In my blissful ignorance, I'd assumed it was all over. Closed, you know? Cleaned up, swept into a bag, zipped shut, left to dry up in the mortuary for a few hours, then tossed into an incinerator and gone with the smoke. A fitting end. I always was inclined towards the malignant. I enjoyed the thrill. It gave me something to occupy myself with in between the bouts of spontaneous humanity. I never figured that one out. I wasn't entirely human then—still aren't—and yet, I felt obliged to entertain the form given to me by her.
I like to think I disappointed her. After all, she was always the bad one, the wicked one. She haunted me and the others, always. I can scarcely remember all the times we met and ripped at each other's throats. It has been so long. I think we might have loved each other. I think that was why I was beside myself every time I killed her. I loved the way she bled. Endlessly. And because she never died for good, I could always count on her to regale me whenever I wished. I was her flesh and blood, after all. It wasn't that I was stealing it from her. I wasn't. I was merely… enjoying myself. She had more of me inside her, and I revelled in seeing more of myself, more and more. And I humoured her, too, at times. She was full of me, and I was full of her. It was exhilarating. How I loved those days.
And then there were they—the others. A she, whose innocence almost matched her attitude. I remember defiling that innocence. It was sweet, but also sour, like a barely ripe fruit. I never was fond fruit, but hers was a first. And then the other she—the small, inhuman one. She was bright as a burning house and reeked of alcohol. I loved her smell. I could get drunk on her smell alone. I wanted to kill her, but never did. I wonder why. I had so many chances, and yet…
I remember another one. She lived in the village nearby. A child still. I cannot think why, but she roused my interest. It could have been because she was unattainable. I tried to chase her many a time. I do not recall how those times ended. I can only say they did not end well.
There was also the pair. A duet of nutjobs who had a prime hand in making me what I am today. Although for the sake of honesty, it was my merit alone that we came to know one another. They were close friends. I was an outsider. That changed in time. One of them resembled me so much it nearly drove me insane. I enjoyed the feeling, while it lasted.
And then there was the beast. A green-haired, red-eyed animal. I do not remember why and how we met, but I know we did. She was strong, and I was eager. I killed her, once. She returned the favour. It was a busy night.
Somehow, those memories, those faces and events, came back to me today. A sudden and random surge of recollections—faces, words and deeds—that brought my mind back from the precipice of complete oblivion. I'd existed still, of course, but had been forgotten – buried like a corpse in an old lady's backyard. I could not bear it. I had to make myself known again. I had to maintain my pride. It's one of the things I never really got over. I still had it. And it ached.
I stood on the edge of the forest and surveyed the rough gravel path that stretched before me. It was the same as I had remembered it, and yet, seemed profoundly different, somehow. A lot of things seemed different. A lot has changed. I wondered whether they would still remember me as I remembered them. I wondered if they were still alive. It had been so long. I had to keep my hopes on a tight rein. I wasn't certain what awaited me there. And I hated disappointments.
“Well then,” I announced out loud. “Shall we go?”
The sun was burning when I put my foot forward and started down the hill. I did not mind it a whole lot. It was time to kill and be killed again. After all, I was the spider that wove in the shadows. I couldn't let something as puny as the sun get in my way, now could I?
She touched the teacup to her lips and supped carefully.
She had a splendid sup. A splendid throat to perform it with, too.
She had cultivated her sups to the level of a show. She swallowed like a young goddess. She would put the cup delicately to her mouth. She would test the tea first with the tip of her tongue for excess temperature. Then she would next angle the cup to let the liquid flow freely into her oral cavity. She would not suck, like some uncultured children do. Anticipating that, her sternohyoid muscle would tense and swell readily. She would let her eyelids droop just a fraction of a centimetre when her tongue braced and kneaded her palates, pushing the drink further down into the pharynx. A minute bulge would rise under her skin where her thyroid cartilage moved ever-so-slightly to allow the epiglottis to close and the tea to come through. She would start awfully if it proved too hot, and finger desperately the trouble spot where her sternomastoids attached to her upper sternum, seeking fruitlessly to relieve the pain. She would then exhale yearningly, almost erotically, and with renewed confidence begin the whole vulgarly physical process anew.
It was, altogether, quite enthralling.
I can't think why I found it so fascinating. And neither can I think why I had gone to the effort of memorising the names of all the minor mechanisms that partook in the charming little spectacle. It was not that I would need recite them, after all, when I tore them out and showed them to the outside world or anything. I was a careless sort of person. I never could be bothered to give them that degree of consideration. It'd just be silly, mindless. Irrational.
I had, however, when I thought about it, done many irrational things in the past. Some a great measure more so than this. So, I don't suppose I should cogitate on it too hard now.
She swallowed mightily fine, and that was it.
She set the teacup down and looked at me earnestly, not an ounce of suspicion in her stare. She was so oblivously trusting at times. “So?” she asked me, an esoteric little question. “What do you reckon?”
I turned it over in my mind. I reckoned many things, that much is true, but most weren't likely to strike her finicky fancy. “I don't know,” I answered truly. I lied very rarely after all. “Is there anything that I ought to reckon in particular?”
She gave me a small frown. I cherished that frown a lot. I loved to rile her when granted the occasion. She frowned so sensually. “We were talking about magic,” she reminded me archly, “and how it doesn't violate the laws of physics—only bends them.”
“We were?” I asked innocently. “What an amazing thing.”
“Sometimes you really act like you want to get under my skin.”
“I do at that, don't I?”
“If I didn't love you, you big aggravating buffoon, I swear to heavens I'd hate you bald.”
I bared my teeth at her. She bared hers back, albeit just a smidgen diffidently.
She did not see through my meaning. I hadn't entirely intended her to, either. She would have made an issue of it and the conversation would have gone up a blind alley.
I studied absently her serious face, even as she went on to recall the points she had made until then. She had a plain, even dowdy face. I would have passed her by on a pavement and never batted an eyelid. She was not, by any means, beautiful. She was an average, even unremarkable girl of unremarkable age. She agonised over the fact at times. I did my best to comfort her whenever that happened. I used to know the feeling, after all. Used to. I pretended I still knew it nowadays, always when she needed it. I'd grown soft like that.
I remembered her name all of a sudden. It was laughable how I always forgot it if I got too lost in her plain brown eyes, the slightly askance eyebrows and unevenly freckled cheeks. I was not at fault, of course; her name became her: it was simple and unembellished by foreignisms or assorted tongue twisters. I had the right to forget it. I loved it for what it was, and what it was was forgettable.
I remembered it clearly now though.
I blurted it without realising.
She seemed moderately startled. “What?”
“Oh,” I shrouded my embarrassment behind a thin smile. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I didn't want to interrupt or nothing. Go right on, never mind me.”
She looked at me somewhat quizzically. I wouldn't let her quiz me.
“I don't know that I'd go so far as saying all magic is perfectly within explanation,” I reasoned nimbly, “but I'll agree that some of it is pretty darn simple for being called magic.”
“See?” She picked up the argument almost immediately. She was ever inclined to quasi-scientific debate. “I know, right? All I'm saying is, magic doesn't conjure anything out of nowhere; nothing happens out of nowhere.”
“At least in most cases it doesn't,” I concurred.
She nodded. “I wondered about it last night.” A note of excitement rang in her voice. I searched my memory of the previous evening, but found that I had spent it elsewhere. Shame. I'd wanted to treat it as a compliment. “I analysed the technical aspect of the things I'd witnessed,” Ren continued, “and it occurred to me out of the blue that what was happening wasn't entirely supernatural. See elemental magic, for instance. It's kind of unsophisticated, I know, but it's the best one to exemplify this theory that I have.”
She had the tendency to oversimplify things at times.
“Go on,” I beckoned her to proceed.
“Can we agree,” she asked, “that elemental magic manipulates what we consider its relevant elemental matter?”
It was my turn to incline my chin in acknowledgement.
“See,” she resumed, “what I realised was, none of the effects of that magic come out of nowhere. Water magic merely directs the available particles of water, earth magic manipulates the soil, and air magic the air particles, but I hit a kind of a wall when I got to fire magic. According to modern physics, fire is not matter, but rather a process—an occurrence—of which the visible, tangible portion, the flame, in reality just ionised gasses, is only a side effect. So in effect, fire magic would not manipulate the flames as it may appear at the first sight, but presumably the heat itself, leading to the—perhaps inadvertent—creation of the aforementioned flame. Are we on the same page so far?”
“Sure,” I agreed, “but I can't see where you're going with this.”
“Hold on, I was just getting to that. Anyway, it dawned on me then that whilst all the other elemental magics manipulate only the physical matter according to their field, fire magic is profoundly different: it manipulates no physical matter, but at the same time, all of it.”
She gave me a sly smile. “What exactly is heat, Naya?”
I thrilled at the sound of the name.
It brought me back to some very enjoyable times—times so distant now they seemed like a yesterday dream: a long, insidiously realistic dream that you shudder from, but wish inwardly that it would return so you could resume it. I haven't, to this day, determined whether I truly liked that dream or not. I enjoyed it, yes, at some times more than at the others, but to say I liked it could very well be a stretch. It was a bad dream, after all; a bad dream that would never leave me.
In any case, I elected to humour my inquisitive girl and made a helplessly unenlightened shrug. “No idea,” I revealed with exaggerated ignorance. “Not a clue. I didn't pay all that much attention in school. I was too occupied nurturing the spiritual aspect of my life to bother with studies.”
“What did you do?”
“I contemplated the influence of aurora borealis on my puberty and social standing among the pretty sex.”
“Is that so?” She didn't believe me. She knew I was acting. I wasn't. “Anyway,” she gave up, “heat is… How should I explain it?” She glanced around the table and rested her brown eyes finally on the half-full teacup. “Okay, how about this tea, for one. Can we agree that it's warm?”
“Shall I dip a finger and make sure?”
“I'd rather you didn't. Who knows what you've been touching.”
“Nothing you wouldn't have touched before. So why don't you tell me, miss professor?”
“It is warm,” she assured, “but when you give it some thought, what exactly is heat? Well, I got up from my bed and began to snoop around for definitions and such, and what I found was—”
“Hold up,” I chimed in. “What time did you say that was at?”
She waved her palm dismissively. “Never mind. I didn't have to wake up early next day, so it's not that big of a deal. Anyway, what I found was heat is—”
“No, darling,” I cut her off again, “no anyways. Come on, don't make that glare at me. I worry for you. If you lose your beauty sleep on silly things like this, you're going to grow wrinkles. And let me tell you wrinkles aren't nearly as awesome as they're cracked up to be. Actually, they aren't cracked up to be awesome at all. In point of fact, they're cracked up to be sort of awful. Which would make them less awesome than awful. What's less awesome than awful, dear?”
She made a sour face. “A Nickelback single?”
“Close enough. Anyhow, if you're going to lose precious sleep-time on this kind of stuff, I'll go and have Mary call for the red-white so she can explain everything to you—in excruciating detail and with all the usual threats.”
“It wasn't exactly my idea,” she defended. “I hadn't planned on losing that sleep intentionally.”
“Well, you shouldn't have.”
“Can we just go on?” she pleaded. “What's done is done. It's water under the bridge; it can't be helped. I'll never be Miss Universe anyway, so it isn't the end of the world or anything.”
I wished to differ. I didn't. It would have been untactful.
“All right,” I surrendered. “Go on then.”
“Great,” she breathed with visible relief. “As I was saying, heat is, by scientific definition, not a value stored within a system, unlike other physical properties such as mass, volume or density. An uncomplicated definition would be that head is, laconically, a transfer of energy between systems. So in a way, it doesn't exist within a system, but for the sake of simplicity we can lamely assume that heat is the sum of energies—kinetic and potential—present inside one system, available to be transferred into another.”
“In the case of this tea,” she pointed at the cup, “its heat would be the sum of energies transferred into it until it reached its current temperature. Analogically, it is also the sum of energies it can—and will, over time—discharge into its surroundings until their temperatures even out.”
“Are you going anywhere exciting with this?”
“Contrary to what you might think,” she said tartly, “I am. If we never mind the inaccuracies, forget the second law of thermodynamics and assume that heat can be, through magic, manipulated, concentrated and converted entirely into work—and thus force—wouldn't that make heat a hypothetical potential output of physical force that could be exerted upon another body? A physical load, if you will?”
I leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially. “Are you saying that I could take this tea and shoot someone with it?”
“I hadn't thought of that.” She put on a pensive expression. “I snooped around and did some calculations. I got this, for instance: in a fictional isolated system where flawless heat transfer is possible, the amount of power required to warm a cup of tea up from room-temperature 25 C to, say, warm 75 C, would be around 52 000 Joules.”
“That's a lot of Joules,” I observed.
“I don't know. If you don't mind lame comparisons, just for the sake of contrast, the muzzle kinetic energy of a pistol bullet oscillates from 500 to 550 plus Joules. It doesn't mean much, but I thought you might find it curious.”
“I do. So I'd need the energy of… about a hundred bullets, just to warm a cup of tea?”
“It might be slightly too simplified, but assuming that all of the bullets' energy would be transferred directly into the tea, yes, you're approximately right.”
I whistled. “I think I've found a new respect for the drink.”
“I'm glad you liked it. Anyway, we have to remember that's the kinetic energy of an already launched bullet, not of the explosion that launched it in the first place—although that's a part of it.” She made a thoughtful murmur. “I'll be frank,” she confessed. “I haven't the slightest idea how to go about these computations. It isn't all that complicated: we just have to assume that magic can inexplicably manipulate the process of heat transfer without affecting the system with any external forces, but that's what baffles me the most. I don't know that I can wrap my mind around the idea of an invisible, intractable force influencing the regular equilibrium of processes without them undergoing any comparable change opposed to the usual relationships. It throws my brain off balance for some reason. At any rate,” she announced more soberly, “we're getting sidetracked. I didn't want to talk about shooting people with tea.”
I was disappointed to say the least.
“Not really,” she admitted. “I just wanted to drive the point home that heat is a universal process, encountered in all kinds of systems, regardless of the chemical composition of the bodies involved.”
“So,” she said a bit acidly, “while water, air and earth magics all stick to their own element, fire—or heat—magic doesn't give a damn and messes about with anything it wants to.”
“So?” I repeated.
She knitted her small brows. “What do you mean, so? It's it strange?”
“Aren't you interested in what this encompasses?”
“Why should I?” I countered. “I'm not the physics major here.”
“Yes, but you are the magic affinate; you should be able to see the potential this has.”
“Affinate?” I blinked. “Is that an actual word?”
“It doesn't matter,” she bristled. “Can't you at least pretend to humour me? I wouldn't even bother you with this stuff, you know—but just in case you forgot, I can't do magic myself. I can't take this problem to my lecturers, either—they'd just laugh me out of the classroom. Can't you help me with this, Naya? Come on, please…”
I heaved a tired sigh.
She wasn't going to give up. She never did. It was a wound that had burrowed deep in her chest and periodically planted those ideas in her head. She was still, even after all that time, feeling left out of the loop. She was, after all, the only powerless being amongst our flock of reality-bending freaks. I wanted to know how she felt. I wished I did.
I looked around the place we were in. It had never changed; it was still the same old quaint café it had always been. It was where we'd first met. Where I'd first met them, to be precise. Our acquaintance was somewhat rough-edged around the head. We never did go to the trouble of ironing it out. We had no need to. We didn't consider it all that important.
Couples and loners alike had been cycling in and out while we still sat, engrossed in this fruitless discussion. We were always the only ones to stay so long. We must have felt bound to the place—one of the few we could call our mutual territory. I wasn't complaining. I had good company and a good place to enjoy it in. I was happy, if that is happiness.
Without thinking about it too much, I reached out and stole the hat off Renko's dishevelled head. She had an ugly habit of leaving it on indoors. I flicked it around in my fingers and screwed it onto my own big head.
“Hey!” She scowled. “That's my hat!”
“I get a buff to IQ when I'm wearing a hat,” I explained scientifically. “Can I use yours?”
“Should have asked that before you stole it!”
“Oh?” I took the hat off and turned it in my hand. “What an amazing thing.”
“Can I get it back?”
“No.” I put it back on. “I need it so I don't sound like an idiot when I talk. Indubitably,” I articulated. “Incontrovertible. I'm feeling smarter already. Systematic. Systematic analysis of incontrovertible evidence for indubitable inconsistencies. How am I doing?”
“A bit off the mark perhaps, but it'll do. Anyway, about what we were talking about,” I resumed our previous topic, “you're correct—to some degree.”
She settled down, seemingly. “I knew it!” she exulted. “So what is there about fire magic that's so special? Can it manipulate all kinds of matter against the rules after all?”
“Hold fast, Jesse James,” I lifted a mollifying finger; “let's start at the beginning. It's true that elemental magic directly manipulates only its relevant matter, yes—but,” I cautioned, “elemental magic is only the least sophisticated magic there is; you can't treat it as a good exemplifier for all the other kinds of nonsense going on inside the barrier.”
“I wasn't trying to.”
“Of course, I'm just saying. In any case, I'm positive you've figured out already that elemental magic draws its elements, and thus the matter necessary to power the intended effect, from the caster's surroundings. Sometimes they call that ‘mana,’ but the brutal truth is, it's just a codeword. It means that the source of the power comes from the outside. Casting an air spell, you draw the air from around you. Casting an earth spell, you gather from the ground around your feet. Casting a water spell—you know the drill.”
“See,” Renko exclaimed, “that's what I'm talking about! Heat can be found everywhere, so fire magic does, in essence, manipulate all matter, regardless of its—”
I silenced her with a gesture. “It does,” I granted, “but ask yourself this: what does it matter? So what if fire magic draws heat from everything around? What it comes down to is heat; its source is insignificant. It may siphon the warmth out of the air, the ground, water if it's around, animals, even people—but in the end, no matter the source, it's always the same thing: warmth. I'm sorry to break it to you, Ren, darling,” I said sadly, “but you're completely missing the point. It doesn't matter what you draw it from if at the end of the day it remains the same. It's childish to think otherwise.”
I snatched her teacup and sipped, purposefully using the same side that she had used.
Then I set it down.
“Stay in your world, Ren,” I told her firmly. “You aren't fit to deal with this kind of stuff.”
She gave me a rueful face.
I knew I was perhaps stepping on shaky ground. I was aware, acutely even, that my words might just irritate that itching old injury she scratched open every day. And yet I maintained my stern face. It might teach her a lesson. Shame is a splendid teacher; making mistakes, even better—you just need someone to point them out. I didn't want to hurt her, but I cared for her a bit too much to let it get in my way.
“Still,” she refused to surrender, “even if I can't put this knowledge to use, if you experiment on your own, maybe you could—”
“No,” I told her sharply.
“No, Ren,” I restated. “I don't care.”
She stared at me incredulously. “You can use magic and you don't care?”
“No. Not a lot.”
“How can you say that!” She slammed her fist on the tabletop. “Has it ever occurred to you what ordinary people would give up to have your kinds of abilities?”
“I don't care.”
“Why?! You're terrible!”
I shut my eyes and exhaled.
“Because,” I said, “I want to keep in touch with this world, Ren. I want to stay human.”
She continued to stare at me, but her voice wasn't so sure any more. “Why?” she questioned weakly once again.
I looked at her and smiled. “For you, if nothing else,” I said. “I sort of love you, you understand.”
She screwed up her colourless lips. “You don't have to do that.”
“I want to though.”
“Would you presume to tell me what I should and shouldn't want, Ren?” I dared. “Me? A—as you put it—magic affinate?”
“That's not fair,” she protested.
“So what? Go ahead, tell me I shouldn't care about you. I'll suck the heat out of this tea and put it so deep down your pants you'll leap out of them like a jack rabbit with its hind legs on fire.”
I noticed, not without some amusement, that she squeezed her legs together at the idea.
“I don't care about the whole magic business,” I told her bluntly. “I'm what I am, but that doesn't mean I've got to arrange my whole life around the fact.”
She didn't look very convinced.
It was always like this.
So long as we limited our topics to mundane stuff, we were a perfect match. A bit wild, pseudo-intellectual match of two people too knowledgeable for their own good, who wished only to have fun while they were still young. We needed to remember that. We had to leave the unpleasant past behind and focus on the cheerier present.
“Ren?” I accosted.
“What?” she asked me sullenly.
“Want to go hit up the movies today?”
She eyed me irritably. “Haven't you got a date with Mary later?”
“I'll call it off.”
“She won't be very excited.”
“I'll make it up to her. She can join us in the evening anyhow.”
“In the evening?”
“When we go to my place and cuddle on the sofa while watching soap operas and gobbling up chocolate ice cream.”
“I don't like chocolate ice cream.”
“Well, but I do, so you're just going to have to deal with it.”
She made a wan, dejected smile. “That's a rather clumsy attempt at changing the topic.”
I feigned some surprise. “It must be the hat,” I concluded. “It's not working any more. We might have to return it.”
She laughed, a private little laugh. “Okay,” she said. “If you absolutely insist.”
“I fear I might have to.”
“No surprise there. Who'll pay?”
“Should be my turn this time, shouldn't it?”
“Have you got a hold of that job you told me about?”
“I'll tell you all about in the cinema, once the film has started.”
I grinned. “I do my best.”
We stood up and Ren hastily downed the rest of her tea.
I paid close attention to her neck while she did. The day was still young. We dropped our bill off at the counter and filed sluggishly out of the café, drawing our jackets tighter about ourselves. Winter lurked just around the corner, ready to set in for the next few months. I had to mobilise myself and find that job soon or I might have trouble surviving the chill. Or, I thought, I could always have Ren stay over and warm the bed. She'd be pleased, I thought.
“Well then,” I took her hand and said. “Shall we go?”
She chuckled. “I'm sick of that question, you know, I really am.”
“It's part of my character,” I told her. “It can't be helped.”
“Sure, sure. All right, let's go. I wonder what they're screening today.”
So we started, down the dry, dusty streets of our home town.
I might as well cross-link this here: >>/shrine/33806 And now for your story.
I don’t know how long I'd stared thoughtlessly at the flap-jawed figures on the TV screen.
I told myself it didn't matter. That I was just killing time anyway. I kind of wished I knew how to do that, actually—kill time. I’d never got around expanding on this particular idea. I ponder even now, sometimes, what could have happened had I found the—ahem—time and mind to give it a crack. I wonder what would have happened. Would the delicate fabric of reality find the strength to shrug it off somehow and iron itself out back to order? Or would it perhaps tear itself apart trying to, make the universe shrivel up like a raisin and come crashing around our ears in a great clatter of possible and impossible smashing into each other like huge clackers? I might yet try it one day, maybe. At this point I couldn’t care less about the world if it at least got my blood running again. I am so sleepy now, so tired, all the time…
Anyway, that’s my thoughts running away with me.
It was late evening now. We had more or less followed the plans I’d laid out earlier in the day. I’d buzzed Mary and told her our favourite mutual friend had been having a hard time of it again, and—ducking under the said friend’s punches—requested that we rally at my place after dark for a box of ice-cream, some cheap Hollywood flick and a cup of that sweet warm thing people have taken to calling love. She’d agreed, naturally. She’d refused to give the reason for robbing me of the joy of having to wrangle my way out of our date, but even over the shoddy cell speaker I’d heard the faint note of relief in her voice. She had, apparently, had a business of her own to see to.
She had a lot of businesses of her own to see to these days, I recall. I had not the slightest idea whether she’d struck it home somewhere and had become a shining new entrepreneur or was simply doing her tacky little best to give Ren and me some never-asked-for space, but I kept my nose out of it. One way or the other, I respected her enough not to question her motives. I wouldn’t say, however—if it was indeed the case—that the space was all that necessary. It wasn’t. After we’d got our lives untangled from the roughs of that nightmare-like misadventure inside the border, we’d learned a very important truth: that there was very little point to worrying at the craggy edges of our weird triangular relationship. Sure, it was bound to shatter a few preconceptions along the way somewhere, blow a mind or five and violate a couple of good tastes, but we were weird people, and weird relationships suited us.
At any rate, that day we’d done as we’d planned. It was forty-five in the north-west on the clock and the outside had gotten dark exceptionally fast—fast even for the glum, pre-winter standards of our lovely home town. Renko had gone outside to get some booze to down the supper. She’d picked up quite the taste for liquor, I’d noticed. I didn’t argue about it a lot; I’d never abstained from the occasional bottle myself, and I believed rather firmly that her shaggy little reason would hold through the flood of spirits. I didn’t worry for her too hard, either, late as it was. She could handle me, after all. She could as very well handle any other adventurous-feeling fellow to happen along. I had my arms full with other things, anyway. Well, one of them I did. The other was waiting—noticeably lonely—for its own thing to come back with the booze. Granted, my arms weren’t habitually so vocal about their loneliness, but in this case they had some very strong opinions.
The thing in my occupied arm stirred. A storm of golden locks fell in a cascade over my shirt when the thing snuggled pleasantly closer in her sleep. I hadn’t the measliest idea what that business of her had been, but it must have involved a lot of physical and mental strain. She’d been drowsier than a baby when she’d got back, and she fell asleep almost as soon as she’d laid her blond-trussed head on my shoulder. She’d completely missed her favourite soap, too. She was always almost in squeals whenever that rolled around. She must have been really drained.
I smiled and touched the flat of my hand on the top of that crown of golden locks. She murmured something in her sleep, and the murmur was altogether mature. I made the only logical assumption that she was having a dream starring me and returned what scarce attention I still had to the blabbering countenances playing at politics on the TV screen.
I didn’t think about it very often back then, but the pretty blond Mary was in many manners an opposite of her dowdy black-mopped friend. Maribel “Check That Beaut” Hearn was, by all means, a model of beauty—for good reasons, too, as we found during that sad episode inside the border. She had skin like alabaster and a body that had known exactly which way to grow. She was sunnier than the big yellow himself and had an inclination for oblivious selflessness that made her an agreeable friend, but if you rubbed her the wrong way just long enough, she could still make a rather strong case of any of the numerous convictions she usually kept under the amiable rug. She was altogether like a runaway princess from the land of Never-Never.
On the other end of the scale, the one that was slightly rusted and normally reserved for weights, perched the worrisome Renko “Should Get a Life” Usami, loading the scales with her woes and sulking eternally over her looks that oscillated around the “precious six out of ten” notch on a good day. She had slightly freckled cheeks and a small nose that begged a pair of glasses to complete the bookworm image. She could never find a fitting pair, though, because nearly all of her time she spent with the nose in books instead of shops, twitching at high-style plays in theatres and sunk to its tip in cogitation of the logically impossible. She might have made a dream-come-true for an alike book-dwelling fellow, but her femininity reached only so far as her bed and nowhere beyond. She was a woman, yes—a surprisingly sweet one when she wanted to—but most of the time she didn’t, and she paled in comparison to the almost royal-like Mary.
In short, Mary had a pretty face, Renko had a pretty mind. That was the kind of pair they were. Of course, each had a fair number of other cute things aside from those, but that is a story for a different time.
Anyway, since there was nothing more interesting to do, I’d gotten so engaged in the quasi-political nonsense flooding at me from the TV that I startled rather badly when Mary rose from her distracted me-pillow, assumed a stiff sit and looked around with a bemused kind of expression on her dark pink lips. The startling part was that she never opened her eyes. An acid taste ran through my mouth like a knife through a thigh. I knew precisely what it meant, and I hadn’t, in my darkest fantasies, entertained the idea of it happening now.
“How remarkable,” the golden-haired princess observed in a low voice that was hers but also at the same time not very hers.
You can picture it, if you please, similar to driving a car of the same model as yours, but belonging to someone else. In pure theory, everything should be the same, and at first it seems to be; but then you get on the road, try to turn up the AC, and the knob tweaks too lightly, the lights are just a smidge too dark for your eyes, and the scent tree that you picked meticulously out of dozens at the store (it had a smiling alien on it) is nowhere to be found.
It’s an awful kind of feeling, and you’d waste your life away searching for anyone that enjoys it—mainly because there’s no such person. I didn’t enjoy it either.
The gorgeous blond girl turned her head slowly until she was facing in my general direction. The turn looked so numb and so forced you might think she was in truth only a beautifully furnished android. A remarkably soft and warm one, yes, but an android all the same.
“Would you mind?” she asked me curtly.
“And what if I would?” I chanced.
She tut-tutted at that open defiance. “Well,” she kept a level tone, “that would be just too bad, wouldn’t it? I’m not going away just yet, you know.”
“I feared that might be the case.”
“I do hate to disappoint.”
I sighed and gently pried her eyelids open.
She looked at me with mischievous golden-eyed delight.
“You ought to shave,” she observed. “You’re too young for a beard.”
“Hello, Mother dear,” I replied tartly. “Welcome to my humble abode. Abode, meet Mother. Mother, meet abode.”
Yukari-Mary made a thin smile. “Charmed, I’m sure.” She blinked with some difficulty. “This is getting harder each time, I must say. Would you kindly straighten out my fingers? They’re all tangled up together. Oh, and do something about this bra-strap, I beg you. It’s giving me the itches something awful.”
After a short spell of rubbing the kinks out of her places, she let me go.
She found it helpful, purportedly, if someone did that while she eased her mind into the body. I didn’t. About all I found it was frustrating. I had a special place in my heart reserved just for Mary’s lovely form, and I didn’t much feature the picture of someone else getting intimate with it.
I was, of course, sharply conscious of the fact that the mussed pretty girl before me was temporarily no longer my precious, precious girlfriend, but someone else completely. She may have still had all the same basic appearances, but the inside, I reminded myself, had been elbowed aside to give place to entirely another being: its architect, builder, and very likely the original template, the most insidious being spawned by the world to date, a deceiver, gamester, cheater, liar and incorrigible adulteress, but perhaps most importantly: my dear, dear birth mother whom I loved and respected above any- and everyone else.
All the same, my fingertips itched.
She stretched her smooth, tanned arms and gave me a big, radiant smile, and the smile was altogether bare of everything you may have surmised of her until now. I very nearly swallowed my tongue there. The body, my girlfriend’s body, was still the one and the same that I had known, but it moved in alien ways, ways I had never seen it move before. Suddenly, there was in my head this crawling, tingling want to discover it anew. A want to reach out and touch inappropriately those smiling red lips. A want to feel even more and more of that ripe creamy skin. I wanted to unbutton her blouse, deliberately slow, and fumble playfully with the clasps of her cute white brassiere. I wanted to test the firmness of her shoulders, the lush round breasts and the charmingly flat belly. I felt, keenly as never, the urgent need to stick my wriggling fingers where they didn’t belong just to see what reaction that would earn me.
I was making her scream in my head. I realised rather acutely just who she was right now—my dear scheming mother—but the fact didn’t seem to bother my conscience in the least.
I feel that, were the man still alive, Freud and I would have had a field day with this.
Some of you may not know, but the reason why Freud thought his mom would make a fine lay—actually very simple. See, when Freud was but a blubbering baby-boy, whose whole existence relied solely on the bases of crawling out of the cradle when nobody was looking and sucking on breasts for fun and nourishment, his dearest mother was occupied biding her time out of the house, doing things mothers usually do when out of the earshot of their child. Who in actuality let little Sigmund enjoy the benefits of female bosoms was a hired wet-nurse, which fact, as far as human psychology is concerned, was basis enough to disqualify the wayward mother from entering the close circle of unfortunate women young Freud would feel mentally repulsed to shake a pee-pee at later on in his life.
It’s called the Westermarck Effect; you might want to look it up if you’ve got particularly gifted female relatives.
That said, my own situation was a tad tougher than big Sig’s. After all, my then-current girlfriend was, in essential short, a living, breathing, organic replica of my beloved mammy. As such, my personal psychology faltered somewhat whenever the subject of mammy’s physicality reared its ugly head. With it incapacitated, come into play did other, less sophisticated mechanisms, and the things they told, while genuinely intriguing, bordered often just slightly on the not-so-socially-acceptable side.
Yukari must have felt my queasiness because just as I’d wrapped the thought up, she began to worm her way back under my arm and give me even more reasons to find the designer of the human psyche and give him a few very pointed arguments as to why he should keep his twisted libido out of his work in the future.
“Cosy,” my mother murmured after she’d settled down.
I elected to indulge her odd humour. “What is?”
“This abode of yours. It’s very cosy.”
“All the same cosy.”
“Well,” I said, “whatever you suppose, Mother dear. I can’t say I care for it as much as you do.”
She chuckled. There were all kinds of interesting movements accompanying that chuckle, and I had to steel myself mighty hard to retain a cool nerve.
“It always strikes me as a nice place to live, is what I’m saying,” she purred.
“Always?” I was alarmed.
As far as I was privy, this was her first time seeing the place.
“Yes. Cosy and private. Very private.”
I let it pass. “So to what do I owe this parental inspection?” I decided to investigate.
“Isn’t it that, Mother dear? ‘Cause I hope it isn’t something else—something I wouldn’t find nearly as tolerable.” I felt myself growing irrationally resentful. I pressed on. “In fact,” I told her sweetly, “this is hardly acceptable, either. Here I am trying to forget the hell I went through because of you, to live and let live like a normal human being, and then here are you, popping your nose out of nowhere and scratching the old wounds. I’ll be frank for a moment here: were you not hiding behind this body like some kind of sick human shield, I’d rip you to pieces this instant. I’d screw that scheming head of yours off and bat it into another dimension with your own broken corpse. You’ve made me very cross, Mother. You’re in luck that I don’t want to hurt anyone but you.”
She giggled at my angry confession. “You would do that, really?”
“As sure as your hand is fondling my thigh right now.”
“Oh dear,” Yukari laughed once more and kissed me.
The kiss was only one, but it was on the lips and long enough to short me of breath. At its end, my resolve was no harder than a bowl of watery pudding.
At last, Yukari-Mary pulled away sensually and looked straight into my eyes. “Well,” she said happily, “we’re fortunate I’m too much of a coward to face you in person then, aren’t we?”
I surrendered at that point.
There was no sense fighting with Mother. She always got what she wished, one way or the order. As long as she kept her charms inside the border, all I could do is vainly wish her dead. As soon as she poked it out, she’d have me all over herself, with knives and other edged implements. She understood that perfectly, and consequently was using Mary to communicate with me without fear of getting sliced to ribbons in the mid of our conversation.
“I give up,” I voiced my decision, just to thwart any hypothetical misconceptions. “You’ve no openings, do you?”
“Not that you know of, no.”
“Yet,” I included. “Why are you here?”
She made a rather disappointed sound. “Couldn’t we exchange pleasantries for a while more?” she pleaded miserably. “That leaping straight to the point business is so tedious.”
“I rather we got it over with.”
Yukari grouched. “Your father wasn’t like this,” she moaned. “You’re so uptight these days. You used to be so easy-going. Was it these girls that did this to you? Are they being too pushy with you? Should I perhaps give them some pointers on relationships?”
“I’ll tear the world apart if you so much as lay a finger on them,” I hissed. “And as for my easy-goingness going away, you’re not clear of guilt yourself. Now, Mother. Why this unannounced visit?”
She shrugged. “A parental inspection, duh. You are my son, after all.”
“If you don’t be serious,” I warned. “I’ll strip you naked and carve my biography on your back—with a spade. And the first words will be very long and very hard to spell correctly.”
She took hold of my hands and touched lovingly them to her cheeks. Then she smiled angelically.
“Can you really say that to this face?” she tweeted.
“I’ll start with ‘murder, death, kill,’” I fantasised. “Then I’ll get to ‘mauling’ and ‘carving out the tripes.’ Then it’ll be all about the ‘disembowelings.’”
“Oh, fine!” Yukari threw her arms up and sighed. “I give. You’re absolutely impossible. I didn’t raise you like this, you know.”
“You didn’t raise me at all. Now, what do you have to tell me, Yukari?”
I probably shouldn’t mention this, but I held on to her cheeks. I could make a dozen excuses why, but the truth is they felt somehow very small and weak in my hands, and that gave my confidence a much-needed boost. She sensed that, naturally. I know because she twisted her head around that it became rather uncomfortable for me to keep my hold.
“Stubborn, too,” my golden-eyed nemesis muttered. Then she sighed. “All right, you have me. There is another cause to this call. A rather good one, at that.”
“Out with it.”
“As you wish, heart.” She paused briefly for a deep breath. “There is,” she then said, “something—someone—afoot. A certain presence has been bounding in and out of my land and causing all sorts of ripples and disruptions in the border. A very unsettling presence. And no matter how hard I try to get a hold of him, he slips away each time.”
“You can’t catch him?” I was mildly surprised. “You?”
“Go ahead,” she told me sourly, “rub it in if it pleases you. All I know is that there’s no saying what his intentions are. You should be on your guard as well, is what I’m here to tell you. You’re tied to us very intimately, after all… regardless of how vehemently you deny it.”
“You say he’s been popping in and out of the land.”
She nodded seriously. “Yes.”
“Then he can go through the border as he very well pleases.”
“Yes,” she said. “Which has everything to do with my presence here now. You’re sitting ducks out here, you and these girls both. You have to watch your back.”
“Then,” I pushed on, “if he can do that… What is he?”
“And that is the greatest mystery of them all,” Mother said gravely. “You see, whichever way I size up his presence, he comes across strikingly close to… well, to you—to Naya.”
As always, the name sent a thrill down my spine.
“To me?” Still, I was dumbfounded. “But that’s impossible. I’ve sat on my butt here like a good puppy since that festival a year ago. You do realise Reimu herself told me to stay away, no? I might go against you, Mother, but I’d slit my wrists sooner than cross Reimu. She’s crazy out of my league. And he—” I hesitated, “I mean, you-know-who, he is… well—”
“Yes,” Yukari relieved me. “I know. It’s not him, though. That’s why I’m so upset. I’ll deal with him on my own time, however. You watch yourself. I’ll watch the land. I just wanted to tell you to be careful. We don’t know what his goals are, and you’re… well,” she traced a circle on my chest with one small finger, “you’re kind of dear to me, you know? I’d be crushed if something were to happen to you.”
There was a moment of silence.
“That’s kind of ironic for you to say,” I noted.
“Oh, you brute!” Yukari drove her fist into my gut, scowling like a thundercloud. “You’re beastly! Ironic? I bare my heart before you, tell you honest to death how I feel, and all you say in return is that? Ironic? I’m shocked, shocked at your towering selfishness! And stop hugging me, thank you very much!” She squirmed out from under my arm. “Ironic!” she grumbled. “Hmph!”
“Quit fussing, Mother.”
“Fussing?!” She nearly shrieked that. “Fussing!” She glared. “You men-folk are all the same, you are! You’re all just big rugs of hair and dirt without empathy! You should be all put to baby-sitting for a decade, you should! Then maybe you would learn what it means to be gentle! Your father said the same thing to me when I asked to travel with him: ‘Go home and stop making scenes,’ he said! ‘A woman should keep out of our business,’ he said! That thick-headed old oaf!”
“Mother?” she repeated. “Mother?! Oh, I’ll give you ‘Mother,’ you big stupid rogue! You should go to the underworld and burn to cinders, you should!” Then she turned away from me. “And don’t dare call me ‘Mother’ again! We’re through, you hear me? Through!”
What could I do? I let her simmer for a minute or two, then I snuck behind her and gave her the fondest squeeze I had.
“Oh, do let go of me, you big lout!” she demanded.
There was little authority in that demand. She didn’t sound too convinced.
“Oh, I don’t think so, Mother,” I played along anyway. “You’ve done terrible things to me and I hate you for that, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got to be mean to you all the time.” I thought about it for a second. “I’d still kill you where you stand, though.”
She let off a huge sigh. “Then you’ll take it back?” she asked, undaunted by my previous statement.
“I’ll take back whatever you want, Mother,” I told her; “even if I have to apply great violence to make it move. You weren’t fussing. You were just trying to be cute.”
“You’re as silly as your father was.”
I muttered. “… Well cheers.”
“You’re welcome.” She wriggled around until she was facing me again. Then she kissed me again, but the kiss was altogether chaste this time. “Stay safe,” she said quietly. “I don’t want you to get hurt any more.”
“I’ll try to keep out of trouble.”
And then I closed my arms about her and drew her closer.
We remained like that for a while.
Again and again, Yukari-Mary stroked my slightly dry hair, and that, for some odd reason, made me feel very nostalgic. I wasn’t used to being mothered, and I didn’t like it very much, but in this particular case, I had to admit it wasn’t a bad thing to be.
It may sound a smidge hypocritical after all my outbursts, but I realised just then, that, for all her scheming and plotting and sleeping around, I still loved that unreliable woman who I had the dubious privilege of calling Mother. I loved her despite having all the reason in the world to strangle her with her own intestines.
It wasn’t probably a very smart thing to do, but love rarely is.
A little sidelight here: intestines, in reality not that good for strangling, tear to shreds at the lightest tug. You shouldn’t use intestines for the purpose of strangling people, unless you’re planning to do a bad job of it.
That’s it for gruesome observations, though. Mother and I were having a moment, see, and that kind of commentary is usually considered mood-breaking in the civilised world.
So, rather than discussing the mutability of the human body, I asked her in a low voice: “How’s the little bastard then?”
I didn’t want to startle her. She was breathing so softly I wondered idly whether she had maybe fallen asleep on me.
She hadn’t. “Coming along,” she whispered in my ear. “He’s growing into an energetic child.”
The ear tingled. She must have felt that, too, because she chuckled.
“Has he started breaking things yet?” I pressed on. I was almost positive I was blushing.
“No,” Yukari said. “Not yet, he hasn’t. Should he?”
“At some point he will. You can remind him once he does that there is this very nasty man out there that will come and show him what for if he doesn’t keep it within mannerly limits.”
“That’s untypically helpful of you.”
“Always sign me up for beating up children. How are Ran and Chen?”
“Taking it hard,” Yukari lamented. “Chen doesn’t enjoy not having everyone’s fullest attention, and Ran doesn’t enjoy Chen not enjoying things. You’ll never believe it, but I have to do the monstrous majority of the raising myself.”
“You’re right. I probably won’t believe it.”
“You don’t have to, heart,” she told me warmly. “You really don’t have to.”
“And Reimu?” I asked.
“She hates him. She absolutely can’t stand being around him. She says he reminds her too much of someone who gave her a lot of grief in the past.”
“She must be mistaken,” I said.
“Yes,” Yukari agreed. “She must.” She paused. “And on this side?”
“Same old. You should know, shouldn’t you?”
I meant her unique link with Mary, of course. Amazingly, I managed to say it without sending my blood into a careen.
“You don’t tell her everything,” Yukari pointed out.
That was true.
“That’s not true,” I protested. “We’re a couple, after all—well, a triple, to be exact.”
“That’s my line.”
I grunted. “… I get it,” I gave up. “All right, Mother. I haven’t got a spare dime on me, to be honest.”
“Same old, huh?”
“I have my sights on a job, though,” I added quickly. “Or, well, had. I might want to check it out again, eh?”
“You might. You should, in point of fact. Tomorrow.”
“As soon as you wake up.”
“I mean it.”
“Good boy. And how is the other one faring?”
“You mean Ren? She’s got a few rough corners yet, but I’m working on them.”
“Do. She saw too much too fast. She needs you to ease her along.”
“Would you stop that?”
“That ‘Yes, Mother’ thing. I can’t think why, but it’s making me very nervous.”
“Oh,” I let out, “that. Yes, Mother. I’ll stop it, I promise. Someday, somehow.”
She gave me a jab in the side. “You’re ghastly, did you know that?”
“It’s in my genetics. Oh,” I pretended to realise, “but, man alive, it’s getting late, isn’t it?”
I took her by the shoulders and tore her away from me with an almost audible sound of ripping flesh.
“The thing is,” I told her unhappy eyes, “Ren should be back from the shop in just a couple of shakes.”
“Should she, now?” Mother was sulking.
“All I’m saying is,” I explained patiently, “we don’t want her to see you here. She’s sensitive to this kind of stuff, you know.”
“I could pretend to be her.”
She still rarely spoke Mary’s name.
“You couldn’t if you wanted, Mother,” I said firmly. “Your language is too brash. You move differently. You flaunt yourself too much.”
She was stunned. “I do what?”
“It’s a thing of humility, Mother. You have no need to be humble, so you wouldn’t understand.”
“Am I being insulted here?”
“Not at all.” There was an echo of steps in the staircase outside. “You hear that?” I asked. “She’s coming back right now.” I smiled and looked her deeply into those pouting amber-gold eyes. “You’re always going to be my mother, aren’t you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, a bit confused. “Why, all of a sudden?”
“Oh, nothing important. I just didn’t want you to misunderstand, that’s all.”
“Take care, Mother.”
And then I kissed her—a trifle violently, perhaps—on the lips.
That was but a feint, of course. The instant we connected, I willed out and drove it into Mary’s. Therein I found the lurking presence that was Mother, and, with spiteful almost brutality, shoved at it with all my bulk until it shrank and vanished with a poof.
A poof that existed only in my head, but was sign enough that she was gone.
Mary moaned and roused slowly from her involuntary trance. She saw my face intimately close to hers and wanted to say something about it, but her lips were still sealed for the moment.
A moment after, that state of affairs changed, and she breathed, and smiled sheepishly.
“Oh my,” she mumbled, flushing. “This is a novel way to wake up.”
“Thought I’d try something new for once,” I winked impishly. I couldn’t let her know what had just happened. “Any impressions?”
“A little unconventional, perhaps,” she gave her expertise, “but with some getting used to that could be made even pleasant.” She rubbed sleepily at her eyes. “How long have I been out, sugar?”
“A while or ten, about.”
“Oh my. Did I miss it?”
“Your soap?” I feigned innocence. “Oh, yes, you did. It was fantastic, this episode, mark my words. One hundred per cent grand.”
She stared at me with a startled accusation. “Why on earth didn’t you wake me up?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to. I could tell you what happened, though. See, this brunette broad grew a pair finally and called the dude, but the dude was with the blond chick right then, and—” “Quiet!” Mary forced my mouth shut with a hand. “No more! I’ll just watch the rerun! Geez!”
“Yes,” I mumbled. I stopped just an inch short of adding: “Mother.”
The door opened, and we heard Renko stumble into the apartment.
“Ho, lazy-bums!” The freckled, hatted girl entered in a happy trut, hauling a plastic bag swollen to the absolute limit with jingling loot. She was red on the cheeks and wheezing. “Got me the golds, got me the whites, got me the reds,” she almost sang. “Call your shots, folks. Call ‘em fast, ‘cause the night is going down.”
“I’ll take the wine,” Mary volunteered.
“All yours, princess,” Renko tossed her a bottle, grinning. “What’s your poison today, Naya?”
“Give me the beer,” I said. “Gold seems to be my colour tonight.”
She looked at me, bemused. “Say what, now?”
“Oh,” I waved dismissively, “nothing important.”
“Hear, hear,” Mary confirmed from the side.
“What? What?” Renko sputtered, her eyes flickering between me and her blond friend. “What did you two do when I was gone?”
“Oh, nothing much,” I lied. “You’re better off not knowing, heart, believe me.”
“Hear, hear,” Mary agreed, fumbling with the cork.
“What did you doooo?!”
I snatched a beer can from the bag and cracked it open with one hand.
The hissing brought my senses out of a doze. The evening so far had been much too saccharine for my taste. The bubbly bitter was precisely what my taste buds cried for right now. To restore balance.
Renko crashed on the couch, begging exasperatedly that we share with her all about our embarrassing activities. I thought, quite inadvertently, that, with a few hours, we just might. The night was still young, and the alcohol, plenty.
Time would show.
As for now, I raised my can in a silent cheer.
Good grief, Mother. And good health. You’d better not die before I kill you.
And there I was. I’d made good time, despite all odds. It wouldn’t be until hours later that I’d need go about worrying for the night. The day was still young. A good time, indeed.
I’m sorry. That was perhaps too vague.
To say I was somewhere, I admit, was a shade redundant. It’s not as if I’d ever been nowhere. I was always somewhere. The specific “where” just changed by the date. There have, naturally, been times when I’d loosely considered visiting “Nowhere,” but the notion of being forever stranded in a strange dimension where I was the only thing that Was, or worse – getting slurped up and munched on by Things That Were Not – the idea had never appealed to me beyond an ephemeral “what if.” You can blame that on my overweening fear of being alone. Alone was something I’d decided quite firmly not to be ever again. I’d had alone enough for a few lifetimes over. The thing was sad, bitter and altogether icky.
Anyway, the “where” that I was now, unfamiliar though it was to my sharp eye, bode a pleasant degree of progress. It wasn’t the exact “where” I wanted to be, but it was closer. A lot closer. It very well should be, after all the other ones that I’d seen across the weeks and months—but, I’m getting ahead of myself. You ought to tell me when I do that. I’ve always had this vile inclination for rambling.
The place where I was now lay on a flattened hilltop hedged by dense woods. The trees, tall and wide in the trunk, reached up the slope like a climbing wave of leaf and shadow. There was the way for me, should I chance on one of these kinds of “wheres” again. I sketched a mental note of one particularly promising thicket. I’d learned to be extra careful over the time. The plateau itself, however, was naked like the rump of a new-born baby. The wind was free to sweep over the ground and toss my hair whichever way it pleased. And toss it did. I was growing a forest of my own up there. I’d need make a stop in the Outside soon. The thought soured my mood somewhat, but if I wanted something stylish without fear of some home-grown scissor operator snipping my ears off by an accident, that was the place to go. Even if I didn’t belong there.
In the heart of the even hilltop stood a slant-roofed, slightly run-down building made of wood and occasional stone. I’d approached from the backside, so I couldn’t ascertain whether the usual gravel-path and steep flight of stairs were there in this particular “where,” but I didn’t doubt it too much. Things varied between different “wheres” a lot, but some elements were almost inviolable.
Yes, I said “backside.” I seemed to always appear from the trees at the rear regions of the place. I know. I’d make a “best side” joke here, but that’d make me look tasteless.
Anyway, itself, the building looked to my eye much smaller than I’d remembered. It wasn’t that my memories were scrambled somehow, mind. A lot had changed – didn’t I tell you that just before? There was a shoddily thrown-together annex at the back-wall of the building. A metal water-tank was mounted and left to rust on its top, and the breeze was flaking it like no tomorrow. The place I considered “mine” had no such primitive additions. It had never seemed to need them. Someway, everything worked just fine without need of pipes, tanks or other rusty engineering. An artistic license, perhaps; those had been much simpler days, after all.
An overhanging rafter stuck out beside the trashy contraption. I took a short, half-circle run-up and grabbed hold of it. Then I swung my arm, tossed myself up, and tapped on the tiled rooftop.
I smacked my tongue.
I hadn’t planned to tap. I could have flown—yes, I can do that—but I absolutely wanted to look cool and made myself a fool in the process. I was just as rusty as that stupid water tank. I made a quiet resolution to subject myself to a tubful of WD-40 sometime in the near future.
The view wasn’t a great deal more impressive from up there, anyway. Truth be told, I knew it all too well without looking. There was the Forest of Magic, as vast and wild as it was boring. There, the crop-fields of the Human Village glowed in the noon sun. At the edge of the horizon loomed the accursed Lake and the Mansion of the cheeky little vampire and her time-stopping maid. The wind giving my hair the run for its money blew from the North, the place called Moriya.
I laughed inside.
It was all very different, yes, but if someone managed to slap a blindfold around my head and forced me to walk like so, I could still more or less tag the general landmarks. If they managed to do it. There was but one person I’d let blindfold me without giving their biology a radical making-over, and she wasn’t very likely to be here.
Not very likely, anyway. That still left some likely to be had.
There was an invigorating thought.
A silly grin on my face, I hopped to the crest of the roof and started at a run toward the front of the building. The run became a full sprint, then a dash, and I launched myself from the beam at the end of the crest with an almost audible crack of breaking sound barrier. Then I crashed to the ground, like a plummeting boulder, knocking up clouds of dust, soil, shock and general awe.
There was a cry of startled innocence.
“What the flying fuck—”
All right, it might have been slightly foxed, but it was still a kind of innocence.
I bent down and pushed one foot forward. The distance between the porch and my point of landing was ten—no, nine metres at most. I might need to be more precise in a couple of seconds. I touched one hand to the ground at my feet and set the other on the handle of the knife on my belt. The next moments would decide. A vicious feeling shuddered down my arched back. I tensed up.
The scraps of uprooted earth rained to the ground and the dust-clouds vanished with a sudden blow of the wind.
And there she was.
See, now I can say “there she was,” because you have the overall idea about the “where.” You want me to be more exact? All right, she was on the porch. I implied that just then, didn’t I? Of course I saw her when I jumped. I simply hadn’t the chance to look at her closely until afterwards.
I hadn’t had the chance to look at her closely for far too long now.
She was a sight, too.
You may think I only say that because I loved the girl, but there’s some very fundamental logic in the statement either way, isn’t there? She had hair as black as the night and as long as her waist. She wore clothes that were just enough to hide her smooth, flat belly and a handful of breasts. She had long, flawless legs, a perfect battle-stance and a beautiful crimson eyes that spelled trouble worse than the whistle of a dagger in a dark corner of your bedroom.
The letter weren’t like any tongue I’d ever seen, but I let it slide.
She flicked her wrist and a trio of cruel-looking needles appeared between her tightly squeezed-together fingers – just in case, it seemed, that her glare wasn’t hint enough.
“Who the fuck are you?” she was asking, visibly ruffled by my unexpected presence, “and what the flying fuck are you doing?!”
A “flying fuck” might sound like gibberish, but when you thought about Reimu, flying and fucking were not, ah... let’s just say they weren’t necessarily that gross a contradiction.
Anyway, I didn’t find too much argument against making myself known.
“I,” I said, “am the spider that, uh...” I squinted and trailed off. “Actually, could you promise first that we won’t start at savaging each other until after the introductions? That could be in due manner.”
A questioning brow was lifted at me from that pretty face.
“Only being careful,” I assured with a ready grip on the knife. “I can’t imagine why, but my acquaintances tend to end in violence if I’m not too careful.”
She didn’t lower her guard. The brow was left high, too.
It was a lovely brow, but it was bound to become crooked if she kept it up like that.
“You look human,” she observed.
I feigned some surprise. “Was it something I said?”
“Very funny.” She scowled at me with open animosity. “What the fuck was all that nonsense? Who are you? What the fuck do you want?”
“A promise that we won’t kill each other, for one. At least, not before bed-time.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Call it traumatic experience,” I said with a fake smile. “Well then? Are we going to be civilised? Or are we going to let our bodies do the talking?”
She thought about it for a moment.
Then her brow fell back to its natural place.
“I won’t attack you,” she said; “that is, unless you give me one more reason to do so, I won’t.”
I’d already given her some, is what she was saying.
“Unless you’re feeling like sport,” I said, “I hadn’t really planned on it.”
“Ah, is that so?” The manner in which she said it was stingy at best. “What an amazing thing.” She narrowed her eyes. “You know, you remind me of someone.”
I confess my heart skipped a beat right then.
“You’re almost like,” Reimu continued, “that... uh, wossname... That one idiot from the Village. You say the same god damn kind of stupid things he does.” Then her eyes went ablaze. “Gods! Thinking about him alone makes my blood boil! That infuriating... irresponsible...!”
She went on adoring the fellow’s many virtues, while my heart slowly came to a cold rest.
Still, I kept that impish grin I knew was just as smart as waving a copy of Das Kapital in the face of a corporate CEO. “I should maybe go and teach him not to copy people’s habits, then,” I proposed with certain unspoken suggestions.
That gave her a start, for some reason. “Ah, no, he—well, he isn’t, uh... Gods! Never mind! Are you—Are you from the Village, yourself? Are you, uh, an acrobat or something? Were you training around here? It’s not very safe, you know—not to mention someone lives here... you know?”
She sounded a bit desperate to change the subject. I obliged.
Yes, I did have to steady myself just a little. I’d let myself hope. That wasn’t good.
This wasn’t my place, regardless of my underlying sentiment. This wasn’t my “where” – not my Land, not my hill, not my shrine, and not my... well, you do get the point, don’t you? I don’t really feel like spelling it out for you, but you do, right? I thought so.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I told her playfully, “—just a little bit, though. So, now that we’ve been adequately human towards one another, what do you say we quit glaring holes in each other’s underwear and put the sharp things away for the time being? I’m here to talk, not to play.”
“Ah?” She blinked. “Ah. I, uh... Yeah. Sure.” The needles in her hands flashed and flickered out of existence. Then, just as she was about to invite me to make sweet, passionate love to her teacup, her eyes hardened. “Wait. What the hell do you mean, ‘play?’”
“A slip of the tongue,” I shrugged. “I meant ‘pray,’ obviously. This is a shrine, after all, no?”
“The ladies love it.” I let go of my knife and stood straight. “I’ll come closer now, so don’t get excited.”
“I meant with the needles, heart, not down there.”
She screwed up her little lips and scowled. “Are you trying to get under my skin? Who the hell do you think you are?”
I gave her a winning smile. “Only the most exciting man in your life.”
She made a resigned sound. “Whatever. Do as you please. Why do I always meet the worst kinds of idiots...”
“Why, thank you, heart,” I said, “that’s almost exactly what I had in mind anyway.”
Then I patted the dust out of my pants.
And out of my shirt.
And out of my cuffs, too.
Then I fixed the laces in my shoes. I also checked the time. According to my watch it was three in the night, but the watch was lying. I knew a lie when I saw one. The last jump must have messed with it someway. I’d have to adjust it later.
There was something wrong with my belt, too, so I investigated that as well.
An impatient sigh reached my ears. “Are you going to be all day?”
“I told you not to get excited,” I reminded.
“Go to hell, why don’t you!”
“They don’t like me there.” I finished my tidying up of self and smiled with rakish flair. “You’re as hot-blooded as ever, Reimu.”
She eyed me suspiciously. “Do we know each other?”
“We have.” I put my hands in my pockets and slowly approached the porch. “But you wouldn’t remember, would you? We’ve never met in this world. You’ve never seen me here. You’ve never heard about me. And I bet you’ll forget all about this ‘crazy pervert’ scarcely a week after I take my leave. You’ve a very neatly categorised view of people like me, don’t you? There are those you should try to remember and those you don’t need to. As of yet, I have not warranted myself that sort of attention, no? You’re thinking me a passing loony, aren’t you?”
I climbed the two low steps and stood before the sceptical shrine maiden.
“Well,” I grinned, “that much is true. I’m just passing through. And I am a loony, if you must fit me somewhere in there absolutely.”
“You sound like you know me,” she observed.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Although that is hardly a feat, isn’t it? You’re rather famous around these parts. There’s a lot of rumour floating about, so it wouldn’t be all too strange if I caught with my little ear at least some of it, no?”
It seemed as though I’d read her mind.
She assumed a troubled face. “Who... Just who in the world are you?”
“How nice of you to ask.” I stepped back and made a flamboyant bow. “I am, heart me, the spider weaving in the shadows. Welcome, my dear, to my beautiful killing chamber.” Then I looked around. “You’ll excuse the lack of walls and floors and ceilings and such. Those are hard times, you understand.”
“Why,” I faked a gasp, “what a terrible thing to say.”
“What do you want?”
“I told you just then, didn’t I? I want to talk.”
She wasn’t too convinced.
“Oh, well, now that you mention it, a cup of tea wouldn’t go a miss.”
That seemed to satisfy her more. “I guess I can spare that much.”
She turned and went inside the shrine.
“Oh!” I called after her, “just not out of the yellow box! That one makes me retch. The green box has the best one, if I recall.”
The startled silence told me I’d struck bulls-eye.
This wasn’t my Reimu, yes, but nobody said I couldn’t play with her just a little, now did they?
I tipped the cup and took a long, philosophical sip before replying.
The topic of the conversation had, quite naturally, shifted to that – what exactly I fancied myself when not an eight-legged, web-weaving fiend. You may think that it’s a trite sort of question: “Who are you?” but the truth is, it’s not trite, it’s routine.
The answer is where it gets muddy because, contrary to what you might believe, it doesn’t matter what you say. You can spin whatever story you pretty well please: a farmer, retired romance novelist, travelling barber; it won’t change much which you choose. The important thing is: people like to know where they’re standing; they want to be able to take their conversational partner and put them in a neatly labelled file catalogue somewhere in the dusty banks of their brains. The exact choice of answer might very well change nothing at all.
It’s just that the knowledge is comforting.
I knew Reimu—very intimately, in fact—and I knew one of her quirks was slapping labels on people – labels that, more often than not, began with an “idiot,” followed by some kind of very specific guideline. There were, for instance, “idiots to shoot-on-sight,” as well as “idiots to invite on occasion for tea and gossip,” “idiots to leave to their own devices lest they infect me with their idiocy” and “idiots not to leave to their own devices lest they bring about another end of the world,” just to name a few. I, between us, was an “idiot to love the toenails off of,” but I was one of a kind; as far as I know, the first and only to have received that prestigious sticker. It made me feel somewhat like an old and awfully exclusive bottle of wine.
So, like the bottle of wine I was, I poured myself out on the girl.
Now there’s an exciting thought.
“That about sums it up,” I told her. “There’s a slim difference in movements between ‘sliding’ and the thing I do, but it’s sufficiently close. If I were to go ahead and have my say, I’d have to go with ‘slipping.’ There’s a bit of a jerk when it kicks in, so ‘slipping’ is more like it. Yes. ‘Slipping’ is good. I’m a slipper. Yeah, I’m a slipper.”
“You’re a loony is what you are.”
I laughed. No, I didn’t spit any tea. I don’t slip that easily.
“You’ve taken to this particular observation, I see,” I bantered.
She gave me a sidelong look. “That’s the primary impression you make, you know.”
“What’s the secondary one?”
“Why, it’s obvious,” she said with a little toss of her head. “An idiot.”
I told you, didn’t I? Some things never change.
“What an amazing thing. And the tertiary?” I wanted to ask, but then her face went all of a sudden very serious and I had to rein my burning curiosity in.
“Anyway,” she set her teacup down with a clink of decisiveness and said, “I get the drift: you slide between ‘worlds,’ as you had the creativity to put it. The thing I don’t get is why. And what business you have in this particular world—my world, I might add.”
I touched my forehead dramatically and let off an overblown sigh. “There she goes,” I murmured. “Always about the business. Way to turn a man off, my little red darling. Way to turn him off.”
“You wanted to talk. Now’s your chance. Talk.”
“The talk I had in mind wasn’t nearly so serious, you know. I had thought we could just shoot some breeze, enjoy the sun, that sort of thing. Why are you so tense?”
She shot me a glare that all but set fire to my hair.
“You don’t want to test me, stranger,” she warned.
I knew that, of course. I couldn’t tell her, though. There were many “you see”s and “this is this and that was that”s involved and, frankly, I didn’t much feature “testing” her more than I already had. I may have been crazy, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t be reasonable. You might want to keep this in mind if you ever plan to lose your mind. It helps to keep things in perspective.
At any rate, there was one thing you absolutely had to understand about Reimu if you liked your hide where it was.
You see, the otherwise quite lovable testy shrine maiden was a wonderfully neat sort of person. As was her outlook on interpersonal relations, so her moods and attitudes were also very, very clear and well-defined. To put it in terms that might appeal to you, there were two main “modes” of Reimu that I was aware of. “All snuggles” and “all business.” The main issue was, the latter tended to be the default one. I’d found methods of switching that state of affairs around a bit, but even in all my gentle smiles and sweet nothings whispered in the ear at a critical time, I still couldn’t stop her from going up in at least a small degree of flame at the suggestion of a disturbance. I couldn’t stop the flame from popping up in the first place, but I could leastwise smother it before it spread to the carpets and the furniture.
This Reimu, it seemed, hadn’t been treated to any such conditioning.
How did I know? Well. She wasn’t snuggling up to me, for one.
I thought it was sort of a giveaway.
“All right,” I gave up. “To make it short, I’m looking for my original world.”
“I see,” she said gravely. “You got lost while sliding?”
“No. Not at all.” I raised her a playful brow. “Somehow, I’d thought you’d be more incredulous about this. This isn’t a story you can swallow just like this, even all things considered.”
“I’ve seen worse—much worse. There aren’t many things that surprise me any more. You’d have to shake the world before you could even hope to shake me.”
“I don’t suppose I should prove you wrong.”
There was a cautionary note in her voice.
“Nothing,” I said quickly. “Nothing important enough to press, anyhow. Anyway, no, I didn’t lose my way. I was expelled—by the world itself.”
I took a deep breath. This was a painful subject. “I told you I had a... wife, yes?” I asked.
“I thought I might have. Well, as much as I loved her—and still do—she wasn’t the only to have... earned my affection.”
It was an odd sound coming from a young girl like her.
“Not to say that I was cheating on her,” I went on. “I wasn’t the... the only me. There were many ‘me’s, scattered across the planes of existence. This one—” I stabbed a proud thumb at my chest, “—was enough of a reckless ball of man to fall for Re—uh, the girl that ultimately became my wife.”
“What did you say her name was?”
“It—It doesn’t matter!” I coughed. “It wasn’t that special of a name, anyway. It was only special because it was dear to me. What’s important is: the others—other ‘me’s—they either weren’t nearly so reckless or were even more reckless than I was; they had gone for different approaches, different paths, than I had. They arranged their lives with different people, in different places. They were me, still me, but not... not completely, entirely. They were me under different circumstances. I knew. I don’t know how, but I did. I saw glimpse/s sometimes, peeks of other realities seeping through, images of events past that could not have been in my world. They knew, too. I’m almost certain of it. They saw my world, even as I saw theirs. They didn’t agree with my choices, but then again neither did I with theirs. I would have been all right with that, too. They might have jeered, mocked, criticised, but so long as they kept their noses out of my world—and away from my wife—I wouldn’t bite. But one day... One day I... awakened.[/]
“And suddenly I knew,” I continued, feeling my voice grow weaker, “I knew everything—not just fragments, glances, as I used to. I knew [i]everything: all the things that each and every one of ‘me’ had ever done. I could not say why—why I was the one who received them, their memories. They were there now, as though some cosmic cataclysm had erased the other worlds and I was their last desperate measure to preserve the other ‘me’s. They were inside my head, squirming, wresting with each other, each wanting to return the world to its ‘original’ state. Their ‘original’ state. I edged on the brink of madness for several weeks. I was delirious. I couldn’t sense the days passing. And then, one of us came up with the idea. An ingenious idea, at that. I, myself, thought it might work. So I did it. I changed the world.
“I changed it,” I went on to explain, “so that all of our worlds, our realities, would come together. In a single stroke I made everything I knew—everything we knew—be truth. In some roundabout way, I merged our worlds into one, ultimate world where we didn’t have to choose. Where nothing was omitted. Where everything was true. It worked. The world was one. We were one. And then... the world expelled me.”
I paused for a moment and collected myself; drank some more, now cold, tea.
“You see,” I then resumed, “the world—it hates to be changed. It much prefers to keep its own pace, to change by itself. When you try to persuade it to maybe do you the favour and change just a tad, it rebels—fights back, finds ways – like a river encountering a rock swirls around it, seeks out new directions to channel itself. What we recognise as ‘magic’—yours, mine—operates on the principle that if you’re skilful enough, and enough of a sneak, you can change something and have the world let it pass. What I did was much, much more profound than a simple correction. I didn’t change what already was – I changed what had been, too, in so many details that to this day I wonder how my brain isn’t all in shatters. The world would have none of that. It made me forget. Took away my abilities. Then it expelled me. Threw me out to the currents of time and space, with nothing left in me that I could use to retaliate. Ha!” I scoffed in spite of myself, “what a joke! I am not so easily rendered harmless. The world was about to find out, too.”
I stole a short at Reimu and, all bemused, saw a glint of genuine concern—worry, maybe—behind those harsh, blazing-red eyes of hers.
I shouldn’t say it, perhaps, but I keep that image tucked away in the back of my head even to this day. It has since reminded me that, no matter how far I stray, she would always be there when I needed her—even in another world, even if I was a stranger to her, even if she was no longer “mine.”
There would always be a Reimu for me.
“What happened, huh,” I let her heartfelt question roll off my own tongue. “Well, what happened was... I awakened – again. I came to in a world I didn’t know—that didn’t know me. Then I went from there. I slipped to other worlds. I looked. I trailed. I searched. Ha. It doesn’t matter how tight you leash me; in the end, I won’t stay leashed for long. I may be even more tenacious than the world is. This thought kept me on my feet whenever I lost hope. And I’ve lost it a few times along the way.”
“You’re making it sound awfully romantic,” Reimu remarked with an awkward smile.
I returned that smile. “I may be, at that. Heck, I’ll dig myself deeper here. It hadn’t crossed my mind to ‘merge’ the worlds for my own sake—not even once. All I wanted was for my wife—and all the other wives—to be happy.”
“Yes. I thought it’d spoil the effect somewhat if I mentioned that detail, though.”
“Good thing I didn’t mention it then, eh? But in all seriousness, I really did want them to be happy. And now they’re there, alone, without me. I can’t imagine the world recovering so quickly from what I’d done to it that day. They’re there. I know it. They’re waiting. And that’s why I have to keep ‘slipping.’ Until I find them. I won’t sleep easy till then.”
“How many worlds have you seen so far?” Reimu asked curiously.
“I’ve lost count,” I told her. “Some of them were so unremarkable I hardly even blinked before ‘slipping’ again. I’m looking for a very specific world. I don’t see the point in staying in one that doesn’t resemble the one I want. I’ve lingered in some—including this one, but only because there were some similarities. I’ve met parallel versions of people I know. I’ve even met you, a couple of times,” I said with a grin.
“Oh yes. You’ve quite the flexible personality, I’ll have you know. On some occasions you even attacked me on sight—hence,” I remembered, “my slight apprehension back there. I couldn’t tell if you’d jump to my throat the moment I came into view.”
She gave me an arch sort of face. “I would do that?”
“You have—or, well, parallel ‘you’s have. This is this, though. That was that. You and they are nothing alike, believe me. Anyway, it’s quite the experience, let me tell you. Once I discovered a world where there already was a me, though he wasn’t one of those ‘me’s I had known before. There was another person, too—family.”
“Mother is a powerful person,” I explained, “but I couldn’t interact with her when there was another me there. I’m after putting my world back together, not causing another, perhaps fatal, paradox.”
“That and, frankly, I have no way of saying if she would know what I am; for all I know she might just blast me to dust on the spot as an ‘imposter.’”
“I would have done that,” Reimu agreed. “If someone who look like my child appeared before me and claimed to—” She broke off when she noticed me staring. “I—I mean, I would, but—”
“It’s a dangerous place, this one. Isn’t it?” I nodded knowingly. “I’d to the same. Although I’d have my share of fun with it, too. There’s no shame in it. We all love our families—to the point of irrationality, sometimes. I almost tore reality apart for mine.”
“T—True...” she said in a subdued voice.
“You don’t have children, do you?”
She very nearly jumped out of her clothes. “W—What? Children? Me?”
“N—No. I mean, yes, I—I don’t.”
“You’ll have to one day, you know.”
“That guy you mentioned – you think he might do?”
She gave me one startled yelp before she palmed her small face and grunted a resigned grunt. “It shows, doesn’t it?” she asked quietly. “That’s what Keine says, too.”
“It does.” I deliberately skimmed over the mentioned of the teacher. The affairs of this world were not my concern. “Where does he live? The village?”
“Yes,” Reimu surrendered. Her cheeks were bright pink. She twirled the empty cup around in her little hands while she gathered her words. “He... He’s an idiot. He’s an idiot through and through.”
“I might have surmised,” I said gravely.
“He hunts monsters!” Reimu exploded. “With guns! That’s not how it goes! He can’t do that!”
“Why don’t you have him stop?”
“I—I can’t! The people in the village, they—they are...” She let off a big, sad sigh. “You don’t care about any of this, do you?”
“Not particularly, no.”
“You’re from another world. This doesn’t concern you.”
“I might use that excuse. Anyway, I can only wish you luck, sweetheart. If you love him—” I might add here the word made her start again, “—everything will work out somehow. I know it always has for me—well, except this current problem, that is. But I’ll make it work out yet. I know I will. I won’t let something as petty as the world stand in the way of my happiness. I’ll sooner take it down with me.”
“And I have the facilities to back it up,” I admitted immodestly. “The world will try have to try harder than kick me out to hold me back. I’ve wounded it. It’ll have to wound me much more severely if it wants me to back down. I can’t much feature it coming to pass, but if you ever see the world starting to end, you may as well blame it on me.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Proudly so. I love them, Reimu. If I can’t have them, neither can anyone else.”
There was a light pause.
The pause then began to float and was ultimately swept away by a gust of wind, but we were both too lost in thought to notice. So we remained silent. The noon wore on. There were birds singing in the brush nearby. The sky was clear. The sun was high. It was a good day. I’d had a good talk. I had to wonder when I’d last had a talk this long. I craved human company sometimes. But it slowed me down. I had my own goals. I couldn’t stop for idle conversation whenever I began to feel loneliness creeping up on me from behind.
“This reminds me,” Reimu spoke up all of a sudden. “You know this isn’t your world, right?”
“Yes,” I told her the truth.
“You stopped because it was similar, but it’s not yours. You’re sure.”
“Then why... Okay, look, I don’t mean to drive you away, but what—what are you still doing here? If you know...?”
There was a good question. Luckily I knew the answer.
I set my cup down and assumed a look of utter seriousness.
“You’re right,” I told the suspicious shrine maiden. “There’s something I was hoping to get done here.”
“Yes. You see, I was thinking you might be able to pass a message to my wife.”
“What?” She was confused. “Me? Why me?”
But she’d have to finish on her own time.
The time now was mine. I closed in. I took her by the shoulders and pulled her closer.
I parted her long, black hair. I leaned over and whispered into her red little ear:
“I’ll find you.”
“Wait for me.”
“I love you.”
I wasn’t looking at her face when I pulled away. I couldn’t do it to myself. I clinched my teeth and watched the scenery.
I let her simmer down for a while. She had a lot of questions: “Why?” “What?” “Why?” and “When?” just for starters. I left them all unanswered. I couldn’t trust my voice not to shake.
I was done here. I was done, but at the same time, I felt obliged.
I stood up.
“Was Kourin’s place this way?” I pointed somewhat north-westerly. “In this world, that is.”
The sentence cost me a year of my life, but I managed to sound calm about it.
Reimu snapped out of her torrent of “How”s and gave me the most uncomprehending face you can imagine on a girl just effectively confessed to by a total stranger—a stranger of my calibre, if it weren’t enough. “Y—Yes,” she stuttered, “b—but...”
“Great. This guy of yours can look forward to an early birthday gift.”
“W—What?” She didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Thanks for everything, Reimu,” I told her. “It was good talking to you after so long.”
“Wa—Wait!” she yelped. “I don’t understand!”
“And with a little bit of luck, you’ll never need to.”
I didn’t hear what she said next.
I took a lightning-fast, two-step run-up, and launched myself down the hill in a great leap that left clouds of dust hovering in the air. I didn’t look back. I couldn’t see a thing even if I wanted to. The wind was screeching in my ears. The sensation was refreshing. The cold firmed my shaken head. I’d made my decision. I would wrap up here. Then I’d go on.
I read This Shrine a while back - and I loved it. The characters, the plot, the Transparent Night idea that never quite managed to stand on its own legs.
I was disappointed when I finished the archived stuff and realized there wasn't any more - but authors here do that all the time, so I never thought much about it afterwards.
So, when this sequel came up - all the memories came rushing back. Every little word in each single snippet brought forth nostalgia - even if it didn't properly explain the end, it would be fine, just reading about these characters, seeing them enjoy life after the end of the story.
But - this last little snippet? It ties everything together, into one amazing whole - the multiple realities, the Transparent Night, even the first snippet of this sequel.
It's a bit sad that you might not show us Nanaya's happy ending. But that's fine - because here, you give him - and the readers - closure. You've finished things off by solidifying his hope, his promise. You rescued him from 'complete oblivion', and you've ensured he won't be forgotten, not yet.
Even if you have your haters, even if you have your drama - you write well. You can make even the most mundane things - from watching a girl sip tea to reminiscing of times gone by - as interesting as any love or fight scene.
Even though you've ended it at a cliffhanger, his story's not over. You've given him beyond "The End", and that's an amazing thing to pull off.
So, to sum it all up - Thank you, so much, for writing this story. I'll be waiting warmly for whatever comes next.
>>344 Oh dear. You’re making me blush, you know.
What can I say? I’m glad you liked it. I know I enjoyed writing it. I wish I’d waited with the congratulatory beer(s) before committing the last part (how in the blazes did I screw up the tags?) but I reckon we all have our shortcomings.
There was a little rant here about the things you mentioned, but I figured this wasn’t the place to go off on a tangent. If you want to touch on the subject of drama, THP hate or MiD, you know where to find me.
As for “whatever comes next...” What is there left? 4S?BLAIR?That /others/ story about the cigarette-smoking crazy in withdrawal? Time will show.
In the meantime, I’ll continue with my Tenshi story. I realise it’s a little harder to read (and write), but I’m having a lot of fun with it. It doesn’t appeal to as many people, maybe, but it’s fun. And I enjoy a good challenge.