Gene said awkwardly. He didn’t know how to describe the strange feeling of seeing his brother—the brother that had never opened up to anyone except himself—so comfortable in a setting that in the past he would have rejected. Perhaps just a week ago he would have refused such complacency. It made him both lonesome and proud: happy to see the transformation but afraid of being left behind.

Naru gazed at his brother for a moment. "I’m still me, you know," he said quietly.

"I know," Gene said. "Sorry. I know, I was just thinking..."  His voice trailed off.

The still phone made a brief curious sound, breaking the silence and startling both of them. Naru turned and picked it up, looking at the lit up screen.

"What now?"  Gene asked.

"SMS," Naru said simply as he glanced toward the door that hid Mai’s slumbering form, hesitating for only a moment before opening the message. He frowned as he read it.

"What is it?"

"Her friend is worried, asking if she’ll get back to the school to retrieve her books for her homework."  He closed the phone, stepping over to the kotatsu and setting both it and the box of crackers on the surface of the table. "I’ll go to the school. I can pick them up for her." Naru bent and picked up his teacup, drinking the last swallow before the dregs with one quick motion. "I think I remember where Mai’s classroom is, where her desk is."

"Do you want me to come with you? Suppose you can’t find it?"

Naru shook his head, already at the door and bending to put on his shoes. "One of us should stay here for when Mai wakes up. If I don’t remember, I can always use psychometry."  Seeing the instant apprehension form on his brother’s face, he continued quickly. "I’ll be cautious."

Gene pursed his lips, his hands tightening instinctively in his lap. "Be careful, okay?  It makes me nervous, not being there with you."

Naru’s face relaxed into a smile. "You are, though, Gene, and that sets me at ease."

 

*******

 

She knew she wasn’t dreaming; this definitely wasn’t a dream. And she knew she wasn’t asleep, either, but she certainly wasn’t exactly conscious. Her eyes were closed and her body was unresponsive. She was vaguely aware of the sound of a car door being opened and voices.

"Let me," a distant voice said calmly.

She recognized his voice. It was always calm. When her own heart was pounding he’d speak like this, always to her amazement. Were she to place her head against his chest, she thought, the beat of his heart would be as steady as a metronome. Not like her own, the quickened heartbeat of a frightened rabbit that leapt the moment she was startled or confused.

She remembered his voice when he’d first kissed her and asked her to return with him to England. Neither of them had any certainty for the future but he’d asked her to be a part of his—or rather, it seemed, if he could be a part of hers. Certainly at that moment she hadn’t been expecting him to kiss her. The act itself was an indisputable confession of his own tentative feelings, more surely than if he had spoken them aloud.

"Come to England with me."  He had asked her as they stood on the sidewalk outside her apartment building, shaded beneath the overgrown lilac tree. "London," he’d said, "is smaller than Tokyo and it rains more, but I think," he’d paused, then, as he gazed at her, studying her, perhaps even hoping it may be true. "You might like it."

The words of a man speaking on impulse, but delivered as if he’d contemplated it for years without a trace of uncertainty in his voice. This was how he spoke.

She remembered his voice when they’d come to pick her up at London Heathrow, he and his adopted parents. Her tired and aching feet hadn’t even been on the foreign soil for half an hour when she saw them. The woman immediately swept her into her arms in a warm hug; the men beside her easily taking her luggage out of her hands.

She was incredibly nervous about meeting his parents and overwhelmed with the thought of leaving her homeland behind. She was so anxious about her language skills and how the couple would take to her she was almost queasy. He, on the other hand, was nothing but calm. His face the embodiment of serenity, dark eyes like a deep, placid lake.

And now, how he spoke again, calm and composed. Of the voices filtered through the muted shadows of her stupor, it was only his that she was able to distinguish. His words drifted gently over her and she too began to feel calm. She thought that perhaps she should be frightened: though why exactly, she couldn’t remember. At any rate, it didn’t matter anymore. He was there with her. She could not see him but his voice was a consolation in itself.

Her languid body was picked up gently, strong arms supporting her close to his chest and he began to walk. The sound of his steps on concrete, the rhythm of his body as he climbed a set of stairs. Stepping through a threshold into a quiet, familiar place; deposited gently at last onto something soft.

He was moving away and she wanted to protest his departure, but her body refused to obey. As he left, it was the memory of the airport that took root and she was transported back to that spring day. She remembered many of the little details with surprising accuracy. It had been an easy flight with only a little turbulence on their descent. She remembered the kind stewardess; a Japanese-American woman who had noticed her anxiety and had stopped to talk to her when all the other passengers in the cabin were asleep. She recalled peeling off the plastic wrap on the packaged meal to reveal three neatly divided sections of food: rice, vegetables and meat. How the steam curled from the rice and she’d eaten only that, finding no appetite for the rest. She’d arrived in early afternoon of a brilliantly sunny day, white clouds dotting the English sky. It had been a windy day, too—but she hadn’t noticed until she went outside, later, to the car.

Luella had been wearing a blue and green patterned dress, Martin in a grey-blue suit jacket. Naru was as handsome as ever, the top button of his collared shirt open, exposing his collar bone. They did not linger and left the airport without delay. Her gaze had been all but glued to the window for the entirety of the trip. Naru had watched her with faint amusement, next to her in the backseat as she, wide-eyed and clutching at his forearm, gazed at the buildings pass as they drove east into the city. Entering their neighborhood, she’d gaped at the beautiful old buildings, facades made of pale stone with well-manicured hedges lining the street.

When they arrived at the Davis residence, Luella had hurried into the kitchen to heat up a late lunch while Naru showed her around the house and to the room in which she would be staying. He’d set her suitcase by the door as he stepped inside the room, brightly lit from golden afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. She’d followed him slowly, her eyes tracing over the clean white walls, the colorful patchwork quilt on bed and the wooden dresser, desk and matching chair against the wall. Her eyes finished at the bright window, partially covered by translucent curtains. A prism hung from the center of the curtain rod, sending small fragmented rainbows around the room. It was there that he’d stood, looking out at the apple tree that would hold her own gaze many times over the coming years in her residence at the Davis house.

She remembered how he’d stiffened after she approached him and put her small arms around him in a tight embrace. How he had relaxed, lifting his arms to close around her, his hands resting on the small of her back. How they’d stood together, all but immobile, until the voice of his mother broke the silence, calling from downstairs and beckoning them to eat.

She’d been extremely nervous about Martin and Luella but the two had eased her fears instantly and welcomed her wholeheartedly. She wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the moment it happened, but as she lived with them she gradually became part of the family. Unofficially, of course, though there were times they had dropped hints to suggest it should be set in ink on paper and the national register.

She didn’t know how she could have survived London without the two. Whenever she was discouraged and Naru was being particularly disagreeable and petulant, Luella would find a sure way to distract her from it all. His adopted mother was particularly apt to notice Mai’s fluctuations in mood and temperament and was sensitive to her homesickness. She had, herself, moved far from her home, once. Mai remembered sitting in the kitchen on a particularly hot summer evening, Luella frying dosas and a potato curry simmering on the stove, telling her about how she had lived in Sri Lanka from the age of nine to fourteen. Laughing, Luella told Mai she had cried for weeks, both times, when she had to move. Soon into Mai’s stay, Luella developed the habit of taking her to the Japanese market whenever she was downtrodden and homesick where Mai would browse the magazines or buy a familiar Japanese snack.

Luella had become a motherly figure and a friend, someone Mai could respect and confide in as well as someone from whom she could seek advice. Mai had made friends of her peers, of course, through her classes at the university, but she was more likely to spend time with the Davis family and their associates at BSPR. She remembered an evening when Naru, Martin and Lin were out of town at a parapsychology conference and how Luella had invited Madoka and Sarah, not yet Lin’s wife but fiancée at the time, over for dinner. Sarah had brought homemade foccacia and Madoka made a chocolate cake. The four drank wine on the porch, talking and laughing as the evening stars rose, the autumn sky darkening and hurrying them inside.

Martin, too, had done his best to make her at ease with her new family. She remembered in particular a time he’d taken her camping. Naru hadn’t been keen on the idea but he’d come along without much complaint. It had been a long drive to the park, but once they arrived they picked their campsite, setting up their tents and roasting marshmallows in the open clearing. It was before dawn when Martin woke them, steaming tea and coffee to coax them from the tent. They took thermoses and went to the lake. It had been a beautiful sunrise. The water was like glass but for the ripples of fish and insects dotting the surface. Naru read comfortably at a respectable distance from the water; she and Martin took up the ambitious task of fishing.

All of it had been a struggle: the poles were tangled with the line, the tackle box turned over and hooking the bait made her squeamish. As the sun rose it became breezy and more than once the fishing line had gotten caught in the bushes. But their efforts were worthwhile: just when she thought she’d give up and join Naru in one of the comfortable chairs there was a tug on her line. She and Martin reeled in the enormous fish together, laughing and shouting in disbelief as they did so. Even Naru had put his book down to watch the spectacle. Later, after Martin had cleaned the fish, they grilled it over the fire and Mai ate, for the very first time, something she had caught with her own hands. Later that night they’d gone out in the absolute darkness to stargaze. Holding Naru’s hand tightly she watched the night sky, brilliant and unfathomable in its darkness and immensity. Every time they saw a shooting star he’d squeeze her fingers gently and she would wish for their continued happiness, closing her eyes and squeezing his hand back in response.

She did not regret leaving her home country to be with him. The first years had been difficult and the ones that followed hadn’t been easy, but she treasured their time together. She remembered the time he’d taken a case in Scotland, an old hotel on a lake. At the end of many nerve-wracking days and restless nights they had returned to their cabin and he had collapsed next to her on the bed in exhaustion. Lying next to him she’d held him in her arms, her head resting against his chest. She’d thought he’d fallen asleep but he began to hum, the sound resonating in his chest and in her ears. She’d never heard him sing or even hum before. The simple melody was sweet and beautiful, yet full of sorrow. His voice dropped into silence and his breathing deepened.

When she awoke the following morning his head was resting on her shoulder. She’d stayed there for quite some time, listening to his even breathing, watching his eyes dart behind closed lids in a dream. Eventually, she climbed out of the bed carefully as not to wake him and set the kettle on the stove for tea. When she returned, teacups in hand, she found his dark eyes open, watching her. He’d taken her hand and pulled her toward him, onto the bed, leaving the tea to go cold. It was the first time they made love. She had been twenty years old and they'd been together for three years already. If she’d talked about that aspect of her relationship with Naru with her friends, she knew they would think it abnormal: to be together this long without that particular physical intimacy – but nothing about their relationship was normal. She didn't mind.

Naru, she’d whispered, clutching his face in her hands. You know how I love you, don’t you?

I know, he’d replied, burying his face in her neck. And I you.

I know, she’d laughed quietly, tears of happiness forming in her eyes. I know.

 

*******

 

Mai opened her eyes slowly, taking a moment to let her vision adjust to the dim light of the room, tracing over the details of her Tokyo bedroom of her fifteen-year old self. After the vivid memories she’d just experienced she’d almost expected to wake up in Scotland in Naru’s arms. She began to sit up, rising onto her elbows but fell back onto her futon when a wave of nausea overcame her. Her breath catching in her throat, she squeezed her eyes tightly closed and exhaled slowly. When she opened her eyes again a dark clothed figure was at her side, leaning toward her with concern evident in his dark eyes.

"Where’s Naru?" Her voice almost sounded foreign through the faint buzzing in her ears.

"He went to your school. To pick up your books," Gene explained.

Mai frowned. "He didn’t need to do that."  She closed her eyes again. The buzzing had lessened and now she was painfully aware of her heartbeat, thudding and echoing in her skull. "Sorry, give me a minute," she mumbled, waiting for the pounding to fade away.

Gene watched her with alarm, relief crossing his face as she opened her eyes again. "I’m sorry," he finally said, breaking the silence. "I shouldn’t have done that. I lost my temper and..." his voice trailed off. "Are you feeling okay?"

"More or less," Mai said, smiling wanly, deciding not to mention the bout of nausea, the headache or the deep exhaustion that seemed set in the marrow of her bones. "What about you?"

"I’m fine," he said hurriedly.

"Did you see everything?"

"More or less."  Gene echoed, his face a sad smile. Despite the rarity in which he smiled that that in his breathing life, it was a very familiar expression. After death, in her dreams, he seemed to almost always be smiling that gentle, melancholy smile. "At least of your days at SPR. Noll filled in the missing pieces."

"I’m sorry."

He shook his head. "I’m the one who should be sorry, Mai."  He rose soundlessly to his feet. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"I’ll get up," she said, almost cringing at the thought of moving again. "And I need to change out of my uniform."

"Will you be alright on your own?"  He immediately flushed after his words. "I mean, Noll will be back soon," he continued quickly. "He shouldn’t be long."

For the first time Mai was acutely aware of Gene’s youth. He was of course a teenaged boy, while his twin brother was not. In fact, had Naru ever acted like a teenager?  She couldn’t think of a time that he had. "I’ll be fine," she smiled genuinely at him. "Don’t worry, Gene. I’ll be right there."

He nodded and stepped back into the main room, his cheeks still warm. "I’ll heat some water for tea," he mumbled, sliding the door shut behind him.

It took her several minutes to rise and the process of changing out of her school uniform and hanging it in the closet was surprisingly difficult. Her bones felt like they were made of gelatin and her limbs trembled unsteadily as she pulled a t-shirt over her head and slipped into a pair of stretchy knit pants. As the minutes passed, however, the unsteadiness began to fade. The hooded sweatshirt she was able to slip on with ease, though her fingers initially had difficulty with the zipper. Feeling a shiver run through her body, she pulled socks over her bare toes and looped a scarf loosely about her neck.

She slid the door open and stepped into the main room. Feeling awkward in her movements, she moved slowly and gingerly. In the kitchen, Gene was straining the leaves out of a cup of tea, the steam curling in the air. She wondered what type of tea it was, trying to run through her mind what she had seen in her cupboard. Though she had just made tea that morning, she couldn’t seem to remember what teas were in her possession.

The nausea and shakiness was all but past, but she still felt weak so she sat down. There were two cups already sitting on the surface of the table, she noticed, with the dregs of tea in the bottom of each cup. Her mobile phone was also sitting on the table.

"You had a phone call a little while ago," Gene explained as he saw where her gaze was directed. "I think there’s a voice mail."

Mai nodded, picking up the phone and flipping it open with her thumb, scrolling through the history. "Naru went to the school for my books because of this message, didn’t he?"  Gene nodded and she sighed. "He really didn’t need to do that."

"Don’t you have homework?"

"Yeah, but it could be late."  Mai shrugged and snapped the phone shut, placing it back on the table. "Honestly, I’m no stellar student. No one would be surprised."  She had just pulled the blanket over her knees and around her as Gene approached, bending down to pass the cup of tea to her carefully.

"Thank you," she said as she accepted the cup from him, smiling as she inhaled the steam. "Mm, smells good. What is it?"

"Aki bancha." Gene sat down next to her, watching her as she sipped the hot beverage carefully. "Okay?" He asked tentatively.

She smiled broader as she set the cup down. "Still too hot to drink," she admitted. "But it’s nice. Thank you very much."

"Good."

"Do you want anything?"

"Nah, I’m fine. I had some earlier. Noll made some."  He gestured toward the cups on the table. "And you know, tea’s not exactly.. my thing," he said, shrugging and turning his gaze away from hers.

"I think there’s juice in the fridge," Mai offered, but he shook his head in response. Like his brother several nights before, his eyes wandered around the room, stopping on various points, including the stuffed lion he had given her after their trip to the zoo.

She had drunk almost half the cup of tea when Gene spoke again. "When you saw me at the train station... I assume that’s where things diverged, because that didn’t happen last time. Did you know I was going to be there?"

She shook her head but took her time to finish the tea, not answering him immediately. "No. It was just coincidence that I saw you. Or coincidence that I was there, I suppose."  She shrugged, shaking her head again. "I was so disoriented. Suddenly I’m in Tokyo, lying in a puddle that I had apparently just fallen into. I see someone very close to me from the future and he didn’t recognize me, as I did him. I guess that’s the point where I diverted my path from the past. Instead of going wherever I was originally headed to, I went out and bought some dry clothes. I was on my way home when I saw you."  She shrugged again. "Who knows, though?  Originally—I mean, the first time around—I would have passed through that train station. Maybe I passed you by, never for the wiser."  Her eyes looked somewhat sad as she said this.

Gene averted his gaze again. "Noll didn’t want me to come to Japan," he started quietly. "It was probably..." he exhaled quietly before continuing, "probably one of the first times we truly disagreed and fought over something."

"You wanted him to come with you, didn’t you?"

"I did. I was bent on coming here to find out more about our parents. The only thing we really knew about them were their names from our birth certificates. And we had the certificate of death for our mother. But we didn’t know for certain what had become of our father. But Noll, he..." Gene sighed again. "He didn’t want to know."

Mai dipped her chin in a small nod. "That sounds like Naru," she started slowly. "He’s always very focused on the future."  As she said this, even though she knew it was the truth, there had been an enormous part of his past that he had never been able to completely release, the death of his elder brother.

Gene exhaled heavily. "I wasn’t willing to compromise, so I came anyway. To think..." he rubbed his hand on the back of his neck, lifting his gaze to connect with hers. "I’m glad he came this time. I’m glad we get to discover the truth about our parents together."

Mai swallowed. "Your father..."

"He’s dead,” Gene said simply. “There was an earthquake, five days before we were born. The 1984 Otaki Earthquake."  He paused, searching her face for recognition. "Have you heard of it?"

She shook her head. "No."

"It wasn’t a very large earthquake and there weren’t a many casualties. The greatest damage came from landslides from Mt. Ontake. The village of Otaki was all but completely destroyed."

"Otaki..."  Mai started, biting her lower lip nervously. "Where is that located?"

"Kiso District, Nagano Prefecture. Southwest of Nagano City. Maybe almost halfway toward Nagoya."

Mai nodded slightly, the memories tumbling forth without further prompting. It was impossible not to remember Naru’s trembling form, lurching from the van, gripping the handrail as he gazed out toward the lake, the remaining color in his pale cheeks slipping from his face. "I should have... I should have asked him," she started slowly. "But it was difficult. I knew he didn’t want to talk about his past. And nothing... nothing that would remind him of you. Luella once told me that the orphanage was in Takayama. And that your mother had died. But I..." her words trailed into silence. "I couldn’t bring myself to ask Naru about it. About any of it."

"Now I know why Noll hesitated when I told him I wanted to go to Nagano. I think our grandmother lives there. Our mother’s mother," Gene explained. "We haven’t been able to find anything in public records regarding either our mother or her family, so I want to go there in person."

"What about your father?  Did you find anything else about him?"

Gene nodded quickly. "Yes, actually. I spoke to my grandfather just... just earlier today."  He laughed lightly. "I can’t believe it!  It sure seems like a long time ago."  He focused his eyes on the wall above Mai’s head. "Our father was an American. His mother is Japanese and his father is of Norwegian descent. He lived in Connecticut until he came to Japan and met our mother."  A small smile spread over his face. "I would like to meet them, the Nilsons. Perhaps someday. I don’t imagine a trip to the States would be feasible any time in the near future."  He lowered his eyes to meet her gaze, quickly. "Will you... would you still like to come to Nagano with us?"

"Of course," Mai said without hesitation. "If you’ll allow me to come along."

Gene gazed at her for several moments, as if contemplating his words. "I think it would be best."

Mai finished her tea, feeling a glowing warmth both from the remains of the hot liquid as well as the peaceful feeling of acceptance that washed over her from Gene’s words.

"What do you like about him?"  Gene asked quietly, abruptly changing the subject.

Mai looked surprised at the question. "Well..." her voice trailed off as she set the now-empty cup on the table. "I could say all the obvious things. He’s smart—well, brilliant, I suppose. Terribly handsome, and completely aware of it."

Gene’s mouth twitched in a grin. "I said why you liked him, Mai. No one could like his arrogance."

She laughed lightly. "Maybe," she said ambiguously. "I dunno. He cheers me up. He makes me laugh. He believes in me and supports me. And he’s very principled; he has an extremely strong set of values. He always does what he believes is right. Even if I don’t understand it. And though he isn’t exactly talkative, he’s always honest, never afraid to speak his mind. Even when I’m wrong. Or maybe especially when I’m wrong. But he listens to me, too."  She exhaled, leaning forward on her elbows. "Most importantly I think is that he respects me. If he didn’t... well, it would never work, right?  And he’s very rational. I didn’t recognize how important that can be. I always get so worked up over things and he’ll tell me when I’m being stupid or lazy or selfish."  She continued with a wan smile, her gaze following a distant object, unseen to Gene’s eyes. "I don’t always appreciate it at the time. Though, I have to say, he’s gotten much nicer about it over the years."

"He does seem... more agreeable, doesn’t he," Gene said, nodding.

"I guess he isn’t the sort of person that I always thought I’d end up with. He can be quite bad-tempered," she said honestly, and smiled. "Obstinate and cross. And terribly stubborn, just like me."  Seeing Gene’s surprised expression, she laughed. "Oh, we don’t get along all the time. We’ve had our share of fights. There were several times I wondered why I ever left Japan to be with him," she admitted. Gene looked perplexed, and she continued.

"But I did love him, very much, even during those times. I always calmed down eventually. No matter how angry or frustrated I became, I knew I would always regret it if I left. I would realize I was being foolish and I would make myself apologize, even if I didn’t want to. And he always apologized, too."  She smiled. "Even when he’s angry or in a bad mood... deep in my heart, I know I love him."  A gentle smiled grew on her lips. He could see the love in her eyes.

"What do you make of all this, Mai?"  Gene asked quietly.

Mai shrugged, spreading her hands and smiling wistfully. "I guess I’m just incredibly lucky."

 

*******

 

He could hear laughter, even before he pushed open the door. The smell of spices greeted his nostrils and his mouth immediately began to water, his empty stomach reminding him of its hunger.

"Welcome back," Mai called as he closed and locked the door behind him, slipping an arm out of his jacket and transferring the books he held into his other hand to repeat the process. "Oh, Naru, I can’t believe you went and got my school books," she said, a guilty look crossing her face. "I’m sorry. You didn’t have to do that."

"It wasn’t a problem," he said, shrugging as he stepped out of his shoes. He set the books on an empty corner of the kitchen counter, turning his head and raising his gaze to meet his brother’s.

Gene was standing in front of the small stove, stirring a simmering pot. "Thought you’d be home about now," he said with a grin. "Should be ready in just a few minutes."

"Smells delicious. Japanese curry?"

"Wish I could take credit for it, but it’s just leftovers from Mai’s fridge. I do, however," he paused, turning toward the small rice cooker, "get to claim this rice as my own creation."  Seeing the amusement on his twin’s face, he lifted his chin. "I washed it and everything. Though Mai told me to," he added. "I didn’t know that you were supposed to let it sit before you started cooking it."

Naru smiled slightly, remembering Mai's instruction in the past of how to wash rice properly. She seemed to be thinking of it as well, her eyes distant as she gazed across the room at the calendar hanging on the wall. "If there's one thing I've always been able to cook, it's rice," Mai said softly. "I'm sorry there's meat in the curry, Naru," she continued. "I didn't think—"

He shook his head, effectively silencing her. "It's fine, Mai. Don't worry about that."

Gene frowned slightly, considering his brother. "Are you always vegetarian now?"

"More or less."  He took three bowls from the cupboard and pulling open two drawers under the counter before he found what he was looking for. After he had set three spoons on the counter he opened the cupboard again, taking down a container of tea. He turned it over in his hand as he considered the contents. After a short deliberation he returned it to the cupboard and selected a different container. "Mai, would you like a cup of tea?"

"Yes please."

After he turned the hot water pot on he walked over to the kotatsu, placing his hand tenderly on the back of her head and gazing down at her. "Are you okay?"

She closed her eyes and leaned her head into his touch, a contented smile crossing her lips. "Yeah. Maybe a little tired, but I’m okay."

He pursed his lips. "You always say that," he murmured, shaking his head. He dropped to a crouch next to her, placing his hand on her forehead. "You have a slight fever."

"I feel fine, though. I’ll take something after dinner."

He nodded, his hand moving from her forehead to caress her cheek. With a gentle motion he tucked her hair behind her ears. "Let me know if... there’s anything."

Dipping her head in a nod, he sat next to her until the water was hot and beckoned him back into the kitchen, where he could make the tea.

Gene watched with surprise as his brother set out three cups but only filled two of them with tea. As the tea began to steep, he returned to the entryway where his coat hung on the wall and reached into the pocket, removing an aluminium can. This he took to the kitchen. Popping open the lid he poured steaming coffee into the cup. Setting the can on the counter, he lifted the cup and passed it to his brother.

"Just from a vending machine down the street. I hope it’s a step up from instant," he said, lifting an eyebrow.

Gene smiled and lifted the mug toward his brother in response. In return, Naru took his own cup of tea and raised it, the ceramic clinking together quietly as their cups connected in mid-air. "Let’s eat, shall we?"

 

*******

 

The twins had cleared the table and done the dishes together, leaving Mai at the kotatsu to watch. She was uncertain how to occupy herself as the brothers took care of cleaning the kitchen. Naru brought her a glass of water with some sort of fever-reducing pill he’d found in her bathroom cabinet. Gene found a box of cookies in the cupboard while putting the dishes away. These he arranged on a plate and brought to the table for them to share. Naru, of course, made a pot of tea. After pouring two cups he turned to his brother, who nodded affirmatively and he poured a third as well.

"Sorry I don’t have coffee, Gene," Mai said, nibbling on a cookie.

Gene shook his head, blowing on his steaming cup of tea and reaching for a cookie off the plate. "Not at all. You couldn’t have known we’d be barging in here and making ourselves at home like this. I shouldn’t have that much caffeine this late, either." He turned to his brother, who was sipping the tea despite the blistering temperature of the liquid. "What sort of preparations do we need to make for our trip to Nagano?"

"There shouldn’t be much else besides the hotel reservation. I’m counting on your intuition to be our primary guide once we get there."  Naru paused, returning his teacup to the table. "Quite honestly, we could scour the library until the end of the week but I don’t think we’ll find any pertinent information." He lifted the cup once more, taking another sip. "Unless you want to go to Otaki to look for clues about our parents."

Gene shook his head. "No, you’re right. I don’t think it’s worth our while to go there. Unless you want to see the town our parents were living in," he added quickly.

Naru shook his head. "Not that it would be the same, anyway, after the destruction from the earthquake."  He pursed his lips. "The larger question at hand, is what do we do when our search for Shibuya Mitsuki is over?  However it may resolve, it certainly will, we’ll have several choices of how to proceed from there."  His eyes travelled between Mai and his brother. Seeing her apprehensive gaze, he continued. "We have to consider, knowing what we do, how to progress into the future. At the heart of the matter is our return to England."

Gene looked between his brother and Mai. Naru was looking at her with a steadfast gaze while Mai’s eyes were trained on her hands, the fingers of her right investigating a hole in the seam of her sweatshirt near the wrist of her left. Her gaze was unnaturally rigid and he realized she was close to tears. "Mai," he started uncertainly, gently. "You’ll come back with us to London, won’t you?"

"I... I don’t know," she began, her gaze still avoiding that of the twins. Shaking herself slightly, she closed her eyes. "I know it’s selfish of me to want to do it all over again," she whispered. "And that it’s impossible. But I also know..."

Mai’s voice tightened and caught in her throat. "There are lives that could be saved. That if we did it all over again, the Yoshimi family wouldn’t have to face so much sorrow. We could stop the curse at Yasuhara-san’s high school before it started. Before that boy committed suicide. And so many people wouldn’t have to disappear at that mansion."  Trembling, Mai squeezed her eyes tighter together, trying not to remember. A shudder ran through her body against her will. No matter how many years passed, it would be something she could never forget. The icy blade against her throbbing pulse, the burning sensation as it broke the skin and the warmth of her own blood spilling over her flesh, dripping up her neck and trickling past her ears. The smell of her own life leaving her body as it dripped onto the stained tiles.

"Mai," someone said gently.

She opened her eyes. Identical brothers gazed at her with concern.

"Sorry," Mai said, placing her hands against the surface of the table, trying to hide their shaking. She slowly rose to her feet. "Sorry, just... give me a minute. I need... some fresh air. "

Gene glanced nervously at his brother, who remained silent, watching as she slid into her shoes and draped her coat over her shoulders, shaky and unsteady on her feet. He could smell the stench of blood in the room roused from Mai’s fears, a smell he knew did not actually exist in the physical world. "Shall I...?"  He started, but Naru shook his head.

"Let her be," he said quietly, as Mai closed the door behind her. "If she’s just going out to the landing she’ll be fine."

The two sat in stillness for several moments before Gene suddenly broke it. "She’s right, isn’t she?"  He asked. "I mean, to save those lives. It would be the right thing to do."

His brother exhaled quietly. "The only feasible way to do it would be to stay here. Stay in Japan, in Tokyo, and open the office again."

"Shibuya Psychic Research," Gene said.

"Yes."

"Well, why not?"  Gene argued. "You did it last time. Obviously Martin and Luella were okay with it. Even Lin was here with you."

Naru’s lips narrowed into a thin line. "Last time was under very different circumstances," he said, his voice sounding pained. "Though Lin does remember this time around, so we could count on him to support us," he acknowledged.

"Well, let’s do it, then," Gene said, as Mai opened the door, emerging from outside. She looked surprised and Gene grinned, reaching for another cookie. "Besides, it rather looked like fun."