AN: I got inspired to do my revisions tonight instead of waiting (thanks for the review, NFO), and I finished the final part of the series, which I present to you without further ado…
All scholarly pursuits are futile.
Yoriko leans toward him and pulls away, the oars trailing after her in the dark water. He sits before her on the wooden bench, able neither to help nor hinder, his body half-dead with shock. Even if he had the strength, he wouldn't know which to do.
He looks up into her eyes doubtfully. They're liquid like the river he remembers from his childhood. The red from before is gone, or at the very least, he can't see it anymore. Barring some dirt and scratches and the loss of her glasses, she looks the exactly the same, biting her lower lip as if she's still sitting before him in the lecture hall, taking in a difficult point.
"Professor, the exam last week—you never gave it back to us." His whole body moves backward in surprise, as though he might open his eyes suddenly to have this vision dispelled and find himself still sitting in a classroom in Tokyo. He blinks a few times, looking desperately about him for that half-remembered life, but it does not return to him. He can barely remember giving an exam, let alone why it could possibly matter to her now.
"I wanted to know—what the answer was—to question number seven. The one about the other world; whether it was heaven or hell." Her eyes give way suddenly, and he can see the fear in them for the first time. He wonders how it is that he hasn't noticed it till now. Her hands still on the oars and then release them entirely as she leans forward, hugging herself in the silence, waiting for an answer.
"It was an essay question, Yoriko," he rasps, finding it difficult to speak, "there was no right answer." His hands grip his journal uselessly. "There's so much evidence on both sides—even the believers themselves didn't know."
"But what do you think? Where are we going?" Her voice trembles as she asks the question, looking worriedly over his shoulder. With the appearance of two trees looming on either side of the boat, the fruit of it blooming bright red around them, he finally understands why. He notices suddenly that though Yoriko no longer has her hands on the oars, they are drifting forward, the currents of the opposite shore strong and close.
He does not turn around. He ignores the long, alien blossoms and the dark current, less curious about these things than he has ever been. Instead, he feels himself stumbling forward clumsily, kneeling before Yoriko as he did with his parents.
With a splash, his forgotten leather notebook slides off his lap and into the water.
"Professor, your journal!" Yoriko turns breathlessly toward the river, putting her hands on his shoulders as if to stand. He lays his hands atop hers and stops her.
"That doesn't matter anymore," they watch the book together as grows dark with moisture, floating away, "I can't read it, and it doesn't have the answers that we need." Despite his reassuring words, he feels the sudden loss of the book like a physical pain. All of his work—all of his father's—
He thinks of his father's handwriting; his father's cramped hands pressing pen against paper and then dropping both to lift him into the air. With nothing to hold onto, his own empty hands clutch Yoriko's shoulders first, and then, shaking, pull her against his body. The boat dips and sways with his movement, and the feeling of floating is unbearable. He holds onto her for support, queasy and breathless. "I think—maybe we all had it wrong. Heaven and hell are our ideas—just signs for something we can't imagine. I think where we're going—is someplace else."
He can feel her tense against his body as he begins to hear the sound of waves crashing against the shore. Perhaps the words aren't what she is wishing for, but he can't bring himself to lie to her now, when they are like this. Neither of them look to where they're going, and he has no words left to comfort her. A vision of his parents flashes across his memory like a painful spasm, and he feels himself gritting his teeth, bracing for some terrible, instantaneous impact.
But the waves continue to sound, gentler and gentler, and he feels himself uncoiling, looking down at the broken pencil in the pocket of Yoriko's sweater, moving his hand through the thick hair that falls against her shoulders. He flushes with heat that is part shame and part sadness, his mind preoccupied with physical sensation, forgetting that anything else exists.
She turns her face upward, her mouth brushing gently against his stubbled cheek. The sudden touch tickles him softly, then sears him unexpectedly. He looks down at her, reddening in surprise, but she has already lowered her gaze.
"Yoriko," he can hardly believe the sound of his own voice, the soft tones cracking in his parched throat. He means to ask—he means to find out what she meant by—
His fingertips draw her very close to him, and he can feel the remains of her broken glasses crunch helplessly between them in the pocket of his coat. The sound brings him back to himself and he hesitates, wondering for a moment what he thinks he is doing. But their closeness is a kind of spell that quickly makes him forget. Yoriko presses her cheek against his chest and he feels who he is slipping away from him, like the tide drawing away from the shore. Forgetting himself and then remembering again, he drops his dry lips to hers indecisively, offering, asking—
His lips tremble against hers; he feels as though he is drinking for the first time in days: he is so afraid to take too much. His hands are restless on her back, holding her hips and trying to be gentle as he tilts his head toward hers again. He feels her hands taking hold of his jacket as though they are his own hands; he can't tell what he is doing with his hands, though he means to touch her.
Her body is hot like sand—
He lifts his face from the sand and tries to breathe, but another wave crashes over him and he chokes on the water, salt and sand. He lifts himself up on his hands and knees, and in a moment, he is crawling toward the foggy shore, naked and cold.
He finds his legs slowly, painfully, as though he has not used them in many years. He looks down the dim coastline which stretches endlessly into the distance, feeling bereft, though he is uncertain why.
He understands when he sees her, far away, but moving, like him, toward the shore.