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Rewind all the Clocks (Time and Time Again)

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“If you could change one thing,” she asked, “what would it be?”

Truthfully, Guren would change a lot things if he had the power to. He would change the world, if only he could. He would change it to a more accepting place, a warmer place.

A place where she could live the way she deserved to.

He said, “I would make you happy.”

She laughed, as if this alone was enough to achieve that. Guren could only hope it was, but a part of him knew it was impossible. After all...

“I’m not meant to be happy,” she reminded him. “And neither are you.”

They were fifteen years old.

“I know,” he said. “Give me this, at least.”

She would have given him anything, if he had just asked. Her fingers ghosted over his cheeks. They were gentle, but so cold and so shaky. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the paleness of her hands.

He looked up to see her face, and felt his heart fall somewhere in his stomach, pushing bile up his throat.

The eyes that stared back at him were the eyes of someone already long dead.


Guren woke in a cold sweat. All at once, he felt the rising bile in his throat come forth and exit his mouth in a very painful spewing of vomit.

Weakly, he removed himself from his soiled sheets. His legs trembled as he made to stand on them.

He did not know how many times he had dreamt this before.

There was always something missing when he woke up, though. Her name. Her voice. Her face.

Whoever she was, Guren was not meant to know.

He shakily cleaned off his bed and changed into fresh clothes. By the time he had done so, the time was only just barely past five in the morning.

He did the only thing he could think to do in this circumstances:

He called Shinya.

Five in the morning, he thought. Shinya dealt with quite a bit from Guren, but this particular dilemma he had never quite known how to help. They had talked about it so many times since they were teenagers. Shinya had never found an answer, and especially not in these ungodly morning hours, but Guren wasn’t entirely sure he was even looking for an answer anymore.

Guren didn’t remember when he first started dreaming scenes like this once. They came every few months, and had done so for years. No amount of time he had had them could ever prepare him for how scarily real they were. Every time he woke up from one, he could still feel her dead fingers on his cheek and feel her slowing heartbeat somewhere next to his, her breaths fading further with each inhale, with each exhale. The cold that accompanied the dream would follow him around for weeks afterwards every time.

The phone rang twice before Shinya answered with a tired-sounding, “Hello?”

“Are you busy?”

“Guren?” He paused, then said, “Uh, no, but I was sleeping. Is something wrong?”

“Guess,” he muttered, perhaps a tad bitter.

Shinya was silent for a moment before he let out a small sigh. “Again?”

“Are you busy?” Guren repeated.

“No,” Shinya said. “Just wait for me. I’ll be there soon.”

Guren paused. “Am I crazy?” he asked.

Shinya let out a small laugh that Guren wasn’t really convinced was driven by any mirth at all. “We both know the answer to that. Just give me ten minutes. I’ll see you soon.”

Before either of them could say another word, Shinya hung up.

Guren held the phone in his hand a moment longer. It shook slightly in his loose grip, and within a few slow-moving seconds, was falling out of his hand and crashing down to the floor.

The noise of it hitting the wooden floorboards seemed to echo around the entire apartment.

He barely registered it at all.

The longer he went on this way, the more he began to think he was unstable. That he was crazy, that he was missing something essential that everyone around him had.

He would never know what to do with this.

Desperately, he wanted to remember the girl in his dreams. They were always the same—he was fifteen years old again, she always touched his face, they were always so sad, never lacking in love but always lacking in happiness, and she was always dead before he woke up.

Every time, without fail, she died right before his eyes.

Shinya had suggested once, when they were about sixteen or seventeen and Guren had just started having these dreams, that he was being haunted. It definitely had more merit than any other idea either of them had ever concocted together, but it still didn’t seem overly plausible. Guren had never had a problem outside of his dreams, after all….

He sighed, making his to a drawer on the other side of the room to find a piece of paper and a pen, disregarding his cell phone entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time he had marked down the details of his dreams, but it was somehow just the right kind of meticulous, thoughtful activity to make him feel a little less overwhelmed.

By the time Shinya arrived, Guren had successfully written out every detail of the dreams he could remember. They were always the same in the most important ways, but some things differed, he found.

She never did say exactly the same thing. They were not always in the same place. Sometimes, when she reached out for his face, hers would be close enough that if he moved even slightly, they would be kissing.

Beyond that, though, nothing ever changed.

When he woke up, he could never remember who she was. Guren wasn’t even sure if he knew her name in his dreams at all.

The girl in his dreams was a mystery in every way she could possibly be.

When he let Shinya in, the first thing Shinya said was, “You look terrible.”

“Thank you,” Guren muttered. “I feel terrible. Come in, though. Don’t let my terribleness stop you.”

Shinya did so quietly, and Guren led him inside.

Shinya was very quick to notice the paper on the table. He picked it up and inspected it briefly before glancing up at Guren again.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“I’m just trying to figure out what all this means,” Guren said, sitting back down heavily.

“I can barely read it,” Shinya remarked. “Looks pretty shaky…”

“I’m pretty shaky,” Guren said quietly. “I hate this.”

Shinya say across from him and laid the paper on the table again. “I know you do,” he said. “But you’ll be grateful to hear that I think I know who can help you.”

Guren started. “What?”

“You can’t get mad, okay? It could be your only option at this point, so keep an open mind.”

“Why would I get mad if you know someone who can help me?”

“Because the person I think can help is Hiragi Kureto.”

Oh.

Guren and Kureto didn’t even know each other, really. When Guren and Shinya had been first years in high school, Kureto had been a senior, and student council president to boot. The Hiragis were a high-standing family of questionably acquired wealth, much of which had been funnelled out of the Ichinose family something like eighty years ago.

Guren had been raised to be wary of the Hiragis. And rightfully so, he thought.

“How can he help me?”

“They’ve done a lot of research into the supernatural,” Shinya explained. “He has the resources at his fingertips. I can pull some strings for you if that’s what you need. Any payment that needs to be made, I can make for you.”

“Why?” Guren’s voice sounded somehow hollow, even to his own ears.

“Because we’ve been friends for a long time,” Shinya said. “And I think you’re only getting worse.”

“Getting worse?”

“Guren, do you remember the last time you had a dream like this?”

He frowned, then mentally started counting backwards. It was the middle of June, now, so…

“Three weeks ago,” he said thickly, suddenly feeling rather sick again.

“Exactly,” Shinya agreed. “And I remember the first time you told me it happened, I had just turned sixteen. The next time it happened after that, you were almost seventeen.”

“Really?”

“Do you feel like you're losing touch with time, Guren?”

Guren stared at him. His vision felt somehow off, but he could not place what was wrong.

“Oh,” Shinya said. “That bad, huh?”

Guren finally registered what the strangeness was. He lifted a hand slowly to his face and wiped away the sudden wetness that was forming under his eyes.

“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I mostly feel like I’m missing something that I’m not supposed to be missing.”

“I see.” Shinya traced a finger absently over the surface of the table. “That’s…”

“If you really think Kureto can make a difference,” Guren said, “I’ll deal with him.”

Shinya’s hand stopped moving. “I’m not saying he can,” he warned. “I’m just saying that, if nothing else, he has access to the technology should you need it, and he’s got connections, should you need those.”

Guren had never thought of this as something he had to “fix,” exactly. More, it was something he had to live with…

Because he loved the girl in his dreams. Because he always woke up empty from them, as if her death was enough to kill part of him as well. Because her existence made him complete so long as he was asleep, but…

“I would rather die than keep living like this,” he said.

Shinya’s eyes widened slightly.

“Seriously?” he demanded. “That’s the most selfish thing I’ve ever heard you say.”

“Seriously,” Guren said honestly. “I don’t want to live my life in pain because of some girl who dies in my dreams. That’s hardly existing at all, don’t you think?”

Shinya shook his head. “It’s not about existing,” he said fiercely. “It’s about living regardless of everything else. Because you deserve to be happy, not miserable because of some girl who doesn’t even exist.”

I’m not meant to be happy.

“Are you even listening to me?!”

And neither are you.

“I can’t be.”

It was so simple. So easy.

He had always known that this was how things were supposed to be.

“What do you mean?!”

“I can’t be happy. Not unless she is.”

Shinya slammed a fist down on the table. Guren raised his eyes up to meet his friend’s.

“Did you call me here just so you could tell me how worthless you are? So you could tell me how worthless it is to live? I don’t want to hear it! No life isn’t worth living. No person doesn’t deserve happiness. You—”

“I’m not saying I don’t deserve happiness,” Guren said calmly. “I’m saying I can’t have it unless I can grant her hers.”

Shinya’s fist trembled.

“You’re so stupid,” he muttered. “You can’t change her.”

“I always love her when I see her.”

“She’s not real.”

“She’s the realest thing I have.”

Shinya would not look at him.

There was a very tense silence, and then:

“I’ll call Kureto,” Shinya said quietly. “I’ll arrange things with him. If you do everything I say, we’ll be fine.”

Guren didn’t care.

“You do want to change things, don’t you?”

Guren didn’t care.

Shinya sighed. “This is hard on me, too, you know.”

“I know,” Guren said. “But you’re the only person who cares, aren’t you?”

Guren wasn’t friendless, by any means. But after high school, he supposed he had become...less of himself, maybe. He had just had no reason to want to spend time with his friends anymore. He had had no reason go out when he knew it wouldn’t change anything. He hadn’t lost touch with his childhood friends, but they were certainly farther away from him now than he’d like them to be.

They had all done what they could, though. He still talked to them, but none of them were Shinya.

Shinya, who had been helping him through this all since they were sixteen.

“You’re so stupid,” Shinya said.

This was perhaps the hardest part of this. The longer this went on, the more Guren found himself losing touch with reality. The more Guren slipped away from himself, the more pain Shinya was in.

Yet he refused to leave.

Guren had always wondered at Shinya’s intense dedication. There were probably not many people who would drop everything at five in the morning to talk with someone who thought he was crazy because of some girl in his dreams that just kept dying.

“I know,” Guren said quietly.

A pause, then:

“I wish we were still kids.”

Guren wasn’t sure if he agreed.

“Have you ever been happy in your life?” Shinya asked.

Guren didn’t know.

Shinya shook his head. “I haven’t been,” he said. “I’ve had an absolutely shitty life. And I know you haven’t always had it so great either. But it’s not like you can’t change things.”

“Do I want to change things?”

They met each other’s eyes. Guren’s chest hurt from the sharp pain in Shinya’s.

Shinya said, “You don’t have a choice.”

“Okay,” Guren agreed. “I’ll do what you say.”

“That’s not what I want.”

“Then what do you want?”

“For you to start being yourself again,” Shinya said, making to stand up. He paused, fingers pressed against the table, poised to push himself up but not doing so just yet. “Make your own decisions, because it’s what you want. And, honestly? I’m not always sure you’re in there anymore, Guren.”

Guren watched him a moment. Neither of them moved.

Finally, he said, “I’ll be better tomorrow.”

Shinya stood up.

“Meet me later today, okay? I do think you should rest for now, but I also think it’d be best to deal with Kureto as soon as we can.”

“Okay,” Guren said dully.

“I’ll send you a time and a place. Don’t let me down.”

Something had changed in his tone. It was...somehow colder than it should have been. Closed off. Like…

“Are you angry?”

Shinya stopped. He seemed to be watching the depth of his own breaths.

“Not at you,” he said after a moment. “Angry with this situation, though? Absolutely.”

Guren couldn’t honestly see what the difference was.

“If you need me, call,” Shinya continued. “I’m going to try to contact Kureto. I’m sure he’ll listen if I give him a decent tip. Leave all that to me.”

“It’s not worth it if he’s asking for a lot of money.”

“Yes, it is.”

Guren scowled.

“Let me do this for you,” Shinya said. “You have far more value to me than any amount of money ever could.”

“Right…”

Shinya eyed him for a short moment, then reached down and grabbed the paper. “Do you mind if I take this?”

He shook his head. “I don’t think I could forget what it says,” he said dryly.

“Understandable. Then, I’m going to get going. Don’t dwell on it, yeah? I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”

He said that every time.

“Sure. See you later.”

Still, Shinya hesitated.

“What?” Guren asked, annoyance beginning to swell up in him.

Hastily, Shinya shook his head. “It’s nothing. See you.”

Before either of them could say anything else, Shinya had made his way back to the door and was letting himself out. The noise of the door closing behind him reverberated around the apartment.

Guren’s head ached, but worse than that was the deep dread settling in the pit of his stomach.

He wanted more than anything to know the girl in his dreams, but some part of him couldn’t help but think…

What if he wasn’t meant to know her?


When Shinya finally gave Guren a meeting time and place, it was about three hours past noon.

He would be the first to admit he was anxious to hear from Kureto, but he still dragged his feet, nonetheless. They were to meet in a park near Guren’s apartment complex, and Shinya’s message had only had two important things aside from this information: one, that Kureto would be with him, and two, that Guren needed to leave everything at home except for the clothes on his back and himself.

Guren understand why, of course. The Hiragis were not people to trust. Kureto could easily take vast amounts of Shinya’s money, give them false information, and then watch as they struggled to find their footing again. All of his family’s wealth had been acquired similarly, after all. Arranged marriages ending in deceit or even bloodshed, as things had happened with the Ichinoses long before Guren’s time, were just one thing of many nasty ones the Hiragis were willing to do to keep their prestige up.

So, he arrived at their meeting spot with an estimated two minutes to spare and with nothing on him but the clothes on his back.

He spotted Shinya immediately, waiting on a bench just a few feet away. Beside him was Hiragi Kureto, looking as uninterested in life as he surely ever did.

As Guren approached, Shinya offered him a smile that was somehow cocky and decidedly nervous all at once.

“Good to see you made it,” he said.

Kureto looked up at him. “Ichinose,” he said.

Though Guren had been raised with a deep loathing of the Hiragis boiling in his blood, he similarly had been raised with the knowledge that they demanded his respect, regardless of his feelings.

He bowed his head slightly. “Kureto-sama,” he said, “it’s a pleasure.”

“I’m sure it is,” Kureto said. “Lift your head.”

Guren did as he was told, watching Kureto cautiously.

Kureto gestured to the empty space on the bench beside him. “Sit down,” he said. “I won’t do anything.”

Guren would take that statement with a grain of salt, but he obeyed.

“Kureto-sama thinks he knows what’s wrong with you,” Shinya said. “He says he can offer an explanation, but anything further will come with a price.”

“Not the explanation itself, though?”

“No,” Kureto said. “It would be pointless to charge you for something so trivial.”

“Trivial,” Guren echoed.

“Just the information won’t help your circumstances,” Kureto said, shrugging. “Maybe it’ll make it worse. I don’t know.”

“Tell me, anyway,” Guren said.

“You certainly lose your respect quickly, don’t you?” Kureto shook his head. “Either way...I’d say what you’re dealing with is an old magic. You can’t get rid of it, if that’s what you’re thinking. And I’m sure you wouldn’t want to, anyway. People affected by it are essentially blessed.”

“Doesn’t feel like much of a blessing to me.”

“That’s the magic requires two people to work,” Kureto explained. “It’s soulmate magic, see? Those affected by it are integrated into a reincarnation cycle. Only a handful of people are lucky enough to be a part of it. I’d only met one person before you who was, to be honest with you.”

“Who?”

“My sister, Mahiru. When a set of soulmates is born, the one born first generally gets their memories from the last reincarnation cycles. So, she was granted memories of her past lives. She was born already loving someone who didn’t even know she existed yet.”

Mahiru.

The name felt somehow heavy as he replayed it in his mind.

“What happened, then?” he asked, throat dry.

“They never met. She died when I was seventeen.”

“...I see.”

“But Mahiru was never haunted by her soulmate. Not the way you are, at least. She recorded having dreams about whoever it was. She said they always took place in different timelines, but rather than it being her past lives, she explained more as this life in a different setting.”

“Like an alternate universe?”

“Sure,” Kureto said. “Something like that.”

“But her soulmate was always alive?”

“Right,” Kureto agreed. “I thought about what Shinya told me, and I think I know why that is. Of course, this is merely speculation, but I always did wonder about Mahiru’s death… If you’re destined to meet someone, and you never do, what happens to the other person?”

There was a large pause here, in which Guren held his breath and Kureto seemed to gather his words. Finally:

“I think that your soulmate is dead,” he finished. “And that’s why she’s always dying in your dreams.”

“But why?” Guren demanded. “That hardly makes sense.”

“Mahiru always said her dreams felt real. She suspected she was reliving a real scene, but it was never one she had lived herself...at least, not in this timeline. But her dreams always ended the same: with her soulmate alive and well, of course, but never remembering who she was. She took years and years trying to understand, until she came to the conclusion that what was happening was an intersection of timelines. In her dreams, she was in a reality different from this one, but in the moments before she would wake, that timeline and this one would have to cross paths. Understand? In this timeline, her soulmate never knew who she was. It’s why they always forgot about her before she woke up.”

“...And why mine always dies.”

“I don’t believe this,” Shinya snapped. “I’ve never heard of this reincarnation cycle. How do we know you’re telling the truth?”

“Because we let my sister die in the name of this magic,” Kureto said. “How do you think we managed to get so far technologically? Mahiru kept journals for us. Mahiru told us everything she felt. Mahiru allowed herself to be used by us and others so we could learn about these alternate timelines. Mahiru made herself a lot of enemies because of it. Mahiru was murdered by them before she ever got to see the things she gave to us become anything worthwhile.”

“And that should make us trust you?”

A thick silence hung over them for a moment, but Guren had already decided:

“I trust you,” he said quietly.

“Guren—”

“Good,” Kureto said, loudly enough to be heard over Shinya’s voice. “Then, let me propose to you what you can do about this.”

“This is a mistake,” Shinya warned.

“Aren’t you the one who suggested it?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then let’s hear him out.” Guren turned his gaze fully to Kureto. “I’m listening.”

Kureto inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “Mahiru died, but not in vain. What she offered before her death was enough to allow us to develop the technology, in recent years, to allow people like you to jump timelines.”

“Jump timelines? That’s…”

“It’s technology in development,” Kureto said. “We don’t know if it’ll work, let alone send you where you’d want and bring you back.”

“Wouldn’t there be two of me in whatever timeline I wound up in, then?”

Kureto shook his head. “Aren’t you always the same person in your dreams? It’d be just like that, only you’d get to remember your soulmate. Get to know who they are and stuff.”

“And what price would you expect us to pay?”

“Oh, we would only expect monetary payment upon success...just having someone try it would be more than enough for now, don’t you think?”

Guren didn’t trust his tone at all.

But…

“Okay,” he agreed. “I’ll do it.”

“Guren!”

“Relax,” Kureto said, glancing at Shinya. “He probably won’t die. And if he does, wouldn’t that be better, anyway? He and his soulmate could enter their reincarnation cycle again more quickly.”

“It doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“Yes, it does!” Shinya cried, mortified. “You might not come back!”

Ah...which would mean leaving Shinya and their other friends behind, wouldn’t it?

“But at least he’d be with his soulmate, right?”

Right...his soulmate. The person he was born to be with….

“I need to know,” he decided. “Even if it’s risky. I can’t live with myself knowing I never tried, at least.”

Kureto nodded. “I agree,” he said. “Mahiru would’ve done the same thing, I’m sure.”

Mahiru… Guren wondered what kind of person she had been. She sounded tragic, like some kind of star someone had loosed from the night sky and let drop down to the ground, made to shatter. But there was something else…something Guren couldn’t quite put his finger on. Hiragi Mahiru...he had certainly never met her….

“You really are crazy,” Shinya muttered.

“Maybe,” Guren conceded. “But don’t you understand?”

I’m not meant to be happy.

“Should I?”

And neither are you.

“I don’t know.”

“There’s just one thing,” Kureto said.

They both turned to look at him.

“It won’t work unless you’re dreaming of—and therefore in—another timeline first. And it has to be only that timeline. It’s a narrow window, I know, but if we catch it as they intersect...I don’t think anything good will happen, to say the least.”

“I don’t exactly have a schedule for these things,” Guren said.

“Well, of course not. I believe there’s a simple workaround, however.”

“What is it?”

“You come with me, and we monitor you as you sleep.”

“Ridiculous,” Shinya said. “That’s—”

“How will you tell?” Guren asked.

Guren.”

Guren felt his hand twitch at his side. “Just trust me, would you?”

“Of course I trust you, but—!”

“Let me do this, then.”

Shinya looked away from him, scowling.

“We wouldn’t,” Kureto said. “But we just have to apply a salve to your eyes….we certainly have enough that we can waste some. It shouldn’t have any effect unless you’re in a different timeline.”

“I see.”

“So, what do you think?”

Guren glanced between Kureto and Shinya. Shinya looked angry, but…

“I have to do something,” Guren said quietly.

“You’re an idiot.”

“I know.”

“I’ll never forgive myself if this doesn’t work.”

“...I know.”

“And I won’t forgive you, either.”

Guren couldn’t look at him.

“I know,” he said again.

Kureto stood up. “Very well. If that’s sorted out, then let’s get this over with. I presume you have nothing to go back for?”

“No,” Guren said. “Shinya will take care of anything until it doesn’t to be taken care of anymore.”

“Of course I will,” Shinya muttered.

“I’m just—”

“No...don’t worry about it.” Shinya looked up at him, eyes a little cold. “Go find your soulmate, Guren. I’m sure she’s wonderful.”

“Shinya—”

“Tell me when you get back. If you ever do, anyway.” He stood up as well, brushing the wrinkles out of his pants.

“Hey, don’t—”

“Don’t what, Guren? Don’t leave? Why should I wait for you to leave first instead? I have to help myself, too, you know.”

“What? No, I—”

“See you. I’ll take care of everything you need me to until you don’t need me to anymore. Just try to come back in one piece, yeah?”

He turned and walked away before either could speak again. Guren stared after him dumbly.

“Interesting,” Kureto said. “I feel like I just watched a proper lover’s tiff.”

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. Love is pointless, if you ask me. Doesn’t get you anywhere. Just look at how Mahiru wound up.”

Slowly, Guren rose from the bench. He felt heavy, as if the world had suddenly fallen to his shoulders and his shoulders alone.

“What happened to her?” he asked.

“Mahiru?” Kureto shook his head. “She was never happy. I’m not sure if she was meant to be.”

Guren stilled.

I’m not meant to be happy.

“Really,” he said.

“She was a genius. Our father loved her. She would’ve been head of the family someday, if things had turned out any differently. Perhaps her soulmate would’ve helped her bring the Hiragis to a new level of greatness. It’s impossible to say.”

“I see.”

“Mahiru’s not the same as you, though,” Kureto reminded him. “You can’t learn from her experience, but what happened to her might be able to help you, at least.”

“I know you’re doing this for your own gain, Kureto-sama.”

Kureto laughed. “Of course I am. And you’re doing it for yours, even though it hurts Shinya. Who do you think is worse, between us?”

It was not even a question.

Kureto seemed to see the answer on his face. “Exactly,” he said. “You’re pitiful, Ichinose. But even I’m not cruel enough to turn away a broken man on his last desperate shot at life.”

He was right, of course. Guren really had nothing left to lose.

...But Shinya’s pain ached deep within Guren. He didn’t want to lose Shinya’s trust. His dedication. His love.

Because Shinya was his best friend, after all, but…

But if Kureto was right, he had a soulmate. A girl he could never remember the name of, could never remember the face of, but…

She was out there somewhere, waiting for him. In too many timelines, she was unhappy.

In this timeline, she was dead.

Guren wanted to meet her, just once, before he died, too.


“I wanted to buy you something.”

Guren looked up at her. Her ashen hair blew slightly in the summer’s warm breeze. She looked at him, then glanced away, a rosy tint to her cheeks.

“Here!” she said, thrusting a small box at him.

He took it gingerly, raising an eyebrow at her. “What’s this?”

“You like chocolate cake best, right?” She stopped, looked at him again. Her eyes widened. “No, I’m wrong, aren’t I? You like strawberries best...I’m such an idiot!”

“N-no,” he said hastily. “I like chocolate just fine.”

“But you like strawberry-flavoured things better, don’t you?”

He did, but…

“No,” he said. “Chocolate is my favourite.”

He would eat chocolate for the rest of his life if he could just see that dazzling smile even one more time.

“I’m so glad!” She sat beside him. “I only want you to be happy, Guren.”

“I’m always happy when you’re here.”

She sighed and leaned in closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. “I wish we could be like this forever.”

They were fifteen years old.

“Me too,” he said.

Faintly, she reached a hand up to touch his face. They were cold, but made his skin sear, regardless.

She lifted her head up to meet his eyes. Her hand fell away from his face. He made to grab for it, horrified, but it fell away from his grasp like sand through an hourglass.

Her name fell from his lips in a shaken cry as she took one deep, shuddering breath. Leaned up against his body as she was, he could feel it in his own bones.

And then she did not take another breath.

There was no warmth radiating from her body at all, but Guren was certain she had just been the warmest thing in the world only mere seconds ago.

Her skin was pale, bloodless. Her eyes fogged over and limbs unmoving.

No more did her chest rise or fall.

After all, she had already been dead for eight years.


When Guren awoke, he found he could not remember what he had dreamt.

Instead, he was immediately bombarded with very different memories.

Fifteen years old and going out after school with a girl with beautiful ashen hair and large hazel eyes. About sixteen, and kissing her for the first time. Seventeen, and sleeping with her…

Eighteen and freshly graduated. Nineteen and engaged. Twenty and about to be married. Twenty-one and living their perfect harmonious life together under the same roof. Twenty-three, and just as in love as they had always been.

Fifteen years old, and sharing chocolate cake beneath the sakura trees at the park by her childhood home.

He blinked, dazed.

Mahiru.

Hiragi Mahiru.

The girl he loved.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” said a familiar voice at the door.

And there was Mahiru, watching him with a fond smile.

“Morning,” he replied, trying not to stare.

Why did it feel like he knew her…?

Why did it feel like he didn’t…?

“I made breakfast,” she continued. “Don’t forget we have to go to Kureto-niisan’s this afternoon. Aoi said he’s been a little cranky lately, but I can’t really blame him.” She laughed. It was an angelic sound. “Anyway, come downstairs soon, okay? I don’t want the food to waste while you spend your time in bed.”

“Y-yeah,” Guren said.

She eyed him curiously. “Are you feeling okay? You look a little feverish, now that I’m really looking at you.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing.”

She frowned. “Okay...but I’ll be the judge of that once you come down. Try to be quick, yeah? It’s already almost ten…”

“I will.”

“Good.” She offered him a smile before making her way back down the hall.

Guren’s heart roared in his ears.

He could remember everything, it felt like, and yet he could remember nothing at all.

The only memories he had of this timeline seemed to be of Mahiru. Everything else was completely blank, but he could recall his own life, from his own timeline.

The timeline where Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

“Fuck,” he said.

The room did not respond.

Hiragi Mahiru…

What was he supposed to do with that?

He cautiously removed himself from the bed. He noticed that he had come to on the left side…opposite of what he had always remembered sleeping on his own bed.

But this was his own bed.

He paused for a moment, thinking, and then the answer came to him.

Mahiru slept on the right side, because she refused to sleep furthest from the door.

Why, though? He couldn’t remember. He supposed that could only mean that he hadn’t heard the reason from Mahiru herself…

He would have to be careful, then. He imagined Kureto hadn’t wanted things to be this way, but…

But, if nothing else, he remembered Mahiru. He remembered everything about her from this timeline. Her name felt all at once familiar and unfamiliar in his head, but it was far from a bad thing…

This Guren loved Mahiru, the way he should’ve been allowed to in his own timeline.

He wasn’t going to let her go until he got to say he loved her, too.

Maybe it was sort of like stealing, in some senses. He didn’t know what kind of person this Guren was, but he figured Mahiru’s happiness could only say good things about this timeline.

After all, how timelines had he seen her in where she hadn’t been happy?

So, if this Guren was as happy as Mahiru was…

Well, Guren didn’t really fit here.

He took the time to find where everything in the bedroom was, dedicating it all to memory as best he could. He would make Mahiru suspicious, of course, if he didn’t know where his own clothes were, so it would be best to find them now before he made a total fool of himself tonight.

He tried not to get too focussed on things aside from clothes, but upon checking the little drawer on his side of the bed, he found pictures.

So many pictures.

This could help him, too, he supposed, thumbing through them thoughtfully.

Pictures from high school were the first on the pile. Amazingly, he seemed to have had the same friend group, but there was one stark difference:

In every single picture, Mahiru was a constant presence, and she was always by his side.

Shinya, however, for his part, seemed the farthest away from Guren in every picture. He often had his arms wrapped around Sayuri and Shigure, and there was even one picture in which Sayuri was on her toes and pressing a kiss to his cheek. He seemed to be smiling a little larger in this picture than the rest.

Interesting.

The next photos in the pile were wedding photos. He and Mahiru were high school sweethearts in every sense of the word, it seemed. They had married at twenty, the first of their friends to do so, as far as Guren could tell, and in every picture, everyone was happy. Happy for them, happy for their love, happy for all the things they represented when they were together.

The thing that threw Guren the most was this, though:

There were multiple pictures of him with Kureto.

And, flipping through, he realized Kureto wasn’t the only Hiragi he had been photographed with. As he looked through, he found a picture of himself holding a young girl on his shoulders. She looked to be a carbon copy of Mahiru, though her hair was a touch darker, and her eyes slightly more brown.

The next picture was a group picture, with Guren and Mahiru standing to the side, him holding her waist, while her two brothers and the young girl—presumably Mahiru’s younger sister—stood around them. Beside them was Hiragi Tenri, the man Guren had grown up hearing vile stories about, shaking hands with Ichinose Sakae, the man that had told Guren those vile stories.

Seeing his father was a little odd, considering he had been a recluse of a man for the majority of Guren’s life, but the strangest part of it all was an unfamiliar woman standing on Sakae’s left, a hand resting gently on his shoulder.

And then in hit Guren all at once:

This woman wasn’t unfamiliar, per se. He technically knew her very well, but in his own timeline…

In his own timeline, she was dead, too.

He felt quite sick, suddenly.

He had never really gotten to know his mother. She had died shortly after he was born, which had been too much for Sakae to deal with, and he had subsequently become something of a hermit. As a teenager, Guren did all the errands for his father, solely because the man refused to do them himself. After leaving home, Guren had hired someone to help him, but they did not see each other often anymore. It was hard, in some ways, not to hate him at least a little bit.

But in this timeline, his wife had never died, and so he had never had a reason to shut himself out from the world.

It seemed that the Hiragis and Ichinoses were not at each other’s throats in any way in this timeline. More, they seemed to actually get along.

And the wedding pictures were nice, but they were far from extravagant.

So, were the Hiragis just...regular people here?

Guren shook his head and set the pictures away carefully. This was too much…. He surely wouldn’t last a day here like this….

He dressed quickly and made his way downstairs. His head ached slightly, but he figured that was to be expected.

After all, this wasn’t his life. He was intruding on someone else’s. No matter how wonderful it seemed, it wasn’t his. He couldn’t get too attached.

He would have to go back to his own life eventually…

“Took you long enough,” Mahiru said, seeing him enter the kitchen. “Come here.”

He did as she asked.

She stuck her tongue out in thought before pressing the back of her hand against his forehead. They stayed like that for a moment, while she considered him, then her hand fell away.

“You don’t have a fever,” she said. “But you look sick. What were you doing last night, again?”

“Uh…”

She laughed. “I’m joking, I’m joking. I know you were with me the whole time. Did you not sleep well?”

“Guess not,” he said.

She frowned. “Not those nightmares again?”

Nightmares…?

“N-no,” he said quickly. “Just not a very deep sleep, is all. I’ll be fine.”

“You better not be lying to me,” she said lowly, pointing a threatening finger in his face.

“I’m not!”

“Good,” she said, sniffing. She took a step away from him. “Food’s on the table. Knock yourself out.”

He watched her a moment, dazed, then glanced back at the table. She had made bacon and eggs, it seemed.

She sighed, then came forward and pulled at his elbow.

“You’re worrying me a bit,” she said. “Do you want me to call Sayuri-chan?”

Sayuri? Why would she call Sayuri, of all people? The one person Guren had always had had been—

But in this timeline, Mahiru had been by his side, not Shinya. His soulmate, not his best friend.

In this timeline, his soulmate and his best friend were the same person.

This was going to be more difficult to traverse than he would’ve liked.

She directed him the table and he sat down heavily. She sat beside him, reaching over to grab his hand.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” she said. “I can’t help you if I don’t know.”

Her hand was so warm…

So warm, as he had never felt it before.

He pulled his hand away from her, chest tight, breaths coming fast.

She blinked at him in alarm. “Guren?”

He couldn’t speak. His throat felt like it was collapsing on itself.

Hiragi Mahiru.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

He had seen her die a thousand times, surely. Seen her die, always trying to hold onto her, always trying to keep her with him. He had never remembered her name. Never remembered her face. Never remembered her voice.

But now...now it came to him, all at once. Every time he had seen her die, it was always her. The ashen hair framing pale skin, those lifeless hazel eyes, the name “Mahiru” falling from his lips like the chorus of a sad song.

Hiragi Mahiru was a tragedy, the brightest star in the sky that had sparked out.

She was the only star Guren had had to light up his night, but now...

“Guren, what’s—?”

Everything was dark.

He felt like he was suffocating.

“Breathe,” she whispered. “Breathe. Breathe with me, Guren.”

She was close enough to touch, but…

But every time Guren had ever touched her, she had gone cold and silent and dead.

“You’re okay,” she soothed. “It’s fine. I’m right here.”

He could reach out to her. He could hold her hand tightly and find the strength to breathe. But he could never, ever forgive himself if he touched her and she died again.

Again and again and again.

She was not meant to be happy.

And neither was he.

“Guren,” she said.

He wanted to reach out.

“Guren.”

She was so close…

“Guren.”

Mahiru.

“Guren.”

He inhaled sharply, grabbing at the edge of the table.

“Can you hear me?”

“Yes,” he said quietly.

“Just listen to me, Guren.”

He was listening. He was always listening for her.

...Was he, though?

Hiragi Mahiru.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

Hiragi Mahiru was sitting beside him, whispering comfort in his ear.

When would she die?

“You’re okay. I’m right here.”

When would she die?

“I won’t go anywhere.”

When would she die?

“I love you. I’ll always be with you.”

When would she die?

His fingers trembled. She gently brushed one finger against his hand.

“It’s okay,” she said, but it wasn’t.

Every time she had ever touched him, she had died immediately after.

“Breathe.”

Breathe.

Breathe in time with her. Feel in time with her. Their hearts already beat as one, after all.

They were meant to be together.

He exhaled shakily.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she murmured, intertwining their hands. “No matter what. I’ll always stand by your side.

“I know.”

She scooched a little closer to him. “Tell me what’s wrong, Guren. I can’t help you if I don’t know.”

He stared down at the table, unseeing. “Tell me you’re alive.”

“Of course I’m alive. I won’t die, Guren.”

“You could.”

“I won’t.”

“You could.”

“You’re not in a good state right now,” she said quietly. “What happened? You had another nightmare, didn’t you?”

How could he answer that if he didn’t know what kind of nightmares this Guren supposedly had?

“What happened?”

He was trying to think fast, but everything hurt.

“You died,” he ventured.

“Well, yeah, I know that. But how did I die?”

...Was it possible that this Guren also dreamt of Mahiru dying?

“I don’t remember,” he said.

She sighed, resting her head against his shoulder. “It’s okay. It was just a dream.”

But it wasn’t.

Absently, he raised his hand to stroke her hair.

She looked up at him with a very sad look lighting up her eyes. “I wish I could fix this.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault...it’s just so unfair.”

He didn’t speak.

“It was supposed to be me,” she continued. “I was supposed to be the one who had bad dreams, not you. I was supposed to shoulder the burden in this lifetime, and instead you got it… If anyone should be sorry, it should be me.”

Kureto had said that Mahiru had had dreams of her past lives, as she was the one that had inherited the memories of them. She had been born first.

But in this timeline, that wasn’t the case?

“Let’s just forget about it,” Guren said quietly.

“But you’re—”

“I don’t want to think you’re dead.”

He felt her swallow. “I know you don’t.”

“You’re alive, right?”

“I’m alive.”

“Tell me how you know.”

“Because I’m still breathing. Because my heart still beats. Because I still know I love you.”

“I don’t want you to die.”

“I won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I promised you. And I’ll never break a promise to you, Guren.”

If he thought back, he could remember it.

A moment just like this, but they were sixteen, sitting in the park beneath the barren sakura trees. It was winter, and Mahiru’s cheeks were tinted with pink from the cold, but Guren barely noticed. He stared down at his hands, barely seeing them.

“I dreamt you were dead,” he said.

What?

I don’t want you to die, Mahiru.”

I’m right here.

What if you aren’t always, though?”

That won’t happen,” she said fiercely. “I promise I’ll always be here.”

This timeline had hurt them, too. Just like Guren’s, but this time, Mahiru was still alive.

“We don’t have to go if you don’t feel up to it,” she said softly. “They’ll understand.”

Guren honestly wasn’t sure if his Kureto understood much of anything.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“You’re not,” she said sharply. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I will be fine, then.”

She pulled away from him. “You—you just had a panic attack!”

Had he? That probably wasn’t what he’d label it as, himself, but perhaps she was right. Really, Guren just felt like he was losing his sanity. He had been for years, now.

“Don’t try to pretend,” Mahiru said. “I know you're not okay, Guren. You don’t have to pretend you are….”

“Nothing will change it,” he reminded her. “It’s pointless to even consider that it could change. I have to live with it. You know that, too, right?”

She sighed. “I know, but that doesn’t mean I’m okay with it.”

“...I know.”

“But we can leave it for now. Just promise me you'll tell me when something is wrong, okay? I know it’s hard, but we’ve been through everything together so far, haven’t we? We’ve always done things this way. We always will.”

Guren’s chest ached.

Who was Hiragi Mahiru? Was she a tragedy? A wax candle made to burn out? Guren didn’t think so. He couldn’t, not when he remembered that she was the girl that bought him chocolate cake on a gorgeous June afternoon when they were fifteen years old. The girl standing beside him in all their high school photos, holding his hand and smiling so brilliantly she could draw planets into orbit around her. The girl he had married. The girl he wanted to spend the rest of his life—and every life that would come after—with.

Hiragi Mahiru was kind. She was intelligent, but had a tendency towards bashfulness when people reminded her of it. She was fierce in her love, and she would see the world to ruin if that was what it took to protect her loved ones.

She and Guren were very similar in that sense. They had talked about it so often, it would be impossible to forget just how deeply they tended to love.

After all, hadn’t they spent a hundred lives or more bonded by their love for each other? Of course they would both be the types to value love above all else.

“I promise,” he said.

“Good.” She smiled at him. “Let’s eat, then.”


After they had eaten, Mahiru guided Guren through what the rest of their day would look like.

It turned out that they were going to Kureto’s to celebrate his recent marriage to Sangu Aoi, who Guren only vaguely remembered from high school, if he was being completely honest. In their senior year, he was fairly certain she had been student council president. She must’ve known Kureto at least a little bit, if she had been the successor of his successor...right?

Truthfully, Guren hadn’t paid attention to much in high school. He had only really cared about his friends, and things had been difficult enough with his father, after all. Whatever everyone else’s priorities had been in school, his had definitely not been the same.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Mahiru fretted.

“I’m fine. Really.”

They stood outside the door to Kureto’s house. It was far more humble than Guren had been expecting, but it only furthered the evidence that the Hiragis were really just regular people in this timeline.

“You still look sick,” she said. “I—”

The door opened. The face on the other side was only somewhat familiar, but Guren would’ve guessed it to be Aoi, even if he hadn’t recalled her face.

“Oh, Mahiru. Wonderful to see you! Please come in. And Guren, too, of course…. Shinya and Sayuri just arrived as well. Nobody else could make it, unfortunately....”

Mahiru nodded sadly. “It’s been busy, hasn’t it?”

Aoi merely nodded. “It’s all right, though. We’ll see them soon enough. Come in, though…”

They stepped inside as she said, pushing their shoes off where she directed them to.

“It’s not much, but we wanted to get you something to congratulate you,” Mahiru said, pulling out a bouquet of red and pink flowers she’d been holding behind her back and handing them off to Aoi. “And maybe wish you a little luck. I know he’s older now, but Niisan sure was a handful growing up.”

“He knows better than to drive me too crazy,” Aoi joked. “Thank you. They’re beautiful.”

Mahiru beamed at her.

Guren tried to dissect their words, but only found himself faced with more questions. Why were Sayuri and Shinya here? What relation did they have to Kureto and Aoi? And why were they here together?

“Coming, Guren?”

He blinked at her. She was a few steps ahead of him now, twisted back to face him with a sad smile pulling at her lips.

“Right,” he said thickly.

She reached a hand out to him. He stepped forward to take it, coming to stand by her side.

She gave his hand a small squeeze. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “These are our friends. They’ll understand if you need to leave at any point.”

Guren would have to be wary, regardless.

Aoi led them to the living room, where Kureto sat deep in conversation with Sayuri, who was looking quite thoughtful, for her part. Shinya sat beside her, watching them converse with a fond look.

Guren wondered about that.

As they entered the room, however, the conversation quickly ceased, and all three of them turned to offer greetings to Mahiru and Guren.

“Sorry we’re a little late,” Mahiru said bashfully. “It’s my fault.”

“She’s lying,” Guren said.

“We all figured it was your fault, anyway,” Shinya told him, laughing. “Good to see you, though. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess it has been.”

Sayuri narrowed her eyes at him. “You look sick. Should you even be here?”

“He’s fine,” Mahiru said quickly. “Just a bad night of sleep is all.”

“Oh, but you look as good as ever, Mahiru,” Shinya said thoughtfully. Guren didn’t miss the mischievous flick of his lips, but he didn’t think much of it. Shinya always seemed to have something to be mirthful about, after all.

“What makes you think she has to lose out on sleep if I do?” Guren asked, annoyed.

Sayuri and Shinya exchanged a glance, snickering.

It hit Guren all at once what they were saying.

“Oh, grow up,” he snapped. “We’re married. Our sex life is none of your business.”

Shinya pouted. “What a poor sport! It’s all in good humour, Guren. And if you wanted, we could divulge information about—”

“No, we can’t!” Sayuri yelped, pressing a hand against his mouth. “Yuki-chan wouldn’t be happy with that at all!”

He laughed. “Okay, okay, I’ll drop it, then.”

“Where is she, anyway?” Mahiru asked, pulling Guren over the side of the room Kureto was on.

As they settled onto the couch, Shinya frowned at them.

“Family stuff. She’ll be gone for a few days, yet. She said she’s sorry she couldn’t make it, but you know how her mother’s been a little sickly lately….”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mahiru said quietly. “I imagine she’s going through quite a bit lately.”

Sayuri nodded sadly. “We want to help her, but she’s so…” She gestured vaguely, letting out a small sigh.

Mahiru nodded, though. “I get what you mean.” She glanced at Guren, lips twitching downward somewhat.

“I guess you would understand, huh?” Sayuri laughed. “Guren-san and Yuki-chan have certainly always had their similarities, haven’t they?”

Guren had grown up near Sayuri and Shigure. They’d been close childhood friends, but after high school, Guren had started to lose himself, and so he had started to lose his friends, too. They were busy people, after all. In his timeline, Shigure had gone to university to attain a degree in law, and Sayuri had gone into education. Mito and Goshi had opened up a business in Shibuya together, but Guren had never really bothered to find out what, exactly, that business was.

He felt a pang in his chest. Maybe he had lost more than he had been letting himself realize he had.

“It gives us something in common,” Shinya joked. “We can all sit around and have tea and talk about our terrible significant others.”

“Maybe I’ll join you sometimes,” Aoi said wryly.

Kureto rolled his eyes. “Married for three days and she’s already sick of me. Can you believe it?”

“I can believe it,” Mahiru said, laughing. “You’re trouble, Niisan.”

“Says you!”

“I’m sure Guren disagrees with what you’re saying about me,” Mahiru said.

Guren started, noticing her casting a small smile at him.

“Of course I do,” he said.

Her cheeks lit up slightly.

“You weren’t expecting that, were you?” Shinya asked, letting out a short chuckle. “Even I was expecting him to say that. Don’t you realize what a sap you married?”

“I’m not a sap!”

Mahiru raised an eyebrow at him. “Well, I don’t know. You certainly have your moments…”

“So do you!”

She laughed, leaning into him slightly. “Well, of course. If it takes being sappy to show you how much I love you, then that’s what I’ll do.”

“Ugh,” Kureto said. “That soulmate stuff sure makes people ridiculous.”

Guren stiffened slightly. Mahiru tightened her grasp on his hand.

“Oh, let them be lovebirds,” Shinya chastised. “They’re cute sometimes, aren’t they?”

Mahiru rubbed circles on the back of his hand with her thumb. He focussed on that feeling, on her warmth.

Her warmth.

He wouldn’t do this again. Not here, not now. He couldn’t. If he wanted to be thought of as the Guren from this timeline, he would have to act like the Guren from this timeline.

But he didn’t know what that Guren was like.

“Not especially,” Kureto muttered.

Mahiru’s warmth.

She was right here. Warm. Breathing. Alive.

Alive.

I promise I’ll always be here.

She wouldn’t go anywhere if either of them could help it.

He felt his shoulders relax slightly.

“Either way,” Mahiru said, turning to look at her brother. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Seishiro took Shinoa out for ice cream,” Kureto said, shrugging. “Or, that’s what he said, but I imagine he’s just going to flirt with the girl that works at that one shop. He’s such an idiot, honestly.”

“And you just let him take her?”

“Shinoa’s not a kid anymore, Mahiru. She’s already in high school.”

Mahiru scowled. “Still…”

“And, anyway, she really did want ice cream. And he’s paying for it, so I’m sure she’s not too upset about it. I did think they’d be back by now, though.”

Then, Shinoa would have to be the girl from the wedding pictures, Guren thought.

The wedding pictures…

Between everything else, he had almost forgotten them.

As if on cue, the sound of the door opening drifted through the hall.

“I wish he’d knock, though,” Kureto said, rubbing at his nose. “It’s not like this is actually his house.”

“But he’s living here,” Mahiru pointed out. “He’s basically your guys’ kid for the next two weeks.”

Kureto shuddered. “I don’t even want to think about it.”

Aoi laughed. “We’ll be on our own soon enough. I don’t mind it too much. I know he’s not very pleased with things, either.”

“Just until his payments settle out,” Mahiru agreed. “And he might not act it, but I know he’s grateful for what you guys are doing. I’m glad he asked you, though.”

“I’m sure you are,” Kureto muttered.

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know. I’m glad, too, even if he is a nuisance.”

“Who’s a nuisance?”

Guren glanced up at the entrance to the room. Seishiro and Shinoa stood there, Seishiro scowling and Shinoa beaming.

Guren stared at her.

She didn’t look the same as the girl in the picture, exactly, but this could really only be attributed the difference in age between the Shinoa standing in front of him and the Shinoa at the time of Guren and Mahiru’s wedding. She still looked like Mahiru, but wore her hair in a far different way, and was significantly shorter. She smiled more like she wanted other people to think she was genuinely smiling than how Mahiru smiled, like she just wanted other people to feel happy.

“Is there something on my face?” she asked, turning a suspicious gaze to him.

He started. “Yeah,” he said, thinking fast. “A bad attitude, mostly.”

“Ha-ha, you’re a real funny guy, aren’t you? Your clapbacks kind of suck, though.”

“My clapbacks are better than yours,” he said, sniffing.

“Now, now, we all know that’s not true, Guren.” She frowned at him. “But, for real, my face is fine, right?”

“Your face is fine,” Mahiru told her. “Don’t mind Guren.”

“We all know he’s weird, anyway,” Shinoa said. “Kureto-niisan, do you have any food? I’m starving.”

“Wait for dinner,” Aoi chastised. “If you eat now, you won’t be hungry then.”

She groaned, flopping down beside Sayuri. “Sometimes I hate this family.”

Sayuri patted her arm consolingly. “It’s okay, Shinoa-chan. Most teenagers hate their families. You’ll come to love them all eventually.”

“Even Seishiro-niisan?” she asked dubiously.

“Even him, yes.”

“That’s not very nice,” Seishiro muttered. “I just bought you ice cream, you ingrate.”

“You only did that because you wanted to see some cute girl,” Shinoa said mournfully. “I’d say it’s too bad she snubbed you, but you really deserved it.”

“I did not!”

“She told you she had a boyfriend and you flirted with her anyway!”

Kureto sighed. “Well, we’re glad you made it back, at least. We can probably start on dinner now, yeah?”

Aoi straightened. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll get started on it.”

“Oh, Aoi, you can’t do everything yourself,” Mahiru said, detaching herself from Guren and standing up. “We’ll help you!”

Aoi smiled. “Thanks.”

“Is anybody else coming?”

“My sister,” Aoi said. “She’s just going to be late because she was out with some friends. But our parents are out for the week, so I figured she should at least eat a real meal one time while they’re gone. Not to mention, Shinoa-chan gets along with her.”

Shinoa nodded enthusiastically. “Micchan and I are great friends.”

Guren wondered why that sounded so terrifying.

“Didn’t know you had friends,” Seishiro muttered, scowling at her.

“You shouldn’t base all your judgements of other people based on your own experiences, Niisan.”

Somehow, this managed to make him look even more irritated.

“Let’s try to get along,” Mahiru suggested. “Kureto-niisan doesn’t want us arguing when we’re celebrating something so good, right?”

“Right,” Kureto agreed. “I’ve heard all these arguments before, anyway. They lose their effect after a while, you know.”

Shinoa pouted. “But I’m right, aren’t I?”

“Well…”

“That aside!” Mahiru interrupted. “It’ll be a little nice family bonding, right? Seishiro and Shinoa, help us make dinner.”

“I’ll keep our company entertained,” Kureto said, glancing back at Aoi. “Let me know if you need anything.”

“Okay,” she said, then glanced around the room and frowned. “I’ll take...all your siblings, then.”

Shinya laughed. “Have fun with that, Aoi. I heard Shinoa-chan has a habit of burning her food.”

“Oh, you know I’d only burn yours, Shinya-san,” Shinoa said sweetly.

“So mean,” he said, sighing.

Shinoa stuck her tongue out at him.

Aoi made her way to the kitchen, her small entourage trailing behind her. Mahiru hesitated a moment, then offered Guren a smile and a small squeeze of the hand before disappearing into the kitchen behind her younger siblings.

“I see why you’re anxious to give Seishiro the boot,” Shinya remarked. “He certainly is worse than usual.”

Kureto shrugged. “Maybe he feels like a jerk for imposing on us. It’s not too bad, though. He does do his fair share of work, and he always gets out of the way when he needs to.”

“Still. You just got married.”

“It’ll work out eventually. With everything that’s been happening lately, I can’t blame him for being dependent. Aoi’s always saying I should just be grateful he’s seeking out an honest path.”

“I agree,” Sayuri said. “Aoi-chan said she was worried you two wouldn’t get along at first, though.”

“We don’t always,” Kureto allowed. “But better than when we were kids.”

“That’s good,” Sayuri said, smiling a little bit.

They lapsed into silence, but before long, Sayuri had fixed her gaze on Guren, looking a bit worried.

She said, “I don’t think I believe Mahiru.”

“What?”

“That you’re okay.” She frowned, glancing at Shinya. “Don’t you think so?”

“Sure,” Shinya said. “You look like you’re halfway to death, Guren.”

“Do I?”

“Do you even see who you’re talking to?” Sayuri shook her head. “I didn’t spend the last five years of my life slaving away, trying to get a medical degree to not be able to tell if someone is sick.”

So, in this timeline, Sayuri had not gone into education, but into medicine.

So what was everyone else doing?

“I’m not sick,” he protested.

“Then you’re overtired.”

“I’m not!”

She huffed. “Why are you so difficult?”

“Why are we even talking about me?”

“You’re worrying Mahiru,” Kureto told him.

He didn’t speak.

“If something’s wrong, speak honestly about it,” Shinya said. “You’ll just make her upset if you don’t.”

“You’re all kind of nosy, aren’t you?” he said, annoyed.

“Well, yeah, but only because we care!”

Guren wondered how this timeline would ultimately react to his existence here. Would this timeline eventually come full circle and intersect with his own again? Would this timeline pick up where it had left off once he was gone? Would it continue as if he had never existed here at all?

Would he ever be able to leave it?

“Okay,” he said slowly. “Let’s just leave it for now, though. Mahiru and I will figure it out.”

As the words left his mouth, he realized that this was the first time he had consciously said her name. It felt so...right, like if there was only one word he could say for the rest of his life, it would be that one. Mahiru.

Mahiru, Mahiru, Mahiru.

The emotions associated with the memories of this Guren were all love. Love and happiness and more love.

Guren loved Mahiru.

Guren did not know Mahiru.

“Well, just let us know if you need anything, at least,” Sayuri said. “I know you’ve had a lot to think about with your parents, too, so I won’t press you, but…”

Guren’s heart skipped a beat.

“My parents?” he asked, before even really realizing what he was saying.

She tilted her head to the side. “Because of what happened with your dad? Unless something’s changed since I last saw you, in which case I’m sorry I brought it up…”

...What had happened to Sakae?

“N-no, nothing’s changed. I just...misinterpreted your sentence.”

“Oh,” she said. “Sorry. But—think about it, okay? I’m sure Mahiru would be grateful if you reached out at all.”

“Like you would be for Shigure,” Guren guessed.

Shinya laughed. “That’s right. Maybe you two should talk some time and bounce ideas off of each other.”

Maybe they should, Guren thought hollowly.

“Well, thanks, anyway,” he said. “Try not to worry too much.”

“Just don’t hurt Mahiru,” Kureto said. “She’s so stupidly vulnerable to you. You have to realize the power you have over her, right?”

Guren was almost certain they had had this conversation many times before.

He said, “I could never hurt her.”

“Good,” Kureto said, giving a curt nod. He turned his gaze across the room “Now, Shinya, I was wondering what you were thinking with that wedding gift you bought us.”

Shinya laughed, scratching at the back of his head. “Well, you see…”

Sayuri glanced at Guren, offering him a small smile that seemed to say, it’s okay.

It’s okay.

It wasn’t, not really.

But Sayuri was one of his closest friends. Her reassurement would always be enough to help him push forward…

In this timeline, at least.

His head was beginning to hurt again. He prayed that the rest of the evening would fly by smoothly.


The rest of the evening thankfully did go by without any issues. Mahiru excused them a little earlier than everyone else, but they had all seemed understanding, at the very least.

When they got home, though, Guren found himself thinking back to his earlier conversation with Sayuri, Shinya, and Kureto. Mahiru noticed his distraction, but didn’t remark on it for a few hours.

Finally, she asked, “Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

It was late, Guren thought. The clock in the corner of the room flashed 23:47. They were sat in the living room, a twenty-four-hour news broadcast droning on behind them.

“I’m not bothered.”

She scooted a little closer to him. “C’mon,” she pressed. “I know you better than that.” Her left hand came up to cup his cheek. She offered him a dazzling smile.

“I’m just thinking,” he protested.

She moved a little closer, shifting to the side slightly, and, in one swift movement, swung one leg over his lap so that she was straddling him. Her face was very, very close to his. Her breaths were warm against his lips.

“What are you thinking about, then?” she whispered.

He could only stare back at her.

Surely this was not an uncommon occurrence. In fact, despite the sudden Mahiru-induced malfunction of his brain, he could recall many moments like this. She was always playing games with him, always teasing him with something, and no matter how often it happened, Guren could never manage to not be stunned by her. She could do anything to him, and he wouldn’t care, just because it was her.

She pressed her forehead against his, giving a small sigh. “When are you going to start talking to me, Guren? I don’t want to guess at things...I feel like you’re only getting further away from me.”

“I’m right here,” he rasped.

She cupped his face in both hands and pushed herself back slightly, searching his eyes worriedly.

“Are you?” she asked.

No.

He was not meant to be here. He was not meant to be so close to her.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

“Yes,” he breathed out. “I’m right here. I’m right here, Mahiru.”

“Right here,” she murmured. “We’ll always be together….”

“Always,” he agreed, even as his throat tightened, even as his chest ached.

“I love you,” she said. “I won’t ever stop loving you, in this lifetime or the next or any of the thousands that come after.”

Before he could say anything in response, she had pressed her lips against his with a sort of intensity, the kind of deep, fiery drive that could burn down a city.

This was her love for him, Guren thought. A passion beyond anything else.

They had loved each other for an eternity.

He barely registered that he was kissing her back. He had done it countless times before, and yet he had never tasted her lips so clearly, felt her hands sear at his skin so real, like she wasn’t just a figment of his imagination, a girl from another timeline he was not allowed to meet, a cold, dead body held in his arms, a name he could never remember when he woke up.

Hiragi Mahiru was the realest thing he had ever had.

One of her hands came back to tangle in his hair, gripping at it tightly as if it was the only thing in the world she had to hang on to. Her other hand brushed against his face, so soft and gentle and warm.

She was so warm.

His body seemed to submit to her naturally. She would always have control over him. There was nothing he wouldn’t let her do to him.

She pulled away just barely. His breaths hit her lips and bounced back to his own.

“I love you,” she whispered.

Her eyes were so beautiful, full of a tender warmth and a deep-seated sorrow, the kind that could only accompany a person who had lived a thousand lives, who had lived every hellish reality…

Side-by-side with the person she loved, who didn’t remember any of it.

“I love you,” she whispered.

Her voice was growing croaky, her eyes a tad glassy. She released her hold on Guren’s hair and dragged her index finger over his face, stalling at his lips.

They watched each other for a very long moment.

“I love you,” she whispered, and this was where her resolve broke.

Tears streamed down her face, dripping onto Guren’s chest. Her whole body was shaking, wrought with sobs, and her hair brushed against Guren’s cheeks as she bowed her head, screwing up her face in an effort to stop the sudden rush of tears.

“Mahiru…”

“I’m sorry,” she choked out. “I’m so sorry…”

“What’s wrong?” he asked, bringing a hand up to brush her hair aside.

“I want to fix this,” she said tightly. “I want to bring you happiness. I want to break this stupid, painful cycle.”

People affected by it are essentially blessed.

“Mahiru,” he said.

She looked up at him, trembling.

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Her warmth seeped into his body, even as her tears soaked his shoulder, even as her gasping sobs echoed in his ears.

“I would go through Hell and back,” he whispered, “if it meant I could continue to be yours.”

She inhaled deeply. “I want you to stop hurting because of me.”

“I’ll never leave you, Mahiru.”

It was a lie.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

And yet…

“I’ll stay by your side through this lifetime and the next and the thousands that might come after,” he told her softly. “I would never want thing any other way. No matter if it hurts, no matter if it’s hard… I will always be with you.”

It was a lie.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

She was crying in earnest, now, holding nothing back. It was a painful sound, the verbal equivalent of if she were clinging to him, trying to keep herself from falling into some kind of endless abyss. Her tears soaked the fabric of Guren’s shirt, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. Her hands were balled into fists, one resting on Guren’s chest and the other grasping at his sleeve.

He stroked at her hair gently. Her ragged breathing seemed to echo around the room.

“I’m happy here,” he murmured. “I’m happy with you.”

“I—I know,” she said slowly, voice drowned slightly in her sobs.

“I don’t want to live in a place you don’t exist,” he continued.

She only tightened her grip on his sleeve.

“I want to be with you forever.”

Her heartbeat seemed to resound in his own chest, one soul attached permanently to another, two hearts consistently beating in time. They were not two separate entities, exactly. They were two separate entities that were meant to exist as a singular unit. They could breathe on their own, but they could never live, could never reach their full potential, until they were with each other.

Guren had been empty for years, but having Mahiru so close, so near him, alive and breathing and alive and breathing and his—she was his to hold, to cherish, to love—made his chest feel so full and yet light all at once.

“Mahiru,” he said.

She breathed in deeply, her whole body shaking with the force of it. “I’m here,” she whispered. “Until the end of time, I’m here.”

They were not separate people, by any means. They were never meant to be apart.

How long they stayed like that, Guren didn’t know. But he never let her go, and it took quite some time before she stopped crying. The television still jabbered on in the background, for hours and hours and hours. At some point, Mahiru fell asleep, numbing his arm slightly.

Even in this timeline, things were far from perfect. This Guren might have been happy in many senses, but there were many he wasn’t.

Before long, Guren found himself dozing off slightly, as well. Mahiru’s breathing, evened out in her deep sleep, lulled him into a drowsiness of his own.

Desperately, he tried to keep his eyes open, determined to stay here with her as long as he possibly could, but the lateness and the excitement and Mahiru’s slumbering state took an almost intoxicating hold on him, and before he could manage to fight against it, the tide of sleep washed over him.


“You can’t be here.”

He shook his head and reached a hand out to her. She took it without hesitation, even though her irises seemed to be crowded with caution.

“I wanted to see you,” he said.

“My father—”

“Should be asleep,” Guren said. He squeezed her hand gently. “Just trust me, okay?”

“I do, but…”

“I’ll have you back by morning.”

Above them, the night sky stretched infinitely. The stars were masked beneath the city’s pollution, but the illuminated street lights lit a path along the street for them.

“Guren, seriously, if I get caught—”

“You won’t,” he told her. “I promise. I can pinky swear on it, if you want.”

“You’re such a loser,” she said fondly, but pulled her hand away briefly before offering out a pinky to him.

He wrapped his pinky around hers and gave their hands a small shake.

“So, trust me?”

“Where are you taking me?” she asked, suspicious.

“It’s a surprise. Just believe me, okay?”

She sighed, intertwining their fingers once again. “Fine, fine, but it better be worth the lost sleep.”

“It will be,” he assured her, pulling her forward. “It’ll be more than worth your time.”

She laughed, but as Guren continued to move forward, he found he could no longer hear the sound of it.

“Mahiru?” he called, twisting back around to see her.

She stumbled slightly. In the faint artificial light, her skin seemed to shimmer. Sweat was collecting so rapidly on her skin that Guren could see it forming.

“Mahiru!”

Her hand slipped from his, and she fell to her knees, breathing growing ragged.

He crouched down in front of her, reaching for her hands, but she pulled them away before he could touch them.

“I’m sorry,” she wheezed. “You shouldn’t be here, Guren.”

She inhaled sharply, and then let out a large gasp.

“Mahiru!”

She slumped forward. Before he could even react, her head had hit the pavement with a sickening crack. He stared down at her, heart somewhere in his throat, and watched as blood began to seep from her forehead, gathering in her hair.

“Mahiru!” He could hear nothing but a painful roaring in his ears, the sound of the world falling all around him, even as everything else remained calm, tranquil, undisturbed.

She was still breathing, but very shallowly.

He moved her hair aside, hands quaking.

“Mahiru… Mahiru… Mahiru...”

He could barely hear his own voice, so choked as it was.

Her breathing stuttered slightly, and then came to a halt entirely.

His throat burned, but he could register nothing but his trembling hands, her bleeding, dying body, and her faded pulse.

Without a doubt, Hiragi Mahiru was dead.


Guren woke with a start, throat tight as he gasped for air.

On top of him still, Mahiru let out a small moan, shifting slightly. She narrowly opened her eyes at him.

“Guren?” she murmured, voice rather foggy.

“Yes?”

“Are you okay?”

She could probably feel how fast his heart was beating, but he offered her a small smile anyway.

“Yes,” he said.

She yawned. “Okay,” she muttered. “I’m glad…”

Before he could respond, she had closed her eyes and fallen asleep again.

Guren felt relief pool in stomach. She was still alive, still with him, and he hadn’t even been moved to another timeline. Thinking back on his dream, a tad calmer, he could find that scenario somewhere in his vague memories of this timeline. It had been the day before Mahiru’s sixteenth birthday, and Guren and their friends, presumably, had planned a small get-together on that night to celebrate it, to be with her when the clock struck midnight and she officially turned sixteen.

Guren had kissed her, he remembered. It had been the first time he had done so. She had been so flustered that he’d kissed her again, unable to resist himself.

He sighed softly, allowing his dream to flood out of his system. Clearly, these were the sorts of nightmares this Guren had regularly. They were perhaps more frequent than Guren’s own dreams were, but for all this one had been painful, he found it was not quite as bad as the ones he normally had. Those that were bad enough to make him vomit, to disturb him so wholly he couldn’t function for days after he had had one.

He supposed it helped that he remembered it was Mahiru in his dreams. And, on top of that, he would wake up from them holding her in his arms. There was no doubt in his mind that she was safe.

In this timeline, she would always be safe.

Absently, he stroked her hair. He would need to figure out a way to make things work here. Though it was odd, this timeline was far from bad. And he had so many questions, after all. He had promised Shinya he would come home, but he wouldn’t leave until he absolutely had to.

In order to stay here, though, he would need some help.

Having only his memories of Mahiru was troubling, to say the least. He wouldn’t be able to live here without at least some knowledge of the other people around him.

There were things he didn’t know about Mahiru, too. Like why she was so adamant about sleeping on the right side of their bed.

But who had he heard from originally?

The only person that made sense was Kureto, of course. Her older brother, protective of her even years after Guren had married her, even knowing that they were soulmates.

What made this timeline so different from Guren’s? The Kureto that Guren knew had loathed his brother while they were in school. He had been indifferent talking about Mahiru, too.

That was odd, too, now that Guren had time to think about it. He had never known about the Hiragis having a daughter, let alone two. Perhaps Shinoa didn’t exist in his timeline? It still didn’t explain why they had kept Mahiru a secret.

Especially, Guren thought, since they were the same age. They would’ve been in high school together. If she had died when Kureto was seventeen, she should’ve been sixteen….

He would ask Kureto about it once he got back, then. For now, though, he would need to find a way through this timeline.

Mahiru’s breathing was so calm, so gentle. Guren wondered if there was any better moment than this, these early hours of the morning with Mahiru snuggled up to him, sound asleep, her face relaxed, her hair a little messy. He would stay like this all day, if he could, but she would have to wake up eventually, he imagined….

Still, they stayed this way for a long time. It could’ve been hours, honestly. Guren didn’t know, and he didn’t care.

Mahiru was all he needed, after all.

She eventually shifted slightly, lifting her head and blinking slowly up at him.

“Morning,” he said, giving her a small smile.

She reached one hand up and brushed her fingers over his cheek, smiling back at him. She dropped her hand and sighed softly.

“I can’t believe we fell asleep here,” she muttered.

“I don’t mind.”

“Me either.” She removed herself from his lap and stood, stretching her arms above her head. “Do you know what time it is?”

He shook his head.

They both glanced to the clock.

8:52.

She groaned. “You should’ve woken me up.”

“Sorry.”

She leaned down and pressed her lips against his cheek gently. “It’s okay,” she said. “I just have to get going. I’ll see you later, okay? Don’t forget it’s your turn to make dinner.”

He swallowed, nodding. “Right,” he said.

“I’m okay,” she assured him. “We can talk when I get home, okay? Call me if you need anything, though. If I don’t answer, Mito-chan probably will.”

Mito?

“Okay,” he said.

She was already halfway out the room. “Have a good day!” she called back.

He heard her ascend the stairs quickly. In about five minutes, she was racing down them again.

“I love you!” she cried, and immediately after the sound of the door opening and slamming shut echoed in place of her voice.

He sighed. Though he often forgot, having been unemployed his entire life, essentially, most people did work. Mahiru was clearly one of those people, but…

Thinking back on it, he could remember her telling him all about her work.

Mito-chan said the restaurant is hiring.

“Oh?”

She nodded. “She wants me to put in an application. I’m not sure I should, though.”

“Why not?”

Her eyes were very sad. “Wouldn’t it be like cheating?”

But they had been low on money, high school sweethearts looking for the funds to get married, half-living out of her father’s pocket as things had been. She had applied for the job, after a little convincing, and she had never expressed anything but her love for it, even when customers weren’t always the most favourable.

Now, if Mahiru worked…

Did he work, too?

“This isn’t worth all the trouble,” he muttered.

Unsurprisingly, the room did not answer him.

He had two options, really, and those were to:

Keep pretending like he was just dazed, like life was getting a little too stressful and he wasn’t coping with it well, or…

Or he could reach out to someone.

Who would believe him, though? It wasn’t as if it would be impossible for the same technology the Hiragis had produced to exist here, but if Mahiru had never had a reason to have such dreadful dreams and if Kureto had never been compelled to complete the research after her death…

He groaned.

Of course, there was probably only one person who would wholly believe him, and that person was, without a doubt, Mahiru, but he had come here to know her as he should’ve have gotten to in his own timeline. She would treat him as a person separate from this Guren, and rightfully so, but…

Damn it all if Guren didn’t want to keep being a little selfish, through it all.

He stood and made his way to the kitchen. To start, he should figure out the layout of his own home, and then he would figure out what to do about it.

They obviously had a lot of friends. Though he had yet to meet Mito, Goshi, and Shigure in this timeline, it was clear that they were all friends, and Sayuri, Shigure, Shinya, and Mito, at the very least, were around fairly often. And Aoi and Kureto, too, as odd as it was…

But who would know Guren best?

He wasn’t sure, but maybe he could find some clues somewhere.

In the kitchen, he found where all the dishes were stored, and where the cooking supplies he recalled that he would need later to make dinner were stored, but otherwise didn’t come up with anything very important. However, as he made his way to the hallway where the stairs were, he noticed some picture frames hung on the wall.

He had briefly noted that they were there yesterday, but hadn’t stopped to look at them. Now, he did, and he found his chest very tight.

The first was a picture of all the Hiragis and Guren. Shinoa was holding his hand and sticking her tongue out at him, while his other arm was wrapped around Mahiru’s waist. Behind Mahiru was Kureto, smiling fondly, a hand resting on his sister’s shoulder, and on his right was Tenri, looking far less intimidating than he ever had, surely, in Guren’s timeline. On Tenri’s right side was Seishiro, and his right hand was resting on Shinoa’s head. The image had probably been taken seconds before he ruffled her hair up entirely, if the smirk on his face was anything to go off of.

The second picture, though, was of the Ichinoses and Mahiru. Compared to Mahiru’s family, Guren’s looked almost lacking. And while it certainly was lacking in people, it was certainly not lacking in love. The prideful looks on both his mother’s and father’s faces were almost painful to look at. The stood on either side of Guren and Mahiru, who were holding hands and beaming as they stood in between them.

He stared at the woman in the picture that was standing beside Mahiru. She had dark hair, long and thick, and her face was somewhat narrow, though that didn’t stop her smile from being full and warm. Her eyes were soft, but sparkled the same violet shade as Guren’s. She wasn’t slim, exactly, but she demanded very little with her presence, especially when beside Mahiru, who could easily fill a room with just her smile alone.

He swallowed and looked away from the picture. It was unsettling, really. This Guren had gotten everything Guren hadn’t. Mahiru had never died in this timeline. His mother had never died in this timeline. Sakae had never become a shut-in in this timeline. The Hiragis had never become corrupt with power and money and all the greed it inspired in this timeline.

Guren had never had a reason to hate the life he’d been given in this timeline.

He shook his head. He wouldn’t fixate on it. The entire reason he was here, after all, was to see what he had missed in his own ruined timeline.

He ascended the stairs.

He entered their bedroom, thoughtful. He had looked in it yesterday, but he had missed just one thing…

Beside Mahiru’s side of the bed, there was a drawer just like Guren’s.

He lowered himself onto the bed and opened it up, peering inside. As he had expected, there were also pictures here. He had a vague idea that the pictures on the other side were not ones he had stored there himself. Mahiru’s drawer was filled to the top with pictures, after all. She surely had others stashed in other places.

He began to sort through them. They seemed to be order chronologically, so he would have to pay careful attention to make sure they returned to the drawer in that same order.

The first one the pile were older pictures, probably dated from close to twenty years ago, maybe more. Pictures of Mahiru, Kureto, and Seishiro, mostly. Kureto, the oldest of the three, looked to his siblings fondly only when they were not looking back.

As he made his way through the pile, he found similar pictures, but the siblings were all aging very quickly. At one point, around when she must’ve been five years old, Mahiru’s hair came down to about her hips. By the time she was eight or nine, it had been trimmed to her mid back.

As they got older, though, Guren noticed that Seishiro progressively became more and more segregated from the other two. By the time there was a picture with Shinoa in it, Seishiro was so far from his siblings it was like he was from a different family altogether.

Guren thought back to what they’d said about Seishiro yesterday.

I’m glad he asked you, though.

...What had Seishiro done to cause such a rift between himself and his siblings?

He continued thumbing through the pile of photos. He eventually came upon pictures of himself and Mahiru, about thirteen years old. It was safe to say they hadn’t really known each other yet, with the way they looked at each other, a mix of caution and excitement, but there was no doubt that they knew they were soulmates. As they got older, they gradually became more familiar with each other. By the time they were fifteen, there was not a single picture where they were not holding each other in one way or another. Further into the pile, there were many pictures of them with their friends or with Mahiru’s siblings (though Guren found only one with Seishiro), and as their ages increased, so did their physical closeness. It was rather unsettling to see just how many candids of he and Mahiru kissing there were.

Other pictures that were in large abundance were ones of Guren and Shinoa. They seemed to have a very good relationship, but, then, Guren seemed to have a good relationship with Kureto, too….

Seishiro, however…

There was no way to figure this out on his own.

He had a pretty good idea of who could help him, though.

He stacked the photos up again, careful to keep their order, and put them back into the drawer.

Yesterday, he had carried around this Guren’s cell phone, but hadn’t actually had a reason to use it. It was still in his pocket, since they hadn’t wound up changing out of their clothes the night before. It felt like a violation, still, to use it, but before he could convince himself otherwise, he reached for it.

There were probably very few timelines where Guren had a passcode-protected cell phone, he mused, opening the device and finding a list of contacts to search through.

And he found it:

Hiragi Kureto’s number.

There were two things he could do, and those, simply, were to either not call him and confusedly stumble through this timeline or to call him, explain everything, and learn all the things about Mahiru’s past that he needed to.

“And if it doesn’t work...?” he murmured.

The room remained stubbornly quiet.

He sighed. “It’s not like it’d be my life I’m ruining, right?”

Still, no answer came to him.

“This Guren has everything I could’ve ever wanted.”

Nothing.

“I should get to have it for a little while, too, at least.”

Silence.

He was probably going crazy, he thought.

He called the number.

It rang three time before Kureto answered with a, “You know it’s barely even nine yet, right?”

“I didn’t, actually.”

Or, he had, but he hadn’t really considered the fact.

“What?”

“I didn’t know it was only nine,” he clarified. “I’ve been up for hours.”

Kureto was quiet for a moment. “Is something...wrong?”

“Mahiru’s fine, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I know Mahiru’s fine. She can always take care of herself. I was actually asking about you.”

“Oh.”

“So, is something wrong?”

How could he possibly say it?

“Hey, Guren, you still—”

“Yes, something’s wrong,” he said, all in one breath. “Can I meet you in person to talk about it?”

“It’s that important?”

“Yes.”

Kureto paused. “Okay, I’ll come to you, then. You’re at home, right?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, don’t leave. Can I hang up on you?”

This was surreal, Guren thought.

“Yes,” he said.

“All right. See you soon, then.”

And he hung up.

Guren dropped the phone onto the bed beside him, hands shaky.

“I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?”

As always, the room said nothing in response.


In an attempt to familiarize himself with the kitchen, Guren made tea.

Thinking about it, he remembered that Mahiru had always been the tea-maker between the two of them. She made tea, and he cooked dinner, because Guren could never make his tea quite right, and Mahiru had never been an overly good cook (though, after moving out, they had taken a lot of time just so she could learn).

He understood, of course, that there would be times where Mahiru would need to cook dinner and he would need to make tea. In his own timeline, he cooked dinner every night and made tea every morning.

Eventually, Kureto rang the doorbell. Guren didn’t know how long it had been since their phone call. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

As he entered the house, Kureto immediately began scrutinizing Guren.

“Stop it,” Guren said, and Kureto took a step back, scowling.

“I can’t let my brother-in-law get sick,” he said, sniffing, as he took his shoes off. “You might infect the rest of us.”

“Do I look sick?”

Kureto raised an eyebrow. “Is that even a question?”

Well, he didn’t feel sick, save for the anxiety swirling in his stomach, maybe, but he supposed he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, and he hadn’t exactly had a fulfilling sleep, either. He was probably looking a little on the exhausted side.

“I’m fine,” Guren told him. “Do you want some tea?”

Kureto shrugged, so Guren led him inside and poured them both a cup of tea. His hands were still shaking slightly.

He handed one of the cups to Kureto and they sat down at the kitchen table, watching each other.

Finally, Kureto said, “So, what’s wrong?”

Guren set down his cup. “This will sound crazy,” he warned.

“I’m sure we’re all used to you sounding crazy by now.”

“More crazy than you’d expect, then.”

Kureto took a slow sip of his tea, then set the cup down and met Guren’s eyes. “Fine, then. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

Silence spanned between them.

Guren couldn’t feel anything but his heart beating. Too fast. He registered that it was beating too fast, but couldn’t think of how he could fix it.

“I’m not Guren,” he said.

Kureto stared at him.

“Or I am, but not…” He ran a hand through his hair, frustrated. “I’m not your Guren.”

“My… my what?”

“I’m not the Guren you know.”

Kureto opened his mouth, and then closed it again.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” Guren explained, voice trembling. “There—there are other timelines, and this one isn’t mine. I’m just here because you—my version of you, that is—sent me here.”

“...Did you sleep all right? Should I take you to the hospital?”

“No!” Guren cried, appalled. “I’m not crazy! Or maybe I am, but that doesn’t matter!”

Kureto sighed. “Okay, back this up for me. You’re not Guren?”

“I am Guren.”

“But you’re from...an alternate reality?”

“Yeah, I guess so. Kureto—my Kureto, Kureto-sama, whatever—”

“Kureto-sama?!”

“Yes, Kureto-sama. He sent me here! He told me it was the best way to get to know my soulmate, because in my timeline she’s dead!”

Kureto looked like he’d been slapped in the face.

“Mahiru…?”

“She died eight years ago.”

“Mahiru...dead…? That can’t be…. How could she possibly die?”

“She poured her heart into researching soulmate magic,” Guren said thickly. “It made her some enemies, apparently. She was murdered when we were sixteen. I’ve only seen her in my dreams ever since.”

“Your dreams?”

“I could never remember her. We’d never met. I always dreamt scenes from different timelines, but as I woke up, she always died.”

“Jesus…”

“My Shinya—my best friend in my timeline—said he thought he knew someone who could help me. That person was you—or not you, I guess, but Kureto. And he said they had used Mahiru’s research to create the technology to jump timelines. He said if it was a success, I would get to meet my soulmate and learn about her. I figured I’d do anything to make her stop haunting me, but…”

“How do you expect me to believe any of this?”

“I don’t,” Guren said honestly. “But if nothing else, I figured you might humour me. The problem is that now that I’m here, the only memories of this life that I have are memories directly linked to Mahiru. I don’t remember my past, I don’t know anything about hers that I didn’t hear directly from her, and I don’t know anything about my friends or family.”

Kureto blinked, then sat back slightly. “Which is why it was like you didn’t even know who Shinoa was.”

“Right,” Guren agreed. “Because I don’t. I’d never met her before. I only just recognized her from some wedding pictures I found yesterday morning.”

“This is…”

“Messed up? I know. But I don’t know how to get back, and…” He looked away from Kureto, throat feeling very tight. “And I don’t want to leave, anyway. Even if that’s wrong, even if I’m depriving people of the Guren you all know, I don’t want to give up on this yet. Not when Mahiru…”

“It’s a little hard to believe,” Kureto said quietly, “but it’s plausible…. But even if you aren’t the Guren that married Mahiru, you’re still her soulmate. I’m sure there’s no version of you she wouldn’t love.”

“I just want to know,” Guren muttered. “How...things could’ve been. I know when I go back, she’ll still be dead, but…”

“That makes sense to me.”

“At least I have the next lifetime,” Guren said, turning back to face Kureto. “But for now, I need to know her like this. I want to know the Hiragi Mahiru I was supposed to love.”

“Well, I always knew you were selfish,” Kureto said, shrugging. “Aren’t we all, though? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as you can acknowledge that what you’re doing is wrong and you will eventually make amends for it.”

Guren wasn’t sure he could make amends for this.

Still, though, it was almost humorous to think that Hiragi Kureto, of all people, was telling him to make amends.

He said, “And what amends could I possibly make?”

Kureto paused. “I don’t know,” he allowed. “You’re deceiving Mahiru, the person who loves you more than anything else in the world, and you’ve...what? You’ve left behind all your friends and family, trying to chase some girl you know is just going to be dead when you come back? Maybe they’ll all hate you by the time you return. Maybe Mahiru will hate you if she finds out the truth, if you’re even being honest with me right now. Maybe you’ll wind up hating yourself, just because of all the shit you’ve done to get here.”

That was irrelevant, because Guren already hated himself for it.

“You’re being surprisingly level-headed about this,” Guren remarked.

“Maybe it’s the shock,” Kureto said dryly. “I don’t necessarily believe you, but the way I see it, you’re either telling the truth, or you’ve completely lost your mind. Forgive me if I’m kind of hoping for the former more than the latter.”

It wasn’t surprising coming from Kureto, but Guren suspected anybody else would far prefer the thought that Guren had lost his sanity than the thought that he was a lookalike imposter of the Guren they all knew and loved.

Kureto, though, was just selfish enough to get Guren’s reasons.

After all, Kureto was the one that had brought him here in the first place.

“I’m only telling you this because I need help,” Guren said. “I don’t have the memories I should. I just need someone who can fill in my blanks.”

Kureto folded his hands on the table. “I don’t know if you realize that, but I really can’t tell you what your memories are.”

“No, you can’t,” Guren agreed. “But you can tell me about Mahiru’s past.”

Kureto stopped, blinking. “Mahiru’s past… Dammit, I was the one who told you about Seishiro, wasn’t I? Mahiru never talks about it…. You really don’t know?”

“I really don’t know.”

Kureto took a long drink of tea. Guren watched him, and vaguely noted that his hands were a little shaky.

Interesting.

“If this is all a joke, I’ll kill you,” he threatened.

“I’m sure I’d rather die than not hear about it,” Guren assured him. “Take your time. I think I have all day.”

Kureto’s lips twitched slightly. “You think?”

Guren shrugged. “I don’t work, do I?”

“You used to,” Kureto told him. “Not anymore, though. Once your guys’ finances settled after you were married, you stopped working. I don’t know why, though. I just figured you were lazy or something.”

Guren had a guess about it, but he didn’t think he liked the train of thought it inspired.

“And how much do you know about the nature of our soulmate magic?”

“Not much, to be honest. I know that Mahiru inherited her memories from your past lives and you didn’t, but that she was supposed to get dreams—and she used to have them, really awful nightmares that were bad enough to make her throw up, until she actually met you. And then you started getting them.”

“Why are they so different?” Guren pressed. “In my timeline, I dream about other timelines, but here I dream about past events that happened in this timeline. And in my timeline, she always winds up dead, but here I get to see how she dies.”

“I don’t know.” Kureto scowled at him. “It’s not like I ever wanted to make any of it my business, you know. I care about my sister, but I respect that she knows far more about this than I ever could. It’s her life, after all.”

He sighed. “Well, whatever, then. Tell me about Seishiro.”

Kureto looked away from him, looking a little sour. “Seishiro hated us,” he explained tightly. “He felt inferior to Mahiru and me. We were gifted kids. We never stopped being gifted, even as we got older. By the time Seishiro and Mahiru were first years in high school, he didn’t really talk to us anymore. We got along fine as kids, but, well, it’s hard to like people once they start to surpass you and you can’t catch up them, don’t you think?”

Guren was an only child. His father had always acted proud of him, had always said Guren was a much better man than he could ever have been. Growing up, Guren had been fed an ideology that he had worth simply because he was. Confidence had once come to him as easily as breathing did. Really, he could never be anything close to what Seishiro was.

But he had certainly felt powerless before.

He said, “I guess so.”

“Seishiro lost himself in an attempt to drown out his feelings of inferiority. Mahiru tried so hard to pull him back to us to the point she wasn’t even taking care of herself anymore. I’m sure she told you some things, but never what was really happening. So, eventually, you came to me and demanded I explain. I told you what had happened. It was mostly my fault, and so you were angry with me because I’d inadvertently hurt Mahiru through my actions.”

He paused for a moment, clearly struggling to find the words.

Finally, he looked back at Guren and said, “I told him that if he wasn’t working to change himself to meet us on our level, he really was inferior.”

That sounded exactly like the Kureto that Guren knew.

“He left home and didn’t come back. It must’ve been right after my graduation. He got into drugs. Mahiru tracked him down, begged him to come back, but she was only sixteen. It messed her up. She blamed herself for not being able to help him, even though we all knew it was what I said that gave him the little push off the edge.”

“But he’s getting better, isn’t he?”

Kureto nodded. “That’s why I said he could stay with us. I need him to forgive me, now that we’re both older.”

Guren thought of all the pictures he had looked through in the past few days.

“He was at our wedding,” Guren recalled.

“Yeah, but it wasn’t that great,” Kureto said, shaking his head. “By the end of the night, Mahiru was crying and you and I were both too angry with Seishiro to give him a chance to fix things. Although, I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have actually tried to fix anything. Not then. Now, of course, it’s a little…”

Guren watched him a moment, thoughtful. “I see,” he finally said. “I think I understand. Then, I have another question.”

“What?”

“Why does Mahiru insist on sleeping closest to the door?”

Kureto laughed. “Isn’t that obvious? She doesn’t do it for her. She does it because she knows that’s the best way to ensure your safety.”

Guren stared at him, dumbfounded.

“Haven’t you noticed?” Kureto asked. “You’re the textbook definition of anxiety. You’re so afraid that Mahiru’s not alive or that she won’t be for much longer that you can barely function.”

He felt very cold suddenly.

“W-what does that have to do with where we sleep, though?”

“I’d assume it’s a matter of her being able to leave the room more quickly should it ever get bad enough that she has to get someone else to help her calm you down. And I suppose it feels more comfortable if she knows you’re safe. She would never want you to do something stupid, especially in her name.”

The dream Guren had had had been graphic, yes, but…

But it didn’t feel anywhere near as traumatizing as the dreams he normally had.

Perhaps he just wasn’t as affected by it because he woke up knowing that it had just been a dream. A graphic, painful dream, but just a dream, nonetheless.

“I guess it would’ve been too much to expect everyone to be happy here, too,” he muttered.

I’m not meant to be happy. And neither are you.

Even in this timeline, where everything had seemed perfect at a glance, they were destined to be a tragedy.

They would always be a tragedy.

“Thank you,” he added. “For telling me.”

“Just make sure that my sister is happy, all right? She loves you—every version of you, I’m sure. She deserves to be loved back.”

“You think I don’t love her back?”

Kureto’s gaze was chilling. “How can you love someone you know is already dead?”

Guren’s breath caught. Throat tight, he looked away from Kureto. “I...I don’t want her to be, but…”

“I’m not trying to say it’s bad,” Kureto said, shrugging. “I mostly just mean that one of you is going to hurt. And, honestly? I’d rather it be you.”

“Good to hear.”

“You’d say the same if you were me,” Kureto said. “Mahiru is my family. And, technically, so are you. But you’re telling me that you’re an imposter, aren’t you? Why should I have any reason to care about you besides that I want you to keep my sister safe?”

“I understand,” Guren assured him. “It’s why I figured you’d help me at all.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, the Kureto in my timeline is less caring for his family than you seem to be, but he always solved things more logically than other people.”

“More logically than people like you, you mean?”

“I guess so.” Guren stared down at his cup. “People like me and people like Shinya, I suppose.”

“Shinya?”

“He’s my best friend,” Guren explained. “I wondered about that, too. We don’t seem very close in the timeline.”

“You are, but...well, your best friend here is Mahiru. You grew up with Sayuri and Shigure. As you entered high school, you were placed in the same class as Shinya, Mito, and Goshi. Mito and Aoi had been friends before. You met Mahiru through Aoi, because she grew up near us and they had always been friendly with each other. She knew you were soulmates long before, of course—the moment she saw you, on the first day of your freshman year. But she didn’t know how to approach you. Aoi helped her, once she recognized that Mahiru seemed to want to talk to you. Since then, you’ve been practically inseparable. Shinya, though, grew really close to Sayuri and Shigure. Mito and Goshi were each other’s most important people. You were all friends, of course, but you had your obvious divisions. You and Shinya...butted heads for a long time, to be honest. Nobody really knew if you were really actually friends or not.”

Guren’s chest ached.

He was very little without Shinya. Shinya had always made the world rotate when Guren would’ve given anything for it to just stop. Shinya had been beside him through everything. It was almost impossible to think that there could be any version of Guren that survived without Shinya’s friendship.

But, then, he had survived without Mahiru, hadn’t he? Barely, but he had. And so…

“I guess I should just be thankful to have him around at all,” Guren said. “Even if it’s not the same, we’re still friends, at the very least….”

Kureto raised an eyebrow at him as he lapsed into silence. “So, that’s it, then?” he asked. “No other pressing questions? I kind of have to get home, if you don’t mind.”

His tone was decidedly sarcastic, but Guren didn’t doubt that he was asking genuinely. It was just very difficult for Kureto to not be an asshole, he supposed, no matter what timeline they were in.

“Thanks for telling me,” Guren said. “And kind of believing me, although I’m still not sure if you actually do.”

“I don’t really know either.” Kureto stood slowly, considering him. “But whatever happens, I’ll help you anyway. I value my family too much to let you ruin everything.”

It was almost heartwarming, Guren thought.

He said, “They’re my family, too.”

“Then, we should be on the same page, right?” Kureto’s gaze was startlingly cold. “Just call if you need me. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to answer all your questions, but I can try. After all, I am the person that Mahiru’s closest to, after you.”

He turned and made his way to the door before Guren could find the words to respond. Before he knew it, the door was slamming open and then closed, and Kureto had gone.

Guren stared ahead, unseeing.

It was just their two empty tea cups, this hollow house, and him.

He ran a hand through his hair, chest feeling rather heavy. What was he supposed to do with all of this? There was little doubt in his mind that he would eventually slip up, ruin things just as Kureto implied he might, and—

And he stopped.

It took a moment to register that he was breathing rather heavily. His mind had been moving so fast he had recognized the red flags his body had been putting up.

What had Kureto said?

You’re the textbook definition of anxiety.

Well, of course this Guren would be…. He was constantly afraid of losing the love of his life—the love of all his lives.

But Guren had already lost her.

He thought back to what had happened yesterday morning.

You just had a panic attack!

He had been hesitant to call it so, but perhaps Mahiru had been right in her diagnosis. After all, wouldn’t she know better than he would?

He sighed. Perhaps things were going to be a little trickier than he would’ve liked them to be.


He spent the remainder of his day digging through his own memories. Any little thing he could come up with, in some attempt to understand his relationship with Mahiru.

They were very affectionate people, he realized. He’d somewhat assumed so, from their high school pictures, but hadn’t actually thought about it too much. Looking into his memories, though, he found that they were almost worse than the pictures gave them credit for. Guren suspected it had something to do with their respective circumstances.

He recalled a moment when they were seventeen. They had been at Guren’s parents’ house, while his parents had been gone for the weekend. They had been seventeen, stupid in love, and desperate to act on it. They’d had sex, but that wasn’t what especially stuck out to Guren. More, it was the words they exchanged afterwards:

I’ve lived without you before,” she whispered to him as he absently stroked her hair. He paused in his action, glancing down at her. Her eyes were so, so sad.

What do you mean?

She reached up, trailing her fingers down his cheeks very gently. “I’ve done it before, and I would rather die than do it again, but…

He remembered feeling very worried, almost terrified, as she trailed off, but then she offered him a smile, and it all seemed to fade away completely.

I would rather die than live without you again, but if it came down to it, I would rather that you got to die first.”

Mahiru—

I just...wanted you to know that. I’m not going to leave you. Death won’t keep us apart, but it will keep us unhappy, and...I don’t want that to happen. You understand, don’t you?

He exhaled softly, leaning his head down to rest his forehead against hers.

I understand,” he whispered. “But I could never leave you, either.

She brought her face forward slightly, pressing her nose beside his, so their lips were mere millimetres apart. “Then we just have to stay together, always. I promise you, Guren. I’ll live beside you for this lifetime and every other lifetime that comes after.

And he had made the promise back to her.

Always.

Of course they were a bit touchy with each other. They had both lost each other so many times, in past lives or in dreams, that the very idea of being apart was enough to make them yearn for death instead. It was a darker fate to live without each than to die.

What kind of love did they share, that they would move worlds like that for each other?

Ah, but Guren had done the same, hadn’t he?

I need to know, he had told Shinya, but perhaps what he’d really meant was more like, I need to be.

Be here. Be with her. Be alive, for once in his miserable life.

It had never been about anything more than finding his reason. Finding what had caused his dreams, what had hurt his life so tragically, what had made him feel quite so empty.

He’d found his reason. And now he needed to learn to understand her.

Guren had no idea when Mahiru was supposed to be home, but he made dinner to be ready for five, anyway. It was pretty lucky that she arrived home as they clock slowly ticked its way to 17:14.

Guren had almost forgotten to cook at all, so wrapped up in his own thoughts, but he had remembered just in time, and fallen back on Sayuri’s old curry recipe. There was no way to go wrong with that, after all, and he would probably never forget it, with how often she had cooked it for him.

Mahiru came inside and immediately sat down at the table, rubbing her temples tiredly. Guren considered her for a moment, then dished up some food for her and slid it in front of her. She looked up at him and he offered her a weak smile.

“Long day?” he asked.

“Too long,” she muttered. “I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Guren understood that feeling.

“I’m glad to be home, though,” she continued. “I’m really looking forward to going to bed tonight. But…”

Guren sat across from her. “But what?”

“But we need to talk first.”

“Talk,” he echoed.

He wondered why the words made his stomach twist so much.

“It’s nothing bad,” she said hurriedly. “Sorry, I always do that…. I just mean that we should talk about last night. I’m getting worried about you again, Guren.”

“You’re the one who cried,” he pointed out weakly.

“I’m so tired of knowing you’re hurt and not knowing how to help,” she said, not seeming to have even heard him. “I wish you would talk to me. I know you think I’m worse off than you are, but it doesn’t matter…. You’re hurting, too. I know you’ll always be there for me when things are hard. I need to do the same back. I love you.”

He did not know what to say, between the tightness in his gut and the roaring in his ears.

“Guren,” she pressed. “I love you.”

Her voice was so soft.

“I won’t leave you.”

“I know.”

“Talk to me, Guren.”

The way she said his name was enough to make his heart sear. This was Mahiru. She knew him inside and out, like the back of her hand. She had loved him a thousand times over, and she would never stop loving him.

He said, a little cautiously, “My worst nightmare is a world without you.”

But it was not a dream; he had lived that reality. He would have to continue living that reality, once this was all over.

“I know,” she said quietly. “I know, Guren, but—”

“So, I don’t want to think about it,” Guren said. “I want to drop it until a point when we can’t drop it anymore. I just want to have this.”

“That’s…”

She looked up at him. Her eyes were as painful as broken glass.

“I don’t want to think about you being gone,” he repeated.

“...I know.”

“If you ever leave, I’ll have nothing.”

Her eyes widened with alarm. “Guren, no, you—”

He put a hand up. She swallowed back whatever words she had been about to say.

“I’ll have nothing,” he said, “but that’s not to say I’ll never find peace with it. Talking about the possibility won’t change anything. If we keep living afraid that one of us will die, then we aren’t really living at all. Mahiru.”

She looked at him like she was only just seeing him for the first time. The love in her eyes was apparent as it always was, but there was something else, something like shock, like amazement, like confusion, all in one, and her eyes were always so beautiful, even when they shone with tears, even when they looked at him, scared for everything their love represented.

“Mahiru, if I had to move worlds, shake planets, screw up the entire universe just to be by your side, I would do it in a heartbeat.”

“You can’t,” she said hoarsely.

“I know. But I would, if I could.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “I know it would hurt other people, but I don’t—I can’t lose you, if there’s a way to get you back.”

“You’re contradicting yourself,” she murmured. “I...I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m not trying to,” he said thickly. “I just—I know I would raise Hell for you, but I also know that—”

I only ever wanted a world we could be happy in.” There were eighteen years old, huddled inside through a bad thunderstorm.

I would only care if you were happy,” he told her.

She shook her head, a little sadly. “I don’t care if I’m happy. I only care about the world.

“—that you wouldn’t want that,” he finished. “And so I would have to make peace with it. I would still have pieces of you all around me, in our friends and in your family and...you would be gone, but at least I would know you’d touched the world, had left your mark on it.”

She looked almost sick. “Guren, I…”

“Don’t let us die before we’ve even lived,” he said. “We can’t, Mahiru. We can’t be so afraid of dying that we stop living. I—I’m sick of living like I’m not alive.”

Perhaps his wording would have been humorous, had it been delivered at any other time, but now his statement seemed to drape over them, a thick blanket over tense silence, and—

Mahiru was crying, very softly, almost completely muted, but tears flowed heavily down her cheeks. He said nothing, merely watched her as she inhaled shakily, trying to gather herself, but his chest ached in pain at the sight.

“I wish I could—stop hurting you,” she choked out. “I don’t give a damn about the world, Guren, if it means—” She cut off, overwhelmed by a sob.

He stood, making his way around the table to kneel beside her. Silently, he held a hand out to her. She took it, breathing deeply.

“I don’t give a damn about the world,” she whispered, “if the world is the only thing standing between me and you.”

His throat was very dry.

“Mahiru?”

She looked over at him, eyes glistening.

“Don’t you love this world?”

She smiled at him. It was the most sorrowful look Guren had ever seen. “Of course. But I love you so much more.”

The world had been cruel to them.

If you could change one thing…

…what would it be?

“I would make you happy,” he murmured.

She blinked. “S-sorry?”

He smiled at her. He hoped it was a soft look, reassuring, but feared it came out a little less so.

“If there was anything I could change in this world,” he said, “I would give you happiness, above all else.”

“I am happy,” she said, but Guren wasn’t so certain.

“You’ll always make me happy,” she said firmly. “I love you.”

Perhaps they were too in love, Guren thought. A pair of star-crossed lovers so obsessed with each other they would burn the world down if it meant they could be together.

But he was coming to understand their respective desperations. Mahiru was just like him, after all, and he was…

Traumatized.

The one solid thing they had each ever had was the other. Guren had been the love of Mahiru’s life a thousand times over. And in this lifetime, she had been the one thing to keep Guren sane after he had watched her die hundreds upon hundreds of times.

“I want to go back,” he said. Even to his own ears, it sounded almost as if he were whining. “To when we weren’t burdened by all of this. Our first reincarnation cycle, when we were kids, I don’t care, just before we stopped living to live, and…”

He suddenly could not see her very well.

“Guren,” she whispered. Her hands whispered over her face. “Guren, we can. We can forget it, leave it behind, but I—I never want to live without you. I…”

“You won’t,” he promised. “But we need to live in this timeline, in this reality. Mahiru, I know I love you, but I’m not sure why.”

She exhaled shakily.

“I… Does there need to be a reason?”

“There’s a reason for everything,” he said. She was still somewhat misty through his eyes. “I know who you are, I know what you are to me, but I don’t know why and—”

He stopped.

None of this was true.

They had known each other for eight years. They had been together for seven.

This Guren had never loved Mahiru because she was his soulmate.

He had loved her because she was Mahiru.

“Guren?” she asked, voice as fragile as an autumn leaf.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t mean—” He stopped, breathing deeply. His chest was twisted up, throat tight. He could not understand why, but it felt as though he were sweating profusely.

“Breathe,” she murmured, brushing his face gently with the back of her hand. “I won’t go anywhere. Tell me what you’re thinking, Guren. I won’t go anywhere.”

He believed it, and yet his body seemed to reject the thought entirely. His palms were painfully sweaty, and his breaths came out absolutely laboured, as if he had just been running. His heart was racing.

...But why?

Kureto’s words came back to him as he watched Mahiru, trying to catch his breath.

Why? Why leave a lonely existence for this fearful one?

“Come on, Guren,” Mahiru coaxed. “Don’t make this harder for yourself. Here, let me get you—”

She made to stand up mid-sentence, but was forcefully brought down again as Guren latched onto her arm. She winced slightly and he hurriedly pulled away from her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you okay? I—”

“I’m fine,” she said quickly. “I’m sorry. I should’ve expected something like that.”

But it settled nothing. How could anything ever excuse hurting her?

“We keep doing this,” she murmured. “And I know I can’t make you better, but it’s so hard, Guren. I just want things to be easier for us. We’re both so…”

Traumatized.

Guren got the distinct feeling that these scenarios—Guren breaking down and Mahiru being hopeless to help him—were fairly commonplace. It was unlike him, he thought, to fall apart over such meaningless or small things, but—

It did not seem to be unlike this Guren.

So, if this Guren had bad dreams, had terrible, painstaking anxiety in response to those dreams…

Then, Guren had inherited those things from him?

It made him feel sick.

“I didn’t mean what I said,” he told her shakily. “I know I love you because you’re you, but it—it’s different for us than other people. Why do we have to be so—so—?”

He could not finish his thought.

She merely nodded in understanding.

“So hurt,” she finished. “Right?”

“Right,” he said thickly.

“I wish I could give you an answer, but I really can’t.” She exhaled slowly. “I wish we could start over, without all these burdens, but…”

They had talked about this before, too.

You can rewind a clock,” she said, “but that won’t change the time.”

He remembered finding it a funny thing to say, but they had been moving into their new home, freshly married and with boxes upon boxes of things keeping them occupied. She held an old-looking wall clock in her hands, regarding it thoughtfully.

She glanced back at him and smiled. “I’ve seen a lot of different clocks in my lifetimes. It’s interesting how much things change over time.” She stroked the face of it with a finger. It came away covered in dust and she made a face before rubbing it away on the leg of her pants.

You’ve seen a lot of things in your lifetimes,” Guren reminded her.

I know, but it doesn’t always feel like time is passing anymore. If our lives are a clock, I guess we’re just rewinding them, time and time again. But it doesn’t actually make the time lessen.” She laughed. It was a mournful, tragic sound. “We’re like old people, Guren. We’ve been through so much, but we look so young. We are young, technically, but....” She looked down at the clock again. “And you don’t even remember any of it.

Guren watched her carefully. “Is that bad? That I don’t remember?

She looked up at him and offered him a watery smile. “Not at all,” she said.

No, Guren had never loved his soulmate, but he had been born to love Mahiru.

“We can rewind all the clocks,” he murmured. “Time and time again…”

“And it would all be pointless.” She glanced at her untouched plate of food, seemingly unseeing. “I don’t want to change the world. I just want to change the way we see it.”

His heart ached for her.

She had been through so much, and his being here in place of the Guren she needed was…

So stupidly selfish, he almost wished he had never listened to Kureto at all.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I want you to be happy, but I just…”

“You still don’t understand, do you?” She smiled sadly. “You do make me happy. You’re the one constant I’ve always had in my all my lives. Guren, you’re the reason I’m alive.”

There was this massive discrepancy between their reasons for loving each other. That was that Mahiru loved Guren’s soul, the part of him that continued to exist throughout each reincarnation cycle, different and yet unceasingly the same, while Guren didn’t have those memories to fall back on. All he knew was the girl beneath the sakura trees offering him chocolate cake when it really should’ve been strawberry, her heart on her sleeve, and a smile more dazzling than a thousand suns.

But there was a terrible contradiction to all of their feelings:

They could not live without each other, but in Guren’s timeline she was dead.

She was dead, and here she kept dying in his dreams.

Why?

“Mahiru,” he said softly.

She met his eyes. He would never stop thinking of how beautiful they were, even when they glistened with unshed tears.

“I want to live with you without thinking that the world wants us dead,” he said.

“Of course I want that too, but—”

“So, why can’t we do that?” he asked, chest swelling with an odd, misplaced fury. “Why can’t we live that way? Mahiru, I don’t want to be your soulmate if it means our lot in life is going to be suffering!”

She was silent.

As the quiet stretched out between, Guren registered his own words.

Essentially, he had told her the opposite of what they had been saying this entire time.

I don’t want to keep suffering just to be by your side.

But it was not what he had meant…

...was it?

Guren was not sure where he ended and this timeline’s Guren began.

“We…” She stopped, took a deep, shuddering breath. “I…I don’t want to hurt you. I never wanted to hurt you. I’m so sorry, Guren. I can’t—I can’t fix this. I don’t know how. I want to, so badly, I want to, but I can’t and I—”

She was crying again, so forcefully she could not even speak.

“Mahiru,” he murmured.

She said nothing.

“Mahiru.”

She said nothing.

“Mahiru….”

Finally, she swallowed, face twisted in such a severe kind of pain that Guren might’ve believed she had sustained a fatal injury if he did not understand the utter depth of the emotions he had forced on her.

“I know what you mean,” she choked out. “I know, because I feel the same way.”

Relief flooded through him with such a force it could have torn him apart from the inside-out. And he was sure it would have, if Mahiru hadn’t been giving him a watery smile, the kind that could mend a broken heart in seconds.

“This is ridiculous,” she said, sniffling. “We’re ridiculous. Do you want to go get ice cream?”

He blinked. “Sorry?”

“Ice cream,” she said. “I know we didn’t even eat dinner, but it’s just—it’s one of those—those days and everything sucks, and, Guren, I just really want to eat ice cream with you right now.”

It was somehow both a really strange request and a very regular one. Of course, Guren admired that she didn’t seem to care about going out looking like she’d just had a very intense emotional breakdown, but he was rather taken aback by it, nonetheless. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to do the same in her situation, but…

“Okay,” he said, leaning in close to her. She wrapped her arms around him without a word, resting her chin on his shoulder.

She smelled like cherries and summertime and home.

“How did we end up here?” she asked, voice tight.

A pair of star-crossed lovers destined for something not quite and yet very much similar to destruction, time and time again.

Rewind all the clocks.

And it would all be pointless.

“I don’t know,” he murmured. “But as much as I hate the situation, I…”

She pulled away from him. “You what?”

“I know it could be a lot worse,” he finished. “As long as you’re here, we’ll find a way to work things out for the best.”

They had come full-circle, now. It seemed they would always come to the same conclusion:

This life was, perhaps, not worth it, but they had each other, and so it would always be enough.

She leaned closer and pressed her lips against his shortly.

“Okay,” she said, standing. Her legs wobbled slightly, but as he got to her feet, she stood as strong as a skyscraper. She smiled down at him and offered a hand.

He stared at it a moment, then grasped it tightly, allowing her to pull him to his feet.

She intertwined their hands and leaned into him. “I’m glad we talked,” she murmured. “I know we didn’t really get any proper words across, but I think I understand a little better….”

He marvelled at how soft her hair was as it brushed against his arm. She was so gentle, like the clouds drifting across the sky on a summer afternoon. She had always been like this.

But she had the power to be a storm, too. She could knock the world on its knees with ease. She had the power of a god strewn up in the body of a young woman hardened by too many lives and softened by a consistent love throughout all of them. If the world rose to challenge her, she would fight back, and she would probably win.

They were so, so tired, though. Both of them, exhausted to the bones of fighting. Sure, maybe the world wasn’t challenging them directly, but it sure seemed hell-bent on opposing them. They had been given a thousand lifetimes with each other, and while their love would remain eternal, they would never get to be happy and secure as they desired.

“I’m glad we did, too,” he said quietly, directing them towards the door. “There’s still more I wanted to talk about, though.”

She looked up at him, tilting her head slightly.

She really was adorable when she did that. Even though she still looked somewhat sad, Guren couldn’t help but smile at her.

“It’s nothing bad,” he assured. “I’ve just been thinking about some parts of life I don’t want to miss out on anymore.”

She thought about it a moment, then smiled back at him. “Okay,” she agreed. “Then, let’s talk about it over some ice cream.”


They talked about it over ice cream, and came to these conclusions together:

They had been so caught up in their own fears that they had not been living as they once used to. This had been happening for a few years, now, in a way that it definitely should not have been happening. And if Guren thought back on it, his memories from the past two years were similar to those he had lived out for himself in the past two days: nightmares, breakdowns, “What’s wrong?”s met with “Nothing, I’m fine”s. It came from both sides, too. Mahiru promised to work harder to be honest. Guren promised her to work harder to push her to actually do it.

It hadn’t been like this in the beginning, Mahiru had mused, but they had always had the potential to wind up this way, hadn’t they?

It made Guren wonder, really:

What use was it being soulmates if they could nothing in their mutual existence but despair?

They made plans. They would reach out to their friends and family a little more. They would go out and do all the things that this lifetime offered to them. They would always remember the past, but they wouldn’t rely on it, and they sure as hell wouldn’t be scared of it. It was easy to say the words, of course, because it was what they both wanted, but if Guren knew anything about the human psyche, it was that people were very quick to say they would change, and very slow to actually do it—if they did at all, that was.

And, on such a note, they began working for the changes to happen the very next day.

It started better than the last had, if only because they had, for one, actually slept in their own bed, and, for two, not been awoken by any terrible nightmares, and Guren found, already, that he was beginning to grow comfortable with the normalcy of this Guren’s life.

But it all came down to one very simple thing:

In his own timeline, Guren had not really been living, either.

“What do you want to do today?” Mahiru asked over breakfast. She apparently wasn’t working today, but Guren still had nothing near a clue as to what her regular schedule—or his, for that matter—looked like.

They were the picture of a perfectly domestic married couple.

Guren took a long, thoughtful drink of tea.

“I want to visit my parents,” he decided.

She blinked. “Really? Are you sure?”

Well, it had been weighing on his mind since Sayuri had mentioned it. Not to mention, he wanted to at least meet his mother before he was forced to leave this timeline again.

So...why wouldn’t he be sure?

“Yes,” he said.

She nodded slowly. “I see,” she said. “You really are serious about changing things, then.”

Neither of them spoke again until they had finished eating and had completely cleaned up from the meal. Finally, Mahiru asked, “Do you want to go now?”

Guren shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

He would have to be careful, of course. His nerves were rather high at the moment, and for the first time since entering this timeline, he thought the anxiety was rightfully placed. After all, he didn’t know anything about his parents in this timeline. He didn’t know what made Sayuri remark on them the other day, and he didn’t know what was making Mahiru look so worried right now.

She shifted slightly. “W-well, I don’t know if I even want you to go forward with this with everything that’s been happening recently. I’m sure they won’t mind, but…”

Guren stiffened.

“It hasn’t been very long,” Mahiru continued. “It’s only been a month or so since what happened. And I know you’re close, but that doesn’t make it okay that he lied to you.”

Lied?

Sakae had always been a gentle man, even after his wife had passed and he had stopped caring much about the world. He had been perhaps too gentle in that sense; Guren often felt that Sakae had let the world use him as something akin to a doormat. It was something Guren always told himself he wouldn’t copy, and yet…

No, he had always been his father’s son. For all Sakae had once insisted Guren was better than him, it was far from the truth. Guren could not hope to be the kind of man his father had once been. As well, Guren had lost himself far sooner in life than Sakae ever had. They were hardly comparable.

But either way, Sakae had always been a good man. A kind and loving father, above all else. He had only ever wanted the best for Guren, and Guren…

Guren would like to say he had only ever wanted the best for him, too, but it was not necessarily true. As a teenager, there had been moments where things had been so far from perfect and Guren had...well, not been thinking very kindly of Sakae, to say the least.

But that was in his timeline.

This was a different place entirely.

What was so different about Sakae here?

“Anyway, it’s not a big deal if you want to, but I don’t want you to hurt yourself trying to change things, okay? I know you said you would wait it out before, but it hasn’t been very long, so I'm sure not much has changed…”

He offered her a smile. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ll be fine.”

He sort of wished he had joined the drama club in high school. Perhaps he would have an easier time pretending he understood any of this.

Still, it would come to light eventually, he supposed. He would just have to deal for now.

“Okay,” she said, looking a tad suspicious but seeming to buy it for the most part. “Do you have the keys?”

He shook his head.

She sighed. “Okay, I’ll find them. I really should just leave them at the door….”

She left the kitchen, presumably to hunt around for the misplaced keys.

Guren let out a long breath. As long as Mahiru led him through this thinking he was emotionally too overwhelmed to lead himself, there would be nothing to worry about...right?

It was only a few minutes before Mahiru returned, jangling the keys.

“My coat pocket,” she explained. “Ready?”

“Do you think they’ll mind us just stopping by without a word?” Guren asked.

She blinked. “Guren, are you serious? Of course they won’t mind. I just...I’m more worried about you. It’s pretty spontaneous. I don’t want you to regret it.”

Guren was beginning to find there were very few things he didn’t regret.

But he needed to know the man his father could’ve been. He needed to know his mother. He needed to know…

What he could have had, he supposed.

“I won’t,” he assured her. “Even if things go wrong.”

She leaned against him, wrapping one arm around his waist. “You’d better be telling me the truth.”

He leaned down to meet her eyes. She looked so tired, but…

So tired, but there was no doubt that she was alive.

He pressed a short kiss against her forehead. “I promise I am,” he murmured. “As long as you’re with me, everything will be fine.”

She laughed. Even that rang with the sound of heavy exhaustion. Beautiful though it was, Guren was giving the impression of wind chimes that had been caught in a bad storm. Beautiful, but tired. Beautiful, but in desperate need of a break from the unrelenting trials of nature. Beautiful, but so damaged.

Damaged, but never beyond repair.

“You’re a sap,” she teased. “But okay. I believe you.”

She smiled.

They weren’t all right yet, but when she looked like that, it was impossible to think that they never would be.


Guren had assumed that, once they arrived at his parents’ house, his nerves would calm themselves.

Instead, they seemed to have gotten worse.

“We can still go back home,” Mahiru said as they made their way up to the door. She was holding his hand in hers tightly. He figured that, if she weren’t, he’d probably be shaking.

He really had to curse this Guren for his awful anxiety.

“No,” he said. “We can’t.”

She sighed. “It’s really no wonder we all think you push yourself too hard.”

“I don’t push myself at all,” Guren muttered. “That’s the problem.”

“You do so.” She frowned up at him. “Aren’t you pushing yourself now?”

Of course he wasn’t. This wasn’t his reality. This was not his place to push himself.

“I guess so,” he said, letting out a shaky exhale. “But we’re here now. It would be pointless to back out at this point.”

They had reached the door, now. Mahiru gave him a hesitant look, but he offered her a small smile and reached forward with a trembling hand to ring the doorbell. She squeezed his hand tightly.

Within moments, the door opened.

And Guren felt his heart somewhere in his throat.

She was older than the pictures, he noticed. But her eyes were so distinctly his own, it almost felt he were staring at his own reflection. They were his, right down to the heavy sadness that swum in them like a disease.

She seemed to pause in surprise, and then broke into a smile large enough it could’ve split her face. It did not reduce the sadness in her eyes. Guren’s heart ached with it, nonetheless.

Before he could register what was happening, she was sweeping him up in her embrace. She smelled somewhat like cinnamon. For whatever reason, his eyes stung.

She was much shorter than he was—still taller than Mahiru, but by only an inch or two at most—and yet she seemed to be so much bigger. In the wedding pictures, she had demanded little presence, but in person…

“We’ve missed you,” she said quietly, and her voice was like a melody, like a figure from a myth, some kind of holy deity that existed for the sole purpose of being a mother, of loving her son, of having a family.

And it hurt.

It hurt like complete and utter hell.

“Is Sakae home?” Mahiru asked.

Guren’s mother pulled away from him and looked between them. Even through the embrace, Mahiru hadn’t let go of Guren’s hand.

She nodded. “He is.”

“Sober?” Mahiru asked.

Sober?

She nodded again. “I’m sure he wants to see you both too. Come in…”

She stepped back into the house and moved to the side to allow them entry. Mahiru glanced at Guren and he gave her a small nod. She smiled thinly before leading them inside.

“Sorry it’s been so long, by the way,” Mahiru said, taking off her shoes and tucking them to the side. Guren felt like he was on autopilot as he followed her suit.

“I understand,” Guren’s mother assured. “We’re just grateful you came at all.”

If Guren thought about it, he could recall a time when Mahiru had told him how dearly she cared for his mother. She was a very kind woman, after all…

You’ve inherited more from you than you give yourself credit for,” she told him. They were fifteen years old, sat on the step outside of Guren’s parents’ house.

I don’t think anyone could measure up to her,” he said honestly.

You’re kinder than you think you are,” Mahiru insisted.

He looked up to the sky. The sun was beginning to decline lazily to the horizon. The clouds were somewhat orange in the evening’s light.

I’m not as kind as you think I am.”

She shook her head. “You love deeply, Guren. You always have.

Now, he straightened very suddenly, chest tightening.

“Guren?” Mahiru asked, looking to him in alarm.

“I’m okay,” he said. “Sorry, I—”

He stopped.

Looked at his mother.

Her eyes were so like his.

His hands shook almost violently.

“I knew this was a bad idea,” Mahiru murmured, interlocking their fingers. “C’mon, Guren, just breathe. You’re okay. I’m right beside you.”

Why did things have to be this way?

He heard his mother say something along the lines of, “Can I help?” but she sounded very far away. It was like he was drowning, and she was above the water.

Or was it the other way around? After all, he was still alive.

Wasn’t he?

“No,” Mahiru said sharply, and then paused. “S-sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s fine.”

Her voice was so smooth, so soft.

The voice of a gentle woman, a loving mother.

Why did things have to be this way?

“I’m okay,” he said thickly. “Really. Just…”

Mahiru rubbed small circles on the back of his hand with her thumb.

Why was he standing here, in a room with two women that had both died years and years ago?

“Just overwhelmed,” he finished. “Where’s Dad?”

“Inside,” his mother said. “Do you want some tea?”

“We’d love some,” Mahiru told her, glancing at Guren. “Right?”

“Right,” he agreed.

His mother nodded and led them inside the house, towards the kitchen.

“It’s been a long month,” she was saying. “I’m glad you two decided to come.”

Guren still did not understand what rift had been drawn between himself and his parents. Mahiru had said Sakae had lied about something. Sayuri had said something had happened with him.

Sober? Mahiru had asked.

As they entered the kitchen, Guren noticed that Sakae was seated at the table, facing away from them.

Mahiru glanced up at him. “You okay?” she asked.

He nodded and gave her hand a small, reassuring squeeze.

Sakae stood up and turned to face them.

Guren stared at him.

In all honesty, it had been a while since he had visited his father. Really, it had been a while since he’d actually seen anybody. This timeline was peculiar in a lot of ways, but most of all seemed to be his increased levels of social activity.

In his own timeline, the only person he really saw anymore at all was Shinya, and even then that was only…

Only when he really needed him.

He swallowed, trying to push the thoughts away. This wasn’t about Shinya or his other friends. This was about Sakae, standing right in front of him, looking somewhat out of place.

“Good morning,” Guren said, treading as carefully as possible. He still didn’t know what had been happening here. He wouldn’t want to ruin things now. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah,” Sakae agreed. His voice sounded oddly mellow, more sad than anything else. “It’s good to see you. I’ve been hoping you would come back. Guren, I—”

“Let’s not rush to anything,” Mahiru said. Guren wondered why her tone was so cold.

Sakae hesitated, then nodded. “Of course not,” he agreed.

They all say down at the table, blanketed by an awkward silence. Guren got the distinct impression that he was probably supposed to speak first, but how could he speak when he didn’t know what they would be speaking of?

Within minutes, though, his mother came bearing tea. She sat beside Sakae and looked between her husband and son briefly.

Mahiru sighed softly. Guren glanced over at her, furrowing his eyebrows slightly.

“It’s okay,” she told him quietly. The chilly look she had sent to Sakae earlier was completely gone as she looked to him again. “If you want to make amends, you have to understand the weight of what you did.”

Her voice was like a frigid wind through the room. Guren barely suppressed a shiver at it.

“I understand,” Sakae told her heavily.

“Do you?”

Why were they being so cryptic?

“It’s not much,” Guren’s mother said, “but in the past month, I’ve seen him improve upon himself far more than I ever have in the past.”

“You already hurt Guren’s childhood by drinking,” Mahiru reminded him. “Don’t hurt his adulthood with it, too.”

Drinking? As in…

No way.

Guren must’ve misheard her.

In all his life, he had surely never seen Sakae even look at alcohol. He’d even expressed his heavy distaste for it, once, when Guren was in high school. There was no part of Guren that had ever even considered Sakae and alcohol to be a feasible combination.

So, why…?

“The last thing I would want to do is hurt him. Or you, for that matter.”

Guren met Sakae’s eyes across the table. They were so sad, but…

But they weren’t empty like the eyes Guren recalled of the Sakae in his timeline.

Mahiru tilted her head slightly. “So, what will you do to fix things, then?”

“Whatever I need to,” Sakae told her patiently. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry I lied about what happened, but I know that can’t change anything. So, whatever you need me to do in order to forgive me, I’ll do it.”

Guren glanced at Mahiru, chest tight, then back to his father.

“I don’t want anything from you,” he said, heart beating fast. “I only care that you’re getting better.”

Mahiru let go of his hand and brushed her own against his arm gently. He turned to look at her. Her eyes were very soft. She looked fragile and yet the very opposite all at once. Guren thought back to his conversation with Kureto the day before.

Seishiro was a recovering drug addict.

Mahiru had walked this road before, with her brother, and…

She didn’t want Guren to meet the same pain that she had.

The tension in his body seemed to fade away entirely.

He didn’t entirely understand the situation, but knowing the pieces that he did and having his memories of Mahiru would grant him some insight into things, if he could just take the time later to think about it.

“I’m not mad you were drinking again,” he said, feeling a tad more confident in the situation. “I’m mad that you lied about it.”

“Saying you didn’t do something when you have only makes it worse when the truth finally comes out,” Mahiru agreed. “I know you feel bad about it, but you didn’t see the effects your words had on Guren.”

“I understand,” he said. “I won’t ask for your forgiveness. But I will ask you to give me the time to prove the sincerity of my apology.”

Mahiru looked to Guren. “What do you think, love?”

He glanced between them. Vaguely, he registered the use of the pet name, but didn’t think much of it. Mahiru didn’t use them a lot—she much preferred his name—but they were endearing when she did.

And no matter what she called him, her gentle voice was still enough to soothe his nerves in any case.

“Okay,” Guren said. “It’s not like I could live without my parent—”

He stopped, glanced at his mother, breath catching.

“My parents,” he corrected. “It’s not like I could live without my parents, anyway.”

His mother smiled at him.

In an attempt to swallow back the thick sadness crowding in his throat, he took a long drink from the teacup she had given him earlier.

“We would never want you to,” she told him. “We love you.”

Guren wondered how cruel a life he must have been living to have such a kind, caring woman taken away from it.

“Whatever happens,” Mahiru said, “your family always comes first. Don’t you agree?”

Because people like them needed family, after all. It was all they had ever had.

First and foremost, they were each other’s family. But in this lifetime, in this timeline, they had been blessed with people to love from the moment they were born.

“Absolutely,” he said.

She smiled at him, and then turned to his parents. “We’ll be all right,” she promised. “It’ll just take some time.”

Guren’s mother returned the look back to her. “We have all the time in the world,” she promised.

Guren wished he would be around to see the change happen, but he had a painful feeling that his time in this reality was limited.

“You’ll always be our son and daughter-in-law,” Sakae said. “Even when I’m not a perfect father, you’ll still be my most precious children. I wouldn’t let anything ruin that, no matter how hard it might sometimes be.”

His wife nodded in agreement. “You’ll always have a home in this house. And we’ll make mistakes—we always do—but whatever happens…”

“We’ll learn from them,” Sakae finished. “We won’t let this happen again.

For the sake of the Guren from this timeline, Guren sorely wished this would be the case.

His heart panged with the thought.

“It’s important to cherish what we have,” he said slowly, glancing sideways at Mahiru. “Life is too short to spend it mourning things we can’t fix.”

They were all quiet for a long moment.

And then his mother said, “You’ve grown so much.”

He shifted slightly, trying not to read into the words too deeply. “What do you mean?”

She smiled. “It’s just nice to see you trying to find the present than be stuck in the past.”

But Guren only had the present here. What past did he have to get trapped in?

He said, “I haven’t changed at all. I’m just saying things the way they should be.”

“That’s change in itself,” she told him. “All big changes happen gradually. You’ll look back one day and realize just how different you really are.”

Would he, though? This timeline had already drastically changed him: it had dragged him far out of his comfort zone, had taken the ghosts of his own life and solidified them into real, breathing people that he knew he loved but could never understand the true depth of said love. This timeline had offered him not just a glimpse of what he could've had; it had offered him the full experience and every terrible emotion this life could inspire inside him.

It had given him Mahiru and all her deep, sorrowful love.

It had given him his reason.

He looked to his mother. She looked so like him. Not in her facial structure or anything—he supposed in that sense, he took more after his father—but in the guarded sheen in her eyes, in the gentle pulls of her lips, in the slight quirk of her eyebrows when she was speaking carefully. They were undoubtedly mother and son.

It had given him so much more than he ever could’ve asked of it.

“Maybe,” he said. “But for now, I just need to learn how to be better.”

“You’re a better man than I ever was,” Sakae said quietly. “We’re more proud of you than you would probably believe.”

They hadn’t fixed things yet. They had barely even touched on them. Guren still did not understand the details of whatever Sakae had done.

But that was okay.

After all…

This wasn’t his place to fix things. He was just here to learn and observe and understand.

He held a hand out for Mahiru. She took it, interlocking their fingers beneath the table.

This life was not technically his, but he was going to live it, anyway. And no matter how caught in the past this Guren—or even himself, for that matter—was, he wouldn’t let anything stop him from living it, right alongside Mahiru, his dearest person, the love of all his lives, his soulmate.

The past would haunt him forever, surely, but in this moment, he had never been more thankful for the present.


“Hey, Guren?”

He turned to look at her. It was a warm July night, but a slight cool breeze whispered around them. Though she wore a thin sweater, she was still shivering slightly. Wordlessly, he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer to him.

She let out a long, trembling breath and looked up at him. The light around them was faint, but even still, he could make out a faint blush on her cheeks.

“What?” he asked.

“I…” She swallowed, turning her chin up to the sky. The city’s pollution crowded the night sky, but a few dull stars twinkled stubbornly, nonetheless. Personally, though, Guren thought that her eyes shone much brighter.

Hiragi Mahiru was a force as strong as the sun, after all. She commanded life with her presence alone, and she commanded it well.

And yet, she looked almost wistful with her eyes fixed on the sky above.

“Guren, what do you want from the future?”

He followed her gaze, thoughtful.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I don’t really like thinking about it.”

They were only fifteen, after all. Guren supposed most of the people around him knew their goals, but…

“Me either,” Mahiru told him. “The future terrifies me.”

It was a strong statement, Guren thought.

“Why?”

She smiled fleetingly up the distant stars. “I don’t want to die again,” she said. “I know it’s kind of a silly fear, but…”

“It’s not,” he murmured. “Nobody really wants to die.”

She looked to him. “Then, if neither of us care for the future,” she said, “let’s not think about it.”

He laughed. “Avoidance? I thought you had better coping mechanisms than that.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t mean avoid it. I mean that we should live in the moment, instead of worrying about our futures. Don’t you agree?”

He opened his mouth to speak, but shut it closed again as a drop of blood landed on his leg. He looked down at it, surprised, and then looked up to Mahiru. The image he was met with was grotesque in every way imaginable. Her skin had gone pale. Her lips were parted slightly, and her breaths were choked and harsh.

Her neck was cut open and blood poured from it, unceasingly so. Guren felt sick. His hands were suddenly trembling to the point it was almost painful.

“Mahiru!” he cried, lunging forward to hold a hand over her wound. She weakly reached up for his cheek in response. Her fingers touched his face as softly as the night’s breeze had done.

Her blood soon coated his hands entirely. Their trembling only got worse. His sleeves, too, were covered in her blood. It was only warm, but everywhere it touched his skin seemed to sear.

Her hand fell away from his face. Her scratchy attempts at breathing slowed, came to a complete stop. Almost in slow motion, her limbs seemed to lose all their strength. She fell into him, the stench of feces and urine mingling in with the heavy iron scent around them. Guren could not move, though. Her face had gone lax, but it was impossible to dispose the image of her struggle to breathe, to breathe, to live.

But she was not struggling any longer.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.


“I’ll probably be back by noon today.”

Guren glanced at the clock in the corner of the room. Currently, it was just a few minutes past eight. It had been a surprise to wake up to a phone call from Shigure, but a pleasant one. She was one of his dearest friends, of course, and it was a nice distraction from the dream he had just awoken from.

Still, the feeling of Mahiru’s blood seemed to stay on his hands, even now.

He shifted slightly. “How’s your mother?”

Shigure sighed. “Not bad, but I doubt she has much time left. It’s only a matter of time until she’ll be hospitalized permanently, I imagine.”

“I see,” Guren said quietly. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

From the corner of his eye, he caught Mahiru standing at the entrance to the room, leaned up against the wall. She watched him with careful eyes.

“It’s okay. I’d rather she go with dignity than keep suffering,” Shigure said. “It’ll be sad, but it’s not about the fact that she’s dying. It’s that she lived at all. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Guren agreed. “It’s pointless to think we can prevent death. We should just celebrate the life we have.”

She was silent for a moment, and then she said, “I figured you would be the best person to talk to this about. You’ve seen so much death, haven’t you? Even if you don’t remember it all or if it wasn’t all real. Death is still death. It still haunts you.”

If he were to look at his hands, he might see them coated in Mahiru’s blood.

“Of course,” he muttered. “It still haunts you.”

“So, what I want more than anything,” she said, “is for my mom to feel alive in her last moments. I know that’s what she would want, too. I don’t want to feel like I didn’t do enough to save her. I want to feel like I did everything I could to help her in the ways that I could.”

“I think the guilt is inevitable, though.”

“Probably,” she agreed. “But maybe I can make peace with things a little more easily.”

He supposed that was all a person could ask for, really. And yet…

He still wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to make peace with Mahiru’s death.

She was still watching him. From here, her eyes looked a little sad.

He said, “Yeah, I hope that’s the case.”

“Thanks,” Shigure said. “I know you didn’t really help with much, but I feel a bit better about how things will go from here on.” She paused. “Oh...there was one more thing I wanted to ask you, though.”

“What would that be?”

“If you see Shinya before I do, can you ask him to stop emailing me cat videos? It was kind of a sweet gesture at first, but I’m pretty sure he sent me, like, fifty just yesterday.”

“What?”

“Well, you know how he is.” He could practically hear the shrug in her voice, but for all her nonchalance, there was still a touch of exasperation in it.

Guren couldn’t exactly argue with her. He absolutely knew how Shinya was.

“Haven’t you asked Sayuri?”

“Unfortunately, it seems like they’re conspiring together. I did ask him over the phone, but if anything it was like putting gasoline on a flame. I don’t even know where he’s getting so many of these from. I know the Internet is vast, but, well, he must be using all his spare time just to find cat videos.”

Guren laughed. “It really wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Me either, but still...sometimes it feels like I’m dating a kid.”

“I’d say that he’ll grow up eventually, but I’m not so sure.”

She gave a small chuckle. “I don’t mind. We still love him, anyway. But thanks for talking to me, Guren. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”

“Yeah, no problem. I’ll see you.”

“Bye!” she said, and then the phone went dead in his ear.

He sighed, bringing his hand back down to his side. He met Mahiru’s eyes across the room.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

He nodded. “Shigure says she’ll be home today.”

Mahiru pushed herself up from the wall and approached him. “That’s nice,” she said quietly. “I’m sure Shinya and Sayuri-chan have been missing her.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed the side of her face against his chest.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“I’m perfect,” she murmured. “A little sleepy, though.”

He brought one hand up to stroke her hair, somewhat absentminded. “I’m sort of tired still, too.”

She hummed in understanding. “Maybe we should go back to bed.”

“Don’t you have to work?”

“Not until this afternoon.” She brought one hand down to grab at Guren’s wrist and tugged at it a little. He let the hand by her head fall back to his side.

“You really want to go back to bed?”

“It never feels like wasted time if it’s with you,” she said. “I think we both could use a few more hours, honestly.”

Guren’s hands still felt dirty with her blood.

He said, “I don’t think I could fall back asleep if I wanted to.”

She didn’t react for a moment, and then she dropped his wrist and instead interlocked their fingers.

“I figured you’d had nightmare last night.” She pulled her head away from his chest and looked up at him. “You kept saying my name in your sleep.”

He glanced down at their hands, feeling almost dazed. “Did I?”

She nodded. “You seem pretty put-together now, but…”

“I guess I am a bit,” he said, frowning. “It’s bothering me, but I’m trying not to think about it.”

This dream had been far more graphic than the last, after all. Even looking at her now, it was difficult to get the image of her bleeding, cut-up throat, out of his head, but…

It wasn’t the truth of this reality.

“If it’s bothering you, let’s talk about it.” She smiled, but the sad look in her eyes still lingered. He found she looked similar now to how she had on that July night nine years ago.

He remembered that night well. After she had confessed her fear of dying, he had told her his biggest fear:

I don’t want to die, either,” he said. “But I think I’d be more afraid of other people dying. Like you or my parents or our friends…

It’s not a very good thought,” she agreed. “Is it selfish that I’m more worried about my own death than my loved ones’?

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think each thing is equally selfish or selfless in its own way.

And so, in that sense, perhaps they were more tragic than Guren had given them credit for.

After all, Mahiru, who had died a thousand times over, was terrified of her own death. Guren, terrified of her death, had witnessed her die a thousand times over.

Or perhaps it was circumstantial. Perhaps they were only scared of the things they were because they had lived those things so many times.

“I don’t think there’s anything to talk about,” he said honestly. “I’ll go back to bed with you, if you want me to.”

“But?”

“But I feel like there’s blood on my hands and I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

“Take a shower,” she advised. “And then we can go back to bed and you can do whatever you need to do to reassure yourself that I’m not dead.”

He snorted. “Are you trying to say I should feel you up to make sure you’re alive?”

She laughed. “Maybe a little bit, but I do really want to go back to sleep, so maybe don’t get too carried away.”

He rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, I’m more than willing to let you sleep undisturbed.”

“Oh, Guren, I’m only joking. I don’t need to sleep as badly as you need to know I’m alive. Whatever it takes you to know, I’m more than willing.”

This was something Guren hadn’t thought about.

Just how sexually active were they? They were a young married couple, after all. They probably had fairly regular sex, but…

Well, that was weird, honestly. Guren had never had sex in his timeline—even in high school, when he had more than enough opportunities—but now that he was in this timeline, he had memories of sleeping with Mahiru. And fairly frequently, too…

He supposed Mahiru wouldn’t care if he ever said no to her, but it would undoubtedly start to become strange after some time. He would need to be careful about this.

But that wasn’t to say he didn’t dislike the idea of sleeping with her. He had never been overly interested in sex, though. His memories told him he enjoyed having it with Mahiru, but he couldn’t rely on this timeline’s Guren’s memories for everything, could he?

...Or maybe he could. He still wasn’t completely sure.

He said, “Maybe I’ll just watch you sleep.”

She let go of his hand, laughing. “All right, creep, if that’s what you want, then I won’t stop you.”

“I just mean that you look cute when you sleep,” he protested.

She froze, narrowing her eyes at him. “What was that?” Her voice rang with a sarcastic innocence he definitely didn’t appreciate.

He scowled. “I’m not about to say it again.”

She pouted. “Well, I wanted to try, anyway.”

He looked her over, face relaxing again. She stared back at him, unspeaking.

Finally, he said, “I’m glad I have you.”

She smiled. It seemed to soften her face entirely. “I know you are,” she said. “I’m glad to have you too.”

She stood on her toes and pressed a short kiss against his cheek. As she fell back to her feet, she said, “I’m proud of you, too, you know.”

He shot her a dubious look. “What for?”

Her eyes were so gentle, filled with so much love for him. She still looked sad, but perhaps the truth was that she would never not look sad.

“Because even though it’s bothering you, you aren’t letting yourself focus on it and be hurt by it.” She beamed at him. “Guren, you’re living in the present.”


The next week seemed to pass by very quickly. Guren found himself adjusting to this timeline rather easily. By the time Saturday had come upon them again, Guren was fairly certain he knew Mahiru’s work schedule (she worked every day except for Monday and Saturday, in the evening hours. However, on Sundays she worked a morning to afternoon shift) and he was confident that he understood the fundamental workings of their home life. He was also becoming more and more sure of how to interact with the other people around him.

Really, it wasn’t so hard to grasp; after all, even if this wasn’t his timeline, he was still Guren. He could only be grateful he had been placed in a timeline similar enough to his own that he wasn’t irrevocably different from his regular self and couldn’t fit in.

On Saturday, they had their friends over for dinner. Oddly, this group didn’t contain Kureto and Aoi. He had come to figure out, in the past week, that Sayuri and Aoi were classmates in medical school. Aoi and Mito had been friends in high school—not as close to each other was Mito was to Guren and the rest of their friends, but still close. Guren’s friend group had never technically grown beyond the six of them, the same five people that Guren had been friends with in his own timeline, and Mahiru. They did a lot of things with Aoi and Kureto, but never very often as a group. Because of Sayuri and Mito being close and because of Mahiru’s relation to Kureto, events of importance to both of them called for the other seven to be present, but other than that, there was just no reason for them to be.

Guren found that, though they weren’t quite the same, his friends were mostly as he remembered them from his own timeline. Except for the weirdness that was Shinya, Shigure, and Sayuri’s relationship, they had a very similar dynamic. Shinya was a smart-ass, Goshi was always egging him on, Mito was generally ticked off at them for something, and Sayuri and Shigure ignored them completely in favour of talking to Guren—and, in this timeline, Mahiru.

It made him realize, though, that he had not seen his friends like this in many years. Perhaps they had stayed close with each other, but he had drifted from them all after graduation, so caught up in his own increasing despair at life.

He wondered if this Guren had ever tried to distance himself from his friends. He supposed if that had happened, Mahiru had just pulled him back into reality.

On Sunday, he visited his parents while Mahiru was at work. Revisiting some of his memories of conversations with Mahiru, on top of talking to his parents, he was able to mostly piece together what had happened. It seemed as though Sakae was a fairly regular drinker—and had been for as long as Guren had been alive—but he had put a curb on those habits in Guren’s teen years, and had been mostly clean of alcohol until just a few months ago. Fearing that it would hurt Guren, though, he had lied about it, and when the truth finally came to thanks to Sakae being intoxicated during a visit, Guren had shut him out completely, unable to deal with what had felt like a massive betrayal.

But Sakae was determined to fix things. He had always valued his family above all else, after all, and hearing Guren say that he would have nothing to do with him until he had cleaned up his act had spurred him into action, to right his wrongs.

Guren knew it wasn’t his place to forgive Sakae, but he probably would, if he could. He had a feeling this Guren would do so quickly, too. It was just the way he was—the way he had always been. Mahiru, on the other hand…

Well, it would take some time to get her to trust Sakae again, but she would never doubt Guren’s judgements in a case like this.

Getting to know his mother a bit was a strange feeling. She had a habit of tucking her hair behind her ears when she was thinking, without even realizing she was doing it. She was a kind woman, with a lot of love to give, but got irritated quickly, and by relatively small things, at that. She was quiet, perhaps a little mousy, but it was clear that she demanded a lot of respect from her son and husband. Secretly, Guren thought she was quite a bit like Mahiru, in some ways. Both were powerful women, kind-hearted, but more than capable of being severe when the situation called for it. They both had large presences, just in massively different ways.

He supposed that when he finally was sent back to his own timeline—if he ever would be, that was—that he would miss his mother. He would miss her to a point of pain, he was sure, but…

That pain would be nothing compared to the pain of losing Mahiru again.

He didn’t know how he had lived without her before. It was like she was always with him, even when she physically wasn’t. Her very presence was enough to bring him peace, even when his chest felt tight with inexplicable anxiety, even when his head surely insisted there could be no peace in this world. No matter what she was doing, she was mesmerizing, the most beautiful thing in an ugly world hell-bent on keeping them from being happy, and Guren found that he would probably be content with like just being near her, just being able to hear her voice, to see her smile in the mornings, to be near her, to just have her in his life.

Guren had arrived in this timeline already achingly aware of his love for Mahiru, but now that he was witnessing their life together, understanding it, beginning to love it…

He had been aware of his love for Mahiru, but he had not been aware just how deep that love ran.

They were integral to each other’s lives. They could exist without each other, perhaps, but there was no way they could live without each other. They were a messy, tangled thing, two stars from separate sides of the universe brought together by the cosmic, unruly force of fate. When one of them inevitably blinked out, the other would simply continue, alone, dying slowly without the force of the other to keep it alive.

But the truth was this:

Even if she was not physically alive, a part of her soul would always reside inside of Guren. So long as he wouldn’t forget…

She would never really be dead.

They were soulmates, after all. And there was no pain like living without the person one loved most, but, for them, they were not really two separate entities. More, they were two separate bodies coexisting through one broken half of a whole soul each. So long as one portion of that soul remained…

As Monday came upon them again, Guren founding himself beginning to worry about the inevitable return to his own timeline. He was certain Kureto had told him it would all be like a dream.

“Eventually,” he’d said, “you’ll have to wake up. But as long as you want to remember, your memory will be clear as crystal. How long you stay there, it’s impossible to say. And maybe you actually won’t come back. It is an experiment, after all.”

But Guren hadn’t cared, then. Honestly, he didn’t care much now, but…

Some part of him did miss his timeline. He missed Shinya. Here, while they were still friends, they were not best friends. In that sense, this timeline felt oddly fake.

Guren thought back to their argument before Guren had left with Kureto that day. It had been close to a month, now, adding on the week that Guren had been in this timeline. He wondered if Shinya was still bothered by things. He wondered if Shinya would even forgive him for the things he had said.

Guren had always felt like he was very little without Shinya by his side. He had been missing something his entire life—he’d been missing Mahiru his entire life—but in her absence, Shinya always managed to make his life feel a little more worth living. Even with the emptiness. Even with the whole in his chest.

Who was he without Mahiru? He knew the answer to that: he was lonely, empty, and maybe a little bit broken. More of a shell of himself than his actual self. But that version of himself had become his norm, hadn’t it? He had let his grief overwhelm him to the point he was more of a tragedy than a real person.

The only person who had never let him be a tragedy had been Shinya.

And he was coming to understand, with a sort of painful clarity, just why things had happened the way they had so far.

Fate had been cruel to him. In this lifetime, he had not been meant to have Mahiru. He had not been meant to save her from death. Had not been meant to live with her.

But he had been allowed to know her. To understand her.

To fall in love with her.

Guren didn’t believe that fate was necessarily the deciding factor of everything. He didn’t believe that it was necessarily real. But one could not speak of soulmates without speaking of destiny.

And he did believe that Mahiru was his destiny, above all else. She was the reason stars glowed in the night sky, surely, the reason why his heart beat, the reason why life continued even if she wasn’t in it.

Yet she did not have to define his entire life. Her death did not have to equal his.

This Guren had spent almost a decade terrified of losing Mahiru.

But Guren had already lost her.

That did not mean he couldn’t live on.

That did not mean she was gone.

That did not mean he was dead, too.

He had come here to find his reason, and he had found her.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead, but as long as he was alive, he would carry her soul with him through their endless eternity together.


“I’m glad things are settling,” Mahiru said quietly.

He glanced over to her. She was sitting up beside him in their bed, legs folded up, with a book rested against them.

“Me too,” he said.

She sighed, shutting the book and setting it aside before offering him a small smile. “I still worry about you, though, you know.”

“I know.” He shifted slightly to face her. “I worry about you, too, though.”

She laughed. “I know. I guess that’s what we’re best at, huh? Worrying about each other?”

It was surely getting to be very late. The only light in the room was the one beside her side of her bed, turned on to allow her the vision to read. Beneath such soft light, she seemed vibrant, almost. She was the most beautiful thing Guren had ever seen, surely. Her eyes were warm as she looked at him.

“I guess so,” he murmured.

She reached a hand out to brush against his cheek. It was somewhat cold. He tried not to tense up at the feeling of it. She seemed to know, anyway.

But she did not move her hand.

“I’m alive,” she promised. “I’m just cold… I’m still alive.”

Still alive.

He knew she was. Of course he did.

He leaned into her, inhaling shakily. Her other hand came up to brush the other side of his face. Her fingers were so soft, holding him as if he were breakable.

And he supposed her was.

They both were, like glass that was doomed to shatter. They could be as careful as they wanted, but it would never change the fact that they would break.

They would always break.

He brought himself closer to her, pressing his forehead against hers. Her breath tickled his against his lips slightly, but he didn’t care.

He didn’t care.

He could only see her eyes. They were so warm, so soft, and yet they still held that deep sorrow in them, that kind of sadness that came from seeing life too many times.

“I love you,” he breathed out. “I love you, Mahiru.”

Before she could respond, he closed the gap between their mouths. This was the first time, he thought, that he had kissed her, and yet it very much wasn’t. They had done this a thousand times before, surely, and yet.

And yet that had not been him.

He kissed her like he would never be able to again. Perhaps he wouldn’t. It was impossible to say. His time with her was measured, after all.

She kissed him back with the same slow enthusiasm. Her fingers came around the back of his head, pulling him down towards her even more. Her lips were so soft. She opened her mouth against his slightly, and he took the opportunity to deepen the kiss, his hands coming to rest at her lower back.

When they were this close, he could feel her heart pounding next to his. She was so warm, so warm, so very alive.

Hiragi Mahiru was the realest thing he had ever had.

She was everything and so much more.

He pulled away from her, arousal pooling deep in his stomach. He watched her lips, moist with their mingled saliva, for a moment before bringing his eyes up to hers. She watched him with a heavy look that was not sad, exactly, but made his chest ache as though it was.

“Whatever happens,” she said, “I will always love you. Every version of you.”

He let out a slow, shuddering breath.

It was completely possible she knew that Guren wasn’t the same person she knew him as. It was, and yet he was somehow certain that that was not what she meant. More, he imagined she meant she would love him in every lifetime, regardless of what became of them.

He brought their lips together again, hands moving to slip up her shirt. He ran his fingers up her back, her skin searing beneath him, and she arched into him, mouth opening slightly against his. It was not a desperate feeling, any of it. They were moving slowly, almost lethargically, maybe. Truly, they had no reason to go fast. They were the only thing the other had ever had in this painful life. They had always savoured every moment they spent with each other.

Everywhere his hands touched was warm, soft. She was gentle in every way imaginable. She touched his face as if she were holding glass. Her fingers ghosted over his cheeks. They were right there, and yet it was like they were far away, somehow, still. Like this was a dream.

She was touching his face.

But when he looked at her, he had no doubts that she was alive.

She would not die here.

He brought his hands up to her shoulders, pushing her closer to him. Her hands pushed into his cheeks with more force, and he felt his body stiffen and then relax.

She would not die here.

He pulled away from her again. She smiled up at him, then pulled her shirt up and over her head, throwing it to the floor. Already dressed for the night as she had been, she did not wear a bra, but Guren found they had done this many times, before, too.

She leaned closer to him, reaching for the bottom of his shirt, as well. In one swift movement, she had pulled it away completely, throwing it aside just as she had done with her own. They watched each other a moment, and then she reached for him, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck and pulling him to her again. When their lips met this time, it felt much more violent, and yet it was still gentle, as if she still wanted to be cautious with him.

Her hands drifted down from his neck to his collarbone and all the way down his torso. Her touches were still light and feathery, but he found them more pleasurable than worrisome, now that they weren’t at his face.

The same way her hands roamed over his body, he quickly found himself doing to her. Her skin was so soft and so warm beneath his hands. He felt almost as though he should be shaking at the prospect of touching her like this, but remembered that he had down it many, many times before. It would be pointless to be nervous now, he supposed.

And yet he still felt a bit nervous, anyway. His breath seemed to be completely gone, and he didn’t think it completely had to do with the kissing.

She grabbed at his bottom lip with her teeth, pulling gently. He brought his hands to her hips and gripped them tightly. She bit down on his lip and a small, muffled gasp fell from his mouth.

She released her hold on his lip, pulling her mouth away from his slightly. Within seconds, though, she was moving it along his jaw, pressing short kisses against the skin. She peppered kisses all the way down his jaw, his neck, and to his collarbone. Her hand came up to cup his cheek.

He marvelled at the softness of her hands, their gentleness. She was so careful with him, because…

Because they knew that they were both breakable, but Mahiru had always been stronger than him. She had always been the one to clear a path for them when a storm blew in, the one to divide the river so they could get across. She had traversed life a thousand times, and she had become stronger for it.

Guren was, in every way possible, at her mercy.

She’s so stupidly vulnerable to you, Kureto had said, but Guren was beginning to think the truth was the opposite.

You have to realize the power you have over her, right?

Every place she touched him, it was like she was igniting a flame.

There was no part of him that did not ache with love for her.

He allowed her to kiss him, every inch of his skin she could reach, and then brought his hands up to her chest, brushing against her skin. She shivered slightly against his touch, but did not move her mouth away from his collarbone.

After a few slow-moving moments, she lifted her head to look at him. He captured her lips in another kiss, bringing his hands up to tangle in her hair. He leaned closer and she leaned back, until her back hit the mattress. They pulled apart again, locking eyes.

“Guren?” she asked, voice a little breathy.

He did not know what part of him was telling him they didn’t have much more time together, but…

It was there, undoubtedly. His hourglass was running out.

He did not have much more time here.

“I love you,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I love you too. But what’s—”

He had not realized it, but his hands were beginning to tremble.

This was not nerves, he thought. This was the knowledge that she would be gone soon.

The knowledge that he would never get to touch her like this again.

Hiragi Mahiru was the realest thing he had ever had.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead.

I’m not meant to be happy.

And neither are you.

I know.

Give me this, at least.

He kissed her again, a little more forcefully. She made a small noise again his mouth, but quickly brought her hands up to tangle in his hair. He could feel her breasts against his chest, pressing against him firmly as he pushed himself closer to her.

He would savour it.

Every moment of it.

He would never have this again, surely.

Maybe in another lifetime, but…

Her fingers tightened slightly in his hair as she let out a short moan. He gasped against her mouth at the feeling of it. Her tongue brushed against his bottom lip softly.

But this was all he would get in this one.

He pulled away from her, throat tightening.

“I love you,” he said.

“Guren—”

“I love you.”

“I...I love you too. Why…?”

His breathing felt quite laboured. He did not think it was entirely because of the kissing or anything else that had accompanied it.

“You’re scaring me,” she murmured.

“I love you,” he said again. It seemed the only thing he knew how to say anymore.

“What’s wrong, Guren?”

Her eyes were so beautiful, filled with a heavy lust and a heavy worry and their endless, aching sorrow.

Even if they only had tonight…

“Give me this, at least,” he murmured.

I’m not meant to be happy.

And neither are you.

She seemed to want to question it, but she didn’t.

She didn’t question any part of it.

She took him as he was, always.

Even if it was just for tonight.

Even if it was just for tonight.

Even if…

...It was just for tonight.


“Do you ever think about dying, Guren?”

He glanced at her. They were tucked in the warmth of her home while snow fell endlessly outside. Her voice was very quiet, so that the rest of her family, crowded in other nearby areas of the house, would not hear her.

He matched her tone as he whispered back, “Yes.”

“Have you ever wanted to die?”

His throat was very tight, suddenly.

He looked away from her.

He thought of every big moment from his childhood to now. His youth had been marred by a heavy presence of alcohol in the household. But he had had loving parents, too, and…

And he had had good friends, no matter what had happened.

Above all, he had always had support.

“No,” he murmured. “Nobody wants to die.”

“Of course not,” she agreed, but as he looked at her again, he thought she looked very, very sad.

“Mahiru?”

“I think about dying all the time.”

Her voice was so quiet, Guren was not sure if she had even spoken at all.

But she had. And he had heard her words, loud and clear.

They terrified him, in a way he could not explain.

“Mahiru?” he asked again.

“I think about dying all the time,” she said again, “because my most prominent memories are of dying.”

Of course.

How many times had Hiragi Mahiru died?

“I love living,” she continued. “Because I know I get to live my life beside you.”

“But?”

“But it scares me,” she admitted. “It scares me knowing we’ll have to die again.”

“I…”

She reached up and gently touched his face. His voice fell away from him completely.

“I’m afraid of dying,” she confessed.

Something in the air seemed to stutter. The scene seemed frozen around them.

He looked at her steadily.

“But you’re already dead,” he said.

Her throat was bruised, every different colour imaginable, surely. From her stomach, blood seeped through her white clothes.

She had been pure, he supposed. Pure.

An angel.

But not anymore.

“I love you,” she rasped, hand shaking as it fell away from his face.

His hands trembled as he reached for her, but he lowered her down to her back as steadily as he could manage.

“I know,” he murmured. “I know you do.”

She took one last wheezing breath, and beneath him, her heartbeat slowed to a halt. He swallowed, then took a deep breath.

He closed her eyes.

He looked around and he realized they were no longer in her family’s home. Above them, a sakura tree loomed, its flowers swaying in the slight summer breeze.

He brought his gaze back down to her. His throat was tight, but as he looked at her, he could help but think that she looked as she had surely never looked before.

Finally, Hiragi Mahiru looked at peace.

He leaned in close to her. The smells of iron, feces, and urine were strong in the air, but he didn’t mind. He could still smell her perfume. It was vanilla scented.

“Good-bye,” he whispered. “My other half…”

His voice felt very thick. There were tears pooling in his eyes that he refused to shed.

“I’ll see you again,” he promised. “In the next life. We’ll meet again.”

A single drop fell over her face. It glistened on her cheek in the midsummer sunlight.

Slowly, more joined it.

He could not stop himself from crying.

He could not change things. He could not fix things.

They could rewind all the clocks, time and time again…

And it would make no difference.

But as long as he was alive…

As long as…

“I’ll keep you with me,” he told her. “Until I die, you’ll be in my heart.”

And even then, she would continue to exist adjacent to him.

They were soulmates, after all.

I love you, she had said. In her final moments, she had made a call out to him.

Now, eight years later, he finally answered her call:

“I love you, too,” he said, and he swore he could feel her heart beating next to his.


Guren woke with a start, body slick with sweat.

From a chair on the other side of the room, Kureto flicked his gaze over to him and raised one eyebrow.

“Finally awake, I see.”

Guren took a moment to catch his breath, to gather himself. After a couple minutes, he sat up and swung his legs over the bed, locking eyes with Kureto.

“I wasn’t sure if you would, honestly,” Kureto continued. “But Shinya was pretty insistent we not abandon you until you at least stopped breathing.”

“How long was I asleep?”

“Three weeks, about.”

So time had passed the same while he was gone…?

Before Kureto had sent him to the other timeline, he had said that Guren wouldn’t switch places with the Guren in the other timeline, but would merely replace him. Meld with him, a bit. Hence why he had regained a portion of that Guren’s memories, and why he had been able to exist comfortably in that Guren’s body.

“Where’s Shinya?”

“That’s what you’re worried about?” Kureto’s lips twitched in amusement. “I’d assume he’s at home. He’s been stopping by periodically, but I did tell him I’d call whenever you woke up. I suppose he just doesn’t trust me.”

“For good reason, I imagine.”

Kureto laughed. It was a very cold sound.

Guren fathomed at the differences between this Kureto and the one from the other timeline.

“Well, yes, I’m sure he’s right not to trust me. But I will call him. As soon as you tell me what happened, that is.”

“I would say your experiment was a success,” Guren said slowly. “A little flawed, maybe, but overall successful.”

“A little flawed?”

He nodded. “I only regained the memories I share with—”

He stopped.

Stared at Kureto.

“Go on,” Kureto said impatiently.

“Will you tell me about Mahiru?” he blurted.

Kureto tensed.

“Excuse me?”

Guren sighed, pushing his hair back slightly. It was damp with sweat.

“Tell me about Mahiru,” he said. “Please.”

“What about her?” His eyes were very guarded.

Guren suddenly wasn’t so sure that this timeline’s Kureto and the one he had met in the other timeline really were that different.

“How did she die?” he asked.

Kureto winced.

No, he decided. Fundamentally, they were the same person.

“She was ganged up on by three men opposing any research coming from the Hiragi family,” he said. “She was strangled, and then stabbed in the stomach. She ultimately bled out.”

“Where and when did she die?”

“In July. It was evening. She was passing through a park a few kilometres away from here.”

“Beneath a sakura tree?”

“...What?”

“She died beneath a sakura tree, didn’t she?”

“How do you know that?”

Guren rubbed his palms on his pants, looking down at his knees.

“Mahiru is my soulmate,” he said thickly. “I saw how she died in a dream.”

“Mahiru...was your soulmate?”

Guren looked up at him again. His eyes were not guarded anymore.

More, he looked pained.

He looked like the Kureto from the other timeline, when they had talked about Guren’s circumstances before.

“Yeah,” Guren said quietly. “The only memories I had in that timeline were ones I had shared with her. Everything else, I had no idea of.”

“But you seem to have managed.”

His voice sounded oddly hollow.

“Yeah,” Guren said. “I did. You helped me.”

“Me?”

“Guess you’re good for something, after all,” Guren joked. “Call Shinya, would you? There are some thing I need to deal with.”

“Wait.”

Guren raised an eyebrow at him. “What?”

“Was she happy? In the other timeline, I mean.”

Guren could’ve lied. He could’ve let a grieving brother feel like his sister was at least happy somewhere. But…

“No,” he said. “They’re together, but they’re haunted by their past lives. That Guren dreams of her death, too.”

“I see.” Kureto looked away from him. “Well, it’s to be expected, I suppose. She wasn’t that happy here, either.”

“What was she like?”

“She loved deeply,” he said, still not looking at Guren. “She loved us a lot. Even Father, for all he wronged her. For all he wronged all of us. She did everything for her family. She was always searching for her soulmate, but she always said that she wouldn’t leave us alone to find him until she knew we would be okay. Shinoa, especially.”

Shinoa.

She would be fifteen here, too, Guren supposed.

He wondered just how close she had been to her sister in this timeline.

In the other timeline, Guren had had no doubt that Mahiru loved Shinoa with every fibre of her being. He saw Shinoa many more times after that day at Kureto’s. Shinoa and Mahiru had been very close, after all. They hadn’t had a mother, and so Mahiru, almost ten years Shinoa’s senior, had naturally become her mother figure.

Guren had been close to Shinoa, too. The wedding pictures had been just one hint to their relationship. Shinoa had loved him. Admired him, maybe. They were Mahiru’s most important people. Of course they would wind up being close.

But the Shinoa here didn’t even know who he was.

His chest panged slightly.

Of all the countless things he had to fix, that would undoubtedly be the first.

“And Seishiro?” he asked.

“What about him?”

“Were they close?”

Kureto shook his head. “Not really. Seishiro had always felt overshadowed by his. He spent more time ignoring us than he spent doing anything to feel better about himself. Mahiru wanted to help him, I think, but it’s not like she could’ve made a difference. After all, she was the majority of the reason why he felt so terrible about himself in the first place.”

“And what about you?”

“We weren’t really close,” he said. “But she was still my sister. Take that as you will.”

Guren understood, with a sort of clarity he never would’ve expected to come out of a conversation with Kureto, of all people.

He said, “She loved you a lot.”

Kureto looked up at him again. “I know,” he said. “I loved her, too.”

Hiragi Mahiru was not a tragedy, no.

The tragedy was what she had left behind.

“Anyway, I’ll call Shinya,” Kureto said. He made to get up, then paused. “And, you know, I won’t charge you for this.”

Guren stared at him. “Sorry?”

“I won’t charge you,” he repeated. “It was just an experiment, after all. You did all you needed for me.”

“What?”

Kureto stood, brushing off his pants slightly. “And it’s what Mahiru would have wanted, more than anything. It was her research, after all.”

And without another word, he left the room.

Guren watched the door, dumbfounded. He got the vague impression that Mahiru’s older brother had just accepted him as a part of the Hiragi family.

It was a surprisingly humbling feeling.

He found he didn’t hate it one bit.


“You’re a dumbass.”

Kureto had offered Guren a fresh set of clothes, as well as some food and a shower. By the time Guren had felt clean again, Shinya had already arrived.

Guren sighed. “I know.”

Shinya looked him over critically. “Well?” he asked. “Do you feel like you’ve gained something from all of this?”

Kureto stood on the other side of the room, leaned against the wall, looking quite bored.

“Yeah,” Guren said. “I feel peaceful.”

Shinya took a moment to consider it, then exhaled slowly, tension visibly leaving his shoulders. “Then, I guess that’s the best outcome we could’ve hoped for, right? I’m just glad you’re alive.”

“Me too.” He paused, then added, “And, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Shinya blinked.

“Sorry?”

“I’m sorry.”

Shinya narrowed his eyes. “Who are you and what did you do to Guren?”

Guren scoffed. “Take me seriously, would you? I’m trying to apologize to you. I was an ass. I should’ve listened to you.”

Shinya shifted slightly, face dropping. “No, that’s not fair. I don’t want your apology. I...was angry about the wrong thing. It was wrong of me. If anyone needs to apologize, it’s me.”

“What?”

“It’s stupid,” Shinya said. “I’m glad for you. You look happier already, you know.”

“This is difficult to watch,” Kureto said, bored-sounding. “Aren’t you two ever going to leave?”

Guren turned to face him, trying very hard not to scowl.

“No,” he said. “I wanted to ask you about something first.”

“Then ask me. Don’t just stand there like an idiot. It’ll only annoy me, you know.”

Guren secretly thought Kureto was probably annoyed with something all the time, but he didn’t say so.

“I want to talk to Seishiro and Shinoa,” he said. “And...I want to visit Mahiru’s grave.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Guren caught Shinya flinch.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Ah...nothing. You just hadn’t said yet that Mahiru was your soulmate. It surprised me a bit.”

Guren frowned. It wasn’t entirely believable, but it would be pointless to push the issue now.

“You can,” Kureto said, “but I can’t guarantee they’ll want to talk to you. Especially Seishiro. He hated Mahiru, remember? Why would he have a reason to give a shit about you?”

“Does it matter?” Guren asked. “I just think it’s important, is all.”

“If that’s what you want, then I guess it’s your choice.” Kureto shrugged. “Shinoa’s not around much. Seishiro lives on his own. But I’ll get his address for you, and I’ll pass the message on to Shinoa. She might want to meet you. It’s hard to say. They were close, but it’s been almost ten years since she died. Shinoa was just a kid then.”

“She’s still a kid.”

Kureto laughed. “She seems pretty damn sad for a kid, I think. She’s never really been emotionally sound. After Mahiru died, it was like she shut down completely. She has a small group of friends that keep her going, I think.”

A small group of friends, huh?

Guren glanced at Shinya.

He had a lot of things to fix.

Kureto moved around in search of a piece of paper and a pen, then scribbled down an address and passed the paper off to Guren.

“Seishiro’s hard to manage,” he said. “I won’t blame you for giving up on him.”

But Mahiru had never given up on him, had she?

“It’s important,” he repeated.

“You’re crazy, I think. But whatever, I guess. I’m sure Mahiru saw something in you.”

Guren swallowed. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m sure she did.”

Kureto eyed him for a moment. “I don’t think you’re really ready to see her grave yet, though. You have things to think about. Come back to me when you know you’ll be able to handle it.”

Guren exhaled slowly. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll come back soon, though.”

“And if you wind up hurt, it’ll be your own stupid fault.”

“I—”

“I won’t let that happen,” Shinya said. “Let’s go, Guren. We have everything we need from here.”

His voice was very cold, suddenly.

“Yeah,” Guren said. “Okay. I’ll be back.”

“Stop by in a couple days,” Kureto said. “You can talk to Shinoa for a while.”

Guren paused. “Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

“Ugh, just leave already. You’re acting really weird.”

“Come on,” Shinya urged, and Guren glanced back to Kureto once more before following Shinya outside.

They walked away from the Hiragi household in silence, for just a few moments, and then Shinya said,

“I know things will be different now, but whatever happens, you know I’ll be here, right?”

Guren halted.

Shinya paused a few steps ahead, turning to look back at him with a frown.

“What?”

Guren thought about everything that had happened since waking up this morning. The sun was high in the sky now, near its way to decline, but it hadn’t felt that long, surely…

“I want to thank you,” he said after a moment.

Shinya raised an eyebrow. “For what?”

“For helping.”

Shinya laughed, but it rang as a somewhat uncomfortable sound. “Really, you’re like a whole new person. What happened to you?”

Guren glanced above them. Clouds drifted lazily overhead.

It was July, he thought. Almost August.

“I guess I just realized how easy it was to take for granted what I had,” he said. “In that timeline, we weren’t this close.”

Shinya was quiet for a moment.

And then: “We weren’t?”

“No… It was weird, but we were still friends. Just not so close.”

“Because you had Mahiru,” Shinya guessed.

“And you had Sayuri and Shigure.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Guren looked over to him again. “You loved them a lot.”

“I love them here, too.”

Guren shook his head, remembering their interactions in the other timeline. “Not like that. I just found it interesting.”

“Interesting,” Shinya echoed.

“How you can love different people,” he clarified. “I guess some part of me will always be with Mahiru. I don’t want to keep living like I’m dead, though.”

“Even though she’s dead?”

“Yeah. I think that, as long as I’m alive, I can remember her. And it’s not really enough, but…”

“It’s the best you can do.”

Shinya did not look sympathetic, though.

“You know, since you went, there’s something I’ve wanted to talk to you about.”

Guren watched him carefully. “And what would that be?”

“I was being selfish,” Shinya said. “It bothered me when Kureto suggested you might have a soulmate. It made me a little angry, to be honest with you. But these past few weeks, I thought about it a lot, and I understand a little better.”

“Understand what?”

Shinya looked away from him. “I’ve been in love with you for years,” he admitted. “I knew you didn’t feel the same. I probably knew you never would, even. But still, it hurt realizing the reason why was because you had a soulmate.”

Guren stared at him.

He had never seen Shinya look so nervous before. He wouldn’t meet Guren’s eyes, and one hand had come up to tug at the hem of his shirt, as if he just needed something to do with his hands.

“But these past few weeks, I thought about it a lot,” Shinya said. “And I realized how pointless it was to be angry with you about it. It’s not like you wanted this, either. Having you gone made me realize it didn’t matter if you loved me or not. As long as you’re here, it’s not a big deal. Just being with you at all is enough.”

He finally brought his gaze back to Guren’s.

“It’s more than you got, after all. I should be grateful you’re here at all.”

Guren’s throat was very dry.

“I didn’t know.”

“Of course not, dumbass.” Shinya rolled his eyes, and already the tension was dissolving from the air rapidly. “I never told you. You’re pretty oblivious, too. I don’t blame you for not noticing. It’s not like I wanted you to, anyway.”

“Still, I—”

“Shut up,” Shinya said. “I like you a lot better when you’re not saying stupid stuff, you know.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything stupid!”

Shinya shook his head. “You were just going to blame yourself for my feelings, right? And what part of that isn’t stupid?”

“Well—”

“Don’t argue with me. Seriously, I’ve thought so long and so hard about this, it would be rude of you to refute anything I’m saying now until you’ve at least thought about it a bit, too.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Life’s not very fair,” Shinya said wisely. “It might be best to just deal with it.”

Guren huffed. He was the same as he ever was, really.

Really.

...He was the same as he ever was.

It had been a long time. Or it hadn’t, not really, but it had felt like a long time.

And Guren loved Mahiru. He ached with her absence.

But he had missed his best friend.

“What’s that look you’re giving me right now?” Shinya asked dubiously.

“It’s nothing. I just…”

Shinya sighed. “You’re a real dumbass, Guren.” Within seconds he had closed the distance between them and wrapped Guren in a strong embrace. Perhaps he would have argued with it any other time, but now…

“Welcome home,” Shinya said quietly. “We missed you.”

Now, he found it hard to do anything back be glad he was back.


He thought a lot about Shinya’s confession, and found it didn’t bother him so much as it saddened him. Perhaps in a different reality, he could’ve loved Shinya back.

But it was impossible to say. He knew that Shinya was important to him, but no part of him could ever imagine them being anything more than friends. And especially now, after what he had shared with Mahiru. He was young, maybe, but he wasn’t sure if he would ever come back from her. It wouldn’t be the same, by any means.

But, well, it wasn’t as if he needed to spend the rest of this life alone. Just because he didn’t have Mahiru, that didn’t mean he had nothing.

Maybe he would settle down with someone eventually. It would never be the same—there would never be any person that would know him and love him as thoroughly as Hiragi Mahiru, surely—but it would be something.

It’s what Mahiru would want, without a doubt.

A couple days after waking up, Guren finally got the nerve to go to the address Kureto had given him. It wasn’t really a nice place—the street seemed a little sketchy, and the apartment building looked a little run-down—but Guren imagine Seishiro had his reason for choosing to live here, of all places.

It took quite a while to get an answer at the door, but Seishiro’s voice eventually said, “What do you want?”

And he sounded like a man broken by something far beyond his control. Not at all like the recovering Seishiro of the other timeline.

But perhaps that person was still someone he could become.

“I just want to talk to you,” Guren said slowly. “About, uh, family matters.”

“Family matters,” came the blank response.

“Yes.”

“And they can’t even send one of my actual family members?” he snarled.

“Your family didn’t send me.”

Silence.

Then:

“Fine, just be quick about it.”

He was surprisingly trusting, Guren mused.

But Guren made his way up to Seishiro’s apartment, mulling over what he might say. He hadn’t seen a lot of Seishiro in the other timeline, but what he had seen of him, he had been rather impressed by. Seishiro had done a lot of self-work in that timeline.

It seemed that the case was not the same here.

He knocked on the door and Seishiro opened it just a little, looking him over with critical eyes.

“Ichinose?” he asked. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’ll explain,” Guren said. “Just give me the time to.”

He was a little surprised that Seishiro even remembered who he was, in all honesty. They had been in high school together. Seishiro had been just about as wonderful as Kureto ever was. There had been a few times where Shinya had barely managed to keep Guren from getting into a proper fist fight with Seishiro, even.

But Seishiro looked awful now. Not at all like the cocky fifteen-year-old boy that seemed convinced he was better than Guren just because he had the money to flaunt around.

“Why should I trust you?”

“I’m not saying you should. I’m just asking you to talk to me for a few minutes.”

He was very quiet for a moment.

“Just a few minutes?”

“Just a few minutes,” Guren agreed.

Seishiro watched him for a few more seconds, then fully opened the door.

“I don’t want to hear a word about my life, Ichinose,” he said. “I already know it’s gone to shit.”

“Can’t say mine is much better,” Guren told him honestly. Paused, then added, “It’s not like I ever expected big things from you, anyway, though.”

Seishiro’s jaw tightened. “Don’t—”

“Well, I’m just telling the truth.” Guren glanced around the apartment. It was very messy, and a slight rotting smell seemed to curl through the air. Guren tried his best not to mind it.

Really, he found Seishiro somewhat pitiful. But Mahiru had loved her brothers in the other timeline. Guren had a feeling she had loved them very dearly in this one, too.

“What do you want from me?”

Guren met his eyes. “I wanted to ask after you, first of all. What happened to you, anyway? Why are you living like this?”

Seishiro scowled. “What, like I have a choice? It’s either this or them. It’s not like Kureto is any better than Father, and even Shinoa hates me. It’s better for all of us if I keep my distance.”

“But keeping your distance doesn’t mean you have to live like this,” Guren pressed. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

“Why do you care?”

He wasn’t completely sure he did care.

But…

“What happened to you after Mahiru died?”

Seishiro stiffened. “Mahiru? Don’t say that filthy—”

Guren put a hand up. “Don’t,” he said sharply. “It’s pointless to talk if you’re going to disrespect her. She’s already dead. What’s the point in hating her now?”

“I don’t hate her,” Seishiro muttered, looking away from him with a sour look. “I hate that she did this to me.”

“What? Mahiru ruined your life?” Even to his own ears, his voice sounded cold. “You don’t get to blame her for your own shortcomings. You have control over your life. This isn’t Mahiru’s fault.”

“Isn’t it?” he snapped. “She made me like this, whether she did it on purpose or not. Both of them. That whole family is fucked—myself included! We all screwed each other over, didn’t we? Mahiru died and it was their fault. I’m sure Kureto has some people after him, too. There’s a reason I won’t go back to them.”

Mahiru loved her family.

Guren paused, thinking about it. No, that wasn’t right...

Mahiru had loved her family.

Mahiru had loved Seishiro, despite his inferiority complex. She had loved Kureto despite his harsh nature. She had loved Shinoa despite the circumstances that should have made it impossible for either of them to love.

Mahiru had loved deeply.

Guren was beginning to feel that her love, he now carried somewhere deep within him.

He said, “Being angry isn’t doing anything for you. You’re living like you’re dead, too. I don’t care what you think Mahiru did to you. She would want better for you than this.”

Seishiro sneered. “You talk like you know. Mahiru never cared about anyone but her soulmate.”

“That’s not true.”

“You don’t know.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Prove it, then.”

“I can’t prove it if she’s dead!”

“So why should I believe you?”

“Because I’m her soulmate!”

Seishiro stared at him.

And then he laughed.

“What?” Guren demanded.

“I’m just thinking how sorry I am for your luck. I could barely manage being her brother. I couldn’t imagine having to be in love with her.”

Guren wouldn’t let himself get angry over this. He couldn’t.

It wasn’t what Mahiru would want him to do, and he knew it.

Still, he held his hands by his side, and they were very tense, practically begging him to just hit Seishiro and get things over with.

But…

He took in a deep breath and let it out again.

The tension fell away from him.

“I know Mahiru loved you,” he said. “She wanted to help you, but she didn’t know how.”

Technically, he didn’t know. But Kureto’s words, mingled with all of the feelings he was almost certain were Mahiru’s, it felt as if he did. Everything he said, he was more than confident in the truth of.

“She caused this.”

“And she knew it,” Guren said. “Or she would’ve reached out.”

In the other timeline, Mahiru had reached out to Seishiro because…

Because whatever had happened to him had mostly been the fault of Kureto.

Here, that didn’t seem to be the case.

“What did she do to you?”

Seishiro looked away from him, scowling. “She never cared. Even Kureto pushed me to be better, but Mahiru? All she did was ignore us. She had a one-track mind. Her dream was to meet her soulmate and live on with him. She never gave a shit what happened to her family.”

Guren probably couldn’t change his mind, but…

“But you must have good memories of her, right? Otherwise, this wouldn’t bother you so much.”

“I guess so.”

“So tell me about them.”

Seishiro sighed. “You’re fucking weird,” he said. “You’ll leave me alone if I talk to you, right?”

“That depends on what you tell me.”

“It’s like you came here just to be a pain in the ass.” Seishiro looked him over for a moment, then shook his head. “But whatever. When we were kids, Mahiru and I were really close. We were the same age—not twins, obviously, but if we had had the same mother, we probably could’ve been. We were pretty normal kids. As normal as you can get with the life we had, anyway, but we were normal.

“Once we got into school, she made quick friends. She said she didn’t want friends, and she held them at a distance, but everybody loved her. She was quickly deemed a prodigy, just like her older brother had been. Nobody cared what I did. I got in trouble when I tried to get their attention. Mahiru told me it didn’t matter. I told her it didn’t matter to her because she already had everything. She told me she didn’t want it. I told her she was taking things for granted. She cried. I told her she was being unfair. She refused to understand.”

Guren raised an eyebrow. “And that’s why you hate her?”

“She never bothered to fix things,” he snapped. “She didn’t care to try. We barely talked anymore unless we had to. Just seeing her made me angry, and she always had the gall to look at me like she pitied me.”

“Maybe she did,” Guren suggested.

“Of course she did. Everyone below her was pitiful in her eyes.”

But Mahiru had been empathetic to her last moment. Guren was almost certain that since waking up the other day, he had had a little more empathy, too.

She had given him so much, even in her absence.

It felt almost like she was still beside him. He knew it wasn’t true—knew it was completely impossible—but he found that the emptiness he had been subject to constantly was much duller. Less of a lack of Mahiru and more simply a lack of stability or a lack of life or a lack of whatever it was, this thing that was less a part of his soul and more a part of his mind.

Mahiru was not dead, no.

Her emotions—her burdens, her loves, even her small amounts of hatred—would reside alongside his forever. They had always been there, but it had taken all these years to awaken them. It had taken feeling the presence of her soul as a part of her to understand that it was a part of him, too.

He understood, now, with a painful clarity.

Mahiru’s soul lived on with his. Her heart no longer beat on its own, but Guren did not feel as if it had stopped beating. They were not really separate people. They had spent eternity with each other.

Nobody knew them better than they knew each other.

And this knowledge was what made Guren certain that Seishiro was lashing out, rather than speaking honestly.

He was…

Hurt about Mahiru’s death, perhaps.

They had never talked about their ruined relationship. They had never fixed things. Seishiro felt he had to forgive her, maybe, for being better than him, but he would have expected an apology.

And Mahiru had been a lot of things, but above all, she had been unapologetic about herself.

Mahiru had been kind. She had known her influence over other people, but she had never abused it. She had been sorry for the circumstances of her birth—had even felt, sometimes, that those circumstances made her life less than other people’s—but she had never apologized for being who she was.

She had been optimistic. She had wanted to believe in the world.

She would have thrown the world away, if it would’ve kept her with Guren.

They were fatally flawed people.

Seishiro, too, was flawed beyond repair.

But that did not mean they couldn’t live, that they couldn’t exist and keep existing regardless of their flaws and their circumstances.

“Your own shortcomings won’t change,” Guren said carefully, “even if you hate Mahiru. She couldn’t have helped you if she tried.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you are pitiful. And the only person who can make you better is yourself.”

“I’m not—”

“Yes, you are. Maybe Mahiru didn’t think so. Knowing her, I’m sure she just felt bad and felt guilty that she was hurting you. But she never would have changed herself just to make you feel better. Even if guilt was tearing her up, she wouldn’t have changed anything. She was the person she wanted to be.”

“So that excuses what she did?”

“But there was never anything to excuse, was there? Mahiru didn’t wrong you. You just need someone to blame for how things have happened, and it’s easy to blame someone who’s already dead, isn’t it?”

Seishiro said nothing.

“You didn’t get this bad until she died, right?”

Silence.

“Are you sure you just don’t regret things?”

Silence.

And then:

“Get out.”

Guren didn’t move.

“We talked,” Seishiro said. His voice was oddly tight. “Now leave.”

“I’m not sure how satisfied I am with—”

“Get out!” He looked properly angry, now, his hands clenched into fists at his sides and his eyes absolutely searing. “I don’t give a shit about what you think! Just leave me alone!”

Guren looked him over cautiously, then took a step back.

“Okay,” he said. “If that’s what you want.”

Seishiro didn’t speak.

Guren slowly made his way to the door, then glanced back and said, “I know Mahiru loved you.”

Seishiro sneered. “Mahiru didn’t love anybody but her disgusting self.”

Guren’s chest felt very hot, suddenly, but he pushed the feeling down. He wouldn’t get angry about it…

Seishiro was wrong, after all.

He left the apartment without another word.


A few days later, Kureto called Guren.

He was in his own apartment, accompanied by Shinya, who had been relaying everything that had happened while Guren was gone. It seemed things had been mostly uneventful, but Guren’s friends and father had been (rightfully) angry to find out he had done something rash and stupid without telling them, but…

Well, none of them had been as worried as Shinya, for one, and, for two, none of them had really known the full circumstances.

“I told them you would definitely come back,” Shinya told him. “I never mentioned the risks Kureto told us. It’s been a long time since any of them have even seen you, right? You barely leave your apartment, Guren.”

He was right, of course, and Guren knew it—had known it for a very long time—but it was still painful to hear the words coming from someone else’s mouth.

But the phone ringing was what interrupted them before Guren could give him an answer.

Guren was quick to answer. The only other person that would have a reason to call him was sitting across from him, after all, which meant it had to be Kureto.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hey, Ichinose. You wanted to meet Shinoa, right? She’s free right now, if you are.”

Guren almost dropped his phone.

“Yeah, I’m free,” he said hastily. “I’ll be right there.”

Shinya raised an eyebrow at him. He ignored it in favour of the phone call.

“And you talked to Seishiro, right? What happened there?”

“Nothing good,” Guren said. “I didn’t realize how bad his life was.”

“Remind you of anyone?”

“I know you just want me to say it reminds me of myself.”

Kureto laughed shortly. “That’s exactly what I wanted. But whatever, I guess. I don’t know if you remember, but Seishiro barely finished high school. He made some shady friends, graduated with just-passing grades, and then got the hell out. He never really slipped like that until Mahiru died. I always assumed his actions were out of grief, but he still refuses to come back.”

“Does that bother you?”

“Nothing really bothers me.”

Guren couldn’t really argue with that.

“But I can meet Shinoa?”

“Yeah, sure. She says she doesn’t care. Nothing really bothers her, either.”

“I see.”

“I’ll tell her you’re coming. Just hurry up and don’t keep her waiting.”

Before Guren could respond, he hung up.

He glanced at Shinya, lowering the phone away from his ear.

“Well?” Shinya asked. “Want me to drive you?”

Guren rolled his eyes. “What are you, my chauffeur?”

“I guess so.”

Guren sighed. “Well, if you’re just going to leave, anyway, sure. I can find my own way back.”

Shinya stood slowly. “You know, I don’t know how I feel about you getting involved with the Hiragis.”

“You’re the one who involved me.”

“I know that, but…well, don’t you feel like the best of them is the one that’s dead?”

Guren looked away from him. “Of course I do. She’s the only one I know.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I know,” Guren said, turning back to face him again. “But Mahiru loved them. If she’s not here to love them anymore, don’t you think I should be doing something in her place?”

“You can’t replace her.”

“I know that. I wouldn’t want to.”

Shinya sighed. “Okay, well, just be careful. I might regret it, but I’ll trust you on this for now.”

“Why would you ever regret that?”

He laughed. It was an almost tired sound. “I don’t know, Guren. You tell me.”

“Whatever,” Guren said. “Let’s go.”

Shinya said no more, leading him out of the apartment. Guren was sure that Shinya wasn’t angry about anything, but he was clearly a little frustrated.

And fairly so, Guren supposed. It had been almost a week, now, since Guren had woken up. A week, now, since Shinya had confessed to him.

Shinya drove him back to the Hiragi household in silence, but Guren found he couldn’t stop thinking. He was certain that Shinya wasn’t upset about things, but it didn’t change the fact that something in their relationship had dramatically changed. Guren guessed neither of them really knew how to approach it, was all, but…

“Shinya.”

Shinya’s gaze flicked to him briefly, then back to the road. They were very near their destination.

“Yes?”

“Do you think things have changed?”

Guren could see his grip tightening on the steering wheel.

“Is that a joke?” he asked.

“Did it sound like one?”

Shinya was silent for a moment. Guren didn’t push him.

Finally, he said, “I think all that’s changed is how you see the world.”

“...What?”

“You just don’t seem hopeless anymore.” He paused. “Don’t you remember what you said to me that day?”

Guren honestly didn’t remember much from then.

He shook his head.

“You said, ‘I would rather die than keep living like this,’” Shinya reminded him. “I was so mad with you. But I understand why you said it. I don’t know if you really meant it or not, but it doesn’t matter. You still said it. And it stuck with me, Guren. It made me think that we’d all failed you. We were letting you think your life was bad enough that it wasn’t worth living. I wasn’t mad at you about it. I was mad at myself and the rest of us for allowing you to feel that way.”

Do you ever think about dying, Guren?

Guren’s throat burned, suddenly.

Have you ever...

…wanted to die?

“You said I was selfish,” Guren remembered.

Shinya glanced at him, looking worried.

“Of course I did,” he said. “It was easier to blame you for feeling that way than think about what the rest of us could’ve done to prevent it.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“You can’t shoulder everything,” Shinya told him. “I know you want to, but this only happened because we let you do that for so long.”

They had come to a stop, now, close to the Hiragi household. Shinya turned to face him fully.

“But I can tell you’re not feeling that way anymore. You hit a low point, and you thought living was pointless. It’s not like we can change that fact. But, as your friends and family, we can do more to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“It won’t.”

“No?”

“I can’t die. I’m not just living for myself anymore.”

Shinya’s gaze softened slightly.

“You never were just living for yourself. Idiot,” he added. “Your life has value to us, too. Thinking that your life was just yours alone never would’ve done you any good.”

Guren stared at him.

“What? It’s true. And, anyway, I didn’t drive over here just to sit in my car and have a deep conversation about your suicidal ideations or lack thereof. I came here so you could meet your girlfriend’s sister.”

Guren paused. “Girlfriend? Can you even call her that?”

“I don’t know. Was she your girlfriend in the other timeline?”

He shook his head. “We were married.”

“Your wife, then, I guess. So, she’d be your sister-in-law, maybe. I don’t know.”

Guren hadn’t really thought about it. The entire situation was giving him a bit of a headache.

“Well, thanks, anyway,” he said, sighing. “I’ll see you…”

“Tomorrow?” Shinya suggested.

“Probably.” Guren opened the door, but stopped before exiting the vehicle. “And, for the record, I don’t want anything else to change.”

“Change is inevitable, Guren.” His lips twitched up slightly. “Sometimes you just have to live with it.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

“Then I guess you’d just get to be miserable.”

Guren had already spent a lot of time being miserable.

“But stop stalling,” Shinya advised. “You’re already changing things, anyway. You can’t control it if it’s what needs to happen.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going.” He stepped out of the car completely. “See you tomorrow.”

Shinya gave him a short wave before he closed the car door.

He watched Shinya drive away, then made his way up to the Hiragi house. He found that, of all the Hiragis, he most wanted Shinoa’s approval. If approval was even the right word.

Mahiru had loved Shinoa. In the absence of their mother, she had taken on that role for Shinoa. Their large age difference made it easy for Mahiru to assume a motherly position, surely…

When he knocked, Kureto let him inside. They didn’t speak as Guren removed his shoes, and Kureto led him into the house silently.

Kureto took him to the kitchen, where Shinoa was seated at the table, looking bored.

She looked up when they entered the room.

And Guren could not help but stare a little.

She technically looked the same as she had in the other timeline, but here there was something decidedly different, a lack of emotion in her face, a lack of love in her eyes, something that screamed of a lonely teenage girl in comparison to her loved, happy counterpart.

“What?” she asked, exasperated. “Is there something on my face?”

But she was still, without a doubt, Shinoa.

He laughed. She blinked, looking somewhat taken aback.

“No,” he assured her. “I was just thinking how much you look like Mahiru.”

“Ah… Well, I am more beautiful, though, right?”

“Not at all,” he said.

“Tch… Typical.”

“I guess I’ll leave you, then,” Kureto said. “I don’t care what you do to her as long as you return her in one piece. She is the only sister I have left, after all.”

“Right,” Guren said hollowly.

“Thanks, Niisan,” Shinoa grumbled. “I can really feel the love in the air here.”

Kureto merely shrugged before ducking out of the room.

Guren watched Shinoa a moment, then said, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

“That’s a little creepy,” she remarked.

“I didn’t—”

“But that’s fine, I guess. You’ll have to buy me some food on the way or something, though.”

“Haven’t you eaten?”

“Kureto-niisan doesn’t feed me,” she said. “And there’s not much point in feeding myself.”

Guren got the distinct feeling that she didn’t care much, either way.

He said, “Okay, I’ll buy you something.”

“Perfect. Then let me lead the way.”

He allowed her to lead him out of the house and down the street. He fell into step beside her.

“I don’t like that house,” she told him. “It feels like ghosts live there or something. Kureto-niisan never leaves. I think he’s paranoid.”

“About what?”

“Probably that he’ll meet the same people that killed Oneechan.” She shrugged. “Her murderers just hated the family and the research they were conducting. Can’t say I blame them, honestly.”

“You don’t sound too bothered by it.”

“It’s hard to care. It was a long time ago, and I was pretty young.”

“Were you close to Mahiru?”

She looked up at the sky. It was a beautiful, cloudless day. Guren was reminded of the day beneath the sakura trees that Mahiru had bought him cake, but found that things were very, very different now.

Shinoa’s eyes looked a little sad, he thought.

“I guess I was. She was my only sister, after all. She wanted us to be happy.” She sighed, looking forward again. Her feet still moved quite slowly. “You’re her soulmate, right? She always said that you were a good person. I didn’t understand how she could know without meeting you.”

“She’s known me an eternity.”

“But she never knew you in this lifetime.”

“No,” he agreed. “She didn’t.”

“There’s a store near here that sells cake. Will you buy me some?”

“Sure. Just lead the way.”

She did so, and this time neither of them spoke.

When they arrived at the shop she was referring to, Guren passed her some money. She raised an eyebrow at him.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “You can buy whatever you want yourself.”

“I doubt this would be enough for whatever I want.”

“Whatever you want within that price range,” he corrected.

“Fine, fine. You’re no fun.”

Before he could say anything else, she moved up to get in line. Guren watched her for a moment, then stepped back and out of the way.

Within just minutes, though, she had returned to him. Her food was secure in a white box.

A white box…

Interesting.

He wouldn’t dwell on it, either way.

“There’s a park a little ways further,” Shinoa told him. “Let’s go there.”

Once again, she took the lead and they walked on in silence. Guren found himself wondering if Mahiru had ever taken this walk with Shinoa.

In the other timeline, Guren had been here. He and Mahiru had grown up near here. They had walked this way before, just to see the view.

A large sakura tree stood above them. A little ways ahead, there was a very green hill, but just a few metres from them was a bench. Shinoa led them there and sat down, placing the box on her lap.

Guren had been here before, without a doubt.

On that very same hill, Mahiru had given him chocolate cake.

Beneath this sakura tree…

“This is where she died, isn’t it?”

Shinoa looked up at him. He had yet to sit down, so transfixed by his surroundings.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s pretty here, isn’t it? This was one of her favourite places.”

Guren looked around once more, then say beside her. “I see,” he said. “It does seem like a place she would like.”

“I guess irony is kinda cruel sometimes, huh? But I don’t know if I see it that way. At least she died surrounded by something she loved. It’s more than the rest of us will get, I’m sure.”

She opened the box slowly.

“Have you ever had this cake before?” she asked, noticing him watching her. “It’s pretty good. Oneechan liked it a lot.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I have.”

When she opened the box, Guren almost expected it to be chocolate cake.

But it wasn’t.

It was vanilla.

“Do you come here a lot?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “Not really. But it’s nice sometimes. She came here so often, it sometimes feels like a part of her still exists here.”

Here, beneath the sakura tree.

Here, in this place she was killed.

Here, where Guren had known, for the first time, that he loved her.

Perhaps life was all about circles, after all.

If he thought about it, it did feel like some part of her was here. It was a quiet, late July day. The breeze whispered around them gently.

She would’ve loved this scene. Guren could imagine how she would look here with a perfect clarity.

“Tomorrow’s her birthday,” Shinoa said.

“Yeah, it is so. Any plans?”

“There’s no point. It wouldn’t bring her back.”

“That doesn’t mean her life isn’t worth celebrating.”

Shinoa’s lips twitched slightly. “You seem pretty dedicated to her. I guess that’s what an eternity will do for someone, huh?” She sighed. “But I guess you’re right. It’s hard not to feel disconnected from it. Our family is stupidly tragic.”

The Hiragis were infamous for their research and their wealth.

But…

“Everything that’s happened since being born into this family makes me wish I hadn’t been born at all,” Shinoa said. “Oneechan was killed over something so pointless. Seishiro-niisan won’t even talk to us anymore. Kureto-niisan won’t leave the house. Father hated us all, I’m sure. I’m glad he’s dead.”

It seemed harsh, but Guren understood why she would say such a thing.

He couldn’t blame her for hating the circumstances of her birth. After all…

“Only lucky people really get a life they can feel happy with,” he agreed. “I don’t think many people get to be content.”

She eyed him for a moment. “I guess you’ve had a pretty terrible life, too. Kureto-niisan explained things to me. I know we don’t really know each other, but I guess you would’ve been an okay brother-in-law. You did buy me cake, after all.”

“I don’t have a job,” Guren told her. “I wouldn’t be able to buy you very much cake.”

“That’s okay. It’s the thought that counts, anyway.” She adjusted slightly, pulling what looked to be a folded-up piece of paper from her pocket. She held it out to him without a word.

Upon taking it, he realized it was actually an old photograph. He gently unfolded it and looked it over.

“Oneechan would’ve given us the world,” Shinoa said quietly. “We weren’t all perfect, but she loved us anyway. We were her most important people. And so were you, even if you never got to meet her here. She loved you a lot. She was always hoping to meet you, but she never wanted to disrupt fate and seek you out on her own.”

But Seishiro had said the opposite, Guren remembered. He wasn’t sure if he especially cared to know what the truth was, though, either way.

“She loved us, too, though. We were her family, after all…”

The picture was of the four siblings. Seishiro was somewhat distant from the other three, and Kureto didn’t look overly interested in the picture at all, but Shinoa was sat on Mahiru’s back, looking far happier with life than she did now. Mahiru beamed at the camera, lifting her sister as high as her small frame allowed.

His throat felt very dry. He made to fold it up and give it back to her, but she shook her head.

“Keep it,” she said. “I have other pictures. I got that one for you.”

He blinked. “Really?”

“Yeah, of course. It’s the least I could do. You bought me this cake, after all.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I guess so.”

He carefully folded the photo again and put it in his own pocket. He would need to find a safe place to put it later, he mused.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Shinoa told him. “It’s kind of weird how things have turned out, but I guess to you, it probably feels like she just died, and like you’d known her for a lot of years. Maybe like you’d known her for an eternity. Either way, it’s unfortunate.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’d say the same, but I feel like you’ve made peace with it.”

She nodded. “I have. But...sometimes I still catch myself wishing she was still here.”

The breeze sung out around them as Shinoa silently dug into her cake.

Guren could almost swear the wind’s touch, brushing against his cheek softly, was reminiscent of Mahiru’s.


The next day, Guren invited his friends to come see him. By some miracle, they were all free, and so shortly after Shinya arrived as he promised he would, Goshi, Mito, Sayuri, and Shigure did, too.

The date was the twenty-sixth of July. Mahiru’s birthday.

Guren fondly remembered her birthdays. On her sixteenth birthday, in the other timeline, they had kissed for the first time. Every birthday after that, they had celebrated together rather intimately. He recalled a moment when they were nineteen where she had joked that her favourite part about her birthday was the birthday sex, but he had known that that hadn’t really been true. She had loved spending time with her family and friends just as much as she had enjoyed the time she spent alone with Guren after the main celebration.

He found that the day felt a little solemn, remembering these facts. He had spent seven of her birthdays with her, after all. Remembering such things gave the day a gloomy heaviness.

So, the arrival of his friends was much appreciated. The girls all embraced him upon seeing him, looking more than relieved that he was okay, and once they had all seemingly reassured themselves that he really was fine, he led them inside to where Shinya was. Within seconds, though, the four of them were on his case, while Shinya watched the scene unfold in amusement.

“What were you thinking?” Mito demanded.

“That was stupid, Guren-san!” Sayuri cried.

“Well, we all knew he was an idiot,” Goshi remarked.

“It doesn’t change the fact that he could’ve told us first,” Shigure pointed out.

“Won’t you give me the time to explain?” he asked, exasperated.

“Shinya told us the important parts,” Goshi said. “You really have a soulmate, huh? That’s pretty cool. Who is it?”

Guren sighed. “Do you want some tea?”

“Avoidance at its finest,” Shinya commented.

He scowled. “It’s not avoidance. I’m just asking if they want some tea.”

“We’ll be okay,” Sayuri told him. “We want to hear about your soulmate, first!”

He sighed, lowering himself onto a chair opposite Shigure. “Fine, then.”

They all stared at him eagerly.

“You’re like kids,” he said.

“And you’re trying to dodge the topic,” Mito accused. “Just tell us who it is.”

He looked them all over. Shinya raised one eyebrow at him, while Sayuri offered him an encouraging smile.

“Hiragi Mahiru,” he said.

Goshi whistled. “Now that’s something. You and a Hiragi? That’s almost impossible to believe.”

“Wait, Goshi…” Mito was frowning. “Guren, isn’t she dead?”

“You didn’t tell them she was dead?” Guren asked Shinya, surprised.

“Of course not,” he said. “That would’ve just worried them even more than they already were.”

“So, she is dead?” Mito asked.

Guren nodded. “She’s been dead for eight years.”

“Oh...I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’ve come to terms with things already. It’s out of my control.”

“But you look so…”

“Sad,” Sayuri finished.

“Like you’re grieving,” Shigure agreed.

“Maybe I am,” Guren said. “It’s hard to tell.”

“I don’t think anyone would blame you if you were,” Goshi said. “You loved her, right?”

“More than anything.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Shinya look away from him.

“It’s unfair how these things happen,” Sayuri said. “I’m sure she was a wonderful person.”

“She was,” Guren muttered. “Kind and caring. She loved her friends and family a lot.”

He rubbed at the back of his left hand. It was something he had caught himself doing fairly frequently, this past week. He supposed it was the absence of the wedding band there. He had grown used to it very quickly, but having it gone…

“It’s something I’ll have to live with, though,” he said, looking up at them. “There’s something I realized while I was in that timeline, though.”

“What?” Shigure asked.

“I’ve been taking things for granted. I’m surprised you all still consider yourselves my friends at all.”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Mito asked, surprised.

“Mito, I don’t even know where you work.”

“You’ve been…”

“Don’t defend him,” Goshi told her. “He’s telling us this because he recognizes he’s done us wrong. We can’t just brush it under the rug or whatever.”

“Right,” Guren said. “I haven’t seen any of you in over a year. And through no fault of your own. Every time you tried to ask after me, I ignored it or told you I wasn’t available to talk, let alone hang out.”

“We could’ve—”

“I wouldn’t have wanted you to,” he said. “What would that have done but hurt you? It’s my fault things wound up like this.”

“But you were hurting,” Shinya reminded him. “You felt you were going crazy. Of course you would distance yourself.”

“That’s right,” Shigure agreed. “It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason, and that’s enough, I think. You just need to earn our trust back.”

Guren thought to the other timeline and the issues he had had with Sakae. This was similar, in a way, he supposed. He had given his friends a reason to distrust him, and now he would need to prove that he could be better to them.

He would need to earn their forgiveness before he got it.

“You know, I think it’s good that you did what you did,” Goshi said. “You look better than you have in years. A little sad, maybe, but not, like, dead inside.”

“Did I look dead inside?”

“A little,” they all said, far from in unison.

“Oh.”

They laughed.

“You look happier now,” Sayuri told him. “Or, more content, at least.”

“Maybe,” he allowed. “I think a learned a lot from being there.”

“Well?” Shigure prompted. “Won’t you tell us about it?”

“You really want to know?”

“Of course we do,” Shinya said. “You’ve barely even told me anything. I won’t say I’m not at least a little curious.”

“I think you’re lying,” Sayuri said, teasing. “I think you’re really curious.”

“You think so?” He grinned. “I might be. I bet I’m not as curious as you, though.”

This was weird, Guren thought.

Shinya and Sayuri didn’t have the same relationship here as they had in the other timeline, but they still were fundamentally the same. They had a teasing relationship, but there was no doubt there were anything more than friends.

But perhaps the potential for more existed. Guren really couldn’t say.

He glanced at Shigure. She was the same, too, wasn’t she? Maybe they would never have the same relationship that they had had in the other timeline, but they were still good friends, and they balanced one another beautifully.

“Well,” he said, looking back to Shinya, “if you really want to know, I guess I can tell you.”

They all watched him expectantly. He began by relaying the events beforehand—everything Kureto had told them—and then recounted his first days in the timeline.

Sayuri and Shigure were rather shocked by the revelation that they had been dating Shinya.

“What were we thinking, Yuki-chan?” Sayuri asked, laughing. “Shinya-san would be an awful boyfriend.”

“That’s rude!”

“It’s true,” Shigure told him.

“It still stings.”

“I’m just amazed you could ever get a girl to like you, let alone two,” Goshi joked.

“You’re just basing that on your own experience,” Mito said, scoffing. “Shinya-san is a much better man than you.”

“That’s low, Mito-chan.”

Shinya, Sayuri, and Shigure laughed.

“She’s right, though,” Sayuri said.

“Sayuri-chan,” he whined.

“What?”

He turned to Guren. “Tell me I had a girlfriend, too.”

“Uh...I don’t think so. You just had Mito.”

He sighed. “Well, Mito-chan is better than no one, I guess.”

Mito hit him. They certainly all agreed it was well-deserved.

Guren explained the rest of his time in the other reality. They all seemed rather startled to find out about Sakae’s apparent alcoholic tendencies, but were even more so to find out about Guren’s mother.

“I always wondered what kind of woman your mother would’ve been to give birth to someone like you,” Shinya told him.

“Very funny,” Guren said dryly. “She was a wonderful woman.”

“Still doesn’t explain how you happened.”

“Oh, Shinya-san, that’s so mean,” Sayuri chided. “Guren is wonderful, too!”

“Debatable,” the other three said.

Shinya laughed. “It’s okay. We know he’s terrible, but we stick around, anyway. For some reason.”

Guren scowled. “Whatever. I didn’t ask, you know.”

“That’s what we’re best for,” Shinya said. “Unsolicited advice.”

“How is that advice?!”

Shinya just raised an eyebrow at him, quirking his lips slightly.

“Guren, you’ve barely told us about Mahiru,” Mito pointed out. “Don’t you have things to say about her?”

Guren looked down at his hands. “I don’t know if I could explain her with words,” he said honestly.

“That’s...surprisingly romantic,” Shigure said.

“I love her,” he said. “I’ll never stop loving her. I loved her before I even met her. I know she’s not here, but it doesn’t always feel like she’s completely gone, you know? It’s not…”

“It’s not like your life is empty anymore,” Shinya finished. “Right?”

“Yeah. I can still feel her love for myself and her family. I still remember the way she—”

His breath caught.

“Maybe we shouldn’t push you,” Sayuri said carefully. “Sor—”

“No,” he said quickly. “I don’t mind. I just don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

“I don’t think you’re as at peace with it as you think you are, though,” Shinya said. “You’ve been running yourself raw trying to understand her family.” He paused, thoughtful, then added, “And Kureto told me some things, too, you know.”

“Yeah? What kind of things?”

“Like that today’s her birthday?” he suggested. “You don’t have to take all this weight alone. Maybe you’re not suffering anymore, but you’re still grieving. You’re just haunted in a different way than before.”

“You’re an idiot,” Mito said quietly. “It’s not like you can do this all on your own.”

“But I have to—”

“Come to terms with things and sort out your feelings?” Goshi shrugged. “What part of that says you need to do it alone?”

“I…”

“Just talk to us,” Sayuri encouraged. “When things are hard, we’ll be there for you. You lost a loved one, Guren-san. You lost your most important person. Even if the circumstances are a little...well, a little odd, she was still the love of your life.”

“None of us will blame you if you want to cry,” Shinya added.

Guren rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to cry.”

“But if you want to cry, you can.”

“As if I’d ever let you see me cry.”

“What is that? A challenge?”

Goshi laughed. “I almost feel like we shouldn’t stick around to see you try to make him cry.”

“He’s not going to try to make me cry.”

“Oh, I might. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Seriously, who cares?” Mito grumbled. “If he cries, he cries. I’d cry, too, to be honest.”

“Agreed,” Sayuri said. “I think it would be crazy not to cry.”

“There’s nothing to cry about anymore,” Guren stressed.

“Implying you’ve already cried about it, maybe?” Shinya teased.

He scowled. “None of your business.”

They all laughed.

“Well, at least we know they’re the same as they ever were,” Shigure remarked. “That’s the least we could ask for, don’t you think?”

They all quickly agreed. To one another, they were each irreplaceable.

And it was far more than enough, in Guren’s opinion.


Being with his friends on Mahiru’s birthday certainly helped to lessen the pain, but he still found himself wishing he could have gone to her grave instead.

“I don’t think you’re ready,” Shinya had told him, very serious, when he had brought up the idea. “Honestly, Guren, I know you think you’re making peace with things, but all you’re doing is keeping yourself busy trying to reignite her memory and fix your life, right? That’s just a distraction. You still look down when you’re not busy.”

“But maybe I need it,” Guren had argued. “Maybe I’ll feel better once I see it. Maybe—”

“Maybe you should wait.” Shinya’s voice had been very sharp. “You can’t go wrong with waiting.”

And so Guren had begrudgingly agreed, and instead took a few days to think things through. He came to no solid conclusion, and so, on the third day after Mahiru’s birthday, he visited his father.

If there was anyone in this timeline that was noticeably different, it was Sakae. He allowed Guren entrance into the house without a word, and Guren noted that he looked significantly older than he had in the other timeline, far more tired, and he supposed it could only be because…

Because Guren’s mother was not alive here.

As Sakae led him inside and offered him some tea, he found himself beginning to wonder if, perhaps, he was meant to be like this, too. Lonely. Sad. Old, even when he wasn’t.

Could he really live without Mahiru?

“I’m glad you’re back,” Sakae said quietly, offering him a cup of tea.

Guren swallowed back his thoughts. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m glad to be back.”

Sakae watched him a moment, then said, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.”

“Yeah…” Guren stared down at his tea. “Dad, can I ask you something?”

He flicked his eyes up to Sakae briefly. He found his father appeared somewhat surprised, but the look quickly faded away.

“Of course,” he said. “You can ask me anything.”

“What was Mom like?”

Even with his head ducked as it was, Guren didn’t miss Sakae flinch.

“What…?”

“I don’t want to keep pretending like nothing’s wrong,” Guren told him. “In that other timeline, she was still alive, and—and you were both much happier, even if things weren’t perfect, but you were together and you loved each other, so I don’t…”

“I do miss her,” Sakae said. “I miss her every day. But when she was taken from me, I got you. I want to believe that that’s enough.”

Guren didn’t speak.

“I get the feeling that’s not really what’s bothering you, though,” Sakae said gently.

This was his father. Even if they didn’t always have a perfect relationship….

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Guren confessed.

He would always be honest with Sakae.

“What you’re supposed to do,” Sakae echoed.

“With any of this.” Guren gripped the handle of the cup tightly. “I don’t know how I’m supposed to change things. I want to be okay with it, but I’m not. I feel like I’ve lost everything important in my life and I don’t know how to get her back.”

His knuckles were white from the strength of his hold on the cup, but he could not loosen his grasp. His entire body was tense.

“I wanted to hate you for letting Mom’s death hurt you so much. I wanted someone to knock some sense into you, and I didn’t want that person to be me. But I feel like I understand, now, and I don’t—”

“You’re a better man than I ever was,” Sakae said softly. “You aren’t going to repeat my mistakes.”

“But what if I do? How can I control something like that?”

Sakae paused for a moment, considering. Guren still couldn’t look up at him.

“You don’t want it to happen,” he finally said. “That’s enough, Guren. If you want something badly enough…”

“I can’t get the thing I want most.”

“The ‘thing’ you’re talking about isn’t a thing, though. You’re seeking out a person. I’m talking about things. Just...things. You understand, don’t you?”

Guren understood perfectly well.

But…

“What’s the point if she’s not here?”

“That’s—”

“I felt empty before, but now it’s like I’m feeling too much. She’s everywhere, and I want her to be everywhere, but sometimes when I turn around and I don’t actually see her, I feel like there’s nothing—nothing—in this world that matters aside from the fact that she’s gone. And I know better than that, but it crosses my mind anyway. It’s always been her. She’s the reason I’m alive, but she’s not even here to live with me!”

His breathing felt quite ragged, suddenly. He gripped the teacup so tightly he could see the liquid quivering slightly.

“I feel her in everything I do, but it’s….it’s…”

He hadn’t let himself think these things, hadn’t let himself be consumed by everything that had happened, but there was no way he hadn’t been thinking about it. He felt like she was still there, the ghostly touches he remembered from his dreams haunting him in his waking hours. Sometimes, he swore he could hear her voice, but she was never there.

His sleep, too, had been disturbed. He woke from vague dreams of her, where she was close enough to touch but slipped away before he could reach her.

Certainly, since waking, he had only slept a handful of hours. He didn't feel tired, exactly, but it was there, without a doubt. His resolves were cracking, slowly but surely, the longer things went on.

He had not let himself cry since the moment in the dream, though. He refused to. He couldn’t spend time crying about it when there were so many things in his life he had to fix, and so many parts of Mahiru’s life he had to understand. Maybe when it was all through, he could cry, but for now…

He took a long drink from his cup, even though the tea seared in his mouth and throat.

“Even if you’re still alive,” Sakae said, “if you don’t do anything with that life, you’re as good as dead. I doubt whoever your soulmate is would want you to live like you’re dead.”

Guren watched his own hands absently. His heart was beating fast. This was another thing that had carried from the other timeline: he was still somewhat anxious. Not to the same extent as that Guren had been, but somewhat so. Guren wasn’t sure if it would ever go away. He wasn’t sure if he cared anymore.

Of course she wouldn’t want him to live like he was dead. It was why he was here at all, pushing himself to do what he had to in order to make his life feel worth living.

Do...

...you...

...ever…

...think…

...about…

...dying…

...Guren?

Yes.

...

Have you…

...ever wanted to…

...die?

No.

Nobody wants to die.

“I’m terrified of dying,” he said quietly.

“Isn’t everyone?”

Guren felt his shoulders relax slightly. “Mahiru and I talked about it so often. We figured that a worse fate than death would be if the other of us died first.”

“Maybe that’s a type of death in and of itself,” Sakae suggested.

“Do you feel like a part of you died when Mom did?”

Sakae was quiet for a moment. Guren didn’t dare break the silence.

“Yes,” he finally said. “It’s not possible to give a piece of one’s heart to someone else and get away unscathed when their heart stops beating. But she lives on in other ways.” He paused, considering Guren. “She lives on in you, even. You have her eyes, you know.”

He did know.

“So, what am I supposed to do, then? It’s not that I gave her a piece of my heart. I gave her my entire body and soul.”

“And she gave you hers, didn’t she?”

“Yes, but—”

“You’re living on for her, aren’t you? If that’s all you can do for now, then it’s enough. Maybe it’ll never stop hurting, but you’re a strong person. I think you can overcome the pain eventually and learn to live for yourself.”

Live for himself.

Had he ever been living for himself?

“You weren’t born just to be her soulmate,” Sakae reminded him. “Your existence is yours. You don’t belong to someone just because your souls are bound together.”

And yet, he wasn’t sure it was the truth.

“You just need time to come to terms with things,” Sakae said gently. “You lost a loved one. Nobody is going to expect you to cope perfectly with it. Just remember…”

Guren looked up at him, only somewhat seeing. He smiled. Guren did not have the energy or reason to smile back.

“...whatever happens, you’ll always have people to help you.”

Even if that person wasn’t Mahiru….

Even if…

...that person wasn’t Mahiru….

He still had Sakae. He had Shinya. He had his friends.

Maybe, to a degree, he had Kureto and Shinoa. Perhaps someday, he could even count on Seishiro.

Mahiru wasn’t here to hold his hand. She wasn’t here to promise him something secure, and she certainly wasn’t here to deliver it. But her thoughts and feelings lay in sleep beneath Guren’s. Her family was close by. The people and places and things she loved were not out of his reach.

He downed the rest of his drink, throat dry.

“Thank you,” he murmured. “I think...I understand a little better.”

“You’ll always have a home here,” Sakae told him. “When things are hard, you’ll always have your family.”

Always.

Mahiru had promised always too.

Maybe it didn’t last, but…

“I know,” he said. “Thank you.”

...that didn’t mean he couldn’t have it while it did last.


“You sure you’re ready for this?”

It was September. Guren’s birthday had just recently passed, but the weather was already beginning to chill somewhat. The day itself was overcast, not cold but not especially warm. The wind was slight yet numbing. It felt a little melancholy, perhaps.

Shinya was watching him worriedly. They stood at the entrance to the local cemetery. Guren was a couple steps behind Shinya, holding a bouquet of forget-me-nots tightly in his left hand. In his right, a single rose.

“Yeah,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Shinya hesitated, but led the way.

The cemetery was quiet, but not eerily so. It was a mournful place, more than a creepy one. Guren caught names and dates on a few of the headstones as they passed by, but didn’t stop to inspect any of them.

His mother was buried here, too, he knew. He had visited her grave before, but perhaps he would have to do it again.

But that was not why they were here today.

After finally convincing Kureto to tell him where Mahiru was buried, Guren asked Shinya to accompany him. Maybe it would have been easier on his own, but there was no part of him that was willing to risk it.

He did not want to fall apart here.

“It’s a little sad,” Shinya remarked. “It’s like you can feel all the grief of the people who’ve come before us.”

“Is that what that feeling is?” Guren asked. “I just assumed it was my own grief.”

Shinya made a face at him. “That’s not very funny, you know.”

“I was being serious.”

Shinya sighed. “Well, either way… We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” he said sharply. “I need to see it.”

They fell into step beside each other, treading carefully.

“I guess I can’t understand,” Shinya said. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t it?”

Guren shook his head. “It’s not about understanding. It’s just nice to know you’re here.”

Shinya didn’t speak. Guren glanced over at him briefly.

“What?” he asked.

“Nothing. I just… That was a surprisingly soft thing to say.” Shinya shrugged. “I almost didn’t know you had it in you.”

Guren let out a short breath. He might’ve laughed if not for the heaviness weighing on his chest and bones.

“Mahiru said I was a sap,” he told Shinya. “She might’ve been right.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, I’d tell you all the things I thought about her, but you’d just make fun of me.”

“I do love to make fun of you,” Shinya mused.

“I know all about that.”

Shinya laughed. “Well, as long as you don’t care, it’s not a big deal. But I won’t make fun of you over this. That would be cruel.”

“I always thought you were a bit of a sadist,” Guren told him.

“You think so lowly of me.”

“I don’t, really.” Guren looked out over the cemetery. The stone closest to him was dated 1973-2011. They must have been getting close to hers, then…

“I think it’ll be down here,” Shinya said, gesturing to a row ahead of them. “She died eight years ago, right?”

“Yeah,” Guren said hollowly. “I’ll follow you.”

Shinya led them down the row, walking slowly to keep an eye on the names they passed by. It felt as though it stretched on forever, but it eventually caught Guren’s eye, and he leaned forward to pull at Shinya’s arm. His hand was shaking as he did so.

Shinya turned to face him. Silently, Guren pointed to the headstone.

Hiragi Mahiru

1996-2012

His throat felt raw.

“Guren?”

“Her name,” he said blankly. “That’s it.”

“Of course. They can’t include much more than that, you know.”

“She was more than that, though.”

Shinya put a hand on his shoulder. Guren didn’t look up at him. He could only see her name.

“Obviously she was, but this isn’t about who she was. This is just a monument. You act like you expected something else.”

“Is it wrong if I did?”

“No, but it’s not really…”

Intelligent, Guren supposed.

He technically knew that it was just a slab of stone with her name on it. Really, what more was there to this kind of thing? But the green grass that surrounded it swayed slightly in the breeze. Guren got the distinct impression that nobody really came around here anymore.

He came forward, Shinya’s hand falling away from his shoulder, and kneeled down. He stared at the letters a moment longer, then laid the bouquet in front of the stone and propped the rose up against it.

“Do you think she knows?” Guren asked, glancing up at Shinya.

Shinya came to stand beside him.

“Knows what?” he asked.

“That I’m her soulmate?”

“Didn’t she retain her memories of your past lives?”

“Well, yeah, but I mean me. In this lifetime. In this timeline. Do you think she knows?”

Shinya sighed, kneeling beside him. “I can’t speak for the dead, you know.”

“But if you had to guess.”

He was quiet for a moment. Guren looked over to him, stomach twisting slightly, and saw that his eyes were on the flowers, but he didn’t seem to be really looking at them.

Finally he said, “I think she probably does. And I’m sure wherever she is now, she loves you.”

“Yeah?” Guren’s voice was somewhat croaky, even to his own ears.

“Yeah,” Shinya affirmed. He turned and offered Guren a small smile. “It’s pretty hard not to.”

Guren swallowed. “I don’t know about that.”

“It sounds cheesy, but you are. And I’m sure whatever you shared with Mahiru was pretty special. I don’t see why she wouldn’t love you.”

Guren turned back to the gravestone, throat tight.

He did not want to cry here.

“I feel like she’s here, a bit,” he said.

“Yeah?” Shinya asked. His voice was very quiet. It was surely the gentlest Guren had ever heard it.

“I know she’s not, but…” He looked down at his hands. “It feels like she’s watching,” he finished.

“I’m sure she is.”

“She’s dead.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Guren saw Shinya shake his head.

“Dead in a physical sense, sure, but as long as they have someone to remember them, people don’t really die. And she’s your soulmate. She’ll always be with you, don’t you think?”

It sometimes felt like Guren had two hearts beating in his lonely chest.

“I agree, but I—” He stopped. His throat burned slightly.

“But?”

“But I—I don’t know if it’s a good thing.”

“Why not?”

His hands seemed to swim slightly through his vision. He brought his eyes back up to the gravestone, blinking hard.

“It hurts more knowing she’s just out of my reach,” he said.

Shinya didn’t speak.

Guren didn’t ask him to.

The breeze picked up around them slightly.

Hey, Guren?”

The autumn had come upon them very quickly this year.

Yeah?

Don’t you think it’s kind of sad how trees lose their leaves?”

He had never really thought about it.

It’s a kind of death,” she continued. “It’s tragic, because people think it’s beautiful. It’s not beautiful when things die, though.

What do you mean?”

She picked up a red leaf that had fallen to the ground and inspected it carefully. After a moment, she looked back up at him. Her smile was so sad.

It’s sad how everything dies eventually. But every cycle of seasons, it all comes back.”

Of course. Spring was her favourite season.

We’ve always been the same,” she told him. “Our cycle of seasons is just...a little longer.”

Not even realizing he had made the action, Guren noticed that his hand had moved forward to brush against the gravestone. Her name was very finely engraved, he thought. The stone was smooth beneath his fingers.

He wondered what her funeral had been like.

He could hardly see his fingers anymore, with how misty his eyes had grown.

I don’t want a lot of people to attend my funeral.”

Your—your what?”

She laughed, like she thought it was cute that he was asking. They were about twenty years old, just married. Her wedding band sparkled on her hand beautifully.

My funeral,” she said. “I don’t plan on dying anytime soon, but when I do, I’d really like it to just be a small gathering of people. I don’t want anybody who didn’t really know me to celebrate my life.”

Why are you thinking about this?”

Her eyes were very sad.

I don’t know,” she said. “I guess I’m just scared of dying and not having any control over what comes next.”

His tears had spilled over his cheeks now. Shinya looked at him in alarm, but Guren could barely pay him any mind.

He dropped his hand. It was shaking slightly.

We’ll always be together,” she whispered.

They were eighteen years old. They were sat on his parents’ couch, alone save for the quiet movements of the empty house. She had her head rested against his shoulder.

If the world tries to tear us apart, then the world will have to get through me first.”

He laughed. She turned slightly to look up at him, but didn’t move away.

What?” she asked.

I always wondered how someone so small could be so feisty,” he teased.

I’m not that small!”

But she was laughing too. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t small as he said she was. As long as they were together…

His chest ached something fierce. His eyes stung so badly he could barely feel anything, but even still, his throat burned and burned and burned. A painful sort of bubble was rising up in him and he desperately did not want it to pop.

I remember the first time I died.”

Yeah?” He spoke slowly, now entirely sure how to respond. She looked terribly sad, though.

It’s the thing I think I remember best,” she admitted. “Or, second best, maybe. I remember falling in love with you the first time pretty well, too.

The bubble burst.

He choked on a sob, hands trembling.

“Guren,” Shinya muttered, but he couldn’t look at him, couldn’t even try to.

I love you.”

An inhuman noise seemed to be climbing up his throat.

I love you.

It fell from his lips less like a sob and more like a choked scream.

I love you.

He could barely register anything but the raw pain in his throat.

“Guren,” Shinya said desperately. “Guren, I’m right here. Look at me.”

You’re okay. I’m right here.

I won’t go anywhere.

I love you. I’ll always be with you.

Breathe, Guren.

He took in a gasping breath. The gravestone wavered slightly in front of him, but he could see it. He could see it.

Hiragi Mahiru.

He looked at Shinya, breathing heavily.

“I was joking when I said you could cry,” Shinya murmured. “I don’t really know what to do.”

Guren might’ve found it funny, if he wasn’t feeling like there was an ever-expanding hole in his chest.

He couldn’t even respond with how forcefully his tears came. He had not cried like this seeing her dead body in his dream. He was not sure he had ever cried like this in his life, honestly.

But for all Shinya would say he did not know how to help, his just being there was enough. Neither of them spoke. The only noise between the small howling of the wind and the whistling of it between blades of grass were Guren’s choked sobs.

They eventually slowed, coming to a complete halt, but everything hurt. His entire body burned, and yet that still was nothing compared to the searing in his heart.

He reached out, consciously this time, and brushed a hand against the gravestone.

“I love her,” he rasped.

“I know.”

“More than I’ve loved anything else.”

“...I know.”

Guren tore his gaze away from the stone and met Shinya’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out.

“Sorry for what?”

“That I—love her so much.” He took a deep, stuttering breath. “That I can’t love you that way.”

“You think that matters?” Shinya shook his head. “I don’t care. I made peace with that weeks ago. I just want you to be happy.”

“I’m not.”

“I know.”

He swallowed, bringing his hands back down to his lap.

“Shinya?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you ever felt like time doesn’t turn the way it should?”

“I can’t say I have, no.”

Guren looked up. The sky was grey, dreary. It smelled of oncoming rain.

We can rewind all the clocks.

Time and time again.

And it would all be pointless.

“I think the world was cruel to Mahiru and me,” he said.

“I think so, too.”

“But I don’t think…”

The wind picked up slightly. It bit painfully against his tear-stained cheeks.

“You don’t think what?”

I love you.”

Her voice was always so soft when she said the words to him. They were meant for him and only him, in every lifetime, in every timeline, for all of eternity.

“I don’t think I’d change it,” he confessed. “If I could. Is that selfish?”

It’s sad how everything dies eventually.

“I don’t think so,” Shinya said carefully. “You just love her, right? Even if living is painful, you’re living anyway. It’s not wrong to want the person you love by your side, especially after so many lifetimes.”

But every cycle of seasons, it all comes back.

“It’s very painful,” he said. “It doesn’t always feel worth it.”

We’ve always been the same.

“But it does sometimes, doesn’t it?”

Our cycle of seasons is just...a little longer.

“Yeah,” he agreed. He wiped at his eyes and nose. He was not crying anymore, but still…

“It’ll take time,” Shinya said. “But we’ll be with you.”

And then…

“It’ll end eventually,” Guren muttered.

“Sure. So why not enjoy it while it lasts?”

We can rewind all the clocks.

Guren shakily pushed himself to his feet. Shinya hastily followed.

Time and time again.

“You okay?” Shinya asked.

“Yeah,” Guren said. “I will be, anyway.”

And it would all be pointless.

“You sure?”

“Definitely.” He stared down at the gravestone, thoughtful.

Hiragi Mahiru was dead, in the simplest of ways.

The breeze danced around them.

“I’ll come back to her, after all. Even if she’s not here anymore…”

Rewind…

…all…

...the…

...clocks.

“...she’ll live on in my heart,” he finished. “And one day, in our next life, we’ll see each other again.”

As they stood there, unspeaking, the sky slowly opened up, and rain began to pour down. Guren wondered if, perhaps, somewhere, an angel was weeping.

An angel.

He watched the headstone a moment longer, then turned from her grave, leaving the flowers, leaving his tears, leaving her name.

We can…

...rewind…

...all the clocks.

Time and time…

...again.

Perhaps Guren left a piece of his heart with her. Perhaps he left a little bit of his soul.

But it did not matter.

As they left the cemetery, Guren was absolutely certain of one thing, and that was this:

They would meet again.

And it was not technically enough, no, but…

He left the cemetery with a gentle whisper at his back, and a much lighter chest than he had entered it with.