12 July 2012
You rest a gloved hand on his shoulder and scoot closer until your thighs bump. The firm edge of his mattress barely bows beneath your combined weight, but he pitches sideways against you anyway, mute and unseeing.
On the floor are two halves of a chopstick your younger self snapped at the sight of you. “Focus on your breathing, Natsume. Deep breaths. Very good. You’re going to be just fine,” you coo. You soothe the firm slope of his back while you wait.
Eventually, his panic subsides enough for him to stare with skittish, too-familiar eyes. You smile, pat him on the head, and say, “Is it really so hard to believe?”
“Ah.” You ruffle his oddly colored hair next. The curly mop isn’t anywhere approaching your style, but the honey blond looks lived in, almost natural. The softer, wrinkle-free quality of his face makes that possible. “Well. We mustn’t lose too much time to your skepticism. I did come here for a reason.”
“... a reason,” he whispers. It’s a relief to find two pinpricks of awareness brightening in his eyes, but the full recovery of his wits looks to be something of a slog. You graciously temper your impatience.
“I had hoped I would never have to say this to you, but I’m afraid I need your help.”
“... my help? What can I do? I’m just a kid. I’m… I’m just you but… lesser.”
“That’s not true, Natsume. If anything, I’m the lesser one here, but you’ll come to understand that in time.” You pat him hard on his back -- your back -- and he startles, surprise giving way to focus. “Keep up with me now.”
He sharpens. “... okay? Okay.”
“Good,” you say, smoothing your fingers over the flexible turquoise band clapped around your suited wrist. You believe the time machine is both your finest achievement and your biggest mistake, but you will let him reach his own conclusions.
You bend over and pluck up the broken chopstick, scanning the memento for future use. It probably won’t be of much use, but you make a habit of scanning just about anything you can get your hands on.
Natsume watches, utterly fascinated. “It really works. Wow.” You would allow yourself more time to enjoy the flattery if there weren’t bigger issues at stake here.
You clear your throat and say, blithely, “Here is what I know.”
27 July 2012
“Gah—! What are you…? I thought we agreed you weren’t going to do that.”
“I’m sorry,” you throw a dismissive wave. Your memento is a weak one and you don’t have much time. “Have you been keeping up with your homework?”
Evidence of timestream tampering can no longer be ignored, and you are eager to analyze the effects in the hope of preventing further disruption. He may be younger, but his brain is ripe, and while your team is composed of very capable, very cutting edge thinkers, they are not you.
Relief eases some of your tension when Natsume senses your urgency. He sits up, rubs the lingering sleep from his eyes, and hangs off the fluffy edge of his bed to rummage around under the frame.
There is the sound of something dragging across the floor as you spin his desk chair around. Then he is upright with his laptop opened, and you take a seat.
“The formulas you left me with were a challenge. You have to understand, I don’t normally… er, but I think I’m beginning to make sense of them.”
His capable hands, busy fluttering across the laptop keys, freeze when he assesses you. You reward his redirected curiosity with a restrained smile.
“What is it? What’s happened?”
“Aside from the expected aberrations? Echoes, Natsume. We’ve encountered our first real echo.”
He doesn’t share your enthusiasm. You give a lick of your lips and sit forward.
“Normally, I would consider proof of one of my -- our theories to be cause for celebration, but my team and I forewent the popped bottle of champagne. This means very little to you now, but you’ll understand the importance of this development very soon.”
“Dispelling Theory,” he recalls. “I remember.”
“Very good, Natsume. Here, let me see that. I’ve another reading for you.”
He frowns, but hands over the laptop. “Thank you. Now, I want you to study at least half of my -- your paper on the Possibility Principle. The committee approved our proposal for further research when we were twenty-two. In our timestream, this paper is partially responsible for funding our doctorate work on -- ”
“You’re a genius, I get it,” Natsume grumbles.
You huff and shake your head while fiddling with the memory drive. The plug slips into one of the laptop’s ports with ease and you sigh as the document transfer begins, grateful for small blessings. “Hardly. We’re dreamers, you and me. That’s all.”
“... Shuu-chan had a bad breakup.”
You lift your head, surprised. What’s more, you leave your surprise on display.
Over the short time you’ve been working together, you’ve discovered you bear as many differences as you do similarities. You were oddly relieved upon finding your weaknesses are very much the same. The mention of your youngest brother, no matter how wayward or frustrating, makes your chest ache.
You rub your sternum through your bodysuit. “You talked about this?”
“No,” he shrugs. “I just noticed.”
You take a deep breath and nod. “Of course you did. Does Masaharu know?”
Again, he shrugs and for a moment you wonder if he’ll speak any more on the matter.
Instead, he shuts down and snatches up an old giraffe plushie from the sliver of space between his bed and the wall. You watch him toss it up in the air once or twice while the document transfer completes. Then you move on.
“Here,” you say, handing the laptop back. “My time is nearly up. Please read as much of this as you can. It’ll provide the basics while I make the arrangements to bring you to my future.”
He bolts upright and gulps, eyes wide. “So soon? What if I’m not… what if I can’t do this?”
This won’t do. You stand and reach out, fitting your hand atop his fluffy head the moment his voice breaks.
“W-what if I’m not ready?”
You ruffle his hair.
“Shhh, Natsume. What have I told you about that kind of talk? It never feels like we’ll ever be ready for anything, but we always are when the time comes. Now get some rest. You’ll need to be up again in an hour to cook dinner.”
He squints at you, first suspicious, then rapidly offended. “Don’t Stealth me. It’s not fair.”
“Sorry,” you lie. “I can’t make that promise. Now sleep.”
He’s already out before you turn to go.
9 September 2012
“I won’t do it,” he shudders, sick with simmering grief. “I won’t stand by and let this happen.”
You are watching him shatter, and it is very inconvenient.
“You have be strong. How many more times must I explain why we need to be careful? Why we can’t act rashly, why we need to make informed choices. Time travel is not a game.”
“Your Masa-chan isn’t going into the ground tomorrow,” he accuses, pacing in his rumpled wake formals. He is a disheveled mess, stricken and tear-streaked, soft cheeks suffused with vivid blood and you feel embarrassed on his behalf. “Your Masa-chan didn’t get ripped to pieces.”
His stony, grey calm lasted all of a handful of seconds into your arrival — mere residue leftover from masquerading as a composed and responsible older brother for the relatives, friends and work colleagues who came to pay their respects.
You should have Stealthed here first to better prepare yourself, but you… didn’t want to see that.
“He will be if we’re not smart about this. I’ve told you, Natsume. I won’t unwind time until we know exactly how, and why, this is happening.”
Something ugly sparks to life in his eyes. His lip curls, and you brace yourself but the strike doesn’t come.
Not in the form of fists, anyway.
“Selfish,” he seethes. “You selfish bastard. Protecting your family, but what does it matter if mine has to suffer? You cold-hearted, worthless fucking asshole! We’re just… we’re just experiments to you!”
His words are acid. Unfortunately, you are immune. Though you’ve both spent large portions of your lives inoculating yourselves against such vitriol, you have significantly more life gathered under your belt. He cannot beat you.
“Enough,” you decide. “No one has time for your hysterics, Natsume, least of all you. You will attend Masaharu’s funeral tomorrow, and you will be a wall for each and every one of your loved ones to break themselves upon if need be. That is what we do. We do it well.”
He sucks in a wet, shaky breath and smears his balled up hands through the glossy tears staining his cheeks, puffing his eyes, and seeping into the tense corners of his mouth.
“Listen to me. This part is of the highest importance. You, yourself, musn’t break, Natsume. I still need you to help me fix this. Do you understand me? I need you.”
He bounces his head in a series of violent, frustrated nods, and you consider what it would feel like to embrace your younger self. You decide against the act and settle on a simple, but heartfelt, “Remember. Be strong for Shuu-chan.”
You quietly slip out and return to the spot where you’ve taught him to leave behind his mementos.
You wait until your time is up and return, heavy but controlled, to your future.
22 October 2012
You are losing him: his mind, his spirit, his will to see this through to its necessary conclusion.
You wish it didn’t have to be this way, but you’ve wished for a lot of things in life. Wherever wishes failed you, science made the impossible possible. Still, you wish you had the power to make him see what you see: the many throughlines of possibility weaving devastatingly beautiful paths to a peaceful afterlife.
The Fates are real; time is not a series of iron tracks, but ratty threads prone to even messier knots. You truly believe you can untie anything if you have the right number of hands at your disposal.
Your younger self may have a clever touch, but he is nowhere near patient enough.
You are losing him, and it is your fault.
“It’s not him,” Natsume growls, restlessly pacing his shared dorm room. He hesitates long enough to cast a withering look at you, then continues down his chosen path of distraction, nervously wringing his hands en route to nowhere.
“Shuuki isn’t the one responsible,” he claims for the fifth time in near as many seconds. “He’s a mess over Chi-chan’s death, it’s… it’s not him. That’s all there is to it.”
“No. You’re the accredited scientist here.” He pauses for a second time. You witness the exact moment he revisits his loathing for you in the form of an unforgiving glower. “You’ve won how much recognition for your work? How many fucking prizes? Come up with a better hypothesis.”
His arguments may bear the clumsy, flawed rationale of a teenager, but they never fail to pack a punch. As usual, you’ve underestimated the potency of your self-hatred.
Why can you never remember how intense everything felt when you were younger?
“You have to understand, Natsume,” you try to reason. “We’ve seen his time machine. This is the best conclusion we can reach, for now.”
“That’s not good enough,” he says, and if it feels like a condemnation, that’s because it is. Yours is a life of trials, grand successes and equally grand failures. His nihilism has begun to infect you from the inside. “Let’s run it again.”
“Alright,” you swallow. You tread carefully, speaking as the mentor you are supposed to be. “Process of elimination tells us — ”
“ — the wrong answer. Next dialectic. Next something. There has to be another way to think about this.”
“That’s the thing, Natsu, about logic.” He may not be kind, but you’ve learnt, if not mastered, the subtle art of forgiveness. You spread your hands wide, your smile underlined by sadness. “Empathy cannot change fact.”
“I don’t want to hear that. He’s my little brother!”
You shrink back, then draw yourself up to your full height and watch the unease flit across his face. Intimidation is not a tactic you ever meant to exploit, but you are thankful for the extra inches you gained at university.
Sniffing imperiously through your nose, you remind him: “He’s my brother too.”
“No,” he laughs, hardly missing a beat. It’s a bitter sound. “He’s not. Not in this timestream. He’s mine because your Shuuki’s too far gone to do anything but fuck it up for the rest of us.”
“Natsume, enough,” you whisper, wounded. Then, “... okay,” you concede with a clap of your hands and a bright, optimistic smile. “Another way.”
He exhales deeply, deflating as you tell him what he wants to hear. A moment later, he retreats even further and plops down in his desk chair with a rub of his forehead. “Good, yeah. Good. That’s… yes. Another way. So. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“Well,” you begin, turning away to pace through your thoughts. You catch yourself and stop after a few steps, deciding to sit neatly upon the edge of his dorm bed again. “If Shuuki isn’t pulling the strings, then Fuyuka is the next logical culprit.”
Natsume winces, but says nothing.
“You understand now the nature of echoes, and why it makes little sense if looked at from — ”
“ — right. I do get it now,” he murmurs. “I do understand.”
You don’t at all like the sound of his voice. It’s as if all that life has drained right out of him in the space of a second. “... Natsume?”
“I know what I have to do.”
A chill runs down your spine. “That, is not an option.”
He meets you head on, unsettling you until you dart a sidelong stare at his desk instead. You’ve never seen his eyes look so gruesomely determined.
You bend over and rummage around under his bed for his laptop, drawing it out with a heave that wakes a dull throb at your temple. You ignore it.
“If I don’t exist… if I can prevent myself from… then none of this will happen.”
You peel the laptop open and settle the keyboard in your lap, staring pointedly at the screen while you drum up several files. “No, Natsume.” It’s your intention to sound breezily above the entire situation, but your voice betrays you. “You cannot substitute one anomaly with another and call that a solution. This is basic, common knowledge.”
He fingers the modified time machine — a pair of chunky red headphones — dangling around his neck and you can’t tell if he’s merely fidgeting or subtly threatening to take action on his own.
For the first time, you second guess your decision to expose him to the finer facets of your technology.
“If it’s me… if I disappear, then none of this has to happen. Fuyuka and Shuuki will never meet in another timestream. Maybe you’ll never even invent time travel, and all of this, everything that’s causing the convergence, none of it will have to happen.”
You stare, horrified, then quickly absorb yourself in the comfortingly familiar calculations filling the laptop screen. “I won’t listen to this.”
“Our parents! Our parents… they won’t have anyone to blame anymore. They won’t need to blame anyone because I won’t have been around to let Fuyuka out of my sight — ”
You bang a gloved fist on the keys, interrupting your formulas with lines of mashed nonsense.
“Enough!” He doesn’t look so determined anymore. “This is not a solution. You’re supposed to grow out of this.”
“I’m not you,” he counters. “Never will be, if I can help it. Look, I’m coming apart at the seams. You’re telling me to accept that Shuuki could… that he’s working against us? Before I might have thought… but now? No, it’s too much.”
“Oh, Natsu,” you murmur.
“So. Here is the plan. Our plan. Here is the end game if we can’t figure out a better solution. You owe me. For making me watch Masa-chan and Chi-chan die and for making me kill Fuyuka over and over again! You won’t listen? Heh, that’s the least you can do.”
“...I — ”
“By New Year’s Day, if we haven’t been able to solve this problem, then you’ll help me prevent any of this from happening in any timestream. We have the power to stop it. Combined. You and me.”
“Give me your word.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can. Promise you’ll help me undo all of this. You’ll help me save our brothers?”
“I will, but not like — “
“You’ll help me save our sister? Prevent any of their suffering, and of this pain, prevent it all from happening. Please, Natsume. I need your help. I may be able to travel on my own now, but I can’t fix this on my own.”
“... Assuming I did agree to this disastrous plan of yours, you would still need a memento to your past.”
“I know mom and dad. They may not… love me anymore, but they’re sentimental. They’ll have plenty of mementos in storage.”
“And what if these hypothetical mementos the ones you want? What then will you do, Natsume?”
“You realize you’re asking me to stop existing, too. What makes you think I would do such a — ”
“Come on. What sort of question is that? You know the answer.”
The nerve of him.
Of course, you could waste precious time arguing your point further, but your brain feels stretched and bloated, like rising bread in a too-tight oven. Or maybe the temptation to move this thought experiment into the realm of practice proves too great.
Or maybe he’s simply right.
Either way, you’ve decided to give him what he wants. For now.
“... don’t bullshit me.”
You level a glare powerful enough to quiet him, then continue with an exhausted sigh. “Only if we can’t figure out a less damaging solution by New Year’s Day. If we fail before then, I will help you permanently alter your timestream, and by extension, mine. This is my New Year’s resolution. Are you satisfied?”
He moves his hands from his headphones to his face. “Satisfied?” he repeats, scrubbing the tender rise of his cheekbones, then carding his fingers through his hair. “Yes. Happy? No.”
You stand and balance the opened laptop across his legs, equally grim. “That will have to do. Now, I’m going to take my leave. At the rate things are going, Fuyuka’s echo will strike again soon.”
Natsume closes his eyes and tips his head back, but the wrinkles in his brow linger. “I don’t doubt that.”
“Take a night off. Do something fun with Masaharu and Shuuki. By your calendar we have two months left to get to the bottom of this, so pull yourself together. I’m counting on you.”
Natsume waves you off for a change. “I’ll be fine next time. I promise. Ugh, now let me rest.”
26 November 2012
Natsume looks up at you when you arrive, then promptly looks away. The air is thick with tension. Infested with it, really. His depression is palpable. Suffocating.
But he has no one else and this conversation must happen.
“I yelled at him.”
You lean against the door. “I know.”
“Heh,” he huffs, utterly dejected. “So you did Stealth me.”
“He’s been working so hard, trying his best to make things right… and I yelled at him. The timestream shifted again. Hokosawa was dead, and then he wasn’t, and now I’m sure that was Shuuki’s doing. Do you know what this means? He’s saving lives, Natsume. Not helping Fuyuka’s echoes destroy them.”
“And… and Shuuki pretends he’s not afraid of anything, but I know better. I’ve just… I’ve never seen him look so frightened of… of me.”
“We still don’t know for certain what he’s been doing, Natsume. Please remember that. Wherever she is, Fuyuka’s influence is — ”
“Don’t! Don’t do that. Just… “
He winces and rubs his temples, closing his eyes. Another headache. You sympathize.
A beat later he lifts his head levels a shrewd look your way. “You never told me how things with your Shuuki got so bad.”
You turn away so he won’t have the pleasure of seeing you look so stricken. That wasn’t one of the questions you saw him muttering to himself in Stealth mode. “... my time is up.”
It’s not. In fact, it won’t be for some time, but your earlier visit to this moment revealed when the halls will be clear and how to slip out unnoticed.
He doesn’t say anything to you as you leave.
15 December 2012
When you arrive this time, Natsume looks peaceful. You might even say he looks happy. This makes you happy too.
It’s fascinating, how a bright smile can change his — your face — so dramatically.
“Shuu-chan and Masa-chan helped out at the confectionary today. I’d go so far as to say it was a great day.”
“Ah, well. That’s all I came for. I’ll admit that I came to see you for incredibly selfish reasons. Such frivolous use of our technology would be grounds for firing anyone from my team, yet here I am, breaking my own rules.”
“Hm? What do you mean? Did you really come just to hear me talk about selling cakes to women?”
You laugh and tilt your head. “Is it so hard to believe that I might want to see my younger self smiling for a change? We’ve been through many difficult times together, Natsu, but that’s not all we have to be to each other. We can be friends too.”
He frowns, but it doesn’t last. He’s in too good of a mood to let you sour things. He’s grown considerably since your first visit, and if you didn’t think it would be a weird thing to say, you would tell him you’re proud of that fact.
“I guess you’re right. Why don’t you tell me something good about your future, then? Or take me to one of your good days?”
You toe off your boots and climb onto his dorm bed, careful to keep your gloves secured under the sleeves of your bodysuit before you stretch out and beckon him to join you. You are nothing if not immensely careful even though you are fairly certain -- almost certain -- you’re no echo.
He faces you while lying on his side, and you fondly muss the locks of dyed hair with your covered fingers. “I don’t have a good day memento stored away for you to use, so I guess you’ll have to settle for story time.”
Natsume fluffs the pillow under his head and gets comfortable. As usual, he trusts you to know when you’ll need to leave if you want to avoid causing a minor heart attack in his roommate.
You tell him about the time you helped Masaharu chaperone a school event and teased him mercilessly about all the girls fawning over their handsome teacher.
26 December 2012
“I was wrong,” you admit.
Natsume lounges in the sort of silence commanded by authority figures for the sole purpose of making their subordinates sweat. For your part, you do dampen somewhat within the confines of your bodysuit. He sits less than a foot away from you, but he feels miles away.
Compelled to continue by some unseen force, you add, “I was wrong about more than I would’ve liked.”
Natsume raises a single brow.
“About Shuuki. I was wrong, Natsume. I’m sorry.”
That seems to do the trick. He sighs and nods once, then fiddles with his headphones. “It’s fine.”
“... what memento did he use to save you?”
Natsume shrugs. “You can ask him that yourself. He’s on his way up.”
Heavy shame curdles in your belly. “It doesn’t matter,” you say. All that matters is that it worked.
Natsume watches you carefully, far more inscrutable than he has any right to be. “Only a few more days left. We’re ready, aren’t we?”
Strictly speaking, there is nothing about the statement that requires disagreement, but the ambiguity in his expression unsettles you. “To end this? No.”
His smile cuts through the ominous mood. Everything feels different, but you ruffle his hair fondly all the same. “You’re right, but we will be,” he says, cheerfully.
31 December 2012
“I, um… I’m not sure that I can even thank you properly, or if this is enough for you, but… thank you. You’ve… sacrificed everything. I understand that and appreciate it more than I can say.”
When you return to your timestream, Natsume’s inelegant words echo in your memory. You spent some time alone with him before he texted Shuuki to join you both in his room, but not much. Few words were spoken because there was little left to say.
You didn’t even say goodbye. At the time, ‘Good luck’ felt better.
Now, you’re left to wonder how best to wait for your old world to fade into the new.
Should you wait to disappear? Wait for the world to explode? Wait for Natsume to come to you, rest a comforting hand on your shoulder, and ask you to make good on your New Year’s resolution?
In the end, you decide to activate your finest achievement one last time. When you open the menu and find one half of a chopstick dated to July of 2012, you launch the memento in Stealth mode. You could go anywhere, visit any part of your past, but you choose this memento because every mistake made, every step taken, has been in search of this moment. This is your life’s work.
The memento is strong, but not exact. You estimate that you’ve caught him roughly a minute before you’re due to arrive in Active mode. Natsume sits on his bed at home, slurping noodles in solitude. He is clearly tired but fully absorbed in a weathered book while you look on, invisible, elusive, and illogically infinite.
You lose time, or maybe time loses you, but either way you feel yourself fading.
Good luck, you think as you quietly disappear between the threads of time.
Good luck and goodbye.