Haruka watched the readout on the elevator to make sure she exited at the correct level. She visited Yuu so often in the Dragon's Lair that her feet wanted to take her there even when she meant to go someplace else. The Lady Amamiku's office, where Ai worked as an apprentice, was less familiar territory. When she stepped out onto the floor, two masked Dragon Soldiers swept toward her, all business as she told them where she was headed. She didn't recognize the voice of the taller of the soldiers escorting her, but the other she thought was called Hitaki. She didn't know his name from before. They returned her bow and left as she pressed the buzzer.
As she had expected, it was Ai who opened the door. Less expectedly, when their eyes met, Ai's face went rigid, her gaze dropping to the floor as she made Haruka a slight bow.
I guess it wasn't just my imagination; she really has been avoiding me. Haruka bowed back to cover her chagrin. "Hello, Ai. It's been a while, so I thought I'd drop by, but if it's a bad time..."
"No, come in," Ai said. She was still avoiding Haruka's gaze. "I was about to take a break. The Lady Amamiku and most of the others are meeting with the Council about the possibility of establishing an elite class of Dragon Soldiers."
Which meant more quantum experimentation, no doubt. In Haruka's estimation, the Council's goal of making the Dragon Soldiers into better weapons wasn't tempered with nearly enough concern for what that did to the soldiers themselves. "Well, I'm glad we'll have a chance to chat, anyway," she said, trying to sound cheerful. "Miho and I have been wondering what you've been up to."
"Long hours on a new project." Ai flashed a bitter little smile. "It's the most important thing I've been given to do here, so far."
"But isn't that a good thing?" Haruka asked, bewildered. She knew how much Ai had craved more responsibility after having been chosen by the Amamiku herself to succeed her in the office. "What sort of project?"
"It's classified," Ai said curtly. Then her face crumpled. "Oh Haruka, I'm so sorry."
Haruka rushed over to give her friend an awkward hug. "But you haven't done anything. What's wrong?"
Ai wiped at her eyes, smearing the elaborate eye makeup that all the handmaidens wore. "I think you'd better sit down," she said, gesturing to the round conference table in the center of the room. With a nervous glance down the hallway that led deeper into the Lady Amamiku's quarters, Haruka complied. For the first time, Ai looked at Haruka straight on. "You should know that I could be killed for telling you this."
Startled, Haruka shook her head hard. "You don't have to -- not on my account."
"Yes, I do. Really, I'm glad you came. There's not much time." As Ai sat down, she took a deep breath and began. "You probably know that the Council has charged the Amamiku's office with finding a way to stop the invasion from Shangri-la."
A little shiver went through Haruka at the mention of that name. "Well, I figured as much. I know everyone in the science bureau has to be working as hard as the Dragon Soldiers to fend off the attacks, just from a different angle."
"Our physicists have determined that the encroachment of the Shangri-la dimension is eroding our timespace even faster than we feared." Ai's hands clenched in her lap. "If this continues, it won't matter how much we can improve the Dragon Soldiers' abilities, or how many new recruits we get. We're fighting a losing battle."
Haruka's stomach went cold, and she thought of Yuu's despairing words the night before last. At the time she hadn't been sure whether they reflected reality or the onset of another of his black moods.
"We've already recorded everyone in La'Cryma as quantum data, but the Amamiku has theorized that we need an ultimate observer -- someone or something that can fix our timespace in reality. I've been tasked with going through the data of everyone in La'Cryma to find one." Haruka remembered the day, some time ago now, when everyone on the upper levels had been ordered to a station to have blood drawn for the Council's DNA database, and standing in a room with probes fastened to her body as strange scopes contracted overhead. "Haruka," Ai said, in a tone that made her head snap up, "it's you."
"Me?" Haruka said, her heart suddenly beating very fast. "But how?"
Ai shook her head. "I don't know. All I know is that as I analyzed everyone's personal data in light of how it reacted to the encroachment by Shangri-la, there was a kind of resonance -- I'm sorry. This is so difficult to explain, even in technical terms."
"It's all right. I'm listening."
"Based on the Lady Amamiku's theories and my findings, the only person who can establish the existence of our timespace, once and for all, is you. It won't stop the attacks from Shangri-la, at least not right away, but it will make it so that they will never be successful in absorbing our dimension into theirs."
Haruka sat wide-eyed and frozen. "Are you saying that I... could save everyone?" It seemed too fantastical to believe, but if it were true, someday Yuu wouldn't have to fight anymore. Neither would Isami. Everyone could rebuild without fear, maybe in time even start moving back to the surface. Sudden wild hope rose up inside her, her fingertips tingling with it, and she leaned forward in her seat. "Of course I want to --"
"Dammit, it's not that simple!" Ai snapped, slamming her hand down on the table, and Haruka flinched backward.
"Haruka..." Ai's breath caught, and she buried her face in her hands for a moment before continuing. "To become our observer, you'll have to be incorporated into the quantum computer that stores the mathematical data of everyone in La'Cryma." When she looked Haruka in the eyes, her face was pale. "You won't survive the procedure."
Haruka stared at her and said, "Oh." There was no air left in her lungs for anything more.
Ai swallowed and looked away. "You have to believe that when I started this, I didn't know what I would find. I should have told you before now. There's only so long I can keep this secret from the Council."
For a moment, Haruka just gaped at her. "You can't just not tell them!" she said when she found her voice again. "Not when it could save all of you." In her friend's eyes, Haruka saw mingled hope and despair, but then Ai shook her head fiercely.
"Listen," she said, a hand on Haruka's shoulder. "When you tell Karasu --"
"I can't tell him now! He'll get himself --"
Haruka wasn't sure whether she was going to say "arrested" or "killed" when a resounding boom shook the room, and Ai braced herself against the table. The lights flickered as a siren began to blare.
"Another attack." Ai stood and grabbed Haruka's hand. "We have to get to the bunker." As if in a dream, Haruka let herself be led.
The two women sat hunched in a corner of the dim, tiny room, and Haruka looked upward. The sirens and the unearthly noises they almost drowned out were more muffled, here, but somewhere far above the ceiling and all the levels of La'Cryma, Yuu was out there with Isami and the others, fighting the forces of Shangri-la.
You have to come back to me, Yuu. Squinching her eyes shut, she willed him to hear, somehow, through the layers of earth and air that lay between them, and take strength from the love in her heart.
She remembered the morning he'd stood by her bed, pale and nervous, and told her that he was going with Isami to join the Dragon Soldiers, a horrible answer to the puzzle of why he'd taken up weight training in the hours he wasn't working as a junior member of the Council's computer science team. She'd reasoned with him, then raged at him, then begged him not to go. "The tech work you do is valuable, too! Do you think it's only soldiers who can contribute?" she'd asked him tearfully. "Of course not," he'd protested, but in the end he'd hugged her tightly and left with Isami to accept the Council's quantum experimentation. Months later, he came back to her with a new name, leached of all color except for his eyes, now red and strange and somber -- but beneath all that, still her Yuu.
"Why did you do it?" she asked him.
"I had to," he said.
Today, for the first time, she understood.
A soft sound brought Haruka back to the present, and she looked over at Ai, who was weeping into the heavy fabric of the dress that covered her knees. Haruka scooted closer and put an arm around her quivering shoulders.
They sat in silence as the sirens wailed on.
* * * * * * *
In the hallway outside the Amamiku's quarters, now blessedly silent, there was no one waiting to escort Haruka to the elevator. Dazedly, she walked alone, feeling as though the sirens were still blaring in her ears.
"When you tell Karasu," Ai had said, knowing full well that if Haruka wanted it, Yuu would cast off his commission and his honor and take her as far as they could go, for as long as they could manage to survive on the surface, alone and apart from the only civilization still known to exist, the threat of the Shangri-la faceships looming overhead always.
Ai was giving Haruka the chance to run.
"Oh, Ai," she whispered.
Somewhere behind her, at the end of the corridor, doors swung open, and she turned to see a battered regiment of Dragon Soldiers filing into the hallway. One soldier broke away from their ranks and ran toward her, the mask that covered his face snapping down to reveal silver hair and red eyes.
"Haruka," Yuu said, enfolding her in a crushing embrace that she returned with all the strength she had in her arms. In spite of everything, joy bloomed inside her at his touch. If the soldiers trooping past them disapproved, no one said anything.
"You're safe," he murmured into her hair. He was shaking, a little. "I was afraid you might still be in the upper levels."
"Is there damage?" she asked, stiffening in sudden fear for Miho and Lily.
He pulled back slightly and cupped her face, sliding a calloused thumb across her cheek. "One of the faceships made it down to the surface, and they had to evacuate Subsector 3." Not Miho's neighborhood, thank goodness, though guilt nipped at the heels of her relief. "I think everyone down there made it out, but we lost Mukudori and Suzume." His face, already etched with weariness, went grimmer still. "The ship turned at the last minute, and --" He broke off, staring into the distance, all too obviously seeing their deaths a second time. If she could take that sight from him, she would.
Isami always bragged that Yuu -- Karasu -- had become one of the most skilled members of his squadron, but the strange fortunes of battle meant that it could so easily have been him. Haruka knew Mukudori and Suzume only by sight, but she wondered who in town was waiting even now for loved ones who would never come home. "I'm so sorry," she said, brushing the hair out of his eyes, and a lump swelled in her throat.
His gaze snapped back to her, and he studied her face, eyebrows knitting together. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Haruka shook her head. "I can't tell you yet. I will soon. Okay?" she said.
His expression still troubled, he nodded and pulled her close. "I’ll do everything I can to keep you safe. Now and always."
But who will keep you safe, Yuu?
All she said was, "Let's just go home."
Yuu correctly heard "home" as her house in the upper sectors, not the Spartan room in the Dragon's Lair that he shared with Isami, and by the time they got there, each was holding the other up. As soon as she had him inside the door, her arms went around him, her lips tracing his collarbone through the illusory fabric of his uniform. The sound he made was surprised but appreciative, and then he was kissing her back with equal ferocity as she pulled him toward her bed.
The quantum enhancement the Dragon Soldiers underwent made them more than human. Once, Haruka had sought Yuu out in the hospital of the Dragon's Lair after a terrible battle, and she'd seen the wounds his body could sustain. But all that came at the cost of an uncertain existence that was forever tied to La'Cryma's computer system; in some sense, they were no longer entirely there. Touching him now, her hands smoothing up his sides as he moved inside her, she didn't understand how that could be. Her fingers raked his ribcage and dug into his back, drawing a hoarse gasp from him as her mouth found the pulse in his throat.
With her eyes and lips and hands, she would make him real.
Afterward, they lay entangled, still breathing each other in. At least the scent of him hadn't changed, she thought, pressing her face into the curve of Yuu's neck as his breathing settled into the slow rhythm of sleep.
Exhaustion somehow still managed to overwhelm everything else, and as she drifted into an uneasy slumber, she thought she felt a flickering at her throat.
* * * * * * *
Haruka stood in the ruined foundation of someone's house, staring up at the underside of one of the Shangri-la faceships. Frozen, she gaped at the alien aircraft -- she hadn't seen one so close since they first came to destroy Hakodate. Another materialized within the ouroboros that shimmered against the sky, and the two ships drifted toward her, their faces serene, their many sets of hands pressed together as if in prayer. Her first instinct was to run, but their empty eyes looked through her, and she turned with their movement as they sailed overhead.
Masked Dragon Soldiers were spilling through the portholes and onto the surface, their weapons at the ready. Around the back of the gathering squadron ran several cloaked warriors who wore no masks at all, pipelines lashing the air behind them. Her eye was caught by a shock of ragged silver hair, fluttering in the wind. His expression might have been carved in granite.
He wasn't the first to fling himself into the air. A tall, blond man she didn't recognize, skinny almost to the point of emaciation, curved around the first of the ships like a swallow in flight, lightning flashing from his outstretched hands. He was followed by Kosagi, one of the few young women to have become a Dragon Soldier, then Isami, then Yuu.
After swerving away from the center of battle, Yuu banked sharply toward the ship. His cloak was suddenly gone -- retracted, somehow -- and Haruka put her hands to her mouth in horror as his back opened up, everything inside him expelling itself to form what looked like a three-pronged sail that guided him closer to the enemy. With a shriek that made her bite down on her knuckles, he flung out black cords that wrapped themselves around one of the faceship's arms and severed it at the joint. The limb crumbled as it fell to earth, and Yuu vanished somewhere behind the ship.
From that point, the aerial fighting happened almost too fast for Haruka's eyes to follow. A hulking figure who could only be Isuka stepped out from the ranks of grounded Dragon Soldiers, who fell back, giving him space. Haruka almost couldn't bear to look when his back opened up, too, and he roared out a challenge as white light blotted out everything. When she could see again, one of the faceships was inexplicably gone, and a giant of pure light as big as the remaining ship itself stood where Isuka had been. Suddenly, his companions were curving around the remaining faceship's port side, closing in for the kill, when a gigantic arm sliced out to knock Yuu down into the rubble.
With broken concrete digging into her feet, Haruka ran to him. He picked himself up, groaning, reizu spilling from his side like water from a broken pipe, but when she put a hand out, it went through his shoulder, and she finally understood.
In this dimension, I don't exist.
Summoning up more reizu in the palm of his hand, Yuu slowly closed the wound in his side, Haruka's hands clenched helplessly as she hovered over him. Above them, the battle had ended. The remaining faceship was shattering, breaking into pieces that dissolved to powder on the wind. The Dragon Soldiers were returning to earth.
Isami landed beside them and helped Yuu to his feet. "You all right, Karasu?" Isami asked, the thump he gave his friend's shoulder raising a puff of dust.
"Fine," Yuu said, still gripping his side. But Haruka could see that he wasn't.
Silently -- how else? -- she followed them into the Dragon's Lair. Yuu split from his friend to head down a corridor Haruka had never taken. Inside the circular room, the ceiling rose high over a cluster of machinery and glass cylinders, each cylinder with the circumference of a hundred-year-old tree, the group of them together as big as any of the houses in her sector. He laid a hand on the glass, and Haruka came to stand beside him.
Inside the glass cylinder, suspended in fluid, floated Haruka's own body.
It'll be drowning, then, she thought numbly.
His face lined with grief, Yuu rested his forehead against the glass. "We drove them off again, Haruka," he whispered, his eyes falling shut.
* * * * * * *
Haruka woke with tears in her eyes, which she wiped away before burying her face in Yuu's shoulder. Less than a week, Ai had said. This could be the last time, Haruka thought, and swallowed hard. I'm so sorry, Yuu.
He stirred, his lithe, muscular body stretching against hers, and he brushed a kiss against her cheek. "What time is it?" he asked, voice scratchy with sleep.
"Not sure." She didn't want to turn away to look at the clock.
He held her to him, stroking her hair. "I should get back to base," he said without enthusiasm.
"Not yet," she said, something like panic rising in her chest as she pulled the covers back over them both. "I want to stay here with you just a little while longer."
* * * * * * *
Later that morning, when Yuu had left, Haruka went to the infirmary where she worked afternoon shifts and told them she was taking a week's leave. Her supervisor was surprised but accommodating, and Haruka made her way through the crowded, filthy streets of Subsector 5 to Miho's house, where she was greeted warmly as always, with many chirped hellos from two-year-old Lily. Miho wasn't wearing her glasses, she noted with concern, which meant they must not be helping anymore. She wondered whether Yuu and Isami had gotten anywhere with petitioning the Council for her treatment.
"It's all right," Miho said. "Even if I can't use them anymore, maybe when Lily grows into them they'll let her see auras." Haruka was doubtful, but the prospect seemed to please Miho, at any rate.
They had barely settled themselves in the front room when someone outside began shouting, the words so garbled that Haruka couldn't pick them out until the shouter was practically outside Miho's front door. "It's going to rain today! RAIN TODAY, you hear?" The cry repeated again and again, until someone across the street broke in with an irate shout of, "Shut up, you old fart!" Several loud voices echoed the sentiment.
"What on earth...?" Haruka muttered, and tugged aside the curtain in the window. A broken umbrella, cloth barely clinging to its arms, bobbed down the street, but she couldn't see who carried it as the figure vanished around the corner, still issuing dire warnings of rain.
"Oh, he starts up with that whenever it gets humid." Miho smiled fondly down at Lily, who was stacking blocks at her feet with focused determination. "There is a kind of heaviness in the air. If we weren't underground, I'd think it was going to rain, too. Maybe on the surface it is raining, even."
Pursed lips hiding her smile, Haruka shook her head. No matter how much time passed, some things didn't change.
"I'm glad you were able to come by," Miho said. "Did you get a chance to visit Ai?"
Haruka's smile faltered. "I did. She's just been working a lot of hours." She wracked her brain, trying to think past the moment that changed everything for a tidbit that was safe to tell Miho. "She did mention that the Lady Amamiku and the Council are trying to institute an elite group of Dragon Soldiers, but she didn't give details." Haruka's dream had managed to supply them anyway. If it had, in fact, been a dream. Hours later, it still hadn't taken on the retrospective unreality that dreams always did, once she was no longer dreaming them.
If I'm supposed to be the observer, how much can I observe?
Miho perked up. "Oh! Fukurou was telling me about that last week. The quantum enhancements they've developed are extraordinary. He said the new class of soldiers might be able to truly fly, even pass between dimensions! Can you believe that?" Haruka's eyes went wide, remembering the unmasked soldiers streaking across the sky, and Miho cocked her head. "Hasn't Karasu said anything?"
"No," Haruka said. "He hasn't." Isami was sufficiently circumspect about classified information that it wasn't likely he'd spilled something he shouldn't have, which meant Yuu just hadn't told her, probably because he was hoping to join their ranks but didn't want to worry her. His scream as his back opened up tore through her mind, and the flash of anger drowned in cold fear.
And today of all days, she had no room to resent the keeping of secrets.
"Mommy, Mommy!" Lily tugged at her mother's skirt and pointed to the little structure she'd built.
Miho squinted down at it. "Can you tell Mommy what it is?" Even with a two-year-old for an architect, it was obviously meant to be a house like their own, and a glance at Miho's face told Haruka she wasn't teasing. She hadn't realized the blindness had progressed so far -- whenever she asked about it, Miho airily told Haruka she was getting along just fine.
"A house!" Lily's cheeks puffed out with indignation, and she looked at Haruka imploringly.
"Yes, it's a house." Haruka felt a smile stretching the corners of her mouth at the little girl's pride.
The toddler pushed herself to her feet and promptly stumbled over her own creation. For a moment she stared back at the wreckage, than burst into tears.
"Don't cry," Miho said, stroking Lily's hair while the little girl wept into her skirts. "You can build it again."
Haruka knelt next to her on the floor and picked up one of the blocks, an unpainted wooden cube, nothing like the bright plastic toys she remembered from her own childhood. Tears and snot still streaming down her face, Lily stared at the block.
"It won't be the same as before," Haruka said, smiling as she held it out to her with an open palm, "but you can make something new."
Lily blinked at her, then grasped the block with a chubby fist.
* * * * * * *
When Haruka arrived at Yuu's floor in the barracks, there were no soldiers in the halls except Isami, who stood outside their shared room sipping from a cup. The crease in his forehead told her that all was not well, but when he caught sight of Haruka he summoned up a smile for her anyway.
"Hi, Isa -- Fukurou. What's going on?"
"We just got word back from the Council -- or one of the Council's flunkies, anyway -- about treatments for Miho. Basically, the answer is no."
"What?" She stared at him. It was so senseless -- they had the resources and the know-how. "But why?"
Isami shrugged, looking like he wanted to spit, but he took a swig of his water instead. "Karasu's not taking it well."
Her heart sank, and she eyed the closed door. "Should I go in?"
"You can, sure."
Not exactly promising, but Haruka flashed him a smile as she reached for the latch.
Yuu sat on his bed, elbows propped on his knees with his head in his hands. On the bed next to him lay a knife and a formless lump of wood, with chips lying scattered across the floor. She sat next to him on the other side, but he didn't move, not even when she leaned into his shoulder.
"At least you tried," she told him.
"Trying won't give Miho her eyesight back."
"It's not under your control."
"But it is under their control." He sat up, gripping his knees, and growled, "They didn't even give a reason."
"Can you try again later, when things are calmer?"
"Will it ever be calmer? Shangri-la doesn't take vacations." His eyes fell shut. "We need something more, something better. The Council is trying, but the people depending on us fall through the cracks." He looked down at her, the lines of his face harsh with anger. "Did you know there were deaths in Subsector 5?"
"They told me at the infirmary," Haruka said, looking at her feet.
"No one in our squadron knew until Tsubame overheard a civilian conversation. The higher-ups didn't think it worth mentioning." One hand clenched into a fist, but then all the angry energy seemed to drain out of him, and he sagged against her, leaning his forehead against Haruka's as she soothed his back.
"When I'm in the field, I know why I'm fighting," he said. "When I'm with you, I know why I'm fighting. But so much of the time, I --"
He was shaking. It broke her heart. It always did.
"Oh, Yuu, don't, please don't." She reached up to stroke his cheek. "Remember what you told me when you came back from basic training?"
"That you did it because you had to."
He closed his eyes, and in his face there was something like relief.
"We just do what we can," she whispered, and pressed her mouth to his.
* * * * * * *
As she lay wrapped in Yuu's arms, Haruka's dreams were full of remembered moments that pulsed in time to the alien heartbeat throbbing around her throat.
Ai, Miho, Isami and herself at thirteen, saying goodbye to Yuu as he waited for the train to Tokyo.
The shy warmth of the hug Yuu gave her when he came back to visit.
Her first uncomprehending glimpse of the faceship drifting outside the window of her room.
The wildness in Yuu's eyes as he pulled her through streets filled with terrified people fleeing the forces of Shangri-la.
And then the rhythm changed. Not memories, this time, but the images were so bright and clear that they might have been.
Her hand in Yuu's as they hid in the ruined streets of Hakodate, a faceship descending on them from above, its deadly pupils locking onto their location.
Herself, pale and tearful, holding Ai's hand at a soldier's memorial for Yuu and Isami's squadron, unrecovered in battle.
Well loved faces, their eyes fixed on her through water and glass. They all looked so sad.
The beat changed again, so quickly it tripped over itself, the images retaining their clarity but making no sense.
Yuu as he was now, standing atop the steeple of Hakodate's Russian Orthodox church before vanishing into thin air.
Black-cloaked Dragon Soldiers cornering a younger version of herself in a warehouse.
Yuu, cloaked and disheveled, sitting next to her younger self in the storeroom of her childhood home.
Isami and Yuu as they had looked in grammar school, staring in horror as the skinny westerner from last night's dream crawled toward them like a demented spider.
Yuu as a boy and Yuu as a man, glaring at each other with undisguised contempt.
Her younger self walking through a fog-choked field, holding both Yuus by the hand.
An ornate gold mask falling away to reveal an emaciated Yuu with mad, mad eyes, and hands that reached for her with greedy desperation.
The circle around her neck went tight.
* * * * * * *
Haruka sat upright in bed, gasping, her hand going to her throat. Shivering, she looked down at Yuu, who slept on, and she reached down to stroke his pale hair and collect herself for a moment before rising to dress. The lights had dimmed -- it was after visiting hours. She shouldn't be here.
As she closed the door behind her, Isami said, "Need me to walk you back?"
Heat flooded her cheeks. "You're still waiting?" It must have been hours.
"Well, I didn't want to interrupt." His good eye sparkled with wry humor. "We're always happy to have you here, you know. Tomorrow we have a sparring match with Kuina's squadron. We'll probably lose, but do you want to come watch?"
Haruka smiled at him, but she couldn't keep the sadness from creeping into her voice. "I wish I could." She'd enjoyed spending time with a number of Yuu's comrades-in-arms, especially their newest recruit, Kosagi, whose reserved demeanor hid a strong sense of purpose. Given more opportunities to talk, they might have become friends.
"Isami," she said, holding his startled gaze. "Please look after him for me."
He stared at her for a moment -- Ai had definitely told him something -- and then nodded, the weariness in his face making him look closer to forty than twenty-two.
* * * * * * *
The next day, Haruka went to the Lady Amamiku's office, and with Ai trembling at her side, told her that she would become La'Cryma's observer. A small, stern woman just short of elderly, the Amamiku was not unsympathetic. It would take two more days for them to make the necessary preparations, she told her. Until then, Haruka was free.
* * * * * * *
Shivering, Haruka climbed up the metal ladder and into the early morning sunlight, which shone cold and gray on the half-destroyed ghost town that had once been Hakodate. She kept to the shadows in case one of Shangri-la's faceships appeared.
So many places from my childhood, she thought as she walked like a wandering spirit through the ruined streets. All too many of them were under water. Only the steeple of the Orthodox church protruded from where the sea had rushed in over the town's low-lying areas, but the house she and her mother had lived in sat high on the hill, in Mount Hakodate's shadow. Maybe she could still find it. Even though she still sometimes walked aboveground, she'd never returned to the house since the day the cataclysm began. After searching desperately through the town for some sign of Haruka's mother, she and Yuu had waited there for her as long as they could, cowering underneath a staircase in fear of the faceships, but she never came back, and they never found anyone who had seen her.
Hugging her cloak more tightly around herself, Haruka found herself in front of Yuu's old house. Only a portion of it still stood. They'd discovered his mother in the part that didn't.
As heartbreaking as it was to walk the ruins -- Yuu had come with her once but found he couldn't bear it -- it also filled her with a strange kind of hope. Hakodate had been so beautiful before Shangri-la's incursion, but if humanity could make something that beautiful once, they could do it again. Thinking of Lily's intent little face as she stacked her blocks, Haruka smiled. Even in La'Cryma, people were making beautiful new things every day.
Images floated through Haruka's mind, flashes of dreams that were not dreams. So much of what she had seen was impossible, yet it rang with truth. If those strange images represented anything, they showed that whatever future she could give her loved ones was not carved in stone. They had the ability to make it into something as new and bright and unexpected as the revelations reflected in a child's face. She hoped that someday Yuu would be able to see that.
If, after she was incorporated into the quantum computer, some part of her could still see -- and she would, after all, be the observer -- she hoped that in his life she would see love, and purpose, and a warm hand to hold. The first of those he would have no matter what, because even if every last trace of her consciousness was wiped away, her love for him would stretch on past the end of all things.
She hoped that someday Yuu would be able to see that, too.
It had been a very long time, and some of the old routes were blocked by rubble and fallen trees, but her feet knew the way, and suddenly Haruka was standing in front of her childhood home. There was a hole in the roof over her old bedroom, and the windows were empty and black, but the basic structure still stood, and for some reason, it beckoned to her. When she tried the front door, it opened easily.
Walking through the house that had seemed so much larger when she was a child, Haruka wished she hadn't gone in after all. So much dust, and the squirrels had been into everything. Her mother's stuffed dolphin lay disemboweled on the floor of her office, and that, of all things, sparked tears in Haruka's eyes.
Oh Mom. I wish I could go back in time and save you, too.
Haruka was retracing her steps through the house when a piercing ring stopped her in her tracks.
Slowly, she turned around to look at the old phone beneath the stairs. It had been disconnected for as long as Haruka had lived there -- but then, everything was disconnected now. That had to be in your head, Haruka told herself, and she jumped when the phone rang again, but something encircling her throat kept her from speaking.
Her heart hammering against her ribcage, Haruka let her hand hover over the ancient receiver. On the third ring, she picked up. "Huh?" said a high-pitched, bewildered voice on the other end. It was fractured by static, unknown to her yet familiar, and an impossible reality flashed through her mind's eye: her twelve-year-old self picking up that receiver, something she was sure she had never done, even out of idle curiosity. Suddenly two realities overlapped like layers of tissue paper, and as she began to speak, the static vanished, though a strange echo remained, giving her back fragments of the words she could say to no one else.