Notice/Disclaimer: Obviously I don't own any of Ghost Hunt. I can only take credit for the depictions in this story. Liberties have and will be taken. There are some truths I have tried to keep accurate, but there are other facts I have decided to change. I've tried to make it clear what those differences are.
Please also note, this story is heavily based on the manga, rather than the anime or light novels, and is weighted toward volumes 1-11 with certain liberties taken with (some of) the events of volume 12. This story does not include the Akumu no Sumu Ie story arc in any way.
Warnings: Rated for mature themes including death and violence. Implications of intimate relationships. Moderate (but overall infrequent) cursing.
Beneath the Lilac Tree
[A story of second chances and supernatural love.]
I think the Naru in my dreams is kind because the real Naru is kind. That's what I've always believed. (Taniyama Mai, vol. 10)
Prologue - February 18th, 2011
On that day the skies were particularly dull, threatening to rain. It was that in-between time of year, no longer winter but not yet spring. On this day she was particularly late. She'd already missed the first train and was most certainly going to miss the second. First, she couldn't find her keys. Then, it was her wallet.
She sighed loudly as she surveyed her apartment, blowing hair out of her eyes with a frustrated pftt. Only seven in the morning, and already today was not her day.
After several more minutes of fruitless searching, she gave up on the wallet: she had her train pass and her ID for work. It would have to do. The wallet, wherever it was, could wait.
Glancing at the small clock by the door and pulling on a winter coat, she then grabbed the heeled boots off the mat. After a combination of slips and crams, zips and two buttons, her snugly booted feet were soon running out the door, which she then locked with a quick motion of her hand behind her, even as she moved forward.
When she returned at the end of the day, shaking out her umbrella as she turned the key and opened the door, an immediate blast of cold air blew her hair away from her face. Squinting as she entered the room, she reached forward in the dark to turn on a small lamp, the dim light illuminating the source of the gust. Her window was broken and shards of glass littered the floor. Frowning and immediately alert, she searched the dim room for any oddities. She stopped when she saw her wallet, lying open on the table. Then she heard the distinctive sound of a footstep in her bedroom. She froze at the sound.
There was someone in her apartment.
The man moved almost too quickly for her to act. There was a high-pitched scream and a brief shout, followed by the sounds of a struggle. And then only darkness remained.
He had almost dropped the phone when he heard the news, so great was his shock. Ever since he'd awoken that morning he'd had the disquieting feeling that something, somewhere, was not right. He'd passed the feeling off to the fact that it would be the ten-year anniversary of his brother's death in just a few days, but nothing—not that feeling, not anything—could have prepared him for the actual truth.
"I thought you should know," the low, quiet voice said.
For one of the few moments in his life he was completely speechless. All of his senses focused on the words which had just been delivered. His eyes, unseeing, stared blankly in front of him and an overwhelming noise filled his ears, an ocean of disbelief and anger. In his mind, the unwelcome words repeated themselves, throbbing and echoing, carving their meaning into every part of his existence, refusing him the luxury of denial.
She passed away this morning. Murdered in her apartment. Defiled after death.
Slowly, his mind cleared and the throbbing fading away. He became aware of the dull sound of quiet through the phone line as well as the man waiting patiently on the other end, waiting silently for him to process the news. The ceiling fan, usually so unobtrusive, now seemed startlingly loud.
"Thank you for telling me," he finally managed.
"We should assist with the memorial," the man said quietly.
"Yes," he agreed, speaking with difficulty. There was a painful lump in his throat.
"But we can discuss that another time." The man sighed. "I'm truly sorry to be the one to tell you this," he said.
"I know." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry you had to tell anyone."
When he set the phone down the office suddenly seemed much too quiet again. Even the fan, circling above at a lazy pace, was silent.
Dropping his head, he rested his forehead against clasped hands. Rage and despair struggled within him, vying for control. His shoulders trembled and he closed his eyes, trying to calm himself, but visions rose up behind his eyelids, uninvited, from the darkness.
A tall figure emerges from the shadows, his heart pounding at his unexpected presence. Trying to scream or call for help, but strong hands had covered his mouth, silencing him and closing around his throat to still him.
He opened stinging eyes. Of all things: an intruder, looking for some small sum of cash. Hell, he'd have paid any amount to any lowlife to guarantee her safety. Or kill any man that would touch a hair on her head. But these realizations had come too late.
This was not supposed to happen. She should have been safe. Safe, living an ordinary life.
Lowering his head, he wept.
Mai Taniyama opened her eyes.
A brilliant blue sky awaited her gaze. A breeze tickled her nose and her cheeks as well as her ears where tendrils of her hair brushed against the sensitive lobes. The wind made a gentle sound, rustling leaves and muffling the sounds of voices: calling, laughing, chattering. A ladybird beetle landed on the collar of her uniform and meandered toward her ribbon before opening its shell, tiny wings lifting it into the air. Beneath her, the grass was prickly against her bare arms and the back of her knees, as well as her scalp and neck where the dry shoots poked through her hair to tickle the sensitive skin above her collar. Any other day she would have scratched at her jaw or rubbed at her legs to displace the obnoxious tickling. Today, despite it all, she was incredibly comfortable. Her body felt like a heavy stone, permanently attached to the earth.
This, she thought leisurely, is bliss. She wanted to close her eyes and drift into sleep, but she wasn't particularly tired and the azure sky had never before seemed quite so tremendously beautiful. She wanted nothing more than to memorize the color and carry the view within her always in case she never had the opportunity to look upon it again. Her eyes slowly began to water as she gazed into the bright sky and hundreds—thousands—millions of tiny sparkles swam before her vision in the great expanse.
She began to imagine she was clinging to an upside-down Earth, the sky beneath her and gravity pushing her in the opposite direction. A small smile lifted the edge of her lips as she imagined tumbling off the prickly grass and into the bright sky, falling deep into the inviting blue with nothing to catch her, quietly swallowed forever with only the serene color around her.
The moment ended and her daydream shattered when a high-pitched voice practically screamed, the heavy thump of footsteps running toward her. "Iwasaki-kun! Be more careful!" A shadow fell across her cheeks and her vision of the beautiful sky was blocked as a high-school girl leaned over her, peering anxiously at her face. "Mai-chan! You okay?"
"Michiru...chan?" Mai said slowly, turning the name over in her mind. It had been a long time since she had seen Michiru. What was she doing here?
The girl helped her sit up. With a start, Mai realized she was at her high school. From the looks of it, classes had just ended for the day.
"Iwasaki hit you with the ball," Michiru said, turning and shooting a nasty glare at the boy, who was making a hasty exit from the scene with some friends, clutching a ball in the crook of his arm. Mai watched the interaction with a bemused look on her face. Michiru turned back to Mai, her anger quickly transforming into concern. "I think he hit your head. You fell..." She bit her lip, unsure of how anxious to be. "Do you feel okay? Maybe we should go to the nurse's office."
Mai reached to her head tentatively, fingers brushing through her hair and probing at her scalp. Sure enough, there was a lump, tender and swelling, above her right ear. "I'm okay," she said quickly, though her head began to ache when she touched the sore spot. "I'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" Michiru asked dubiously.
"Yeah," Mai grinned—convincingly, she hoped—and shrugged, grabbing her schoolbag and hopping to her feet, hiding an unexpected unsteadiness by brushing off her skirt. "Besides, I gotta get to work! There'll be hell to pay if I'm late."
"You shouldn't have to go after—"
"It's fine," Mai interrupted, smiling brightly. Patting her skirt pockets, she felt reassured as she felt the small weight of her mobile. "I really should go. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"But tomorrow's Saturday—" Michiru called after her hastily retreating form, her voice dropping off. It wasn't that unusual, after all, for Mai to forget what day of the week it was—though it was less likely that she would forget that it was the last day of classes. But the thought didn't linger in Michiru's mind; she knew Mai was more scattered than most and even more so since she had started working at that peculiar psychic research place.
Trotting down the street, Mai's mind was racing. She was wearing her school uniform. It was after school. She was probably headed to SPR.
Fumbling in her pocket, she pulled out her mobile. Flipping it open, she gazed at the screen.
Friday, July 26th, 2002.
She stopped in her tracks, gazing at the symbols. She never would have forgotten that day. It had been a day she had obsessed over for months and years, wondering if she had done the right thing or made the right choice. If her actions that day had been different, would she be leading a different life or living in a different place? Or did any of her actions make a difference; did they ever?
Of all the days in her life, with the exception of the days that her parents died, she had never once wanted to go back and change anything. She had always been happy with herself and her life. Though she had done some pretty stupid things (or atrocious things and negligent things, careless things and horrid things), she had never really thought it would be better to relive something with the opportunity to change her own life for the better. Except for this day. This day in particular, she couldn't help but wonder what she might have done to bring about a different outcome, or if there even was a different outcome.
Friday, July 26th. It was the last time she would ever see Naru. Of course he'd frown at that silly nickname she'd given him, but even after all this time she couldn't think of him as anything else: not Shibuya Kazuya and certainly not his English name, Oliver Davis. This day was the official dissolution of the Shibuya Psychic Research office, as its president left the country, never (presumably) to return. If he had, he certainly hadn't ever contacted her to let her know.
Her mouth set in a thin frown, she once more began walking, though her gait was slower and without the confidence of before. I'm dreaming, she thought with sudden desperation. But the warmth of heat wafting off the hot pavement onto her bare legs and the hot sun on the top of her head suggested otherwise, as well as the way her nose and palms collected moisture in the humid air. There were the whistles and trills of birds in the bushes, the hum of fans and air conditioners from the buildings mixing with the sounds of pedestrians crossing the street and the cars idling as they waited for the green light. Passing a noodle shop, she could smell hints of curry and miso and a distinctive fishy smell of seaweed mingling with the aromatic rice from the neighboring Indian restaurant. Moving past the bright noise of electronics shops and the perfumed, subdued boutiques next to them, she could smell the yeasty, bready aromas of freshly baked bread as she passed an artisanal Scandinavian bakery. The tall blonde man behind the counter smiled at her when she stared inside and she was tempted to stop and look at the golden wheat rolls and cinnamon buns, glistening with caramel and peppered with candied pecans. She moved forward, giving a small smile and a nod to the gentleman, resolving to return at a later point. Turning her face forward again, she found herself gazing once more at the brilliant sky. There wasn't a cloud to be seen. Passing under some buzzing telephone lines, she watched a flock of scattered pigeons circle up, come together and fly away.
All of it felt much too real to possibly be a dream. Had she ever been aware of so many things at once during a dream?
But this couldn't possibly be real. I must be dreaming. Right? Or was I dreaming before?
But the longer she walked, the less sure of anything she became.
"Eh? Naru's not here?" She frowned. This wasn't what she thought had happened; would happen.
Lin shrugged his shoulders, hefting a large box of books to his chest and carrying it to the door. She had a feeling he was just as perplexed as she and she took a smaller box. Groaning at its weight, she following him outside.
"This is the day the lease expires on the office, right?" Mai asked, trotting quickly to keep up with his longer gait.
The tall man nodded, balancing the box on his knee with one arm and opening the van door with the other. "Technically, the lease expires tomorrow... but yes, it's our last day at the office."
"And he's not even here to help move the last of his files and the books?" Mai stamped her foot, nearly dropping the box as she shifted her weight. "That jerk!"
The corner of Lin's mouth lifted in a tender—but quite controlled—smile. "Perhaps he knew you would come here to help me."
"Well, I have no choice but to help," she grumbled. "I can't make you do this all by yourself."
Lin made a sound that almost sounded like a chuckle. "Don't put yourself out, Taniyama-san. There's not much to do. I'm not in a terrible hurry and I wouldn't want you to feel obligated to do something so banal."
Mai opened her mouth to protest but found no words. Lin gazed at her with warmed eyes, taking the box from her arms and stacking it with the others in the van. "Go home, Taniyama-san," he said kindly. "There's no reason for you to spend your afternoon here."
She stood, meeting his eyes with her chin lifted, studying the man. It was just the same Lin-san as she remembered: solemn eyes set in stern features that on first glance appeared cold, but when she looked long enough, or hard enough, she could see their kindness. It was a face that had probably never fully trusted her and honestly had probably never warmed much to her, but she had always thought of him kindly and had probably never said anything to indicate the fact. She suddenly threw her arms around him in an embrace. "I will miss you, Lin-san," she said quietly. "Please take care of yourself."
He seemed bemused by her actions but slowly returned the hug awkwardly. "The same goes for you."
Mai seemed to spring out of his arms as quickly as she had entered them; embarrassed for such a display of affection on a public street. Clasping her hands together, she bowed slightly, formally. "Good bye; have safe travels."
"I'm sure we'll see each other again," Lin said gently, returning the bow. "Until that time."
Mai, hurrying away, lowered her gaze to the ground. No, she thought, we probably won't.
She did not want to return to her apartment. Instead she began to walk, meandering down streets and alleyways, eyes wide and grasping at details in her environment as she tried to shake the feeling that she was in a strange and elaborate dream. After some time she returned to the bakery she had passed on her route from the school to the office. The scent and taste of the muffin she bought, soothing the first pangs of hunger, was enough to establish reality.
She went to the nearest station and boarded a train, heading for a quiet residential neighborhood. She found herself making her way toward the small cemetery that housed the graves of her parents. The side street was quiet and empty, save for two cats that sat lazily beneath the hedges. They watched her as she passed, and she, watching them, hoped they would do something other than stare. They did not.
Upon entering the cemetery she quickly and quietly walked the familiar route and then knelt on the smooth stones in front of the two Taniyama headstones. It was a small plot that had originally only housed Taniyama Saneyoshi and Etsuko, her father's parents, whom she had never met. She remembered visiting with her parents before their own names had been added alongside the two, and then later, with only one of her parents as the second stone was placed. She remembered staring at the red painted name of her mother next to the white carved name of her father. The sound of her mother's quiet sobs and the smell of incense.
Clasping her hands in front of her, she closed her eyes and began to think about her parents, wondering what they would tell her if they were sitting before her, what advice they may possibly offer for her troubled mind. She couldn't picture their faces clearly, so she closed her eyes tighter.
It was dusk when she opened her eyes. She was no longer sitting but lying on her side. She sat up quickly and scanned the area around her, but the cemetery was just as deserted as it had been upon her arrival. Regretfully, she stood, brushing off her uniform and made her way back toward the street. The answers and comfort she had hoped to find at the site had eluded her, as it had many times before.
The cats were gone. She considered looking for them behind the hedge, but a yawn filled her features and she decided against it. Her phone jingled merrily in her pocket, startling some nesting birds in the trees, and she answered it cautiously.
"Mai." Somehow, his flat voice sounded troubled. "Where are you?"
Startled, she described her location, the neighborhood and the closest train station. "The station's nearby," she offered. "I can walk there, or if you want I can take the train—"
"No, just go to the station. I'll meet you there," he said curtly. "I'll come by and pick you up. I should be able to get there in..." he paused and she could almost hear him calculating the route in his mind. "Ten minutes."
Then he hung up. Hearing the disconnection, she pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. When he hadn't been at the office she had assumed that she would never see him again. Knowing now that they would indeed meet again was a pleasant surprise—she was pleased, wasn't she? It was difficult to sort her own emotions; she was still slightly disoriented from dozing off in the cemetery and she was incredibly confused at the entire situation of the day's events. Why couldn't she shake the feeling that this was not what was supposed to happen? Continuing down the street, she began to wonder, again, exactly what was going on.
She had only just arrived at the station and sat down at a lighted bench when the car pulled up and stopped at the curb. The door opened and he stood, his thin frame accentuated by the dark clothing he wore. His arms were long and thin but well-toned, she noticed, hanging bare at his sides underneath a black t-shirt. It took her a moment first to realize exactly who it was she was staring at, and then that he had gotten up from the driver's—not the passenger—side. She stood as well, but her feet seemed glued to the pavement and she did not approach him.
How long had it been since she'd seen him? It seemed as if it had been years but in the back of her mind she knew it had only been a week ago that he had announced the closure of the office, delivering the words in his usual, unemotional manner. Tonight, in the evening light, she had the feeling that this was a different person, even though he looked quite the same. His dark tousled hair covered his forehead and those impossibly dark blue eyes searching for her own, when finding them, seemed to soften.
"Mai," he said as he walked toward her briskly and she was certain it was relief she heard in his voice. She had forgotten how tall and slim he was, she thought as he approached. Somehow he seemed taller than she recalled, though she knew it wasn't so. She couldn't remember ever seeing him in such casual clothing, though the consistent black was customary and familiar to her eyes.
"Naru?" Finally able to move, she walked forward and met him at the sidewalk. "Why are you here?"
He hesitated. "There is a place I'd like to take you. Will you come with me?"
"Of course," she said simply. Her confusion was obvious, her large eyes searching his face with unsaid questions, though her complete trust in him was just as apparent.
"Do you want to return to your apartment? You're still in your uniform," he noted, opening the passenger side door for her to sit.
"Um, ye-eah, I suppose so," she started, but as he sat down next to her she panicked. "Wait," she protested, "when did you get your Japanese driver's license?"
He turned to her, unfazed as he started the car. "This morning, actually," he said, coolly. "But I've been driving for a long time. It wasn't difficult."
"But you're leaving the country tomorrow!" Mai sputtered.
"Yes," he agreed, looking over his shoulder, his arm propped against the back of her seat as he backed the vehicle up smoothly. A clean scent—a combination of earthy and spicy—wafted toward her as he moved. "So?"
"But..." She frowned at him, confused. "But you're leaving the country tomorrow."
He shrugged slightly, changing the gear and the car drove forward quietly. "I got my license so I could drive today, Mai. Is that explanation unsatisfactory? If you'd rather I can make something up."
"N-no, but..." She looked first at her hands and then forward to the street, finally turning her sight back toward him. "It doesn't make sense. I don't understand why you, of all people, would do something so irrational."
Naru smiled wanly, eyes gazing forward and dark in the shadowed car. She found herself staring at him, tracing even the smallest detail with her eyes, watching his mouth form the words. "No, it really doesn't make any sense at all, does it."
"Take your time," he told her when they arrived at her apartment.
"What should I wear?" She asked dubiously.
He shrugged as he looked away, resting his chin against his hand and his elbow against the window. "Anything you're comfortable in."
When she returned she had traded her uniform for a skirt and a t-shirt, a light sweatshirt draped over her arm. As the remaining light faded from the sky and the street lights began to flicker on, the breeze turned refreshingly cooler, alleviating the humidity and hinting at a cool night.
He was silent as she returned to the car, but he spoke as he drove down the street. "I don't suppose you ate dinner?"
"Was I supposed to?" Her tone had the hint of a rising defensive.
The same wan smile was spreading on his lips. "Not at all," he said. "I just thought I'd ask. Anything in particular you'd like to eat?"
Caught off guard, she paused. "I'm not really hungry yet," she admitted.
He nodded and said nothing. Soon they had left the city streets for the expressway, heading southwest. Her eyelids drooping, she felt the twinges of curiosity, wondering where they might be headed, but the sheer absurdity of the situation and her exhaustion prevented her from dwelling on the fact. Nestling her head into the side of the seat, she closed her eyes and fell asleep.
The dull roar of the continuous driving reached her in her slumber, slowly bringing her back to the waking realm. She opened her eyes slowly, otherwise remaining motionless in her comfortable position. For several moments she was utterly disoriented before the thoughts formulated themselves in quick succession. After school, going to the office and then the cemetery. Naru picking her up at the station, and then..?
It was dark; the only light in the car came from the partially illuminated dashboard. She looked to the driver, eyes searching for his features without success until an approaching car from the other side of the highway brought just enough light for her to see his face. The luminosity lasted only a moment but it was enough for her to see that he seemed different to her eyes. The calm and neutral expression was familiar, though somehow, there was something about him that seemed wiser, more mature. Older.
Her eyes began to adjust to the darkness and she could see the darker outlines of the trees against a dark greyish-purple sky. As the car sped forward she saw the golden lights of a town, nestled in a valley. As slowly as the town had emerged it once more disappeared behind the trees.
"Where are we?" Mai sat up slightly, realizing that since she had fallen asleep her seat had changed from upright to reclining. Had he done that?
"About thirty kilometers from Okazaki." He paused, considering his statement. "Maybe a little less. We passed Chobi Lake about ten minutes ago."
"Okazaki?" She said, startled. When was the last time had she been so far from Tokyo? The thought lasted only a moment in her mind. Of course, she had just returned last week to Tokyo from SPR's final case. "How long have I been asleep?"
Naru glanced at the clock before answering. "Almost three hours."
Mai flushed with embarrassment. "I'm sorry. You should have woken me."
He shrugged. "You needn't apologize. You seemed tired." He turned his head toward her, his eyes dark in the dim light. "Shall we stop for something to eat? We're nearly to Toyokawa."
"S-sure," she started. She groped in the darkness for the lever to raise her seat to normal. To her surprise, he reached toward her in assistance, slowly releasing the mechanism. "Thanks," she mumbled.
"There's water in the back, if you're thirsty. Behind the seat."
She reached behind her and brought forward a water bottle, popping the lid open and taking a drink. She sat quietly, watching the lines in the road. "Um," she started cautiously. "So... where are we going?"
"Ah." He looked as if he hadn't realized she wasn't yet aware of the fact. "Tsuruga," he said, and her mouth dropped open in surprise.
Naru remained silent for several moments before finally speaking. "I remembered you telling Matsuzaki-san once that you had gone there with your parents, and you expressed a desire to return. I thought now would be a good time."
"But it's—it's so far," she protested.
"About 475 kilometers. A six hour drive," he supplied. "But we're more than half way." He glanced at the clock on the dashboard again. "Luckily there wasn't slow traffic out of Tokyo, and with any luck there won't be much around Nagoya, either. We've made good time."
Mai averted her eyes. "Tsuruga is where I was born," she admitted quietly. "And where my mother grew up. I don't recall ever living there, just that... just that one visit, when both my parents were alive."
His eyes flicked toward her briefly before returning to the road but he said nothing in return. In the silence that followed, he turned off the expressway and onto a highway and then after that a smaller road.
"Anywhere you'd like to stop is fine." Naru said curtly, turning down a well-lighted street. The small shops and restaurants were open; some more busy than others. Mai thought she detected the aroma of tempura and yakitori. Her mouth began to water at the thought.
"That place looks nice," Mai ventured, pointing to an approaching udon shop. "I mean, if you think so. Do you like udon in the summer, Naru?" She found a blush rising to her cheeks, embarrassed that she might have assumed something erroneously. She couldn't remember him eating udon before, hot or cold. Honestly, despite all the cases they'd been on together, she hadn't seen him eat that often.
He nodded but remained silent, parking the car in front of the place. He turned toward her and once again she found herself held his dark eyes, so dark in the dim light they were almost black. "Shall we?"
"Su-sure," she agreed, and stepping out into the cool evening, they walked together toward the restaurant.
The establishment was relatively quiet but the atmosphere was warm and Mai was glad they had stopped. The woman that greeted them led them to a table, pouring two cups of tea as they were seated. "Good evening, would you like something to drink?"
"Tea, please," Naru and Mai said simultaneously, a somewhat amused look entering his eyes and a flush once again rising to her cheeks. They ordered their meals quickly: "One zaru udon, please," Naru had said, and for Mai: "The kijoyu udon if you please."
"Of course." The woman took the menus and hurried away.
Mai held the teacup with both hands, sipping quietly while Naru held the handle-less cup with one hand, leaning casually against his other arm. He looked like a model, she thought. Or was it because she felt like she hadn't seen him in such a long time and had forgotten how good-looking he was? He had always been handsome, of course, and well aware of it. But some of the arrogance wasn't so plain on his face, which she thought made him doubly attractive. Realizing she'd been watching him out of the corner of her eye, she quickly turned her gaze away. It was very quiet between them, she thought, especially seated in the tranquil restaurant. Naru gazed at his teacup as if contemplating the object and Mai found that since turning her gaze from him she'd been staring deliberately at the table. Raising her eyes to him, however, she could see that he was not uncomfortable in the lack of conversation. She almost felt guilty to speak and break the stillness, but the question was burning inside her and insisted to be released.
"What do we do when we get there? To Tsuruga?"
Naru looked up, lowering his tea as he met her gaze. "I suppose a hotel for the night," he said calmly. "We'll probably arrive a little before midnight. If there was any place in particular you wanted to go, we'll do it tomorrow."
"But..." she pursed her lips, remembering something. "I thought your flight back to England was tomorrow."
"Tomorrow's my last day in Japan, but the flight has been rescheduled for Sunday." A gentle rise of his shoulders revealed nonchalance beneath his customary mask of composure. "Lin was quite baffled that I suddenly needed to take this trip, considering..." he sighed slightly, rubbing the space between his eyes with his fingers. "With Gene's funeral close at hand," he finished.
The words hit Mai like a blow and she looked away. Gene. How could she have forgotten about him? The whole time she had been thinking about the fact that she was with Naru—seeing him again after what seemed like an eternity. She had completely overlooked the fact that he had just found his brother's body—now that his only reason for coming to this country was completed his return to England was inevitable.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "Really... I am so sorry."
"Don't be." He sighed again and lifted his tea. "It's been a long time."
The woman returned with their meals. Mai was grateful for the interruption, not knowing what to say to him. Instead she examined the food as it was presented: both meals were very attractive. Naru's zaru udon was resting on the traditional bamboo tray with dipping sauces and garnishes on the side; Mai's kijoyu udon was served more plainly in a bowl with thinly sliced green onions and grated ginger. Both, of course, were served cold, as was traditional in the summer.
"It's been a long time since I've had cold udon," Naru remarked, eyebrows lifted in amusement as he picked up his chopsticks. Mai nodded in agreement. In fact, it seemed like it had just been winter a few days ago. Hadn't she just gone out for curry udon with Kuwata-san, the new intern at work? She shook her head to herself, that couldn't have happened. They ate in silence until Mai spoke again.
"Did you tell Lin-san where you were going? Or..." Her voice trailed off, suddenly uncomfortable with her inquiry. Or that you were going with me, she wanted to add. He seemed to understand her unspoken question.
"No, nor did I tell him that I was taking you." He shrugged slightly. "It seemed to me an unnecessary complication."
"You mean you didn't want him asking questions." Mai said pointedly.
Naru smiled slightly. "Perhaps so." He nodded a silent thank-you to the woman as she appeared silently, refilling their teacups unobtrusively. "I don't know if he could understand even if I tried to explain it to him."
They left the town and returned to the expressway, the car once again speeding westward in the night. Naru seemed satisfied to drive in silence and Mai found that she was content to gaze at the passing scenery. After some time he seemed assured that she wasn't going to nap again and turned on some music. Debussy: she recognized it from the Nodame Cantabile drama reruns she's seen a few weeks ago.
It didn't seem to take long for them to pass the turn for Okazaki, and after that they were heading north, bypassing the center of Nagoya. At some point they had left the Tomei Expressway for the for the Meishin Expressway, and then they were heading almost due east, the city lights dimming behind them as they drove toward the mountains. The road turned north again when they merged onto the Hokunku Expressway. The signs for Biwa Lake and Nagahama came and went. After that, the road curved into the mountains and Mai gazed at the sky. She was able to see bright stars as the residual light from the cities slowly disappeared. The open stretch before Okazaki hadn't even been this empty. The road, as well, was much quieter than before. There were few cars traveling it at that time of night and thus the oncoming headlights were few and far between.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Naru stretching his arms forward against the steering wheel. The car entered a short tunnel, the sound around them changing as they entered and then exited the enclosed space. They were approaching a small town but it seemed to slip behind them just as quickly. A small sign offered the distance to their destination. Tsuruga: 10 km.
"I suppose we're almost there, huh." She said quietly, breaking the long—though still quite comfortable—silence.
"Yes," he agreed, and it startled her to hear the weariness unmasked in his voice.
The road turned out of the mountains and into the valley almost immediately, the city before them. Naru seemed to know exactly where he was going, steering the car from the highway to the city's main road. Two more turns on two different streets and he stopped the car in front of a hotel.
"You won't mind staying here?" He asked quietly, shutting off the engine.
"No," she started, and her cheeks turned pink as she realized the implications of staying in a hotel with Naru. Together and alone. Strangely, the thought didn't stay with her for long and she had all but forgotten the immediate embarrassment as she stepped out of the car.
They went inside and Naru went to the desk where a young man sat bored, playing solitaire on the computer. He looked up quickly as they approached, closing the game and opening the hotel register. "Good evening. How may I help you? Room for two?" The man asked.
"Two rooms for one, please." Naru corrected.
The man scrolled through the register, frowning. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "We actually only have one room available tonight. He glanced at them, obviously curious to why two teenagers coming to the hotel so late at night would request two rooms. Still, the man was polite and accommodating. "There are, however, two beds in this available room."
"That will suffice," Naru said calmly.
They didn't wait long for the arrangements to be fulfilled. Naru led the way to the room, opening the door with the key card and turning on the lights as he stepped inside. Mai followed him, surprised at herself that despite her initial reaction, staying in the same room as Naru didn't seem peculiar or embarrassing any more.
The room was small but clean. Mai sat down on the far bed, testing the firmness of the mattress. Naru bent to take off his shoes and then took the car keys from his pocket, setting them on the table.
Mai following suit by removing her own shoes, then rose and crossed the room. "I didn't bring a change of clothes," she admitted, knowing even as she said it that he had not, either. The only thing in the car besides their persons had been the water he had brought. She opened the closet. "Oh, but they have yukata. That's nice, huh..." She took one for herself and took the other, holding it out for him. "Do you want it?"
He nodded and took it from her wordlessly. "I'm going to shower before I sleep," he said. "Why don't you use the washroom first."
"Okay," she agreed, wondering for a moment if his terse manner stemmed from embarrassment. As she brushed her teeth, she dismissed the thought. Couldn't be, could it?
When she had finished and returned to the main room he was sitting on the second bed, patiently waiting. He rose to his feet and paused, standing in the door. "Good night, Mai." A small smile crossed his lips. "Rest well."
"Good night, Naru," she said gently, returning his smile sleepily.
When the door to the bathroom had closed and the steady sound of water flowing from the faucet reached her ears, she undressed and put on the yukata. The room was silent save for the faint sound of rushing water. Within minutes, she was stretched out on the clean bed and moments after that she was fast asleep.
When he stepped out of the bathroom not long after he was wearing a matching yukata, his clothes folded neatly and held under his arm. He paused when he saw her curled form on the bed, all but her head obscured under the sheet. She had left the small lamp on the table between their beds on but was in a deep slumber despite the soft glow on her face. He had seen her asleep countless times before, but seeing her again in such a relaxed position—and after so long—was a comforting sight. His own gaze relaxed as he mimicked her actions, laying down on his own bed, pulling the sheet over his body and drifting into deep sleep.
She awoke with the early light, covering her eyes with her arm and turning away from the window. After several moments denying the fact that it was morning, she acquiesced to the truth and sat up, stretching.
The other bed was empty. It didn't surprise her that he had left, nor that she hadn't woken when he had. There was a note on the table: I should be back by 7:00, he had written in his familiar, messy handwriting. She turned her head to the clock. It was 6:30.
There was a short, polite rap on the door before she heard it click open with the key. Having showered and dressed as soon as she had risen, she had been standing near the window and watching the street. When she turned toward the door, Naru stepped inside, holding a small bag from a convenience store.
"Good morning," he said pleasantly and she repeated the greeting. Noticing her curiosity, he lifted the bag and offered it toward her. "It's not much, just some onigiri. I remembered you often liked to have them for breakfast on our cases. I wasn't sure what else to get you, so there's some juice and an apple." He frowned. "They did not have any acceptable tea. I couldn't bring myself to bring it up from the lobby. To offer it to you would have been an insult."
She giggled and felt a small blush rise to her cheeks, touched by his consideration. "Thank you. So, um... what now?"
He shrugged slightly. "Anywhere you'd like to go?"
Mai tilted her head as she thought, avoiding his gaze by directing her own out the window. Finally, she spoke. "Let's go to the bay. Maybe.. maybe we'll see some boats coming in."
They drove north on the eastern side of Tsuruga Bay, leaving the city almost as quickly as they had arrived the night before. They passed through small towns on the water and Mai made mental notes of several shrines but made no indication for him to stop. She alternated between looking out at the bay, over the rocky shoreline they drove along, and up toward the forest that covered the mountainsides.
They passed a beach and the road began to rise, following the steep cliffs and Naru turned the car off onto a stopping point. They both exited the car, standing at the rail and gazing toward the sea. There was a stiff breeze, cool off the ocean, but it was comfortable in the morning sunlight.
"It's beautiful," she murmured. He nodded in agreement but remained silent. She pursed her lips. Tearing her eyes away from the scene, she looked toward him sharply. "Why are we here, Naru?" Mai suddenly asked quietly, as if the strangeness of the entire situation had only just occurred to her.
Naru shrugged, his gaze firm on the ocean, hands hidden in his pockets. "You said you wanted to come here, didn't you? And I wanted to take you. Isn't that a good enough answer?"
"I know, but... It doesn't make any sense." She directed her gaze back at the water, eyes trailing a fishing boat that was coming in toward the port. "This... this didn't happen before," she muttered. At this she began to blush, the words sounding absurd to her ears.
"No," Naru agreed. She nearly jumped at his quiet voice. "It didn't."
She remained silent for several moments, her eyes fixed on the opposite shore of the bay. Everything seemed so lush and bright, from the brilliant blue sky and the sparkling water to the greenery along the bay. "I guess," she started again, quietly, "I don't understand why you brought me here, Naru. Why... why you would do such a thing."
He spoke without hesitation. "I wanted to see you again after all this time." He paused. "If I hadn't remembered that conversation between you and Matsuzaki-san, we wouldn't have come to Tsuruga, but we'd have gone somewhere else. I did," he paused again, ever so slightly, "want to take you somewhere you wanted to go."
She frowned slightly, turning her head cautiously toward him but his gaze eluded hers.
"I suppose I thought, perhaps," he said, a small melancholy smile forming on his lips, "that we never really talked enough. That perhaps this time we could talk about what has happened since we've last met." When she gave him a confused stare he continued, slowly. "You know, what twists and turns our—your—life has taken since I closed SPR and returned to England."
"What are you saying?" She blurted. "It's... it's only been..."
He turned his head, then, his deep blue eyes connecting with hers in a piercing gaze. "You probably think it was a dream. It wasn't." She turned her head away, unable to look at him as he continued. A twist of anxiety formed in her stomach; knowing instinctively he was right but fearing that truth. "I'm sure you remember," he said, his calm voice utterly serious. "What originally happened yesterday, when you came to the office after school. What our parting was."
She winced slightly. Of course she remembered. But it hadn't actually happened—right? "I.. I don't know what you're talking about."
He paused, regarding her. "How old are you?" He asked curtly.
"Twent—" she stopped and paused, thinking it over. "Seventeen. I turned seventeen at the beginning of the month." She decided.
"That's not what you were going to say," he corrected. "You were going to say twenty-five."
Her frown deepened. "But I'm not."
"Technically, I suppose not. You were born in 1985, and it is only 2002." He smirked slightly. "But that's beside the point, I suppose. Who is the Prime Minister?"
"Kan Naoto.." She hesitated for a moment and corrected herself. "No, it's still Koizumi. Right?"
"That's right," he nodded. "Do you know who Barack Obama is? And what about the protests in Egypt?"
"Obama is the president of the United States," she supplied quickly. Even she knew enough about international affairs to know that one. "And the revolution in Egypt just overthrew Mubarak's regime. He just resigned a few days ago."
"Not yet," his smirk widened, as if he had found the proof he was looking for. "First of all, you wouldn't recognize the name of Obama, not yet. He isn't going to be elected for at least another six years. And the fact that you knew about the civil resistance in Egypt proves to me that you remember. So why won't you admit it? You're just as stubborn as you used to be, Mai."
"But you said it yourself. It's only 2002," she said, her frustration beginning to build.
"Yes," he agreed again, "that I won't dispute. I'm just trying to have you agree that it's been more than a week since we've met."
"Okay, I'll admit it." She said, throwing her hands in the air in a futile gesture. "I got hit in the head yesterday after school and I have been really confused about basically everything that's happened since. I had thought that maybe... maybe..."
"This had all happened before," Naru supplied. "That years had passed since this moment. Just not in this manner."
"But that doesn't make any sense!" She exploded. "How could I... how is it possible..." Her voice trailed off.
When you say that, are you thinking of me, or Gene?
Mai closed her eyes, remembering their conversation in the forest. It must have only been last week that they'd returned from the campsite, only last week that he'd found the body of his brother in the depths of the lake. And yet it seemed like it had been ages and ages ago.
I can't take this photo, Naru.
You might as well. He'd turned away from her when he said it, she remembered distinctly. I'm sure you'd like something to remember him by.
But Naru— She remembered the feeling she had, struggling and unable to find the words to express herself clearly. It's not... it's not your brother that I... that I... it's—
He'd cut her off before she'd been able to say any more. You've obviously confused me, Mai. It is him, and not me, that you have feelings for. Don't encourage yourself. Even if you see him again, he's still dead. And he'd walked away.
Why did that memory carry so much pain, if it hadn't happened? Tears formed in her eyes against her will and she brushed them away before they had the chance to slip onto her cheeks. She hadn't cried about that moment in years; she wasn't going to start now.
"I'm sorry," Naru said quietly. "It was a terrible thing of me to say. I wasn't... At the time I wasn't disposed to deal with such a thing. Your.. confession."
It was discomforting that he knew exactly what she was thinking. "Why am I here?" She asked weakly.
He was gazing at her solemnly. "You don't remember, do you?" He studied her intently, her features taking on a quizzical look. "Maybe that's for the best," he finally said, exhaling as he looked away, dropping his scrutiny.
"Remember what? Naru?"
He didn't answer her at first and he was purposefully avoiding her gaze. "Not now," he finally said softly, sighing. "I'm sure you'll remember eventually. I couldn't remember everything at first when I first arrived, either. It may take you longer, considering the circumstances."
"Arrived..." she repeated quietly.
He turned back toward the car and not knowing what else to do, she followed him.
"Let's stop there," Mai said, pointing toward the gate to a shrine near the side of the road. She had noticed it the first time they had driven by, though the second time she wanted to stop for a visit as soon as she saw it. "It looks… I dunno. It feels like I haven't been to a small shrine like this in ages."
They hadn't spoken any more of the earlier topic, though their conversation had continued. As the car crested a particular rise that gave them an excellent view of the bay and the city of Tsuruga at its mouth, Naru had asked Mai what she had done in the city when she visited with her parents. As she began to tell him, he supplied questions and comments until the thought suddenly struck her that they were conversing like normal people—something she wasn't sure they had ever done before. Surprisingly, Mai didn't dwell on the fact that he was more easy-going and loquacious. She certainly couldn't recall him ever asking so many questions that were not directed at a client, and it was just as unfamiliar to hear him speak so much on trivial matters. Of course she had heard him speak extensively on various subjects—whether it was explaining the differences in perceptions of ghosts in Japan versus the West (that particular explanation seemed the most fresh in her mind) or something of a different psychic or paranormal nature—but to have a normal, everyday conversation was both surprising and pleased her.
He parked the car at the side of the road and she stepped outside, listening to the hum of the cicadas in the trees. The sun was higher and hotter now. Her sweatshirt had been discarded in the back seat of the car some time ago and it felt good to step into the shade. Together they walked up the stone steps beneath the trees, and passing under the second gate they were unable to see or hear the road.
The grounds were well-maintained but otherwise silent save for their footsteps and the sounds that surrounded the site: birds and squirrels in the trees; insects and the wind rustling the leaves. They stopped at the small fountain, Naru waiting as Mai rinsed her hands and then her mouth with the small ladle, but did not take part in the custom himself. Approaching the shrine, he stayed a respective distance from her as she dug in her pocket for a coin and tossed it into the offering box. She bowed and then clapped twice, and bowed again. Her nose almost touching her index fingers, she lowered her head slightly, eyes closed tightly as she prayed into her closed hands.
When she had finished, Naru was standing even further away, his back to her and his head tipped back as he gazed up at the trees. The dappled sunlight danced on the stones, forming intricate patterns that shifted as soon as they took shape. He looked toward her, eyes meeting hers as if to ask Shall we go? She nodded and they passed once more underneath the gate, walking down the steps toward the road and the waiting vehicle.
"We died, didn't we?" Mai said suddenly. "I've been thinking about it. The only way we could be here now is if we died. Right?" He didn't look surprised, barely glancing at her as he nodded. Her face saddened at the revelation. "That's too bad, I suppose."
"We're not dead anymore," he remarked.
"I guess so." She agreed, though there was skepticism in her voice. "I expect you won't tell me about my.. my own death, will you." He shook his head, his eyes straight forward, watching the path. "I didn't think so," she sighed. "Did you die first? I mean... did I know about your death, before I died?" She finally asked, reluctantly. He shook his head again. "Then how... how did you die?"
Naru chuckled slightly, the sound surprising her. "Lin would have called it reckless endangerment to self by foolish use of my own devices." She frowned, not comprehending, and he finished his explanation. "PK."
Mai gasped and immediately tried to hit him but he swayed effortlessly, avoiding the attack. "Naru!" She scolded, stopping in her tracks, tears forming in her eyes. "You killed yourself?"
"Yes," he said calmly, stopping two steps below her. He turned, looking upwards as he met her gaze honestly. "Quite purposefully."
She clenched her fists at her sides, biting her lip to keep it from trembling. "Why would you do such a thing!? How could you do such a thing?!"
He lifted his shoulders, shrugging slightly. "The end justifies the means."
"Then..." The realization was dawning on her and she couldn't quite force herself to voice it.
"Yes," he continued, "so we could be here today, Mai."
"What if it hadn't worked?" Her voice rose shrilly, panicked.
"Of course it would work."
Two stray tears slipped down her cheeks. "You... you're always so goddamned egotistical! How did you know it would work? You'd never done anything like that before!"
A wry smile formed on his lips, though she could see the discomfiture in his eyes. "They always told me I had extraordinary abilities, but I couldn't use them because my body couldn't handle the strain. I guess..." he paused, "I realized that if I didn't need to preserve my body, I could do something truly amazing. Something worthwhile and not just something a group of researchers wanted to see. Truthfully, I don't think I did it alone. I'm almost certain I had Gene's help.. and possibly more than that." He paused, gazing at her. "But that.." he sighed, turning his eyes away from hers. "I don't remember."
Mai burst into tears, covering her face with her hands as she began to sob. Rather than any sorrow, it was more the sheer overwhelming nature of the situation she could not handle. "But.. if you did that so we could... so we could come back here..."
"So you could," Naru corrected. He walked back up the two steps toward her and sighed again. "Don't cry, Mai," he said, his voice as gentle as she remembered Gene's voice from her dreams, but somehow still as matter-of-fact as usual. "I didn't do this so you could cry about it."
His words only made her tears increase and he slowly reached for her, first placing a warm hand on her shoulder and then drawing her into a loose embrace.
As drained as she was she could see the absurdity of the situation. She was sobbing into the chest of the last man she ever would have expected to offer such comfort. Slowly, her crying began to subside and she backed away from him. He gave her the space freely, dropping his arms and putting his hands in his pockets, assessing her emotions with careful eyes.
"Let's go find a place to eat lunch," he said, turning and continuing down the stairs. She wiped at her eyes, grateful both for his comforting actions and the way he had backed away at her first indication, but she was confused by his behavior all the same. A small bewildered smile twitched at her lips and she hurried to follow him.
The drive back into Tsuruga was silent. Mai knew Naru was aware that she needed time to process what he had just revealed to her. Even when he parked the car in the garage, saying, "We'll walk on the street," she had the feeling he was not expecting a verbal response and she simply nodded in agreement as she walked with him to the sidewalk. He tilted his head, motioning for her to follow him and they walked side by side in silence up the street.
He was the first to speak, pausing in front of an upscale sushi restaurant. "If we're in Tsuruga, we might as well have seafood, don't you think?"
"It looks awfully expensive," Mai said apprehensively.
"I would hope," he said, his voice sounding slightly indignant, "that you wouldn't expect me to make you pay for your meals after I forcibly took you out of Tokyo and brought you here."
"You really didn't really force me," she said, smiling. "But I would feel guilty." She looked down at her casual clothes. "Besides, neither of us are dressed for that nice of a restaurant."
"We passed a boutique, if you'd like a new dress," Naru said blandly.
"Now you're being ridiculous," Mai giggled. "Besides, what would Lin-san say if he saw the bill from this place?"
"Lin's not here," he said flatly.
"But he would disapprove," she protested, laughing.
"What does it matter what Lin thinks, anyway?" Naru asked with a surly look on his face.
Mai ignored him. "Let's go over there," she said, pointing to a smaller place across the street. "It looks busy, so it must be good."
He didn't contradict her but shrugged, allowing a small smile to cross his features and followed her, letting her lead the way to the restaurant of her choice. Before they arrived, Mai turned toward him, stopping suddenly on the sidewalk. "You did that on purpose," she accused.
"Did what?" He asked mildly, raising an eyebrow.
"You.. you tried to make me feel better." She dropped her gaze to her feet, looking at the scuffed and worn sneakers. "You've done that before, too.. thank you."
He said nothing as he moved forward, and with a gentle push to her shoulder he turned her around and steered her forward. "It's lunchtime, Mai, and you've been in the sun too long. If you don't eat anything soon, you'll start to hallucinate."
She followed him, a cheerful grin spreading on her features as her spirits brightened.
After lunch they continued to walk, touring the town by foot. They stopped at various sightseeing spots: temples and shrines, parks and shops. Their stay at each site varied between nothing more than a quick look or a thorough walk-through. They were both more interested to visit the Shinto or Buddhist sites, and though he obviously held no interest himself, Naru was patient as Mai window-shopped various stores they passed. All the while, their conversation had started up again.
"When you said you wanted to talk about what has happened since we last met, did you... did you mean that?" Mai asked quietly, studying the charms for sale at the stand next to a temple.
"Of course," Naru said, looking insulted that she didn't believe him. "Why would I have said otherwise?"
"Well," she floundered slightly, looking embarrassed. She smiled slightly as she selected the charm and took it to the counter, laying down some coins and smiling as the shopkeeper thanked her. Turning back to Naru, she pocketed the charm, a flush on her cheeks. "I don't know. I guess it surprises me, is all. Maybe I shouldn't have said that," she finished, her voice lower.
"Mai," he said sternly, frowning. She could tell that he was annoyed. "I didn't bring you to Tsuruga because I wanted to do some sightseeing. It's a pleasant enough way to pass the time, but it wasn't my intention."
"Right," she said, thoroughly chastised, her cheeks reddening. They walked together away from the temple, back to the street. Mai chose their route based on the amount of shade they'd be able to walk in and Naru followed her without protest. While not uncomfortably hot, the hair in front of his ears and around his hairline was damp with perspiration from being in the heat.
"Well... what about you?" She asked, looking toward him nervously. "What had you been doing these past years?"
He shrugged slightly. "Working at the British Society for Psychic Research. It was similar to what I did here... leading a team of researchers on specific cases. There was less freedom, however. I couldn't pick my clients." His lip curled slightly. "Reporting directly to Madoka, of course."
She couldn't contain her laugh. "I bet you hated that! Why not open your own office?"
He shrugged again, turning his head and avoiding her gaze. "In any business, it's politics and funds. My parents didn't want me to come back to Japan and I was hesitant to act against them."
She paused in her step, looking up at him quizzically. "Did you want to come back to Japan? Re-open your office?"
He hesitated, lowering his gaze. "Sometimes, yes. But I tried not to think about it; knowing I couldn't leave." He saw her skeptical look and sighed. "It would have been difficult. To open the office permanently would have been difficult with my British citizenship. I didn't want to make them lose another son. They were so devastated over Gene."
She nodded and looked away, once again uncomfortable at the mention of his older brother. "But you liked being there, right?"
"Well enough. Sometimes it was very tiring to work in the same office as my parents, not to mention living in the same house," he said dryly. "I was quite sick of my mother trying to set me up with the young women whose parents she had met at various social functions."
Mai laughed as she imagined him on a blind date. "Still no personal life, Naru?"
He looked embarrassed and still would not meet her gaze. Somehow the fact delighted her. "I dated occasionally. Nothing serious."
"I suppose no one was ever more interesting than your work, hmmm..." Mai said, surprising herself at the boldness of the statement.
"No." He answered flatly.
She looked away and directed her gaze down the street. Even though she was very happy to hear Naru talk about his life—something he had never done with her before—it made her sad to think that his work had always come first. They were approaching a park and as they neared she directed with her hand to take the path into it. They moved off the street and into the green space, walking toward a central plaza with a fountain. "What about Lin-san?" Mai asked, starting the conversation again. "Did you still work with him?"
"Up until very recently. He took some time off for the birth of his son."
Mai's mouth dropped open. "What? Lin-san had a son?" She stuck out her lower lip, sullen with the news. "I didn't hear about that. I didn't even know there was someone he was interested in, let alone possibly having a child with."
"He married two years ago," Naru gazed at her calmly and she squirmed under his gaze. "You didn't keep in contact with anyone, did you? Takigawa and Matsuzaki would have known. Hara, as well."
"Well..." she faltered. "I didn't expect to with Masako, so that was no surprise. I tried to stay in touch with Ayako and Yasuhara, but they're both so busy, so that fell off... John promised to, and he did for a while, but before long he went back to Australia for some reason and I never heard from him again. Bou-san and I did meet up." She sighed slightly. "We'd go out for coffee and talk about what we were doing, but our meetings, regular at first, were getting pretty rare." She sighed again. "He probably didn't want to talk about anything remotely relating to SPR, or thought I didn't want to. We never did." Her face fell and she sighed again, louder.
Noticing her change in mood, Naru nodded toward an ice cream stand they were approaching and changed the subject. "Do you want ice cream?"
"Sure," a grin slowly spread across her face. "Ooh, they have sherbet!"
"What flavor do you want?"
"Hmmm... raspberry sounds good."
Naru bought two small paper cups, passing one to Mai and keeping one for himself, and they continued their leisurely walk. After several moments of silence, enjoying the sherbet, Mai spoke again.
"You know.. even though I tried not to believe... I suppose I knew, even yesterday. As soon as I saw Michiru, I knew that something was wrong. Even though I thought I was crazy." she exhaled loudly and giggled softly. "She yelled at Iwasaki-kun and she used his last name. I thought it was weird, because I thought they had been seeing each other very seriously for some time now. But that won't happen for another two years—it was during college that they started dating." She sighed. "I suppose the me eight years ago wouldn't have acted like this at all. I don't really feel like a seventeen year old high school student."
"You don't act like one, either." Naru said quietly, dipping the spoon in the bowl, executing the maneuver with careful precision.
"I guess not. And you... you're not the same, either. We're both different people, aren't we," she finally said slowly, tapping her lower lip with the small spoon. "The Naru I knew never would have eaten ice cream with me. Never would have come here with me and talked to me like this." She shrugged and smiled at him. "I suppose it's been eight years."
"It has been eight years," he agreed. "And one can't expect to die and come back to life and remain the same."
She laughed. "Yes, I suppose so." Sighing, her grin faded. "I don't remember that. Though I still don't remember how I died, so of course I can't remember being dead."
"I don't have any memories after my own death, either." Naru acknowledged. "It's possible we never will."
"I imagine so. How could we be alive and have memories of death?"
Naru shrugged and remained silent. Tossing his empty cup in a waste receptacle, he held out his hand for hers, which she handed over easily and he repeated the action. "You haven't told me anything about your own life," he finally said, blue eyes narrowing slightly.
Mai flushed slightly and looked away. "It's not that interesting."
A small smile quirked his lips. "Surely my life wasn't the epitome of excitement, either."
She hooked her fingers together, stretching her arms in front of her. "I was working at an architectural firm. Not nearly as exciting as SPR. Administrative and clerical work, meeting clients, entering data into spreadsheets, some analysis." She blew her bangs away from her forehead. "But I didn't dislike it. The hours were good, it was an easy commute and there were great benefits..." her voice trailed off and she shook her head. "It's annoying to think it was all for nothing."
"It wasn't," he disagreed simply. "It wasn't wasted. Nothing was."
She averted her gaze. "Maybe," she said dubiously. She tilted her head back and looked at the trees above them. "And outside of work, there wasn't that much. I'd read, go to movies occasionally, study..." He raised an eyebrow and she flushed. "I... I was studying English. Maybe because you always told me I was so terrible at it but I wanted to get better."
"And how were you progressing?" He asked her, speaking in English.
"I certainly wouldn't brag about it," she retorted in his tongue. A satisfied smirk appeared on his face and she huffed, continuing in Japanese. "Contrary to your opinion of me, I read a lot, so I tried to read books in English. It was challenging at first, but I think I got a lot better," she admitted.
"That's more time spent alone than I would have expected from you," Naru remarked quietly.
Mai shrugged. "I did spend time with my friends... maybe every weekend or so. But they always wanted to go shopping or to some fancy restaurant, and I..." a slight blush grew pink across her cheeks. "I was trying to save money."
"What, no boyfriend?" He asked, an eyebrow rising.
The pink turned to red. "No," she corrected. "I had broken up with my last boyfriend a few months ago. I only dated him because a friend from work insisted we'd get along well." A small smile crossed her face. "He turned out to be a moron, though. Not an original thought in his head and absolutely no spine. I didn't enjoy spending time with him at all." He looked amused. Catching the look on his face, she looked annoyed. "Why am I telling you this? I don't imagine you find it very interesting."
Naru shrugged and slowed his gait as they neared an intersection of paths. "Perhaps you wouldn't believe me if I said I did."
She watched him quizzically, chewing on her lower lip. "You never did come back to Japan after all, huh?" She asked. "In those eight years."
He shook his head in response and exhaled. It was quiet enough in the park for her to hear the unobtrusive sigh. "It was probably a terribly selfish thing for me to do," he finally said, raising his dark blue eyes to meet hers.
She frowned. "What was?" From the darkening of his eyes she had the feeling he was not talking about the fact that he hadn't returned to Japan.
"I.." He hesitated and stopped. She turned, pausing in her steps to look at him. "I thought many times about calling you, Mai. But I never did. I'm sorry... I probably should have."
She tried to avert her gaze—suddenly thinking it necessary to check if her shoelaces had come untied—but it was difficult to tear her eyes from his gaze. She'd never, never seen Naru look like this, nor had she ever expected to. Sincerity lined with sorrow and regret. But it wasn't all despair—there was still the faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes, as well. Of course, she thought to herself, Naru would never completely lose hope, not even for a moment.
She closed her eyes and an image filled her vision: a young man, older than both of them today, sitting at a table in a dark room with a bottle of expensive-looking Scotch and a small glass, anguish and determination in his eyes. It was the vision of a man before a final and desperate act.
She shook herself slightly and opened her eyes, knowing she shouldn't have seen that. Whether it had been the truth or not—it wasn't something for her eyes to know. "Then why didn't you?" She finally said, not knowing what else to say.
He shrugged and let out a sharp, awkward chuckle. "Cowardice, I suppose. I didn't think you could ever forgive me for what I put you through. And I didn't know how to apologize."
She fiddled with the hem of her shirt. "Do you know," she started slowly, knowing full well he did not, "I stayed at that particular firm because they had a reputation for transferring their most exceptional employees to their international office? I worked really hard," she continued, her chestnut eyes gazing calmly forward, "because I hoped that I might eventually get promoted to the London office."
Naru remained silent, the both of them standing very still on the side of the path. A roller skater moved by them quickly but both ignored her presence.
"I think I knew," she said, "that what you said to me wasn't the whole truth. That you probably didn't like me the way I had just professed that I did, but..." she laughed softly, turning her gaze away. "I don't know. I probably didn't know exactly what I thought I was feeling, either. But I still wanted to see you again." She looked up at him again and smiled truthfully. "So I'm glad I got to see you again, Naru."
He hesitated. "Could you forgive me for dragging you back here? Back all these years... to have to do everything over again."
She frowned slightly, but her eyes were smiling. "Didn't you hear me? I'm glad, Naru."
The smile he returned to her was small but Mai felt a rising of joy and a lightening of her chest as he did so. "Me, too."
They stood for several moments in silence before they both seemed to agree that it was time to continue walking, and without a sound, moved forward side by side underneath the trees. They were walking out of the park when Naru looked at his watch, exhaling as he saw the time. "We should probably head to the train station before too long. I'll have to return the rental car as well."
She nodded slowly. "I was wondering," she started, "why didn't we take the train in the first place?"
He shrugged ever so slightly, the ghost of a smile crossing his lips. "I guess I thought it would be better to drive you."
He had bought the tickets, of course. Had she even offered she knew he would have refused. Naru was a man of principles, after all, and somehow strangely old-fashioned. When the thought first struck her she nearly giggled, imagining how well he would fit in with the fastidious scholars of her imagination. In her mind he was a somewhat cleaner version of Sherlock Holmes, though her idea of the famous detective was completely established by a movie that wouldn't be released for another seven years. All the same, she entertained the thought of him in a coat with a hat and a cane, running around London looking for ghosts just as Robert Downey Jr. searched for clues. The image brought a smile to her face. Walking toward the booth, he had shot her a questioning look over his shoulder which she returned with a lop-sided grin.
Standing a few feet behind him, she waited as he made the arrangements, gazing up at the time table and map above her. Despite her reluctance to leave Tsuruga, she was glad they were heading back. She wanted the afternoon to continue but she also knew the end was inevitable, and the trip back to Tokyo would take at least four hours. She didn't know when exactly Naru was leaving for England—only that it was the following day—but she felt a pang of guilt every time she thought how he had abandoned all responsibility to take her on this trip. The revelation created a twist in her stomach and a wrench in her heart, so she tried not to think of it.
"Shall we?" Naru asked as he held out the ticket for her to take, raising an eyebrow as she tore her gaze from the map.
Mai felt a heat rise to her cheeks and nodded quickly, wishing that she didn't always appear so absentminded as she took the ticket from him.
They didn't have long to wait after boarding the train before it left the station. Mai had chosen the window seat and gazed outside, watching the trees and power lines slip by. After some time she glanced back toward Naru. He was reading a paper, his cheek resting against his knuckles.
"Thank you," she said softly.
His gaze moved to hers, holding steady. A small smile crossed his lips and he shrugged ever so slightly, folding the paper and resting his hands in his lap. "It was the least I could do. I'm glad you enjoyed it."
"I mean," she hesitated, "for everything. Not just bringing me here, but... well." A short chuckle escaped her lips. "I guess bringing me here might be the most accurate way to say it, actually. I mean... I'd be dead without you, so I'm in your debt."
"Then," he said slowly, "I suppose I should say the same."
She looked at her hands, unwilling to meet his gaze. "What time do you leave tomorrow?" She ventured, glancing up at him.
Naru sighed, rubbing his temple with his index and middle fingers. "Fairly early. I imagine Lin is going to be quite angry with me when I get back."
She pursed her lips. "I'm sorry," she muttered. "We probably shouldn't have come here."
He shook his head to silence her but remained quiet himself. His head was tilted slightly to one side and he gazed forward, eyes unfocused. "Do you want to come to Gene's funeral?" He finally asked quietly. "I didn't ask you the first time around. That was... rude of me. You have a right to attend as much as anyone else."
"N-no, not at all." She looked at her hands. "It would probably be inappropriate." She sighed and looked out the window, gazing absently at the sky. "Besides, honestly... I've already paid my respects, in my own way. If you don't mind... Gene is at peace. I'd rather not reopen those feelings."
"I understand." A sad smile moved his lips. "I feel the same way."
"I'm sorry, Naru," she said quietly, and after some hesitation, she placed her hand on his. His hands were cooler than hers and slowly warmed at her touch. "I'm sorry you have to do it again."
"Yes," he sighed. "I suppose I should probably explain things to Lin. So he understands."
"What will you tell him?"
"Just the situation." He paused, frowning slightly. "I can't tell him anything about the future. Nothing specific. I won't tell him anything that could change his own outcome."
She nodded slowly. "What about the two of us?" As she said this she blushed, wishing the words didn't have any implications. The warmth from their hands together suddenly seemed incredibly distracting and embarrassing. He didn't remove his hand from under hers, however, and she didn't feel compelled to pull away, either. "My future will be different. Because I remember."
"Yes," he agreed. "Our futures cannot remain the same." A smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "I suppose that was the idea, anyway."
She lowered her gaze again. There it was again, the idea that Naru had done all this to change some future event—something she didn't even remember. The fact that he had killed himself to bring them both back to life wasn't a comfortable thought.
"Mai," he said, shifting his hand so that he was holding hers gently. The trembling that she hadn't even noticed starting slowly subsided.
"I know," she whispered. "You didn't do it so I could cry about it, right?"
He chuckled slightly, though his eyes were troubled. "Of course not. Quite the opposite, actually."
She frowned slightly, eyes searching for a non-existent object in front of her. "My wallet..." she suddenly said. "I couldn't find my wallet that morning." Her eyebrows knit together in frustration as she tried to piece together the situation. "But I must have had my train pass, because I went to work. Yeah.. I asked Misawa-san if I could borrow some money for lunch. Otherwise, it was a normal day at the office." Naru said nothing, watching her remember. "When I came home," she continued, sighing. "The window was broken. There was a man there." She didn't say anything else but Naru knew she remembered everything up to the moment of her death.
His hand tightened on hers and she smiled wanly, raising her eyes to meet his. "I'm sorry," she said, simply.
He dipped his head, avoiding her gaze. "You needn't apologize for your own death."
"Maybe," she said, smiling even though her eyes were filled with sadness. "But I wasn't there afterwards. Death isn't hard for the person who died, just... everyone else. I'm sorry someone had to tell you I died."
The feelings that had overwhelmed him when Lin told him of her death came rushing back and he took a deep breath to quell the onslaught.
It was her hand that squeezed his, then. "I'm sorry," she said again.
He held her hand all the way to Nagoya; the connection only broke as they transferred trains. On the Tokyo-bound train their conversation slowly started up again. Asking her more about her work, Naru listened attentively as Mai told him anecdotes from the firm, describing the people she worked with and the research they had been doing. When she turned the question on him he told her of a trip he and Lin had taken to Estonia to investigate a troublesome liekkio, which he explained was the spirit of a murdered child that had gotten trapped in a marsh. The appearance of which had caused several car accidents until their arrival and close of the case. They ate dinner on the train, buying bento boxes halfway through the trip and continued their conversation.
"Did you travel out of England often?" Mai asked.
Naru shook his head. "Only on several specific cases. I had a feeling that Madoka was reluctant to send me too far from home."
"Did she feel guilty...?" Mai asked quietly, unable to continue her statement and to bring up Gene's name again.
"Perhaps," he conceded. "She might have felt guilt for suggesting the idea to him in the first place, and no doubt my parents feel guilt for allowing him to go."
Had they had the conversation before and Mai was the same seventeen year-old Mai who did not carry with her the memories and experiences of the next eight years, she might have asked him about it. And if he had been the same boy as before, the answer to that unspoken question would not have lain so clearly in his eyes. But she didn't ask, or even think to, as she could see his own guilt he carried for letting his brother come to Japan alone, and averted her gaze. She did not want to see it.
"It's nobody's fault," she said softly. "You know that."
"I know," he agreed. He sighed, the wry smile returning to his face. "Gene would have said it as well. No one's to blame. That's just how it goes. And the end justifies the means."
She frowned. "What end? What are you talking about?"
He didn't answer her immediately but chuckled weakly, leaning his head back against the seat. "All of this, of course." He turned his gaze to her, his dark blue irises glinting as the light from the sunset hit the curvature of his eyes. "My future. And now our future. All of this happened because of Gene."
He was right, of course, and she thought about the fact for several moments. "Do you think he knew?" She suddenly said. "I mean... he was pre-cognitive, right?"
Naru lifted his shoulders, a sad smile of futility crossing his lips. "I can only guess at the possibilities."
Mai felt her disappointment rising as their arrival into Tokyo became imminent. First the announcement had played, signaling ten minutes until their destination. Then all around them in the train car the passengers began readying their items for departure. She wasn't ready to part from Naru, knowing that if things turned out similarly to last time she might never see him again. She didn't expect things to be the same, of course, considering everything that had happened, but Naru was getting on a plane the next morning and she didn't know what would happen after that. She also had the feeling that there was something he wanted to say or discuss but hadn't brought up yet, and she was anxious to know what it could be. Their arrival into the city only offered less and less time that they might be able to speak.
When the train pulled into the station and they disembarked, Naru turned his head to her, gesturing forward as he began to walk. "I'll take you home," he said and she nodded, following him through the crowds.
It was silent between them as they took the train, first on a crowded express route and then transferring to the local that ran through her neighborhood. It was almost a stereotypical situation. Mai was certain she'd seen the scene in movies, on television, or read it in comics a thousand times: the man standing protectively over the woman on the train, shielding her from hands and bodies that would push or shove. She looked up at his stoic face, finding herself gazing at the deep blue eyes that were trained on some distant object—an advertisement, perhaps, or something out the window. She'd always believed he was kind but the overt display of consideration was new to her. A sad smile formed on her lips at the thought. Had Naru always treated her so kindly she would have truly meant every word of her confession. After all the time that had passed and everything she'd learned about life and the world and the people in it, she didn't know what to think of her adolescent feelings. But certainly, had the situation been anything comparable to this, there would have been no doubt about it.
When they stepped off the train into the cooling air it felt almost exactly the same as when he had picked her up the day before. The street lights were flickering on and the sky was dimming, orange and purple clouds lit from a setting sun she could not see. It was only a short walk from the station to her apartment and they moved side-by-side in silence, both anticipating the moment they would have to part.
Naru slowed his gait as they neared her apartment building, stopping at the steps. The two stood in silence underneath the overgrown lilac tree that Mai had walked by every day as she entered and exited her apartment. The smell from the tree was sweet. The last of the late-blooming blossoms had fallen to the ground long ago but the leaves were still fragrant and the fact was accentuated by the humidity. She looked at her feet, tracing her fingers absently against the palm of her opposite hand, dreading their goodbye. It had been bad enough the first time. She wasn't looking forward to having to do it again, even if the circumstances were much more congenial.
"Mai," Naru said, prompting her to meet his gaze. When she did he moved forward, gently pressing his lips against her cheek before backing away. Their gazes met once more and sensing her approval he leaned toward her again, brushing her lips tenderly with his own.
After the kiss the two remained standing quietly. She had taken his hands in hers and realized she had been squeezing them tightly, and so she relaxed them abruptly. Naru did not allow her to simply drop his hands, but held hers firmly in his own.
"Will we ever see each other again?" She finally asked, her voice sounding meek and embarrassing to her ears.
"Of course we will."
Naru remained silent for several moments. "Come to England with me." She might have thought he was joking, but his voice was very serious. "After the funeral."
"But.. what about school?" Mai protested. "I may have lived to be twenty-five, Naru, but... I'm still only seventeen. I have one more year before I graduate high school. I can't just leave."
"Then after you graduate." He said simply.
"Naru..." Her voice trailed off as she hesitated. This was nothing like the young man she had once known.
"You can continue your studies in London, if you want. My parents would be happy to let you stay at their house for as long as you wanted. Knowing you, I'm sure you could even charm them to help pay your tuition."
"Would I even get accepted to a university in London?" Mai asked, dubiously.
"I'm sure you would," he said confidently. "Just... come visit, at least." He smiled slightly. "You don't need to make a decision now. If you think you might want to stay, then after that we can work out a student visa or a work visa... anything." Seeing her surprised expression he simply shrugged. "I'm sure BSPR would hire you. If that's what you wanted, of course."
She inhaled deeply, wishing his expression wasn't so calm when saying such a thing. "England," she repeated.
"London," he continued, "is smaller than Tokyo and it rains more, but I think," he paused, searching her face, "you might like it." He leaned forward again, kissing her fully on the mouth. "Just think about it," he requested softly as he released her lips. "That's all I ask." He squeezed her hands gently and let go, their hands dropping to their sides. "I'd better go," he admitted and smiled dryly. "Though I'm not looking forward to the wrath of Lin."
"He'll understand," Mai said, "or at least, he'll be understanding. It'll all turn out okay."
He nodded in agreement. "I'm sure it will. Thank you," he added, a faint smile raising his lips. "I'll call you this time."
"I promise." Turning and walking away, he raised a hand in parting.
"Have a safe trip," she called after him, waving.
He smiled at her, something halfway between a grin and a smirk, and called back in English: "Good luck with your studies. Graduation is only eight months away. No one speaks Japanese in England!"
"I will! I'll study hard!" Her voice trailed off, her vision blurry as tears formed in her eyes. She let them slip down her cheeks as she watched his form disappear down the street, hoping, knowing it wouldn't be the last time she saw him. It wouldn't be the same this time around. It couldn't be. Things would surely be different.
Note from the writer:
Thank you so very much for reading! I'd be so very grateful if you let me know what you thought, liked or disliked, speculations or comments~ so please feel free leave me a review or send me a message. Muchas gracias, si vous plaît! Cheers!