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Beneath the Lilac Tree

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[A story of second chances and supernatural love.]

I think the Naru in my dreams is kind because the real Naru is kind.  That’s what I’ve always believed.  (Taniyama Mai, vol. 10)

 

Prologue – February 18th, 2011

 

On that day the skies were particularly dull, threatening to rain. It was that in-between time of year, no longer winter but not yet spring. On this day she was particularly late. She'd already missed the first train and was most certainly going to miss the second. First, she couldn’t find her keys. Then, it was her wallet.

She sighed loudly as she surveyed her apartment, blowing hair out of her eyes with a frustrated pftt. Only seven in the morning, and already today was not her day.

After several more minutes of fruitless searching, she gave up on the wallet: she had her train pass and her ID badge for work. It would have to do. The wallet, wherever it was, could wait.

Glancing at the small clock by the door and pulling on her winter coat, she grabbed her heeled boots off the mat. After a combination of slips and crams, pulling up each zipper in quick succession, she was soon running out the door, which she locked with a quick motion of her hand behind her, even as she dashed forward.

When she returned at the end of the day, shaking out her umbrella as she turned the key to open the door, an immediate blast of cold air blew her hair away from her face. Eyes wide as she entered the room, she reached forward in the dark to turn on a lamp, the dim light illuminating the source of the gust. Her window was broken and shards of glass littered the floor. Frowning and immediately alert, she searched the dim room for any oddities. She stopped when she saw her wallet, lying open on the table. Then she heard the distinctive sound of footsteps in her bedroom. She froze at the sound.

There was someone in her apartment.

The man moved almost too quickly for her to act. There was a high-pitched scream and a shout, followed by the sounds of a struggle. And then only darkness remained.

 

*******

 

He had almost dropped the phone when he heard the news, so great was his shock. Ever since he’d awoken that morning he’d had the disquieting feeling that something, somewhere, was not right. He'd passed the feeling off to the fact that it would be the ten-year anniversary of his brother's death in just a few days, but nothing—not that feeling, not anything—could have prepared him for the actual truth.

"I thought you should know," the low, quiet voice said.

For one of the few moments in his life he was completely speechless. All of his senses focused on the words which had just been delivered. His eyes, unseeing, stared blankly in front of him and an overwhelming noise filled his ears, an ocean of disbelief and anger. In his mind, the unwelcome words repeated themselves, throbbing and echoing, carving their meaning into every part of his existence, refusing him the luxury of denial.

She passed away. Found murdered in her apartment.

Slowly, his mind cleared and the throbbing fading away. He became aware of the dull sound of quiet through the phone line as well as the man waiting patiently on the other end, waiting silently for him to process the news. The ceiling fan, usually so unobtrusive, now seemed startlingly loud.

"Thank you for telling me," he finally managed.

"We should assist with the memorial," the man said quietly.

"Yes," he agreed, speaking with difficulty. There was a painful lump in his throat.

"I’ll get in contact with the others. To see what we can do."  The man sighed. "I’m truly sorry to be the one to tell you this," he said.

"I know."  He cleared his throat. "I’m sorry you had to tell anyone."

When he set the phone down the office suddenly seemed much too quiet again. Even the fan, circling above at a lazy pace, was silent.

Dropping his head, he rested his forehead against clasped hands. Rage and despair struggled within him, vying for control. His shoulders trembled and he closed his eyes. His hand slipping into his pocket to find something familiar to hold to calm himself, but only visions rose up behind his eyelids, uninvited, from the darkness.

A tall figure emerges from the shadows, his heart pounding at his unexpected presence. Trying to scream or call for help, but strong hands had covered his mouth, silencing him and closing around his throat to still him.

He opened stinging eyes. Of all things: an intruder, looking for – what? Some small sum of cash at best. Hell, he’d have paid any amount to any lowlife to guarantee her safety. Or kill any man that would touch a hair on her head. But these realizations had come too late.

This was not supposed to happen. She should have been safe. Safe, living an ordinary life.

Lowering his head, he wept.

 

Part I

 

Mai Taniyama opened her eyes.

A brilliant blue sky awaited her gaze. A breeze tickled her nose, her cheeks—even her ears where tendrils of her hair brushed against the sensitive lobes. The wind was a gentle sound, rustling leaves and muffling the sounds of voices: calling, laughing, chattering. A ladybird beetle landed on the collar of her uniform and meandered toward her ribbon before opening its shell, tiny wings lifting it into the air. Beneath her, the grass was prickly against her bare arms and the back of her knees, pricking her scalp and neck where the dry shoots poked through her hair to tickle the sensitive skin above her collar. Any other day she would have scratched at her jaw or rubbed at her legs to displace the obnoxious tickling. Today, despite it all, she was incredibly comfortable. Her body felt like a heavy stone, permanently attached to the earth.

This, she thought leisurely, is bliss. She wanted to close her eyes and drift into sleep, but she wasn’t particularly tired and the sky had never before seemed quite so blue, never quite this beautiful before. She wanted nothing more than to memorize the color and carry the view within her always, just in case she never had the opportunity to look upon it again. Her eyes began to water as she gazed into the bright sky and hundreds—thousands—millions of tiny sparkles swam before her vision in the great expanse.

She imagined she was clinging to an upside-down Earth, the sky beneath her and gravity pushing her in the opposite direction. A small smile lifted the edge of her lips as she saw herself tumbling off the prickly grass and into the bright sky, falling weightless into the inviting blue with nothing to catch her, quietly swallowed forever with only the serene color around her.

Her daydream shattered as a high-pitched voice screamed her name, the heavy thump of footsteps running toward her. "Iwasaki-kun! Be more careful!" The voice scolded. A shadow fell across her face and her vision of the sky was blocked as a high-school girl leaned over her, peering anxiously at her face. "Mai-chan! You okay?"

"Michiru...chan?"  Mai said slowly, turning the name over in her mind. It had been a long time since she had seen Michiru. What was she doing here?

The girl helped her sit up. With a start, Mai realized she was at her high school. From the looks of the steady stream of students leaving the building, heading in all different directions on the school grounds, classes had just ended for the day.

"Iwasaki hit you with the ball," Michiru said, turning and shooting a nasty glare at the boy, who had retrieved the offending ball and was making a hasty exit from the scene with a few other boys. Mai watched the interaction with a bemused look on her face. Michiru turned back to Mai, her anger quickly transforming into concern. "I think he hit your head. You fell..."  She bit her lip, unsure of how anxious to be. "Do you feel okay?  Maybe we should go to the nurse’s office."

Mai reached to her head tentatively, fingers brushing through her hair and probing at her scalp. Sure enough: there was a lump, tender and swelling, above her right ear. "I’m okay," she said quickly, though her head began to ache when she touched the sore spot. "I’ll be fine."

"You sure?"  Michiru asked dubiously.

"Yeah," Mai grinned—convincingly, she hoped—and shrugged, grabbing her schoolbag and hopping to her feet, hiding an unexpected unsteadiness by brushing off her skirt. "Besides, I gotta get to work! There’ll be hell to pay if I’m late."

"You shouldn’t have to go after—"

"It’s fine," Mai interrupted, smiling brightly. Patting her skirt pockets, reassured as she felt the small weight of her mobile. "I really should go. I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?"

"But tomorrow’s Saturday—"  Michiru called after her hastily retreating form, her voice dropping off. It wasn’t that unusual, after all, for Mai to forget what day of the week it was, even if it was strange to forget it was Friday when only hours earlier she’d been happily telling her and Keiko how glad she was for the coming weekend. But the thought didn’t linger in Michiru’s mind; while she was clever and quick on her feet, Mai could be more scattered than most—and even more so since she had started working at that peculiar psychic research place.

 

*******

 

As if on autopilot, her legs carrying her briskly down the street, Mai’s mind was racing. She was wearing her school uniform. It was after school. And here she was, headed to SPR.

When she knew she was out of Michiru’s eyesight, Mai finally fumbled in her pocket to pull out her mobile. Flipping it open, she gazed at the screen.

Friday, 26th July, 2002.

She stopped in her tracks, staring at the screen. She never would have forgotten that day. It had been a day she had obsessed over for months and years, wondering if she had done the right thing or made the right choice. If her actions that day had been different, would she be leading a different life or living in a different place?  Or did any of her actions make a difference; did they ever?

Of all the days in her life, with the exception of the days her parents died, she had never once wanted to go back and change anything. She had always been happy with herself and her life. Though she had done some pretty stupid things—careless words or actions which she had regretted after the fact, or times she had hurt others with her thoughtlessness—she had never really thought it would be better to relive something with the opportunity to change her own life for the better. Except for that day. This day. This day in particular, she couldn’t help but wonder what she might have done to bring about a different outcome. Or if there even was a different outcome. Was everything pre-determined or was everything left to chance? She didn't know the answer to that question.

Friday, the 26th day of July. It was the last day she would ever see Naru. Of course he’d frown at that silly nickname she’d given him, but even after all this time she couldn’t think of him as anything else: not Shibuya Kazuya and certainly not his English name, Oliver Davis. It was—would be—the official dissolution of the Shibuya Psychic Research office as its president left the country, presumably never to return. If he had returned, he certainly hadn’t contacted her to let her know he was in town. In all those years. How long had it been—how many years had passed?

Her mouth set in a thin frown, she slowly put one foot in front of the other, though her gait was slower and without the confidence of before. I’m dreaming, she thought with sudden desperation. But the warmth wafting off the hot pavement onto her bare legs and the heat of the sun on the top of her head suggested otherwise, as well as the way the top of her nose and palms collected moisture in the humid air. There were the chirping sparrows in the bushes, the hum of fans and air conditioners from the buildings mixing with the sounds of pedestrians crossing the street and the cars idling as they waited for the green light. Passing a noodle shop, she could smell miso and the distinctive smell of seaweed mingling with the aromatic rice and curry from the neighbouring Indian restaurant. Moving past the bright noise of electronics shops and the perfumed, subdued boutiques next to them, she could smell the yeasty, bready aromas of freshly baked bread as she passed an artisanal Scandinavian bakery. The tall blonde man behind the counter smiled at her when she stared inside and she was tempted to stop and look at the golden wheat rolls and cinnamon buns, glistening with caramel and peppered with candied pecans. She paused, giving a smile and a nod to the gentleman, resolving to return at a later point. Turning her face forward again, she found herself gazing once more at the brilliant sky. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen. Passing under some buzzing telephone lines, she watched a flock of scattered pigeons circle up, come together and fly away.

All of it felt much too real to possibly be a dream. Had she ever been aware of so many things at once during a dream?

But this couldn’t possibly be real. So I must be dreaming. Right?  Or was I dreaming before?

But the longer she walked, the less sure of anything she became.

 

*******

 

"What? Naru’s not here?" She frowned. This wasn’t what she thought had happened—would happen.

Lin shrugged and hefted a large box to his chest, carrying it to the door. She had a feeling he was just as perplexed as she and she picked up a smaller box. Groaning at its weight, she followed him outside.

"Isn’t today the day the lease expires on the office?"  Mai asked, trotting quickly to keep up with his longer gait.

Lin nodded, shifting his weight to hold the box in one arm while opening the van door with the other. "Technically, the lease expires tomorrow—but yes, it’s the day we vacate the office."

"And he’s not even here to help move the last of his files and the books?"  Mai stamped her foot, nearly dropping the box in the process. "What a jerk!"

The corner of Lin’s mouth lifted in a tender—but quite controlled—smile. "Perhaps he knew you would come here to help me."

"Well, I have no choice but to help," she grumbled. "I can’t make you do this all by yourself."

Lin made a sound that almost sounded like a chuckle. "Don’t put yourself out, Taniyama-san. There’s only a few boxes left. I’m not in a terrible hurry and I wouldn’t want you to help with such a banal task you would have otherwise been paid for."

Mai opened her mouth to protest but found no words. Lin gazed at her with warmed eyes, taking the box from her arms and stacking it with the others in the van. "Go home, Taniyama-san," he said kindly. "There’s no reason for you to spend your afternoon here."

She stood, meeting his eyes with her chin lifted, studying the man. Lin was just the same as she remembered: solemn eyes set in stern features that on first glance appeared cold, but when she looked long enough, or hard enough, she could see their kindness. It was a face that had probably never fully trusted her and honestly had probably never warmed much to her, but she had always thought of him kindly and had probably never said anything to indicate the fact. She suddenly threw her arms around him in a hug. "I will miss you, Lin-san," she said quietly. "Please take care of yourself."

He seemed bemused by her actions but returned the gesture by patting her shoulder awkwardly. "The same goes for you."

Mai sprang away as quickly as she had embraced him; embarrassed for such a display of affection on a public street. Clasping her hands together, she bowed formally. "Good bye. Have safe travels."

"I’m sure we’ll see each other again," Lin said gently, returning the bow. "Until that time. Good bye."

“Until that time.” But as she hurried away, Mai lowered her gaze to the ground. No, she thought, we probably won’t.

 

*******

 

She did not want to return to her apartment. Instead she began to walk, meandering down streets and alleyways, eyes wide and grasping at details in her environment as she tried to shake the feeling that she was in a strange and elaborate dream. After some time she returned to the bakery she had passed on her route from the school to the office. She must have passed it a hundred times before and yet she had never gone inside before. Stepping inside the shop was surreal, and she half-wondered if she had conjured the place from what she imagined it must have been, but the taste of the muffin she bought, soothing the first pangs of hunger, seemed real and was enough to establish reality.

She went to the nearest station and boarded a train, heading for a quiet residential neighbourhood as she found herself making her way toward the cemetery that housed the graves of her parents. The side street was quiet and empty, save for two cats sitting lazily beneath the hedges. They watched her as she passed, and she, watching them, hoped they would do something other than stare. They did not.

Entering the cemetery, she walked the familiar route to the family plot and knelt on the smooth stones in front of the two Taniyama headstones. It was a small plot that had originally only housed Taniyama Saneyoshi and Etsuko, her father’s parents, whom she had never met. She remembered visiting with her parents before their own names had been added alongside the two, and then later, with only one of her parents as the second stone was placed. She remembered staring at the red painted name of her mother next to the white carved name of her father. The sound of her mother’s muffled sobs and the smell of incense.

Clasping her hands in front of her, she closed her eyes as she thought about her parents, wondering what they would tell her if they were sitting before her, what advice they might possibly offer for her troubled mind. She couldn’t picture their faces clearly and she closed her eyes tighter.

It was dusk when Mai opened her eyes. She was no longer sitting but lying on her side. She sat up quickly and scanned the area around her, but the cemetery was just as deserted as it had been upon her arrival. Regretfully, she stood, brushing off her uniform and made her way back toward the street. The answers and comfort she had hoped to find at the site had eluded her, as it had many times before.

The cats were gone. She considered looking for them behind the hedge, but a yawn filled her features and she decided against it. Her phone jingled merrily in her pocket, startling some nesting birds in the trees and she answered it cautiously.

"Mai." Somehow, his flat voice sounded troubled. Or was that her imagination again? "Where are you?"

She didn’t question his enquiry and described her location, the neighbourhood and the local train station. "The station’s nearby," she offered. "I can take the train to SPR—" She stopped herself, not knowing what she was saying. There was no point in going to SPR anymore.

He continued before she had a chance to backtrack. "I’ll meet you at the station," he said curtly. "I’ll pick you up there. I should be able to get there in..." he paused and she could almost hear him calculating the route in his mind. "Ten minutes."

Then he hung up. Hearing the disconnection, she pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. When he hadn’t been at the office she had assumed she would never see him again. Knowing now they would indeed meet again was a pleasant surprise—she was pleased, wasn’t she?  It was difficult to sort her own emotions; she was still disoriented from dozing off in the cemetery and she was incredibly confused. Why couldn’t she shake the feeling that this was not what was supposed to happen? Continuing down the street, she began to wonder, again, exactly what was going on.

 

*******

 

She had only just arrived at the car park in front of the station and sat down at a bench when the car pulled up and stopped at the curb. The door opened and he stood, his thin frame accentuated by the dark clothing he wore. His arms were long and thin but well-toned, she noticed, hanging bare at his sides underneath a black t-shirt. It took her a moment to first realize exactly who it was she was staring at, and then that he had gotten up from the driver’s—not the passenger—side. She stood as well, but her feet seemed glued to the pavement and she did not approach him.

How long had it been since she’d seen him?  It seemed as if it had been years but in the back of her mind she knew it had only been a week ago he had announced the closure of the office, delivering the words in his usual, unemotional manner. Tonight, in the evening light, she had the feeling that this was a different person. His dark tousled hair covered his forehead and those impossibly dark eyes searching for her own, when finding them, seemed to soften.

"Mai," he said as he walked toward her, and she was certain it was relief she heard in his voice. She had forgotten how tall and slim he was, she thought as he approached. Somehow he seemed taller than she recalled, though she knew it wasn’t so. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him in such casual clothing, though the consistent black was expected and familiar to her eyes.

"Naru?"  Finally able to move, she walked forward and met him at the sidewalk. "Why are you here?"

He hesitated before he spoke. "There’s a place I’d like to take you. Would you come with me?"

"Of course," she said simply. Although she was no less confused than before, at the same time she felt more at ease than she had all afternoon and trusted him completely.

"Do you want to return to your apartment? You’re still in your uniform," he noted, opening the passenger side door for her to sit.

"Um, well, I suppose so," she started, but as he sat down next to her she panicked. "Wait, when did you get your Japanese driver’s license?"

He turned to her, unfazed as he started the car. "Submitted the paperwork only this morning," he said, coolly. "But I’ve been driving for a long time. It wasn’t difficult to transfer my British licence. That and I happened to have a few contacts at the office."

"But you’re leaving the country tomorrow!"  Mai sputtered.

"Yes," he agreed, looking over his shoulder, his arm propped against the back of her seat as he backed the vehicle up smoothly. The scent of soap and aftershave, earthy and spicy, wafted toward her as he moved. "So?"

"But..."  She frowned at him, confused. "But you’re leaving the country tomorrow."

He shrugged, changing the gear and the car drove forward quietly. "It was so I could drive today, Mai. Is that explanation unsatisfactory? If you’d rather, I can make something up."

"No, but..."  She looked first at her hands and then forward to the street, finally turning her sight back toward him. "It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand why you, of all people, would do something so irrational."

Naru smiled wanly, eyes gazing forward and dark in the shadowed car. She found herself staring at him, tracing even the smallest detail with her eyes, watching his mouth form the words. "No, it really doesn’t make any sense at all, does it."

 

*******

 

Neither spoke until they arrived at her apartment and he had parked the car on the street. "Take your time," he said, turning off the ignition.

"What should I wear?"

He shrugged and turned his head away, his chin resting against his hand, elbow against the window. "Anything you’re comfortable in."

Mai hurried up the stairs, pausing as she unlocked the door to her apartment. Once again, the feeling that she was forgetting something swept over her; this time so strongly she swayed and nearly tripped as she kicked off her school loafers. But she ignored the feeling and tossed her schoolbag on the table, hurrying into her bedroom. She traded her uniform for a skirt and t-shirt, taking care to hang her uniform, smoothing away the wrinkles with her hand before remembering it was Friday and she’d have to wash it over the weekend. She stopped again, that feeling that she was mistaken about something tickling at the back of her mind.

Then she shook herself, picking up a light sweatshirt and draping it over her arm. Naru was waiting, and she locked the door behind her and ran back down to the car.

Even though she’d only bene gone a few minutes, it seemed much darker on the street than when she had left. The remaining light was fading from the sky, street lights flickering on and casting wavering shadows against the pavement. The breeze had turned refreshingly cooler, alleviating the humidity and hinting at a cool night.

He was silent as she sat down and buckled her seatbelt, turning the ignition and easing the car again into drive. He spoke as they left her street, turning onto a boulevard and from there to the main thoroughfare which linked her neighbourhood to the next. "I don’t suppose you’ve eaten since after school?"

She frowned, defensive. "Was I supposed to?"

"Of course not.” The same wan smile was spreading on his lips. “I only thought I’d ask. Is there anything in particular you’d like to eat?"

His response caught her off guard and she floundered for words. "I’m not particularly hungry," she admitted.

He nodded and said nothing. Soon they had left the city streets for a local highway, and then they were travelling on the expressway, heading southwest. As he drove her eyelids began to droop and she relaxed, giving into the exhaustion of fighting to understand the sheer absurdity of her afternoon. She had only the slightest twinges of curiosity, wondering where they might be headed, but there was no reason to dwell on the fact. All that mattered was the comforting drone of the car, and knowing that wherever she was headed, she was with him. Nestling her head into the side of the seat, Mai closed her eyes and fell asleep.

 

*******

 

The dull roar of the engine reached her in her slumber, pulling her back to the waking realm. Mai opened her eyes slowly, blinking blearily but otherwise remaining motionless in her comfortable position. At first she was utterly disoriented before the thoughts formulated themselves in quick succession. Michiru and Iwasaki—had she really been hit in the head? Was that why she couldn’t remember anything else from school?—meeting Lin at the office and then her visit to the cemetery. Naru picking her up at the station, and then…?

It was dark; the only light in the car came from the partially illuminated dashboard. She looked to the driver, eyes searching for his features without success until an approaching car from the other side of the highway brought just enough light for her to see his face. The luminosity lasted only a moment but it was enough for her to see that he seemed different to her eyes. The calm and neutral expression was familiar, though somehow, there was something about him that seemed wiser, more mature. Older.

Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness and she could see the darker outlines of the trees against a dark greyish-purple sky. As the car sped forward she saw the golden lights of a town, nestled in a valley. As slowly as the town had emerged it once more disappeared behind the trees.

"Where are we?"  Mai sat up slightly, realizing that since she had fallen asleep her seat had changed from upright to reclining. Had he done that?

"About thirty kilometers from Okazaki."  He paused, considering his statement. "Maybe a little less. We passed Chobi Lake about ten minutes ago."

"Okazaki?"  She said, startled. When was the last time had she been so far from Tokyo?  The thought lasted only a moment in her mind. Of course, she had just returned last week to Tokyo from SPR’s final case. "How long have I been asleep?"

Naru glanced at the clock before answering. "Almost three hours."

“Three hours?” Mai burst out, then flushed with embarrassment. "I’m sorry. You should have woken me."

He shrugged. "You needn’t apologize. You seemed tired."  He turned his head toward her, his eyes dark in the dim light. “Shall we stop for something to eat? There’s a town centre coming up—” he read the sign as they approached. “Toyokawa.”

At the thought of food her mouth began to water. "Yes please." She groped in the darkness for the lever to raise her seat to normal, fingers finally grasping it and releasing the mechanism.

"There’s water in the back as well, if you’re thirsty. Behind the seat."

Mai reached behind her and picked up the bottled water, popping the lid open and taking a drink, watching the lines in the road. "I suppose I should ask you," she started, turning her gaze back to him. "Where are we going?"

In the dim light she saw his eyebrows rise, as if he hadn’t realized she wasn’t yet aware of the fact. "Tsuruga."

Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "Tsuruga? Why?"

Naru remained silent for several moments before finally speaking. "I remembered you telling Matsuzaki-san once that you had gone there with your parents. You expressed a desire to return. I thought now would be a good time."

"But it’s—it’s so far," she protested.

"About 475 kilometers. A six hour drive," he supplied. "But we’re more than half way."  He glanced at the clock on the dashboard again. "Fortunately there wasn’t slow traffic out of Tokyo and with any luck there won’t be much around Nagoya, either. We’ve made good time."

Mai averted her eyes. "Tsuruga is where I was born," she admitted quietly. "Where my mother grew up. I don’t remember living there, since we moved when I was just a baby, just that... just that one visit, when both my parents were alive. My mother and I never went back after my father died."

His eyes flicked toward her briefly before returning to the road, but he said nothing in return. In the silence that followed, he turned off the expressway and onto a highway and then after that a smaller road.

"Anywhere you’d like to stop is fine."  Naru said curtly, turning down a well-lighted street. The small shops and restaurants were open; some more busy than others. Mai thought she detected the aroma of tempura and yakitori and her stomach growled in anticipation.

"That place looks nice," Mai ventured, pointing to an approaching udon shop. "I mean—if you agree. Do you like udon in the summer, Naru?" She found a blush rising to her cheeks, embarrassed to have assumed something she had no reason to know. After being apart for so long she didn't want to distance him over something so trivial like cold noodles. She couldn’t remember him eating udon before, hot or cold. Honestly, despite all the cases they’d been on together, she hadn’t seen him eat that often. There was a time she'd wondered if he even ate like a normal person or if he only sustained himself on water and black tea.

He nodded but remained silent as he parked the car. He turned toward her and once again she found herself held in his dark eyes, so dark in the dim light they were almost black. "Shall we?"

Stepping out into the cool evening, they walked together toward the restaurant. The establishment was relatively quiet but the atmosphere was warm and Mai was immediately pleased with their choice. The woman who greeted them led them to a table, pouring water as they were seated. "Good evening, would you like something to drink?"

"Tea, please," Naru and Mai said simultaneously, a somewhat amused look entering his eyes and a flush once again rising to her cheeks. They ordered their meals quickly:  "One zaru udon, please," Naru had said, and for Mai:  "The kijoyu udon if you please."

"Of course."  The woman took the menus and hurried away.

Mai held the teacup with both hands, sipping quietly while Naru held the handle-less cup with one hand, leaning casually against his other arm. He looked like a model, she thought. Or was it because she hadn’t seen him in such a long time that she’d forgotten how good-looking he was?  He had always been handsome, of course, and well aware of it. But some of that arrogance wasn’t so plain on his face and he seemed more at ease than perhaps she’d ever seen him, which made him doubly attractive. Realizing she’d been staring she quickly turned her gaze away. It was very quiet between them, somehow accented by the tranquil restaurant. Naru gazed at his teacup as if contemplating the object and since turning her gaze from him, Mai found she’d been staring deliberately at the table. Raising her eyes to him, however, she could see that he was not uncomfortable in the lack of conversation. She almost felt guilty to speak and break the stillness, but the question was there and insisted on release.

"What do we do when we get to Tsuruga?"

Naru looked up, lowering his tea as he met her gaze. "I suppose a hotel for the night," he said calmly. "We’ll probably arrive a little before midnight. If there was any place in particular you wanted to go, we’ll do it tomorrow."

"But..." she pursed her lips, remembering something. Was this what had been at the back of her mind? "I thought your flight back to England was tomorrow."

"We rescheduled our flight for Sunday."  A gentle rise of his shoulders revealed nonchalance beneath his customary mask of composure. "Lin was quite baffled that I suddenly needed to take this trip, considering..." he sighed, rubbing the space between his eyes with his fingers. Suddenly his ease from before was gone, replaced with the tenseness she was so used to. "With Gene’s funeral close at hand," he finished.

The words hit Mai like a blow and she looked away. Gene. How could she have forgotten about him?  The whole time she had been thinking about the fact that she was with Naru—seeing him again after what seemed like an eternity. She had completely overlooked the fact that he had just found his brother’s body. His return to England was inevitable. He had no reason to stay in this country, his purpose complete.

"I’m sorry," she said quietly. "Really... I am so sorry."

"You don't need to be."  He exhaled again and lifted his tea. "It’s been a long time."

The woman returned with their meals. Mai was grateful for the interruption, not knowing what to say to him. Instead she examined the food as it was presented: both meals were very attractive. Naru’s zaru udon was resting on the traditional bamboo tray with dipping sauces and garnishes on the side; Mai’s kijoyu udon was served more plainly in a bowl with thinly sliced green onions and grated ginger. Both, of course, were served cold, as was traditional in the hot and humid summer.

"It’s been a long time since I’ve had cold udon," Naru remarked, eyebrows lifted in amusement as he picked up his chopsticks. Mai nodded in agreement. In fact, it seemed like it had just been winter a few days ago. Hadn’t she just gone out for curry udon with Kuwata-san, the new intern at work? She shook her head to herself, that couldn’t have happened. They ate in silence until Mai spoke again.

"Did you tell Lin-san where you were going? Or..."  Her voice trailed off, suddenly uncomfortable. Or that you were going with me, she wanted to add. He seemed to understand her unspoken question.

"No, nor did I tell him that I was taking you." He shrugged again. "It seemed to me an unnecessary complication."

"You mean you didn’t want him asking questions," Mai said pointedly.

Naru’s lips twitched in a smile. "Perhaps so." He nodded a silent thank-you to the woman as she appeared silently, refilling their teacups. "I don’t know if he could understand even if I tried to explain it to him."

 

*******

 

They left the town and returned to the expressway, the car once again speeding westward in the night. Naru seemed satisfied to drive in silence and Mai found that she was content to gaze at the passing scenery. After some time he seemed assured that she wasn’t going to nap again and turned on a classical radio station. Debussy: she recognized it from the Nodame Cantabile drama reruns she’s seen a few weeks ago.

It didn’t seem to take long for them to pass the turn for Okazaki, and after that they were heading north, bypassing the center of Nagoya. At some point they had left the Tomei Expressway for the Meishin Expressway, and then they were heading almost due east, the city lights dimming behind them as they drove toward the mountains. The road turned north again when they merged onto the Hokunku Expressway. The signs for Biwa Lake and Nagahama came and went. After that, the road curved into the mountains and Mai gazed at the sky. She was able to see bright stars as the residual light from the cities slowly disappeared. The open stretch before Okazaki hadn’t even been this empty. The road, as well, was much quieter than before. There were few cars traveling it at that time of night and thus the oncoming headlights were few and far between.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Naru stretching his arms forward against the steering wheel. The car entered a short tunnel, the sound around them changing as they entered and then exited the enclosed space. They were approaching a small town but it seemed to slip behind them just as quickly. A sign offered the distance to their destination. Tsuruga—10 km.

"I suppose we’re almost there, huh."  She said quietly, breaking the long—though still quite comfortable—silence.

"Yes," he agreed, and it startled her to hear the weariness unmasked in his voice.

The road turned out of the mountains and into the valley almost immediately, the city before them. Naru seemed to know exactly where he was going, steering the car from the highway to the city’s main road. Two more turns on two different streets and he stopped the car in front of a hotel.

"You won’t mind staying here?"  He asked quietly, shutting off the engine.

"No," she started, and her cheeks turned pink as she realized the implications of staying in a hotel with Naru. Together, just the two of them. Strangely, the thought didn’t stay with her for long and she had all but forgotten the immediate embarrassment as she stepped out of the car.

They went inside and Naru went to the desk where a young man sat bored, playing solitaire on the computer. He looked up quickly as they approached, closing the game and opening the hotel register. "Good evening. How may I help you?  Room for two?" The man asked.

"Two rooms, please."  Naru corrected.

The man scrolled through the register, frowning. "I’m sorry," he apologized. "We actually only have one room available tonight. He glanced at them, obviously curious to why two teenagers coming to the hotel so late at night would request two rooms. Still, the man was polite and accommodating. "There are two beds in this room however, if that is acceptable..."

"That will suffice," Naru said calmly.

They didn’t wait long for the arrangements to be fulfilled. Naru led the way to the room, opening the door with the key card and turning on the lights as he stepped inside. Mai followed him, surprised at herself that despite her initial reaction staying in the same room as Naru didn’t seem peculiar or embarrassing any more.

The room was small but clean, Western-style with beds instead of futon to be set out on the tatami. After she had taken off her shoes, Mai sat down on the far bed, testing the firmness of the mattress. Naru bent to take off his shoes and then took the car keys from his pocket, setting them on the table.

"I didn’t bring a change of clothes," Mai admitted, knowing even as she said it that he had not, either. The only thing in the car besides their persons had been the water he had brought. Rising to her feet, she crossed the room and opened the closet. "Oh, but they have yukata. At least we won’t have to sleep in our clothes.” She took one for herself and took the other, holding it out for him. "Here."

He nodded and took it from her wordlessly. "I’m going to shower before I sleep," he said. "Why don’t you use the washroom first."

"Okay," she agreed, wondering for a moment if his terse manner stemmed from embarrassment. As she brushed her teeth, she dismissed the thought. It couldn’t be, could it? Naru, of all people, embarrassed to be spending a night in a hotel with her?

When she had finished and returned to the main room he was sitting on the second bed, patiently waiting. He rose to his feet and paused, standing in the door. "Good night, Mai."  A small smile crossed his lips. "Rest well."

"Good night, Naru," she said gently, returning his smile sleepily.

When the door to the bathroom had closed and the steady sound of water flowing from the faucet reached her ears, she undressed and put on the yukata. The room was silent save for the faint sound of rushing water. Within minutes, she was stretched out on the bed and moments after that she was fast asleep.

When he stepped out of the bathroom not long after he was wearing the matching yukata, his clothes folded neatly and held under his arm. He paused when he saw her curled form on the bed, all but her head obscured under the sheet. She had left the lamp on which sat on the table between their beds, but was in a deep slumber despite the glow on her face. He had seen her asleep countless times before, but seeing her again in such a relaxed position—and after so long—was a comforting sight. It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Turning off the light, he lay down and closing his eyes, drifted into a deep, contented sleep.

 

*******

 

Mai awoke with the early light, covering her eyes with her arm and turning away from the window. Opening her eyes she sat up with a start, remembering the events of the day before in a rush. She turned her head toward the other bed slowly, wondering what she could possibly say to Naru if he was awake.

To her relief, the other bed was empty. It didn’t surprise her that he had left nor that she hadn’t woken when he had. Rising to her feet she found a note on the table: Should be back by 7:00, he had written in his familiar, messy handwriting. She turned her head to the clock. It was 6:30.

Mai wanted to be ready when he returned so she showered quickly and dressed. She was excited and nervous for the day ahead, not knowing what to expect. While they had travelled together before, it had always been work and never—never—just the two of them. She had just finished drying her hair and was combing the strands with her fingers when there was a short, polite rap on the door. Moments later, she heard the key turn and Naru stepped inside, holding a small bag from a convenience store.

"Good morning," he said pleasantly and she repeated the greeting. Noticing her curiosity, he lifted the bag and offered it toward her. "A bit of breakfast. Just some onigiri. I remembered you often liked to have them for breakfast on our cases. I wasn’t sure what else you might like, so there’s some juice and an apple." He frowned. "They did not have any acceptable tea. I couldn’t bring myself to bring it up from the lobby. To offer it to you would have been an insult."

She giggled and felt a small blush rise to her cheeks, touched by his consideration. "Thank you.” So, um... what now?"

“Anywhere you’d like to go?”

Mai tilted her head as she thought, avoiding his gaze by directing her own out the window. Finally, she spoke. "Let’s go to the bay. Maybe we’ll see the fishing boats coming in."

 

*******

 

They drove north on the eastern side of Tsuruga Bay, leaving the city almost as quickly as they had arrived the night before. The road followed the coastline and passing through small communities, Mai made mental notes of several shrines but made no indication for him to stop. She alternated between looking out at the bay, over the rocky shoreline they drove along, and up toward the forest that covered the mountainsides.

They passed a beach and the road began to rise, following the steep cliffs. Naru turned the car off onto an overlook and they both exited the car, standing at the rail and gazing toward the sea. There was a stiff breeze, cool off the ocean, but it was comfortable in the morning sunlight.

"It’s beautiful," she murmured. He nodded in agreement but remained silent. She pursed her lips. Tearing her eyes away from the scene, she looked toward him sharply. "Why are we here, Naru?"  Mai asked quietly, as if the strangeness of the entire situation had only just occurred to her.

He shrugged, his gaze firm on the ocean, hands hidden in his pockets. "You said you wanted to come here, didn’t you?  And I wanted to take you. Isn’t that a good enough answer?"

"I know, but... It doesn’t make any sense." She directed her gaze back at the water, eyes trailing a fishing boat that was coming in toward the port. "This... this didn’t happen before," she muttered. At this she began to blush, the words sounding absurd to her ears.

"No," Naru agreed. She nearly jumped at his quiet voice. "It didn’t."

She remained silent, eyes fixed on the opposite shore of the bay. Everything seemed so lush and bright, from the brilliant blue sky and the sparkling water to the greenery along the bay. "I guess," she started again, quietly, "I don’t understand why you brought me here, Naru. Why... why you would do such a thing."

"I wanted to see you again after all this time." He said bluntly, without hesitation. "If I hadn’t remembered that conversation between you and Matsuzaki-san, we wouldn’t have come to Tsuruga, but we would have gone somewhere else. I did," he paused, emphasising the fact, "want to take you somewhere you wanted to go. It seemed...” he considered his words. “Appropriate, somehow."

She frowned slightly, turning her head cautiously toward him but his gaze eluded hers.

"I suppose I thought, perhaps," he began, a small melancholy smile forming on his lips, "that we never really talked enough. I never spoke enough. And that perhaps this time we could talk about what has happened since we’ve last met."  When she stared at him blankly he continued. "What twists and turns our—your—life has taken since I closed SPR and returned to England."

"What are you saying?"  She blurted. "It’s... it’s only been..."

He turned his head, then, his dark eyes connecting with hers in a piercing gaze. "You might think it was a dream. It wasn’t." She turned her head away, unable to look at him as he continued. Her stomach twisted; knowing instinctively he was right but fearing that truth. "I’m sure you remember," he said, his calm voice utterly serious. "What originally happened yesterday, when you came to the office after school. What our parting was."

She winced slightly. Of course she remembered. But it hadn’t actually happened—right?  "I.. I don’t know what you’re talking about."

He paused, regarding her. "How old are you?"  He asked curtly.

"Twent—" she stopped and paused, thinking it over. "Seventeen. I turned seventeen at the beginning of the month."  She decided.

"That’s not what you were going to say," he corrected. "You were going to say twenty-five."

Her frown deepened. "But I’m not."

"Technically, I suppose not. You were born in 1985, and it is only 2002." He smirked. "But that’s beside the point. Who is the Prime Minister?"

"Kan Naoto.."  She hesitated for a moment and corrected herself. "No, it’s still Koizumi. Right?"

"That’s right," he nodded. "Do you know who Barack Obama is?  And what about the protests in Egypt?"

"Obama is the president of the United States," she supplied quickly. "And the revolution in Egypt just overthrew Mubarak’s regime. He just resigned a few days ago."  Even she knew enough about international affairs to know that. It had been all over the news for weeks.

"Not yet," his smirk widened, as if he had found the proof he was looking for. "First of all, you wouldn’t recognize the name of Obama, not yet. He isn’t going to be elected for at least another six years. And the fact that you knew about the civil resistance in Egypt proves to me that you remember. So why won’t you admit it?  You’re just as stubborn as you used to be, Mai."

"But you said it yourself. It’s only 2002," she said, her frustration beginning to build.

"Yes," he agreed again, "that I won’t dispute. I just want you to agree that it’s been more than a week since we’ve met."

"Okay, I’ll admit it." She said, throwing her hands in the air in a futile gesture. "I got hit in the head yesterday after school and I have been really confused about basically everything that’s happened since. I had thought that maybe... maybe..."

"This had all happened before," Naru supplied. "That years had passed since this moment. Just not in this manner."

"But that doesn’t make any sense!" Mai exploded. "How could I—how is it possible—”

When you say that, are you thinking of me, or Gene?

Mai closed her eyes, remembering their conversation in the forest. It must have only been last week that they'd returned from the campsite, only last week that he'd found the body of his brother in the depths of the lake. And yet it seemed like it had been ages and ages ago.

The boxes filled with books, the office suddenly strange and unwelcoming. Lin was in the other room, and she’d mustered up her courage to speak with him, honestly—it might be her last chance. But, like always, he spoke before she had the chance. And instead, he’d handed her the photo of twin brothers standing side by side.

I can't take this photo, Naru.

You might as well. He'd turned away from her when he said it, she remembered distinctly. I'm sure you'd like something to remember him by.

But Naru—  She remembered the feeling she had, struggling and unable to find the words to express herself clearly. It's not... it's not your brother that I... that I... it's

He'd cut her off before she'd been able to say any more. You’ve obviously confused me, Mai. It is him, and not me, that you have feelings for. Don't encourage yourself. Even if you see him again, he's still dead. And he'd walked away.

Why did that memory carry so much pain, if it hadn’t happened?  Tears formed in her eyes against her will and she brushed them away before they had the chance to slip onto her cheeks. She hadn’t cried about that moment in years; she wasn’t going to start now.

"I’m sorry," Naru said quietly. "It was a terrible thing of me to say. I wasn’t... At the time I wasn’t disposed to deal with such a thing. Your.. confession."

It was discomforting that he knew exactly what she was thinking. "Why am I here?"  She asked weakly, looking up to meet his solemn gaze.

"You don’t remember, do you?"  He studied her intently, and she frowned, uncertain and confused. "Maybe that’s for the best," he finally said, exhaling as he looked away, dropping his scrutiny.

"Remember what? Naru?"

He didn’t answer her at first and he was purposefully avoiding her gaze. "Not now," he finally said softly, sighing. "I’m sure you’ll remember eventually. I couldn’t remember everything at first when I first arrived, either. It may take you longer, considering the circumstances."

"Arrived..." she repeated quietly.

He turned back toward the car and not knowing what else to do, she followed him.

 

*******

 

"Let’s stop there," Mai said, pointing toward the gate to a shrine near the side of the road. She had noticed it the first time they had driven by, and the second she wanted to stop for a visit as soon as she saw it. "It looks… I dunno. Like we should go there. And I haven’t been to a small shrine like this in ages."

They hadn’t spoken any more of the earlier topic, though their conversation had continued. As the car crested a particular rise that gave them an excellent view of the bay and the city of Tsuruga at its mouth, Naru had asked Mai what she had done in the city when she visited with her parents. As she began to tell him she began to remember details she'd thought she'd long forgotten. In turn he supplied questions and comments until the thought suddenly struck her that they were conversing like normal people—something she wasn’t sure they had ever done before. She certainly couldn’t recall him ever asking so many questions that were not directed at a client, and it was just as unfamiliar to hear him speak on trivial matters. Of course she had heard him speak extensively on various subjects—whether it was explaining the differences in perceptions of ghosts in Japan versus the West (that particular explanation seemed the most fresh in her mind) or something of a different psychic or paranormal nature—but to have a normal, everyday conversation was both surprising and pleased her.

He parked the car at the side of the road and she stepped outside, listening to the hum of the cicadas in the trees. The sun was higher and hotter now. Her sweatshirt had been discarded in the back seat of the car some time ago and it felt good to step into the shade. Together they walked up the stone steps beneath the trees, and as they passed under the second gate Mai realised they had left the road far behind, unable to see anything behind them except for the trees and hear anything over the drone of the cicadas.

The grounds and the shrine itself was plain, but obviously kept well and maintained by its visitors. Naru watched as Mai rinsed her hands and then her mouth with the small ladle at the fountain, but did not take part in the custom himself. Approaching the shrine, he stayed a respectful distance from her as she dug in her pocket for a coin and tossed it into the offering box. She bowed and then clapped twice, and bowed again. Her nose almost touching her index fingers, she lowered her head slightly, eyes closed tightly as she prayed into her closed hands.

When she had finished, Naru was standing even further away, his back to her and his head tipped back as he gazed up at the trees. The dappled sunlight danced on the stones, forming intricate patterns that shifted as soon as they took shape. He looked toward her, eyes meeting hers as if to ask Shall we go?  She nodded and they passed once more underneath the gate, walking down the steps toward the road and the waiting vehicle.

"We died, didn’t we?"  Mai said suddenly. "I’ve been thinking about it. The only way we could be here now is if we died. Right?" He didn’t look surprised, barely glancing at her as he nodded. Her face saddened at the revelation. "That’s too bad, I suppose."

"But we’re not dead anymore."

"I guess so."  She agreed, though there was skepticism in her voice. "I expect you won’t tell me about my.. my own death, will you. Is that what you meant?"

He shook his head, his eyes straight forward, watching the path.

"I didn’t think so," she sighed. "Did you die first?  I mean... did I know about your death, before I died?"  She finally asked, reluctantly. He shook his head again. "Then how... how did you die?"

Naru chuckled slightly, the sound surprising her. "Lin would have called it reckless endangerment to self by the foolish use of my own devices."  She frowned, not comprehending, and he finished his explanation. "PK."

Mai gasped and immediately tried to hit him but he swayed effortlessly, avoiding the attack. "Naru!" She scolded, stopping in her tracks, tears forming in her eyes. "You killed yourself?"

"Yes," he said calmly, stopping two steps below her. He turned, looking upwards as he met her gaze honestly. "Quite purposefully."

She clenched her fists at her sides, biting her lip to keep it from trembling. "Why would you do such a thing!?  How could you do such a thing?!"

He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "The end justifies the means."

"Then..."  The realization was dawning on her and she couldn’t quite force herself to voice it.

"Yes," he continued, "so we could be here today, Mai."

"What if it hadn’t worked?"  Her voice rose shrilly, panicked.

"Of course it would work."

Two stray tears slipped down her cheeks. "You... you’re always so goddamned egotisticalHow did you know it would work? You just knew even though you’d never done anything like that before?”

A wry smile formed on his lips, though she could see the discomfort in his eyes. "They always said I had extraordinary abilities but I couldn’t use them because my body couldn’t handle the strain. I suppose..." He paused, considering his words. "I realized if I didn’t need to preserve my body, I could do something truly amazing. Something worthwhile and not just something some group of researchers wanted to see. Truthfully, I don’t think I did it alone. I’m almost certain I had Gene’s help.. and possibly more than that."  He hesitated, gazing at her. "But that.." he sighed and turned his eyes away from hers. "I don’t remember."

Mai burst into tears, covering her face with her hands as she began to sob. Rather than any sorrow, it was more the sheer overwhelming nature of the situation she could not handle. "But.. if you did that so we could... so we could come back here..."

"So you could," Naru corrected. He walked back up the two steps toward her and sighed again. "Don’t cry, Mai," he said, his voice as gentle as she remembered Gene’s voice from her dreams, but somehow still as matter-of-fact as usual. "I didn’t do this so you could cry about it."

His words only made her cry harder. Hesitating, he reached toward her, placing a warm hand on her shoulder and then drawing her into a loose embrace.

As drained as she was she could see the absurdity of the situation. She was sobbing into the chest of the last man she would have ever expected to offer such comfort. Slowly, her crying began to subside and she backed away from him, hiccupping a little as she brushed the tears from her cheeks. He gave her the space freely, dropping his arms and putting his hands in his pockets, and the two stood there, regarding each other and waiting for the other to speak.

Unexpectedly, it was Naru who spoke first. "Shall we find a place for lunch?" He asked, turning and continuing down the stairs. Mai wiped at her eyes again, grateful both for his comfort and the way he had backed away at her first indication, but she was confused by his behavior all the same. Sniffing, a bewildered smile twitched at her lips and she hurried to follow him.

 

*******

 

They did not speak during the drive back into Tsuruga City. Mai was grateful that he did not press her, as she tried to process what he had just revealed to her. Even when he parked the car in the garage, saying, "We’ll walk on the street," she had the feeling he was not expecting a verbal response and she simply nodded in agreement, following him to the sidewalk. He tilted his head, motioning for her to follow him and they walked side by side up the street.

They had only walked for a few minutes when Naru paused in front of an upscale restaurant. "If we’re in Tsuruga, we might as well have the local seafood, don’t you think?"

“I don’t know,” Mai said apprehensively. "It looks awfully expensive.”

"I would hope," he said, his voice sounding slightly indignant, "that you wouldn’t expect me to make you pay for your meals after I forcibly took you out of Tokyo and brought you here."

"You really didn’t really force me," she said, smiling at his exaggeration. "But I would feel guilty." She looked down at her casual clothes. "Besides, neither of us are dressed for that nice of a restaurant."

"We passed a boutique, if you’d like a new dress," Naru said blandly.

"Now you’re being ridiculous," Mai giggled. "And what about you? I've never seen you wearing a t-shirt before, Naru.”

He shrugged. “It's hot and the middle of summer. It’s irrational to wear long sleeves when I know I’m going to be spending time outside.”

“Naru, that is not the point. Besides, what would Lin-san say if he saw the bill from this place?"

"Lin’s not here," he said flatly.

"But he would disapprove," she protested, laughing.

"What does it matter what Lin thinks, anyway?"  Naru asked, a surly look on his face.

Mai ignored him. "Let’s go over there," she said, pointing to a smaller place across the street. "It looks busy, so it must be good."

He didn’t contradict her but shrugged, allowing a small smile to cross his features and followed her, letting her lead the way to the restaurant of her choice. Before they arrived, Mai stopped suddenly on the sidewalk as she turned toward him. "You did that on purpose," she accused.

"Did what?"  He asked mildly, raising an eyebrow.

"You.. you tried to make me feel better."  She dropped her gaze to her feet, looking at the scuffed and worn sneakers. "You’ve done that before, too.” She raised her eyes to his, meeting his gaze. There were times she didn't think she could ever understand him and times like this when she never wanted to stop trying. “Thank you."

He said nothing as he moved forward, and with a gentle push to her shoulder he turned her around and steered her forward. "It’s lunchtime, Mai, and you’ve been in the sun too long. If you don’t eat anything soon, you’ll start to hallucinate."

She followed him, a cheerful grin spreading on her features as her spirits brightened. Somehow—he really was the same old Naru.

 

*******

 

After lunch they continued to walk, touring the town by foot. They stopped at various sightseeing spots: temples and shrines, parks and shops. Their stay at each site varied between nothing more than a quick look or a thorough walk-through. They were both more interested to visit the Shinto or Buddhist sites, and though he obviously held no interest himself, Naru was patient as Mai window-shopped various stores they passed. All the while, their conversation had started up again.

"When you said you wanted to talk about what has happened since we last met, did you... did you mean that?"  Mai asked quietly, studying the charms for sale at the office next to a temple.

"Of course," Naru said, looking insulted that she didn’t believe him. "Why would I have said otherwise?"

"Well," she floundered slightly, embarrassed. She smiled as she selected the charm and took it to the counter, laying down some coins and nodding as the priest thanked her. She pocketed the charm as she turned back toward him, a flush on her cheeks. "I don’t know. I guess it surprises me, is all. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that," she finished, her voice lower.

"Mai," he said sternly, frowning. She could tell he was annoyed. "I didn’t bring you to Tsuruga because I wanted to do some sightseeing. It’s a pleasant enough way to pass the time, but it wasn’t my intention."

"Right," she said, thoroughly chastised, her cheeks reddening. They walked together away from the temple, back to the street. Mai chose their route based on the amount of shade they’d be able to walk in and Naru followed her without protest. While not uncomfortably hot, the hair in front of his ears and around his hairline was damp with perspiration from being in the heat.

"Well... what about you?"  She asked, looking toward him nervously. "What had you been doing these past years?"

He shrugged slightly. "Working at the British Society for Psychic Research. It was similar to what I did here... leading a team of researchers on specific cases. There was less freedom, however. I couldn’t pick my clients."  His lip curled slightly. "Reporting directly to Madoka, of course."

She couldn’t contain her laugh. "I bet you hated that!  Why not open your own office?"

He shrugged again, turning his head and avoiding her gaze. "In any business, it’s politics and funds. I was tired of begging donors for money, and to have my own office I would have had to do that twice-fold. That and my parents didn’t want me to come back to Japan and I was hesitant to act against their wishes."

She paused in her step, looking up at him quizzically. "Did you want to come back to Japan? Re-open your office?"

He hesitated, lowering his gaze. "Sometimes, yes. But I tried not to think about it, knowing I couldn’t leave."  He saw her skeptical look and sighed. "It would have been difficult. To open the office permanently would have been difficult with my British citizenship. I didn’t want to make them lose another son. They were so devastated over Gene."

She nodded and looked away, once again uncomfortable at the mention of his brother. "But you weren't unhappy, were you? You liked being there, right?"

"Well enough. Sometimes it was very tiring to work in the same office as my father, not to mention living in the same house as my parents," he said dryly. "I was quite sick of my mother trying to set me up with the young women whose parents she had met at various social and charity functions."

Mai laughed as she imagined him on a blind date. "Still no personal life, Naru?"

He looked embarrassed and still would not meet her gaze. Somehow the fact delighted her. "I dated occasionally. Nothing serious."

"I suppose no one was ever more interesting than your work, hmmm..."  Mai said, surprising herself at the boldness of the statement.

"No." He answered flatly.

She looked away and directed her gaze down the street. Even though she was very happy to hear Naru talk about his life—something he had never done with her before—it made her sad to think that his work had always come first. They were approaching a park and as they neared she directed with her hand to take the path into it. They moved off the street and into the green space, walking toward a central plaza with a fountain. "What about Lin-san?"  Mai asked, starting the conversation again. "Did you still work with him?"

"Up until very recently. He took some time off for the birth of his son."

Mai’s mouth dropped open. "What? Lin-san had a son?"  She stuck out her lower lip, sullen with the news. "I didn’t hear about that. I didn’t even know there was someone in his life he was interested in, let alone possibly having a child with."

"He married two years ago," Naru gazed at her calmly and she squirmed under his gaze. "You didn’t keep in contact with anyone, did you? Takigawa and Matsuzaki would have known. Hara, as well."

"Well..." she faltered. "I didn’t expect to with Masako, so that was no surprise. I tried to stay in touch with Ayako and Yasuhara, but they’re both so busy, so that fell off... John promised to, and he did for a while, but before long he went back to Australia for some reason or another and I never heard from him again. Bou-san and I did meet up."  She sighed slightly. "We’d go out for coffee and talk about what we were doing, but our meetings, regular at first, were getting pretty rare."  She sighed again. "He probably didn’t want to talk about anything remotely relating to SPR, or thought I didn’t want to. We never did."  Her face fell and she sighed again, louder.

Noticing her change in mood, Naru nodded toward an ice cream stand they were approaching and changed the subject. "Ice cream?"

"Sure," a grin slowly spread across her face. "Ooh, look at all the toppings they have!"

"What flavor?"

"Raspberry sounds good. With chocolate chips."

Naru bought two small paper cups, passing one to Mai and keeping one for himself, and they continued their leisurely walk. After several moments of silence, enjoying the ice cream, Mai spoke again.

"You know.. even though I tried not to believe... I suppose I knew, even yesterday. As soon as I saw Michiru I knew something was wrong. Even though I thought I was crazy." she exhaled loudly and giggled softly. "She yelled at Iwasaki-kun and she used his last name. I thought it was weird, because they've been seeing each other very seriously for some time now. But that won’t happen for another two years—it was during university they started dating."  She sighed. "I suppose the me eight years ago wouldn’t have acted like this at all. I don’t really feel like a seventeen year old high school student."

"You don’t act like one, either."  Naru said as he dipped the spoon in the cup, executing the manoeuvre with careful precision.

"I guess not. And you... you’re not the same, either. We’re both different people, aren’t we," she finally said slowly, tapping her lower lip with the spoon. "The Naru I knew never would have eaten ice cream with me. Never would have come here with me and talked to me like this."  She shrugged and grinned at him. "I suppose it’s been eight years."

"It has been eight years," he agreed. "And one can’t expect to die and come back to life and remain the same."

She laughed. "I suppose so."  Sighing, her grin faded. "I don’t remember that. Though I still don’t remember how I died, so of course I can’t remember being dead."

"I don’t have any memories after my own death, either."  Naru acknowledged. "It’s possible we never will."

"I imagine so. How could we be alive and have memories of death?"

Naru shrugged and remained silent. Tossing his empty cup in a waste bin, he held out his hand for hers, which she handed over easily and he repeated the action. "You haven’t told me anything about your own life," he finally said, eyes narrowing slightly.

Mai flushed slightly and looked away. "It’s not that interesting."

A small smile quirked his lips. "Surely my life wasn’t the epitome of excitement, either."

“You haven’t even talked about the work you were doing. I’m sure you—”

“Mai.” he interrupted, giving her a pointed look, and she stuck out her lower lip in a fake pout. “It’s your turn.”

“Fine, you win.” Mai smiled and hooked her fingers together, stretching her arms in front of her. "I was working at a major Japanese architectural firm. Not nearly as exciting as SPR. Administrative and clerical work, meeting clients, entering data into spreadsheets, some analysis."  She blew her bangs away from her forehead. "But I didn’t dislike it. The hours were good, it was an easy commute and there were benefits..." her voice trailed off and she shook her head. "It’s annoying to think it was all for nothing."

"It wasn’t," he disagreed simply. "It wasn’t wasted. Nothing was."

She averted her gaze. "Maybe," she said dubiously. She tilted her head back and gazed at the trees above them. "And outside of work, there wasn’t that much. I’d read, go to movies occasionally, study..."  He raised an eyebrow and she flushed. "I... I was studying English. Maybe because you always told me I was so terrible at it but I wanted to get better."

"And how were you progressing?"  He asked her, speaking in English.

"I certainly wouldn’t brag about it," she retorted in his tongue. A satisfied smirk appeared on his face and she huffed, continuing in Japanese. "Contrary to your opinion of me, I read a lot, so I tried to read books in English. It was challenging at first, but I think I got a lot better," she admitted. “And I'd watch English movies and repeat the lines to practice my pronunciation.”

“No wonder your accent is a strange combination of British and American English. I hope you watched documentaries instead of romance movies.”

“Hey, what's that supposed to mean?”

But he didn't answer her, a frown spreading over his lips instead as he considered her. "That’s more time spent alone than I would have expected from you," Naru finally said quietly. “I hope you maintained your social life.”

Mai shrugged and looked away. "I did spend time with my friends, maybe every other weekend or so. But they always wanted to go shopping or to some fancy restaurant, and I..." a slight blush grew pink across her cheeks. "I was trying to save money."

"What, no boyfriend?"  He asked, an eyebrow rising.

The pink turned to red. "No," she corrected. "I had broken up with my last boyfriend a few months ago. I only dated him because a friend from work insisted we’d get along well."  A small smile crossed her face. "He turned out to be a moron, though. Not an original thought in his head and absolutely no spine. I didn’t enjoy spending time with him at all."  He looked amused. Catching the look on his face, she looked annoyed. "Why am I telling you this?  I don’t imagine you find it very interesting."

Naru shrugged and slowed his gait as they neared an intersection of paths. "Perhaps you wouldn’t believe me if I said I did."

She watched him quizzically, chewing on her lower lip. "You never did come back to Japan after all, huh?"  She asked. "In all those years."

He shook his head in response and exhaled. It was quiet enough in the park for her to hear the unobtrusive sigh. "It was probably a terribly selfish thing for me to do," he finally said, raising dark eyes to meet hers.

She frowned. "What was?"  From the darkening of his eyes she had the feeling he was not talking about the fact that he hadn’t returned to Japan.

"I.."  He hesitated and stopped. She turned, pausing in her steps to look at him. "I thought many times about calling you, Mai. Or contacting you somehow. But I never did. I’m sorry. I should have."

She tried to avert her gaze—suddenly thinking it necessary to check if her shoelaces had come untied—but it was difficult to tear her eyes from his. She’d never, never seen Naru look like this, nor had she ever expected to. Sincerity lined with sorrow and regret. But it wasn’t all despair—there was still the faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes, as well. Of course, she thought to herself, Naru would never completely lose hope, not even for a moment.

She closed her eyes and an image filled her vision: a young man, older than both of them today, sitting at a table in a dark room with a bottle of expensive-looking spirits and an empty glass, anguish and determination in his eyes. It was the vision of a man before a final and desperate act.

She shook herself slightly and opened her eyes, knowing she shouldn’t have seen that. Whether it had been the truth or not—it wasn’t something for her eyes to know. "Then why didn’t you?"  She finally said, not knowing what else to say.

He let out a sharp, awkward chuckle. "Cowardice, I suppose. I didn’t think you could ever forgive me for what I put you through. And I didn’t know how to apologize. I still don't."

She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. "Do you know," she started slowly, knowing full well he did not, "I stayed at that particular firm because they had a reputation for transferring their most exceptional employees to their international office?  I worked really hard," she continued, her chestnut eyes gazing calmly forward, "because I hoped I might eventually get promoted to the office in London."

Naru remained silent, both of them standing very still on the side of the path. A roller skater moved past them with a small, energetic dog, but both ignored the interruption.

"I think I knew," Mai said, "that what you said to me wasn’t the whole truth. That you probably didn’t like me the way I had just professed that I did, but..." she laughed softly, turning her gaze away. "I don’t know. I probably didn’t know exactly what I thought I was feeling, either. But I still wanted to see you again."  She looked up at him again and smiled truthfully. "So I’m glad I got to see you again, Naru."

He hesitated. "Could you forgive me for dragging you back here? Back all these years... to have to do everything over again."

She frowned slightly, but her eyes were smiling. "Didn’t you hear me?  I’m glad, Naru."

The smile he returned to her was small but Mai felt the rising of joy and a lightening in her chest as he did so. "Me, too."

They stood in silence for several moments before both agreed it was time to continue, and without a sound moved forward side by side underneath the trees. They were leaving when Naru looked at his watch, exhaling as he saw the time. "We should probably head to the train station before too long. I’ll have to return the rental car as well."

Mai nodded.  "I was wondering," she paused, "why didn’t we take the train in the first place?"

He shrugged ever so slightly, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips. "I just thought it would be better to drive you."

 

*******

 

He had bought the tickets, of course. Had she even offered she knew he would have refused. Naru was a man of principles, after all, and in some aspects old-fashioned. When the thought first struck her she nearly giggled, imagining how well he would fit in with the fastidious scholars of her imagination. In her mind he was a somewhat cleaner version of Sherlock Holmes, though her idea of the famous detective was completely established by a movie that wouldn’t be released for another few years. All the same, she entertained the thought of him in a coat with a hat and a cane, running around London looking for ghosts just as the actor in the movie searched for clues. The image brought a smile to her face. Walking toward the booth he had shot her a questioning look over his shoulder which she returned with a lop-sided grin.

Standing a few feet behind him, Mai waited as he made the arrangements, gazing up at the time table and map above her. Despite her reluctance to leave Tsuruga, she was glad they were heading back. She wanted the afternoon to continue but she also knew the end was inevitable, and the trip back to Tokyo would take at least four hours. She didn’t know when exactly Naru was leaving for England—only that it was the following day—but she felt a pang of guilt every time she thought how he had abandoned all responsibility to take her on this trip. The revelation created a twist in her stomach and a heaviness in her heart, so she tried not to think of it.

"Shall we?"  Naru asked as he held out the ticket for her to take, raising an eyebrow as she tore her gaze from the map.

Mai felt a heat rise to her cheeks and nodded quickly, wishing that she didn’t always appear so absentminded as she took the ticket from him.

They didn’t have long to wait after boarding the train before it left the station. Mai had chosen the window seat and gazed outside, watching the trees and power lines slip by. After some time she glanced back toward Naru. He had picked up a paper at the station, his cheek resting against his knuckles.

"Thank you," she said softly.

His gaze moved to hers, holding steady. A small smile crossed his lips and he shrugged, folding the paper and resting his hands in his lap. "It was the least I could do. I’m glad you enjoyed it."

"I mean," she hesitated, "for everything. Not just bringing me here, but... well."  A short chuckle escaped her lips. "I guess bringing me here might be the most accurate way to say it, actually. I mean... I’d be dead without you, so I’m in your debt."

"Then," he said slowly, "I suppose I should say the same."

She looked at her hands, unwilling to meet his gaze. "What time do you leave tomorrow?"  She ventured, glancing up at him.

Naru sighed, rubbing his temple with his index and middle fingers. "Fairly early. I imagine Lin is going to be quite angry with me when I get back."

She pursed her lips. "I’m sorry," she muttered. "We probably shouldn’t have come here."

He shook his head to silence her but remained quiet himself. His head was tilted slightly to one side and he gazed forward, eyes unfocused. "Do you want to come to Gene’s funeral?"  He finally asked. "I didn’t ask you the first time around. That was... rude of me. You have a right to attend as much as anyone else. You are more than welcome."

"N-no, not at all."  She looked at her hands. "It would probably be inappropriate."  She sighed and looked out the window, gazing absently at the sky. "Besides, honestly... I’ve already paid my respects, in my own way. If you don’t mind... Gene is at peace. I’d rather not reopen those feelings."

"I understand."  A sad smile moved his lips. "I feel the same way."

"I’m sorry, Naru," she said quietly, and after some hesitation, she placed her hand on his. Despite her expectation, he did not pull away. His hands were cooler than hers and slowly warmed at her touch. "I’m sorry you have to do it again."

"Yes," he sighed. "I suppose I should probably explain things to Lin. So he understands."

"What will you tell him?"

"Just the situation."  He paused, frowning as he considered. "I can’t tell him anything about the future. Nothing specific. I won’t tell him anything that could change his own outcome."

She nodded slowly. "What about the two of us?"  As she said this she blushed, wishing the words didn’t have any implications. The warmth from their hands together suddenly seemed incredibly distracting and embarrassing. He didn’t remove his hand from under hers, however, and she didn’t feel compelled to pull away, either. "My future will be different. Because I remember."

"Yes," he agreed. "Our futures cannot remain the same."  A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "I suppose that was the idea, anyway."

She lowered her gaze again. There it was again, the idea that Naru had done all this to change some future event—something she didn’t even remember. The fact that he had killed himself to bring them both back to life wasn’t a comfortable thought.

"Mai," he said, shifting his hand so he was holding hers gently. The trembling she hadn’t even noticed starting slowly subsided.

"I know," she whispered. "You didn’t do it so I could cry about it, right?"

He chuckled slightly, though his eyes were troubled. "Of course not. Quite the opposite, actually."

She frowned slightly, eyes searching for a non-existent object in front of her. "My wallet..." she suddenly said. "I couldn’t find my wallet that morning."  Her eyebrows knit together in frustration and she squeezed her eyes closed as she tried to piece together the situation. "But I must have had my train pass, because I went to work. Yeah.. I asked Misawa-san if I could borrow some money for lunch. Otherwise, it was a normal day at the office."

Naru said nothing, watching her remember.

"When I came home," she continued, sighing. "The window was broken. There was a man there."  She didn’t say anything else but Naru knew she remembered everything up to the moment of her death.

His hand tightened on hers and she smiled wanly, raising her eyes to meet his. "I’m sorry," she said, simply.

He dipped his head, avoiding her gaze. "You needn’t apologize for your own death."

"Maybe," she said, smiling even though her eyes were filled with sadness. "But I wasn’t there afterwards. Death isn’t hard for the person who died, just... everyone else. I’m sorry someone had to tell you I died."

The feelings that had overwhelmed him when Lin told him of her death came rushing back and he took a deep breath to quell the onslaught.

It was her hand that squeezed his, then. "I’m sorry," she said again.

He held her hand all the way to Nagoya; the connection only broke as they transferred trains. On the Tokyo-bound train their conversation slowly started up again. Asking her more about her work, Naru listened attentively as Mai told him anecdotes from the firm, describing the people she worked with and the research they had been doing. When she turned the question on him he told her of a trip he and Lin had taken to Estonia to investigate a troublesome liekkio, the spirit of a murdered child that had gotten trapped in a marsh and the appearance of which had caused several car accidents until their arrival and close of the case. They ate dinner on the train, buying bento boxes halfway through the trip and continued their conversation.

"Did you travel out of England often?"  Mai asked.

Naru shook his head. "Only on several specific cases. I had a feeling that Madoka was reluctant to send me too far from home."

"Did she feel guilty...?"  Mai asked quietly, unable to continue her statement and to bring up Gene’s name again.

"Perhaps," he conceded. "She might have felt guilt for suggesting the idea to him in the first place, and no doubt my parents feel guilt for allowing him to go."

Had they had the conversation before and Mai was the same seventeen year-old Mai who did not carry with her the memories and experiences of the next eight years, she might have asked him about it. And if he had been the same boy as before, the answer to that unspoken question would not have lain so clearly in his eyes. But she didn’t ask, or even think to, as she could see his own guilt he carried for letting his brother come to Japan alone. Mai averted her gaze, not wanting to see it.

"It’s nobody’s fault," she said softly. "You know that."

"I know," he agreed. He sighed, the wry smile returning to his face. "Gene would have said it as well. No one’s to blame. That’s just how it goes. And the end justifies the means."

She frowned. "What end?  What are you talking about?"

He didn’t answer her immediately but chuckled weakly, leaning his head back against the seat. "All of this, of course."  He turned his gaze to her, irises glinting as the light from the sunset hit the curvature of his eyes. "My future. And now our future. All of this happened because of Gene."

He was right, of course, and she thought about the fact for several moments. "Do you think he knew?"  She suddenly said. "I mean... he was pre-cognitive, right?"

Naru lifted his shoulders, a sad smile of futility crossing his lips. "I can only guess at the possibilities."

 

*******

 

Mai felt her disappointment rising as their arrival into Tokyo became imminent. First the announcement had played, signalling ten minutes until their destination. Then all around them in the train car the passengers began readying their items for departure. She wasn’t ready to part from Naru, knowing that if things turned out similarly to last time she might never see him again. She didn’t expect things to be the same, of course, considering everything that had happened, but Naru was getting on a plane the next morning and she didn’t know what would happen after that. She also had the feeling that there was something he wanted to say or discuss but hadn’t brought up yet, and she was anxious to know what it could be. Their arrival into the city only offered less and less time that they might be able to speak.

When the train pulled into the station and they disembarked, Naru turned his head to her, gesturing forward as he began to walk. "I’ll take you home," he said and she nodded, following him through the crowds.

It was silent between them as they took the train, first on a crowded express route and then transferring to the local that ran through her neighborhood. It was almost a stereotypical situation. Mai was certain she’d seen the scene in movies, on television, or read it in comics a thousand times: the man standing protectively over the woman on the train, shielding her from hands and bodies that would push or shove. She looked up at his stoic face, finding herself gazing at the dark eyes that were trained on some distant object—an advertisement, perhaps, or something out the window. She'd always believed he was kind but the overt display of consideration was new to her. A sad smile formed on her lips at the thought. Had Naru always treated her so kindly she would have truly meant every word of her confession. After all the time that had passed and everything she'd learned about life and the world and the people in it, she didn't know what to think of her adolescent feelings. But certainly, had the situation been anything comparable to this, there would have been no doubt about it.

When they stepped off the train into the cooling air it felt almost exactly the same as when he had picked her up the day before. The street lights were flickering on and the sky was dimming, orange and purple clouds lit from a setting sun she could not see. It was only a short walk from the station to her apartment and they moved side-by-side in silence, both anticipating the moment they would have to part.

Naru slowed his gait as they neared her apartment building, stopping at the steps. The two stood in silence underneath the overgrown lilac tree that Mai had walked by every day as she entered and exited her apartment. The smell from the tree was sweet. The last of the late-blooming blossoms had fallen to the ground long ago but the leaves were still fragrant and the fact was accentuated by the humidity. She looked at her feet, tracing her fingers absently against the palm of her opposite hand, dreading their goodbye. It had been bad enough the first time. She wasn’t looking forward to having to do it again, even if the circumstances were much more congenial.

"Mai," Naru said, prompting her to meet his gaze. When she did he moved forward slowly, gently pressing his lips against her cheek before backing away. Their gazes met once more and sensing her approval he leaned toward her again, brushing her lips tenderly with his own.

After the kiss the two remained standing quietly. She had taken his hands in hers and realized she had been squeezing them tightly, and so she relaxed them abruptly. Naru did not allow her to simply drop his hands, but held hers firmly in his own.

"Will we ever see each other again?"  She finally asked, her voice sounding meek and embarrassing to her ears.

"Of course we will."

"But when will that be?"

Naru remained silent for several moments. "Come to England with me."  She might have thought he was joking, but his voice was very serious. "After the funeral."

"But.. what about school?"  Mai protested. "I may have lived to be twenty-five, Naru, but... I’m still only seventeen. I have one more year before I graduate high school. I can’t just leave."

"Then after you graduate."  He said simply.

"Naru..."  Her voice trailed off as she hesitated. This was nothing like the young man she had once known.

"You can continue your studies in London, if you want. My parents would be happy to let you stay at their house for as long as you wanted. Knowing you, I’m sure you could even charm them to help pay your tuition."

"Would I even get accepted to a university in London?"  Mai asked, dubiously.

"I’m sure you would," he said confidently. "Just... come visit, at least."  He smiled slightly. "You don’t need to make a decision now. If you think you might want to stay, then after that we can work out a student visa or a work visa... anything."  Seeing her surprised expression he simply shrugged. "I’m sure BSPR would hire you. If that’s what you wanted, of course."

She inhaled deeply, wishing his expression wasn’t so calm when saying such a thing. "England," she repeated.

"London," he continued, "is smaller than Tokyo and it rains more, but I think," he paused, searching her face, "you might like it."  He leaned forward again, kissing her gently. "Just think about it," he requested softly as he released her lips. "Please. That’s all I ask." He squeezed her hands gently and let go, their hands dropping to their sides. "I’d better go," he admitted and smiled dryly. "Though I’m not looking forward to seeing Lin."

"He’ll understand," Mai said, "or at least, he’ll be understanding. It’ll all turn out okay."

He nodded in agreement. "I’m sure it will. Thank you," he added, a faint smile raising his lips. "I’ll call you this time."

"Promise?"

"I promise."  Turning and walking away, he raised a hand in parting.

"Have a safe trip," she called after him, waving.

He smiled at her, something halfway between a grin and a smirk, and called back in English: "Good luck with your studies. Graduation is only eight months away. No one speaks Japanese in England!"

"I will! I’ll study hard!"  Her voice trailed off, vision blurry as tears formed in her eyes. She let them slip down her cheeks as she watched his form disappear down the street, hoping, knowing it wouldn’t be the last time she saw him. It wouldn’t be the same this time around. It couldn’t be. Things would surely be different.

Chapter Text

Seven years had passed since that day. That hot and humid summer in Tokyo had been her last; after graduation the following March she’d left Japan for England to start a new relationship, a new career and a new life. It certainly hadn't been easy, the past six years they'd been together, but they’d definitely gotten smoother over time.

She hurried through the room, her bare feet almost silent on the floor, picking up books on the desk and looking beneath them before tossing them back into place. Sinking to her knees, her dress billowing with the movement, she yanked open the heavy drawers of the desk, thumbing through papers and folders before moving to the next.

"Oh, no," she breathed, rocking back on her heels. "Naru’ll kill me..."

There was a rap at the partially open door and a hand pushed it open the rest of the way, stepping inside. His polished black shoes were loud against the wood floor, almost echoing in the room. "I couldn’t help but overhear," he said, an eyebrow raised in amusement, adjusting his cuffs as he spoke. "Just why would I do such a thing?"

"Well, hypothetically speaking," she grumbled, rising to her feet. She looked particularly short next to him on this day, her petite frame accented by an elegant black dress, her slim figure flattered by the floating design of the skirt. "If I actually did misplace them, after all the trouble you went through taking me to the Consulate..."

"What are you looking for, and why now?"  He stepped behind her and reached into his suit jacket pocket, taking out a delicate piece of jewellery. Stilling her, he placed it gently around her neck, fastening and adjusting it so it lay over her collarbone.

"What’s this?"  She asked, turning to look in the mirror, her eyes growing wide as she saw the string of pearls. He stood behind her, laying his hands on her bare shoulders.

"Happy birthday," he said, squeezing her shoulders, stooping to place a gentle kiss at the nape of her neck.

She laughed as she turned, swatting at his arm playfully before rising to the tips of her toes, kissing him soundly on the lips. "My birthday is still two weeks away. So what’s the occasion?"

"Technically, it’s not just from me," he admitted. "Mother insisted that you have it now. It was her mother’s before hers, and she wanted you to have it. She wasn’t sure you’d have an opportunity in the near future to wear it, so... well, you know how Luella is. Opportunistic, even if it means giving you a birthday present thirteen days early."

"Thank you," she said, kissing him once more. "I’ll thank her as soon as I see her, too."

"Hopefully not like this," he murmured. She laughed in response, wrapping her arms around his neck as she kissed him again.

He pulled away and pointed at the closet. "As much as I’d rather just stay here and snog, we’re already running late. Where are your shoes? Or was that what you were looking for in the desk?"

"No," she flushed, turning away from him as she went to the closet, pulling out a box. "Sorry. I just... I just noticed that my visa extension application wasn’t on the desk anymore, and..."  As she spoke she opened the box and placed the black heels neatly on the floor into which she stepped, gaining a slight but noticeable height. Even after all this time it felt strange to put shoes on indoors. "I started getting nervous."

"You mean this?" He reached into his coat pocket and removed several crisp pieces of paper, folded neatly into thirds.

"You!"  She spun to face him, pointing an accusatory finger at him. "You had it all along!"

"You left it on my desk, not yours," he said, an amused grin lifting his lips.

"Well, let me have it back," she demanded, holding out her hand. "I’ll mail it in next week."

"As you wish," he agreed, placing them in her hand. "Just don’t send them in quite yet."

She frowned. "Why not?"

"I saw an embarrassing typographical error you’ll want to look over," he said, the familiar self-satisfied smirk crossing his features. "But we’ll have to talk about that later."  He was moving toward the door and beckoned for her to follow. "I wasn’t late last time, Mai. We are not going to be late for Lin’s wedding this time around, either."

"Oh, we still have plenty of time," she protested, laughing, as she followed him down the hall.

 

*******

 

It was many hours later when they finally returned, hand in hand, to the Davis household. It had been a wonderful ceremony, idyllic and picturesque, held in the English countryside at a quaint cottage garden. Even if he didn’t appreciate the decorations as much as many of the delighted women seemed to, even he would admit it had been beautifully done. There were flowers and garlands everywhere with butterflies flitting about, mindless of the crowd, and even the midsummer birds seemed to know it was a cheerful occasion, singing merrily in the trees. The couple had taken their vows in the early afternoon and the joyous celebration that followed had gone long past the sun sank behind the fields—a great many hours, considering that the following day would be the solstice and it was the second longest day of the year.

He had been there before. 'Been there, done that,' the adage proclaimed but had never been quite so accurate. Despite that, the event had been significantly different than last time. The most noticeable of which stemmed from the fact that Mai had been determined to keep certain friendships this time, vowing to stay closer to everyone from SPR. And she was undoubtedly successful, which in turn affected both he and Lin.

He wouldn’t have anticipated the group to stay close, especially with the vast geographical distance that separated them. And yet somehow, against all odds, they did. He and Mai had taken several trips back to Japan and had met up with everyone each time. Takigawa had spent a month with them in London several years ago, shadowing Lin in his work and the two had developed a keener friendship in the process. John had stopped to see them on a visit to extended family in Glasgow. While Mai emailed Ayako and Takigawa casually, occasionally Yasuhara, she exchanged letters and postcards with Masako and spoke nearly every month on the phone. It was odd, he thought, that the once bitter rivals had become very close friends. But it was also somehow fitting that the one most reluctant to accept Mai finally did, and did so sincerely and wholeheartedly.

Lin had invited everyone to the wedding and they all made the journey to join them: Takigawa had even volunteered his band to perform, though the bridegroom had politely refused the offer. The monk had instead brought a bottle of terrifically expensive junmai daiginjo sake, impossible to find outside the country and rare even in Japan. Lin was quite the sake connoisseur, and as he accepted the gift Naru thought he saw tears form in Lin’s eyes, so touched by the gift was he.

The rest had come bearing gifts as well: Matsuzaki had brought a beautiful porcelain vase and had filled it with lilies for the couple, Masako’s gifts of tsukesage kimono and kanzashi hair ornaments for the bride featured a motif of cranes to wish peace and happiness to the couple, and John’s somewhat surprising gift of a didgeridoo caused a riotous stir when he played it for the party around eight o’clock. Even Yasuhara had come despite conflicts with his work and had brought an exquisite set of kitchen knives from Japan’s oldest and longest-operating knife maker—founded in 1560 in Kyoto, as Yasuhara had informed him on two separate occasions, once when he was sober and once in an elaborate and rather pointless story after he had imbibed several glasses of wine.

He couldn’t understand why Mai had been embarrassed with her own wedding present after the flashy gifts of her friends. He could see that she felt absolutely outclassed; especially when he, the best man, revealed that he had bought a bone and bamboo mahjong set for the couple. Not only was it a beautiful and expensive gift, she complained, but it had a sentimental value as well: mahjong had been a shared interest that had led to the couple’s dating in the beginning of their relationship. When Mai indicated her displeasure at his "too-good gift", as she put it, he calmly reminded her that he had asked her if she would like to give a gift together but had refused, and honestly, why was she so worried about something so trivial, anyway?  This placated her and as the night wore on she had all but forgotten about the gifts. Of course, Mai’s gift was unique and thoughtful in its own way. She had selected a Japanese cookbook: Lin’s bride was half-Japanese, who, despite having never been to the country, loved to cook the cuisine of part of her heritage and it was no secret that Lin enjoyed home cooking himself. Mai had whispered to Naru that she was pleased Lin had gotten over his prejudice of Japanese people, and Naru whispered back his suspicions that when Lin first met his bride, he thought she was of Korean heritage, not Japanese, and had actually been quite startled to learn the truth.

The day before midsummer’s eve: it was a warm night. He had removed his tie and his jacket, carrying it over an arm. He’d also undone the first two buttons at his collar and rolled his sleeves to his elbows. She slipped out of her heels as they crossed the threshold, entering the house barefoot both to the relief of her cramped toes and to muffle the sound in consideration of the older Davis generation, who had not celebrated quite so heartily and had retired to the house much earlier. They hurried down the hall, whispering with mock sternness (Naru) and giggling happily (Mai), as only tipsy young adults in love—drunk from champagne, drunk with happiness—can do.

When they finally reached his bedroom, closing the door behind them, Mai burst into giggles, covering her mouth with her hand and looking at Naru apologetically. He raised an eyebrow at her as he tossed his jacket over the back of a chair, dropping his tie on the desk. "And what, may I ask, do you find so humorous?"

"It’s—not—" she started, unable to contain herself. She calmed herself after several deep breaths, grinning ear-to-ear and eyes shining brightly. "It’s not anything in particular," she said, giggling again, stretching her arms wide as if to illustrate the fact. "I’m just so happy. I didn’t realize how much I missed Ayako and Masako and Yasuhara, and John—can you believe he played the didgeridoo?—and it was so nice to see Bou-san," she said, setting her shoes neatly by the door. "I was so surprised when he sang that love song for them. The look of astonishment on Lin’s face! I guess Bou-san will always get his way, in the end. Even if his band mates couldn’t make it, he still got to sing for them." At this he raised an eyebrow, wondering if Takigawa had spread a different story about why the band didn’t play at the wedding.

Mai’s laughter faded and she sighed, though her face was still brightened by her smile. "It’ll be fun to meet everyone for brunch again tomorrow. I’m already excited about it."

“If they manage to wake up for it.”

"Mmhm."  She agreed, nodding. "Even Masako drank more than I expected. Too bad everyone is leaving so soon."  She sighed again, the happiness on her face fading. "John and Masako are on the same flight tomorrow afternoon, and Ayako, Bou-san, and Yasuhara are flying out early the following morning."

Naru watched the fleeting expression on her face. "We’ll have to visit them in Japan again. Or give them an incentive to come back and visit us."

"Oh, yes," she agreed, her eyes lighting up again. "What if we went to Japan for the autumn leaves?  I’ve always wanted to show you my favorite spots in Kyoto. I went once with my class in school and I’ll never forget how beautiful it was. Maybe not this year, of course, but... someday."

Naru nodded but said nothing, though his posture had relaxed considerably to see that her spirits hadn’t dimmed for long. He had also removed his shoes, had already placed them neatly in his closet and was in the process of putting away his cuff links.

Mai watched him, a tender fondness welling in her chest and showing itself in her shining eyes. She’d been living in the Davis household for six years, now, but stepping into the privacy of his room never ceased to bring her a small surge of happiness. Naru’s room was clean and ordinary, but it was the room he had grown up in with his brother. Being there meant he trusted her enough to allow her into his private space. He trusted her so much that he was standing there with his back to her, partially undressing. He’d slipped out of the fine dress shirt he’d been wearing and had pulled a t-shirt over his head and bare torso, either oblivious to—or more likely, content to ignore—her steady gaze. He picked up his jacket, removed the boutonniere that was pinned to the lapel and hung it on a hanger in the closet.

He was still standing in front of the closet as she crossed the room, silent but for the soft brushing of her bare feet against the wooden floor, and embraced him tightly from behind. He lifted an arm, closing his hand around hers and turned so he was holding her tightly. She exhaled sleepily, nestling her face in his shoulder as he gazed forward. His lips pursing slightly, he inhaled deeply as if about to speak but remained silent.

"You’re almost asleep, aren’t you," he finally murmured, amused.

"Not yet," she said as she opened her eyes, though her voice was thicker than it had been moments ago. "I just had so much fun today."  She said softly, a smile lifting her lips and her eyes closing once more. She stood still, compliant, as he gently undid the clasp of the pearls at her neck, his fingers sending pleasant shivers down her shoulders as they brushed against her bare skin. "Your mother always gives me such nice gifts," she said, opening her eyes again. "It makes me feel guilty."

He smirked, placing the necklace on the desk carefully next to his folded tie. "Why, are you planning to run away with the family jewels?"  He asked dryly, bending slightly to turn on the desk light and flipping off the switch for the overhead. The soft glow from the lamp was a welcome change from the harsh white light from the ceiling. "You shouldn’t have let me just take them back like that, if that was your intention."  He teased.

"You know what I mean," Mai protested, giggling as she sat wearily on his bed. "I just wish I could give her something in return."

"You have. More than you can possibly imagine," he said quietly, sitting next to her. Their bodies, first touching at the shoulders to elbows as they sat, slowly reclined, laying side-by-side on the bed. Mai shifted so her head rested on his arm just below his shoulder, her arm extended around his torso.

She turned her head toward him, gazing up at him seriously. "You’re not going to give me anything else, right?  You said it was birthday present from both of you."

He smiled slightly, almost mischievously. "Well, not for your 24th birthday. But I can’t make any promises for your 32nd."

She couldn’t help but smile, closing her eyes again as she leaned her head closer into his body. It was their own special custom. He wasn't one to celebrate his own birthday but he seemed to take special attention to hers, and each birthday they celebrated together was actually two: her actual age according to the year of her birth and the number of years she had lived. Unlike most people, these two ages were not the same. "You don’t have to, you know."

"Maybe not.”

Their calm and even breathing was the only sound between them for a long time. She opened her eyes when he spoke, breaking the stillness. "Are you going to sleep in here?"

"Will you let me?"

"Of course. But I don’t think you should sleep in your dress."

"I’ll go put on my pyjamas," Mai said, sitting up. "I suppose I should brush my teeth, too."

He hesitated for several moments and then spoke. "I don’t mind, you know. If my parents know you spend the night in my room. No matter what goes on, or doesn’t, while we’re in here."  Mai began to blush and he continued. "But I don’t think you’re comfortable with the thought."  He sighed, propping himself up on an elbow as he gazed at her. His dark eyes were serious, holding her own gaze tightly. She was still in his gaze, unable to resist him.

"I’m sorry," she mumbled, embarrassed for being embarrassed. He was right, of course. She had never slept in Naru’s room unless his parents were out of town, even though he had offered the invitation on several occasions. Even though nothing ever happened when they slept together—it just didn't seem proper.

"Don’t be."  He shook his head. "That’s not my intention. I just want you to be comfortable. If they knew, tomorrow morning, that you had slept in my bed, would you be okay with that?"

She hesitated. "Maybe they won’t notice. Or we can be really sneaky."  She chewed on her lip. "I do... want to stay here with you. If you don’t mind. So I suppose it doesn’t matter, does it, if they know."

"It doesn’t. And of course I don’t mind," he scoffed. "Don’t be ridiculous. I always want you to stay with me, Mai."

Mai knew how Naru felt about her, of course, but such verbal expressions did have a tendency to be rare and it always surprised her when he spoke so openly about his feelings for her. It was all the encouragement she needed. When she returned to the room, the black dress replaced by a t-shirt and shorts, the makeup washed from her face, he had changed out of his dress slacks into shorts and lay on the bed quietly, eyes closed and breathing deeply.

She turned out the light and crawled onto the bed, snuggling next to him. "Thank you," she whispered. He put his arm around her shoulders in response, curling himself around her body, his steady breathing warm on the back of her neck.

From where she lay she had a good view out his window. Her earlier sleepiness all but gone, she gazed upwards and peered up at the night sky. "It’s not like the country," she said very softly, "but you can always see more stars here at your parents’ house than anywhere in Tokyo."

She knew his eyes were still closed and from the way he murmured she could tell sleep was close to overtaking him. "We can drive out to the country and go stargazing, if you’d like."

"Maybe that should be my birthday present."

Even with a single spoken word she could hear him smile. "Maybe."

 

*******

 

It turned out to be a kitten. He took her out to an early lunch and afterwards they went to an animal shelter together. He’d known she’d always wanted a pet but had never had the opportunity. It was easy enough to convince his parents to allow an animal to live in the house. They adored Mai, after all, and when they heard it was something she’d always wanted, they were almost too enthusiastic. It had been a long time, but Gene had kept hamsters and guinea pigs as a young adolescent. It was Luella who suggested a cat.

The adoption agency was quiet that early Friday afternoon and Mai cooed delightedly as she watched the different animals, poking her finger through the bars of the cage to stroke the fur of various cats or dogs. For the most part the animals ignored her but the puppies seemed to enjoy the attention, licking her fingers in response. The kitten she eventually picked out was small and grey with narrow green eyes that watched her carefully, but when the attendant opened the cage and allowed her to hold him, the cat cuddled into her arms immediately, purring as she scratched its ears. The adoption process itself went quickly enough. The cat would stay at the shelter to be looked over once more by a veterinarian and they would pick him up the following afternoon.

They stepped outside, shielding their eyes from the bright sunlight, and Mai spoke quickly, having waited to say it until they had left the building. "I am not going to have a cat named Sparky," she informed him. "I can’t believe they named him Sparky! Seriously, that is the stupidest name I have ever heard."

"Then change it."  Naru shrugged. "What are you going to call him?"

"Umeboshi," Mai said, with little hesitation.

His eyebrows rose. Just as Mai thought Sparky was a silly name surely any Brit would find Umeboshi just as ridiculous. "Why Umeboshi?"  Nothing about the kitten looked like or reminded him of a pickled plum.      

She laughed. "His eyes were all squinty when we first saw him. Like he’d eaten something sour. And it has to be a cute name, right?  So something small and sour, like an umeboshi."

"Lemon drops are small and sour," he said.

"No, no no," Mai emphasized. "Besides, it should be Japanese."  She laughed, clasping his hand, squeezing it tightly. From the glow in her eyes and the tone of her voice he knew she was tremendously happy. It made him happy, too. "He’s just like us! He's Japanese, too."

So Umeboshi it was.

 

*******

 

The days, the weeks, the months passed. It seemed as if they were always together. Sometimes he thought he’d ask her to marry him but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It was not the wedding itself and all the hullabaloo that went along with it. He’d put up with it, whatever it was. He knew she’d prefer a traditional Japanese ceremony to a western one; he himself didn’t care what sort of wedding as long as she was happy. But the problem was bigger than that, much larger than the trivial celebration.

He knew neither wanted to make the decision of which country they would call their home as a married couple. Japan was not a country that allowed dual citizenship. If they were wed, would he renounce his British nationality, or would she forfeit her own Japanese citizenship? With his own Japanese heritage he would be content to live in Japan—but for the same reasons he had never returned to the country when he hadn’t been with Mai still made his decision difficult today, perhaps even more so. His parents were overjoyed to have their remaining adopted son close at home; not to mention the fact that Mai was an absolute delight to them. They’d passed several hints to him already about ‘tying the knot;’ ‘getting hitched;’ ‘taking themselves off the market;’ ‘surrendering to the ball and chain;’ and on and on. He had been outraged when his father had made the last reference when the three of them were together; perhaps the only thing that saved the older man from his livid son was that Mai did not understand the euphemism.

He’d almost asked her, actually, on the day of Lin’s wedding. If she would rather not file that troublesome visa extension application but marry him and become a naturalized citizen instead. The words had been on the tip of his tongue for half a second, but her joy with the reunion of her friends had stopped him. She had made new friends in London as well, of course, but he could see an ease in her demeanour with her Japanese friends that wasn’t quite there with her English peers. Would she really want to stay in London for the rest of her life? And if they had children, as he suspected they might, would she not want her children to grow up in Japan, as she had? Would she be content if her children’s grandparents lived in England, some nine thousand kilometres and a fourteen hour flight away? As well as he had come to know her, he could not truthfully answer those questions. He himself wasn’t sure of his own feelings on the matter. No doubt she would like to be close to her parents’ graves, just as he was reluctant to leave the country of Gene’s final resting place.

He continued to muse on the subject, knowing they’d have to breach it someday. Someday he would ask her to marry him and they would have to discuss what that meant for them and their future. No doubt it would be a difficult decision to make, but together they would decide what path to take. However, the timing wasn’t right; something about the timing wasn’t quite right. He knew that a perfect opportunity would probably never arise, but—still. Something about the situation wasn’t right.

And so he waited.

 

*******

 

It was a crisp autumn afternoon, sunny with brilliant blue skies and brightly colored leaves that had just started to turn with the season. This surprisingly good weather after two weeks of dreary and rainy days was a more than welcome change. She had greeted the sunrise that morning with nothing short of joy. Gleefully, she had asked him if he would mind extending his lunch break with her to take a picnic in the park. After all, she rationalized, who knew if the weather would stay this nice for long. He was not terribly fond of eating outside or picnicking, but in the years he had known her he had learned to discern when it would be prudent to compromise, and this was one of those times. For some reason the thought of going on a picnic with him today was dearly important to her so he had smiled and agreed. Now, sitting at the desk in the quiet office, he was half-heartedly working on the report from his last case. It was just after noon and he kept glancing at the clock on the wall, wondering when she would arrive. Picnic or no picnic, he always looked forward to seeing her, even though they saw each other every day.

He allowed his mind to wander and he rested his chin against his hand, gazing out the window. A breeze rustled the leaves of a giant elm, the shimmering sound audible even through the closed window. It reminded him of a beautiful fall day in Tokyo—but Tokyo had been on his mind a lot, lately, as he had just started planning a spring trip to the city where he was determined to propose. While not a romantic, he did take immense pleasure in surprising her, and thus, that was his sole intention. He began to wonder what false pretence he could use to justify the visit. A new case, perhaps, the original trio of SPR specifically requested by a former client?  It would be risky, to be sure, to ask for assistance in his scheme from Matsuzaki or Takigawa—certainly Masako or Yasuhara would be more reliable if he did need to look to anyone else for help. No doubt the group would try to make a reunion out of their visit, invite John from Australia, and hold a party under the blooming cherry and plum trees...

His thoughts were interrupted with a jolt and his eyes widened in shock, the transformation from calm to terror instantaneous. He knew. Knew even before the sound of rushing footsteps that something terrible had happened. He was on his feet, hearing the screech of failing brakes and the screams of pedestrians, the image of a car hurtling out of control toward fragile and vulnerable bodies playing in his mind. A sickening feeling of dread hit him and he prayed it wasn’t true. He was moving around the desk and approaching the exit when the door burst open and Lin appeared, chest heaving with ragged breaths. "Naru," he gasped, mobile phone clutched in his hand. "Quick—"

Trying to keep the despair from clouding his mind he followed the taller man out the door and through the hallway. He nearly tripped over his own hurried feet in the stairwell, wrenching his ankle as he righted himself but was oblivious to the pain that followed as he ran behind the taller man out of the building and to the street. All the while, the steady stream in his mind repeating incessantly It can’t be. I was right here the whole time. I’m dreaming, right?  Nothing can come between us. Nothing can happen to her. Not while I was right here, so close

It can’t be.

All feeling evaporated from his body as he saw her. The world went silent save for the rushing in his ears, which roared even louder as his eyes took in the sight. Her body was contorted in an unnatural way, lying still on the sidewalk, her blood staining the pavement. One of her slip-on shoes had fallen onto the street, her limp bare foot lying over the curb. Next to her hand was a crumpled canvas bag, some of the contents spilling out across the walkway and into the grass. Their picnic. The anguish clenched even tighter around his heart. Why had he ever agreed to such a foolish idea?

He was taking in large gasping breaths and even then it was difficult to breathe. His vision swimming, he sank to his knees by her side, hardly daring to touch her should he cause any more damage. It was obvious to him that there were broken bones and the strange twist of her body indicated an injury to her spine. He slowly took her hand in his, clasping her fingers as he looked to her face. Her expression was far too peaceful for the scene, a stark contrast to the blood that was already matting her hair. Her eyes were closed and he became aware of the sound of her shallow breath, relief flooding his chest. She was breathing. Hearing the sound of a siren, he looked around, as if only realizing his surroundings. She was not the only one injured at the scene: there was a child wailing, clutching his mother’s hand as blood trickled from a gash on his head. The woman herself moved gingerly, as if she had fallen, and he could see the bruises forming along the scrapes on her knees where grit and small pebbles were still embedded in the skin. A middle-aged man was limping toward a pair of frightened students, checking to see if they were all right. Other than their shock they seemed unscathed. Two others appeared to have taken minor injuries; one of whom Lin was helping to his feet, the other, an older woman, holding her arm against her body, was assisted by a young woman.

The police had arrived: the lone first-responding officer immediately checking to make sure the car, crumpled and smoking against the now fallen light post, was not in danger of catching fire. The second police car screeched to a halt, parking across the street and directing the traffic around the accident. The paramedics were quick to arrive soon after, two ambulances arriving almost simultaneously. Of the first, two men rushed to the car to extract the driver. A sudden hand on his shoulder caused him to bring his gaze forward again and a voice asked him if he was hurt. Numbly shaking his head, he tried to gesture toward her, but his movements seemed sluggish and clumsy. But the emergency workers were already pulling him aside, his hand reluctantly leaving hers as they placed a stretcher on the ground next to her. He was only able to watch helplessly as they manoeuvred her onto a board and strapped her into the stretcher, which they picked up and moved into the back of the waiting vehicle.

Only when the ambulance began to drive away did he realize he was crying. It was Lin who finally helped him to his feet and drove him to the hospital.

 

*******

 

He’d been in the waiting room for hours, resting his forehead against his hands as he sat in an uncomfortable plastic chair. Lin, witness to the scene, had only left his side to be questioned by the police for his account of what had happened. He had been standing in BSPR’s lobby when the accident occurred on the street in front of the office.

He wished his parents were there. Since he’d arrived at the hospital and even moreso after Lin had left, he’d done nothing but try to contact them. After multiple failures, he’d finally gotten through to them. Of all the weekends to go to Paris!  They were going to catch the next flight back to London but it would still be hours before they arrived. He wished his mother was there to hold him, as he knew she would. He wished for his father to tell him that everything would be all right. He wished for it, as if the thought of them taking control of the situation would somehow change the outcome. Even though he knew their presence couldn’t change anything.

Within the first hour he spoke regularly with the doctors as they assessed her condition but after some time there was nothing new to report and he sat silently, undisturbed as he waited. Sheer exhaustion had pushed him into a restless doze, and when he woke, disoriented, he looked around the room, searching for the quiet voice he thought had woken him. His throat was dry and he felt a new pang of helplessness as the situation weighed down on him.

He hadn’t moved from his still position when Lin’s wife rushed into the quiet room, finding him easily among the other silent patrons. He stood, startled, limbs creaking from the unnatural position he’d rested in. She hurried toward him and enveloped him in a tight hug, burying her forehead in his shoulder. "Oh, Oliver," she cried. "I’m so, so sorry. Is she still…?"

He nodded numbly. With her embrace he realized that his limbs were stiff and cold. She seemed to notice as well. "Here," she said, pulling a large sweatshirt out of her shoulder bag. "Koujo said you left without anything and I know hospitals are always cold, so I brought you this..."  She nearly put it on for him; placing it around his shoulders and helping him extend his arms into the sleeves and zipping it up the front. "Where is he?  I thought for sure he’d be here with you."

"Talking to the police about the accident," he said, his quiet voice a raspy croak. She immediately reached into the bag and pulled out a thermos of tea, passing it toward him. He took a long drink and forced a lifeless smile, clearing his throat. "Thank you, Sarah."

"I brought some food, too, there’s another thermos of soup, and some sandwiches."  She peered inside the bag and passed it to him, wringing her hands. "It’s not much, but I wanted to do something..."

He had eaten half a sandwich when Lin returned, his weariness evident in his face. "I passed the doctor on my way back. They say we can see her now."  He sighed. "I need to move the car, though. Or pay the meter again."

"I’ll take care of it," Sarah said, standing quickly. "You should go with Oliver."

Naru had already risen to his feet, striding forward. Lin hesitated but followed, close to his side. Walking together in silence they walked down the hall until they reached the room that had Taniyama scribbled on the clipboard hanging by the door.

The room was cold—too cold, he immediately thought, searching for a thermostat to adjust the heat. And much too silent. The only sound was the beep of the machine which even to his untrained ears did not sound regular or reassuring. He approached her cautiously, though her figure was barely recognizable. Most of her body was encased in casts, covered in bandages and plastic splints to keep her immobile. When the car had hit her she’d broken bones from her knees to her hips, ribs and vertebrae, her arms and her collarbone. But it was the spinal cord and head trauma the doctors had been most concerned about. He’d heard them say "complete paralysis" and "permanent disability as a best-case scenario" in hushed tones.

"The doctor said he’d be back soon," Lin said. "They'd like to have a meeting with you to discuss.. to discuss her condition."

His head snapped up, training his eyes on those of the older man. "What did he say?"  When his friend hesitated, he spoke again, his voice steady and demanding. "Tell me, Lin. Please."

When Lin spoke it was clear he had to force himself to say the words. "They don’t think... they don’t think she’ll make it, Naru. She’s still alive, but only.. only just. If she does survive, they don’t think she’ll ever come out of the coma."

"What about…" his voice trailed off and Lin shook his head.

"I can’t, Naru. This is out of my league. I could cast a spell to keep her heart beating, perhaps eventually encourage her body to heal itself. But there’s nothing I could do for her head injury."

Naru released a shuddering sigh.

"I’m sorry."  Lin spoke softly, choking as tears gathered in his eyes.

"It’s okay," Naru said, eerily calm. "We’ll just go back again."

"Naru!"  Lin gasped, taking hold and shaking the smaller man’s shoulders. "You can’t. We all have to lose the ones we love at some point. You can’t try to change the past again—"

"No. Not like this."  A disturbing determination was filling his eyes. “Not yet.”

"You told me before that you didn’t know how you did it. No matter how we explained it, you didn’t really know how you turned back time and brought her back to life. That you were lucky and you didn’t think you could do it again."

"I can," he snapped. "I will."  Stepping away from Lin, he moved closer toward the hospital bed where her body lay, picking up her limp hand and cradling it in his own. Tears filled his eyes and he brushed her bruised cheek tenderly. "I will," he repeated softly.

"Naru! Please!"  Lin had shouted the words but they were barely audible over the din that had begun to grow in his ears and he ignored him, gathering his psychic energy without hesitation. While still standing in the hospital room, he was also standing in the middle of a dark, vast ocean. An unrelenting wind gathered around him, ripping his clothes and stinging his eyes as he waited for the waves to crest and fall upon him. He then became aware that something was trying to stop him and drag him from this tumultuous sea of energy: Lin had set his spirit familiars upon him, but those, too, he ignored. He brushed the attacking spirit demons away like sand, concentrating on the final moment. The waves, all around him, rose higher, and finally broke with a tremendous, thundering crash.

It was an explosion and an implosion all at once. The wave of his energy was released and his body was both ripped apart into thousands of pieces and crushed into a space the size of a thimble.

Please, he prayed, managing one last coherent thought. Don’t take her away yet.

Within the cacophony he thought he heard a gentle whisper. There’s more you can do, the small voice told him. There’s another life you should save.

Then there was silence and nothing remained. Not even darkness, not even light.

Chapter Text

Mai Taniyama opened her eyes.

A dreary grey sky awaited her gaze, an endless expanse cut short by the buildings that loomed over her. Miniscule, icy cold raindrops sprinkled her cheeks and nose. She could feel frigid water seeping through her clothes to reach her skin: she was lying in a puddle. Apparently in the middle of a crosswalk, as she could hear idling cars and the familiar chirping of the light.

London? — she thought quickly, and as she slowly became aware of the sounds and voices of the busy street around her, her heart sank. Not London. Tokyo.

Footsteps ran toward her, a shadow against the grey sky. "Are you all right?" Gloved fingers reached for her own bare hands and helped her sit up. Her eyes widened as the voice continued. "You’re not hurt?"

She’d have recognized that peculiar Kansai accent anywhere and the bright, worried sky blue eyes and golden blonde hair confirmed his identity. "It’s terribly icy, isn’t it?" John Brown helped her to her feet and then fetched an umbrella from the ground (presumably hers), fumbling as he tried to straighten the broken spires. Frowning, he handed her the umbrella he had been holding over his own head instead.

"Please, take this," he said, peering anxiously at her face while remaining a polite distance. With sudden certainty Mai knew he didn’t know her. He didn’t remember her.

"Oh, no, I couldn’t..." she protested, holding the umbrella back out to him. "I’ll take the broken one, it’s fine, so sorry. I couldn’t take yours, that wouldn’t be right."

She could see he was confused and realized he didn’t completely understand her. Some key word or form of her speech wasn’t yet in his learned Japanese vocabulary, or perhaps she had spoken too quickly. "It’s fine," she repeated, in English. "I can’t take your umbrella."  Bowing quickly, she continued. "Thank you for your help."

Obviously startled that she spoke English, she used the opportunity to hand him back his umbrella, switching his for her broken one and hurried away quickly.

Naru, she thought, mind racing. Where am I?  More importantly, where are you?

 

*******

 

Going home to an empty apartment was not appealing, so instead she went to a department store and bought new tights and a skirt, a sweater and a new umbrella. Cringing as she counted the yen out of her purse, she made the purchases, both justifying to herself that it was necessary and wondering what her current finances were as she spent the money. She found a public restroom, changed into the dry clothes and went into a café. After ordering tea she specifically chose a seat that was near a heating vent, placing her damp coat across the back of the chair in such a manner that it might dry with the warm blowing air.

As she sipped her tea she tried to remember the details of the last day of her life. What had happened that Naru would again do the unthinkable and turn the world’s order on its head?  She assumed she must have died. Everything else up to the point was startlingly clear—but of that final day she had only the faintest recollection of the events. It had been a sunny day, perhaps, though why did that even matter? It seemed as though she had planned something special, or maybe a special event was about to take place.

Mai shook her head to herself. She couldn’t be certain and had no firm memories of that day. It was like waking up and trying to remember a dream from the night before. Knowing that there had been something and yet that emptiness was all that remained. Even though she racked her brain the fog refused to lift, so she gave up. Inhaling the scent of the tea, a despondent sigh passed through her lips. She’d ordered formosa oolong without a second thought—it was something she had favored as of recently, she and Naru both. The reminder that he was not with her was painful and she tried not to think of all their quiet moments together—those occasional moments when he had said he’d always be with her, and more often the times he didn’t say it but she believed it just as strongly.

He might still be in England, she thought. He might not have even come to Japan yet. John’s Japanese wasn’t terribly good... how long was he in Japan before I met him?  Six months, maybe?  Didn’t he tell me once that he visited Tokyo several times before he moved here from Kyoto?  So it could be months before our first case...

She sat there even after the tea was gone, contemplating the matter. When the already grey sky began to grow dimmer, signalling the imminent transition from afternoon into dusk, she left the café, grudgingly walking to the train station that would lead her back to her apartment.

She was only just entering the busy station when she saw him. Her eyes widened and she nearly stopped in her tracks the moment she saw the dark hair and elegant profile, a slim figure wearing a dark jacket and scarf. Without a second thought she immediately hurried forward. "Naru?" she breathed in disbelief.

The young man was studying the route map and turned his head when he saw her approaching. His eyes met hers.

Instantly she knew she had been mistaken. It was not Naru. It was Gene.

 

*******

 

She’d tried to pass it off as a mistake, but he’d been curious—much too curious for her liking—and insisted that he take her out for coffee. That was perhaps the most startling of all. Here she was, sitting in a quiet café with the once-deceased-but-now-quite-alive twin of her future boyfriend, and he was drinking coffee. Black without cream or sugar. She had ordered genmaicha—for some reason it had always been a calming drink for her. The way some sought chamomile for comfort, she went for brown rice tea. Though she knew she was a long way from hysteria, a soothing drink never hurt anyone in a stressful situation. He’d ordered a slice of raspberry truffle torte; she had politely declined his offer to buy her a dessert.

"You know Oliver, my brother?"  He asked again, lifting the cup, familiar dark eyes observing her steadily. He had not yet spoken Japanese to her, only English. When he had first spoken to her, Mai had the fleeting thought she could both pretend it was a mistake and that she did not speak his language, but she had always been terrible at acting and somehow she just knew he could see the comprehension in her expressions, try as she might to hide it. Besides, even though he hadn’t spoken a word of it, he had to speak Japanese as well, didn’t he? He would simply be grilling her in a different language instead.

"Um, well, we met," she started awkwardly. "I wouldn’t say I know him."  It felt terrible to lie, but she didn’t know what else she could say. How could she tell him the truth?

"How did you meet, then?"  He raised an eyebrow. "In Tokyo?"

Inwardly she wondered if he was testing her. She could see in his sharp eyes that he didn’t quite believe her but had no firm reason for disbelief, either. "No, I did a study-abroad trip to London."

He frowned, glancing down at the torte in front of him, carefully piercing the tip with his fork. He’d eaten it backwards, starting with the thick end of the wedge and approaching the point. "Aren’t you a little young to go to another country by yourself?"

How old am I now, anyway? Fifteen? Sixteen? Anyway, Gene, what a question! Aren’t you in Japan by yourself? Aren’t you still a minor?  She laughed, perhaps a bit too brightly as if to disguise to herself how bitter the lie tasted on her tongue. "I didn’t go alone. It was a coordinated trip. With my school."

"That must have been fun," he said quietly. Mai found herself thrown off-balance by his sullen demeanour before realizing the nature of his displeasure with a start. He’s jealous, she thought suddenly. It makes sense, doesn’t it? That NaruOliver, I need to remember to call him Oliverwould have a friend, an acquaintance of any sort, no matter how casual I pretend it to bethat Gene doesn’t know?  They’ve always done everything together. His coming to Japan is the first time they’ve been apart. Of course he’s jealous.

With a start she remembered something Naru had said to her many years before. I don’t have any memories after my own death. It’s possible we never will. How could we be alive and have memories of death?

I never met Gene while he was alive, Mai thought. Even with everything that happened, he won’t remember mehe can’t possibly remember me.

"Yup," she said, her mind racing despite her calm words, trying to steer the conversation away from the absent brother and trying to think of something that wasn't a lie. "I think my favorite part was seeing the pelicans. At some garden. I had never seen pelicans before! They were huge, it was amazing."

"Your English is awfully good. That must have made the trip pretty easy," he remarked, lazily dangling the fork above the empty plate. "You almost sound like a native speaker."

That’s not what Naru said, the first time the topic ever came up. It was ’atrocious’, ’horrible’, and ’devastatingly bad’, I think he said. "My mother really wanted me to be able to speak English," Mai lied. "So I had to practice at home since I was young."

"I suppose that’s lucky for you."  He smiled suddenly, a conniving glint in his eyes. "It looks like fate led us to each other today, doesn’t it, Mai?  Because you’re friends with my brother I feel that I can ask you for a tremendous favour."

She tilted her head, genuinely confused by his abrupt change in demeanour. "What is it?"

"The hotel I was supposed to stay at was overbooked and I lost my reservation."  He grinned at her. "So let me stay with you. I’d love to meet your mother."

 

*******

 

And so, here she was, leading the way back to her apartment. Shocked and surprised, she’d only been able to utter ‘Okay’ before he took care of the check and cheerfully hurried them out of the restaurant. Walking on the street, her expression turned from his view, she frowned to herself, almost rolling her eyes. She had played right into his hands. Their appearance wasn’t the only trait they shared—obviously Gene could be just as shrewd as Naru. Even though she resented the thought that he’d seen their meeting as something he could use to his own advantage, she was thankful his mood had brightened and he wasn’t as overtly suspicious as before.

It was early spring, she realized, passing the lilac tree as they climbed the stairs to the second landing. The buds were tiny, but visible, wet and dripping from a day of cold rain. Searching her pockets and then her bag, she found the keys she was searching for and unlocked the door, entering the quiet apartment, simultaneously stepping out her wet shoes and turning on the light. She hadn’t been here in years, but seeing it again was familiar and almost reassuring. It was like being in a dream of her childhood: but it was her childhood and she wasn’t dreaming. Gene, behind her, gazed around the silent apartment, his expression blank.

"Your mother’s not home?" He asked, looking around the room. He took off his shoes and crossed the room, picking up a picture frame that sat next to some books on the shelf. He studied the picture, turning it over in his hands. A couple with a young child: one of her only family photographs. "What about your father?"

"They both died a long time ago," Mai said simply, walking to the small range and turning on the tea kettle. She then stooped, opening the half-sized fridge and peeked inside. She winced as she saw it was all but empty. I hope I at least have something instant to share... I didn’t eat very well back then. Around now. Hardly ever cooked at home, just onigiri and rice to extend a take-away meal.

"I’m sorry," he said, his voice quieter, clearly regretting what he had done. "You should have stopped me. I wouldn’t have..."

"No, it’s okay," she shrugged and opened a cupboard, continuing her search. "Are you hungry? Do you want some instant ramen?"

"I can take you out to eat," he offered.

"No, it’s okay, as long as you don’t mind..." she paused, reading the cup she had pulled from the cupboard, "...miso or sukiyaki cup ramen."  She turned to him, grinning as she held up the cup. "I only have two varieties."

"That’s fine," he agreed. "Thank you."

"Sorry it’s not much. Please, sit down, make yourself comfortable," she said, and he hung his coat next to hers on the peg by the door.

As the water heated she set the cups on the counter, ducking her head and examining the contents of the cupboard more closely. The once necessary supply of instant ramen was quite low, but that was probably for the better—she hadn’t eaten ramen in years, and while it would get her by tonight, it wouldn’t do for tomorrow. She then took the bag of damp clothes and took them into the part of the apartment that was partitioned off by a sliding door—her bedroom—and hung the clothes on the string above the futon she’d left out that morning before returning to the kitchen.

As Mai moved about the kitchen, her guest watched her carefully from his seat at the heated kotatsu table, drumming his fingers silently against the surface. Gene had the distinct feeling his host was lying about something, although he couldn’t fathom what it could be, or why. He frowned as he pondered the question. Why would she lie about knowing his brother, and how was it even possible to mistake him for his twin if she hadn’t actually met him? Whatever her lie was, it made him more curious than anything else. Gene knew with absolute certainty there wasn’t anything malicious about his host, and that his impulse to invite himself over had been the right thing to do.

It was a strange feeling, this feeling of jealousy. But some of the feeling stemmed from the fact that girls had always gravitated towards him in preference to the quiet and surly Noll. No exceptions. He hadn’t even realized he had grown accustomed to it until now: here was an attractive, intelligent girl who was obviously disappointed that he wasn’t his brother. His eyes followed her movements, watching as she transferred the meals from the cups into the ceramic bowls, pursing her lips as if critical of the packaging. Obviously, she wasn’t used to eating an instant dinner, which made him wonder why there was absolutely nothing else in the kitchen.

"Here," she said, interrupting his thoughts as she set the bowls on the table and seated herself across from him at the kotatsu. "Sorry it’s not much..." she repeated. “I never made it to the supermarket today.”

"No, thank you, really," he said, smiling apologetically. "I guess I really am imposing on you, huh?  Sorry about that."

"It’s fine." Mai knew he was only saying that to be polite—something in his eyes said he wasn’t truly sorry about the fact he was there. But despite her initial apprehension, she was glad Gene had come home with her. "It’s nice to have company, honestly," she said genuinely. "It can be too quiet sometimes, being all by yourself."  And I’m not used to being alone, she thought. Truthfully, if I was by myself I’d probably be scared by the unfamiliar noises of the apartment.

He nodded, slurping his noodles. "I’ve been lonely the past week on my own and I usually call my family every day. I can’t imagine..."  His voice trailed off.

Living without Noll, Mai thought.

"How long ago did your parents die?"  Gene continued, his voice suddenly gentle.

Mai lowered her tea, averting her gaze. "My father passed away when I was eight. My mother passed on four years later."

"Have you been living on your own since then?"

"No.. I stayed with a teacher from my school for a while. It was only a couple months ago when I they made me take all these comprehensive tests and figured I was competent enough to live on my own. I still have to check in with the social services office every two weeks."

"I see."  He cocked a grin. "And they’re okay with you eating instant ramen for your meals?"

Mai felt her ears grow hot. It was true; no matter how she would like to deny it. She had always lied about her eating habits when they asked her. "I don’t usually just eat ramen. Just... days I don’t make it to the store or I’m too busy studying to cook."

Gene’s eyebrows arched skeptically but he remained silent, lifting the bowl to drink the remaining broth. She continued to confuse him: was she lying, or wasn’t she?  It was bizarre, he was almost certain that she was telling the truth and lying simultaneously. But how was that possible, anyway?

Mai changed the subject, too uncomfortable to continue talking about herself. "Anyway, Gene, how long have you been in Japan?  How have you spent your trip so far?"

"It’s been about seven days already. It’s been, you know, just sightseeing, really," he said vaguely. "Working on my language skills."

"Do you want to practice?"  Mai asked dubiously, pausing as she lifted her bowl, finishing her own broth. They were still speaking English.

"Not especially," he grinned and turned slightly, pulling his knapsack that he had placed near his seat toward him. "I should probably call my family," Gene said, his dark hair falling over his eyes as he rummaged in the open pack and took out a mobile phone. "My mother gets worried if she doesn’t hear from me by a certain time of day."

"Of course," Mai said, nodding her head toward her bedroom. "I’ll be in the other room."  She stood and first took their bowls to the sink before retreating into her bedroom.

The separation between the two rooms was only sufficient for visual privacy and Mai knew she’d be able to hear Gene’s one-sided conversation well enough, but it was a polite gesture all the same. Sitting down on her futon, she opened her schoolbag and then dumped the contents out across the surface. Glancing first at the materials she’d been studying, she opened her planner and checked the date on her phone. Saturday, 10th February 2001. She stared at the year for a moment and then shook herself. She’d already known, after all. Looking back at the planner, her face relaxed with relief. No class tomorrow and nothing scheduled for the day, and for that she was grateful.

"Hi, Mum," she could hear Gene say. His voice was somewhat muffled but otherwise quite audible. "Yeah, I’m fine, everything’s fine. How’re you and Dad?" Gene paused, listening, and when he spoke again she could hear his frown.

"No, I don’t want to talk to him, anyway. I don’t care where he is and I don’t want you to pass along a message."  There was another long pause and then Gene began to describe his day’s events to his mother. He had only just come back into Tokyo that morning from an extended stay in Maebashi and had spent a better part of the afternoon at the Sensoji temple.

Mai turned her thoughts away and began to page through her homework. Seeing her English homework incomplete, she finished the rest of the questions with ease. Glancing over the first half, she noticed with a frown that she’d made several mistakes and contemplated fixing the errors for several moments. Finally deciding that it could be suspicious to have such sudden improvement, she did not to take the effort.

"Is Lin around, by any chance?  Let me speak with him," Mai’s ears perked up when the conversation shifted again. "Hey, Lin," Gene said cheerfully. "How are you doing? I was wondering if you could pass along a message to Noll for me."

Mai looked up involuntarily when Naru was mentioned again, straining to catch more of the conversation.

"I don’t want to talk to him," Gene snorted in disdain, "so it’s just as well that he’s not there. No, don’t tell him to call me back. I’ll have the phone off, anyway."  Mai imagined that Lin had suggested Gene speak to his brother and give him the message himself. Lin had never liked being the one to pass messages along. "Anyway, I ran into a girl who seems to know him. She mistook me for him. I just wanted him to know. That’s all."

Mai frowned, wondering. There was something off about Gene’s voice as he spoke of Naru. No doubt about it—the twins were arguing about something, a rift large enough between the two that Gene wasn’t speaking to his brother.

"Yeah, she’s letting me stay at her house," he said casually. "Don’t worry, Lin, I know it’s not dangerous. Trust me on this one. It’s just something I know."

Mai sighed. Feeling guilty for her eavesdropping, she concentrated on her math homework until Gene’s conversation with his family was over.

 

*******

 

After Gene’s phone call, Mai returned to the main room and ventured that if he didn’t have any other plans or suggestions, she had some board games they could play. When looking over her small selection Gene immediately pulled her father’s old Go set from the bottom of the stack, asking her if she knew how to play and if she could teach him. Mai was dubious but Gene’s clear enthusiasm at the prospect was quick to convince her. The two spent the rest of the night over the board, Mai alternating between instructing and answering his questions about Japan. After some time Mai found herself unable to stop yawning, at which point Gene politely suggested they put the game away and go to sleep.

"I really appreciate you letting me stay here tonight," Gene said, watching as she moved the kotatsu out of the way, unfolding her extra futon. As embarrassed as Mai had been to only have cup ramen for her guest, she was just as thankful that her apartment was clean and she didn’t feel compelled to vacuum. She took a comforter and pillow from the closet shelf and passed it to him.

"It’s really no big deal," she said, smiling at him. "It’s nice to have friends over. It gets lonely in a quiet apartment.”

"Let me make it up to you," Gene said earnestly. "Tomorrow. I’ll take you out to lunch or to a movie. Or dinner. Whatever you want to do. It’ll be our date."

Mai felt a flush cross her cheeks as he said this and avoided his eyes. His friendly tone and compassionate gaze was all too familiar and almost unsettling to see. "I’ll think of something fun we can do," she agreed, carefully avoiding the word ’date’. "We can do some sightseeing in Tokyo."

"We’ll talk it over tomorrow morning," Gene promised, a huge yawn filling his features. "I’m tired too. Let’s just go to sleep."

 

*******

 

Mai awoke in the night to her mobile vibrating next to her head. Opening her eyes blearily, she groped for the phone, fumbling it open and answering as she pressed it to her ear.

"Hello?"  She answered, the Japanese almost sounding foreign to her own ears after speaking English for such a long time.

"Mai. It’s Lin."  The voice was curt and serious, no-nonsense. As to be expected.

"Ughhh," she groaned, rising just enough to squint at the clock next to her futon. The red light of the digits read 1:34. "What time is it there?"

"About half past four in the afternoon. I’m sorry to wake you."

"It’s okay," she said, flopping back down on her back and lowering her voice to a whisper. "Is... is Naru there?"

His hesitation was obvious. "That is precisely the reason I called you."

Her half-lidded eyes snapped open wide immediately, deciphering the meaning in his serious tone. "He’s not?"

"No," Lin hesitated again. "I'll be blunt. I have no idea where Naru is."

"Wait," Mai said, the realization hitting her. "You... you remember everything, don’t you?"

"Yes."  Lin sighed. "Up until the moment Naru took your hand and unleashed his psychic energy. The next thing I knew, it was eight o’clock in the morning, spring and not autumn, and the world has gone back seven years."

"But Naru’s not there?"

"No. If it was exactly like the previous time he did this, he should have been in the same place as he was at this very instant last time, which would be here. But he’s not. I’m wondering how long I should wait for him to show up before I have to tell Luella and Martin he’s missing."

"Where could he be?"

The man exhaled heavily. "I can only hazard a few guesses. Either he found it necessary to leave the house this morning without telling anyone, or he wasn’t here in the first place. I can’t imagine how he could have left without anyone noticing. But if he wasn’t here, wherever he is, that would indicate that things are not the same this time around and turns our hypothesis on its head."

Mai chewed on her lip. Naru had pursued the question of how exactly he had turned back time, sorting through what seemed like thousands of unlikely possibilities before tentatively settling on one idea, and it was shaky at best. While Naru and Lin disagreed on many parts of his elaborate theory, they both agreed that it was most probable that his psychic energy had been strong enough to create an intense gravitational field that had disrupted the space-time continuum, and had been focused and direct enough to bring him—and others—back to a specific moment. Mai, on the other hand, was content to leave it a mystery unsolved. Despite his ideas, he hadn’t been able to explain to her how he could have moved time backwards but simultaneously kept their memories of the future—or as he liked to call it, their ‘shared pre-cognition’. It was all complete speculation and honestly, whether it was a parallel universe or a wrinkle in time, she didn’t like to think about it.

"It’s not possible that... that he’s not here, right?" She ventured. “That somehow he didn’t make it back?”

"I wouldn’t think so. If something happened to Naru, I’m certain that Gene would know. He would have felt it immediately, so we can count on the fact that he’s alive and well. I just don’t understand why he isn’t here now. I think the worst thing that could happen is that he won’t remember what happened... remember the future, as you say."

The thought created a lump in Mai’s throat, which she swallowed and tried to forget. "Um. Speaking of, I don’t quite understand why you remember. You didn’t last time."

"It may have been my proximity to Naru when he initiated… all of this. I must have been killed by the psychic explosion. I assume Naru was as well. Perhaps that’s why."

Mai had the distinct feeling that there was something Lin wasn’t being truthful about. Under most circumstances she wouldn’t press the man to disclose anything he wasn’t comfortable with, but with the current situation she didn’t want there to be any secrets between them. "What else?"  She asked quietly.

His hesitation was obvious, but when he spoke she knew he was being honest. "I tried to stop him," he admitted. "That may also factor into our current state of affairs."  He paused again, regret and shame unmistakable in his voice. "I’m sorry, Mai."

"It’s okay," she said, though her throat had tightened as she tried to imagine the situation the two men had been in. "I’m sure you were just trying to protect him. There’s no way you could have known what would happen."  She paused, remembering Lin’s words from several moments before. After a short silence, she spoke again. "How did I die, anyway?"

"Also in Naru’s PK explosion."  He paused, choosing his words carefully. "Otherwise, you hadn’t died yet."

"But I was about to, huh."

There was a long pause as the man deliberated whether or not to be honest. "It was only a matter of time," he finally said. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed, suddenly feeling very glum and wishing Naru was by her side. "Sorry. That’s not important. You know that Gene is here, right?"

"Yes. You needn’t worry about whispering, Mai, I’ve sent a shiki to watch him and it tells me he’s still fast asleep on your spare futon."  He paused, several moments of pensive silence. "If Naru doesn’t show up by tomorrow, I’ll probably send the rest of my shiki out to see if I can find him."

She frowned. "Won’t that exhaust you?  First of all to have your shiki here, with Gene..."

"Perhaps, but ultimately necessary," he sighed. "I would like to find Naru and get him on a plane to Japan as quickly as possible. I’m sure you realize that the day of Gene’s death is only ten days away, and quite honestly, this is a problem that I think only Naru is equipped to deal with."

"Should I just tell him the truth?"

"I don’t think that would be very wise," Lin cautioned. "I’m not entirely certain he’d believe you nor do I think you could convince him to skip his appointment in Nagano."

"What if you asked him to come back to England?  Or explained to Martin and Luella and have them ask him to come home?"

He sighed and she could hear him slumping in his chair. "Bringing his parents into this is not currently an option. I never was as close with Gene..." he cleared his throat and started again. "I’m not as close to Gene as I am with Naru. This is a point in time where these two brothers relied heavily on each other but not anyone else. While Naru, having lived first eight and then seven years into the future, has matured and progressed from that, no time has passed for Gene. The only one who will be able to change his mind and persuade him to change his course of action is Naru.”

“Gene’s trip to Japan is very precious to him,” Lin continued. “He’s proving to himself and those around him of his own capabilities and independence. He’s thought out and carefully planned all of this. Telling him to come home and abandon his work there would certainly not go over well. It may seem counterintuitive to wait, but I do think Naru is the only one capable to deal with this situation. Naru will know what to do, not to mention he’s the only one who can ameliorate the anger Gene will inevitably feel when he finds out the truth."

"What do you mean?"  Mai protested. "Won’t he be happy when he finds out we’ve returned to the past and he can avoid his own death?"

"Were you happy when you found out you had died, and what Naru did to bring you back? No, Mai, I suspect Gene is similar to you in that regard. Happiness is certainly not the first emotion he will feel. And Naru didn’t do this to save Gene," Lin corrected. "He did it to save you."  Mai swallowed, her mouth going dry, and he continued.

"Don’t confuse him with his brother, Mai. They may look the same but Gene is irrational and flighty in ways that Naru never will be. If Gene finds out—which I have a feeling he inevitably will—that Naru has discarded their closeness and replaced that bond with you, he will take it as a complete betrayal on Naru’s behalf."

"But... but that’s not true," Mai whispered.

"Of course not, but that’s how he will see it. Gene is only sixteen years old, Mai. He’s not a rational adult like you."

Mai laughed bitterly. "No one has ever called me a rational adult, Lin-san."

She could hear him smile. "I won’t argue the matter. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you to keep an eye on him. It would probably be best to keep him close by until we can get Naru there."

"Of course," she agreed. "I’ll... I’ll do whatever I can."

"I’ll alert you if I find Naru."  Lin sighed deeply. "I should let you go back to sleep."

"One more thing," Mai said, a new thought quickly forming in her mind. "Do you think… do you think I’ll have my abilities again?  According to Naru’s theory, coming back in time to before my so-called psychic awakening... will I retain my abilities or not?  Is that the same as memories, or because I haven’t been on those cases, and Gene hasn’t guided me... it never happened?"

"That’s a good question," he said. "Did the future events really occur or is it just a form of pre-cognition?  I honestly don’t have an answer. You may just have to wait and see."

"Hmm," she frowned. Suddenly realizing that she had been utterly self-absorbed in her own side of the situation and completely oblivious to Lin’s, her face flushed with shame. "I’m... I’m really sorry about dragging you into this, Lin-san."  She stammered. "That wasn’t fair to you. I’m sorry... about Sarah-san."

"It’s... it’s okay."  Lin said quietly and she cringed, knowing that some of the sentiment was forced. No doubt as much as she missed Naru, surely Lin was just as distraught to be apart from his wife. "I’m sure I’ll be with her again someday."

"I’m sorry," Mai said again.

"It’s not your fault. You have no need to apologize."

However, it did feel like it was her fault. She was the one who had died—or almost died—after all. She was, as Lin had said, the reason Naru had brought them there. "You’ll meet again and things will turn out even better than last time," Mai said hopefully. "I’m... I’m sure."

"Yes. Don’t worry about that, Mai. We’re here now and there’s nothing we can do to change that. Our task at hand is to save Gene’s life."

She bit her lip. "Yeah," she agreed. "Okay."

"I won’t keep you up any longer. Goodnight, Mai."

Mai held the phone in her hand long after their conversation, wide eyes gazing in the dark toward the ceiling. Gene. Gene. What was he doing here?  And why was he angry with Naru? She knew next to nothing about Gene’s visit to Japan. ‘He was doing independent research, visiting psychic mediums’ was the extent of her knowledge. Naru had never spoken of it and she had never asked. It was still painful for him to remember the events that led to his brother’s death. When he spoke of Gene it had always been stories of their late childhood or early adolescence, and even those were rare tellings. A memory of his brother at eleven, recounting some event from when they were thirteen, or relaying a story of twins at fifteen. But nothing regarding Gene’s trip to Japan.

She heard the slight sound of Gene shifting in his sleep in the other room, and she too, rolled over underneath her comforter, curling her knees toward her chest and resting her chin against the back of her hand, her fingertips tucked underneath her head. The comfort of the new position lasted only seconds. After much tossing and turning, she finally settled flat on her back, staring up at the ceiling. An uneasy feeling gnawed at her insides as she wondered about Naru. Even Lin didn’t know where he was. What did that mean?  What if he didn’t remember?  She couldn’t imagine seeing him, his face blank without recognition. Surely her heart would break. Letting out a long breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding, she thought about Lin. He was in the same position, except he had no reason to believe that his future wife would remember him. He would have to move forward, simply hoping that things could be the same and she would love him again.

She exhaled, lighting up her phone and squinting at the bright light before dropping it beside her on the futon. More than an hour had passed since Lin first called her and she was wide awake, alert and in no position to fall back asleep. Thinking and worrying about Naru wouldn’t help anything, she knew, so she slowly began to focus on her breathing instead of the man she loved. Her mind calmly wandered over the day’s events. Just as had happened the first time, she had no memories from the day before she opened her eyes, partially submerged in a puddle. She had no recollection why she might have been in that particular shopping area in Ichigaya—though there was a used book and music store she had occasionally frequented and she suspected she might have been on her way there.

As she recalled the short day, the thought that was impossible to ease from her mind was the brief encounter with John. It was so bizarre to see the Australian so young!  She couldn’t help but remember the last time she’d seen the priest, which had been at Lin’s wedding. Laughing until her sides hurt as he played the didgeridoo and laughing even harder when she remembered Naru once telling her that Lin would have a son. Imagining the boy growing up with such a toy (and the reaction it would no doubt garner from his parents) was just as funny as the serious expression on John’s face. Afterwards, she had asked him when he’d learned to play. He'd shrugged in response but his eyes were glowing with fond recollection as he spoke. "I have been fortunate to know the Aboriginal elders in my parish back home. One man makes didgeridoos and agreed to teach me. In their language, they call it a paampu."

Tears gathered in her eyes and dripped down the side of her face, trickling into her ears. She wondered if she would ever have that friendship again, and if it was selfish to think that way. It was a long time before her eyes drifted closed and she finally fell back asleep.

 

*******

 

Opening his eyes slowly, Gene watched the light from the oncoming morning creep across the apartment. The window was small and covered with a thin curtain, but the approaching dawn could not be kept at bay. In the quiet room he could hear the soft cooing of a pigeon on the other side of the glass and the sounds of traffic from the street below.

As he had done countless times before, he allowed his consciousness to drift from his body and out the window. It was a trick he’d been fond of ever since he was a small child, looking for stimulation at the stifling orphanage. While his brother caused havoc and poltergeisting with his pent up frustrations, Gene had learned to dream quietly, watching the happenings of the world around him from a detached body, hovering over streets, playgrounds and schools. His caretakers had always assumed he was retarded, the way he would stare blankly at nothing for hours on end, smiling or even laughing as he watched people and animals they could not see.

It was still overcast, but the rain had stopped sometime in the night to leave the streets wet and the foliage damp. It was bustling with activity outside. Following her street down to a main thoroughfare, a woman was buying flowers, informing the shopkeeper it was for her daughter’s birthday. Across the corner there was a bakery, where a middle-aged couple ate pastries and drank coffee in what was presumably their Sunday morning routine. A jogger ran down the sidewalk, a light swish-swishing sound as his ankles crossed each other. A small dog barked once, a high pitched yelp from behind a gate as the man passed and was quiet.

Returning to the room, bored with the activity, Gene frowned slightly and closed his eyes, turning over thoughts in his head. He’d always been able to see things that others could not. In addition to his ability to see and speak with spirits, he’d discovered that he could see hidden things about the living as well. While he was much more cautious in this practice, it was a habit he’d secretly enjoyed: eavesdropping on dreams. Just as he was able to separate his consciousness from his body and view the world outside the walls that confined him, he could use that skill to enter another’s open, unsuspecting conscious. Filled with curiosity, when he’d awoken that morning he’d done to Mai what he’d done to others before her: slipping into her dream, watching with all his senses from afar.

Her dream had been almost a simple nightmare: the ominous calls of an immense murder of crows, heard but not seen, echoing among the buildings as a young woman ran through deserted city streets. She was searching for something or running away from something—it was difficult to determine exactly which. But several things about the dream were suspicious. First, it was unmistakable that it was London she ran through frantically, which struck Gene as odd. Either the memories of her trip had been enough to bring about such a vivid dream, or London held more importance to her than he had thought.

Secondly, hovering on the edge of her conscious, he was certain that on some level she knew he was there. With the exception for the times that he’d slipped into Noll’s dreams, that had only happened once before. He’d only made the mistake of crossing the threshold into Lin’s slumber once and had apologized profusely when he saw the man during waking hours. But Lin was a sort of extraordinary creature, with more tricks up his sleeve than he suspected any of them knew about. The fact that this ordinary girl sensed his presence was disconcerting, to say the least.

Gene opened his eyes and sat up with a yawn, scratching his head and ruffling his hair. She’d never elaborated on how she had met his brother, and the arising suspicion that this girl had latent psychic abilities made him wonder if her so-called ‘school trip’ had actually taken her by the British Society for Psychic Research. Why else would she have allowed him to come home with her, unless she’d somehow instinctively known, as he did, that it was a safe option?  She seemed smarter than to bring a complete stranger to her empty apartment. Noll had always spent a lot more time at the BSPR office than he did; it would make sense that he would have met her there. It would also explain her hesitancy to elaborate on the meeting. But unless she attended a peculiar school, it wasn’t likely that a school trip would have taken here there. Then he wondered if perhaps it hadn’t been a school trip at all.

Gene rose to his feet quietly, surveying the room. It was a small apartment, perhaps only a little larger than he and his brother's bedrooms combined. The room had a pleasant, cozy feeling to it, though it was meager and perhaps a little too cramped for his liking. After all, Mai was an orphan, a student who probably didn’t have a lot of time on her hands to make money, and most likely relied heavily on whatever stipend she received from social services. While the clothes she had been wearing yesterday seemed new, he’d noticed that her coat had a rip in the sleeve that had been mended and her shoes had holes forming above the soles. The blankets and futon seemed old and the curtains that covered the window were faded and obviously secondhand. The kotatsu, now leaning against the wall, was the only real piece of furniture in the room. One of the walls was almost entirely covered in shelving but was only half-filled with a variety of objects and items: a few books, magazines, pictures, knick knacks. The kitchen was but a corner of the room, and contained only the essentials, nothing frivolous. There was the closet from which she’d retrieved his futon last night, which he set about folding and replaced neatly, as well as a closet for a toilet and a separate closet for a shower. No doubt for an apartment this size the included shower was a luxury.

After he had put away the pillow and comforter, he tip-toed across the room and slid open the door which separated her bedroom from the rest of the apartment, quietly looking inside. Mai was in a deep sleep, breathing softly and evenly underneath her comforter. Evidently the nightmare that had disturbed her sleep earlier had receded; her face was peaceful and entirely undisturbed by the light from the window and the oncoming morning.

He gazed at her for several moments, wondering what the truth was behind this serenely sleeping girl. As he watched her, he noticed her lashes were long and dark against her pale skin, and how the gentle morning light rested on her cheeks and slightly parted lips. As soon as his eyes moved to her lips he immediately turned away, unsure why he had opened the door in the first place. Turning on his heel, he slid the door shut and returned the room to its privacy.

 

                                                                                       *******

 

Gene had showered and dressed, left the apartment, bought breakfast and an English newspaper, returned and was seated at the kotatsu when Mai finally rose. He heard her moving about and dressing in her room before the door slid open tentatively.

He looked up and met her gaze, grinning and almost laughing as she peeked into the room cautiously. "Good morning!"  He said cheerfully with a wide smile. "Sleep well?"

"Morning," Mai said, and flushed with embarrassment as she entered the room. "Sorry for making you wait. I didn’t mean to sleep in."

"Nah, it’s fine," Gene shrugged, turning his gaze back to the newspaper. "I’ve always been an early riser. I bought some bread and muffins. Help yourself."

"Thank you," Mai said, walking to the kitchen and turning on the hot water pot. Her back turned, Gene raised his gaze and watched her carefully. She carried herself very well, he thought. She had excellent posture and moved very confidently. Observing her in silence, he watched her as she prepared her tea. She was wearing a dress or a skirt underneath a large thick jumper. Her hair had been hastily smoothed, he noticed, and several tendrils were astray, sticking out in the back where she no doubt hadn’t seen them. Eyes trailing from her head to her toes, he noticed that her stockings had several small tears and holes. As she turned back toward him, holding her cup of tea, he returned his gaze to the article before she could catch his scrutiny.

She sat down at the kotatsu and selected an apple-filled pastry, eating in silence. When she reached for a muffin, Gene spoke, folding the newspaper and setting it aside. "What should we do today, Mai? We’ll do whatever you want."

Mai concentrated on peeling the paper wrapper away from the muffin, avoiding his earnest gaze. "How about the zoo?"  It was the first thing that occurred to her. "The zoo is always fun. Ueno Zoo is really big, or we could go to the Sea Life Park. Either would be a lot of fun."  She paused, unsure what he would think of the suggestion. "Or we could go around Tokyo,” she added quickly. “There’s cool temples and shrines we could visit, or um... museums and gardens, though it might be a little too early for spring flowers still."

Gene considered her in silence for a moment, then his grin widened and he nodded. "Nah, let’s go to the zoo. That sounds like fun."

 

*******

 

As soon as they arrived, Gene was glad she’d suggested they visit the zoo and even more that he had agreed to the idea. It was apparent that she would enjoy this trip much more than he would. Whether she realized it or not, it was probably something she needed: he could practically see the weight lift from her shoulders. Her face lit up as they entered, hurrying toward the exhibit of Japanese animals, her smile brightening as she watched the deer and nearby cranes. Pointing and all but hopping on her toes in excitement, she turned to him with a huge smile on her face. "Look, Gene, red pandas!" Taking his arm, she led him up the path to the enclosure, her eyes alight. Watching the small mammals, vaguely listening to Mai as she read the sign aloud, he suddenly realized that she’d been somewhat despondent all morning, as if something unpleasant was on her mind. He just hadn’t noticed until now.

They moved away from the red pandas and she opened her map, twiddling a loose hair around her finger. It was much warmer than the day before and she hadn’t worn her coat, instead wearing a down vest and a knit cabled scarf wrapped around her neck to keep out the chill. "Where do you want to go?  If we go up this way to the lions and tigers, we’ll see otters and birds on the way, and we can make our way around to the sea lions, penguins, and bears..."  She pointed vaguely in the direction she intended them to go and frowned. "There’s an awful lot. We might have to pick some things to skip over... otherwise we won’t make it to the Animals of Africa area, and I’d love to see the zebra..."  She looked up at him, worried. "But I can come here anytime. What do you want to see while you're here, Gene? We’ll go wherever you want."

"Mai," Gene said, grinning and closing the pamphlet in her hands. "Don’t worry too much about it. Let’s start this way and we’ll go from there."

Her face relaxed into a smile, and widened into a grin as he took her arm and pulled her forward into the exhibits.

The morning sped by, the two enthralled by the different animals they saw. "It was so cool to see that polar bear swimming around!"  Mai laughed, clapping her hands together. "The last time I went to the zoo and saw a polar bear was in the summer and it was just sleeping. They probably prefer this cooler weather. I love bears," she giggled, and Gene had to smile. It seemed as though every other animal exhibit they passed was followed by Mai’s appreciative "I love penguins," or "I love lions," and even "Bats are so cool."

"Are you getting hungry?"  Gene asked her. A group of children scampered past them, laughing and shrieking as their mothers called them back.

"Mm, a little bit."  She said absently, gazing at a Japanese macaque. "Nihonzaru-san wa dou omoimasuka?" She asked softly in Japanese. "Is the weather nice today? Are they feeding you well? Do you miss your hot spring?"

They had walked past the macaques and approached the elephants in silence. From behind them they could hear the other exhibit of monkeys playing in their cages and the laughter of the human spectators.

"Do you think they’re cold?"  Mai wondered aloud.

"Dunno," Gene said. He watched the huge beast in silence before speaking again. "My brother has always liked elephants."  Mai remained silent and Gene began to walk, opening the map. "Mai," he called, and she cast one last look at the elephants before hurrying to catch up with him. "Let’s eat lunch. My treat."

 

*******

 

They finished their tour of the zoo late in the afternoon. At Gene’s request, instead of heading directly to the train station, the two began to walk through Ueno Park, talking all the while, telling stories and anecdotes. Passing the statue of Saigou Takamori, the famous samurai, Mai insisted that she take Gene’s picture in front of it, flipping open her mobile phone and waving him in front of it. "Every time you pass this statue you have to get your picture taken with it. It’s bad luck if you don’t."

Thinking that saying ‘that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard’ would be a bit rude, Gene instead said, "Says who?"  He looked dubious but complied, standing still as she snapped the photo.

"My friend, Michiru." Mai smiled and laughed. "I know it’s strange, but one time my other friend Keiko didn’t, and she lost her train pass the next day. Anyway, it’s just habit, now. Every time we come by. It's kinda fun. We have all these pictures on our phones, standing in front of this statue."

Gene shrugged and pulled out his own phone. "Then I have to take your picture, too."

Mai looked sheepish in the photo, eyes bright and smiling with closed lips. As Gene pocketed the phone, Mai led him by the elbow to a vendor across the way, manoeuvring through the other pedestrians on the path. "Gene, have you ever had yaki-dango before?"  Before he had time to respond, she had bought two sticks of the grilled rice dumplings, smiling as she passed one to him.

"I wish I didn’t have school tomorrow," Mai sighed, gazing upward as she nibbled on the dumpling. The skies had cleared, the sun finally showing itself and warming the chilly, damp air. "Looks like the weather’s going to get nice."  Lowering her sight back to the earth, she grinned at him. "Maybe I should skip and hang out with you."

Gene laughed cheerfully, trying to hide how much he liked the thought of spending another day alone with her. It would be a good way to pass the time, to be sure, but he was hesitant to ask such a thing of her—not to mention he had his own agenda to attend to as well. "Won’t you get in trouble for stuff like that? Besides, what about your grades?"

Mai frowned, averting her gaze, thinking about the last time she had to re-do school and how slowly that final year of high school had passed. "I suppose so," she agreed reluctantly, eating the final dumpling on her stick. This time she had three years ahead of her, not just the one. At least her grades would be better this time around.

"What’s your favorite class in school? English, since you’re so good at it?"  Gene pulled his own final dumpling off the stick with his teeth, and tossed the stick into a trash can at the side of the path.

Mai made a face, stepping behind him to throw her own stick in the bin. "Not really."  She frowned, considering. "Literature, I guess. The teacher is really good. And science classes can be fun. I’m taking biology this year."  She looked at him curiously. "What about you?"

Gene stretched his arms, gazing forward. "Ah, I don’t know. I like history, I guess. And English. Reading. I like art and music a lot, too." He smiled apologetically. "I’m taking some time off school right now. I, well... I graduated high school two years ago and I’ve been taking classes at the university. Since I don’t know what I want to focus on..." his voice trailed off.

Mai had to remind herself to look surprised. She had known that Gene had completed high school early, just as Naru had. "Wow, I didn’t know you’re a genius!"  She grinned at him. "That’s so cool, to be done with high school already."

"Sometimes it is."

"I guess it makes sense to take it slowly. You have plenty of time ahead of you to do all the things you want."

"Yeah," he agreed. But he thought Mai looked a little sad after she said that.

Sidestepping around some laughing high-school aged boys, Gene noticed that two in the group of four turned their gaze to Mai as she passed them. Mimicking their actions, he turned his gaze to her as well. Mai was certainly not stunning, but she was definitely cute. A satisfied smirk lifting his lips, Gene realized that to most observers he would appear to be her boyfriend.

His hands in his pockets, he vaguely wondered how he would ask Mai if he could keep staying at her apartment. After inviting himself over for the first night, it would be impolite to ask again. Instead of approaching the topic, however, he said, "I’m hungry again. Let’s find a place to eat."

"If we go back to my place I can make dinner," Mai offered.

"Nah, it’s too far. It’ll take too long. By the time we’ll get there we’ll be starving."  He smiled at her. "Besides, I don’t want to eat cup ramen."

"I would make something," Mai protested, frowning. "I just need to pick up some groceries, but I can make nabe hotpot or something easy and tasty. It may not be four-star restaurant level but I'm not a terrible cook!"

"Nah, don’t worry about it. Besides, I wanted to do something nice for you today. You already had to put up with me all day. So let’s find someplace nice, whatever you want." Seeing her apprehension, he grinned winningly and took her arm. "Come on, Mai, don’t worry about it. My treat."

"Really? Hmm..." she paused and smiled. "Can we get Italian? Spaghetti or something? I only ever get udon or ramen, so something a little different would be fun."  Her eyes were shining.

He grinned. "You got all excited again."

"Yup," she laughed happily, skipping forward. Gene realized that over the course of the day and their conversations he’d come to be able to read her fairly well. Sometimes she acted older beyond her years, but there were times, like now, when she acted her age. After all, she was only fifteen years old. He wondered if her maturity had come from living on her own or from being an orphan. People had always told him and his brother that they were wise, mature, or ‘had old eyes.’  He’d never quite understood it until now. There was no other way to explain it—Mai simply did not act like a high school student most of the time.

"Then Italian it is."  He laughed and winked at her, and Mai could not help but blush with his words. "This is our date, after all."

Knowing her cheeks were red and even more embarrassed for that fact, Mai averted her gaze. "I, um..."

"You already have someone you like, right?"  He laughed and patted her shoulder. "I’m sorry, Mai, just teasing."  Inwardly, however, he wondered why he had allowed this strange girl to have his friendship so easily and why he had such a strong desire to stay by her side.

 

*******

 

Gene needn’t have worried about asking—or convincing, if necessary—Mai if he could stay with her; as they left the restaurant she said, tentatively, "So... do you have a place to stay for the rest of your trip here?  You can stay at my apartment for as long as you need to."

"You don’t mind?"

"Of course not."  Mai said, pulling her hat down over her ears. "I have a spare key. It’s the least I can do, right?"

Gene looked slightly puzzled over her choice of words, but shrugged and let his natural smile spread across his features. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

She shrugged, ducking her head and looking at her boots. "I’m happy to help."

The restaurant was a short distance from the train station and so they walked there in the early evening, watching the street lights flicker on. They boarded the train as it arrived, squeezing between the people to find enough space for both of them to stand together. Gene grasped the handle from the ceiling with one hand, his other hand protectively resting on Mai’s back. She swayed as the train began to move, her own grasp not quite as firm and he held her shoulder until she was steady.

Hasn’t this already happened before?  Mai thought, glancing up at Gene. He smiled at her, silently, before turning his gaze away, trained on the advertisements on the wall.

Didn’t this happen once, almost exactly, only with Naru?

 

*******

 

Mai, never a strategist, was not tremendously fond of Go and couldn’t imagine that Gene would be content to play again (and win again) with such boring company. So instead, when they returned to the apartment, she pulled out an old version of Sugoroku and set it on the kotatsu. Gene had bought juice drinks and several snacks at the corner convenience store, his purchases soon taking up the space between the edge of the table and the board game. Gene drank his juice out of the bottle; Mai poured her drink in portions into a small glass to sip on. Mai didn’t remember the rules of the game exactly, but after she reviewed the instruction pamphlet she was able to describe it sufficiently. Gene caught on very quickly.

"Oh, so it’s similar to backgammon," he said, and grinning, popped some wasabi peas into his mouth and they began to play.

"You don’t have any homework or anything you need to be doing, right?"  Gene asked, tossing the dice and after a quick assessment of the board, played his pieces accordingly.

Mai shook her head. "No, I finished all my assignments already."  She rolled the dice and glanced up at him cautiously. "What are you going to do tomorrow?"

"Ah, I haven’t really decided."  Gene said in such a nonchalant tone that Mai had the impression he knew exactly what he wanted to do tomorrow, he just didn’t want to share the information. While she wanted to be nosy, she shrugged and left it at that—the last thing she wanted was to be too persistent and annoy him as a result.

"The zoo was a lot of fun today."  Gene said, watching her move her pieces intently. "I’m surprised it wasn’t so crowded. It was cool to see the giant panda."

"Yeah, Ling Ling is famous. He’s the zoo’s biggest attraction."  Mai agreed, smiling as she finished her move and passed the dice to Gene. He rolled and moved his pieces again, quickly, without hesitation.

"Oh, no, you’re going to win on your next turn," she noticed with despair, her face falling.

A smug smile lifted his lips. "With any luck, yes."

After Gene won the game they did not play again. Instead they first sat, and then lay on the floor, propped up on pillows and kept warm under the kotatsu. They talked late into the night, elaborating on conversations and stories they’d shared throughout the day. Gene asked Mai about the Ring horror movies—he’d seen a poster for Ring 0 and wondered if she’d like to see it with him. Mai had shuddered slightly but agreed, confessing that she actually enjoyed ghost stories. After her confession Gene took the opportunity to tell a rather gruesome and suspenseful tale. He was a master—evidently holding some passion for ghost stories himself—building the story up just the right way and drawing her into it—literally—causing a shriek and a laugh when he grabbed her ankle at the climax of the story.

Gradually their conversation moved toward more personal subjects: Mai asked Gene about his first two years of university classes and listened with rapt attention as he disclosed details she doubted he’d told anyone besides Naru. She discovered that a large part of the reason he had decided not to take classes that term was rooted in the fact that he did not like being the youngest person in the class and the subsequent attention that was drawn to him by that fact. It surprised her to hear that he could be so self-conscious and confident at the same time, especially when his brother was nothing of the sort. Gene asked Mai about her parents and her childhood, and after hearing her stories, slowly admitted that he and his brother had been orphaned at a young age. Mai, feeling embarrassed for being so intrusive, quietly asked the questions she’d never asked Naru: asking him about the orphanage, their adoption and their relocation to England. When Gene spoke she knew he was being honest, and she felt guilty both for prying but also for never asking Naru those questions in the years she’d been with him.

"Today was fun, wasn’t it?" Mai said sleepily after a long pause in their conversation.

"Yeah," Gene said, and rising just enough to see him, she could see that his eyes were closed. His breathing gradually deepened.

Too comfortable to leave the warmth of the kotatsu, Mai retrieved her phone from her pocket, setting the alarm for the following morning. Pausing as she held the device, she shifted so she was lying on her stomach as she stared at the screen of the phone. Gene, in the photo she’d captured in Ueno Park, looked too much like Naru for her liking. He looked skeptical and wasn’t exactly smiling, his dark hair almost covering his eyes. Her phone wasn't able to capture the color of his gaze, but it did capture his smug, teasing expression.

She sighed, closing her eyes. There was still no word from Lin.

"Where are you?" She murmured quietly in Japanese. Closing the phone and dropping it to the side of her pillow, she let sleep overtake her.

 

*******

 

Mai awoke the next morning to a persistent buzzing just under her left ear. She silenced the mobile phone quickly and sighed, dropping her head back on the pillow. She slowly sat up and nearly started when she saw she’d slept under the kotatsu with Gene.

She stood quietly and made her way to her bedroom, changing into her school uniform and gathering notebooks and folders into her school bag.

She was simultaneously making onigiri rice balls and drinking a cup of tea in the kitchen when she felt the weight of his eyes on her. She turned, cautiously meeting his gaze. He hadn’t moved from where he had been sleeping, his head resting on his arm under the kotatsu blanket, toes sticking out on the other end. But he was awake now, his eyes open and calmly watching her.

“Good morning. Sorry if I woke you.”

“Morning. You didn’t.”

Mai suddenly felt embarrassed to be held in his watchful gaze and turned her attention back to the rice. "What is it?"  She asked as she formed the rice in her hands.

"Nothin’," Gene said lazily, closing his eyes.

Mai formed the last of the rice into onigiri and wrapped up her bento box, placing the extra rice balls on a plate. "There’s some extra onigiri, if you want it," she called quietly. Glancing toward him she saw that his eyes were open again, his irises dark and painfully familiar.

"Is that all you’re eating today?"  Gene frowned at her.

"N-no, I’ll trade with some friends," Mai lied, flushing and looking away from him. He was giving her a look with narrowed eyes that mirrored a look she’d seen on his brother’s face so many times. She looked at her watch and panicked. "Oh, I have to go. I’ll be late if I don’t."  She hurried toward the door, pulling on her coat and stepping into her school loafers. "Here’s my extra key, you can come and go as you please..."  She placed the key next to the plate of onigiri and glanced behind her once more as she opened the door, smiling gently. "I hope you have a good day, Gene."

The corners of his mouth lifted in a lop-sided grin, speaking to her in Japanese for the first time in the two days they’d spent together. "You too, Mai-chan."

 

*******

 

It was a boring day at school. Mai excused herself from her friends, saying she didn’t feel well, the other girls giving each other anxious glances as Mai quietly, even morosely, sat at her desk, unwilling to participate with her classmates. Despite not getting quite enough sleep the night before, she was not tired in the least. She stared out the window during the lessons, half-heartedly listening to her teachers and wondering what Gene was doing on the crisp spring day. As she had suspected, the sun was out and there were only a few clouds, high in the sky. It was not a good day to be in school. With a jacket it would be a great day to go to the park or have a picnic.

Mai frowned. A picnic... For some reason it made her think of Naru. Once again she began to wonder why the two brothers were fighting. Even though she did not have good reason to believe so, her intuition told her Gene was angry because Naru had not accompanied him on his trip to Japan. It was certainly feasible that Gene had wanted to the two to take this trip together. But why Naru would have refused, she did not know nor could she hazard a guess.

"Taniyama," a strict voice chastised, and she abruptly turned her gaze back to the front of the class. "Pay attention. Read the next passage, please, starting on page 37."

"Yes, sir," she said, rising to her feet and lifting her book, she began to read.

 

*******

 

The day passed uneventfully until classes were finally over. Anxious to leave, Mai hurried through her cleaning duties, hardly listening to the chatter of her classmates around her. A sudden commotion caught her attention.

"Oh, look, there’s a really cute boy waiting at the gate!"

"I’ve never seen him before, have you? Do you think he might be a transfer student?"

"I hope so! Maybe he’d be in our class!"

Mai, only vaguely interested by the stir, looked up to see three girls crowding around the window, giggling. She wasn’t the only one who noticed—the more they giggled, the more other students wandered over to the window to see. Mai turned her gaze out the window to the person in question. Her eyes immediately widened, recognizing the figure. "Gene?"  She exclaimed without thinking. "What is he doing here?"

The girls turned toward her instantly. "You know him?"  One of them accused.

Mai floundered. "Well, um, that is—"

Michiru bounced to Mai’s side. "No wonder you’ve been so out of it today!" Her friend teased. "Why didn’t you tell us you got such a cute boyfriend?"

"He’s not my boyfriend," Mai said quickly, but the girls didn’t seem to be listening.

"I’m so jealous," one girl sighed, while another clearly took offense at the idea.

"Where did you meet him?"  She demanded. "Did he ask you out?"

Another girl skipped toward her merrily. "You said his name is Jin?"  She pronounced the unfamiliar name carefully. "Is he a foreigner? He looks Japanese, though, doesn’t he? Where’s he from?"

"How many dates have you been on?"

"You’ve got the wrong idea," Mai quickly said, waving her hands in front of her face as the girls loomed over her, hungry for answers and details. At that moment her phone began to ring, and the girls immediately began to speculate that it was her boyfriend calling.

Mai managed to squeeze herself out of the crowd. Grabbing her coat and schoolbag, she ran from the room. Once she was a safe distance from the classroom she opened the phone. Gene had called her, and left a message saying he would wait for her at the school until she was done for the day.

Just as she was about to put the phone back in her pocket, a small beep indicated that she had a new message. Her face brightened in anticipation: it was a message from Lin. She hurried to open it, and scanning the words, her face fell.

Lin’s message was a polite inquiry, asking what explanation she had given Gene on how she had met Naru. Mai, frowning as her thumbs moved quickly across the keypad, replied and gave the broad outlines of her story. Her frown deepening, she ended the message curtly by asking if he had heard from Naru.

Stuffing the phone into her pocket and hastily buttoning up her coat, she hurried out of the school.

Gene’s face brightened when he saw her and waved, calling out to her. "Mai-channn! Are you done for the day?"  Mai couldn’t help but cringe, knowing that the girls were probably watching from the classroom. No doubt she’d have to face rumours in the next few days.

"How are you?"  Gene asked, grinning. "I was in the area so I figured I should come pick you up. Oh, and this is for you."  He dropped a small plush lion into her hands. "I thought you might like it."

At the gift, Mai completely forgot about the gossiping girls. "Wow! It’s so cute!" She looked up at him, grinning broadly, her eyes shining. "Thank you, Gene."

"It’s nothing," he said quickly, averting his gaze. "Just something to remind you of our trip to the zoo."

"Of course," she giggled and sling her bag over her shoulder, holding the plush in the crook of her arm. "I’m starving!  Let’s go home. We’ll stop by the store, I want to make curry tonight."

 

*******

 

"What’s the difference between Japanese and Indian curry, anyway?"  Gene asked, peering into the bag of groceries. Mai had bought carrots, potatoes, an apple and an onion for the meal she was planning. She hadn’t been able to afford it and so hadn’t planned on buying any meat, but Gene had bought a piece of beef to add to their dinner as well.

"I dunno exactly," Mai said, shrugging. "But they don't taste anything the same."

"You’ll let me help out, right?"

"Gene, you’ve already helped so much. You’re carrying the groceries for me and you bought the meat. It’d be rude to ask..."

"But I’m the one imposing on you, remember?” Gene insisted, interrupting. "Besides, I want to learn how you do it. I have to learn something on this trip. I can make it for my mother when I go back to England. She’ll be so proud of me. She always makes Indian curries, I can make her a Japanese one."

Mai laughed. "Okay," she agreed. "We’ll do it together."

Gene shifted the bag to his right hand, and stepping closer to her, put his left arm around her. "Thank you."

Mai felt her cheeks grow hot and she averted her gaze.

Gene chuckled softly and sighed happily. "I’m really glad I met you, Mai."

Mai felt a smile grow on her own lips as well. "Me too. I’m really glad, too."

Gene watched her carefully, wondering why the only word he could think to describe her, smiling with a light blush on her cheeks, was cute. He also began to ponder about the boy that held her current affections. "Tell me about school today. Do you have homework?  Maybe I can help you with that, too."  He winked at her. "Just not English homework. You probably know that even better than me."

"Don’t be silly," she laughed. Comfortable once more, they walked down the street together, Mai sheltered under his arm.

They were half a block from her apartment when Mai suddenly stopped in her tracks, so quickly that Gene nearly stumbled, his arm sliding from her shoulders. He turned toward her, puzzled and frowning. "Mai, what’s wrong?"

Mai, eyes wide and without the capacity to speak, hoped that Gene couldn’t hear the sound of her heartbeat, thumping frantically in her chest. In front of her apartment, arms crossed across his chest as he waited beneath the lilac tree, stood a mirror image of the young man by her side.

Mai tried to breathe calmly, but it was difficult as she frantically tried to comprehend the situation. Naru, what are you doing here?  Why didn’t Lin tell me you were here?

Gene turned his head followed her gaze. His dark eyes hardened noticeably, Mai saw, as her eyes darted between the twins.

"Gene," Naru said loudly.

Gene walked forward slowly, closing the distance between the twins. He raised his arm and clasped his brother’s shoulder. "Noll," he said. His smile was thin and there was a detectable edge to his voice. "I’m glad you decided to join me. Did you change your mind?"

"No. My views on the matter are still quite firm."  Naru said firmly. "But I’ll help you," he said calmly, his expression lightening, "because you are my brother and this is not something you should undertake alone."

Mai stood dumbly, staring at the two brothers. The hardness in Gene’s eyes seemed to soften and she had a feeling these were exactly the words Gene wanted to hear. "You shouldn’t compromise your values just for me."

"I would never do such a thing."  A small smirk twitched Naru’s lips. "Don’t get too full of yourself."

"Of course, you’re the egoist, not me. How’d you find me, anyway?"

"I asked Lin to help," Naru shrugged. "He was able to locate the apartment of your new.. friend."  Naru turned his gaze to Mai and she felt a tightness in her chest as he looked over her, wondering what he was going to say. "Mai Taniyama. It’s nice to see you again."

"L-likewise," Mai stumbled. The lump in her throat made it near impossible to speak.

"Thank you for looking after my brother."  He tilted his head politely.

"It’s… it’s nothing."

Gene turned apologetically to Mai, handing her the bag of groceries he’d been carrying. "Sorry, Mai. I was looking forward to helping you with the curry, but you’ll have to go ahead and do it without me."  He winked at her and gave her a tender smile. "I’ll call you later, though, okay?"

Mai stood, shocked and completely still as she watched the two brothers depart. Her heart was still pounding in her chest. She sucked in her breath as Naru glanced over his shoulder, looking back at her and meeting her gaze.

He said nothing, but his eyes offered to her a silent apology. She forced a small smile and nodded to him, knowing they couldn’t yet speak. As he turned his gaze away from hers the tears she’d been holding in finally spilled onto her cheeks.

Chapter Text

Mai Taniyama was making curry.

It should have made her happy, to see their reunion. Instead, watching the twin brothers walking away had given her a strange feeling of helplessness, so she hadn’t lingered on the street. She’d run hastily up the stairs to her apartment and changed out of her uniform and into her tracksuit, her eyes dry by the time she began her dinner preparations. She no longer cared if she actually ate curry for dinner that night, but the ingredients were there in front of her and cooking provided an activity to keep her hands and mind busy. Besides, she had no desire for cup ramen and her pocket money was getting low, so getting takeaway was out of the question. As far as she could tell, she’d have to live off the 3,200 yen she had in her wallet for the next two weeks, waiting for the next check from the firm that possessed her parents’ dwindling accounts. It shouldn’t be a problem, rent and other bills weren’t due for another three weeks and her monthly train pass was new.

As she chopped the vegetables, the onions and beef already sizzling in the pan, she couldn’t help the occasional glance toward her mobile. It sat still and silent on the top of the kotatsu where she’d left it in plain view. It didn't made a sound. She found her mood growing sour as the evening wore on because of the fact.

She knew it was irrational. Naru certainly couldn’t call her, not if they had to hide their relationship to maintain the pretence that they had met only once. Gene had no reason to call her, either—at least not tonight. He’d left his small suitcase, packed neatly and zipped shut in the corner of the room, but he obviously didn’t need it if he hadn’t taken it earlier. No doubt he could come by tomorrow, after the twins’ long last reunion... well, long last for one of them.

She knew—with a slight amount of pride, though she took no pleasure in the thought—her intuition about the situation had been right. Gene was obviously not just sightseeing as he had told her, and from the brothers’ discussion earlier, it was probably more than just an exorcism or visiting mediums. Whatever Gene was up to, the two would be busy discussing it and would have no time—and no reason—to include her in their plans. Even if Naru wanted to keep her in the loop, he couldn’t. All things considered, he may even be hesitant to discuss it with her. That last thought was painful and she tried not to think about it, scowling as she all but pulverized the apple, chopping it into tiny pieces.

But even if the twins were preoccupied, she wanted Lin to call her. Why hadn’t he called her before to tell her Naru was already in Japan? Obviously Naru had asked Lin for her account of the story she’d told Gene, and Lin had told Naru that Gene was staying with Mai for him to know to wait for them there. She knew, with annoyed resignation, that if Naru’s judgment had guided him to such a conclusion it was probably the best course of action for the situation. Naru knew Gene better than anyone. And as Lin had said, "the task at hand was to save Gene’s life."  Mai saw the reason with going along with Naru’s plan, whatever his plan may be. But she was lonely and wanted to talk to someone and couldn’t help but foolishly wish for someone to call her. She desperately wanted to call up Ayako just to chat about anything—anything at all—but Ayako didn’t know her. Nor Bou-san, Masako, Yasuhara, and John, wherever they were. She could call Michiru or Keiko, but what could she even say? She couldn’t explain the situation and she could hardly remember how a fifteen year old girl was supposed to act.

That left Lin as her only other connection to the secret future. But she knew if Naru had asked him to stay quiet she wouldn’t hear anything from him until this was all over and sorted out—whenever that would be. If that was even possible. How could things possibly go back to normal, when she didn’t know what that was?

For the second time that evening she found tears, this time from frustration, forming in her eyes.

 

*******

 

As if by unspoken agreement, after the two left Mai standing in front of her apartment building, the brothers walked to the corner, flagged a taxi, and went to the hotel Naru had reserved. Gene was obviously very comfortable in the company of his brother, but having Gene by his side was both comforting and unfamiliar to Naru. Seeing his brother’s lively face had summoned strong emotions from his core, feelings that were fragile and unsteady. He wanted to wrap his arms around him, to laugh and cry with relief and astonishment. But he could do neither of those things. Instead, he walked by his side silently, feeling clumsy and awkward.

"Seems nice enough," Gene said blandly as they passed the fountain in the wide lobby.

Naru smiled wryly, hitting the key for the elevator. He’d barely noticed the hotel when he had first arrived—he’d asked Lin to make the arrangements. Lin complied, of course, and his selection of a hotel near Mai’s apartment was certainly not a coincidence. "I thought it would be easier than a more traditional inn."

"I’m not complaining. I enjoy a luxurious hotel as much as anyone else. Though it does seem a little... extravagant. A few steps up from the other places I’ve been staying."

"Don’t get your hopes up too high, we’re in their cheapest room."  Walking down the hall, Naru reached in his pocket and pulled out the key cards to the room. He passed one to his twin as he opened the door.

"Ah, home sweet." Gene laughed, dropping his knapsack on the far bed, noticing that his brother’s luggage was already set neatly by the first. He took off his coat and draped it on the back of the chair. Sitting down, he began to rummage through his bag, pulling out a sweatshirt and donning the lighter article of clothing. "So tell me, how are you finding Japan so far, Noll?"

Naru paused, taking the time to place his own coat on a hanger in the closet. What had been his original impression when he first came to this country?  Blinded by the death of his brother, he had all but hated everything about the crowded, foreign city at first. Gradually, however, it had begun to warm to him. He shrugged. "It’s a little warmer for February than I thought it would be."

Gene snorted. "Is that all?"  He stood, stretching his arms behind his back as he went to the window. Pulling back the curtain, he gazed down to the street below. His eyes narrowing, he began to recall the route of the taxi. He could see where the street she lived on crossed the main road, but Mai’s apartment building was hidden behind other taller structures. Though they’d taken the cab, it was certainly within walking distance. "It was a lot colder two days ago," he admitted. "When I came into Tokyo it was raining and hovering around freezing. Yesterday and today were rather pleasant, though. Looking at the forecast, this warm spell should continue."

"Lin said you ran into Mai two nights ago, is that right?"

"Yeah. What luck, right?  To run into someone you knew," he said, smiling as he turned back toward his brother. "Lost my hotel room and she appeared. Crazy coincidence."

Naru, sitting on the bed, his back against the wall, raised an eyebrow, wondering if Mai had invited Gene to stay with her or if he had made the request himself. "Did you spend both days together?"  It was odd that the sentence made him uncomfortable.

"No, not today. She had school. Yesterday we went out."

"What did you do?"  Naru asked, trying not to sound terribly interested.

Gene shrugged, flopping down onto the other bed, crossing his arms under his chin. "Ueno Zoo and then we just sorta hung out in Ueno Park. Walked around. I took her out for dinner. Nothing much."

Naru forced himself to relax the tension that was gathering in his neck. Jealousy? There was no need for him to be jealous, he knew. It wasn’t rational. But it was difficult to contain and he almost couldn't stop himself. Gene rolled over and reached for his bag, zipping open a side pocket.

"Don’t you have any other luggage?"

"I left it at Mai’s," Gene shrugged. Pulling out his mobile phone, he stood and sat down on the bed next to his brother, their shoulders touching. "It’s just some extra clothes. I’ll be fine for tonight. I still have her key. We can get it tomorrow."

It annoyed Naru, somewhat, that Gene hadn’t returned the spare key when they’d left Mai earlier, or taken the suitcase. While it was a pretence that he himself could meet her with, he had a feeling Gene was taking advantage of the situation as well. The boy in question interrupted his thoughts, flipping open the phone and holding it out in front of his face.

"Here, I took some pictures at the zoo..." Gene began to scroll through them and Naru felt a smile tug at his lips. It was an odd assortment of animals Gene had chosen to capture. The Asian black bear, a kangaroo, a sheep with huge curving horns, an okapi. To Naru’s eyes, the device was incredibly dated and the image from the built-in camera was low-quality—nothing compared to the camera on his own mobile device he would have years in the future. That said, Gene had always had a penchant for photographs and despite the limitations from the device, the photos were well-done. He could not have said what it was, whether the timing or the angle, but something about the photos was naturally engaging to the viewer. The smile wavered on Naru’s face as the next photo came up, a picture of Mai.

Gene hooked his arm around his neck, a playful frown on his lips. "Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t tell me about her. I mean, who knew we’d all meet again. But still!  You should’ve told me you made such a cute acquaintance. I think I like her."

Naru tried to remain expressionless, but he felt the blood slip from his cheeks as he wished he hadn’t heard those words.

Gene didn’t seem to notice the change in his brother’s color and changed the subject. "You flew into Tokyo today?"

"Yes."  Naru said, his voice tight. It wasn’t exactly jealousy he felt. No—it was insecurity. Something he had never before felt before concerning Mai. It made sense, of course. He should have known Gene would be instantly drawn toward her. As brothers they had always shared a preference in many things, including the people they wanted to be around. Not to mention that Gene and Mai shared many similarities. He’d sought her out, even as a spirit.

"Do Martin and Luella know you’re here?"

"No.. Lin does. He’ll tell them."  He closed his eyes. Mai had chosen him, but that was when she'd had no other choice. Try as he might he could not keep the thought from the back of his mind.

His brother clicked his tongue in disapproval. "That wasn’t very considerate."

Naru shrugged, not wishing to divulge the real reason he had left the country in such a hurry, anxious to be reunited with the two people most precious to him. "I wanted to surprise you."

Gene seemed to find the thought amusing and grinned, taking up his coat again. "You seem tired."

"Not particularly. It’s just that feeling after a long flight. Lethargic."

"I sat for a long time today, too. Wanna take a walk and stretch our legs?  It’ll wake you up and help you sleep tonight."

 

*******

 

Mai was considerably calmer after she had finished cooking. She didn’t have much of an appetite, so she ate a light dinner and went about the task of cleaning the kitchen and putting the leftovers away. After she had finished she sat down at the kotatsu, picking up her school bag and sighing as she envisioned the schoolwork inside. She had no desire to do homework and doubted she would even be able to concentrate.

She felt uneasy, alone and confined in the small apartment. The sound of pipes creaking, of neighbors audible through the walls, and the flickering of the lights was unsettling. Deciding that she needed to get her mind off things, she pushed aside the textbooks and stood. Slipping into her sneakers and zipping her sweatshirt up to her chin, she left the apartment.

Mai hurried down the stairs, reached the street, and began to walk. After a moment, she began to run.

 

*******

 

"Have you started your research on them, or have you just been sightseeing?" he asked Gene, hands in his pockets. They turned away from the busy street that the hotel was located on to a smaller, quieter side street.

"Just today. Mostly I’ve been going around so I can tell Luella and Martin about it. I don’t want them to get suspicious, so I’ve been trying to do the legitimate business first. So far I’ve had five experiences that I can report back to SPR."  Gene ticked off events on his fingers. "I went to Gunma Prefecture for two days to meet the "medium" in Midori—you were right about him, by the way, a total fake—so I ended up just sightseeing. I spent two whole days in Maebashi."

Naru looked amused. "I heard about it from Luella. She thought you were having a great time."

"I bet she did."  Gene laughed. "While I was in Maebashi, though, I met a kid who was being followed by a mischievous spirit. Nothing too nasty, so it was easy to tell it to leave the poor guy alone. The kid couldn’t have been more than six years old."  He sighed. "So at least it wasn’t a complete waste of time. It’d be nice to meet a genuine medium, though."

"What about the woman in Oume? And Hara Masako, the one with the show?"

"Well... the woman in Oume was... no."  Gene curled his lip in distaste. "She wasn’t a medium. She was just very absorbed in the occult and was convinced she had something she didn’t."  He sighed slightly. "I wanted to meet with Hara Masako today but it seems she’s out of town, filming something for her show."  He snorted. "She may be the only legitimate medium in Japan, but who knows when I’ll get to see her. So much for all that. I did manage two other exorcisms, though. I went to Kodaira to solve the mystery of a simple poltergeist."  He turned to his brother expectantly, eyes twinkling.

"It was the stepson causing all the problems, wasn’t it?"  Naru said coolly.

Gene grinned and gave his brother a playful rub on the head. "Exactly. I knew you’d look over my notes if I left them out, you nosy git."  He laughed and put his arm around Naru’s neck playfully, but his face sobered and he tightened his grip so that the two brothers’ heads were touching, his hand gently pressed against Naru’s temple. "I’m glad you’re not mad, Noll," he admitted quietly.

"Of course I’m not."  Naru said softly. How could he be angry when he was standing next to his brother after sixteen years without him? Their argument had been petty and he hadn’t been very upset, even the first time. Gene had taken it harder than he had. After all, he’d been the one who refused to come to Japan. He’d been the one who hadn’t stood by him when he should have the most, and so Gene had left the country while he sulked in silence. "I’m sorry for making you angry."

"Yeah, you did."  Gene chuckled softly. "I thought you were being a real knobhead. But I was an ass about it. Sorry."

"I meant what I said before. Even if it’s not important to me, it is to you. I support you."

Gene ruffled Naru’s hair gently before releasing him. "Damn straight you do."  He smiled and continued his narrative, but his voice was softer than before and his facial expression was lighter, even relieved. "The other exorcism was in Tachikawa. The daughter at a shrine found a way to revive the dead. Her lover died and she turned him into a temporary zombie," he laughed, and seeing the alarmed expression form on Naru’s face, reassured him quickly. "It was harmless. Nothing like in those movies."

 A small smile quirked across Naru’s face, remembering when Mai had forced him to watch some modern cult zombie movie. She’d been all but horrified that he hadn’t already seen it, the first time he’d lived through its theatrical release. Gene did not seem to notice the change in his twin’s expression. "It was so simple even you could have figured it out," he teased. "Oh, and you’ll find this interesting. I went to a quote-unquote "psychic research" place that was based in Sagamihara."

Naru lifted his eyebrows in curiosity. "What was it like?"

"Kind of a dump. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing. Then again, when you don’t have a lot of funding and you can’t buy any appropriate equipment..."  Gene’s voice trailed off and he shrugged, lifting his hands. "Didn’t look like they even did any research, though. There’s plenty of resources you can get from the library. Any decent library’s going to have something."

"You’ve been busy."

Gene laughed. "I suppose so. I’ve only just started on my own research... after the plans with Miss Hara fell through, I spent all day at the library."

"Find anything interesting?"

"Yes, in fact. Very interesting. I’ll... tell you about it later."  He paused, his eyes distant as he gazed at the darkening sky. It was quickly approaching twilight, the bright lights from an airplane blinking in a steady line toward Narita International Airport. "A good beginning for today, I suppose. It is a little disappointing to think that sightseeing is pretty much over. I can’t say I haven’t enjoyed it. The last thing I want to do is take a day trip to Kyoto or Nara. I’d love to see all the famous shrines there."  Gene’s face brightened. "Why don’t we ask if Mai could show us around? We can go on the weekend, I’m sure she’d love to join us."  He seemed a little too excited at the prospect, Naru thought. Or was it that he just really wanted to see Kyoto and Nara?  "It was fun going around Tokyo with her. She’s a great tour guide."

Naru nodded but remained silent, wondering what the 'very interesting' piece of information could be. "What was it that you—"

"Speak of the devil," Gene interrupted, the grin widening on his face.

Naru followed his brother’s gaze. Down the street on the opposite corner Mai had appeared. For whatever reason her younger appearance seemed all the more startling to him, watching her unnoticed from afar. And she was lovely. He wondered briefly why he hadn’t immediately noticed Mai’s appeal when he met her the first time. Answering his own question, he rationalized that he’d been only sixteen and had other pressing matters on his mind. At this moment she was fifteen years old and jogging lightly down the street in an old school track suit, but he thought she was as adorable as she’d ever been, ever would be.

A peculiar thought suddenly struck him. If I had a daughter, would she grow up to look that beautiful?  Would she run with such confidence, hold her head high, just like her mother?  He wondered vaguely. His brother’s voice shoved the thoughts from his mind.

"Mai!"  Gene called, waving. "What are you doing?"

Mai turned abruptly, jolting to a stop. Her face brightened to see them, a grin spreading wide across her features. Even from the distance they could see how her face lit up. She reversed her direction and ran toward them with an even gait. "N... Oliver!  Gene!"

"What are you up to?"  Gene asked, noticing with unease that Mai’s eyes lingered on his brother’s face for a moment longer than he deemed necessary. "I didn’t know you were a runner."

"Oh, um, well, I’m not," Mai said, looking embarrassed, tapping her toe on the concrete. "Sometimes I just like to get... out and exercise, is all."

Naru gazed at her evenly and calmly, trying to keep his expression neutral. He was fully aware that Mai only ever ran if she was frustrated or upset, sick of sitting still with the thoughts in her head. In short, she ran to forget her troubles.

Mai met his gaze tentatively. "What are you two up to tonight?  It’s a nice evening for a walk, huh?"

"Why don’t you walk with us for a while, Mai."  Naru said, much to the surprise of his brother. "We were just discussing that we might go sightseeing in Kyoto. If you were free, perhaps you could show us all your favorite spots."

Mai grinned again. "Of course!  I’d love to!"

Gene, as if annoyed at being left out from their exchange, said quickly, "Great, it’s settled then. We’ll pay for everything, of course. It’ll be like an all-expenses paid holiday."  He smiled at her and touched her arm. Mai did not seem to take notice of the casual gesture but his brother did. "Everything will be on us."

"Where do you want to go?"  Mai asked, tapping her finger against her chin as she thought aloud. "I haven’t been to Kyoto in a while, but Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are always favorites, and, oh!  Definitely Kiyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari-taisha," she said, beaming at the brothers. "We can walk the Philosopher’s Path and go around Gion and Pontocho..." she hesitated. Naru wasn’t, but Gene was still a teenager. "Maybe that wouldn’t be interesting. All the girls love to see the maiko dressed up, but..." her voice trailed off and she eyed the two brothers, both who were staring at her blankly.

"We’ll let you know if there’s anywhere in particular we’d like to go, otherwise please direct us as you wish," Naru said smoothly. He’d never gone sightseeing in Kyoto, himself, and was looking forward to what Mai might come up with to keep them occupied.

"Yeah. Okay."  Mai smiled at him warmly.

"Are you headed back to your apartment?"  Gene asked, noticing for the second time in their conversation the looks that passed between them and the air of a silent, mutual understanding between Mai and his brother. An unpleasant feeling that he was missing something important began to spread through his body.

"Oh, yeah.."

"We’ll walk you," the older brother said, and Mai smiled gratefully.

"Thanks, but I wouldn’t want to be a bother—"

"It's not a bother," Naru said simply, and she nodded quickly.

"Right. ...Thank you."

The three walked down the street and a stiff breeze swept between them. Mai wrapped her arms around herself. Now that she had stopped running, her body temperature had dropped and the lazy breeze went directly through her sweatshirt, chilling her even further as it hit the lingering sweat on her skin.

Noticing her shiver, Naru frowned. "You’re cold now, aren’t you?"  He chastised. "You should have said something."

"I’ll be okay, sorry. It’s not too much farther..." Mai smiled and rubbed her fingers together. Her cheeks were rosy. "When I was jogging I was really warm, but now that I’ve stopped it became chilly again."  She shivered again as a gust of wind picked up again.

Even as Naru made the move to remove his jacket, Gene had hurriedly removed his scarf and wrapped it around her neck. Naru’s hands stilled and his eyes hardened.

"Mai, you need to take care of yourself."  Gene smiled at her gently, his gaze soft and compassionate. She almost stopped in her tracks. It was exactly one of the gentle smiles he’d given her in her dreams when he’d been dead. She hadn’t even noticed they’d been missing until this reminder of what exactly those smiles were. "You can’t let yourself catch cold."

"Thank you," she mumbled softly, looking embarrassed. Only when Gene had turned his eyes away did she glance at Naru, trying to catch his gaze. His face was turned away but she could see that he was scowling.

 

*******

 

It had been a rather awkward goodbye at Mai’s apartment. They’d followed her up the stairs and after Gene took his suitcase and returned the key they stood in a brief silence in the door. Naru told her they’d keep her informed as to their plans; Gene promised vehemently that they’d call her every day and try to meet up again before the end of the week. When Gene made no attempt to take back his scarf, Naru reminded the two loudly. Mai, flushing deeply, hastily removed the article, apologizing that she had been so careless and forgotten. Gene had simply laughed, reminding her that they’d see each other later and she could have returned it then.

From her apartment they returned to the hotel. Gene seemed hesitant to resume their earlier topic, instead moving quickly between subjects of various things he had seen or heard on his trip. It was obvious that he was thoroughly enjoying his stay in Japan and enjoyed telling his brother about it, so Naru did not press him until dinner.

"You said you found something today. Care to elaborate?" he asked as they sat down in the quiet hotel restaurant.

Gene exhaled loudly. "Yes. About that. Let’s order first," he said, noticing the approaching waitress. He picked up the menu as she placed glasses of water on the table, scanning it quickly before making his decision. "I’d like the vegetarian pizza, with the arugula salad. And a cup of decaf. Please."  He smiled pleasantly at the young woman, who seemed quite breathless to be serving two identical handsome young men. She nodded wordlessly as she wrote it down.

"The walnut penne with the tofu and shiitake salad, please," Naru said shortly. "And a cup of Earl Grey."

The waitress didn’t seem to know which to be more surprised about: the young men or their sophisticated food preferences, so she simply nodded again and left. Gene turned his attention back to his brother. Naru finally spoke. "What did you find at the library today?  Did you..." his voice trailed off, hesitant to continue.

"He’s dead."  Gene paused, rubbing his eyebrow with his forefingers quickly and then dropped his hand to the table, sighing. Naru lowered his gaze and the two sat silently as the waitress brought their drinks. Gene spoke again as she left. "I guess it’s not that much of a surprise. We always assumed he was, anyway, but now I know for certain. Ichirou Nilson has been dead for sixteen years."

Naru nodded as he reached for his tea. It was true, that they had suspected this. Ever since he could remember, he and Gene had speculated on the possible fate of the man. As they hadn’t been speaking the first time, Naru did not actually know anything Gene’s search and had never known what—if any—the fruits of his labor had been. "How..?"

"In the earthquake." Gene’s lips twisted into a grimace. "Or more specifically, the landslide of Mt. Ontake it caused. You were right to think that he had died before we were born."  He let out a bitter chuckle. "An autopsy confirmed that he died on the 14th of September, even though they didn’t recover his body until the beginning of October."  Gene paused to lift his cup of coffee, sipping quietly. "But," he continued, returning the coffee to the table and reaching into his pocket, from which he pulled a folded piece of paper. He opened it quickly and passed it across the table. "This is something we didn’t know. I was going through an archive of articles about the earthquake when I found this coincidence."

Naru picked up the paper and read the English heading. Markus I. Nilson, Victim of Otaki Earthquake’s Landslide. His eyes skimmed the article before finding the paper’s name and date. New Haven Register, October 8th, 1984. His mouth became dry. "You mean..."

"Yes."  Gene had a satisfied gleam in his eye. "While he was living in Japan he went by his middle name, Ichirou," he continued. "Knowing his real name made it very easy to find him and his parents. Lukas and Satoko Nilson of New Haven, Connecticut."

The waitress returned with their salads and placed a basket of rolls on the table. Gene took a roll and passed it to his brother before taking his own. He picked up his butter knife and slowly, methodically sliced the bread and smoothed butter on the inside. "To think that yesterday we didn’t even know if my namesake was alive or dead."  As he took a bite of the bread he reached into his pocket again, removing multiple papers that had been folded together. He unfolded the papers, smoothing the creases with his left hand as he studied it.

From across the table, Naru could see the top paper easily and had immediately recognized it. The doctor had written quickly, but the characters were crisp and clear. 渋谷一郎. Shibuya Ichirou, born on September 19th, 1984. He knew what the paper beneath would be. It was identical in every aspect of the form, save for that one character. Completely identical but instead the name recorded was 渋谷一也, Shibuya Kazuya. And surely, the final, hidden paper beneath that was a certificate of death. 渋谷治美, it read on the top of that final sheet. Shibuya Harumi. She had died just twenty-eight hours after the birth of her twins.

"Where do we go from here?"  Naru asked quietly.

Gene chewed a forkful of salad and nodded quickly. "Now that we’re both here, one of us can continue the trail on Markus and the other can start looking up Harumi. We can find out if her parents are still alive. I’d like to contact the hospital, too."

"What do we do when we’ve found them?"  Naru asked, sighing. "Where do you intend to go from this, Gene?"

Gene frowned, stabbing a piece of his salad with his fork. "Admit it, Noll, you’re just as curious about this as I am."

"Yes," Naru said reluctantly. "I am curious. But my curiosity is much different than yours. When we’ve identified our grandparents what do we do then?  I suppose you want to plan a trip to New Haven next."

Gene remained silent for a moment. "I don’t know," he said quietly, sounding sullen. "There is always the question of why we had blood relations but ended up in that orphanage anyway."

"Will knowing the reason why really make any difference?  Do you plan on turning your back on Martin and Luella?"  Even to his own ears, his voice sounded both accusatory and childish and Naru sighed, seeing the hard look that instantly formed in Gene’s eyes. His brother ignored him and the table was quiet but for the sound of their forks moving from the plates to their mouths.

"Sorry. I’m just hungry and tired."  Naru muttered, focusing firmly on the salad. Gene had never stood for his lectures, he understood that now. "I don’t mean to sound so..."

"Then eat, stupid," Gene chastised, and the atmosphere lightened between them. Their meals arrived and Gene dug into his pizza with relish. "Oh, this is good, Noll. Here, try some."  He deposited a piece on the edge of Naru’s plate of pasta and speared several pieces of penne with his fork, popping it in his mouth. "That’s really good, too," he said, swallowing. "I’ll eat whatever you don’t want."

"Help yourself," Naru said, a small smile lifting his lips. Gene had always been quick to judge him, but he was also quick to forgive—something he believed he himself had never possessed.

Gene continued to eat off his plate and eventually a new, unrelated conversation began.

 

*******

 

His entire body had begun to ache from the long day, so when they returned to their room Naru took an after-dinner shower, standing under the warm water to soothe the soreness. When he had finally pulled himself from the luxury of the water and dressed, he took a book from his luggage and lounged on the hotel bed, reading while Gene took his own shower. Neither had ever been the type to linger in the bathroom, but tonight both took their time. Naru noticed it had already been an hour since they returned to the room following dinner when the water from the second shower shut off. The room became quiet, and he could faintly hear Gene humming to himself, the sounds magnified in the tiled room. Gene finally returned to the room, rubbing his neck with a towel, considering his brother in silence.

"You... and Mai..."  Gene began, sitting down at the edge of the bed.

Naru looked up from his book, waiting for him to continue and not knowing exactly what he would say if he did.

Gene frowned, looking away. He didn’t know what to say to his brother, not knowing how to put his suspicions into words. There was something about their familiarity that was very deeply ingrained, something that couldn’t possibly have come about in a matter of days—let alone hours. But if Noll told him that they had only met during Mai’s school trip, he would believe him. There was no reason for his brother to lie.

"Nothing," Gene said, standing up suddenly and moving to the window, looking out onto the night street. "It’s nothing."  He remembered how Mai had stopped in her tracks when she had seen him. What had been the expression on her face? Surprise, certainly, but there had been something else. He couldn’t decipher the second meaning.

The two were silent for several minutes. "It’s incredible you were able to find out so much in only one day," Naru finally said quietly, setting his book down as he gazed at his brother.

Gene shrugged, turning and leaning against the window sill. "You were always a more dedicated researcher than I. Now that we’re working together, I imagine things will progress quickly."

"When we find them, our grandparents, do you want to contact them?"

Gene shrugged again. "I suppose so. But we’ll talk about it when we’re at that point."  He stooped, opening his bag and pulled out a CD walkman.

Once again, the dated technology was a surprise to Naru. He couldn’t remember exactly when mp3 players became the norm, nor when he’d seen an iPod for the first time, the devices soon becoming an international phenomenon. The portable CD player had definitely fallen into decline in the future.

Gene opened a CD booklet and sat next to his brother, pulling the earphones between them, inserting one into each of their ears.

"What do you want to listen to?"  Gene questioned.

"Whatever’s fine. What did you bring?"

"Mm... Radiohead, Badly Drawn Boy, Blur, some Presidents, Coldplay, a couple classical CDs: Rachmaninov, Phillip Glass, Mahler..."  Gene paged through the booklet. "Oh, I picked this up at a secondhand book store in Maebashi."  He pulled out a disc and inserted it into the walkman. He passed the booklet to Naru, who turned it over in his hands as the music started. Acoustic guitar, followed by a woman’s voice.

Bonnie Pink: he recognized the name. While he didn’t know if Mai had owned this exact disc, she'd once had other albums by this artist. She’d claimed it was good practice for her language skills, as the Japanese artist often sang in English. A wistful smile crossed his lips. That had been a long time ago.

"You’re thinking about her, aren’t you?" Gene suddenly said, taking the booklet from his brother.

"Who?"

"Mai."  Gene frowned at him, tapping his forehead with his finger. "I see it up here."

Naru shrugged, closing his eyes. Between their psychic connection as twins and his own intuition, Gene had surprising accuracy when it came to deciphering his thoughts, while he himself had never been able to see what his brother was thinking outside of logical, situational reasoning and lucky guesses. To pinpoint his thoughts of Mai indicated Gene had been somewhat preoccupied with her, himself. Naru knew he needed to tell Gene everything, and as soon as possible—the fact he could give something away by his mere thoughts reiterated the fact. "I’m thinking about a lot of things. What you found about our father, what we’re going to do tomorrow. Taking a trip to Kyoto this weekend. Everything."

Gene said nothing, biting on the skin of his index finger, wondering if he was witnessing something unusual and bizarre; if it was possible his brother also had feelings for that girl.

The two lay next to each other, listening to the music together in the quiet room. They would both fall asleep in that position and when Naru awoke, hours later in the deep of the night, he rose soundlessly and purposefully from the bed. He tucked the CD player away and pulled a sheet over his brother before going into the bathroom.

When he returned to the room he saw his brother was still sleeping soundly. Without hesitation, he took one of the room keys from the desk, slung his jacket over his shoulders and silently left the room.

 

*******

 

Mai awoke as a body curled around hers, a warm torso pressed against her back and an arm sliding around her body, a gentle hand resting on her forearm. His breath was warm on her neck and he squeezed her shoulder. For less than a second she panicked, wide eyes searching the darkness and then quickly relaxed. She recognized his touch just as she recognized his face and voice.

"Naru," she murmured, her eyes drifting closed and her lips curving in a smile.

He exhaled and rested his forehead on the back of her neck, pulling her body closer into his. "Mai," he sighed. "I’m sorry."

"What are you doing here?"

"The middle of the night seemed to be the most convenient option to talk at the moment."  He said dryly. "Are you complaining? I can leave."

"Of course not."  She didn’t think she’d ever appreciated hearing his sarcasm so much before. "How did you get in?"

"I pocketed your spare key when we were leaving. When you and Gene were preoccupied with the scarf. You left it out on the table. Sorry."

"That’s fine. When I couldn’t find it I was actually hoping you’d taken it. But won’t Gene be suspicious if he finds out you’re gone?"

"If he wakes up—he was always a very sound sleeper. The hotel isn’t far from here so I won’t be gone long."  Naru paused. "He knows.. something. Suspects something between us. I suppose I should tell him sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, now’s not a very good time."  He continued, softer, and Mai could hear the frown in his voice. "I would like to explain everything, somehow. Show him everything that I saw in the future. I don’t know if I should, but.. as soon as possible.." his voice trailed off and he sighed into her skin. "You smell nice, Mai."

"Naru?"

"Hm?"  His lips touched her neck gently.

Mai closed her eyes, his caress comforting and electrifying at the same time. "Why didn’t you come to Japan with him in the first place?”  She murmured. “What is he doing here?  It’s obviously not just sightseeing, and it’s more than just visiting mediums, isn’t it?"

But he didn’t answer her. Instead, his hand traced her body from her elbow up to her shoulder, down her side and to her hips. He kissed the ridge of her ear tenderly, his roaming hand returning to slide under her shirt, tracing the skin of her stomach. Her breathing quickened and he moved his lips down her jaw before kissing her lips gently with his own.

As he kissed her, she pulled his body into her own, pressing herself against him and encouraging his wandering hands as she returned his kisses. When he pulled his lips from hers she was breathing heavily, eyes half-lidded with desire. "Should’ve brought some condoms," he lamented, smirking as he saw the embarrassed expression that soon followed his words.

"Naru," Mai blushed and averted her gaze. She could count the times they'd been intimate in the past on one hand, and now that was on his mind? When they were teenagers again and sneaking around his brother? It was unexpected, to say the least. "I don’t think that would’ve been a good idea," she muttered.

"No. Probably not," he agreed, but his actions contradicted his words as he kissed her again in response.

When he released her lips she opened her eyes, feeling dazed. "Naru?"

"Sorry," he said shortly, turning his gaze away and sitting up, pulling himself from her side. "I just... You’re right. This probably isn’t a good idea. I should probably go before we do something stupid."

He turned back to her as she took his hand. "Don’t go yet," she pleaded. "Just... for a little longer. Somehow it feels like I haven’t seen you in a long time, and..." her voice trailed off. "I’m being selfish, sorry," she mumbled quietly.

"Don’t say that," he murmured quietly, slowly lying back down by her side, his head propped against his hand. He exhaled as she nestled into his side and closed his eyes, putting his arm around her. His desire was still there but the urgency was ebbing away. That she was here, whole and in his arms was a comfort in itself. "I’m sorry for being so distant today."

"It’s okay, Naru. We do what we have to do."

"I made you cry."

"Did not."

"Liar."

"Just because I was crying doesn’t mean you were the cause. It isn’t always about you, Naru."  She retorted, smiling at him.

"I still feel responsible."

The smile wavered and slipped from her face. "If anything, I’m to blame, aren’t I?"

"I don’t want you to say it like that."

Neither wanted to breach the subject—of that day, of what he had done to bring them to the current circumstances. Naru regretted the accident that had almost killed her—of course he regretted it—but that accident had forced him here to be reunited with his brother. Surely bringing his brother back from the dead warranted their sacrifice. Her sacrifice. The end justifies the means.

Mai waited a moment for him to speak. When he did not, she sighed, trying to release the tightness which enveloping her chest. "Anyway. This is how we used to be, right?"

"I don’t like it. And I don’t like lying."  She could hear his frown. "I don’t want to lie to him."

"I know," she said, letting out another sigh. "Of course you don’t want to lie."

"I just—I just don’t know how to tell him. And now, while he’s..."  He did not complete his statement aloud. Set on finding the answers to his mystery, he finished silently.

"It can’t be helped, right?  At least for now."  Naru nodded but remained silent. "It’s.. it’s different this time around, isn’t it," she questioned.

"Different how?"

Mai bit her lip. "Last time... last time we came back, the future was always a little fuzzy to me. It felt like the future was a dream, right?  I didn’t feel so out of place in the present. This time it’s the opposite, I feel like I have more difficulty remembering what this present is supposed to be, that this is the dream, instead."  Both her experiences were different from what Naru had reported experiencing. He’d remembered the future with clarity as well as the preceding time leading into the moment he arrived in the past. He’d had no difficulty assimilating his knowledge of the time to come into the present.

"I had always assumed it had something to do with the fact that you’d returned to the time passively, as I had brought you back," Naru began slowly. "We didn’t return to the exact same moment in time, either, as you’ll recall."  Mai nodded. Though she and Naru hadn’t spoken much lately of his reversal of time—she’d left him and Lin to do the speculating—she had thought of it often. "This time, it seems that we did. Lin, as well. He remembers the future clearly. It could be more related to the fact that you’d been dead when I reversed time."  He felt a lump grow in his throat. The day Lin had delivered the news of Mai’s death was a very distant memory, but the day of the accident was burned into his memory. The sight of her blood on the pavement, the smell of the burning car. The sound of life support in a cold hospital room. It still felt like a nightmare he’d just awoken from.

"But that doesn’t make sense, either," Mai frowned. "By that reasoning Gene should remember the future."

Naru exhaled in exasperation, anxious to leave the topic. "I don’t know, Mai, I really don’t. I haven’t had much time to think about it."

She knew what the tone in his voice meant and she was quick to oblige him. "I saw John," Mai said, changing the subject. "I fell in a puddle and he was the one to help me up."  She let out a bitter chuckle. "It was really weird! He looked so young."  She looked up at him, trying to distinguish his features in the darkness. "You do, too. Baby-face Naru."

"Don’t say that," he growled playfully, and she giggled softly. "It’s strange to see you so young, too."  Naru touched the strands of hair at her neck. "Your hair is longer than when we first met, isn’t it?"

"Is it? I don’t know. I don’t remember."  Mai blushed. "You remember what my hair looked like when we first met?"

He shrugged. "Maybe. You must have gotten a haircut sometime in the next few weeks."  In the darkness she could barely see his tender smile. "But you shouldn’t. This is.. very cute."  He leaned forward and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead before rising. "I should go now."

She gazed up at his dark silhouette, wishing she could see his face. There were so many things she wanted to ask him, about their last day in the future and where they would go from here. But she could not bring herself to voice the words. Now was not the time, and she didn’t know when—or if—that time would come. "Next time will you tell me what you and Gene are doing here?"

"After I tell Gene about us."  He replied, his hand on the sliding door. "Good night, Mai."  He slid the door shut and Mai heard the door to her apartment open and the sound of a key turning in the lock a moment later. She closed her eyes to the darkness, listening. Soft footsteps receded down the hall and disappeared.

When she opened her eyes again, it was morning.

 

*******

 

When Gene awoke, daylight shone through the window, the blinds half-pushed back. He groaned and rolled his head away.

His brother’s bed was empty but he could hear the sound of computer keys. He rose partially onto his elbows, raising an eyebrow as he observed his twin typing methodically on his laptop at the table. There was a steaming teacup and some untouched buttered toast at his side.

His brother, noticing the movement, smirked as he lifted his cup of tea. "Rise and shine, sleepyhead."

"You’re at it already?"  Gene asked, rubbing his head as he sat up. He turned his gaze to the clock. It was almost eight o’clock. "I guess I slept in, huh."

"Not really. I was awake so I thought I’d get started. Besides, the quicker we know, the better, right?"

Gene nodded and rose from the bed, walking quietly to his brother’s side and reaching for the toast. "You know me, I’m always impatient. What’ve you done so far?"

"Just some general investigation on Markus Nilson."  Naru informed him, taking the other piece of toast as Gene sat down. "I found him on the list of 1981 Yale graduates. He studied East Asian Studies and History, graduated summa cum laude." His mouth curled in a smile.

"Seems appropriate," Gene said, picking up the tea and taking a sip.

"Assuming he was in his early twenties when he graduated, he was probably born in the late 50’s, and therefore would have been in his mid-twenties at the time of his death. Using the article in the New Haven Register you found yesterday, I was able to find a very short obituary. He was survived by his parents and two younger sisters, Alice and Emma," he continued, turning the page of his notebook, scanning his notes. "From there, I looked up the contact information for our paternal grandparents, Lukas and Satoko Nilson."

“Wow. Did you even sleep last night, Noll?”

“Assuming White Pages is correct. It might not be.” He looked at the piece of paper again. "And there’s only one way to find out. We might as well call them."

Gene's eyes widened in surprise, swallowing his mouthful of toast quickly. "Really? Already?"

Naru nodded, pausing as he thought. "It’s morning here, which means it’s evening on the Eastern Seaboard.”  He rose to his feet, picking up the hotel phone and bringing it back to the table. "Why not, right?"

Gene hesitated. "Let’s... wait. Wait until tomorrow. Tonight’s not a good night."  He closed his eyes, pausing. "I just don’t think it’s a good night for them."

His brother gazed at him thoughtfully before speaking. It had been a long time since he’d received a recommendation like this from Gene but he’d always trusted his twin’s intuition absolutely. "Are you sure?"

"Yeah."  Gene nodded. He rose to his feet and with a fluid motion, pulled off the shirt in which he’d slept, bending to find a replacement in his brother’s suitcase. "Eat your toast, Noll, and let’s go get some real breakfast. I could use some coffee."

 

*******

 

The two had been at the library for hours, moving the research from their father to their mother for the better part of the morning. Despite the ease of which they had uncovered information on their father, facts on their mother remained elusive.

Gene frowned and exhaled loudly, stretching back in his chair. He was certain he’d perused every article in the archives relating to the 1984 Otaki Earthquake and uncovered anything ever written about the tiny village of Otaki and the Kiso District. Nothing he read, however, was of any assistance to move forward. "Why can’t we find anything on her?"  He muttered, resting his chin on his hand glumly.

"We only just started," Naru said, rising to his feet. "I’m going to get a cup of tea. I saw a shop outside. Do you want to take a break?"

Gene shook his head wordlessly, staring gloomily in front of him.

"I’ll bring you something. Do you want a cup of coffee? Something to eat?"

"Nah, I’m good.” Gene said stubbornly. Then his face transformed, brightening at a new prospect, and he snapped his fingers. “I could call the hospital. It’s possible that they know something. Who knows."

Naru nodded, shrugging on his jacket as he turned away. The archives were located on the second floor and as he hurried down the stairs he passed a window, turning his gaze outside. It was an overcast day and the sidewalks and streets were crowded with people and vehicles alike. His eyes fell on a familiar figure sitting on a bench, watching the pigeons that wandered aimlessly on the pavement, fluttering their wings and hopping away when the human feet came too close.

He frowned, pausing and walked slowly to the door, wondering if he had been mistaken. As he stepped outside, however, he could see that he had not. He recognized the jacket and the scarf: she’d kept both articles, many years into the future. Her back was turned to him, chestnut-coloured hair blowing lightly in the breeze.

"Mai, what are you doing here?"

She turned to meet his gaze and simply shrugged. She did not seem especially surprised to see him. "Skipping school," Mai said, sounding both defiant and ashamed.

"Obviously." Naru’s frown deepened. "Are you sure that’s a good idea?"

She shrugged again, turning her eyes away. "A sick day or two can’t hurt, especially when I’ve done it already. Where’s Gene?"

"Inside. Did you know we were going to be here?"

"No," Mai shrugged, looking away again and refusing to meet his gaze. "I just a feeling to come by, I guess. I thought it would be a good idea to check out some books, maybe find a Murakami novel. It’s been a long time since I’ve read his books in Japanese. And I suppose I’d like to finish reading Jane Eyre. It wasn’t... exactly... just that I wanted to see you."  She flushed slightly as she finished.

It was true that Mai had been reading Jane Eyre shortly before their return to this time: his mother had introduced Mai to the famous novels of Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen several months ago. He believed her that she did honestly want to read, but Naru’s knew her statement was more than partially a lie and certainly not a legitimate reason to skip school. Not to mention that sitting outside the building, watching the pigeons, was not an active pursuit of finding the books in question. "And you wanted to come to this particular library? Isn’t there a library closer to your apartment?"

She gave him a bitter, lopsided smile. "I suppose that’s my intuition at work."

His lips were a thin line. "You should go to school, Mai."

"I know," she pouted. "I just... I really don’t feel like it."

"It’s not going to get any easier."  Her eyes hardened and she turned her gaze back to the sidewalk. He sighed and sat down next to her, resting his elbows on his knees. The transition into the past was no doubt hard on her, especially considering what she had voiced last night: that the future seemed real and this present seemed more akin to a dream. "I’m sorry, Mai. But we have to try to live normally. I know it’s difficult, but what else can we do?"

"You don’t have to go to school," Mai said glumly, sulking.

"Not high school, but I have a semester of work left at the university until I graduate and when the time comes I will do my coursework, just like last time."  He smiled wryly. "Think of it as an opportunity to learn more, Mai. Do more. Dare I even say, do better than last time."

"Half my teachers are younger than me," she said, her lips lowering into a dour shape. This was an exaggeration; only several of the teachers at her school were in their early thirties or younger.

"Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from them." When she simply scuffed her toes against the pavement in response, he frowned. "You’re just being stubborn."  He gazed at her for several seconds and then rose to his feet, gesturing with a nod. "Come with me."

Mai followed him as he walked down the sidewalk, ducking into a small café. He gazed at the offerings listed on the menu before walking up to the counter and ordering a cup of Assam tea, to go. His spoken Japanese was flawless, as it had always been, and Mai realized she’d missed hearing him speak it. Once they had only spoken Japanese together. Over time, they spoke mostly English, the Japanese conversations becoming few and far between. Even the night before, when he’d met her in her room they’d spoken English out of habit.

"Do you want anything?"  He asked her, startling her out of her musings.

Mai glanced at the list of teas, somewhat surprised and impressed by the large selection for such a small shop. "A cup of the tamaryoku-cha, please," she told the woman. "Thank you."

Naru nodded as if in approval and paid for the teas at the cashier. When the woman behind the counter passed him the cups, he passed one to her and they walked out of the brightly-lit shop into the overcast morning. Naru pulled his sleeve back to glance at his watch before lifting the cup to his lips, squinting slightly as he gazed above the buildings across the street and into the grey sky.

Mai watched him, realizing that while his outward appearance should suggest a teenaged boy it was impossible for her not to think of him as older. His mannerisms had always suggested maturity but gazing at his profile she could almost see the man he had grown into in the future, mingling with this present past. "Thank you," she said softly, taking a sip of her tea. "Is this your bribe to get me to go to school?"

"Of course not," Naru said indignantly, stopping as they once again stood in front of the library, close to the building and away from the steady stream of pedestrians that crossed on the sidewalk. "I thought you would like some tea. That’s all."  He closed his eyes for a moment, as if contemplating something, transferring the cup of tea into his other hand. Slowly but steadily, he reached toward her and took her hand in his own, entwining his fingers with hers as he took another sip of his tea.

It surprised her that he would hold her hand in public. That he would do so, even though someone might see them on this busy, crowded street. Even more startling that he would do so when Gene may be in the vicinity to see such a revealing action.

That said, Mai thought wryly, he had to be certain that his brother wouldn’t happen upon them. She wasn’t entirely sure what the psychic connection between them encompassed and what his psychometry was capable of. He had not only seen, but experienced his brother’s death, and she wondered if he could also look in on his brother at will.

The thought led to another: what would happen as the twins grew older without separating?  Naru, of course, had never said anything of the matter, but from several overheard conversations between Lin and Martin she had surmised that the twins’ ESP capabilities had continued to develop together right up until Gene’s death. They were an anomaly, their abilities growing instead of fading with age, though that very growth was hidden from others as they learned to  better control their abilities. When Gene disappeared, however, so did Naru’s evolution. Mai wondered if Naru'd had these very thoughts in the last few days as well.

Despite her musings, she found a smile growing on her lips as she inhaled the gentle aroma of the tea. The tension that had gathered around her began to dissipate and she forced herself from that train of thought. "I’m sorry for being so stubborn," she finally said. "You’re right, of course. I should go to school."  She squeezed his hand, looking up at him. "Will I see you tonight?"

Naru’s lips quirked in a slight grin. "I’m sure Gene will be up for something fun this evening. We’ll take you out for dinner. Or whatever it is that kids do in Tokyo."

She smiled at his words. "I can endure school if I’m looking forward to that. And you still have my key."

"Yes."

"Then I’ll see you, one way or another. Promise?"

"Of course."

She smiled coyly as she extracted her hand from his own and offered him a small wave as she walked away. Naru wondered vaguely the meaning of that smile and if it would be presumptuous of him to go out and buy some contraceptives. He shook his head to himself as he watched her meander away, knowing he couldn’t possibly be so irresponsible. How would he ever explain his possession of them if his brother happened to find them?  When she had disappeared into the crowd of pedestrians, he turned and returned into the hush of the library, the sounds of outside all but disappearing as the heavy door closed behind him.

Approaching the table that he and his brother had claimed, Gene looked up when he saw him coming, an excited grin spreading across his face. "Noll," he whispered, gesturing for him to hurry.

Naru set his tea on the table, pulling out a chair. "What is it?"

"Turns out all we needed to do was call the hospital. At some point they recorded Harumi’s next of kin. Probably—well, almost certainly—after our transfer, because the hospital at Takayama certainly didn’t know about it. Apparently she called the hospital to claim Harumi’s remains. Our maternal grandmother, Shibuya Mitsuki." 

Naru frowned. "Her remains? Not her body?"

"That’s what the woman said."  He glanced down at his notes. "She claimed her remains on September 28th, 1984, is exactly what she said. Well—you know. In Japanese, not English."

"Did the woman mention anything about Harumi having twins or of being pregnant?" Gene shook his head and Naru’s eyes narrowed slightly in thought. He settled back into his chair, a pensive frown settling on his face.

"Though the casualties of the quake were fairly low, it would make sense that the mortuary in such a small village would be overwhelmed with the victims of the earthquake. If a body was identified with certainty, though unusual, it’s not out of the question that they would proceed with cremation."  He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "A possible reason why we weren’t claimed by family on our mother’s side could simply be that she was not aware of our birth," he mused. Gene waited patiently and his brother continued.

"In the confusion of the aftermath, the hospital either lost or did not keep a record that the deceased Shibuya Harumi had delivered two children. We were transferred out of that hospital to Takayama on the 22nd. By only collecting her daughter’s remains, Shibuya Mitsuki wouldn’t have known of the fact."

"Perhaps she didn’t even know her daughter was with child," Gene added. "If she'd known her daughter was pregnant, surely she would have questioned the hospital when she collected her remains. Don’t you think?"

"It does seem possible. When did she claim the remains, again?"

"September 28th. Eight days after Harumi died."

Naru’s frown deepened. "That seems like a long time."

"It does, doesn’t it."  Gene nodded slightly. "Of course, there’s always the possibility that she was aware of our birth but did not act on the information. Perhaps she wanted nothing to do with us and let the hospital take care of us as they saw fit."

"There is always that possibility," Naru agreed. He directed his gaze to the table top. Since he had left it had accumulated a number of phone books and directories. "What’s this, anyway?"

Gene beamed and pushed one of the phone books toward him. A quick glance showed that it was a directory for Chubu: Niigata - Yamanashi - Nagano. When his eyes fell on the word Nagano, Naru felt a weight drop into his stomach.

"Here," Gene flipped the book open to a marked page and ran his finger down a line of names, stopping about two-thirds of the way down the page. 渋谷光希, Shibuya Mitsuki. "This is her. Our grandmother."

Naru frowned. "Are you sure?  How do you know?"

"I.. just do," Gene said, smiling sheepishly. "Just a feeling that it has to be her, right?"  The impish grin remained on his twin’s face. "There’s only one way to find out."

 

*******

 

Mai stood in the hallway for several minutes, listening to the teacher talk within before she finally slid open the door. "Sorry I’m late," she said quietly, bowing.

"Taniyama, I thought you were sick today?"  The teacher, a strict-looking woman with a pinched mouth, frowned at her, irritation plain on her features.

"I feel much better now. I didn’t want to miss class," Mai said, cringing as she heard two girls guffaw at her in the back of the classroom. Several other girls, the ones who had seen Gene the day before and her leave with him, tittered and whispered amongst each other. Mai knew they were speculating and she had the sudden urge to leave the classroom again, never to return. But she stood calmly and after several moments she realized their whispers didn’t actually bother her. She had experienced more in her life to be bothered by mere high school gossip.

The teacher shot an angry look to the disruptive students and nodded tersely at Mai. "Take your seat, Taniyama. Okay, class, everyone get into pairs or small groups. Discuss the text with your peers until the end of the class."

The classroom slowly began to move, the students looking around and grouping themselves together. Mai slid into her seat in the middle of the classroom, pulling out her books and a pencil.

"Mai, were you really sick? Where were you?" Michiru asked with a whisper, swivelling around in her seat.

"I’m okay now," Mai said quietly, flipping open her book. "I didn’t feel well this morning, is all."

"Nothing—nothing to do with Gene, right?"  Michiru said with a conspiratorial wink. "Wasn’t that his name?"

"Of course not," Mai said, finding the page by looking over her friend’s shoulder. "Are we going to talk about this or what?"  She muttered, noticing that their teacher was walking around, listening to the students’ discussions. Iwasaki, who sat next to Mai, turned in his seat toward them and join them wordlessly

"Um, okay." Michiru sounded disappointed. "So what do you think? Did you read this before? We read it aloud before you got here."

Mai turned her attention to the page, her eyes sliding over the text. She had read the short story assignment the night before. She had remembered it, a tale which followed the confession of a man accused of murder. This time, however, with fifteen years in-between, the story’s meaning was completely different. "It’s pretty interesting, isn’t it?"  She mused as she scanned the page. "The reader can’t tell if the man is finally confessing his guilt or if after all the accusations he begins to doubt his own innocence. I never noticed the duality of the text before. I just assumed he’d been lying the whole time."

Michiru stared at Mai for a moment and then at the book. "You know... you’re right. I never thought of it that way before, either, huh..."  She turned her gaze to the boy next to them. "What about you, Iwasaki-kun? What do you think?"

The boy frowned, staring at the words. "I always thought he was finally coming clean, too, but.. I guess Taniyama’s right. It’s kinda vague." His eyebrows furrowed. "But why finally confess if he wasn’t guilty?"

"That’s true," Michiru said dubiously.

"Well, they were accusing him for such a long time," Mai said. "Everyone turned on him. It was obvious they were never going to believe his innocence. And after all, you begin to believe it if you hear it enough, right?"

"Well, which one is it?"  Iwasaki said impatiently. "Is he guilty or not?"

"I guess that’s the point of the story, to be ambiguous. We’ll never actually know the truth."  Mai rested her head in her hands on top of her open book. "I guess I’d rather believe that he’s innocent and been wrongly accused."  She mumbled, and closed her eyes, yawning.

"While I am grateful you can share such insightful comments with your classmates, Taniyama, class isn’t quite over yet," the teacher said from behind Mai’s shoulder. "If you’re going to sleep in class you shouldn’t bother coming in."

Mai’s eyes snapped open and she immediately straightened in her seat. "Yes, sensei."  She watched the teacher carefully as the woman walked away.

"You’re wrong, Taniyama," Iwasaki suddenly said. "At the end, after his confession, the man says that he told a lie. That’s obviously that he was lying about his innocence, right?"

Mai’s gaze meandered back to the text. "Well," she started slowly, "that passage is repeated from the beginning of the story. In the first paragraph, he states he isn’t lying and he’s not afraid to die for what he believes to be the truth. And what goes around comes around. But in that last paragraph he admits he lied and again says what goes around comes around. Don’t you take it to mean that what he lied about was not being afraid to die? I mean, honestly. Everyone’s afraid to die." A small smile quirked the corners of her lips as she said this.

Michiru frowned at her, noticing the change in her expression. "What’s so funny?"

Mai’s eyes were wistful. "Nothing," she lied. The bell rang. "What’s next? Geometry?"

 

*******

 

"Mai-chan, do you want to get ramen or something?  Yuriko said she was free, too."  Michiru asked as they wiped the blackboard together. In the hallway, students were departing for their clubs, the classes over for the day. "Keiko had to leave early, to run an errand for her mom, but she said she’d meet us there.

Mai hesitated. It would probably be good to meet up with her friends, to ‘reacquaint herself,’ so to say, but she was expecting Naru or Gene to call her to make plans later. Not to mention she had almost no money to pay for anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. "Sorry, Michiru-chan, I’ll have to pass tonight," she sighed. "I’d love to but I’m totally broke!"

"I can spot you," Michiru offered helpfully.

Mai bit her lip. "It’s tempting, and I am hungry, but..." she sighed. "I really can’t. It’ll be a couple weeks before I can pay you back, and I wouldn’t feel right about that."

Michiru looked disappointed. "I really wanted to hear all about Gene. Who is he, how do you know him?  You’ll tell me everything, right?"

"Yeah, of course... "  Mai’s voice trailed off. In order not to lie, she decided to offer as little information as possible. "He and his brother are visiting Tokyo for a few days," she said, "I was just showing Gene around, is all."

"He has a brother?"  Michiru looked interested at the prospect. She sighed, dreamily, sliding open the window and clapping the dusty erasers outside. "I’d like to see them together. If they look anything alike they must make a very handsome pair."

"I guess so," Mai said, noncommittally. That’s probably an understatement, she thought wryly.

The door slid open and Yuriko poked her head into the otherwise empty classroom. "Michiru-chan, Mai-chan, are you ready to go?  I just got a text from Keiko. She’ll be done in fifteen minutes, so if we go now we can meet her. "

"Mai can’t, she’s broke," Michiru said, and Yuriko made a face.

"Oh, come on, Mai, don’t be silly. We’ll pay for you!  It’s just ramen. It’ll be, what, 800 yen, tops?"

"I would feel bad," Mai protested weakly, wondering what her friends knew about her overall situation not to press too firmly. After all, Yuriko could have said "It’s only ramen, can’t you afford that?"  But she hadn’t. They knew she lived on her own, but she didn’t remember what else she’d let on.

"Don't worry about it, come on!"  Yuriko took her arm in hers, bouncing it gently. "Pretty please?"

Mai felt a smile tug on her lips. Yuriko was a new addition to inseparable group she, Michiru and Keiko had become since middle school. It was probably around this time that they became close. Keiko, who had been placed in a different class than Mai and Michiru, had introduced her to them. "Okay, but I can’t pay you guys back for a little while."

"Who cares?  You don’t have to pay me back. I’ll just pinch some money from my stepdad," Yuriko giggled. "Come on, let’s go. What say we head down to Shibuya?  I hear there’s a new place that has really good tonkotsu ramen!"

 

*******

 

She was glad she’d acquiesced to go out with her friends. When they’d left the school Mai didn’t quite feel at ease with the girls, but as the afternoon turned into evening she felt more and more comfortable. She was still self-conscious about their age difference and was afraid of acting differently so as to draw attention to herself. She was hardly the same person she’d been just yesterday, all those years ago. After all, she’d lived twice as long and had a great deal of experiences that led her to different conclusions and expectations about the world. But as she immersed herself in the present, trying to forget about the future for a while, she found herself slipping back into mannerisms she’d forgotten, remembering inside jokes and behaving as a normal fifteen-year old girl would.

After the ramen shop in Shibuya they walked up and down the busy streets. Keiko window-shopped while Yuriko looked at all the male figures they passed, commenting on those she deemed most handsome or fashionable. They stopped in a boutique when something in the window caught Keiko’s eye and the girls browsed the racks of hats, scarves and displays of vintage-style jewellery.

The girls were in the shop for a long time, waiting as Keiko seriously considered buying a trendy jacket. Mai, not as interested in looking at items she knew she couldn’t afford and finally feeling the weight of two glasses of water she’d drank with her ramen, approached the shopkeeper and asked if she could use the restroom.

The man seemed reluctant to turn his attention toward her and when he did he gazed at her condescendingly. "The restroom is for purchasing customers only," he snipped. "And I doubt you can afford anything in this establishment considering..."  His voice trailed off as he looked her over with disdain.

Michiru, standing close behind her, looked outraged. Mai, sensing a scene, simply shrugged and led her friend away.

"Mai, don’t tell me you’re going to stand for that sort of bullshit!"  Michiru hissed, and Mai was somewhat surprised to see her friend so agitated. Michiru almost never swore.

"It’s fine. Whatever," Mai shrugged. "The train station’s just down the street. I’ll just go to the public restrooms there."  She caught Yuriko’s eye. "Yuriko-chan, when you’re done I’ll meet you guys outside, okay?"

"I’ll go with you,"  Michiru said quickly, following her outside. "What a jerk!"  Michiru exclaimed once they had exited the shop, her face flushed with her sudden anger. "Just because we’re high schoolers. He has no right to assume you can’t buy anything there!  It was way overpriced, anyway," she sniffed. When Mai remained silent, Michiru frowned. "Doesn’t that bother you, Mai-chan?"

"Everyone is dealt some sort of injustice in the world," Mai said, "so I’m grateful that it was a minor one."  Michiru frowned slightly, looking at her friend closely with a mix of curiosity and bewilderment. Mai couldn’t tell if she was worried or just confused. "At least," Mai said quickly, "that’s what my mom always used to say."

Michiru watched her dubiously as they pushed open the door to the station. "Yeah, I guess."

"I’ll just be a minute."  Ducking into the restroom, Mai heaved a sigh of relief. It was the first time that evening she’d evidently done something out of character. Her heart was pounding, though she honestly couldn’t say why it made her so nervous.

In the privacy of the stall, Mai felt a lump form in her throat. It was not her own mother but Luella who had said that to her.

When she returned, Michiru appeared to have all but forgotten about the incident and was cheerful again. They found a new topic, talking and laughing as they returned to the shop where Keiko and Yuriko were waiting outside.

"We’ve got that quiz tomorrow, we should probably call it a night."  Keiko frowned when Michiru groaned at the mention of the quiz. "You were saying you need to study, weren’t you?  And it’s already getting late."

"Yeah, I guess so. If I don’t head home now I won’t make it for dinner and my dad’ll yell at me."

The girls parted ways when they entered the underground train station. Michiru and Keiko took the same train and Mai and Yuriko were on the same line so they said good night as they swiped their passes at the gate. When they arrived on their platform, Yuriko frowned, glancing at the digital display of the train schedule. "Oh, shoot, it looks like you just missed the local."

Mai shrugged. "It’s okay, I’m not in a big hurry."  She smiled at her friend. "That’s good, though, the express will be here in a minute. You won’t have to wait long."

"Yeah."  Yuriko said absently. She seemed to hesitate. "Here," she said as she turned to her, suddenly pressing two 1000 yen notes into Mai’s hand. "Take this."

"Oh, Yuriko-chan, you already bought my ramen. I can’t—"  Mai protested.

"Just take it," Yuriko said, pulling her hands away, forcing to Mai hold the money uncertainly. "Seriously. You don’t need to pay me back. Emergencies come up, you know?"

"Are you sure?"  Mai asked, her voice faltering. When Yuriko nodded firmly, Mai finally dipped her head, putting the money in her pocket. "Thank.. thank you. I’m really sorry for the trouble. I’ll pay you back."

"Don’t," Yuriko grinned and began to laugh. "Besides, I’m curious to find out how much I have to take before my stepdad notices. The guy’s loaded and completely oblivious."  Mai felt a smile grin twitch on her lips. Mischievous Yuriko, just as she remembered her. The girl looked up as the train approached. "Oh, that’s my train. The express line to homework, studying, and tomorrow. Gotta go!"  She grinned at Mai, waving. "See ya!"

Mai returned the wave from the platform. When the train moved down the tunnel, her friend gone from her sight, she dropped her hand. It was time to return to the apartment and she wondered if this time it would feel like returning home.

 

*******

 

They’d called Ms. Shibuya Mitsuki several times over the course of the afternoon, unable to leave a message. In between calls the brothers began to research the area of Nagano in which Mitsuki lived, trying to determine if it was where Harumi had grown up. Unfortunately they couldn’t find any indication that the woman had ever lived there with her daughter. In fact, just as earlier in the day they’d had trouble finding information on Harumi, Mitsuki Shibuya was all but impossible to trace. Had they not seen her name in the directory, Naru knew, they never would have known of her existence.

It was dark outside when Naru finally placed his hand on his brother’s arm. "It’s time to go, Gene," he said with a resigned sigh. "We’ll try again tomorrow."

Gene stared at the materials on the table, his face the mask of a sullen pout. He was tired, hungry and grouchy and he knew his brother was right. With no amount of calling would she pick up the phone tonight and no amount of research would bring them closer to their goal.

"Yeah," he sighed as he stood, picking up the phone books and returning them to the shelf. "You’re right," he said, quirking a grin. "Voice of reason, Noll. You always were, always have been."  He shrugged as he shoved the last book into place. "I suppose if we can’t reach her, we have her address from the directory. We could always try her at home."

Naru frowned. "She’s not answering her phone, Gene, so why do you think she might be at home?  It could be anything. Maybe she’s traveling."

"No," Gene said thoughtfully. "I don’t think that’s it."  He shrugged again. "I just think we’d see her if we tried to go there. If we went this weekend we could ask Mai to come with us."

Naru's frown tightened and he wondered why his brother wanted Mai to accompany them to look for their grandmother. He knew Gene had said nothing to her of his task in this country. "I thought you wanted to go to Kyoto this weekend," he said carefully.

Gene paused, considering. "Maybe.. later. It just seems like it’d be fun to go to Nagano instead."

Naru sighed, pulling on his jacket. The thought of going to Nagano, the place his brother had once died, made him extremely uneasy. "Let’s go get something to eat. We can talk about it over dinner."

"Want to ask Mai to join us?"

He hesitated before answering. "Whatever you want, Gene."

 

*******

 

Mai was even more grateful for the evening with her friends when she returned to her apartment and still had not heard from either of the brothers. It had been her first chance to take her mind off the larger situation at hand, but it returned with full force as soon as she’d walked home in the cold evening. If she hadn’t gone out with the girls, she knew, she would have simply been waiting nervously at home, worry and anxiety gnawing in her stomach as the dark curtain swept over the city, the early spring twilight cooling into night.

She locked the door behind her and slipped out of her shoes, shrugging off her jacket and padding quietly into her bedroom, changing out of her uniform and into a sweatshirt and jeans. Returning to the main room, she switched on the light above the kotatsu and turned off the other lights. She sat beneath the only illumination in the room and set her schoolwork in front of her, absently turning a pencil in her hand as she surveyed the books before her.

She did not feel the need to study. Her classes, both today and yesterday, had all been extremely easy. English and grammar lessons, of course, had been a breeze and she even remembered all the literature, history, science and math. It was her recollection of math that surprised her the most. She would have thought that she would have forgotten it completely, as she hadn’t used much of it in the future. But as the teacher went on about Euclid postulates and axioms, Mai realized that she understood it even better than she had the first time. Naru, she grudgingly admitted, had been right to suggest that she could do better this time around in her studies, though she wasn’t sure what better grades would accomplish in her life. She wanted things to be the same, same but for the addition of Gene. It seemed a simple undertaking.

Mai’s stomach grumbled, urging her to go to the kitchen and heat some food for dinner. The ramen was now three hours ago and already she was hungry again. Instead, however, she remained seated, staring at the opposite wall. Her mind was preoccupied with the twins. She wondered where they were and what they were doing. Perhaps, she thought, they had stayed at the library late. Whatever Gene’s real purpose in Japan was, it undoubtedly contained some sort of research.

As if in response to her thoughts her mobile rang. She jumped at the noise. Gene, the screen declared. Her heart fluttered in her chest with trepidation and relief.

"Hi there Mai! I’m not calling at a bad time, am I?"

"No, of course not. How are you?"

"Good, we’re both great. Noll and I just got back to our room. I know it’s already getting a little late, but do you want to get some dinner?"

"I’d love to. I was just going to eat, actually."

"Perfect. We’ll come pick you up."  In their hotel room, Gene glanced at his brother, whose gaze was turned on some faraway object. "We’ll see you in a few."

 

*******

 

Mai met them in front of her apartment building, their breaths showing in the cool night. "Where do you want to go?"

"Anywhere you’d recommend?"  Naru queried. "A place close by, perhaps?"

"Do you want Japanese food?"  Mai asked uncertainly, to which Naru shrugged in response, indifferent.

"Yeah," Gene affirmed. "Definitely Japanese food."

The small restaurant that Mai led them to was about halfway between her apartment building and the hotel, a small shop on a narrow street. The light, glowing warmly through the frosted windows, was inviting and lively voices could be heard from within. "It’s been a while since I’ve been here," Mai began tentatively, pushing beside the navy noren curtains with a hand, ducking her head as she opened the door. "But the udon and okonomiyaki were both really good. And decently priced, too."

After they were seated, had ordered their food and were drinking tea, Gene clasped his hands together. "So, Mai, have you thought about our trip this weekend to Kyoto?"

"Oh, um, no. Not yet," Mai said, startled. "Sorry."

"No, that’s good," he said, smiling. "Change of plans. Instead of Kyoto, how would you like to go to Nagano Prefecture?"

Mai shot a questioning glance at Naru, who lifted his shoulders slightly but remained silent. She hoped it was an indication that he’d explain later. "Okay," Mai said, hesitating. "I don’t really know anything about Nagano, though. I don’t know if I could show you around the same way as if we went to Kyoto."

"That’s fine. We can pick up a guide book between now and then. We’ll just do whatever seems fun."

"And we can always go to Kyoto later, right?"  Naru said, taking a long sip of his tea, hoping he didn’t sound disappointed. Honestly, he had been looking forward to the opportunity to go to the city with Mai and he had no desire to visit Nagano whatsoever. At his comment, Mai’s eyes once again moved to his face curiously but he evaded her gaze.

To Mai, it was obvious that his brother seemed tense and unsure about the idea though Gene did not seem to notice the fact. Instead, he grinned. "Yeah."

The food was quick to arrive. They had ordered a sampler plate of vegetarian tempura to share, rice, pickles and vegetables in traditional Japanese fair. Mai was relieved that as they ate Naru’s spirits seemed to improve, the tenseness leaving his shoulders and his facial expressions relaxing. Gene, as well, who had been cheerful before, seemed even happier once he began to eat.

As they talked and ate Mai noticed that the atmosphere between the trio seemed much more comfortable than it had the day prior. She was hesitant to ask them about their day, knowing they had spent much of it at the library, but there was not a lack of conversation. Both Gene and Naru asked her about her day: Naru questioning her about classes and school, while Gene was interested in her excursion out with her friends. The topics meandered away from Mai’s day and led to other, animated conversations. Gene spoke of some his sightseeing in Maebashi, stories that he was telling his brother for the first time.

After they had finished their dinner Gene excused himself to the restroom, leaving Naru and Mai alone for the first time that evening.

"Are you okay? With going to Nagano?"  Mai finally asked quietly. Still uncertain with what the brothers were occupied with, she knew at least that returning to that prefecture, at this time, no doubt made him nervous.

Naru sighed heavily, shrugging as he reached into his pocket to retrieve his wallet. "I’ll be fine."  He turned his gaze from the check to the billfold, thumbing through the notes.

"Oh, um, let me pay for my share," Mai said quickly, reaching into her pocket.

"Don’t be ridiculous, Mai. I’ll pay for you."  He pulled out the money and set it down on the table.

Seeing no reason to protest, Mai put her money back into her pocket. "Thank you."  Her eyes softened as she gazed at him, a smile tugging the corner of her lips.

Returning to the table, Gene saw the gentle smile that Mai offered his brother and the seed of suspicion, planted the day before, began to grow. He did not want to think of it. "We passed that arcade on the way here, what say we go there next?"  He asked as he sat down in his seat. He watched Mai as he spoke, noticing that while her grin broadened at his statement, the inner light in her eyes faded when she turned her gaze from his brother to him.

"That sounds fun!  It’s not too late yet, so I’d be game. What do you say, Oliver?"

A genuine smile lifted Naru’s lips. "I suppose we could do that."

“You don’t have to sound so reluctant,” Gene teased, pulling his brother to his feet. “Come on. Let’s go.”

 

*******

 

The arcade was still busy and some of the games had lines of people waiting. Not tremendously picky, the three teens avoided the clusters of people and went to the available games. Mai watched first as the brothers played a racing game, laughing so hard she thought her sides would split at Naru’s ineptitude at the game. She had known that he was terrible at video games, ever since the time Luella's visiting young cousins, a Wii gaming console and MarioKart combined in one fateful afternoon, many years later. She’d laughed like this, then, too.

"Have you ever played a racing game before?"  She chortled and he smiled at her, his eyes full of mirth.

"You wouldn’t believe me if I said I had," he replied.

She continued to laugh and he gently pushed her toward the game in his place. "Here, you play," he commanded, and she took the controls.

Gene beat her spectacularly as well and then they moved on to the taiko drumming game. Mai and Gene played the first game, laughing as they tried to hit the beats. Naru watched from the side, content as a spectator. When Mai finished, having bested his brother, she laughed and tugged on his arm and convinced him to play as well.

"I’m beat," Gene said, setting down the drum sticks after the third round of the game, in which Mai had another spectacular round. "You guys good to go?"

"Yeah."  Mai said happily, and Naru nodded shortly.

"It’s getting late. We should head back. And you have school tomorrow," Naru said, turning to Mai.

She shrugged and didn’t seem to hear him, instead hurrying them forward. "Oh, a photo booth!"  A huge smile covered her face. "You don’t mind, do you?"  She hardly waited for their answer, all but pulling the two brothers inside, crowding into the small space of the booth. She took her purse from her pocket, inserted some coins and pressed the button to begin. "Are you ready?"

Using the mirror, they situated themselves to fit inside the image area. Mai in the middle, grinning, pressed the button to take the first picture.

"Smile, Noll," Gene commanded.

"I am smiling," Naru retorted dryly. His smile, of course, barely lifted his lips. Both Gene and Mai knew it was a teasing reply, fully aware of his impassive expression.

"Next one—" Mai said, laughing as Gene turned his fingers into bunny ears behind her head.

"Serious faces, everyone," Gene deadpanned, and the flash shone on three somber faces.

"What should our last one, be?"  Mai asked Naru, lifting her gaze to meet his. "Quick, we only have five seconds!"

"Three wise monkeys," Naru said without hesitation, and the three moved simultaneously just before the final flash went off.

Stepping outside to examine the prints, Mai pointed at the last picture. "How did we do that," she murmured, smiling. "You’d think we’d coordinated it or something."

Gene looked over her shoulder on one side, Naru on the other. On the left side of the picture, Naru had covered his ears, a faint smile evident by the glimmer in his eyes. In the center of the photo Mai’s eyes were wide, both hands covering her mouth, giving her a startled appearance. And on the right, Gene had an enormous grin on his face, his eyes covered tightly behind both hands.

"We three look good together," Gene suddenly said, taking one of the sets of prints from Mai. "You bought three sets?"

She shrugged. "So we could all have one."  She turned to Naru and passed it to him, her fingers lingering as they brushed his hand.

"Thank you," he said, gazing at the photos for a moment before tucking it in his inside jacket pocket.

They left the arcade together and stepped out into the cool night. Gene gazed upward at the dark starless sky, his breath steaming upwards before it was whisked away into the shadows. "Well, where to from here?"

"Don’t you think we should call it a night?"  Naru questioned, glancing for traffic on the street as they crossed to the opposite sidewalk. Both Mai and Gene, he noticed, did not look.

"Nah, not yet. Besides, I’m still a little hungry. Let’s stop in a store and grab a snack or find a café."

Naru frowned, reluctant to agree with his brother even as he felt the same. Due to their strenuous schedule of the day, he, too, was hungry again—or at least in the mood for a cup of tea. "Mai, what about school tomorrow?"

Mai, who was just finishing buttoning her coat up to her neck, shrugged ever so slightly, agreeable to anything. "It’s not too late, I can stay out a little longer."

They passed a brightly lit confectionary and Gene slowed as he looked in the window, a showcase of every dessert the shop made on display. "Those parfaits are huge," he noted. "Do they really make them that large?"

"Oh, absolutely," Mai laughed. "And honestly these aren’t really that big, compared to some cafés."  She looked at the sign of the shop, dredging for a memory of the place. She knew she’d had a parfait there before—though it was possibly more than ten years ago for her. "I’ve been here before," she started. "But it’s been a while. I think they specialize in parfaits and anmitsu."

"That’s the anmitsu?" Gene asked, pointing at a bowl with plastic fruit and gelatinous-looking balls and cubes, arranged more pleasantly than he might have expected from 'gelatinous-looking balls and cubes.'

"Yup," Mai said, a slight smile spreading on her lips. "Have you ever had any kind of Japanese dessert?"  She asked. "It’s really different from Western desserts, if you’ve never had it."

"I’ve had green tea ice cream," Gene said. "But that’s pretty much it."  He glanced at his brother, as if seeking his approval.

"Shall we go in?"  Naru asked, raising an eyebrow. His brother obviously wanted to and he knew that Mai loved parfaits. He himself did not care for the texture of gelatin, nor was he terribly fond of sweets. While the other two had been preoccupied with the desserts he had read the menu pasted on the window by the door. The establishment had a very small selection of black teas but he was not feeling very particular. Any hot beverage appealed to him at the moment.

Gene, as if afraid his brother might change his mind, did not hesitate. He took Mai’s arm in his and pulled her toward the door. "Let’s go, Mai."  He gestured with a nod of his head. "Come on, Noll."

 

*******

 

An hour with two desserts, a cup of decaf coffee and two cups of tea—not to mention much laughter and conversations later—the three left the small café.

"I suppose I should go home," Mai confessed, a guilty look crossing her face. "Thank you for taking me out tonight. I had a lot of fun."

"Of course, Mai," Gene said, and Naru smiled warmly.

"Let us know if you’d like to go to Nagano."

Mai nodded quickly. "Yeah. I’ll call you guys tomorrow, okay?"

"Have a good night," Gene said, and they waved, parting as they left her at her doorstep.

The brothers walked to the hotel in comfortable silence. Despite the magnitude of the day, neither was tired but rather awake and alert, owing to their evening with Mai. When they returned to the room Gene turned on the television, lounging on his bed while Naru showered and prepared for bed.

"What are you watching?"  Naru asked, returning to the room and sitting down on his own bed.

"Some documentary about the marine life of Okinawa. It was either this or an old Japanese movie about a poet and painter."  Gene shrugged and rose to his feet, his bare feet padding quietly across the floor as he stepped into the bathroom, taking up his toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste onto it. "You’re welcome to change the channel."

Naru’s shrug mimicked his brother’s and he lay back onto the bed, barely listening to the dialogue of the show and only faintly aware of the sounds around him. His mind was continuously turning over the situation at hand.

Ever since he’d stepped on the plane in London headed for Tokyo, he’d thought about the moment he would tell his brother the truth. He hated lying, but a suitable situation still had yet to present itself to him. That evening, sipping his tea and watching Mai eat a parfait and Gene try anmitsu for the first time, he was suddenly convinced that he was wasting precious time. It would not become easier to tell Gene as time went on and he would be better off telling him as soon as possible.

In theory, it would be simple—all they had to do was completely open their psychic connection. It was something they’d never done before, but he’d thought of this often, in the future. He’d come to the conclusion that there was no doubt together they were capable of such a thing. While it would drain them both, it would also explain everything. To do so, he hoped, would eliminate the possibility of misunderstanding.

But that would show his brother everything, and he wasn’t sure what the implications of doing so would be. To know everything of the future that he did. To show all of his weaknesses of the years, every personal hardship and every private joy on display. It would also lay bare his and Mai’s most intimate moments and that didn’t seem to be his choice alone to share. Mai would not want Gene to see those times. Though appealing in its simplicity, it was not an option. He would have to explain it to him with words.

Gene returned to the room, then, his hair damp from having just washed his face. Naru, who hadn’t moved an inch since his brother left the room, forced himself to relax. He knew that if Gene noticed his tension he would be suspicious or worried.

"Tired?"

"A bit."

While Gene lay down on his bed, propping his head up with a pillow, Naru struggled to think of words to say. He did not know how to begin. His brother gazed at the television and his resolve began to fade.

Peaceful footage of underwater mammals and fish was accompanied by dreamy music. "These gentle creatures once grazed peacefully on the abundant sea grass in Henoko Bay. Now, perhaps fewer than fifty dugongs remain and struggle to survive. Already threatened by pollution and overfishing in many other parts of its dwindling worldwide habitat, the remaining dugong population in Okinawa is most jeopardized by the United States military’s plans to build a new airbase," the woman narrated quietly. Gene moved to turn off the lamp, the television the only light in the room.

After some time Gene turned off the television and the room became suddenly still. He spoke out of the darkness. "I like Japan," he said, both his grin and sleepiness evident in his voice. "What about you, Noll?"

Naru nodded, a smile easing his face as he closed his eyes. "I do, too."

 

*******

 

When Naru unlocked and opened the door to Mai’s apartment at an hour past midnight, the light was on and she was sitting at the kotatsu, reading.

"You’re up," he said, startled, closing the door quietly behind him.

She smiled sheepishly, lowering the book to the table. "I was waiting for you."

"Sorry it’s so late. I fell asleep."  He bent to remove his shoes. "What would you have done if I hadn’t shown up?"

She shrugged. "Sleep here, I guess."  Her eyes twinkled as she gazed at him, her grin widening. "But I knew you’d come."  She patted the cushion next to her that she’d set out for him. "You look stressed, Naru. I know it’s difficult not to worry, but it’ll be different this time. You know that. Everything’s going to be fine."

He exhaled as he sat, sliding under the kotatsu, pulling the blanket around him. He leaned forward onto the surface, resting his head against his hands. It was not just the trip to Nagano that he was worried about. "I know."  He looked over at her hands. "What are you reading?"

"A novel by Fumiko Enchi."  She turned the book to show him the cover. "The teacher I stayed with gave this to me when I left, but I’d never read it. I don’t know when I lost it, in the future, but I eventually did. I didn’t have it when I moved to London."  He raised an eyebrow, silently asking her appraisal and she made a slight face in response. "It’s good—she’s an excellent writer—but I hate starting a new book when there’s another one I haven’t finished yet. I really should have gotten Jane Eyre from the library. But it’s not homework, I guess. And something new to occupy the time."  She sighed and pushed the book away, resting her chin against her hands and closed her eyes. "Did you have fun tonight?"

"Yes. Did you?"

She smiled but didn’t open her eyes. "Very much so. Thank you. And thank you for convincing me to go to school today, too. It wasn’t... it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be."

"And you had a good time with your friends after school, right?"

"Yeah," she smiled. "I did. I almost gave myself away to Michiru, though. I need to be careful."  She sighed, opening her eyes and resting her cheek against her hand. "It’s probably harder for you, though. When are you going to tell Gene?"

"Soon."  He exhaled heavily. "Tomorrow. Probably. I probably already should have told him, but... well, hindsight."  He closed his eyes, pinching the skin between them with his fingers. He looked tired, Mai thought, and she frowned with worry as she gazed at him. She wished he hadn’t come but had instead continued to sleep. It was obvious that he needed the rest. The tension was evident on his face.

Naru sighed slightly and opened his eyes, rubbing his temple with his fingers as he looked around the room, surveying the minute details. It had been a long time since he’d been in her apartment and he’d never before at this time in her life. Still, he recognized objects he’d seen before, including several items that she had brought with her when she came to England. The photos of her parents, a ceramic jar of pencils, and a small maneki neko statue, the cat with a raised paw. If his memory served him correctly, the object had belonged to Mai’s grandmother, who had run a small shop.

Next to the cat was another figure of a cat in a very different form, a stuffed animal of a lion. He didn’t recognize it and the object itself seemed new. "Cute lion," he remarked, his gaze falling on the plush. "Is that new?"

Mai smiled. "Gene gave it to me."

He couldn’t keep the frown from forming on his lips, jealously instantly welling in his chest. "You shouldn’t let him pay so much attention to you," he said, his voice coming out a little harder than he intended it to be. "He’ll get the wrong idea."

Mai frowned and looked up at him, questioningly. "Naru," she started, unsure of what to say. He looked away, scowling in response.

She suddenly remembered Gene’s light flirting from the days before. Since she’d been with both brothers, she had thought that Gene’s attitude toward her had been nothing but platonic friendliness. Evidently, however, Gene must still be treating her differently than he would other girls as Naru had noticed the variation. She’d never seen him jealous before. "You’re being silly. Even if he... even if he thought..."  She didn’t know how to reassure him. She realized that it did not matter what she said regarding Gene’s feelings. Rather it was her own feelings that mattered. "You don’t think I would choose him over you?  You... you don’t need to think about that, Naru. It’s not going to happen."

It was Gene you should have fallen in love with in the first place, he wanted to say. But he could not bring himself to utter the words.

Even if he did not voice his thoughts, she understood he was insecure and ashamed of the fact. Sighing, she reached toward him and took his hand in her own. "I mean, I could say the same, right?  That because you have Gene, you don’t need me anymore?  I could expect you to return to England and I would never see you again."

"Don’t be preposterous," Naru said shortly and she smiled.

"Then it’s agreed. I want to be with you, Naru. That’s not going to change."  She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the lips. "It’s not going to change," she repeated.

Resting his hand against her cheek he returned the kiss. His eyes were guilty when he pulled his lips from hers. "I’m... sorry. I’m not being rational. I’m just.. tired. I suppose I’m still jet-lagged."

The concern returned to her face. "Then you should get some rest."  Her eyes moved to the clock in the kitchen and she sighed. "It’s already one-thirty. I should go to sleep, too. I have school tomorrow, after all."

He sighed softly, closing the distance between their faces, resting his forehead against hers and his hand sliding to rest on her neck. "What do you want, Mai?  Where do you want this future to take us?"

"I just want things to go back the way they were," she said. "I want everything to be the way it was, before, just with Gene."

"But that’s impossible," he said, flatly.

"I know," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I know it’s impossible, Naru. So we just have to move forward, I guess. So that’s all I want. To go forward with you and Gene."

They remained in that position, their noses almost touching, for a long time. He had closed his eyes, but from the way his eyelashes fluttered against his skin, she could tell he was thinking, rather than resting.

His eyes finally opened and he regretfully pulled away from her, dropping his hand to hers and squeezing her fingers gently. "I should let you go to sleep," Naru said, getting up from the kotatsu and then helping her to her feet. "I've already kept you up this long."

"No, not at all."  She smiled at him, his hand resting on the small of her back as he walked her to her bedroom. "See you tomorrow?"

"Of course."  He leaned toward her and kissed her again gently, then folded his arms around her and embraced her tightly. "Thank you, Mai. I couldn’t do this without you."  He held her in silence for several moments before he spoke again. "I... I do love you, Mai. Very much."

"I know. I love you too, Naru," Mai said, smiling as he released her and kissing him gently on the cheek. "Now you go, too. You need rest more than I do."

 

*******

 

His brother was once again awake when he woke up, sitting at the computer. That fact didn’t surprise Gene, but his twin didn’t look rested. The dark shadows beneath his eyes, staring vacantly at the screen, worried him.

"You look awful, Noll," Gene frowned as he sat up. "Did you sleep poorly?"

"Yeah," Naru said shortly, shifting in his chair. In fact he’d barely slept at all. The upcoming trip to Nagano weighed heavily on his mind, coupled with thoughts of how to finally come clean with his twin. Despite the comfort he’d felt when he visited Mai, when he returned to the hotel he’d been unable to sleep.

"You should go back to sleep."

"I’ll be fine." Naru rubbed his eyes, wishing his voice didn’t sound quite so irritated.

Gene shrugged, knowing his brother wouldn’t listen to reason if it concerned his own well-being. "Suit yourself."  He ran a hand through his hair and slid out of bed. "I’m going to hop in the shower."

When Gene returned from his shower his brother looked somewhat better, a half-drank cup of tea by his hand and a Western breakfast laid out on the table: thick slices of toast, potatoes, eggs, a pot of coffee and, of course, a pot of tea. Apparently a bit of caffeine and hot food did him a lot of good. He’d closed the laptop, setting it aside and was now reading a newspaper.

"Smells delish. You called up room service?"

"Something like that."  Naru said, gesturing toward him. "Have some before it goes cold."

"Looks great," Gene murmured, pulling on a sweatshirt and settling down in the chair, heaping some scrambled eggs onto a piece of toast and setting it on his plate. Naru reached over and poured him a cup of coffee, which Gene accepted with a smile.

They ate leisurely and in silence. Gene’s mind was wandering outside and Naru had turned his gaze back to the newspaper.

"It’s a nice day today, huh?"  he murmured with a smile, his eyes closed. "The bad weather’s definitely turned. It’s going to be a sunny day."

It was quiet between the two for several more minutes. Gene opened his eyes when Naru spoke suddenly. "Should I call them this morning?"  He asked. It was immediately obvious of whom he was speaking of.

Gene hesitated for a moment, heart thumping as he thought of the couple they were certain were their paternal grandparents. His resolve hardening, he nodded. "Yes. What’ll you tell them?"

His brother paused, his finger resting gently on the saucer under his empty tea cup. "We probably shouldn’t tell them who we are. At least not right away. That might be a little too much."

"Then what?"  Gene frowned. "It would be better to be honest, Noll."

"It seems a little... insensitive."  When Gene gave him a disapproving look, Naru sighed. "Okay. I’ll be honest."  He picked up the phone and dialled, slowly and methodically. After a delay a woman’s voice answered the phone.

"Good evening. May I please speak with Mr. Lukas Nilson or Mrs. Satoko Nilson?"  Naru said politely.

"Just a moment, please," the woman said, and there was silence for several moments. "Dad, phone," he heard her say, followed by another long silence. Finally he heard the sound of a phone being picked up.

"This is Lukas," a deep voice said.

"Hello, Mr. Nilson. My name is Kazuya Shibuya."  Naru said smoothly. "I apologize to disturb your evening. Do you have a moment?"

"Yes," the man hesitated. "You aren’t.. somehow related to Harumi Shibuya, are you?"

"Yes."  Naru answered calmly. "She was my mother."  There was a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. "I.. If I am correct, I believe that your son, Markus Ichirou, was my father."

There was a still silence as Naru waited. He heard voices in the background. "Darling, what’s wrong?"

"Grandpa?"  A child’s high voice questioned.

"Yes," the man’s voice trembled. Naru heard Lukas whet his lips. "You’re quite right. I.. Forgive that I am speechless. I—We had been under the impression that Harumi died before.. before her due date."

Naru heard the distinct sound of a woman’s high gasp. "Lukas," he heard her say softly. "Is.. is it...?"

"Our mother died just shortly after we were born."  Naru said, finding that there was a lump in his throat.

"I.. I see. ...Our?"  he questioned.

"My brother, Ichirou, and I are twins."

The man let out a heavy sigh, a sigh of happiness and relief. "My God! Twins!" He could hear the woman in the background begin to cry. "Is Ichirou there with you?"

"Yes," Naru said, and passed the phone to Gene.

"Hello?" Gene said tentatively, and Naru watched as the emotions washed over his older brother’s face. Trepidation, relief, wonder, happiness.

This is what he wanted, Naru thought, leaning back as he listened to one side of the conversation and closing his eyes. To hear someone’s joy to discover he was alive. Why didn’t I realize that before?

 

*******

 

Naru opened his eyes with a start, the room very quiet around him. The sound of the door unlocking reached his ears, startlingly loud in the still room and the door to the room swung open.

Gene closed the door quietly behind him as he entered the room. "Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you."

"I fell asleep?" Naru questioned, his voice groggy.

"You must have slept awfully last night. You were really out of it."

Naru rubbed his eyes, trying to gather his bearings. From the light outside, it was obvious that the sun was close to its height of the day. "What time is it?"

"A little after noon."

Naru sat up in surprise, noticing that the table had been cleared, save for the glasses of water from their breakfast. Gene set a bag on the table top. "Lunch," he explained.

Naru stood, stretching his limbs, surprised he wasn’t sore from sleeping in the chair—and for so long. "I think I’ll take a quick shower beforehand. If you don’t mind."

Gene waved his hand. "Go right ahead."

Ten minutes later, a towel draped around his neck, Naru returned to the room feeling refreshed and ravenous. Gene was reading the paper, waiting for him. He looked up, setting the paper aside and started opening the takeaway containers of food. The smell of something delicious, mingling with the aroma of fresh coffee and tea, wafted toward him and his mouth began to water.

Naru pulled a long-sleeved t-shirt over his head and ran his hands through his hair, combing the damp strands with his fingers. "Smells good."

"Just a little lunch," Gene said grinning, unveiling the food. "There’s an Indian restaurant across the street. I picked up samosas and a couple different kinds of curry. And rice, of course."  He inhaled deeply. "You know they’re doing something right when even the rice smells this good. And I couldn’t resist the korma. We’ll see if it’s as good as Luella’s."  He gestured toward him and the open containers. "Come, sit down. Let me tell you about Lukas and Satoko Nilson."

"They’d love to meet us, of course," Gene said, passing his brother some rice as he sat down. He then began to spoon what appeared to be an eggplant dish onto his rice, steam curling up from the hot food. "And they actually travel to the UK occasionally. They have a trip tentatively planned in a few months. Nothing finalized, but there’s some sort of conference in May that Lukas is planning on attending. He’s an academic, just like Martin." He grinned. "I imagine the two would get along very well."

"What’s his field?"  Naru asked, reaching for a samosa.

"Neuroscience. And Satoko is an artist, a painter. She runs a gallery and shop in downtown New Haven."

Naru couldn’t help but wonder how a neuroscientist and a painter would take to having a psychic pair of twin grandsons. "What about the rest of the family? Their other children, the sisters, and their families. Did he mention any of that?"

Gene nodded. "The entire family has stayed in the New Haven area. Markus was the oldest of their siblings. Both of the sisters are married with families. Alice, the middle child, has two daughters, ages ten and eight. Emma, the youngest, had a baby about a year ago."

It had been one of the daughters who had answered the phone, and one of granddaughters he had heard in the background. "Were they all there?" Naru asked, and Gene nodded. He began to wonder why he had insisted they not call yesterday and if it could have had anything to do with the fact that the entire family would be together today.

"After Markus graduated he went to Japan, fell in love with the country and decided to stay for a while. He found work in Tokyo as a translator. Lukas said he was extremely likeable and personable, always got along with everyone. Though, what father wouldn’t say that of his son?" Gene smiled. "So it was relatively easy for him to live in a foreign country, far from his family. He made friends easily and because he was half-Japanese, he wasn’t immediately singled out as a foreigner."

"You were right on the mark, by the way,” Gene continued. “Born on 8th June 1959, he was 26 years old at his death. Markus had always been athletic—apparently he was on the Yale track and field team—and loved the outdoors. He met Harumi when he took a trip to the Kiso District in Nagano. Part of the trip led him through Otaki village, on his way to climb Mt. Ontake."  His smile turned bitter. It was the mountain that would eventually kill him. "Harumi was a teaching assistant at the Otaki school. Lukas and Satoko had never met her, but Markus had spoken and written of her. Lukas said he had the impression that Harumi wasn’t very close with her family. She’d gone to school in Nagano city. He didn’t know where she was originally from, but she seemed to be from the country. She didn’t like Tokyo and didn’t visit Markus much there, before he moved to Otaki."

"What did he do when he came to Otaki?"

"He worked in a shop, doing what sounded like manual labor," Gene said, setting his spoon down. "Even though he wasn’t making a good living or full use of his talents, he loved it there. Lukas said they tried to hint that he should come back to the States, but Markus would go on and on about how beautiful the area was and how happy he was there. He lived in Otaki for a little over two years. He skied a lot in the winter and climbed the mountains when there wasn’t enough snow. When Harumi became pregnant, though, he starting thinking about the future seriously. He wanted financial stability to raise his family, so he started to make plans to move the family back to Connecticut."

Naru frowned. "But they never made it. If they had returned to the States..."

The statement hung in the air. If Markus and Harumi had moved to the United States, they would have been spared the earthquake and the landslides. Neither would have died and their children wouldn’t have grown up as orphans. They never would have met the Davis’s. Instead, they would be Americans with grandparents, aunts and cousins.

The two were silent for some time. "How do you think..." Naru started carefully, anxious to manoeuvre the conversation along, "they will take to our capabilities?"

"I don’t know," Gene answered honestly. "But I don’t think we need to worry about that."

This was the time, Naru realized. Now was the time to tell his brother everything. About Mai, the future, his death. Naru leaned back in his chair, gaze drifting to the window. Despite his conviction he was at a loss, still unsure of how to breach such a tremendous topic.

"What’s bothering you?"  Gene finally asked, frowning. His brother had settled into silence and even he didn’t have the faintest idea what could be running through his head. "Does this really bother you that much?" When he didn’t answer, Gene’s frown deepened, studying him intently. "I thought you seemed happier, somehow, just by being here in Japan. Maybe I was wrong. You’ve been strange, Noll."

"That’s.. not it."  Naru sighed and rubbed his eyes. His mind had felt clear, when he’d woken up, but it seemed clouded again and he had difficulty focusing his thoughts. If anything, he supposed he should be surprised that Gene hadn’t said anything about his different behavior earlier. "It’s not that."  He sighed and ran his hand through his damp hair. "I wish I would have had the desire to find them," he murmured softly. "I should have. Or swallowed my pride and come with you anyway. This is all my fault. None of it would have..."  He didn’t finish his statement. Could he honestly wish none of it had happened?  Yes, he told himself. Together, Gene and I might have met Mai anyway.

But Mai would have fallen in love with Gene, a small, niggling voice told him. Not you. Surely, not you.

Gene frowned. "Noll?"

It would have been better that way anyway, he tried to tell himself. But the two opposing sides of his thoughts would not listen to each other.

Naru looked up and met his brother’s gaze. "Gene, I..."  He was his better half, there was no denying it. Gene was warm where he was cold, always offering an easy smile that drew people toward him. He was often quick-tempered but always quick to laugh and quick to forgive. " I need to tell you, but I don’t know how to put it into words."

His twin, searching his face, reached forward and placed his hand on his shoulder reassuringly. "What is it?"

"I should have told you earlier.” Naru closed his eyes. “You’ll hate me."

"I could never," Gene said with a gentle, concerned smile. He leaned forward, encouragingly. "Tell me, Noll."

Naru sat in silence for several moments, wondering how he should begin. His thoughts were tangled in his head. Traveling around Japan, searching for the lake. London and Tokyo. Days and nights with Mai.

"Is it about Mai?"  Gene suddenly asked, as if reading his thoughts.

"She’s... very much involved in all of this."  Naru sighed. "I suppose I could start there. I’ve known her for a very long time. When we told you that we met when she visited London, we were lying. I’m sorry."

Gene looked puzzled. "You didn’t meet in London?  Where did you meet, then?"

"Here, in Tokyo."

Gene’s eyes widened. "But..."

"It was early April, of this year."  Naru’s eyes clouded as he recalled the memory of that time. "It was spring. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom." He sighed and dropped his head into his hands. His words seemed slow and cumbersome. "I’ve lived this before, Gene. I’ve lived this day and many others, far into the future."

Gene kept his face an unreadable mask, though Naru knew his brother was startled. After a short silence, he spoke. "You’ve never... been precognitive," he finally said softly.

"No. I know what would have happened, had I not returned to prevent it."  Naru exhaled shakily. "The first time you took this trip to Japan I did not come to help you. I was stubborn and I wasn’t interested in the past. You were..."  He swallowed, his voice suddenly tight, his hands beginning to shake as the words tumbled forth. Tears formed in his eyes as he relived the moment he had witnessed through the green haze of death.

"You came alone. Alone, and..."  Gene noticed the dampness in his brother’s eyes with alarm but remained silent. "You died here." Naru released his breath in a shuddering sigh. "A hit and run. I came to Japan to find you. By then it was too late. I came here to retrieve your body."

The two sat in silence for a very long time. Gene would not meet his brother’s gaze. "And you met Mai?" he suddenly asked, his voice thin.

"I opened an office as a pretence to search for you. Ghost hunting. I met Mai when I was here. She worked in the office with us,"  Naru said honestly. "I came here with Lin."

Gene’s face fluctuated between shock and disbelief. Naru could see that his brother was struggling to believe him, unwilling to doubt his brother but afraid of accepting the implications the truth would reveal. "You.. remember everything?" He asked with difficulty, frowning. "What about Mai?  If she recognized me.. and lied..."  His wide eyes searched his brother’s face for answers. "She remembers the future as well, doesn’t she?  What does she know about me?"

Naru closed his eyes for several moments, trembling. "You guided her through her dreams," he finally said. "After your death. Not knowing I had a twin and doubting her own abilities, she thought it was I in her dreams for a very long time. Only after I found you did I tell her the truth."

"How.. long was that?"

"A little over a year."

Gene looked at the table sullenly. " Then how... did you come back? To now?"

Naru held his brow with his fingers. "I... honestly couldn’t tell you."

"You must have used PK, didn’t you? I bet you killed yourself in the process."

He could have laughed, of course Gene was right on the mark. "That was my speculation," he admitted, and exhaled. "Mai and I were together. I fell in love with her."

"Then what happened?"  Gene said, his voice suddenly bitter.

"She... she was hit by a car. I... I had to go back and prevent her death."

Gene said nothing, his eyes somewhat hard as he gazed at a point beyond his brother’s face. The only sound between them was the sound of their breathing. Gene’s was even and calm. Naru could feel his own heart thudding in his chest.

"I don’t believe that I did it alone."  Naru said softly. "I believe it was only possible because you helped me. Somehow. If only I had known earlier, I would have—"

"No," Gene said suddenly, rising to his feet abruptly, his thighs hitting the table and the cups and glasses clattering against each other. "Don’t say that. I don’t want to hear it."

Naru rose to his feet shakily, feeling weak and sick in his stomach. "Gene," he started.

"Don’t say it," Gene growled. He stilled, though he did not turn to meet his brother’s gaze. "You chose her over me."

"How could I choose between you?" Naru asked, his voice very quiet. "How could I say that I love you more than her, or her more than you? You are... the most precious people to me. My love for you is different but I love the both of you more than anything in this world."

Gene wasn’t listening, distancing himself from his brother. "I died," he murmured. "I died while I was looking for our family, here in Japan."  He turned his angry gaze onto his brother. "You already know about them, then. The Nilsons and Mitsuki Shibuya."

"No," Naru said honestly. "I never knew anything about them."

Gene’s brow furrowed with confusion. "But why—?"

"I never knew what became of your search," Naru admitted, hesitating. "You didn’t speak of it. And I never continued the investigation in your stead."

"Why not?"  Gene burst out. "Why the bloody hell not, Noll?"

Naru looked pained. "I told you, Gene. I simply... did not have the drive to find them, as you did. I had you. You were all I needed. We had Martin and Luella. I was content with that. And after you died… there was even less of a reason to find them. What would have been the point?"

Gene’s face darkened and he turned suddenly, striding toward the door.

"Gene—"

"Just.. give me some time to think about what you’ve said."  Gene said, his face turned away from his brother. "I won’t.. do anything foolish. I just need a little time to myself."

He knew, with certainty, that his brother had spoken with finality. The remaining task of his undertaking was to leave him alone. He had said what he needed to—at least he hoped it was what was needed to explain the situation—and now he had to wait, to see how the weight of his words would be processed. And so Naru stood, resigned, as the door closed behind him and his twin disappeared, leaving him alone in what seemed to him an empty, lonesome room.

 

*******

 

Mai had been doodling in her notebook when she suddenly sat up straight, a shiver traveling her arms. She began to wish for school to end so she did not have to sit still, knowing that there was something she needed to do, somewhere she needed to go. She wasn’t sure what it was, or where, but it certainly wasn’t at the school.

When the bell rang, she left her books in her desk and hastily left the classroom, hurriedly putting on her jacket.

"Mai," Michiru called after her as she all but ran down the hall. "What’s wrong? You left all your books!"

"Sorry, Michiru, I just remembered I have to do something. I’ll get them later, I have to go!"  Mai called back, barely slowing her pace and offering a wave to her troubled friend, who stared after her with concern. "See you tomorrow!"

She moved by instinct, taking the train first to a different area of the city and then continuing down a crowded street. She hurried past a busy temple district, the atmosphere quieting as she reached the riverside park. She now knew that she was hurrying to meet one of the Davis twins, though she still did not know who or what she needed to do when she met him.

Everything fell into place when she saw him. Gene was standing at the edge of the path against the railing, his hands deep in his pockets as he stared at the water. She was suddenly very nervous and wondered what it was that had driven her to come here. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Mai approached him and took a similar stance by his side, her own hands in the pockets of her coat as she gazed forward.

He did not turn his head to acknowledge her presence. "What are you doing here?" He finally asked, almost grudgingly. "How did you know where to find me?"

Mai shrugged, gazing out over the river, her eyes avoiding his. "Just a feeling, I guess. Are you OK?"

"Did Noll ask you to come?"  He asked, eyeing her carefully.

She shook her head and was silent for a moment, lips pursed together as she contemplated what to say. "I take it... he told you. I’m sorry for lying to you," she said, her voice dropping. "You know, now, I assume, that I knew who you were when I saw you."

He nodded tersely, a frown deepening his face. "You should have said something."

She sighed, pulling her hands out of her pocket to lean her elbows on the railing, watching several ducks fly down onto the water, fluttering their wings. "I’m sorry," she repeated. "I didn’t know what to do. Would you have believed me, even?  I guess I didn’t think you would. Or I didn’t think I could explain it to you, that it wasn’t my place. Maybe that was wrong. Maybe I should have told you, right away. But even Naru, who seems to always know what to do, didn’t know how to tell you. It was a difficult situation to be in, Gene."  She could see that he was reluctant to be convinced, and continued. "I don’t mean to justify our actions. In the end, we betrayed your trust. I’m sorry."

He looked away, aware of his own unwillingness and somehow ashamed of it. "I don’t suppose I have a very good reason to be mad at you. I haven’t been exactly truthful with you, either. Did Noll tell you?"  When she didn’t speak he elaborated. "Why I came to Japan."

She shook her head, leaning away from the railing and turning toward him. "I was originally told you were visiting mediums, but..." her voice trailed off. When his firm gaze prompted her to finish, she continued. "Other than that I don’t know. But it seems to be more than that."

"What do you know about me?"  He asked, his voice suddenly very quiet.

"I know that you are the youngest and most celebrated, perhaps the only perfect medium in England," she started, without hesitation. "While not well-known in the general eyes of the public, you are renowned among academic and parapsychological circles. That you and your brother were labelled The Most Powerful Psychic Pair in Documented History by some researchers at the British Society for Psychic Research," Mai said blandly. "Or something ostentatious like that."  She paused, flushing and looking embarrassed of what she had just said. "If that’s what you’re asking. But that’s all."

Mai’s face grew pained and her voice dropped even softer, her gaze riveted on Gene’s sneakers. "The only other things I knew of you before I met you at the station a few days ago was that you were Naru’s brother. That you were terribly kind and patient with a fool like me. That I was fortunate to have met you, even if it was only a shadow of your former self."  Tears had formed in her eyes and fell to the sidewalk from her tilted head. Though he could not see her eyes, Gene noticed the splatters on the pavement immediately. "Your death was a tragedy that I couldn’t ever understand. Now that I’ve met you, I know that. I really like you. You never should have died."

Gene averted his gaze, uncomfortable to see her crying. "Don’t say that."  He frowned, placing his hand comfortingly on top of her head. "You died, too. It’s not like my death was anything that significant."

"But it was!"  Mai protested. "More than you could know. You can’t imagine the effect your death had on the people who love you."  Mai sniffed softly and wiped at her eyes, embarrassed for her outburst. "I wasn’t there, and I didn’t know you the first time, before you died. But I don’t want you to go through that pain. I want you to live. I don’t want the person most precious to Naru to disappear. I want you two to be happy together," she finished softly.

"Most precious," Gene scoffed, disbelief evident in his voice.

"Don’t say that," Mai said quickly, her voice trembling. "He’d do anything to save your life, Gene. So.. don’t say that. Please... don’t be angry with him."

"He chose you over me," he muttered darkly. "How can I not be a little angry?"

"No," Mai shook her head vehemently. "He didn’t. He doesn’t need to choose between us, Gene. It’s not like that. We’re not.. mutually exclusive."

“He doesn’t need me anymore.”

The words were a blow to the chest and Mai closed her eyes with the hurt. “That’s absolutely not true,” she whispered. “You should know that’s not true.”

Gene swallowed, and spoke slowly. "Because I live, Mai, your future will be different. Are you okay with that?"

"That’s the point!"  Clenching her fists at her sides, Mai realised she was crying again. "I’m happy that I get to stand here next to you today. I’m so happy I get to meet the real, living, breathing Gene who has a full life ahead of him. I’m happy we can come back here and do anything to avoid that happening again. So that your brother and your parents, and Lin and Madoka, and all your friends and co-workers and classmates and professors, everyone you ever meet will get to live by your side. I’m glad that no one has to receive the news that Eugene Davis died."  She finished, her voice dropping to a whisper.

"People die all the time."

"I know," Mai whimpered.

"Your parents are dead. My parents are dead, too. So why are we alive, Mai?"  Gene asked quietly. "Why are we the ones that get a do-over?"

"I don’t know. John would say it’s all part of God’s divine plan," Mai whispered, closing her eyes. "But I’m not a Christian so I can’t say that."

"If anything, it’s this that doesn’t seem fair.” Gene sighed. “But I guess that’s how the world works. Whatever you want to call it. In the end, it amounts to the same thing," he said, his voice sounding resigned. He lifted his gaze to follow the ducks as they flew up and away from the water. "Whether it’s fate, or destiny, kismet, or karma. The will of God or the wrath of God. Divine retribution. Or chance, coincidence, a cosmic accident. Whatever. We’re here today."

Gene exhaled loudly and frowned. "Please stop crying, Mai. I didn’t want to make you cry and people are beginning to stare."

"I’m not crying," Mai said, wiping at her eyes again, a small smile hitching the corner of her lips.

He placed his hand on her chin and lifted her face, meeting her eyes. Gazing at her for several moments in silence, Mai found her cheeks growing hot. "G..Gene?"

"Good."  He dropped his hand. "Just making sure you’re not lying," he said, a small smile twitching his lips, and Mai flushed in embarrassment. He began to walk down the path, gesturing with his head for her to follow him. They walked together side by side for several minutes before Gene spoke again. "I’m hungry. What about you?"

"Mhn, I’m okay."

Gene appraised her, raising an eyebrow. "I’d ask you to treat me to something to make up for this, but it would probably be wrong to make a destitute student to buy me food, huh?"

"I’m not destitute. I can treat you. If you want something, I’ll buy it," Mai said stubbornly, refusing to admit that the money in her purse wasn’t hers, but a loan from her friend.

"Okay. Then I want takoyaki."  Gene said, pointing at a food vendor up the way.

Mai nodded briskly and went to the stand, waiting for the older couple that was currently being served. When it was her turn she purchased a small container, which she passed to Gene who immediately speared one of the dumplings with a toothpick and popped it in his mouth. "They sell juice and soda, too. Do you want something to drink?"

"Coke," he demanded between chews.

Mai turned back to the vendor. "One coke, please."

"That’s 750 yen."  The man handed her the beverage and Mai passed him several coins from her wallet. She turned back to Gene, who was thoughtfully munching on the takoyaki.

"Have you ever had takoyaki before?"  Mai asked as they stepped away from the stand. He shook his head. "Do you like it?"

Gene swallowed. "Yeah. It’s good. What’s in it, besides octopus?"

"Mm, probably green onion or pickled ginger. And tenkasu."  Seeing the look on his face she elaborated quickly. "Deep-fried tempura batter."

"Sounds delicious," Gene snorted, piercing another takoyaki, though his expression was pleasant. "Because deep frying this batter isn’t good enough, we need to put little pieces of deep fried batter inside it and then deep fry it."

"Well, it’s good, right?" Mai laughed. "Besides, don’t make fun of Japanese food. Your country’s the one with the chip butty. Because bread hasn’t got enough starch as it is, let’s make a sandwich with french fries," she imitated with a high, sarcastic voice.

"Yeah, yeah."  He waved her quiet, but a grin had spread across his features. When he finished eating the takoyaki, he passed her the empty container and she handed him the soda in response. Passing a rubbish bin, she tossed the container in and returned her hands to her pockets.

They walked in silence for several minutes as Gene drank the soda, tossing into the next bin they passed when it was empty.

"Do you want to go back to the hotel?"  Mai asked softly, breaking the silence. An anxious look flickered on her face. "I’m sure Naru is worried about you."

"I suppose so."  Gene said, and his lips quirked in a grin. "Your English is almost flawless, Mai, but you still call him Naru? Not Noll?"

Mai flushed. "I started calling him Naru as soon as I met him. Naru for narcissistic."

"He can be a little full of himself," Gene admitted. "How long ago was that?"

She hesitated. "Fifteen... sixteen years ago."

Gene’s mouth dropped open in surprise. "I... I had no idea it had been so long," he finally said, his expression both troubled and confused. "How old would you be if you hadn’t died, then?"

"Thirty-two. If I hadn’t died the first time. Otherwise, twenty-four."

Gene frowned, a puzzled expression clouding his eyes. "The first time?"  He repeated.

Oh, no, Mai thought, swallowing quickly. "Naru... Naru didn’t tell you that this is the second time?"

Gene’s frown deepened, eyebrows lowering and eyes darkening. "No. He didn’t."

Mai swallowed again and looked away. She felt as though someone had dropped a block of ice in the pit of her stomach, the cold feeling spreading throughout her body. "I..."  But she couldn’t form a coherent thought besides Oh no oh no no no, I shouldn’t have said that...

Gene stopped directly in front of her, facing her with anger and confusion in his stormy eyes. Mai’s breath caught in her throat. This is what Lin meant. That Gene would think that Naru’s betrayed him.

"What happened the first time?"  He demanded furiously. "Naru came back for you?"

"Well, yes—I mean, well—" Mai stammered.

"Well?" Gene repeated incredulously. "What else are you lying about?"  His voice rose and Mai shrank away, his words more painful than if he had slapped her.

"Gene," Mai whispered, pleading. She didn’t know why but she was afraid, fearful of this escalation. "I.. I didn’t know that he hadn’t told you. Naru wants to tell you everything, but you know him. He doesn’t know how, he’s probably just nervous. Please be patient with him..."

"I am not as patient as you think I am."  Gene growled, cutting her words short. "How can I believe him now?  Will he ever tell me the truth?  Will you ever tell me the truth?"  Mai opened her mouth to reassure him but he spoke harshly before any sounds left her throat. "You’ve already lied to me. He probably wouldn’t have said anything if he hadn’t felt threatened," he spat. "Didn’t want his insignificant younger brother getting too close to his girl."

"That’s not it," Mai whispered, flinching at his cold words. "Believe him, trust him. Please."

Without warning Gene grabbed Mai’s shoulders, leaning his head toward her and resting his forehead on hers, hands suddenly clutching her temples. She cried out in surprise. "I don’t want to hear it in bits and pieces. I want to know the truth. All of it. So show me," he whispered and her head spun as she remembered, remembering from the very beginning.

A strange boy entering the classroom, turning on the light and smiling at her friends. What a fake smile. Is he scheming something?  In the dusty room, a camera tipped, crashing against the ground. She didn’t yet know his name, but it was Lin’s blood on the ground. His face, twisted in pain, sneering at her. Get away from me. I don’t need your help.

You should get a little more rest. A boy in her dreams, smiling a kind smile. Closing her eyes, feeling content to know he was there by her side. I wish you’d smile like that more often. Dark eyes, gazing at her with tenderness and concern. This place is dangerous. You should go back to where the others are.

The vision began to move jerkily, unnaturally quick as it passed through her memories. Disjointed moments in fast-forward and rewind.

The wind is gone and my ears are ringing. What is that?  Ghostly eyes, thirsty for blood, ignored her and stared hungrily at the man by her side. It was only a dream. The bones of a child, hidden behind a statue. Maybe he’s a qigong master. That would explain why restraints wouldn’t do anything. Leaping into the lake, plunging into the murky depths to grab the hand of a sinking, struggling girl. Our Father, who art in Heaven. Hallowed be thy name. A horde of the undead, rattling the shutters, louder than the panicked voices of the living. You should stay, or you’ll never see him again. Standing among a thousand soft points of light, drifting aimlessly through the building. Have faith in Naru. You don’t really think he would betray our beliefs, do you?  Vision wavering as glass shattered around her, the strong chemical smell overwhelming her senses. You idiot! You could have died, do you understand that? An enormous mansion in the middle of the forest. We all felt that we were treated like dogs. Her feet dragging against the ground as she was pulled forward, the smell of blood growing stronger. You’d better look for another job. The office will close upon my return. The terrible crunching sound as the enormous dog crushed the desk in its maw. She said they were looking for a corpse. A talking coin that made her forget the cold darkness they were trapped within, bringing a smile to her lips. This is wrong!  Naru, I hate everything you stand for!  The rumbling crash of a building sinking into the ground. In a fight to the death I would be utterly defeated. Watching him as he clutched the railing, gazing at the lake with loss and hopelessness and fear all but hidden on his face. This is all my fault. The chilling giggle of a possessed child. The ocean washes the dead bodies ashore. The ice cold hands of a ghost, holding her tight against the wall. That’s enough already! Why do we have to go so far for your pride?  The calming sound of a priestess’ bell. Dr Davis is one of the few people in the world who has psychokinetic abilities and ESP. A dark form on a white beach, lying still in the sand. Why does he only call you by your first name?  The fragrant sweetness of a steaming cup of tea. You’re already becoming more and more capable by yourself, so you’ll be okay. Believe in yourself.

It wasn’t a dream. I really did meet Naru. Just now, Naru was here. But...

She was dizzy, and the astonished face in front of her blurred and lurched upwards. Her ears were ringing fuzzily, but she could also hear the hum of the monitors and the tak-tak-tak of fingers on a keyboard in an otherwise silent room. She could smell the metallic scent of blood, hear it dripping in the darkness. It’s extremely dangerous here. Wake up and get out.

She couldn’t tell what was real and what was only memory. How could I have forgotten the people I came here with?  The warmth of his hand holding hers tightly. A photograph of twins, standing side by side. Walking down the street, sharing an umbrella. There is a place I’d like to take you. Will you come with me?

"Noll," a panicked voice called.

I let go of his hand, and he’s gone.

Staring out over the ocean together, the wind blowing her hair away from her face. Do you mean me, or Gene?  A tight grip around her ankle, pulling her back toward the darkness. Thank you for all your hard work. The hum of cicadas in the trees on a hot summer day, the heat of a body lying close to her own. Mai is extraordinarily sensitive to things that would harm her. She has the ability to distinguish between friend and foe.

Laughter. That means her mind is like a wild animal, right?

He was supporting her limp body, running toward the street, flagging a taxi. Come to England with me. Laughing with the others until tears formed in her eyes. Calm down and put your foot on the ladder. You can do it, right?  The spirits of trapped children, screaming in pain and loneliness. I want to be with my precious friends. I want to leave this place with them and return to Tokyo together.

"What have you done?"

"Help me, Noll, it’s Mai, she"

Watching a somber figure in black place flowers on the grave. No matter what happens, stay close to me. The sound of ocean waves, crashing against the rocks resounded in her ears and she succumbed to the darkness.

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."

Chapter Text

The three talked late into the evening, sitting around the kotatsu heated table. Mai eventually brought out her homework, though Gene suspected she wouldn’t have bothered if his brother hadn’t gone to the trouble to retrieve it from the school. She glanced over the English homework and completed it with ease, though when she had set it aside; Naru picked it up and frowned, reading over several of her answers.

"This is unnatural, isn’t it?"  He asked her, frowning. He passed the paper to Gene, who began to read her translations with interest. "A proper English speaker would never say that."

"Oh, who cares," Mai grumbled. "It’s good enough. Honestly, I’m probably just as fluent as my teacher. Help me with this geometry so I can put it away."

Gene set her English homework down and leaned over her math problems. "There’s a mistake," he said, pointing toward the page. "Here."

Mai sighed and turned her eraser toward the page, scrubbing at the marks. "I wish I could just drop out of school."  She shook her head slightly after she spoke, disagreeing with herself. "Well, I guess not. But I’ve never liked geometry."

She finished her homework, the brothers alternating between talking to each other as Mai worked or sitting in silence, watching over her as she completed the work. When the homework was done Mai pushed the books away from her and stretched, a large yawn filling her features.

Naru glanced at the clock on the wall. "We ought to go," he said, rising to his feet and taking the last teacups from the table to the sink, where he washed them and set them on the towel next to the other clean dishes from dinner.

"It’s not too late, yet," Mai said, resting her head in her hands. "It’s not even ten yet."  She looked toward the clock. "Well, just after ten."

"But you have school tomorrow," Naru frowned.

Gene stretched as he stood, stepping over toward the entrance and retrieving his shoes from the mat. "And we shouldn’t deprive you of your sleep."

"Besides," Naru continued dryly. "You’ve been yawning pretty steadily. Another fifteen minutes and you’d be asleep where you are."

"Maybe true," she admitted, blushing slightly and smiling at his teasing.

"Then we’ll go."  Gene slid into his shoes, bending to tie the laces as Naru took their coats, passing it to his brother. "We’ll walk you to school tomorrow."

"You don’t have to," Mai shrugged, tracing her foot on the floor, though there was a small smile tugging at her lips that made it obvious that the idea made her happy.

"But we will."  Gene grinned at his brother. "Won’t we, Noll?"

Naru nodded once and stepped toward Mai, his hand cupping her head and smoothing her hair gently. "Sleep well. See you tomorrow morning."

Gene cleared his throat. Mai wondered briefly if the display of affection made him uncomfortable. "Well, shall we, Noll?"

When the brothers left her apartment, Gene turned to walk toward the street that would take them back toward the hotel, but Naru motioned with his hand for him to follow him toward the busy intersection. He flagged a taxi and the twins crawled into the back seat. "To Dogenzaka," he said to the driver, pulling the door shut behind him. The man nodded and the vehicle moved forward into the street.

Gene watched his brother out of the corner of his eye as he settled into the seat comfortably, the passing lights from the street moving across his pale face.

"We should probably call Lin when we get back to the hotel." Naru finally said and closed his eyes. "It’s ten thirty here, so in London... it must be half-past one in the afternoon."  He opened his eyes, meeting his brother’s gaze. "When did you last call Martin or Luella? I haven’t called them since I arrived."

"I sent them an email this morning, when you were sleeping."

"We should probably call them sometime soon, too."  He sighed slightly again, turning his gaze back toward the window. "Later."

The rest of the cab ride passed in silence. Gene watched the traffic lights pass by as his brother watched the street signs. As they reached Dogenzaka, Naru leaned forward to deliver slightly more specific directions to the driver.

The car pulled over to the side of the street and Naru paid him briskly, the brothers stepping out onto a lively sidewalk, only several blocks away from Shibuya Station.

"This way," he said simply and Gene followed him down the lighted, busy street, past a myriad of stores. There were tiny restaurants specializing in udon or ramen sandwiched between 7-Eleven convenience stores and Western fast food chains. The smell of fried food lingered as they walked. They passed a brightly-lit store with phones and other handheld gadgets displayed prominently in the windows, next to a dimly-lit book store and a dark bike shop. As they continued there were a variety of high-end specialty clothing stores: all with mannequins in the windows, the slim, expressionless figures wearing trim black jackets or sleek leather boots under patterned leggings.

Naru slowed when they reached the corner. "The office I rented," he began, raising his hand to point at the second floor of an office building across the intersection. "I don’t know if it’s occupied at this time, though I would assume not. As I recall, the realtor was having a difficult time renting the place out before I took it."  He glanced around the street, finally moving his eyes to meet his brother’s gaze. "What do you think? Acceptable?"

Gene laughed out loud. "Of course, Noll, don’t be ridiculous. Certainly you’re not asking for my permission."

Naru’s lips twitched, though he did not exactly smile. "This will be a joint venture. Don’t think you can make me do all the work."

"Wouldn’t dream of it," Gene laughed. Tossing his arm around his brother’s shoulders he nudged him forward. "I feel like walking around a bit. You game?"

Naru nodded wordlessly, though a pleasant expression had formed on his face. Together, they continued forward into the dazzling lights of Shibuya at night.

 

*******

 

It was late when they returned to the hotel room. "I’m going to call Lin," Naru announced, shrugging off his jacket and tossing over the back of a chair.

"Suit yourself. I’m exhausted."  Gene said as he kicked off his shoes and flopped down onto the bed, face first into the comforter.

"Not going to brush your teeth?"

Gene groaned and picked himself up heavily, slouching off to the washroom. His brother smirked in amusement though his face, too, was drawn and tired.

The two had settled into their pyjamas and dimmed the lights in the room when Naru finally picked up the mobile phone. He glanced toward at the clock and once again calculated the time difference before flipping the device open to see its screen. Gene was once again lying on the bed, stretched out on his back with his arms spread wide to his sides. The comforter was halfway pulled up over his chest, which rose and fell with his steady breathing. "Tell him he needn’t have his shiki pop in on us any longer," he mumbled, and his brother paused, the harsh white light of the mobile reflecting in his dark eyes. "I didn’t recognize it at first and then I just thought it was something that was following Mai around, but then I realized it was just watching me. Watching us."  He yawned widely and rolled onto his stomach, his head facing away from his brother. "I’m sure he just wants to keep an eye on us, but it’s not necessary."

"I’ll let him know," Naru said quietly as he dialled. The phone rang only once before it was picked up, briskly.

"Naru," the voice on the other side almost sounded impatient. "I was beginning to think you wouldn’t call."

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Naru said dryly. "Can you speak freely?"

"Yes. It must be late there? Mai and Gene are...?"

"Gene and I just returned to the hotel room. I think he’s fast asleep already."

"’m not," a muffled voice said sleepily from the other side of the room. Naru raised an eyebrow, looking over at his older brother. Though his head was turned away, Naru knew that if even if he could see his face that his eyes would be closed.

"Or he will be shortly," he continued, a small smile forming on his lips. "We were at Mai’s the entire evening, when we left we walked around Shibuya. Dogenzaka, actually."

"Ah. Shall I take that to mean...?"

"Unless something happens to change our minds, we’re planning to open the office again."  Naru said bluntly. "Considering that we don't have the same.." he paused, "justification as last time... we’re going to need your help to make this happen."

There was a long pause. "Tell me your reason. Why you’re going to open SPR."

Naru licked his lips. "Because Gene wanted to."

"To give you an excuse to stay in Japan?"

Naru sighed, running his hand through his hair. "Somewhat," he admitted.

"I suppose you both have your reasons to stay there as long as possible. How is the search coming along, anyway?"

"Very well," Naru began, briefly wondering how much information to divulge to the man. It didn’t take long for him to decide complete honesty was the rational option. "We spoke to our paternal grandparents this morning."

"Oh?"

"They live in Connecticut. I can give you the complete details later. And we’re going to Nagano this weekend to look for our maternal grandmother."

"Nagano?"  Lin said, his voice immediately taking on a note of concern.

"Yes."

"I see. Well," Lin paused ever so slightly, "Not that you need to hear this from me, but.. please be careful. For the sake of your parents."

Naru smiled wryly. "Don’t worry, that’s a given."

"Not that things will be the same this time, of course."  Lin exhaled. "Do you think that Gene will need the extra time in Japan?  It sounds to me that you’ve made great progress."

"I don’t know."  Naru answered truthfully. "It does seem that way. I suppose we’ve found half of what he was looking for. As for the other half... it could be just as easy or twice as difficult."

"What about yourself? Surely you have your own reasons to open SPR again. I suppose Mai will have to stay in Japan until she finishes high school."

Naru closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers. "Yes," he finally said. "And... she said she wanted us to open the office again, so that we could change the events that happened before."

"Preventing certain events, I imagine."

"Yes."  He sighed again. "Mai is naïve to think that we can save everyone. It is true that if we open the office again, perhaps the same clients will come to us with the same requests. But we can’t guarantee to change the outcome of every repeated case. And then what? Will she be content to watch deadly world events unfold, or will she think we’re obligated to prevent casualties to events that we’ve already witnessed? From natural disasters to terrorist attacks, there are many atrocities facing this world that we simply can’t do anything about."

"Surely she realizes that."

"Yes."  Naru sighed. "I hope so."  He paused again. "I’m sure others would say I am cold-hearted but I would think it irrational to step outside reasonable measures to change the future. Perhaps my motivation lies in that I am curious," he started, "what would happen were Gene and I to take these, and other cases, together. If we were able to take these cases freely without the obnoxious gaze of the senior BSPR researchers breathing down our necks."

"Surely that’s not your only motivation."  Naru could hear the man’s wry smile.

"Of course not. I want Mai to be happy and of course I want to stay here with her for as long as I can. She obviously isn’t comfortable with the idea of coming to England before she graduates high school. And there is the somewhat delicate subject of our being together. Opening the office will give me a little more time."  He exhaled slightly. "And Gene wants to. He seems to think it’s the right thing to do. I trust his judgment."

"His judgment isn’t infallible," Lin warned.

"No, but he is very much attuned to the world around him. Oh, he’s been distracted by your shiki. He asked if you’d let it leave us alone for a little bit."

"He saw it?"  Lin sounded surprised. "I was hoping it would be a little more discreet."

"I believe he’s been aware of it for several days. He said he didn’t recognize it as yours at first."

"Interesting," Lin mused. He paused, clearing his throat. "Speaking of which. The shiki indicated... that Gene might be attracted to Mai," he said, the statement spoken with difficulty.

"Yes."  Naru closed his eyes, ignoring the uncomfortable feeling that swept over him as he heard the words.

"Will that be an issue?"

"No."  Naru exhaled heavily. "Sorry, Lin, but I’m exhausted. It’s been a hell of a day. I need to call it a night."

"I understand. I’ll test the waters with Martin and Luella about the office. I’ll tell them about your idea to stay in Japan for an extended period of time, to see how they react."

"Thank you," Naru said honestly, meaning the words more than they could convey.

Lin paused again, and when he spoke he sounded hesitant. "Naru... do you think your parents will be keen on the idea of you putting your university studies on hold indefinitely?"

"No, I don’t."  He sighed. "In fact, I anticipate that shortly I will have to return to London alone, to complete my studies. So we need to open SPR before then. Good night, Lin. We’ll be in touch."

"Good night, Naru."

 

*******

 

He knew he was dreaming.

A brilliant blue sky, holding beneath it all the countryside as far as he can see. Green fields and mountains, quiet in the warm afternoon sunlight. Birds flit between the trees and bushes, ignoring his presence, singing and chirping amongst each other. Further from the winding road on which he walks, he knows there are deer and rabbits, hiding in the trees out of sight. The gentle wind blows his hair away from his forehead, the few pricks of moisture evaporating with the breeze. The sleeves of his shirt flap against his arms and he watches the wildflowers along the side of the road bob in unison, waving him forward.

He closes his eyes, inhaling the fresh country air. He lets his mind drift upwards, looking down at his body. This detour he’s taken into the countryside will eventually lead him toward a lake. It’s several miles, still, but he’s walking briskly, basking in the warm sunlight, and he’s not in a particular hurry.

When he opens his eyes, the summer green is gone. The sky is grey, the trees are bare and the fields and mountains both are brown. But for the wind through brittle branches, the countryside is silent. The only birds he sees are two crows, perched atop the skeleton of an old, crooked tree. They are watching him, as he walks along this deserted road.

That summer day, had he imagined it all?  He can’t remember now.

He stops suddenly, looking behind him. The pavement is slick from an early afternoon rain. He is approaching a narrow curve in the road, but the entire road has been narrow as it winds its way through the trees. Why is he suddenly so nervous?

He waits and he listens, but he cannot hear anything amiss.

The car comes from the front.

It is obvious that the vehicle has approached the curve much faster than it should and it lurches into the opposite lane in a desperate attempt to stay on the road. He can see the shocked look on the face of the driver. It is a woman, tear streaks visible on her cheeks. Or does he see the tears now because they will appear later?

With sudden he knows certainty her entire life’s story, past and future. He sees an old, run-down house, surrounded by weeds, and sees her childhood. A thin girl with dirty feet, running away from the harsh words of her alcoholic father and waiting for her mother to return. Some days she does not wait or her mother does not return and she sneaks into the alleyways behind restaurants, looking through the garbage for something to eat. Her life improves after her father’s funeral: her mother takes her from their old home to live with their grandmother in a distant village. It is not long before every day after school finds her washing dishes at a restaurant to supplement her mother’s meagre income. She passes through high school; she is shunned by a boy and wooed by another. Though this woman’s life is difficult he knows she has seen happiness. He sees her laughing, singing karaoke with her friends, getting drunk and missing the last train only to spend the night with a man. This week, however, things had taken a turn for the worse. She had discovered she was pregnant, doomed to bear the child of a man who had already dumped her. He knows she will try to kill herself, unsuccessfully, and will lose her job. Eight months later, after she delivers the child, she will hang herself in her mother’s bathroom. It is an agonizing death.

He finds himself feeling pity for her even before the impact of the vehicle as it strikes him.

And then, all he sees is the grey. The grey cloudy sky, a sky that grows dim and hazy much too quickly. Then it is the car again.

The woman is crying, her arms are weak and shaky. She can barely lift him. Darkness envelops him.

And then he is sinking into a cold, murky lake. He longs for the warmth of the sun and the gentle summer breeze on his face, but they, too, are lost to him. The dim light of the cloudy sky becomes distant, further and further away until his eyes no longer see.

Gene awoke with a jolt, eyes snapping open and lungs gasping for air.

He closed his eyes and took several deep breaths, his heartbeat thudding in his ears. Turning his head, he opened his eyes to look upon his brother who lay still on the opposite bed, still held within slumber’s tight grasp.

Gene sat up, rubbing his forearm across his brow to wipe the sweat away. Only when he lowered his hand did he realize his arms were trembling and there were tears in his eyes.

Was that my death, he wondered. Is that how I died?  Did I see what already happened, or is this still to come? Or was it only a dream?

Gene frowned and slid out of bed, walking silently toward the window. He parted the curtain and concentrated his gaze on the sleepy street below. His heart was still pounding from the vision, and he waited for it to calm, breathing slowly and watching the lights from the few cars move sluggishly along the morning street, idling at the stoplights. Only when his heart rate had returned to normal did he begin to think about his dream.

Somehow, he knew, this dream or vision was connected to what had happened the previous afternoon with Mai. If he had not looked into her memories, as he had, he would not have had this dream. This he knew with certainty.

Why now? Noll said she was receptive to my abilities, he mused. What does that mean? And what about Mai’s abilities?

 

*******

 

That morning Mai rose much later than she had intended. As she rushed around her apartment, gathering school books with her toothbrush in hand, there was a brisk knock at the door. She didn’t even bother to look through the spyhole, a feeling of giddiness sweeping over her as she opened the door to see the twins waiting for her, standing casually on the landing.

"Mo’ng," she giggled, the toothbrush still in her mouth. Gene laughed out loud and a smile twitched at the corners of his brother’s lips.

"Morning to you too," he drawled as they entered. "We bought you a bento. I hope you haven’t made yourself a lunch."

She shook her head. "Mmn," and she turned, hurrying toward her sink to spit the toothpaste. "I forgot to set my alarm last night..." she explained.

"Shucks, and here I was hoping you had so we could eat it," Gene muttered. "I wanted to try them all. We got three different kinds."

Mai laughed as she slipped into her coat and her loafers simultaneously. Naru reached for her scarf, dropping it gently around her neck. "You have a hat? It’s cold today."

"Mm, yeah," she said, crouching to rummage through the winter articles on the shelf, pulling out a pair of mittens and a knit hat. "Okay!"  She said cheerfully, popping up to her full height, pulling the hat on over her head and adjusting it to cover her ears. "I’m ready to go. Where’s my bag?"

"Right here," Gene said, lifting the item for her to see.

"Let’s go, then!"  Mai said, pulling her keys from her pocket and shooing them outside, locking the door behind her. "I might be running late but I am hardly ever actually late. Right, Naru?"

"Hmm," he said ambiguously. "I remember you being late a couple of times."

"Na-ru," she protested, laughing as she clutched at his arm.

"You’ve gotten better."  He said, smiling as they hurried down the stairs.

"Oh, here, Gene, I can take that..."  Mai apologized, reaching for her schoolbag.

"Nah, I got it."

"Here, you can carry your lunch."  Naru instructed, handing her a bag that presumably held one of the bento boxes.

"Mm, thank you. Oh, the light’s changing—let’s run!"

They hurried across the intersection. Gene ran forward and Mai skipped behind him, still holding onto Naru’s arm, tugging at him even as he refused to break into a trot. His feet were planted firmly on the sidewalk before the light turned green and the idling cars began to move. Mai, watching the light and his deliberate steps, made a face at him, to which he simply lifted an eyebrow in response.

"What are you guys going to do today?"  Mai asked, taking a right turn at the corner, her arm slipping away from Naru’s as they formed a single-file line down the narrow sidewalk. Mai walked in front, Naru behind and Gene walked between them in the middle.

"Hmm, sightseeing?"  Gene said casually, glancing behind at his brother.

Naru shrugged. "I suppose so. Maybe a couple errands."

"We went by the office last night," Gene whispered loudly to Mai, leaning forward. "There was a sign in the window with the realtor’s number."

She turned, walking sideways and then backwards, staring at the brothers with wide eyes. "You mean, you’re really..."

"Yes," Naru said, without expression. "We might as well inquire. More importantly, we ought to prepare for our trip to Nagano. What little preparations we can do, at least. We can plan our route and reserve train tickets and a hotel room for tomorrow night."

Mai turned back around to walk forward, her lips pressed together as she tried not to smile. Failing, the smile broke her face and she gazed upwards, eyes tracing the early morning clouds. "Honestly, I’m really... really looking forward to going to Nagano with you," she murmured. She looked over her shoulder at the twins who followed her. "All three of us together."

Naru’s expression lightened, smiling gently. Gene, his eyes on the sidewalk, finally looked up and grinned, turning back toward his twin. "Me too."

The three walked in comfortable silence down the street. Mai, a happy smile on her face, began to hum softly. They turned another corner onto a broader sidewalk and the twins walked side-by-side behind Mai, who continued forward in front.

"See?"  Mai grinned, as they turned down the last street, the school gate not far ahead. "Almost there. Running late but not actually late."

"Liar," Gene said, smiling. "Everyone’s late sometimes. Besides, I saw your memories."

Mai laughed and snatched her schoolbag from his hands. "You guys can leave me here. I should probably run," she admitted, looking slightly abashed. "Besides, not to sound, um, ungrateful, but it would probably be better not to let any girls start any rumors or speculate about you two."

"I understand," Gene said and Naru nodded wordlessly. "Call us if you need anything, okay?  Otherwise, we’ll meet you after school. We’ll go straight to your apartment."

She smiled, nodding, and found herself blushing as Naru stepped closer to her, picking a dry leaf that had fallen onto her shoulder off of her coat. "If you weren’t fifteen years old I would kiss you right now," he murmured. Gene, standing close enough to hear his words, blushed a pale pink. His brother continued as if his own twin was not in the vicinity. "But it would probably be a scandal. Especially a block away from school."  His tone changed from light to mocking. "Study hard."

Mai found herself giggling. "Have a nice day and enjoy your sightseeing."  She waved and turned, running toward the school, her school bag swinging from one hand and the bag with the bento in the other.

Gene turned toward his brother, whose gaze followed her until she turned and disappeared. "Now what?"

Naru shrugged again. "What do people do when they visit this city? Tokyo Tower?"

 

*******

 

The twins had been meandering around the observation deck for some time. Gene stood against a railing that overlooked the park and the city that surrounded the tower. The cold blue of the sky was spotted with clouds, almost white above the muted greys and browns of the late winter earth. Gene closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Time, he thought to himself, is fluid and flexible. Noll has proven that.

He lifted his head, his eyes still closed. He became acutely aware of his bare hands against the cool metal railing, the rubber soles of his tennis shoes against the smooth white tiles of the floor and how these two points of his body connected him with the entirety of the structure in which they stood.

Tokyo Tower was built in 1958. This structure has seen every moment that has passed since its completion. And as long as it remains, it will see the future as it comes to this city.

The sun raced across the sky, the moon chasing it in the darkness. Lights of buildings turned on and off and the steady streams of cars made glowing, lighted rivers in the night. Slowly, the moon fell, now, and slowly the sun rose before him. Gene opened his eyes, looking at the vista before him.

A hot summer day. He was vaguely aware that the deck was busier than it had been a moment prior, the occupants now comprised of girls in short skirts and summer sandals or heels; boys in short-sleeved t-shirts and shorts.

A bewildered expression crossed his face and squinting toward the sun, he lifted his hand to shade his face. This summer, he realized. Julyno, August. He closed his eyes again. Did our parents ever visit Tokyo Tower?  Lukasmy Grandfather, he corrected himself, said our mother didn’t come to Tokyo to visit our father very often. But would they have come here, together?

He opened his eyes again. From his vantage point at the window, he could see that some of the buildings were different, noticeably shorter and old-fashioned compared to the view he had just seen. He turned his head, looking around the interior of the observation deck. Most immediately noticeable was the fashion of the other people milling about the deck. A smile twitched the corner of his lips. 1982or 1983?  With that fashion, definitely the early 80’s.

His scan stopped on a couple, his eyes growing wide. Gene drew in his breath sharply and stared as the couple walked past, completely oblivious to him. The woman had very pale, porcelain skin with a hint of a rosy blush in her cheeks, impossibly dark eyes and long, straight jet-black hair. The man walking next to her was tall, animating with his hands their discussion. His hair was a dark brown and his bright eyes were the same colour as Gene and his brother’s. In his pause she said something to him, which caused a huge foolish grin to spread across the man’s features. She smiled sheepishly in response. It was obvious to Gene that despite her subdued expression she was tremendously happy.

There was no doubt in his mind that these two people were Ichirou Nilson and Harumi Shibuya, his parents on a date in Tokyo.

"What do you see?"  His brother asked quietly, standing beside him.

Gene remained silent for several moments, watching as the vision slowly disappeared. "The past," he finally said. "As well as the future."  He turned toward his brother, a grin lifting his lips in a lopsided smile. "Seems we take after our mother."

 

*******

 

They met her after school, as promised. Instead of staying at Mai’s apartment, however, Gene declared they would go out to eat. "We passed by a shabu shabu restaurant that looked really good," he insisted. "We have to go there."

The restaurant was several stops away by train. When they stepped off the train into the quiet neighborhood, Mai looked surprised, looking between the brothers and then down the street, as if to confirm her bearings.

"Um," she started, hesitant. "After dinner, is it okay if... we take a detour?"

"Of course."  Gene said, smiling pleasantly. "Wherever you want to go is fine."  Naru nodded but said nothing. Mai was beginning to expect this reaction from the two. If nothing more needed to be said Naru was apt to stay silent. Not that it was any surprise to her; she’d known since she first met him that he rarely spoke without necessity.

After dinner the brothers once again trailed behind Mai when they left the restaurant. "It seems like it’s been such a long time, but I know I’ve been here just a few weeks ago, after New Year’s," Mai murmured to herself, not expecting a response from the two. They walked down a quiet side street lined with hedges and Mai found herself looking for cats beneath them. Naru hurried forward to walk several steps behind Mai as they entered the cemetery and Gene hung back, keeping a respectable distance behind them as they walked toward the Taniyama headstone.

Mai stopped in front of the grave, her mittened hands clasped in front of her. Naru, standing behind her, gently reached forward to lay his hand on her shoulder. Gene watched as Mai dipped her head, whispering something into her hands. His brother remained silent, immobile, his hand firmly resting on her shoulder. After standing quietly for several moments, Mai lifted her head and smiled brightly, turning away from the grave.

"Thank you," she said as they left the cemetery, dropping her right hand to seek Naru’s by her side. Her fingers found his and the two slipped together easily, comfortably. "Really... thank you."

Gene grinned and slung his arms around her shoulders. "It’s nothing. Right, Noll?"  He gazed upward, watching the blinking lights of an airplane travel across the dark, empty sky. The sound seemed to follow it as it rose higher, finally disappearing from sight, its path obscured by trees and buildings. Gene turned his gaze back toward Mai. "What should we do now, Mai?"

"Anything’s okay with me."

"We should probably head back," Naru said absently. "It’s a half hour on the train."

"I have a deck of cards at the hotel."

"Sounds good to me," Mai said, smiling.

After some time Gene’s arm slipped from Mai’s shoulders but she sought out his hand and squeezed it gently, holding it as they walked. The trio walked back to the station like that, the short brunette holding the hands of the twins as she walked between them.

 

*******

 

It seemed to Mai that after their trip to the cemetery Gene was much more comfortable with her and Naru together. In fact, now that there were no secrets between the three, they all were much comfortable together. Gene laughed brighter and Naru was more at ease. She suspected that he felt immense relief, as she did, that it was no longer necessary to hide their feelings for each other and their knowledge of the future from his brother. The return to the hotel was pleasant. Once in the twins’ room they sat on one of the wide, queen-sized beds and Gene shuffled and then dealt out the cards.

Their minds were not occupied with the simple game but it was something to keep their hands busy as they talked about their trip to Nagano. The brothers had made the hotel reservation and had planned the route they would take to the city. Despite the fact that they were traveling nearly to the other side of the country—Nagano being only 60 kilometers from the Sea of Japan—it was less than three hours by train.

They talked over the game for several hours until Gene and Mai were trading yawns and Naru seemed to be the only one who could remember which cards were in his hand from round to round. Finally, he put down his cards and rose to his feet. "It’s late, Mai. I’ll walk you home."

Mai put her cards into the discard pile and made a small dissatisfied sound, but she slid off the bed and rose to her feet as well.

"You can just sleep here, if you want," Gene said, tossing his cards down and resting back onto the over-sized hotel pillows. "There’s two beds," he justified, stretching. "I’m sure Noll wouldn’t mind if I made him share a bed with me."

Mai glanced at Naru, whose face remained expressionless as he buttoned his jacket. "Well," she hesitated. "I should probably brush my teeth and all that. I have a couple things I need to do."  She giggled slightly. "And I’ll be late tomorrow morning if I don’t. I wouldn’t want that."

Naru nodded and held out her coat for her to slip her arms into. "You coming, Gene?"

"Nah, I’ll stay here."  The older brother shrugged.

"Be back in a bit," Naru said and Mai grinned at him as they turned to leave.

"See you tomorrow, Gene!" Mai called with a wave.

"Good night, Mai."

 

*******

 

The short walk to her apartment passed in silence. As Mai unlocked the front door, Naru followed her wordlessly inside. After she took off her coat, Naru pulled her close to him, kissing her fully and passionately on the lips.

"Naru," Mai murmured, opening her eyes to see his dark eyes gazing at her own.

He sighed, folding his arms around her and hugging her tightly. "After our trip to Nagano, we’re going to re-open the office. Lin will probably join us. But I..." his voice trailed off. "I imagine I’ll have to return to England."

Mai felt tears prick in her eyes at the thought. "University," she whispered.

"Yes."  He sighed again, squeezing her body tighter against his own. "I’ll return when I finish."  He released his tight grip on her and kissed her gently. "Don’t fall in love with my brother while I’m gone."

Mai let out a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob. "As if," she whispered, smiling even as tears dripped down her cheeks.

He smiled sadly, taking her cheeks in her hands and brushing her tears away with his thumbs. "Don’t cry, Mai, I’m not leaving yet and I’m hoping I’ll be able to visit periodically. My studies certainly won't be very taxing."  His smile widened ever so slightly into an amused smirk. "Besides, someone will have to actually manage the office. I doubt Gene will be very keen. Not to mention someone has to keep an eye on him to keep him out of trouble."

Mai giggled and rose on her toes to kiss him sweetly. "Isn’t that Lin’s job? He did it for you."

"Perhaps," he conceded. "Not trying to keep me out of the picture, are you?"

"You wish," she laughed, kissing him again. He sighed as she tangled her fingers in his hair, the kiss deepening. Pulling her closer toward him, his hands slid under her shirt, his fingertips tracing patterns against her lower back, squeezing her sides and rising toward her ribs. Stumbling slightly over her shoes as she stepped out of them, she pulled him further into her apartment and into the darkness of her bedroom.

 

*******

 

The hotel room was silent but for the quiet sound of a minute hand moving steadily in its rotation on the clock in the bathroom. From his seat on the bed in the main room, Gene thought the muted sound seemed somehow lonely and dismal. He exhaled quietly, turning the page of the book in his lap, his eyes tracing over the words. He shifted his body against the pillow, the mattress creaking slightly beneath him as he adjusted his position and silence once again resumed in the room.

The stillness was broken when he suddenly spoke aloud. "Still around, then?"

There was an audible chuckle. "Just thought I’d drop in to see how things are going," an airy voice said lightly. It was neither a masculine nor feminine voice, though if pressed, Gene would have said instantly said that the speaker was definitely male.

Gene snorted slightly, sitting up from his reclining position and crossing his legs beneath him. "On your master’s orders?"

"He indicated I should be, shall we say, available, should anything come up. To check in on you from time to time. I hope my presence hasn’t been bothering you."

The boy shrugged and made a vague waving gesture. "Since I know you’re here, you don’t have to hide like that. Might as well make yourself comfortable."

The voice laughed, and Gene frowned in irritation. "It’s not often a human being asks us to be comfortable," the voice explained quickly. Gene watched in interest as the shadow beneath the chair spread, traveling away from the lamplight which cast it. A slim figure seemed to suddenly spring up, a smartly dressed man in a slim-fitting suit and polished boots. The tie he wore was a deep purple with a delicate pattern in silver thread, matching the silver-grey of the folded handkerchief in his pocket. He wore a dark grey fedora to match his suit, which he removed promptly as he sat down, setting the object on the table, revealing short cropped black hair. Beneath his thin rimmed glasses, large dark eyes watched Gene attentively. The long lashes cast shadows against his dark skin. "I can assure you I meant no disrespect. All by yourself this evening, I see?"

"So it would seem," he said dryly.

The man lounged back in the chair, crossing his leg and resting his hands in his lap. Gene noticed that there were silver rings on two of his fingers. "Not curious to know what your brother is up to, I see? Though it would be easy for you to slip over there with your mind to check in on them. It’s not very far, especially for someone with your talents."

Gene’s eyebrows lowered darkly. "I don’t need to use my ability to know what they’re doing. I wouldn’t invade the privacy of my brother like that."

"Of course."  The man smiled. "I shouldn’t have suggested you would be so unscrupulous. My apologies."  He looked around the room casually. "Enjoying your sightseeing?"

Gene shrugged and nodded noncommittally.

"My Master only had me check on you very briefly the other time you did this. It would seem that what you seek is within your grasp, much closer than before."

Gene frowned deeply. "You remember the other time, then?"

The man smiled, his teeth gleaming. "I do. Not surprising, considering that something like myself perceives the world much differently than you."

Gene watched in silence, noting with interest how he had referred to himself as ‘something.’ Meanwhile, the man took off his glasses, pulled out the silver handkerchief with a flourish, and began to polish the lenses absently. "I hope you’ll excuse my curiosity, but have you managed to remember any of the past future?"

Gene said nothing and the man’s expression brightened. "I can give you that time, if you’d like. I’m sure I can help you remember. The time leading up to your death and all the time afterwards."

"I don’t need to remember what I did the first time when I was here by myself. I’m certain that the time I’m spending now is an adequate trade."  Gene looked away. "As for after... I saw enough in Mai’s memories," he said quietly. "I don’t need to remember my death."  If I haven’t already, he couldn’t help but think.

"Ah," the man continued to polish, occasionally lifting the glasses to eye them in the light. "But those were Mai’s memories, not your brother’s. You were only beside her for a fraction of the time that you were beside your brother. What of his return to London, the first time, before that girl was murdered in her apartment?"

Gene frowned. "But I guided her through her dreams until Noll found my body. After that..."  His voice trailed off. He did not know what to say.

The man continued for him. "After that, your spirit never left this world and accompanied your brother until he brought you back here to this time. You followed his spirit even after his death, followed him when he went back for her."  He smiled. His polishing complete, he slid the glasses back onto his nose. "So, Mr. Davis. What do you think of my proposal? Do you wish to remember that time?"

Gene spoke without hesitation, his voice laden with suspicion. "Even if I were to consider your offer, what would you ask for in return? You certainly wouldn’t help me for free."

"No, no. I ask for nothing in return," the man said simply.

"Nothing?"  Gene said skeptically, frowning. "I don’t believe it for a second. Why would you help me, then?  There’s nothing for you to gain. Your kind doesn’t make such bargains."

"Oh, but quite the contrary," the man said. "Anything I can do to help you would in turn assist my Master. For me to advance the position of my Master is beneficial indeed."  He smiled tightly, his dark eyes flashing beneath the glasses in a way that seemed peculiarly familiar to Gene. "Living human beings aren’t the only ones with precognitive abilities, my dear boy. You were perhaps the exception for humans of the deceased variety. We were all extremely impressed with your capabilities after your death. Even now, you are quite impressive and I hold you in very high regard. Perhaps one of the few humans I have come to respect."

"Respect?"  Gene scoffed. "Me?"

"Oh yes," the man chuckled. "The time of your death and those unassisted accomplishments aside. You managed to detect my presence quite quickly and once you attuned yourself to me, it would seem there is not much I can do to hide from you."

"I’m a medium," Gene said flatly. "I see spirits."

The man’s eyebrows lifted. "Others would say you are a perfect medium."

Gene looked amused. "Rather pretentious of me to say something like that, wouldn’t it be?"  He considered the man in front of him for several moments before continuing. "Not that you’re one to care about something like that."

"Quite right you are," the man grinned. "All that aside. I don’t need to mention the other feats you have and will do. It is the truth that I respect you highly, almost as high as your brother."  The man’s placid brown eyes blinked slowly, gazing upon Gene’s blank face. "Nothing against you, of course. It just happens that your brother is somewhat more calculating, more rational, and less compassionate than you are. These are traits that I, by my nature, understand more easily."

Gene looked away, annoyance etched into his face, but said nothing.

"It is not criticism to be called compassionate from a being such as myself," he laughed. "Deep in your heart, Eugene Davis, you are kinder than most of this sordid Earth’s population."  The man’s smile widened slightly. "A pure heart is rare, and I dare say you’ve kept yours, even after passing into the afterlife when your brother’s was lost long ago."

"What about Mai?"  Gene suddenly asked quietly.

"That girl..."  The man turned his eyes away, as if contemplating the painting of blooming fruit trees that hung above the bed. "That girl is very interesting. I have surprising difficulties in seeing where her path shall take her. It would seem she has not yet come to play her role. Her fate is tied to you and your brother, it intertwines between you."

Gene frowned. "Noll said her abilities went dormant when I stopped visiting her dreams."

"Yes."

"But you said I didn’t move on. That I stayed with Noll."

"This is true."

Gene frowned again, and the man laughed lightly in response. "You look so much like your brother when you do that."  His smile broadened. "So what do you think?  It is an interesting thought, is it not?  To have your memories from all those years. Shall I assist you?"

"No," Gene said flatly. "I don’t need your help, nor do I want it."

"Are you sure?"  The man gazed at him evenly. "You are younger now than your brother by almost two decades. Two decades of memories! You’ll never be on equal footing again unless you remember, you know. And even I can't tell how long it could take for you to remember on your own. You may never remember it all."

"I know."  Gene said quietly. "But I don’t want your help."

The man nodded, unfazed. "As you wish."  He stood slowly, exhaling. "I suppose I could have anticipated that. And I shouldn’t expect anything less, either."  He reached to the table, picking up his hat. He did not place it on his head, but held it toward his chest gently.

Gene watched the man quietly before speaking again. "Before you go, can I ask you a question?"

The man smiled. "Of course."

"Does Lin ever talk to you like this?"

At this, a sliver of surprise was visible on the man’s features. "The conversations with my Master... similar in some ways, different in another. Your brother is returning, Eugene, so I shall take my leave."  He stood and clasping his hands together, gave a short, bow-like gesture. "Good night," he said, and he disappeared back into the shadows created by the lamp light.

Gene sat very still, listening to the quiet ticking of the clock. Lin’s spirit familiar was gone.

 

*******

 

Gene was still reading in the quiet room when the door opened and his brother entered.

"Welcome back," he said dully.

"You’re still up."  Naru sounded surprised.

He shrugged. "I didn’t think you’d be so late."

"Sorry," Naru said apologetically. "I wasn’t intending to stay long, but..."  His voice trailed off and he had the unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what to say.

Gene shrugged. "It’s not like I mind. You and Mai probably want a little time alone together every so often, and..." he paused, shrugging. "I had a chat with Lin’s spirit familiar." At that, Naru’s eyes widened in surprise and Gene simply nodded, waving his hand. "Get ready for bed, I’ll tell you all about it."

Gene had decided to tell Noll nearly everything about the conversation. Some things he had deemed unimportant or unnecessary: in particular, the proposal the shiki had made to help him recover his memory of the time after his death. He knew the thought he was now younger than his twin by almost two decades would only bring guilt and unhappiness to his brother. When he had finished, Naru was leaning against a pillow in his pyjamas, gazing at him attentively. "I find it difficult to believe that it respects us," he finally murmured.

"Perhaps you," Gene said, scratching his head. "After all. You did turn time around. Twice."

"You said," Naru paused, considering. "That it said something about everything you have and will do. Like it’s already seen all of your accomplishments."

"Yeah. For both of us," Gene added.

"We aren’t static," Naru finally said, speaking with slight difficulty. "We don’t know what we’ll be capable of in the future. Or perhaps, even, what we’re capable of now."

The older twin nodded, thinking of his dream from that morning. "Because I’m not going to let myself get killed this time," Gene resolved.

"I’ll die before I let that happen, Gene. That’s my promise to you."

"You'd better not."

His brother shrugged nonchalantly. "It only seems fair, doesn't it?"

"Don't say that," Gene grumbled, reaching to turn off the lamp and flopping down on the bed. "No one's dying this time."

The dark room was silent for several moments before he spoke again.

"We'll be fine if we're together, right?"

“Of course we will.”

"Always?"

"Always."

 

*******

 

Mai woke early the next morning, exhausted. With an unhappy sound escaping her lips, she rose to dress and began to sort her clothes for laundry.

Half an hour later after a load of laundry was in the washer, Mai sat waiting, looking over her homework at the launderette. Leaning back in the uncomfortable plastic chair, a small smile crept across her face. She couldn’t help the happiness that spread when she thought of the man she loved. She could almost feel the strength of his arms around her, holding her comfortably as they lay next to each other.

They had been very close to making love, the night before. He had sounded almost embarrassed, reluctant to stop but knowing it was the rational, responsible thing to do. Even if he had been prepared, he told her, they shouldn’t. She felt guilty, knowing that after Naru had walked her to her apartment she should have made him return to the hotel at once. After all, it wasn’t fair to Gene for her to monopolize his brother, she thought, and it was terribly irresponsible. But her body hadn’t been able to refuse him, lonely for his touch and knowing he felt the same. Naru had never been one to show casual affection, but he would hold her hand. Now, even that was precious to her. To have him embrace her, to be alone together in a quiet, private room—she knew those moments would be few and far between for the foreseeable future.

Mai sighed, standing as the wash cycle finished and bent to open the machine door, scooping the clothes into a basket and hefting it to her hip. He was right to be cautious, she knew. The last thing she needed this time around was to become pregnant at fifteen, even if mentally she finally felt like she was about the right age to think about having children. But that time had disappeared and she would have to wait another ten years at least.

Ten years. Mai sighed. In London she’d just started thinking about the possibility of marriage and family, but that was even more distant now. "I have to be patient," she murmured to herself quietly, shutting the dryer door firmly and inserting some coins into the slot. "Why am I thinking about this now, anyway?"  She shook her head to herself and turned to pick up her school books, yawning. Rubbing at her eyes, she left the launderette and crossed the street, heading toward her apartment. In the time that the clothes would dry, she would get ready for school and make some tea. She would definitely need some tea—how else was she going to get through a long school day on that amount of sleep?

 

*******

 

Much to her relief, the school day passed quickly. She found that she was impatient, looking at the clock every ten minutes and tapping her feet against the floor, wondering what Naru and Gene were up to. She felt antsy, keen to leave the school and return to her apartment to meet the twins before they departed for Nagano. Finally the afternoon was upon her and after offering apologetic excuses to her friends, she hurried home from school.

She had just arrived back at her apartment and was trying to hurriedly pack some clothes into a weekend bag when there was a knock at the door.

"Don’t you have a key?"  She called as she hurried toward the door, unlocking it and swinging it open with a smile. Seeing the woman standing on the other side of the door, the smile slipped from her face. Mai felt an immediate tightening in her chest, her mind going blank save for several choice curse words. This had not happened before. No, this woman had definitely not come to her landing the last time around.

"Taniyama-san, I see you were expecting someone?"  The woman inquired. Though her words were polite, there was a sharp edge to her voice and her eyes were narrowed ever so slightly as she looked down over her thin-rimmed glasses. "I’m sorry to barge in on you so suddenly."

"N-not at all, Ogasawara-san," Mai said politely, stepping aside from the door so that the woman could enter. "Please, do come in. I apologize that it is not very tidy."

The woman stepped in, dipping her head and stepping out of her high heels. "Excuse me," she said, her dark eyes moving around the room quickly, her lips pursing together tightly. Mai knew that the woman was surprised that the apartment was actually quite well-kept: the only obvious piece of clutter was a lone tea cup, sitting on the counter by the sink. No doubt the woman was searching for something on which she could place accusations.

"Would you like some tea?"

"Thank you, but I shouldn’t stay long."

"No, it’s no trouble," Mai said, pouring a cup and placing it on the kotatsu. "Won’t you sit down, Ogasawara-san?"  Even as she said this, she wished the woman would stand up and leave, never to return.

"Thank you," the woman said, sitting carefully and eyeing the room with conspicuous scrutiny. "I suppose you are curious for the nature of my visit."  Mai said nothing as she sat down, easing herself into the place across from the woman. "We received a call from one of the tenants of this building who happened to know of your circumstances. They were... concerned about you."

Mai was genuinely puzzled. "Concerned? I can assure you, nothing is wrong."

Ogasawara continued as if Mai had not spoken. "Your neighbor said that you came back on Wednesday in the company of two men. That you seemed to be unconscious and that they had carried you inside."

Alarmed at the emphasis Ogasawara had placed on "two men", Mai tried to keep her expression neutral, cautiously choosing her words. "I fainted after school and my friends were kind enough to bring me home."

"She seemed to think you had passed out drunk," the woman pressed.

It was all Mai could do to not grit her teeth with exasperation. "Nothing could be further from the truth.”

"Your neighbor also indicated she had seen you with these boys several times after that incident. I trust there is an innocuous explanation?"

"They’re just two of my friends from school," Mai said, keeping her voice calm. "We’ve been working on a school project together."

"Well," the woman said, pursing her lips and adjusting her glasses. "At this point without any discernible evidence of foul play, I will have to take your word for it. However, it would be wise not to bring home too many men, Taniyama-san. It may be too much for you to imagine, but teenage pregnancy is no joke and you can be certain that any man willing to sleep with you is carrying sexual transmitted diseases. While your care from our institution does.. include certain medical benefits, let me confirm for you that any treatment for such diseases will come out of your own pocket."

Levelling a hard gaze on the woman, Mai kept her mouth firmly closed, knowing that if she let herself speak she would regret the consequences.  When Ogasawara continued to stare at her pointedly and Mai realized that this woman would not move until she acknowledged what she said, she spoke stiffly. "I appreciate that you came all this way to tell me that, Ogasawara-san. Is there anything else today?"

"No," Ogasawara said, standing. Mai also rose to her feet, moving around the kotatsu but keeping a fair distance from the woman. Ogasawara walked briskly to the entrance and stepped into her shoes as she buttoned her coat. "I apologize for the intrusion," she said coldly. "Until next time, Taniyama-san."

The door closed behind her and Mai stood still in the silent room for several moments, pondering the encounter. Finally she turned her gaze back to the table where the cup of tea, untouched, still sat. Frowning, she picked it up and tossed the contents into the sink. "What a waste," she muttered darkly. "And what a bitch."

 

*******

 

She was in her room when she heard the door open, unlocked quietly.

"Mai," Gene called. "About ready?"

"Yeah," Mai said, picking up her bag and tossing it over her shoulder as she went to the main room. She had changed from her uniform into a comfortable hooded sweatshirt, a short winter skirt with knit tights covering her legs.

From the tone of her voice both twins immediately knew that something was amiss. Naru’s eyes searched her face, silently asking her what was wrong. She turned her gaze away, bending to pull on her winter boots and zipping up the sides.

Gene looked around the room for several moments before suddenly asking, "Who was that woman, Mai?"

She knew they could see the tension on her face. Naru’s questioning gaze had moved from her to his twin and back again, his lips thin, obviously wanting to demand answers. Exhaling slightly, she moved her eyes between the two, debating whether or not now was the time to breach the topic. "Let’s talk about it later," she finally said, sighing again. "On the train or when we get to the hotel. Sorry. I’m just... tired."  She buttoned up her coat and took her scarf from the peg on the wall. "Besides, we should get going, right?"

"Sooner or later," Naru said blandly. "You have what you need? Homework, too?"

Mai made a face. "Something like that."  Her expression dimmed, her eyes travelled toward the walls on either side of the apartment. "We probably shouldn’t spend any more time here together."  She shook her head slightly. "It would seem that my neighbors are watching disapprovingly."

Gene cast a curious and worried glance toward his brother, who shook his head slightly with a frown, having no explanation to offer him.

Then, with a final glance around her apartment: unplugging the few electric appliances from around the room, they left. Mai locked the door carefully behind her, dropping the keys into her coat pocket. "Let’s hurry," she muttered, "I don’t want my neighbors to see me leaving to speculate to Ogasawara."

"They won’t notice," Gene said confidently, his steps light as he strode toward the stairs. He did not see the questioning glance that Mai threw to Naru, who simply lifted his shoulders in response.

 

*******

 

Standing in the queue to pick up their reserved tickets, Naru noticed that Mai had begun to yawn with recurring frequency, and when they had boarded the train and set their luggage on the overhead racks, Mai settled into the seat, leaning back with a sigh, her eyes becoming cloudy and unfocused. When the train finally began to move her eyes had closed, her breathing deepened.

"I guess we’ll have to wait to hear about Ogasawara," Gene noted with a bit of a grin twitching his lips as he sat down, settling into his seat. They had turned the seats so that there were two seats on each side facing each other. Mai had seated herself first, choosing as she always did to sit next to the window. She had promptly placed their jackets on the seat next to her, allowing the brothers to sit next to each other on the opposite side.

Naru frowned. "I have a hunch, but..."  He pursed his lips, watching the napping girl. He did not like the fact that Mai was upset about something that he did not know the details. "What did you see there?"

"Just that Mai had an unwelcome visitor."  Gene closed his eyes, frowning as he thought. "And she did not drink the tea that was offered."  A smile tugged his lips upwards. "Mai called her a choice word."  Opening his eyes and seeing his brother’s alarmed look, he added quickly, "After the woman left. You know Mai, never openly rude."

Naru lifted his eyebrows. "She wasn’t always that way."

"Really?"

"When she was younger, she often let her temper get the best of her. Even to strangers."  A small grin twitched his lips, remembering how she had all but lunged angrily at the teacher at Yasuhara’s school. "She’s grown out of that a bit."

"I’ll say."  Gene moved his gaze to the window, watching the city lights speed by as the train picked up speed. "All of us going together will complicate things a little bit, won’t it?"  He suddenly asked, changing the subject abruptly.

Naru shifted in his seat, lifting his leg and setting his ankle against knee, resting his hands loosely in his lap. "Perhaps," he finally agreed. "We don’t quite look old enough to be going on a trip unsupervised, I imagine."

"And we can’t say we’re all related. I doubt anyone would be fooled."  Gene moved his gaze from the window to Mai’s peaceful slumbering figure. "Not that I am suggesting she shouldn’t have come," he added quickly.

"Thank you for inviting her," his brother said softly, turning his head to meet his gaze. "I... appreciate it."

"Of course."  Gene rubbed his neck and settled into the chair, yawning. "I think she’s got the right idea. Wake me up if you guys get hungry and want to eat dinner, okay?  Or if you want to wait until we get there, that’s fine too."  He shrugged slightly, grinning and closing his eyes. "Just don’t eat without me!"

 

*******

 

Mai opened her eyes slowly, blinking. She sat up and yawned, looking up to gaze at the two figures opposite her. Gene was sleeping peacefully, slumped toward his brother, his head resting on his shoulder, breathing deeply in his slumber. Naru had been reading a newspaper, which he lowered as soon as she stirred.

"Feel better?"  He inquired.

"Much," Mai nodded and stretched her arms again, another small yawn surprising her. Naru smiled slightly and she grinned, embarrassed. "I guess I was tired, huh? Still am."

He nodded, watching her with a comfortable look on his face. Eventually his expression turned more serious and he spoke again. "Who is Ogasawara?"  He finally questioned.

Mai sighed, reaching to her head and running her fingers through her mussed hair to smooth it. "To put it simply, she works for the agency that manages the affairs of my parents’ estate. Or finances, my inheritance, whatever."

"She didn’t visit you last time like this."

"Of course not!"  Mai frowned. "I guess one of my neighbors must have called her or the agency up—probably old granny Sawatari, who else is going to notice such things as my comings and goings?"  She snorted slightly. "Last time I wasn’t doing anything suspect, Naru, thank you very much. Or anything that could be interpreted as suspect."

He smiled thinly. "Of course you weren’t. Just working terrible hours for some selfish bastard."

She leaned forward, swatting at his hand. "Don’t say that."

"It’s the truth, isn’t it?"

"I didn’t mind. And don’t call yourself that."  She frowned at him, wagging her finger. "As far as Ogasawara.."  Mai sighed, "she certainly lives up to her reputation."  She rested her chin on her hand, gazing out the window at the bleak scenery. "What an unpleasant woman. I remember.. Umemoto-kun?  Was that his name? He was older than me as I recall. Anyway," she waved her hand. "Neither here nor there. It was my last year in school and I found out this boy at my school—let’s just say it was Umemoto—was also an orphan and had his parents’ estate managed by this agency. I don’t know what Ogasawara’s exact position is but she’s some sort of manager that handles the accounts, is ultimately responsible for children receiving their monthly instalments and the final sum when they become legal adults. I think he got into some minor trouble—maybe underage smoking. She gave him hell for it. He told me I should avoid her, at all costs."  She smiled sadly. "I thought I was lucky, then, not to have to worry about such things."

"She can’t do anything to you," Naru said quietly. "Even if she took away your inheritance from your parents—if she could legally refuse that to you—she can’t do anything to you when I’m here. With Gene and I with you, there’s nothing she can do to you."

Mai smiled, reaching across the small space between them to take his hand, holding it gently. "I know," she said, smiling gratefully. "Thank you. I just don’t... want to cause trouble, you know?"

He squeezed her hand in return. "I know."

 

*******

 

It was close to nine o’clock when they arrived, though from the darkness of the sky and her intermittent napping, it felt much later. Mai stepped off the train into the station, glancing around before leading the brothers toward the platform exit.

They were walking through the hallway when Naru held up his hand, gesturing for Mai to wait. Gene had stopped in front of the train schedules, gazing upwards with a peculiar look on his face.

"Tomorrow," he said, pausing as he gazed at the train tables, "let’s take the train to Omachi. Early. If we could arrive before ten..."  He hesitated, studying the times. "We should probably take the six o'clock morning train."  He turned to his brother, searching his face before looking at Mai. "Too early?"

"Of course not," Naru said, his eyes light with a smile that did not quite reach his lips.

Gene looked relieved and nodded. "Okay. Let’s do that, then. But," he paused, interrupting himself, a lopsided grin crossing his face. "More important things first. Where shall we eat dinner? I’m starving."