"So – how exactly are we supposed to get home?" Ryoutarou said, about a second before Ryoko said the same thing. She closed her mouth and instead looked around at everyone else, not even bothering to pretend not to stare. It wasn't like anyone would notice; they were all too busy staring at each other.
They were assembled right in front of Milk Dipper's smashed-up door. She still wasn't sure how the Imagin had been able to leave the train – one of the Owners had said something vague about this being because they were between worlds at the moment, but had refused to explain it any further than that.
The Imagin – she decided to think of them as the –kos and the –taroses, just for simplicity's sake – had freaked out at each other, but then seemed to hit it off splendidly. The two Kins were having a wrestling match that might've been obscene if it hadn't been them; the Ryuus were cheering them on, and the Uras were attempting to flirt with each other and not doing a very good job. Momotaros and Momoko were sitting and glaring at each other, which for them probably meant they were best friends forever now.
As for her and Ryoutarou, they were standing next to each other, not quite touching but close to it – she was glad nobody pointed it out, because she didn't know if she could've explained why. She just felt a need to be close to him, maybe because he was her, sort of. Or…something like that, anyway.
"Yeah," Yuuto grumbled, "I'd kind of like to know that too."
He and Yuuko were standing by them, but they were pointedly not looking at each other; not since his Deneb had pointed at them and cheerfully said, "You could be twins, Yuuto!"
(They'd stared at each other, and then said, in perfect unison, "We look nothing alike!". Ryoko had died a little on the inside, but nobody had been brave enough to say anything to them yet.)
"I think I understand it," Hana said. Like everyone else, she was also with her counterpart; she and Haru had been conferring in quiet voices for the past few minutes, and now he spoke up, too.
"We're in both worlds at once," he said, "only not. This is kind of…the point where they overlap, and we're in the space between them." He saw their blank faces and scowled, spreading his hands hopelessly. "Look, I don't know how to explain it any better than that. We're just here, okay?"
Everyone glanced at Hana, in case she could interpret this any better, but she just shrugged.
"What I want to know, though," she said, "is what happened? That was an Imagin, wasn't it? How did it do this? And how do we fix it again?"
Yuuto cleared his throat, very awkwardly, and glowered as their attention focused on him. (And now that he was standing near Haru, the resemblance was almost too much to bear; Ryoko had the sense that she was missing something important here, but she couldn't figure out what. She filed it away to ask Haru about later, if she could work up the courage.)
"About that," he said. "When I was at the Station, I did get Station Master to tell me a couple of things –"
"I would love to know how you managed that," Urataros drawled. Yuuto looked horribly uncomfortable, as thought traumatic memories were passing unbidden through his brain, and he shook his head as though to dislodge them.
"You don't," he said shortly. "You really, really don't. Anyway –" He shrugged, hands in his pockets. "He said it was an Imagin, one that could reach through dimensions. It was being controlled…"
He glanced over at Ryoutarou, very briefly, looking suddenly uncertain. Ryoko was aware of Ryoutarou tensing up beside her, but Yuuto continued on then, and the moment was lost.
"By someone," he said firmly. Ryoko blinked. Did he mean that weird girl in the black scarf? The hesitation made her wonder if he knew who it was, but that couldn't be – Yuuko had never mentioned that someone might be controlling the Imagin, only that she'd been summoned from the past to fight them, and Yuuko wouldn't lie to her. She'd told her about the cards, hadn't she, and what could she have to hide that was worse than that?
"I still don't get it," Momotaros complained. "That must've been the stupidest ever way to try to kill us. Why didn't it just show up and face us like a man?"
"Because men are stupid," Momoko said. Momotaros said something unintelligable at her, which got them started on a swearing match; it took another minute to calm them down, by which point Yuuto had started talking again.
"I left after he said that – the thing about someone controlling it," he said, and once again, Ryoko had the feeling that there was something he wasn't telling them. She glanced up at Yuuko, but for some reason, Yuuko didn't seem to want to look her in the eye. "And that's all he told me. I guess there's some way for us to get back to our dimensions, but I don't know how."
There was a long, tense silence, broken only by Ryuutaros' humming. Everyone was avoiding looking at each other, and Ryoko wondered if they even could get back. Maybe they'd be stuck here forever, in this weird space between worlds – maybe she really would never get to see her brother again, or have a moment to herself without the Imagin, or even –
"I'm going to die a virgin," Ryoutarou muttered, apparently thinking along the same lines. Ryoko stared at him, but she seemed to be the only one who'd heard.
The only ones who didn't look at all concerned – save for the Ryuus, who were just plain not paying attention – were the two Owners, who were standing together and apparently having a contest to see who could stare the most penetratingly at each other. They broke it off, though, and turned in complete unison to look at the rest of them.
"It shouldn't be much longer," one of them said, as the other nodded and folded his hands across his cane. Ryoko was just wondering what that was supposed to mean when suddenly –
"Hello," said a voice, from directly behind her. It was a voice that was becoming increasingly familiar. "I see you managed to kill it after all. Congratulations."
She turned around slowly. The guy behind her waved and held up his camera, as if in greeting.
That wasn't what surprised her, though. She'd figured he'd show up sooner or later, to gloat over them if nothing else – no, it was the other boy that really gave her a shock.
"You!" she spluttered. The boy gave her a polite nod, although he was grinning too much for it to really look sincere. He was also holding a covered basket, but she didn't really register it at first. "You were at the station! You're the one who told me where to find Station Master –"
"—yes, after Tsukasa pulled you through the crowd," he said, giving the other boy a disapproving look. Tsukasa looked entirely unrepentant. "I told him afterwards that he could've just told you where to go, but no, he always has to do things his way…"
"Well, she got there in the end, that's what matters," Tsukasa said crossly. "Of course, she shouldn't have been there in the first place –"
He sent the Owners an evil look. They just stared back impassively, until he became uncomfortable and looked away again.
"Miss Nougami is a passenger," said the one on the left. The one on the right nodded and added, "And the Den-Liner will always deliver its passengers wherever they need to go."
Tsukasa rolled his eyes. "Whatever," he said. "At least the Station Master knew enough to send her off again. But I suppose I shouldn't expect you to understand; all you do is run the train –"
For a moment, Ryoko thought Owner might lose his temper, and then there would be a horribly bloody mess, times two. Hana must have sensed it too, because she immediately cut in with, "What do you mean, we shouldn't have been at the station?"
"Not we," Tsukasa sneered. "Just her. I had them almost lined up, and then what do you do, you drag her off into the fourth dimension and ruin it so that I have to start all over again –"
"Tsukasa," the other boy said sharply, and Tsukasa broke off, although he still looked pouty. The boy sighed and shook his head.
"Let's start over," he said. "Hi! I'm Kaitou Daiki. This is my associate –"
"—acquaintance," Tsukasa muttered darkly. Daiki ignored him.
"—well, anyway, this is Kadoya Tsukasa." Daiki beamed around at them all. "And he has something he wants to say to you."
There was a long pause. Tsukasa stared down his nose at them all.
"You're welcome," he said flatly. Daiki sighed and pulled him aside.
Ryoko and Ryoutarou stared at each other, and then back at Tsukasa and Daiki, who were having an angry, whispered conference (mostly Tsukasa seemed to be protesting that he had saved their lives, they should be thanking him, and why the hell was he listening to Kaitou anyway, and something about a bossy grapefruit, whatever that meant). Behind them, the Imagin were grumbling and the humans were trying to talk over them, but Ryoko had long since learned to tell the difference between important information and just complaining, and she tuned them out.
By this point, the two guys had turned back to them. Tsukasa's arms were folded across his chest, which looked uncomfortable with the camera, and Daiki looked irritated.
"Well, Tsukasa's sorry for being such a dickhead," he said. Tsukasa snorted, but Daiki pointedly ignored him. "And he would like you to have these as a peace offering."
He handed his basket to Ryoutarou, who stared at it as though he were afraid something might leap out of it and attack his face. Ryoko, feeling that this was likely, took a step back. Daiki seemed to be waiting though, so Ryoutarou took a corner of the covering and, very carefully, lifted it.
Instead of a vicious beast, there was the scent of delicious, fresh-baked muffins. Ryoutarou looked more shocked and traumatized than if it had really been something dangerous; frankly, Ryoko didn't blame him.
("Muffins?!" Momotaros shouted in disbelief. "What is with the muffins?!"
"I know a joke about muffins!" Ryuuko said brightly. "So these two muffins are in an oven, and one turns to the other and says 'hey is it hot in here, or is it just me', and the other one –"
"Muffins!" Momotaros screeched, throwing his hands up in the air. Ryuuko threw a crayon at him.)
"I baked them myself," Daiki pointed out. "Consider it my apology for Tsukasa's stupidity."
He sounded pleasant enough, and so far he'd been friendly, but for some reason Ryoko was hesitant to trust him. There was something sharp in his smile, and it didn't quite reach his eyes; and his arm shot out quick as lightning to slap Tsukasa's hand away from the basket.
"What?" Tsukasa demanded. Daiki didn't even look at him.
"You don't get a muffin," he told him. "That's your punishment for being a dickhead. Now, are you going to do what you came here to do, or not?"
Tsukasa glared at him, but he sighed and straightened up anyway. "Okay," he said to the two of them, "so, I'm not actually required to send you back to your proper dimensions, but I do so hate leaving loose ends, so if you'll all line up –"
"Wait," Momotaros interrupted. At some point he and Momoko had come up behind them; Ryoko could feel Momoko hovering protectively behind her, and it was an oddly comforting sensation. "Wait, so you're not even going to tell us what happened? You fucking –"
"People who swear don't get muffins, either," Tsukasa said – and amazingly, Momotaros shut up. "Oh, fine, if you must know…"
His arm swung out dramatically, pointing at Ryoutarou in such an exaggerated pose that for a second, Ryoko was certain he wasn't serious. Then he opened his mouth again, and she realized that no, he actually was.
"He got grabbed by it first," he said. Ryoutarou seemed to be trying to stare at the finger in his face; his eyes were crossing. "And when he got thrown into her world –" His finger moved from Ryoutarou's face to Ryoko's. "—she got tossed into his. Ordinarily something like this wouldn't be a problem, or at least not one that requires my level of expertise, but because it was still attached to both of them, the delicate balance between dimensions –"
"What?" Momotaros demanded. "What the hell does that even mean! Japanese, motherfucker, do you speak it?!"
Tsukasa rolled his eyes. "All right," he said, "let me put this in words small enough to get through your thick red skull." He leaned in towards Momotaros and said, loudly and slowly, "A big, bad Imagin switched these two crazy kids around, and because it was still holding onto them, I had to get them to line up before I could do anything about it. Which was much harder than it had to be," he added, glowering at Ryoko and Ryoutarou as though they'd made his life difficult on purpose. "You two made me run all over the place trying to get you in the right spot. The pictures helped, of course –"
"Is that why the picture sucked so much?" Momoko asked. Tsukasa broke off.
"…They weren't ithat/i bad," he muttered finally. Ryoko was afraid for a moment that he was going to sulk, but instead he just continued on.
"So after doing this twice," he said, pointedly not looking at either Owner, "I finally got you two dimwits to cooperate, and I was able to force the thing to manifest, and it sort of dragged your dimensions together with it, creating this charming enviroment. And then you killed it, and so now I am here to fix everything and put it all to rights, only somebody insisted on coming along –"
Daiki gave them a pleasant wave. Behind them, Momoko proceeded to explode.
"So – you knew what was going on the whole time?!" she shouted. "And so you decided to sneak around and stalk us and be cryptic about it instead of just telling us like a normal fucking person –"
She continued on for at least another two minutes, but the rest of it was just a jumble of incredibly vulgar words. When she finally trailed off, though, Ryoutarou spoke up.
"You could've just told us," he said, sounding almost apologetic. "I mean, we would've believed you. You could've just come up and told us what was going on, and we would've helped…"
Tsukasa took his hands away from his ears, where they had been during Momoko's tirade, and stared at him as though he were insane. Ryoutarou shuffled awkwardly.
Finally Tsukasa said, quite haughtily, "I don't work like that."
There was a collective outburst from everyone behind them, but Ryoko thought they should've expected something like this. Nothing else had made sense these past few days…
Tsukasa made them line up after that (the Momos had complained, but he'd told them fine, if they didn't want to go home…) in two rows, organized by world. Ryoko stood at the head of her line and fidgeted, and although the Imagin had amassed behind her, it wasn't as comforting as it usually was.
"All right, then," Tsukasa was saying, "if we're all ready –"
It took Ryoko a moment to realize that it'd been her that had just said that – everyone turned to stare at her, and she nearly melted in embarrassment. Tsukasa gave her the sort of look that was usually reserved for worms.
"Can I just have a minute?" she asked, and before he could answer, she rushed over to the other line, trying to ignore all the stares. Tsukasa was protesting behind her, but she kept telling herself it would only take a second…
She stopped in front of Ryoutarou and held out Ozaki's coat, folded into a slightly-haphazard square. She'd already taken out Ryuu's (now incredibly creased) drawing. "This is Ozaki-san's," she said. "He gave it to me after – well – if you could just give it back to him for me…"
Ryoutarou nodded as she handed it to him. He was still holding the basket of Daiki's muffins, and was having difficulty juggling them as he took it, so Ryoko took them from him and left it at that.
Then – not really able to look him in the face – she burst out with, "I just want to say – I mean, since this is the last time we'll see each other, hopefully…er, by hopefully, it's not that I don't want to see you again, but…"
She glanced up, and was relieved to see that Ryoutarou looked like he understood what she was trying to say (which was amazing, because even she wasn't sure what she was babbling about). He shrugged self-consciously.
"Yeah," he said, and he managed a little half-smile. "Me too."
Ryoko smiled back, and then turned to Yuuto, who was standing next to Ryoutarou (albeit somewhat displaced due to the Imagin crowding). "And – thanks," she said to him. "For everything. You didn't have to…"
"Whatever," Yuuto muttered, staring at his feet. He'd turned bright red for some reason. "Just stay out of trouble, okay?"
Ryoko managed to laugh at that – it hadn't exactly been a good-bye, but…it'd been enough. She turned back around just in time to see Tsukasa watching them, his finger on the shutter of his camera.
"Well, that's heartwarming," he said, as Ryoko scuttled back to her line. "Are we finally ready now?"
Once the lines had gotten settled back down – and Tsukasa had to rearrange them a couple of times, because the Imagin kept trying to form circles around Ryoko and Ryoutarou, until Hana's fists put an end to that – Tsukasa folded his arms and look over at Daiki.
"Since you insisted on coming with me, you might as well do it," he said. Daiki shrugged.
"All right," he said, and he pulled out some kind of strange gun, blue and black with yellow accents. "I've gotten what I came here for anyway."
"Wait a minute," one of the Owners piped up. He was looking in his coat for something. "My spoons seem to have mysteriously gone missing…"
"Okay, time to go," Daiki said quickly. He aimed the gun at them, and for one horrible moment Ryoko thought that they'd been wrong, this was all an elaborate ruse to get them together in one place to get them all at once – and he pulled the trigger, and there was a shot, and…
Ryoko wondered if she was dead – but no, she could still feel the ache in her body, and the ringing in her ears. And she could smell something, something rich and deep…the scent of coffee brewing…
From behind her she heard a voice, sounding surprised, say, "Ryo-chan?"
Ryoko turned around, and burst into relieved tears.
Ryoutarou opened his eyes.
He was still in front of Milk Dipper, but he was alone. Well, that wasn't strictly true – there were a few people on the other side of the street, just passing by – but the Imagin were gone, and when he looked around, Hana and Yuuto and Owner were nowhere to be seen. He had the sudden terrible thought that maybe it hadn't worked after all, maybe he'd become stuck in some other weird alternate universe –
Oi, said Momo's voice, echoing inside his head, and Ryoutarou sighed in relief. Bastard, he didn't have to dump us right back on the train!
"Well, you don't have physical forms here," Ryoutarou pointed out, which set Momo to incomprehensible grumbling, as did all logic. He pushed open the door to Milk Dipper, almost holding his breath – just because he had the right Imagin didn't necessarily mean he had the right Milk Dipper…
Airi looked up as he came in, and Miura and Ozaki stopped bickering long enough to register his entrance.
"Oh, Ryo-chan," said Airi, and for the first time since their parents had died, Ryoutarou felt the urge to run over and just hug her and never let go. "Where have you been all day?"
Ryoutarou was halfway to the counter when he realized what he was doing, but he didn't stop. Airi made a surprised noise as he wrapped his arms around her – it really had been forever since he'd hugged her; when had she gotten so short? – but she didn't push him away, just let him hold her in silence while Ozaki and Miura wailed behind them. Ozaki's coat got dropped somewhere in there, but he didn't care.
Hey, can I go next? Ryuu asked eagerly. Can't hear your –
Shut up, Ryuuta, Ura hissed. Ryuu whined, but Ryoutarou ignored him.
These past few days had been so – he couldn't even think of a word to describe them. Parallel universes and female Imagin and, most horrifyingly of all, a girl version of Yuuto in a miniskirt…it felt almost like a dream, now that he was back. He almost couldn't believe that he'd really met Ryoko, and that they'd really fought off a giant crazy Imagin together, and…
He'd have to find Yuuto, and have a very long talk with him about the cards, and Sakurai-san, and the boy in the black scarf – but that could wait. Right now he just wanted to stand here and enjoy being home.
"Ryo-chan," Airi said, and Ryoutarou suddenly realized how weird he was being. He let go of her and stepped back, but he couldn't stop himself from grinning stupidly. He probably looked insane, but he didn't care.
Airi was looking at him kind of strangely, but then her ability to accept anything up to and including fiery apocolypse kicked in, and she smiled at him again. "I thought you'd be back earlier," she said, her tone gently chastising. "We've got lots of customers today. Could you –"
"Sure," Ryoutarou interrupted, still grinning like a loon. He'd never been so happy to put that apron on and head out onto the floor, working his way through customers and ignoring the running commentary going on in the back of his head. It was mindless work, and he could almost put the entire adventure he'd just had out of his mind. He could almost pretend that it really had been a dream…
There was one customer by the door who had an empty cup, so Ryoutarou went over and put on his most winning smile. (He was aware that this was not saying much.)
"Would you like any more, or something to go with –" he started, but the question died in his throat as the customer looked up at him. There was an incoherent shrieking noise from the Imagin, but Ryoutarou couldn't make himself say anything.
"Actually," said Tsukasa, looking as smug as ever, "I was just leaving."
He stood up and pushed past Ryoutarou, frozen in place, and he was out the door before he could manage to move again. Ryoutarou stared after him in bewilderment.
What was that all about? Momo snapped. Ryoutarou shrugged and shook his head, automatically starting to clear away Tsukasa's empty cup.
"Maybe he was just checking on us," he murmured, as he lifted the saucer. "You know, to make sure we got back okay. Maybe he –"
There was something stuck to the underside of the saucer. He'd thought it was a napkin at first, but the paper was stiff and thin, and it caught the light when he moved it…
Ryoutarou turned it over. It was a photograph of him and Ryoko, from that moment just before they'd been sent home; it was overexposed and there were ghost-images of the Imagine superimposed over them, but he and Ryoko had come out sharp and clear.
He was still looking at it as he took the empty dishes back up to the counter. Ozaki and Miura, being nosy and obnoxious, both immediately peeked over his shoulder.
"Oh, it's that girl who was in here yesterday," Ozaki said in surprise. "Also, that's a terrible picture."
Ryoutarou started to put it away, not really wanting anyone else to see it, but Airi had already come over, coffeepot in hand. She pursed her lips and peered at it as she poured the two men new cups.
"Oh, her," she said. "Is she a friend of yours, Ryo-chan? She was so upset yesterday because she couldn't find her brother – I hope she got home all right."
Ryoutarou almost laughed. He looked back down at the picture, at Ryoko's face, so similar to his own…and then he did laugh, just a little.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, she did."