Part II: Love Rediscovered
Some would say they were tied with a red string of destiny. Others would say that they existed in a delicate triangle of unpleasant balance. Whatever the truth was, two corners of the triangle were in nuptial trouble, and the red string of fate that tied them together seemed about ready to unravel.
Two weeks after Kurumi had asked him about the state of his and Madoka's relationship, in the wee hours of the morning, Kyousuke found sleep eluding him and went down to the kitchen to fix himself a snack. The grandfather clock in the living room had just chimed two A.M., and he was just about to return upstairs, when his gaze fell upon his wife's picture on the mantelpiece. He walked up to it and slowly reached out, his fingers tracing the outline of Madoka's face, her lips, those green eyes, and her fall of black hair. He knew all the while the real person was upstairs, asleep, but couldn't bring himself to try to be more intimate with her just yet. He brought his arm down and spent the next minute or two staring out the nearby floor-length window into the winter darkness, thinking of what he could do to help her regain her memory.
He never saw the nightgown-clad figure on top of the stairs watching him. As Kyousuke turned to head back upstairs, it disappeared, retreating back into their bedroom.
The next morning they were in their bedroom changing clothes when Madoka revealed her plans to her husband.
Kyousuke was sure his mouth fell agape when he heard that. "What? W-why?"
Madoka averted her eyes. "I can't stand it here any more."
Part of Kyousuke wanted to grab her and shake her by the shoulders. The other part wanted to grab her and make sure she never left his arms again. "Madoka, I don't understand," he said, his voice timid and small. "Surely you don't mean that."
"I feel like a stranger here. I can't take it anymore." She looked at Kyousuke, and a mixture of sadness and anger was written in her eyes. "What part of that can't you understand?"
"You don't get it, do you? I'm tired of the blank wall in my head, I'm tired of the way I keep stumbling over the other people in this house, and most of all I'm tired of hurting you."
When the disbelief on her husband's face refused to go away, she continued. "You think I can't tell when I hurt you?" Tears glistened in her eyes. "Credit me with a little more insight than that, my husband." She sighed. "Kyousuke, how am I supposed to stay here when everything I do seems to bring you pain? It hurts you because I don't remember our love for each other. It hurts you because we can't do the things we used to, because I can't respond to you like before. 'Twenty years is not an easy thing to replace,' you said. Well, it's like a twenty-year mirage to me." For a moment her voice turned pleading. "Why can't we try building a new relationship? It isn't easy, I know that. But we get along well enough sometimes, don't we? Why must you keep comparing me to the Madoka before the accident?"
"Because that's the Madoka I knew!" Kyousuke yelled brokenly, his anger and grief suddenly surfacing. "That's the Madoka I grew up with, the one I met on the hundred-step stairs. She was the one who spent twenty years by my side. She was the one who bore me Naoe. She was the one I lost…"
The tears trickled down Madoka's cheeks as she listened to Kyousuke's outburst. "You're so unfair…" she whispered, her heart breaking. "I'm the one who bore you Naoe. I'm the one you grew up with. It's me, Kyousuke. I've lost my memory, that's all. I can't do anything about that. You're so damn unfair! Why can't you try and love me, my husband?"
She turned away. "Che! What am I saying? If you feel that way, if you can't even risk trying to start a new relationship with me, then I no longer belong here."
They were silent for a long time, each wanting to flee the other's presence, but at the same time wishing they could find some way to work it out between them.
Kyousuke was the first to capitulate. "I'm sorry. That was a stupid thing I said… I realize that now. Please don't do this."
Still facing away from him, Madoka shook her head. "Oh, no, Kyousuke Kasuga. Apologies are not enough. Not this time. Not after what you said." She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
She shook her head again. "No! And before you ask, I'm taking Naoe with me."
Her declaration alarmed Kyousuke even more. "Madoka! Please reconsider! Naoe needs both of us."
"Does she? You told me you grew up in a one-parent family. I grew up practically alone."
Kyousuke, who had been standing, fell to his knees. He kowtowed deeply, pressing his forehead to the floor, his hands splayed out on either side of him. "Please…" he whispered. "I need you too."
An unnamable emotion made her shudder as she looked down at his prostrate form. A tear fell from her eye as she knelt before him and pulled him up into a kneeling position.
"Anata," she said, putting her hands on his cheeks, her face inches away from his. For a long moment they stared silently at each other, reading each other's emotions.
She straightened up, put down her hands and wondered if she was about to do the right thing. "All right, Kyousuke, I'm going to give it another chance. Three days. But only because of Naoe—and because this dumb, amnesiac woman thinks she loves you too, even if she can't recall who you are."
"Three days?" she heard him say.
"To convince you to stay?"
"Then I'll give it my best. You can be sure of that." He looked her in the eyes, and she could see the determination in his face.
Kyousuke was assiduous in paying attention to his wife the next day, going so far as to buy flowers which he weaved into her hair and Naoe's as soon as they arrived home. Madoka had decided to act as though yesterday didn't happen, to give him a fair chance to convince her to stay. So far, she felt like he was succeeding.
After he had finished, she carried Naoe to the mirror hanging in the hallway leading from the living room to the bedrooms on the ground floor. Both mother and daughter were curious and excited to see what they looked like.
"Pretty!" exclaimed Naoe. "You look pretty, Mama."
"How cute you are," chuckled Madoka. A bow of red flowers arched from her ears to the back of her head, with some white ones peeking out at the sides. Naoe's wreath had the opposite color scheme.
They returned to the living room. "Like it?" asked Kyousuke.
"Yes!" the two chorused.
"I did the same thing when we went to Okinawa three years ago," Kyousuke told Madoka, producing a photo from his pocket. It showed the three of them posing on the beach, laughing, with bougainvilleas placed willy-nilly in Naoe's hair and orchids in her mother's.
"And now…" said he, producing his digital camera from his pocket, "shutter chance!"
"Wait!" exclaimed Madoka, having eyed the baby's breath still on the table. "Naoe, help Mama put those flowers in Papa's hair."
Naoe gleefully assisted her Mama in the task by handing her the stems as needed, while Madoka arranged the baby's breath in the fashion of the laurel leaves worn by ancient Roman emperors.
"There!" She grinned. "Now we can take a picture."
After it was taken, Naoe asked, "Mama, can I show this to Mrs. Chitose?"
Madoka nodded. Her daughter happily skipped away to the kitchen. They heard Mrs. Chitose raise her voice and speak in delight.
"Kyousuke, thank you. They're very pretty." She leaned towards him, intending to kiss him on the cheek again, but changed her mind and planted a kiss on his mouth. Before she could pull away, however, her husband wrapped his arms around her. Madoka closed her eyes and continued kissing him, feeling what it must have been like between them before.
"Now that was nice," she remarked after they separated, her voice unsteady. "I didn't know you were such a good kisser."
"Thank you," said Kyousuke. "I'm good at other things as well." He paused and looked straight at her. "Would you like me to show you?"
Red crept onto Madoka's face. She didn't answer him.
"H-hey." Kyousuke put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sorry."
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine." She ran her fingers over his lips. "How would I react to this?" she asked. "You look like you're expecting me to make a comment," she explained.
"Huh? Well, you'd usually say something like 'Are you sure you've got something to show?' and other stuff like that." It was his turn to blush. "A long time ago, though, you'd never have let me get away with it."
"What do you mean?"
"You'd have slapped me silly by now."
"Really?" Madoka appeared to consider. "Well, it's your choice. Do you want to get slapped now, or later?"
She laughed and leaned against him. "Just joking. Anyway, Kyousuke?"
She looked up and smiled shyly. He smelled the fragrance of the roses in her hair.
"Please be gentle," she whispered.
Later that night, they lay entwined in their marital bed, naked under the covers. Madoka caressed her husband's cheek while he lay there gazing at her.
"Penny for your thoughts," she said softly.
"Nothing. I was just thinking how I've never seen a woman quite as beautiful as you."
"That's so sweet of you," she murmured, giving him a kiss. "Were you this flattering before? Because if you were, I'm going to really regret not getting my memory back."
Kyousuke said nothing, simply closing his eyes and feeling her slender fingers as they stroked his cheek and brushed the hair back from his face.
"I have something else for you," he finally said. "Well, it's not a thing, but rather an event, a power."
"What is it?" Madoka's curiosity was aroused.
For an answer, her husband sat up in bed and looked towards the door. Suddenly the ceiling light came on. She blinked in the glare.
"What happened? Why'd the light switch on?"
Kyousuke said nothing, instead focusing his gaze on his table. The packet of orange lozenges sitting on it slowly rose into the air and drifted towards them. Dumbfounded, Madoka could only watch as it landed in his outstretched hand. He turned to her and smiled.
She shivered. To her, he suddenly seemed indescribably mysterious, and a dark aura seemed to hang in the air around him.
"W-what's the m-meaning of this?" she stuttered.
The packet took off and floated itself in front of her.
"Want one?" Kyousuke asked in a conversational tone.
Madoka looked hard at the floating object, like one who was trying her best to understand what was happening before her. Then, failing to, she opted to faint instead.
In the blackness that she existed in, an echoing sound slowly resolved itself into a familiar voice.
"Madoka! Are you okay?"
She groaned. Opening her eyes, she found herself looking up at her husband's solicitous face. She jerked into a sitting position and propelled herself to the other end of the bed with admirable velocity.
"If that… if that was a joke, Kasuga, then it wasn't funny," she admonished, clasping the bedcover to her chest.
"Well, I can see you're awake now," Kyousuke said dryly. "Sorry. I couldn't resist being dramatic."
She felt the bed give beneath her. Then it sunk—or rather, she rose into the air, her body exposed as the bedsheet covering her fell away. As she began to move towards Kyousuke, she clapped her hands over her eyes.
"Oh, I think I'm going to faint again," she moaned.
She landed on her husband's lap, where he set about prying her hands away from her face.
"Madoka—urgh—come on, there's nothing to be afraid of," he said. "It's just too bad you don't remember you married a chou-no-ryoku-sha."
"Chou-no-ryoku-sha?" She looked up at him. "You're a chou-no-ryoku-sha?"
Kyousuke nodded. "That's supposed to be a secret, okay? You mustn't talk about it with people other than my family, okay?"
"As in no one else?"
"No one. Not your parents, not your co-workers, not a soul."
"If anyone who's not a member of the family learns about our powers, we have to move. It's a law we have to follow, to keep ourselves safe."
"Did I know about this before?"
"Yes. I told you right after you agreed to go steady with me."
"And did I freak out like I did just now?"
"No, you were cool about it. But then, you didn't think there was a ghost around either." Kyousuke chuckled. "Some things never change."
"It's not funny," she insisted.
"Yes it is."
Sticking her tongue out at him, Madoka asked, "Who else knows about this?"
"Well, like I said, my family. And Kurumi and Manami also have powers. Also Kazuya, Akane, Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan, and the rest of the Kasugas."
"Really? They don't look like the esper type."
"We're careful not to expose ourselves." Kyousuke frowned as he thought of Kurumi and his grandfather and grandmother. "Well, most of us are."
"Does this mean… does this mean Naoe also has psychic powers?"
"I don't know. No one can predict when the power will manifest itself. She may, or may not, be an esper. Only time will tell."
Having run out of questions for the time being, Madoka fell silent. "I need to think about this," she told Kyousuke.
"Alright," he replied, kissing her. She got off his lap and he stood up, looking around for his clothes. "I'll leave you alone for a while." He found and put on his boxers, shorts and t-shirt, then made for the door.
"I'm sorry I frightened you."
Relieved, Kyousuke opened the door. "Do you want anything?"
"Just a snack, if it's not too much trouble."
"Okay." He went outside and shut the door.
That went pretty well, he thought, heading for the stairs. I'll have to tell Kurumi and Manami to stop hiding their powers from Madoka. They'll be pleased as punch. Especially Kurumi.
The next morning before breakfast Kyousuke informed his wife that he would not be able to escort her home. "Don't forget your umbrella this time," he reminded her. "The weather report predicted rain."
"Yes, old man," Madoka replied, smiling. "You're such a worrier, Kyousuke."
"If I'm an old man, you're an old woman," he countered.
A loud voice from inside the kitchen interrupted them. "Madoka-saaan, how do you like your bacon?"
"What? Oh, here, I said I was going to do that." Madoka went into the kitchen.
She saw Kurumi holding a smoking frying pan out in front of her. Madoka took a look and saw little hissing strips inside, dark brown in color.
"I guess they're a little too well done," Kurumi said sheepishly.
"Oh, that's all right. Look, why don't you sit down and I'll take care of this."
Kurumi, frowning, put the frying pan down and exited the kitchen.
Madoka opened the little windows near the stove and turned the exhaust fan on. Then she set about finishing what the younger Kasuga twin started.
The disgraced pastry chef plopped into a seat beside Kyousuke. "I can't understand why that happens."
"I burned the bacon."
"You probably got the fire too high again,' her older brother suggested.
"What do they do to you when that happens at work?"
Kurumi put her left elbow on the table and put her head in its hand. She drummed the fingers of the other. "Oh, they yell at us," she said. "That's okay, though. If they get on my nerves, I just arrange for them to have a little accident afterwards." An impish grin appeared on her face, and Kyousuke's seat suddenly started shaking.
"Knock it off, Kurumi. That's terrible of you."
"Hmph, that's easy for you to say." She tucked her hair behind an ear. "You haven't met my boss yet."
After ten minutes Kyousuke's wife emerged from the kitchen holding two plates, one of eggs over easy and the other of fried rice mixed with chopped scrambled eggs, diced carrots, spring onions, and suspiciously familiar little dark bits of something.
"Mmm," said Kyousuke. "That smells lovely."
Kurumi held up a little brown fleck from the rice. "Oh." Popping the bit of bacon in her mouth, she said, "It's all your fault, onii-chan."
"Well, I turned the fire up because you said you were in a hurry. That's why I burned the bacon."
Kyousuke opened his mouth to retaliate, then decided discretion was the better part of valor, and shut it.
Madoka chuckled at them. "Let's eat!"
"Let's call this a day," suggested the man with the long blond hair. "I think we've done enough for today."
Madoka watched as Mitsuru Hayakawa switched the sound monitor off. They were in the control booth, supervising the recording of one of their talents, a young pianist named Atsuko Gibo.
Hayakawa leaned into the mike set into the control board. "Okay, Miss Gibo, let's continue this tomorrow."
The girl with the long red hair and deep violet eyes looked their way and nodded.
"Same time?" she asked, her voice tinny over the intercom.
Hayakawa nodded, and the girl stood up and exited the recording room. He told the recording technician to pack it up, then got his jacket from his chair.
"Want me to drive you home?" he asked Madoka, who was putting her Powerbook back into its satchel. "It's starting to snow outside."
"No, thanks," she told him. "I'll commute."
"Are you sure, Madoka-san?"
She nodded. "I'll be alright." As with Kyousuke, she had forgotten all about Hayakawa, but learned enough about him the first time she met him again to realize why her husband frowned every time his name came up in conversation. Though he had married his long-time girlfriend, he was still a womanizer, pure and simple.
Virtually everyone had left by the time she exited the building. It was gray outside, and the flurries that stung her face made her turn up the collar of her heavy coat. Damn, she cursed. I should have accepted Hayakawa's offer. But she was wary of him coming on to her.
She walked quickly to the bus stop. The shifting winds made her umbrella all but useless.
Her watch and the bus schedule said her ride would be along any minute, so she stood there stoically enduring the cold. When it became overdue, she started thinking about hailing a taxi.
She tried to flag down the two cabs that passed by, but both were full. She was looking at the second one going away, sighing, when a horn blared at her from behind. She swore in the split-second realization that she was still standing in the street.
There was the sound of brakes locking and tires sliding on the ground. Madoka jumped to the curb, fully expecting the car to tag her in the middle of the leap.
She landed on the sidewalk, but her boot slipped on the wet ground. As she fell, she felt something suddenly supporting her and slowing, then stopping her fall. She was slowly returned upright and regained her footing.
"Dear," came a well-known voice, "you're going to get hurt if you stand in the middle of the street like that."
She turned and saw a brand-new Morris Mini, almost the twin of her own car, except this one had a slightly lighter shade of red. And in the driver's seat was…
"Hi. Hop in."
She got into the car, grateful to be out of the cold. "Am I glad to see you," she said. "I thought you weren't going to fetch me."
"I wasn't. But I finished work early, so I came to get you. When the security guard at the studio told me you had just left, I went looking. I was searching the sidewalk and almost didn't see you in time. Sorry."
Her hands brushed her hair free of her coat. "No, it was my fault, standing in the street like that."
The Mini began to move.
"Well?" said Kyousuke.
"Aren't you going to ask what I'm doing in this car?"
She looked at him. "What are you doing in this car?"
"Huh. It's your Christmas gift from your parents. They told me to tell you they're sorry they can't stay for Christmas."
"Really? I wish they would. I haven't spent Christmas with them in, what, ten years? I'll see them later. Want to come with me?" Madoka seemed to not care about the car, Kyousuke noted as he replied in the affirmative.
There was a short silence as he negotiated a busy intersection.
"Madoka, you know I don't have the money to buy you something like this," he began.
"So? That's okay. It's not like I'm expecting something like this from you." She ran a hand over the tooled-leather dashboard. "I think my parents are trying to make up for all the time they left me alone," she said. "Even though we seldom saw each other, when we did, we used to fight sometimes, my dad and I. It wasn't very pretty."
Though she had told him that before, Kyousuke appreciated her sharing what she remembered of her past life with him.
She shook her head. "Ah, now, what was it you were trying to say?"
"I'd also like to give you an early Christmas gift. But it will take time."
"I can wait."
"No, no, that's not what I meant. I mean the gift itself will take time to perform."
"And when are you going to tell me what it is exactly?"
Kyousuke told her, and her face showed she was intrigued.
"That," she said, "would be the best Christmas gift anyone could give me now."
"Don't tell me you really want to go back and relive your lives again," said a surprised Manami, sitting down on the sofa.
"Hey, onii-chan," said Kurumi, ambling into the living room, having just finished feeding the cat, "if you push through with it, can I come along too?"
It was after supper, and the couple had just returned from visiting Madoka's parents when Kyousuke broached the subject to the people in the house.
He looked at Madoka, who nodded. "It's okay, I guess. But I have to insist on our privacy."
"Sure, sure. Yay! I always wanted to see how I looked like from another point of view. Manami-chan, dontcha want to come too?"
Manami shrugged. "I guess. But I wouldn't want to see what happened between me and my first boyfriend all over again."
"Aw, Manami-chan, this is your chance to go and punch him in the face for being such a jerk."
"No, I already did that. It's lost its fun. What about you, Dad? Kazuya? Akane?"
The three members of the Kasuga clan, who had been listening silently, gave their answers.
"Nope, not interested," said Akane. "Unless you bring me back to when I can snatch Madoka-chan from you, Kyousuke."
"Just kidding." She grinned at him.
"Same here," said Kazuya. "The present's a handful enough."
"Why?" Kurumi asked. "Are you in trouble with Emi-chan again?"
Before the irritated Kazuya could give a riposte, Kyousuke's father spoke.
"Me neither," Takashi said in his quiet voice, "not unless you can take me back to when your mother was alive. And leave me there."
Everyone looked at him, shocked at his unexpected answer.
"Oyaji," said Kyousuke. "Is that why you insist on living alone?"
"Because you miss her?" asked Madoka. "And want peace and quiet so you can remember her?"
Takashi wordlessly lit his pipe. Tendrils of blue smoke curled upward and vanished into the air.
"You're sharp, the two of you," he finally said.
"Dad, I can take you to see her. But I can't leave you there."
Takashi looked up at his son. "Then I won't go. That would only make it worse."
An uncomfortable silence filled the room. Only Madoka had the temerity to break it.
"Please, Father," she said. "Come live here with us. Then, instead of living on old memories, you can see and feel the living legacy your wife left behind all around you."
For a moment Takashi's eyes glistened with tears. Even the normally flippant Kazuya appeared to grow solemn at his aunt's words.
"Maybe," he said carefully. "I'll think about it."
"Wait a moment," said Manami. "We've forgotten about Naoe."
"Can we bring her with us, Kyousuke?" Madoka asked, laying a hand on his arm.
He shook his head. "No, I'm afraid we can't. That's the only snag I haven't been able to solve."
"Just how long are you planning to be away, Kyousuke-niichan?" asked Kazuya. "Realtime, I mean."
"Huh? Well, around a week or so."
"Then we can handle that," said Akane. "But you'll owe us big time."
"It's a deal."
"Kyousuke." It was Takashi. "How long a time period are you planning to stay in the past?"
"From when Madoka and I met, to…" his voice trailed off. "Maybe a year, in total. We'll be jumping between days."
"That means you'll be a year older when you come back. You'll have removed a year from her life and yours when you finally return."
"That's a small price to pay, to rediscover who I was," said Madoka.
"When are you leaving, nii-chan?" Kazuya asked.
"Two days from now. We've got some preparing to do, and not much time to do it in." Kyousuke's eyes narrowed. "Hold on. Kazuya, why are you asking about when we're leaving and how long we'll be away?"
"Nothing." Kazuya was nonchalant, but the blush on his cheeks gave him away.
"Aha!" yelled Akane, her hair seemingly bristling in indignation. "I knew it! You're planning to invite your girlfriends here, aren't you?"
"Oh, shut up, sis."
"What's wrong with that?" interjected Takashi. "We'll be here to chaperone them anyway."
"Uncle!" Kazuya protested, folding his arms in front of his chest, a disappointed expression on his face.
"Too bad, Kazuya," said Manami. "Better luck next time."
"This house is not to be used for debauchery," said Kyousuke. To which Kazuya mentally replied, You do it with Madoka-neechan, how come I can't do it with my own girlfriends?
Because, my dear cousin, we're married and you're not. Kyousuke clapped him on the shoulder. Save it for the one you really love, Kazuya. Trust me on that. He looked Madoka's way and made sure his cousin saw him. I did, and I've never regretted it.
Two days later, the little 'excursion group,' as they came to be called by Takashi, assembled again in the living room, armed with the things they had determined were needed for the trip into the past.
Manami, who had come straight from her home, was startled beyond measure by what she first saw.
"Eek! Madoka-san, did you really have to get your hair cut short?"
"Well, your brother did say our younger selves mustn't recognize who we are," she said, shaking her head, making the layered bob cut swish to and fro.
"But is that 80s style?"
"I hope so. What about you, Manami?"
"I was just going to put in colored contacts and wear a head scarf," she admitted. "Nothing as extreme as you." Manami had on a checkered white sweater, red jeans and a pair of old-style laced rubber shoes.
"If you think this is extreme, you haven't seen Kyousuke yet." Madoka jerked a thumb in the general direction of the stairs.
"Hiya, Manami!" Kurumi came into the room, dressed in an old-style green blouse and loose cream-colored pants. Her hair was dyed black and made up into a short ponytail. "All set?"
There was a thumping, clumping sound on the stairs, and Kyousuke Kasuga struggled down them with an overloaded backpack and an equally heavy haversack.
"Onii-chan!" exclaimed Manami. "Is that really you?"
Her brother had doused himself with tanning lotion and adorned his head with a buzz cut. He was dressed in a dark yellow t-shirt with torn sleeves and loose black pants, which were bloused into the boots he wore.
"You guys are really serious about this," she remarked as Kyousuke reached the bottom of the stairs.
"You bet," said Kyousuke. Madoka went to help him, easily slinging the backpack onto her shoulder, eyeing him significantly. "Showoff," he grumbled.
"Okay, final check." They went through their checklists and, when they were satisfied everything was in order, hefted their luggage.
Kazuya, who had been watching them, shook his head. "You guys are a sight for sore eyes."
"Bye-bye, Kazu-chan," said Kurumi sweetly. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do, okay?"
"Likewise," Kazuya grumbled, still ticked off at losing the chance to have Emi all to himself later that day.
"Are you sure Ojii-chan will lend us the money?" Manami asked.
"I'm sure of that," said Kyousuke. "I've got a secret weapon with me."
"And if all else fails," piped up Kurumi, "I know where my piggy bank is hidden."
"Well, you won't be staying long, so that's not such a problem. Is everyone ready?"
They all nodded.
"Well, this is it. See you around, Pop, Kazuya."
"Good luck, all of you," said Takashi.
The four linked hands. Although Kyousuke was the only one with the ability to travel through time, he needed his sisters' power to assist him in transporting the four of them.
There was a humming sound in the air, and the four figures standing in the center of the living room began to glow with a bright blue light. Slowly it grew brighter and brighter, until Takashi and Kazuya could no longer see any of them. Then there was a sound like a thunderclap. The blue light vanished, and the four were gone.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Tokyo, in 1984, two figures materialized in a small playground situated on the top landing of a long flight of stone stairs. The stairs skirted a hill with a road on top of it, and hydrangeas were in bloom beyond its railings, their light blue flowers a sharp contrast to their dark green leaves.
Something in the air made Kyousuke shiver. He set down his haversack. "This is it. I can feel it. The beginning of the eternal summer of my life…"
Madoka looked at him curiously, puzzled at his outburst, then asked a more prosaic question. "Are you sure you got the day right?"
"Now that is one thing I'll never forget. Uh… but I'm not so sure about the time."
"Well, you'd better bring out the cloak your ojii-san lent us while we wait," Madoka said. "He's such a sweet old man," she added, remembering their visit to his home.
"Lecherous is more like it," mumbled Kyousuke under his breath. He had caught his grandfather ogling her time and again, and this wasn't the first time it had happened either.
He dug around in his sack, bringing out a large white piece of cloth with a beautiful shimmering sheen and an embroidered pattern of cranes and ginko leaves. The family crest of the Kasuga clan was sewn onto the back.
"I hope this thing really works," he said. "Let's give it a test." He threw it around his shoulders and tied the drawstring. The moment he finished, he vanished from Madoka's sight.
"It works," Madoka informed him. She smiled. "I'm glad neither of us has a criminal bent. We could make a killing using this."
Kyousuke reappeared as he untied the drawstring. "Yeah. I guess that's why Ojii-chan insisted on us returning it as soon as we were finished."
"Where am I supposed to hide?"
"I guess you could snuggle in here," he said, throwing the cloak open. "It's big enough."
"Do you think Manami and Kurumi will be alright?"
"Knowing those two, I'm sure they're taking care of themselves." Kyousuke fell silent as a strong wind blew on them. "I can't believe we're here," he said, staring out at the scenery.
"That's strange, coming from you," Madoka remarked, coming to stand beside him, also looking out at her hometown. She never thought she'd see it again looking as it did now. "Haven't you done this before?"
"Almost never. Time travel is a delicate thing." Madoka prodded him, but he refused to explain any further.
Looking around, she happened to look down the road behind them. "Hey, Kyousuke, there's someone coming this way."
It was a businessman, and as he plodded down the staircase, they reappeared on the landing, watching him make his sedate way down.
"False alarm," sang Madoka as she folded the cloak. "At least we know for sure this thing works."
"I could still see you even though we had it on," said Kyousuke.
"Same here. Maybe that's the way it really is for those using it. That man didn't seem to notice us."
Several minutes passed before the anticipated young lady came running down the road, chasing her windblown hat. Her slender legs flashed in the sunlight; her shining black hair flowed out behind her.
"Is that me?" Madoka asked in wonder. All of a sudden, as she looked at her younger self, she recalled listening to David Lanz's A Childhood Remembered and decided that what she was feeling then was what the album was all about.
A bright red object sailed high in the air.
That hat… she thought. Isn't it the one on the wall at home?
As the scene played out before them, with her younger self meeting and talking to a lad her age wearing a yellow sweater with light-blue long sleeves and blue jeans, Madoka felt somehow detached, as if it were a tableau and she and her husband were the audience.
"Nice catch!" called the younger Madoka. "The wind took it from me. I'm glad. I thought it had gone all the way to the bottom."
Madoka wanted to laugh at the sight of the young man. He was clearly smitten with the pretty stranger in the red floral-patterned shirt and white shorts. Is that my Kyousuke? He looks quite handsome, in an average, nondescript sort of way. She giggled at the thought.
"It would've been a real hassle since this stairway is so long…" her younger self remarked, going down the steps to stand beside the young man.
"Yeah… it really is," he said.
"After all," she continued, "it's got ninety-nine steps."
"Really?" The young Kyousuke started going up. "Ninety-eight, ninety-nine… one hundred!"
The pair looked at each other.
"No way! There should be only ninety-nine!" the young Madoka exclaimed.
"But… I counted exactly from the bottom," Kyousuke countered.
"That can't be right!"
"Maybe you counted wrong?" suggested Kyousuke, smiling sheepishly.
"Speak for yourself! Isn't it you who miscounted?"
"Oh no. There were exactly one hundred."
"Ninety-nine!" shouted Madoka.
"One hundred!" shouted Kyousuke.
Kyousuke paused a moment. "Well then, how about this? Let's get the average and say there are ninety-nine and a half steps!"
Ayukawa looked at him in surprise, then laughed out loud.
"What does it matter, anyway?" she asked. Kyousuke agreed with her.
"You're not from this town, are you?"
"Eh? How do you know?"
"You've got an accent."
"Really?" asked an embarrassed Kyousuke.
Madoka grasped the railing and turned away from him. "I have to go. See you!"
"Bye!" Kyousuke watched her go, hands behind his head. "Oh, wait! Your hat!"
"Eh? Keep it, it's yours! For some reason it looks good on you."
As his teenage alter ego stood there, watching the pretty stranger disappear round the corner of the staircase, the older Kyousuke whispered to Madoka. "I know what he's thinking. I think I'm going to like this town." Then the young man happily ran away, making zooming airplane noises, the red straw hat planted firmly on his head.
After he had gone from view, they unfastened the cloak and popped back into the real world near the top of the stairs, under the shade of a tree.
"So that's how we first met, huh?" Madoka asked."I just want to ask one thing."
"What's that?" Kyousuke asked, hugging her to him. There was a wide gap of time between their two young selves and themselves, but he suddenly didn't seem to mind growing older while taking the journey across it, not with Madoka by his side, amnesia or no amnesia.
"Are there ninety-nine or one hundred steps?"
He laughed. "Well, we can find out." Going to the stairs with her on his arm, he began counting. "One, two, three…"
For those who were left behind, three days passed. The house seemed oddly quiet, and Akane and Takashi spent most of their time taking care of Naoe, who seemed put out that her parents were gone again.
"You have to understand, Naoe-chan," said Akane on the second cloudy afternoon. "What they're doing is very important to them."
"But I want them here," Naoe complained with the righteous obstinancy of childhood, which knew itself to be correct and demanded immediate justice.
"They can't come now. If you force them to, they'll become very unhappy."
"But I'm unhappy now!" And she started to cry.
Takashi lifted her up. "Hey, don't cry, dear girl. We're here with you, aren't we? Does this mean you don't want us around anymore? Don't you love us too?"
Naoe nodded her head. "I do, but I miss Papa and Mama."
"Well, since they're not here, you will have to help us run the house," said Takashi. "Can you help us? Good. Now, I want you to keep an eye on your Uncle Kazuya. He's bringing his friends over here again, and he might start fighting with them. Could you watch them for us?" Kazuya had limited himself to a kiss or two with Emi and Miyuki, but his elders had decided to help him out by denying him opportunities to do more than that.
"Good girl." Takashi gave her a kiss and set her on the floor. "Now wipe your tears and blow your nose."
After the little girl left in search of her Uncle Kazuya, Akane chuckled. "Uncle, you are one slick operator sometimes."
Takashi smiled faintly. "Comes with raising three espers singlehandedly, I guess."
On the fourth day, the group reappeared in the living room in the early afternoon, looking quite different from when they had left. Their moods when they returned were also quite different: Manami and Kurumi were equally joyful, while Madoka and Kyousuke were quiet and contemplative.
"Gosh, I'd forgotten how cute Ishinori was back then," Manami gushed. She was wearing a green yukata with a white bamboo pattern that she had gotten as a souvenir of the trip.
"Yeah," agreed Kurumi. She looked like a hippie, with pink t-shirt, faded jeans, sandals, headband, and little John Lennon-style half-moon glasses. "We could have been arrested as cradle-snatchers." Both women laughed at the thought.
Takashi, who was sitting at the sofa reading a newspaper, arched an eyebrow. "I take it you had fun?"
"Yeah!" they chorused.
"Welcome back!" said Kazuya, appearing in the dining room hallway with Naoe in tow. "You're just in time to sample my culinary experiment, which is cooling on the dining room table." Akane was at work, so it had fallen on to his shoulders to be cook for the day.
Kurumi's face lit up. "Oh, boy! Food!" The twins disappeared into the dining room, while Naoe ran to her parents and was lifted up by her mother.
"Hello, my girl," said Madoka, kissing her cheek. "We're back, but I'm sorry we won't be staying long."
"We're leaving again in the morning," Kyousuke said in reply to his father's questioning look.
"How far have you gone?"
"Early 1987." The walk down memory lane was taking much less time than Kyousuke had previously estimated.
"Mama, can't you take me with you?" Naoe pleaded.
"I'm sorry, Naoe, we can't. I promise next time we will, though." Unappeased by her mother's vow, the little girl began to cry, and Madoka had to take her away to soothe her.
Kyousuke dug into his haversack and brought a periodical out. "Here, Kazuya. A present from the past." He tossed it to his cousin.
"Aw, Kyousuke-niichan!" exclaimed Kazuya in dismay. "Are you trying to torture me or something?" He held up the H-magazine. "Besides, I don't like it, they're all too eighty-ish—"
"Well, if you don't like it…"
"—but I could be persuaded to change my mind."
As Kazuya left to peruse his prize, Takashi spoke. "How is your trip coming along, Kyousuke?"
"As well as can be expected. Everything's new to her, and even I get surprised sometimes learning how my recollections were wrong. I never thought I could dislike my indecisive self so much." He told his father of how, after watching his younger self shilly-shally yet again over another matter concerning Hikaru and Madoka, he had so dearly wanted to grab his neck and wring it, only to be prevented by his wife's painful pinch.
There was a yell from the dining room, and Kurumi came speeding out.
"Ah! Hot! Hot! Where's that Kazuya?" She fanned her mouth with a hand. Eyes narrowing, she stomped down the corridor leading to the ground-level bedrooms. "Kazuyaaaa! Have a taste of your own cooking, why dontcha!"
Takashi smiled and Kyousuke laughed. "And has she recovered her memory?"
"Some of it. She now remembers a little about me." For which I'm glad, he added silently. "But you know something, pop? Her amnesia somehow bothers me much less now."
"Why is that?"
Kyousuke shrugged, pretending ignorance but actually too embarrassed to reveal the truth. She was right, he reflected. Madoka is Madoka, and even though she's lost her memory, you can still see its imprint in the way she acts, the way she feels, and even the way she talks.
He pictured her trying to comfort their daughter, the product of their love for each other, then juxtaposed the image with the cigarette-smoking, pick-throwing, face-slapping girl he had known back in high school. He smiled inside. So much has changed about her, yet she's still so much like her former self, I have the sneaking suspicion I'm falling in love with her all over again.
They left early in the morning, just the two of them, careful to not wake Naoe, who spent the night in their room, asleep in their bed. This time, Kyousuke did not need Manami and Kurumi's added psychic strength, and only Takashi saw them off. They had repacked their bags, finding out that much of what they thought they had needed was actually unnecessary.
The world rematerialized around them, and Kyousuke immediately sensed that his power had misfired. They were in a hallway, and they quickly recognized it.
Madoka was the first to speak. "Anata, what are we doing in my—"
A shuffling sound to their right caught their attention, and they looked that way to see a Madoka older than the ones they had previously seen, but still in her teens, walking slowly down the corridor leading to the front door, back turned towards them. She was wearing a blue kimono decorated with white flowers, a red obi, and was barefoot.
They quickly ducked behind a cabinet containing dishes and glassware. "What's she doing?" 35-year-old Madoka whispered. "Why is she dressed like that? Just what time did you bring us to anyway?"
A cold feeling settled in the pit of Kyousuke's stomach. Looking at his wife's younger double, he instantly knew what time he had brought them to.
"Ah, this isn't where I intended to bring us. Come on, let's go." He grabbed hold of his wife's elbow and made to leave. Outside, there was the sound of fireworks going off in the distance.
Suddenly the hallway light began to go on and off, on and off. Puzzled, they both peeked around the corner and saw the teenaged Madoka standing by the light switch, a blank stare on her face, flicking the control on and off, on and off.
"Kyousuke, what's she doing? Has she gone crazy? Did I go crazy?"
Without a word he pulled Madoka roughly away from the cabinet. Taken aback at his rudeness, her eyebrows furrowed.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"I don't think you want to see any of this," he slowly stated, a serious look on his face, the cold feeling within him spreading.
Kyousuke's wife shook her hand free from his grasp and gave him an angry look. She peeped around the cabinet and watched in troubled fascination as her younger self kept flicking the light on and off, on and off.
There was the sound of a door opening, and the young Madoka stopped playing with the light switch and walked forward, disappearing around the corner connecting her house's living room with the corridor leading to the front door.
The elder Madoka sighed. She felt like one big Peeping Tom, but she just had to know what happened next. Yanking Kyousuke beside her, she quickly threw the cloak over them, tied it shut, and walked quietly towards the corner.
They reached it in time to see the 17-year-old Kyousuke Kasuga put his hands on his 18-year-old love's shoulders. He leaned forward to kiss her, but she turned her face away and rested her head on his shoulder instead.
"Um… about Hikaru…" he said quietly, embracing her.
"It's not so much about Hikaru, as it is about your true feelings," she responded.
It was only then that the married Madoka realized her Kyousuke was shivering.
"Anata…" she began, then had to stop as they made way for the younger couple, who headed into the living room. When they were safely past, she tried again. "Kyousuke…"
"I don't want to be here…" he whispered, hands clenched. "I don't want to be here."
"Let's go, then," she said. "I think I've seen enough." She thought she knew what was about to happen.
They quietly walked towards the front door and removed the cloak. Kyousuke sighed, held Madoka's hands, and speedily got them out of that place of sadness.
The younger esper, who was leading his chosen love to the sofa, saw a flash from the corridor they had just come from. He looked back for a moment, realized it was from the fireworks outside, and turned his attention back to Ayukawa.
The world formed around them again, and Kyousuke Kasuga had the sinking sensation he knew where they were: on top of the hill near his house, with the inclined roadway just below and in front of them leading down to it. It was nighttime.
"Where are we now?"
"You can tell that as well as I can," snapped Kyousuke.
"Hey, I don't know where we are," Madoka said, surprised at his temper. "Why–"
"Let me go!" came a familiar voice through the night air, interrupting them. "Let me go!" it repeated, louder, more angry.
"Hanasenai! Hanasenai!" answered another voice. "I won't let you go! I won't let you go!"
Kyousuke felt a feeling of dread crawl up his skin. His hand gripped Madoka's convulsively. "Hikaru," he whispered.
They looked down to see two figures struggling on the road. Blond-haired Hikaru Hiyama, Madoka's childhood friend, was gripping her sempai's brown polo shirt, trying to hold on to him, while he tried to push himself free.
"I won't let you go!" she cried. "'Cause if I do, you'll leave me behind! You'll go away and leave me behind!"
The older Kyousuke closed his eyes.
"I can't just give up on you!"
The younger Kasuga grimaced and finally freed himself from Hikaru's grasp, pushing her away.
Madoka stared down at them. Her head throbbed; memories were pouring into it, nearly overwhelming her. She swayed, but did not fall, unwillingly riveted to where she was by the scene playing its bitter self out before her.
"Don't you like me at all anymore?" she heard Hikaru ask, her voice punctuated by heartbreaking sobs. She could measure how much her friend loved Kyousuke by the depth of the despair she heard in her voice. "What was I to you anyway?"
The young Kyousuke, not replying, abruptly turned around. Hikaru stood rooted to the spot, watching him as he began to walk away.
"Answer me!" Her yell echoed in the night air.
It also echoed in the couple's hearts, and split each in two once again. Madoka finally saw with her own two eyes the price Hikaru had paid so she could have Kyousuke; Kyousuke watched the waking nightmare of how he had hurt her, even though he loved her second only to Ayukawa.
Madoka, alone with her thoughts, watched as her husband's young doppelganger disappeared up the road. For a long time Hikaru stood there, unmoving, crying, the tears running down her face forming a dark smudge on the concrete. Then she turned and headed in the opposite direction. It was all Madoka could do to stop herself from running down to her and telling her everything would be all right, in the end, that she would soon find her way back to Kyousuke and herself, even if things could not be the same as they were before.
When Madoka glanced at her husband, she found him silently looking down at the figure walking by herself down the dark, lonely, lamplit road, his eyes glistening. His trembling hand reached out, as if to hold her in it, as if to stop her from walking away.
"Hikaru," she heard him whisper. "I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
Madoka realized he had been fearing this moment ever since they had appeared in her hallway. He hadn't meant to bring them here, but his power had somehow acted according to its own devices and brought them to this painful, desolate island of time.
"This is how it ended, isn't it?" she asked quietly, even though she already knew the answer. She walked up to him and embraced him tightly, resting her head on his chest. At that moment she felt she needed him as much as he probably needed her.
"Yes," he croaked. Something sailed through the air towards him, and he caught it in his hand. It was a poster for a play named 'Downtown Cats.'
"This was how our triangle ended." Something warm splashed onto her forearm, and Madoka added to it with one of her own. "This was when our childhood ended."
The very same day they left they returned, in the late afternoon, and Akane, Kazuya, Kurumi, and Manami were surprised to see them.
"Onii-chan, I thought you said you'd be away at least until tomorrow," said Manami, laying her cards down. They had been playing bridge, and exercising their psychic defense against mind readers like Kazuya.
Kyousuke's distraught expression silenced them. He dumped his haversack on the floor and went straight upstairs.
"Did something happen, Madoka-chan?" Akane asked.
Madoka looked up to where her husband had disappeared, then looked back at them. She shrugged, a helpless expression in her eyes, and followed him up the stairs.
"I think I know what happened," Manami said. "1987…" She locked eyes with Kurumi, who was thinking the same thing.
"Hikaru," they both said to each other.
"Poor Kyousuke-niichan," said Kazuya. He had seen his cousin then. Kyousuke was never quite the same after that time.
"Poor Hikaru-chan," said Kurumi.
"Poor Madoka-san," said Manami.
"But that was so long ago, wasn't it?" asked Akane in disbelief.
Manami shrugged her shoulders and gestured with her head towards the stairs. "Not for him, it wasn't."
Next day, Naoe looked out the living room window at the heavily-clad figure sitting on the stone bench on their front lawn. It had snowed unusually hard the previous day, and a decent layer of it covered everything outside.
"Mama, why is Papa out there?"
Madoka came over to the window and placed a hand on her head.
"Papa is sad, Naoe, and he doesn't want us to see, so he's being sad by himself."
"Why doesn't he want us to see?"
"Because he's afraid we'll become sad too."
The child put a finger to her lips and thought. "But it's Christmastime," she said. "Nobody should be sad now."
Madoka stroked her daughter's hair. She had tried to talk to him yesterday, but he had shut himself off from her, going into a fitful sleep to avoid her attention. She had needed him then, but she had not begrudged him his solitude. She could always turn to Manami and the others for a ready ear and ready advice, but he was a man and could never express himself in such an intimate way to any of them.
"Being sad, Naoe, knows no time or season." She smiled gently at her daughter. "Maybe your Papa will become happier if you go tell him he shouldn't be sad today."
Naoe nodded. "Okay, Mama." Her mother helped her put on her jacket and hood, her leggings and the little pink boots she loved so much, and she tramped out the door and into the snow.
Madoka watched through the window as the little figure walked up to her daddy and tapped him on the back. He turned and greeted her, then lifted her out of the snow, to place her on his lap. She pointed to the house.
"Does he know? That you remember everything already?"
Madoka turned to see Takashi standing beside her, his pipe in his hand, watching the same scene.
"No, I haven't had the chance to tell him yet."
He pointed with his pipe at his son and granddaughter. "He still grieves, after all this time. Madoka, I'm surprised you aren't upset at him for still feeling this way about Hikaru."
"No, I understand what he's going through. She was my friend too. But I wasn't the one who had to go and break her heart."
They watched as Kyousuke slowly got off the bench and, carrying Naoe, walked back up to the front door. It opened to admit the two of them.
"Mama," announced Naoe as they entered, "Papa said he's not going to be sad any more. But he misses Auntie Hikaru."
"Naoe! I told you not to say that!"
The child giggled at her father, happy he wasn't gloomy anymore.
Kurumi called them to the dining room to eat. Setting his daughter down, Kyousuke told her to go on ahead. She left following her Grandpa Takashi.
As he shed his jacket, Madoka asked, "Is it true? You miss her?"
"Yeah." He hung his jacket on the wall rack in the genkan. "We haven't seen her in a long time. It'd be nice to have her here for Christmas."
"Well, your wish has been granted. She's coming over tomorrow."
"Oh? How do you know that?"
"She called a while ago. She's coming all the way from Otaru just to visit us."
"That's great!" So saying, Kyousuke kissed Madoka. "You are a bearer of good tidings and Christmas cheer." He ruffled her short black hair. "Uh-oh. I wonder how we're going to explain to her why we look like this."
She took his hand and returned it to his side. "Not so fast, dear husband. Why are you so happy? You know, I haven't told you whether I've decided to stay or not."
He paused, not knowing if her capricious personality had gone and changed the decision he assumed she had made about not leaving him. "I'm aware of that."
"Do you want to know my answer?"
Kyousuke raised his eyebrows.
"I'm staying. And I've also got an early Christmas present for you."
Kyousuke took her in his arms and kissed her by way of thanks. "What is it?"
Madoka stood on tiptoe and whispered the answer in his ear. Kyousuke's eyes widened.
"Wonderful!" he exclaimed. "When—"
"Back when we were watching you and Hikaru. Everything came back to me then."
"Well," Kyousuke said pensively, "at least one good thing came out of it." He suddenly bent and lifted Madoka up in his arms, twirling around carrying her, both of them laughing. She noticed on the wall beside the old red straw hat a framed calligraphic print, one she had given him early in their marriage, when they were still young, and the world seemed so bright in the late spring of their lives:
Covered with flowers,
Instantly I'd like to die
In this dream of ours!
When Kyousuke had stopped, Madoka spoke. "Hey, you shouldn't be so sad. We all made up later, don't you remember?"
"Yeah. But that doesn't make the memory any less painful." He smiled. "But at least I still have both of you in my life. And you know something else?"
"I'm glad you have your memory back, because it means I have the two Madokas with me now."
Kyousuke nodded happily at her. "Yeah. The one before the accident, and the one after. You see, I've discovered I love them both equally."
Madoka smiled and kissed him. His heart, which she had wanted for so long, was once again hers. And her heart, after its long, lonely voyage through the uncharted waters of memory, could once more rest safely with him.
"Hey, you lovebirds," Kazuya's sardonic voice called out from behind Kyousuke. "Are you coming or what? We can't start eating because of you, and I'm starving."