In This Life
A "Falling from the Moon" side story
By Natalie Baan
It was the first week of classes, male and female students alike hanging over the benches in the intro-level physics lab, occasionally exchanging words in low voices, not yet broken down and built up into social groups, except for a pair of third-year students who sat by themselves with the resigned look of soft-science majors fulfilling a graduation requirement. Ikuhara Jun had the oddest feeling: of being a room with its door slid open to the rain outside, a space that was perfectly still, filled with tremulous light and surrounded by a steady background /hsh/ rather than meaningful words. A student "ooh"ed softly, semi-seriously. Distracted, Jun glanced up. In the doorway, someone was scanning the room, a slender figure in student whites, the long tunic piped with undergraduate green. The newcomer stood in an attitude that set an inexplicable catch to the heart, anticipation, an ache to see--
No. Not familiar after all. Jun sat back, wondered why the pang had come just then: that recurring feeling that something or someone was waiting to be discovered around an unknown corner, a center or goal that had been missing but needful for as far back as memory went.
Always that yearning, vague and inarticulate, and because of it a restless spirit that felt adrift everywhere, having no direction, no landmark defining the spaces of a life....
"Robin Kinnison," a girl said, just within earshot, sharp and smug with the pleasure of a superior knowledge. "An American." Jun blinked and flipped the names around--Kinnison the family name.
"Good-looking, ne?" The other voice sounded abstractly hopeful rather than intent.
"A second-year," the girl retorted. "Smart, popular, friendly enough, but doesn't let anyone get close, from what I've heard. Think you've got a chance?" There was a smattering of quiet, not-so-teasing laughter.
A face Jun didn't recognize; hair the color of golden sand and worn longish, carelessly tied at the base of the neck so that wisps fell loose at seeming random; an appearance that triggered no specific associations. Why then the deja vu, disappointment verging on frustration, thinking that maybe, this time, it might actually have been--
What? Or should it be, /who?/
The second-year left the doorway, moving toward an empty seat near the front of the class with a grace that looked as though it could become self-conscious, a performer's deliberate precision, but at the moment was relaxed, unpremeditated, apparently innate. Sliding onto the metal stool, legs stretching out beneath the lab bench, slim in the Academy's straight-cut white pants, the student pulled out an electronic notepad, then paused, sitting unusually still for much longer than there seemed to be a reason. Then the blond head turned, and Jun jumped, awareness returning just a fraction too late. Stupid to be caught staring, like someone with a starstruck first crush--
The eyes that met and held Jun's were dark blue, like the sky just after sunset, tending toward cool indigo but with the warmth of day not wholly gone. They lingered, serious and thoughtful, almost speculative, astonishingly direct. Then Kinnison smiled, a private, inscrutably knowing expression, and turned back to face the front of the classroom. As the professor hurried in and began calling up the class roll on his terminal, Jun just continued to stare. There was no earthly reason to feel a jolt at the sight of those eyes, an abrupt but indefinite connection--at least, none that was fathomable. The two of them had never met before. Why then the compulsion to go over and talk to Kinnison, or even just to sit closer than this, as though the older student's mere presence might be a clue, a key to whatever had been missing?
That night, the dreams began.
* * * * *
--Black night and a thick frost of stars swirling by like slow snow drifting, carried by a wind that can't tasted, can't be felt--no ground underfoot, nothing to touch, alone but for an awareness of presence and the rising, bell-like tone of a far-off singer's voice as they fall.
The music sharpens and brightens, splinters into synthesizer and guitar, something with a beat--the blackness of dark-painted walls, flattered by flashing, low intensity lights and hung with spangled gauze galaxies that billow in the moving air, a neon moon.
Turning and turning among the press of people, each one a lonely planet, searching their faces, looking for--
And then silence, sudden hush, lying in bed as though having just awoken, but everything still somehow disconcerting. From behind, somebody moves, half-sits up and leans closer in a sibilant shift of sheets. A touch on the shoulder, a soft voice at one ear whispering a name: a stranger's.
* * * * *
They weren't made lab partners--Jun was relieved on one hand, and on the other felt obscurely disgruntled. Physics suffered frequently from lack of attention during the first weeks of that semester, in favor of worrying the situation over and over, sneaking stealthy observations from across the classroom, trying to puzzle out both the person and the reactions involved. It wasn't exactly an infatuation--there'd been romantic interests and entanglements before, some fierce, some not, though inevitably they'd dissolved into a similar aimlessness, a gradual wandering away, /no, not this one after all/--but it wasn't unlike that either. There were just so many other levels to it: an impulse simply to be near, wordlessly content, like a satellite held by the curve of a planet's gravity field; a recognition that couldn't be put into words, that couldn't be assigned to any definite place or time; a periodic jab of urgency, as though there was something that should be done or that the other person should be doing, but it was impossible to figure out which; a cold locking-down of anxiety, apprehension, the paralysis of fearing to take action and perhaps make a mistake, a wrong choice. Those complicated emotions canceled each other out, totaling to an unaccustomed shyness, and it didn't help that Kinnison would look over each day with the same musing expression, but never approached or did or said anything that could be taken as inviting. Sometimes Kinnison's voice or laugh would drift across the lab in the gap between classes, but always as part of the surface chatter of the other students, idle conversation with labmates, never anything solid to take hold of. It was confusing and frustrating as all hell. That was probably why one afternoon, when they both happened to arrive at the same storage cabinet to pick up galvanometers for the day's experiment, Jun stumbled out of that inertial fog and made a flop toward clarity; some critical mass had been reached. "Ki- Kinnison-san--"
"Ah, no--please call me 'Robin'!" The blue eyes were lighter that day, struck by the sun that streamed through the lab's tall windows to halo already bright hair with a haze of dust motes. There was a breeziness in the way they sparkled, cool, clear, and a trifle remote, a shade darker than cerulean, like the sky at a rarified altitude. "And don't put a '-san' on the end of it--I'll sound like someone on a desert island." Jun blinked, culturally adrift. "It's Jun-kun, isn't it?" Glancing up, Jun met those eyes again, a shock of more direct contact, and managed a short, startled nod. It was answered with a smile--was it only imagination, or were those eyes warmer, softer, illuminated by that half-gentle, half-teasing expression? "Don't worry. I won't think you're being too familiar."
"Do I--" Jun hesitated, then blurted, "do I know you?" There was a moment of stillness, an ache of suppressed breath and uncontrollably racing heartbeat.
"I don't know." Kinnison--/Robin/--turned slowly aside, gaze sliding toward the shelf of equipment. "Do you?"
* * * * *
--Staring up into the night sky, great flakes of snow spinning out of it, a slow, drifting flurry descending. A twinge in the neck at last, a reminder to look down again, to glance at the small house ahead, golden light streaming through its windows, promising warmth, companionship--a different sort of twinge then, the ache of being outside, although that house /is/ the destination, and there'll be a welcome waiting. A track leads up to it through the snow, other feet having tread that short walk earlier, not long enough ago for the prints to have been smoothed out and softened yet. That trail crosses the wider one of the sidewalk, a convergence of paths. Feet crunch the new flakes underfoot, and out of the night two figures appear, approaching unhurriedly, speaking in low voices that fall silent as they draw nearer: a man and a woman, walking arm in arm. They arrive, pause, and the man lifts his head, tilts it, smiles slightly in greeting, his long black hair caught back in a ponytail, starred with snow. The woman's long winter coat doesn't hide her pregnancy; she nods, leans a little against the man. They stand there, the three of them, the snow a dizzying dance, for a long-held breath the only thing that moves, as though they've slipped into some place between worlds. Then the house door is thrown open, flinging out a broad beam of light, laughter and talk--the noises of a quiet party--and a voice that shouts to them, amused, "Hey, what are you waiting in the snow for--frostbite? Come on and get inside! It's cold!"--
* * * * *
Time past grew longer, and so did the days, dawn gilding the new green of the trees earlier into the morning, the last cherry petals fallen and gone. The Campus and its routines became more familiar: the deep-throated bells punctuating the rhythms of its life, the habits of study and activity that were gradually being settled into; the faces and moods of the buildings and the best routes through and among them becoming an instinctive knowledge; the predictable tides of students crossing the lawns between classes and residence halls, voices rising in excitement, annoyance, laughter, and among them the occasional burst of foreign language from the international students, otherwise hard to distinguish at a distance in the school's uniform. Everything about the Academy became normal and everyday, ceased to be a distraction--and that, Jun thought, made what was still unsettled even more disquieting, like a symptom that came and went, demanding attention but never identifiable as any particular illness. It was impossible to tell whether Robin had meant to be evasive or merely playful that time, but in either case there was no sure answer to that quiver of not-quite recognition. The American student was friendly and casual with everyone, as always, though with Jun there seemed to be a new, subtle edge of coolness, distance--and what did /that/ mean, anyway?--and so a constant, low-grade frustration was building up like the stresses of plate tectonics, impulse and doubt stuck against each other, waiting for the inevitable seismic slip. Jun was making an effort not to give in to it, being prone to embarrassing outbursts and not wanting to look like an idiot more often than necessary, and not in front of this person above all. So it was a shock when Robin appeared at the end of class one day: that presence and voice a tiny jolt that made everything go unstable. "Jun-kun. Can I bother you for a minute?"
"Um, sure." Jun looked up quickly from putting away notepad and fold-out tablet, saw Robin sink onto the vacated stool of the lab bench in front, still graceful, but with a coiled, almost wary formality that was new. Jun's chest tightened.
"Are you going home to Tokyo for Golden Week?" At Jun's nod, Robin went on, "I wonder if I could impose on you to drop something off for me?" Placing a beautifully wrapped small package on the lab bench between them, Robin slid it halfway forward and left it there, a wordless supplication. Slow, more from surprise and confusion than any real reluctance, Jun picked it up, looked at the surprisingly neat, fluid kanji on the envelope tucked into the paper, and blinked.
"Kobayashi-san? The children's book author?"
"We've had a long correspondence." Robin smiled, then noticed Jun's stare and added in gentle mock-admonishment, "She /has/ been translated into English, you know."
"Um, that's right." The light, dancing voice, subtly at odds with the unusually contained and upright posture, the little firefly twinkle in those eyes made thoughts and emotions fragment, pieces of them skittering back and forth like water-skimmer bugs across a puddle. With a struggle, Jun captured one that was actually relevant. "But I can't just drop in--"
"It's all right. She'll be expecting you." That smile widened further, relaxing into relief and appreciation, as though Jun had already agreed--and after that, how not to? "Here." With a start, Jun got the pad out again and woke it just long enough for Robin's to send a quick beam to it. A phone number appeared in its screen. "Just give a call before you go, to set things up. You'll probably get her live-in attendant; she doesn't talk much on the phone herself. You're right--she is very private." Standing, Robin slung the requisite school backpack over one shoulder, flipped trapped hair out from under its strap, and then was on the way to the door, waving gratitude and airy farewell, all brisk good cheer once again. "Thanks! You're doing me a great favor. I owe you one, right?" Jun watched that departure with a vague sense of having been steamrollered and a minute glimmer of panic at being unexpectedly about to meet someone rather famous and reclusive--and along with those feelings, only gradually dawning, a question that had missed its opportunity.
/How did you know I live in Tokyo?/
* * * * *
--The room rises high and shadowy, the light in it uncertain, mostly reflected from the blue-and-white globe framed in the window. /The Earth./ Tall grasses, great palmate leaves and tangled vines are backlit by it, form silhouettes against the glass. A slender figure rises from a crouch, hands cupped together as though holding something delicate--a flower? A prayer? That figure turns as if to go, and he strains to see more clearly--is abruptly aware of himself there, himself and this person. His heart beats more quickly. His memory draws the picture of a ripple of long, light hair tied back with a ribbon, the white working coat and--no. That's what he remembers, not what he sees. He tries to look again, to see more truly.
The figure has disappeared.--
* * * * *
The house, in a pleasant neighborhood, was well-to-do but not ostentatious. A ring at the doorbell brought Sachiko-san, the attendant that Jun had spoken to on the phone, a small, middle-aged lady with dark, steady eyes, a restrained smile, and greying hair pinned back neatly. Jun bowed in through the door, was shown into guest slippers, and then followed Sachiko-san's straight, house-coated back along a stone-flagged passage that seemed to run the full length of the house. Beneath and across from each window a pool of plants overflowed its ledge, table, or shelf, curling graciously toward the floor. At the back, the passage opened onto what seemed to be a closed-in porch or sun room, and Jun drew in a long, surprised breath at the profusion of green, scattered rays of sunlight striking almost magically between the leaves of palms and other small trees, as though penetrating the heart of a rainforest. The heavy, moist air almost demanded that deep inhalation, to fill the lungs all the way down with a richer life than they were used to.
"Ah, Ikuhara-san! It's so good to see you. Please--" With an effort, Jun turned from the mazelike distraction of interlaced orchids and creeping vines, arching green-and-white spider plants and other less identifiable foliage. It took a moment to find the small figure in the midst of the indoor garden, leaning on a gnarled wooden cane, one hand gesturing tremulously to a seat. "Won't you sit down?" Trying to bow and offer respects, present Robin's package, and get situated in the deep, floral-cushioned wicker chair all at the same time, Jun registered the woman as a flash of impressions more than anything else: an ordinary, very elderly lady in a grey Chinese-cut coat and loose pants, her hips broadened slightly with sedentary age, possibly with past childbirth, but her body small-framed and still upright. Close-cropped white hair framed her face, which was a landscape of fine and not so fine wrinkles, a pursed, smiling mouth, and dark grey eyes--those eyes, clear, alert, and yet profoundly still, took all that hard-drawn breath away, left the room a dizzying whirl of flowers, greenery, and wordless presence, the latter as powerful and compelling as the view of a mountain. "It's rude of me, I'm afraid, but do you mind if I read the letter first?"
"N- no. Not at all." Perched at the edge of the chair, Jun tried not to stare at the woman as she lowered herself with creaky carefulness onto another seat, this one chaise-style. Sachiko-san assisted with the arrangement of legs and lap-covering shawl, vanished briefly and returned with tea, which she poured for them both before discreetly retreating. Jun looked at Kobayashi-san's hands, the joints thickened and twisted, her fingers clumsy on the envelope's flap, and quickly glanced away again, strangely and confusingly pained. Steam wisped from the plain earthenware cups on the low table between them; the faintly bitter scent of tea was lost in the redolent, living greenhouse air. Gradually, though, the room's silence, broken only by the whisper of paper and an occasional under-the-breath murmur from Kobayashi-san, became a widening space in which nervousness could uncoil bit by bit, releasing into an almost transparent peace. Jun's eyes drifted back to her face, following each flicker of expression with wonder at that aura of unfolding calm and with an inexplicable feeling of anticipation.
Kobayashi-san reached the end of the short note and closed her eyes. "Well," she said. Opening them again, she glanced sidelong at Jun, smiling. Their gazes met. "And so, am I as you thought I'd be?"
Jun jumped, caught staring after all. "Um! I, uh, that is--" Her question brought a rush of embarrassed heat; it also crystallized a tiny part of that expectation. "I thought--that your hair would be longer, somehow. Stupid of me." Blushing, Jun ducked, then looked up once more as Kobayashi-san chuckled.
"Oh, but I /did/ have long hair." She touched the base of her neck, the motion faintly nostalgic. "I had long hair for most of my life. But you know, one gets old, and everything gets more difficult. I didn't want to trouble Sachiko-san with helping me take care of it. Really, it's been a relief in a way. Very liberating."
"Ah, I see." That could be it--Jun couldn't remember if her photograph had been on any of her books, but if so it might explain--
"Robin mentions you're at the Academy," and Jun refocused quickly, letting go the pursuit of that thread. It drifted off. "Do you like the school?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Genuine enthusiasm provided something to give back to Kobayashi-san's courtesies at last; Jun straightened and said more animatedly, "It's the best school for science, and what's really special about it is the concentration on the all-around impacts of technology--it's the only place that builds global-scale ethical, social, and environmental studies right into the main undergraduate curriculum requirements, and, um," Jun faltered, suddenly unsure that what had seemed so essential and right was of any interest at all to the children's book author, and finished somewhat lamely, "the grounds too. They're really beautiful."
Kobayashi-san made a low sound of agreement, or perhaps politely amused tolerance. From the dim reaches of memory there glimmered a starburst of recollection--that her husband's name was somehow connected with the school's founding--and Jun flushed again, wondered if she thought that had been a shameless try at ingratiation. But there was no easy way to fix it, and anyway Kobayashi-san was going on, serene, seemingly unconcerned, "So, are you and Robin good friends, then?"
Um, Robin is my sempai. We're in physics together. We just met at the beginning of this year."
"Is that right?"
"Ma'am--" The tension that had returned at first mention of the American's name tightened another increment, the ratchet of a gear, the pang of a too-taut metal spring. Jun swallowed. "Have you known Robin long?"
"We've been corresponding for quite a while now." Calm yet without remoteness, those grey eyes studied Jun. "Robin wrote to me some years ago. It was about a rather remarkable dream, I believe...." Jun started, disturbed by a upsurge of half-recalled images and impressions, gauzy bits and pieces of remembrance.
"Speaking of which, that reminds me--I know it's a terrible imposition, having you run other people's errands," Kobayashi-san's voice had lifted, become brisker, almost businesslike, with a note of apology that managed to sound sincere despite the fact that in politeness Jun would of course have to agree to any reasonable request she made, and they both knew it, "but would you mind taking something back to the Campus with you?" From the folds of her wrap, she took out a tiny box, slid it partway across the table. With its domed lid and its corners banded with finely tooled, gold-tinged metal, it looked almost like a doll house trunk. "You can open it if you like," she added eyes twinkling, as Jun gingerly picked up the box. "There's no secret to it. It's a seed--the seed of a /Magnolia liliflora./ A lily-flowered magnolia."
The plant's Japanese name rang quietly between them, like an echo coming back up from a ravine: a far-off, haunting voice, and implicit in it the threat of a potential sudden drop before one's feet. "/Mokuren,/" Jun repeated, half a whisper.
"Yes." There was a pause, as though Kobayashi-san was watching to see if there would be any more, but there wasn't--only air, space, the uneasiness of a void. Bright hinges caught light as Jun turned the box, somehow reluctant to open it despite faint curiosity and her invitation. "I want you to plant it somewhere on the Campus," she went on at last. "Someplace where it will grow and thrive. You can decide where."
"/M- me?/" Jun looked up, startled, but Kobayashi-san had already turned aside, gaze half-lidded as she looked at the screen of plants along one wall, the decision already made and impervious as only the wills of assured old women can be. Jun gulped and bobbed in acquiescence. "I'm--honored."
"I think this will be my last one for a while." Kobayashi took her tea between her hands, but didn't drink it. Instead she cradled the cup between her palms, her eyes' focus diffusing, until Jun couldn't tell if she was looking into some obscure distance or at a cloudy vision just in front of her. "It's been very exhausting, you know. Lovely and sometimes terrible, full of joy, pain, confusion, and fulfillment--beautiful, yes, but just so /much,/ especially when one gets tired, and one /does/ get tired eventually. Though I suppose all lives are like that, really, so there's no sense in complaining. In the end, I don't regret any more than the average person, and probably a great deal less than some." Smiling, she let her head settle against the seat's back, shut her eyes. "Still, it's time. Besides which, he's been waiting long enough already. He never was very good at being patient."
Her murmuring words were like isolated drops of water falling, a soft /plat/ of liquid slipping from one leaf to the next, a single, surprising coolness on the skin, detached from the full experience of the rain. Jun blinked, but before any reply could formulate itself, Kobayashi-san opened her eyes again, and looked not toward Jun but at the kalanchoe growing in a neat woven basket at the center of the table. She regarded the plant's glossy, dark green leaves and fireworks of orange flowers gravely, then sighed, her face lighting with another slight smile, this one full of gentle, self-directed humor. "That's right--I'm wandering, aren't I?" Jun tensed, fumbling after some protest, but then her gaze lifted once more and there was only the breathless awareness of being /seen,/ a seemingly endless yet tranquil gap of stillness. It was as if they were two very different creatures that had paused together to arrive at an understanding of each other's presence, each to its own ability, like a sage and a wild animal lingering to contemplate one another in the wood--but Kobayashi-san's knowing was the vastly deeper and richer one, Jun thought, whether from age and experience or from some ineffable quality that was intrinsically a part of her. It was rude to stare at her so, but to break that connection was impossible: those eyes were all the world, and her face, out of focus, seemed to become a stranger's, its lines and creases smoothed out, the skin pale against a surrounding darkness.
"The future is important." Kobayashi-san's voice, quiet but intensely clear, jolted Jun from that spell. The room was no longer dark but filled with greens and muted golden light, and she was leaning on the arm of her chair, the definition of her face sharp again, familiar wrinkles highlighting her eyes, her smile, the sun illuminating her white hair, the hand that trembled just a little as she raised her tea, took a sip, set the cup back down on the table. "The past is also. But if we live looking only at one or the other, or even at both, then we make a great mistake. To run headlong into the future, trying to escape the past, or to live always for the sake of what was--in the end, it's the same thing. And inevitably it's a sad thing. As human beings, we were born to live-- indeed, we're happiest living--in the place where the future and past meet, where both and neither exist." Leaning further, she reached across the table and closed one hand on Jun's, her fingers cool, light, and dry, like unexpectedly tender branches. "Do you understand me?"
Jun didn't, really--or perhaps did, but not in any way that could be articulated, at least not without a great deal more thinking. Despite that, there was only way to one answer her question. "Yes. I understand."
"There's a good child." Kobayashi-san patted Jun's fingers, the gesture both satisfied and sympathetic, before that hand withdrew. "And now, dear, please--finish your tea."
* * * * *
--They bow to each other in passing, but exchange no words. The lady in the dark dress spares him a long look as he turns away--later he will remember it, study it from all sides for significance, a little bitterly, a little self-mockingly, but for the most part detached, and decide that it was kindness and sorrow on his behalf, nothing more than she'd ever given him, and nothing less. On that day, though, they are strangers beneath the cherry trees, her face not the face of memory anymore, far older even than the last time he'd seen her, and his heart not recognizing anything but its own slow, numbing throb, the dull contraction onto emptiness, the letting-go. Fringed cherry petals fall to the walk, late double-flowered blossoms, beautiful and ironic reminders of all things piercingly sweet and lost too soon. Then it's his turn. He approaches the woman who stands briefly alone in a lull of mourners, still slim, stylish in her black suit. Lifting her head, she registers his presence, studies him with battered eyes, very dark beneath the brim of her hat, then steps toward him and folds her arms around him, drawing the two of them together, that abrupt physical contact startling but surprisingly welcome. "I'm so glad you came," she murmurs.
"How could I /not/?" He closes his eyes, returns the hug more gladly than he's done anything in a while, aware of the spareness of her body against him, the heavy silk of her jacket beneath his fingers; he turns his head, hiding just for a moment in her hair's faint fragrance. How the people around them must be shocked, wondering, combing through memory and rumor for the story behind this familiarity. If only anyone had known the truth.... They pull back from each other at last, and he's mortified to discover that he's somehow managed to knock off her hat. The sun gilds her braided auburn hair, closer to ginger than he remembers it, not her natural color then or now. A little girl runs up to them with the hat, and she bends, smiling, to reclaim it, then sends the child back to the woman who stands not far away, watching them with blue eyes blurred by weeping and a face like a confusion of ghosts out of the past: not this person, not that. The sight makes his chest ache strangely.
"Come on." She doesn't replace the hat--instead holds it in one hand and links the other firmly through his arm, her voice almost playful. "Let's get out of here. It's depressing."
They walk together along the path that winds between the weeping trees and the clusters of funerary markers. "I'm sorry," he says.
"So am I," and he wonders how her saying it can strike so to the core of the ache in him, a lance of new pain paired with the merest possibility of release, when the words in his own mouth had felt shallow, substanceless. Around them, other dark figures move in and out of view, singly or in small groups, all tending toward the temple grounds' exit. "Did you see Alice was here?"
"Uh, yes." He stares down at the gravel, river-smoothed brown stones crunching under their feet, feels only that same lacuna, a gap of emotion.
"That husband of hers couldn't make it--he got stuck in the shuttleport in Oslo. He called and threatened to get here by teleporting, and I told him not to be stupid, it wasn't worth it. He's getting too old for that, even taking it in short hops." Her voice holds the usual chattiness, though she keeps it low; as one, they've kept the past and especially their powers from more casual acquaintances. "Hiro-kun came, though, which was sweet of him, considering he only knew us through poor Haruhiko-kun. And still nobody has been able to track down Hi--I mean, Daisuke-kun!" She laughs, the sound merry, with perhaps a glint of unshed, leftover tears giving its brightness a highlighted edge: amusement and irony, grief and stress all unmitigated in her, as always. "How many years has it been, and I just can't get it right."
A little awkwardly, he puts his hand on the one curved through his elbow, pats it a couple of times, in rhythm with their steps. "Anyway, I'm glad you came for it," she continues. "And I know he would be, too." His hand stills; he can sense that she's turned her head, is studying his face, and he keeps his gaze fixed straight ahead, watching the swoops of the low rope fence that lines the path. She looks away again, sways slightly against him on the next step as her attention shifts; under his hand, he can feel the coolness of her ring, in contrast to her skin. It reminds him of a different ring, unworn, still unresolved, an uncomfortable keepsake riding in his pocket, memento of another world.
"We had a good life," she tells him. "We loved each other, and he was a good husband to me. Everything we looked for together, we found, sooner or later, and I don't feel that anything was left undone or unsaid." She pauses, goes on more quietly. "But you should know that there was always one room in his heart I could never get into. One place that was always for you. /Only/ for you."
He slows, then stops, like a wind-up toy that has run down too far to take another full step. The path has started to blur in front of him, the browns, greens, and grays of early spring washing together as though the heat simmering behind his eyes has begun to dissolve them.
"What--what is it? Are you all right?"
And the world slides apart, crumbles into the flood of hot rain streaming down his face, the sudden, shaking knowledge of an utter emptiness. As she lays her hand on his shoulder, he sees with a perfect clarity the shape of his whole life, fully realized for the first time, and ahead the future, blank and infinite, a vast, endless despair or one more chance for hope.--
At the chime of the station announcement, Jun's eyelashes drifted up, the bland blue-and-cream of the train car's interior a strange and incomprehensible place, like the setting of a dream.
"I died...one year after you did."
The train slid in next to the platform, silent above its magnetic rails. As it came under both the canopy and the hill's shadow, the landscape outside darkened, and cloudlike reflections appeared in the windows: dim outlines of seat backs, people's heads. Jun leaned forward, found and mentally traced a familiar cheekbone, the dark well of an eye, the lie of hair, and then, fleetingly--though it was impossible to tell whether the vision was superimposed on those features or the other way around--saw the face of a teenaged boy with a shock of moderately untidy hair, blue-gray eyes, and an almost melancholy look, as though realizing that something immeasurably rare couldn't be held onto, was about to be lost.
The window was mildly cool beneath Jun's fingertips. The ghost had vanished; the shadows of disembarking passengers passed back and forth across the glass.
--A slender figure rises from a crouch, hands cupped together. It clasps its fingers against its chest as the plant shadows sway and become a crowd of slow-motion dancers, as the darkened room fills with music, abrupt but blurred, as though heard through water. That figure lifts its head, a slide of long, straight brown hair, a glance from sad eyes that shift away as the young woman--/Enju/-- turns to go, slipping between the other people and disappearing.
/No, wait. That isn't--/--
With a tired, vaguely disgusted headshake, Jun gathered up the large rucksack--more full than before vacation--and slung it over one shoulder, then trudged off the train and up the stairs toward the main part of town. Each step was heavy, dully mechanical, weighed down with inarticulate, restless grief and murky understanding, a burden like unusable wings. Other students strode past on the steps, then on the sidewalk, some gloomy at the prospect of returning to classes, others joyfully greeting friends, making plans for the stores, the cafes, for later in the evening, but all part of a world that Jun no longer felt fully connected to.
That persistent sense of something missing, of constantly looking, of always being in search of--
--A slender figure rises, turns to face him, and the room that they're in is featureless, irrelevant, could be anywhere, any time. There's only the lift of that head, the light on dark hair, those blue eyes sad and smiling and filled with love.--
Jun had stopped--started walking again, steps ticking more rapidly, realization and wordless purpose growing with each sidewalk section measured out and left behind in sudden, sharp excitement's wake. The walk became a jog, the bag bouncing in time to that quickening stride, and then a flat-out run, weaving between knots of students, strolling passersby, little old ladies in kimono who held onto each other to avoid being spun like scattered leaves, but apologies needed time and breath and a mind that wasn't already springing ahead, everything forgotten but a single impulse.
--That person moves forward slowly, reaches out and their fingertips touch, catch on each other's, until their hands are pressed together, palm to palm. They are looking into one another, and the mirror shatters, darkness shot through with silver, a perfect knowing, a rising together, fire and ecstasy, closer than the skin--
With a final, pounding sprint around the main street's long curve, Jun came at last to where the buildings stood more widely spaced, the beginning of the Campus's open lawns. The sun had found its way past the western hill's shoulder to spill long, golden rays across the steps leading to the main gate. And at the top of those steps, on the wide half-circle before the arch, in idle, laughing conversation with some other upperclass students, that already bright hair burnished by the sunset and one hand gesturing with a familiar grace that struck right to the heart--
Jun staggered to a halt, gasping for breath, and with a heave slung the bag onto the pavement.
Robin's head snapped around, so fast that it seemed painful--the blue eyes wide, Robin's lips parted, an expression of shock, anguished incredulity, as though not daring to believe, and all through it a yearning tautness that vibrated to a note of memory--
--sunlight and blue sky, those tentative arms around him, warm breath on his lips, a bright scattering of tears, not quite concealed--
One foot hit the second step--the rest were just there to be flown over--and then there was only the coming together, their arms wrapping around each other, answering embrace for embrace, two bodies folding into one thoughtless contact. Breath stirred Jun's hair, a rapid puff of warmth against one ear, a tiny catch of inhalation followed by a whisper:
Slim hands tangled in Jun's hair momentarily, then slid down to midback, a shudder marking their wake like lapping water, before Robin pulled away and kept backing, moving unexpectedly fast, dragging Jun along with that retreat. Dimly Jun registered the shrieks, giggles, and wisecracks of Robin's companions, but they were abstract, meaningless noises that grew more distant as Robin hustled the two of them through the gate and behind the arch. Crackling through branches, they spun into the gap between the wall and the azaleas that backed it, ending with Robin pressed against the reddish sandstone, facing Jun, both of them quivering as though they'd run the distance from the station together. Jun braced an arm on the wall, partly for support and partly in a gesture to ward off the world, to keep anyone from entering or leaving the little space they shared. Then they just stared at each other, taking in all that was different, all that was the same, until breath had returned and shock had ebbed enough that the first fragments of thought could pop up to the surface of Jun's mind like slow, random bubbles. "You're--blond."
"And you're not." Robin smiled with an amusement that was somehow both impish and tender, a slight lift to the mouth, a gleam in those blue eyes, long-missed and achingly enthralling. One hand rose to Jun's forehead, twirled a stray lock of black hair. "Still a bit unruly, though."
Jun's hand groped for and closed on those hovering fingers, brought them down and held them firmly. Robin blinked, then glanced aside with a minute tightening about the eyes, almost a flinch, not quite a twinge of discomfort or unhappiness, before smiling once more. "I'm sorry, you know, that I didn't tell you anything, that I had you go off and-- Well, you had to remember it for yourself, of course, and figure out how you feel about her and everything, and I didn't want to bias you--"
"Do you still have your power?" Robin's eyes flicked back up, a flash of brief startlement, and following on it the shadow that had underlain those breezy words, the voice that had been low and light and sounded so very calm. Jun could see the tensing, the fine cracks of misery spreading, could guess at the line of thought from that trapped, despairing look: /Because of me--the dreams, your memories returning--I'm dragging you into this again, influencing you, and if it's not really what you want--!/
"No--that's not why I'm asking." Lifting that still-captured hand, Jun pressed it to one cheek, cupping it along the jawline and the pulse point at the side of the throat, and watched closely as guilt turned to hesitation and then to sheer wonder as Robin read what words alone labored to express. Then Jun nodded, eyes closing, giving in to that tremor of pure joy, of longing.
"All this time, I was looking for you."
* * * * *
Season gives way to season and year to year. The students come and go, each with his or her own story. On the long lawn that slopes toward the campus lake, the magnolia spreads its branches, and as the wind lingers in it, the leaves murmur: the touch and sigh of lovers finally at rest.
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