It’s pretty obvious that Sakurai is uncomfortable with touching him.
You get used to leaping with the same person, time and time again. An unfamiliar hand can be jarring, at first, but that’s just for the first few leaps. They’ve done five already, five leaps, and still the first thing Sakurai does is let go of him, taking his hand back like he’s just touched a boiling pot on accident.
Maybe it feels like betrayal, leaping without his partner. If Sakurai could have gotten his way, he’d have gone searching on his own. Rules are rules, though, and they’ve sent Jun with him. They’ve known each other for years now. Sakurai was a year ahead of him in training, blessed with the talent but shackled with an inability to master it quickly. By the time Sakurai had been cleared for missions, Jun had almost caught up to him.
Since then their interactions have usually consisted of polite nods in the halls. A “How are things?” “Fine, and yourself?” bit of small talk at meetings, informal gatherings. But now Sakurai’s partner has gone rogue, and Jun’s been tasked with helping Sakurai bring him back. It’s not like Jun doesn’t have his own partner to worry about. Aiba with his lack of focus and penchant for anachronisms. Then again, Aiba would never break the rules like this.
Five leaps have brought them fifty years back, and Sakurai thinks this might have been a great opportunity for his partner to slip away. The Olympics are here in Tokyo, and the influx of people into Japan would slow any Time-Local tracking efforts. They’ve been granted a 48-hour window to cooperate with each Time-Local team, so after five leaps they’ve already been stuck with each other for nearly 9 days. 2004 had only taken a matter of hours.
“He’s not here,” Time-Local Ikuta had informed him. “We registered a blip of 62 minutes. He was in and out.”
After they leap, it takes an hour before they can do it again. An hour where you’re the most vulnerable. It’s why they usually leap to a safe place, agency-operated, every time, especially in wartime. Whether it’s the nondescript Shibuya office building of 2014, the Yoyogi Park parade grounds in 1914, or the small kimono shop in 1514, there’s always a Time-Local of some sort ready for their arrival with food, news, and period-appropriate garb.
But they’re fifty years back, and all signs are pointing to him having leapt again. Ninomiya’s last legitimate Time-Local contact had been in 1984, winking at a hidden camera before disappearing down an alley. He’s taking risks now, daring to leap from unauthorized spots. Jun wants to tell Sakurai what he thinks, that Ninomiya’s intent on not being found and won’t go through official channels if he can help it. That this mission is impossible to complete.
Nobody’s gone rogue and lived to talk about it in years. There’s too much at stake, with everything they know, with how easily they could manipulate events. Their mission is to bring Ninomiya back to be incarcerated and to kill him if he resists. Sakurai thinks it won’t have to come to that, that his partner has simply made a mistake and will come back willingly.
Jun thinks Sakurai just isn’t ready to accept that his partner has jumped ship, had planned his escape for months, maybe even years.
Their trackers are turning up nothing. 1964 is a bust.
Sakurai slides open the door to their room, the days of unsuccessful travel making him quieter. He doesn’t say a word as he wipes at his damp skin with his towel, having returned from the hotel baths.
Jun’s always thought of him as one of those chatty types, a person with the ability to thrive no matter what year he was in. The quintessential “amiable fellow.” Ninomiya was the same way, and the two of them had one of the highest solve records in the agency.
They leap to find people abusing the talent. They go back to win the lottery, to buy stock. Some even try to take power. The Time-Locals can identify them, and the teams that travel back are trained to haul them in. The ones they arrest are jailed in a cell that can’t be leapt from, and there they rot for the rest of their lives for not being a team player. With their friendly natures, Sakurai and Ninomiya were known for cozying up to the ones abusing the talent, managing to buy them a drink and have them cuffed within an hour.
It seems that Ninomiya’s become dissatisfied with the job. Is it guilt for what they do? Why else would he run? He’s left Sakurai confused and hurt, and Jun knows that Sakurai underwent questioning for hours after it happened, losing the agency valuable time in tracking Ninomiya. Sakurai simply hadn’t known what he was up to, and for that he seems to hate himself now.
Their accommodations are small on account of the job at hand. When they’re doing good work, good agency work, the Time-Locals roll out the red carpet. When they’re hunting their own, patience is low, paranoia is high. When one of their own defects, it’s likely a Time-Local has helped give them a head start. Trust wanes, kindnesses lessen. He and Sakurai are crammed like sardines into a room that barely fits their two futons.
Jun’s hardly been able to take his eyes off Sakurai the past few days. He wears his rage and his sadness so openly, his round face devoid of any cheeriness it might have been otherwise known for. He’s often sullen and rude to Jun when they’re alone, and they’ve only done 5 leaps. What if Ninomiya’s gone to the Stone Age to escape them? They’ll be stuck together for months trying to work their way back, and Jun wonders if Sakurai will drive him crazy before they find him.
“I was going to sleep,” Sakurai says quietly, flinging his damp towel into the corner of the room and slipping into his futon. It’s raining outside, and the old building creaks any time there’s thunder. “We should rise early. Breakfast and then HQ for prep and departure. Let’s aim for a sunrise start if we can.”
Jun nods agreeably despite himself, shutting the book he’s been reading. Sakurai plans things down to the millisecond. When to leap, how to cover ground most efficiently. When they should eat and when they should sleep. When they should pony up the cash to try and buy information. When they should find time to shit. Jun’s never worked this way before, and if he’s feeling mean about it, he tells himself “oh, this must be why Ninomiya left.”
But then he thinks about how long Sakurai and Ninomiya were partnered, and he feels bad for him again. The thought of losing Aiba this way, of learning that his most trusted tether to his own time had been planning to leave him for ages…it sends a shiver down his spine. At least Ninomiya hadn’t been thoughtless enough to leap somewhere with Sakurai and then ditch him. Leaping alone was possible, but it was dangerous, especially going forward. Having your partner at your back guaranteed you got where you were going. That you got home. Leaping alone could result in injuries, inaccuracies.
When they’ve got the lights out and the storm lets up, Jun can hear that Sakurai’s crying and trying desperately to hide it. The past several nights, Sakurai’s been so exhausted and angry that he’s fallen asleep right away, snoring like a foghorn in minutes. He puts up a tough act during the day, bossy and self-righteous. But it’s not who he is at heart, Jun realizes. The man beside him has been betrayed by someone he trusted with his life, by someone he trusted more than anyone else. He’s lost, Sakurai Sho is, and it’s up to Jun to get him home, with or without Ninomiya.
Inoue Mao-chan is the leader of the Time-Locals in 1954, and she’s actually in the room knitting when he and Sakurai arrive. She doesn’t even flinch when they appear, used to people spontaneously popping into her kitchen. The house she lives in will be bulldozed in 1958, and the current headquarters from their time will be built in its place. He’s known her since she was a teenager, when her house that had survived the American bombs had been selected as a Time-Local site. He’s known her since she was recruited into their strange world.
Jun catches a quick flash of surprise when she sees just whose hand Jun is clasping, although Sakurai is quick as ever to pull away. It had seemed a bit cheesy at first when Jun had been training. You can leap on your own, of course, but when leaping with someone else you hold hands. The physical connection between two people with the talent strengthens the leap, keeps you from getting lost.
“Have you eaten?” Mao asks, setting her work down on the kitchen table. “I could make you something.”
Jun shakes his head, and Sakurai’s already pushing through her kitchen to the secret room concealed behind her stove. It’s a narrow fit, and Sakurai complains as he slips through. Inoue holds him back, her intelligent eyes set on him.
“Why are you two together?”
Sakurai’s already sitting in front of Inoue’s tracking computer, examining the Tokyo metropolitan area grid for signals. People who can leap can be tracked because their body chemistry is different from everyone else’s. Leaping leaves a trace, a signal. “I’m not from around here,” it says.
Nobody knows why, but their leap area is tiny. Even after years of research and the loss of some of their best and brightest, they don’t have a lot of answers. Ten years at a time in either direction and only within a 100 kilometer radius of Shibuya Station. Why Shibuya Station? They don’t know that either. They can travel anywhere in their own natural time, but when they go back, they can’t go outside that radius. The body seizes up, the brain dies. Instead of floating through time like an untethered balloon, going anywhere and doing anything, the balloon pops.
“Makes you kind of envious of the people who can leap in other places,” Aiba says sometimes. He’s always wanted to leap back to meet some of his American sports heroes. He has to instead content himself with old video clips, with memorabilia, just like anyone else.
While Sakurai searches for Ninomiya in 1954 Tokyo, Mao drags Jun out of the computer room and back into her kitchen. She sits him down, forces some coffee into him. She was close to Ninomiya, and she’s furious when Jun explains what’s happened, why he and Sakurai are leaping together.
“I can’t believe he’d do something like this,” she says angrily. “He’s not that selfish.”
Jun holds the warm mug in his hands, shrugging. “People change.”
“He wouldn’t,” she insists, wiping tears from her eyes. “He’s a kind person. A decent person. When my grandpa was sick he brought medicine…”
Jun is very glad Sakurai isn’t around to hear this. The only items that travel with them are agency items. Replacement parts for Time-Local equipment, monetary compensation for their work. Nothing personal. No snacks from the future, and especially not life-saving medicines that haven’t been invented yet. Mao-chan shouldn’t even be telling him this. It could cost her her job.
But Jun’s not cruel, and he keeps what she’s told him to himself. They sit for two hours at the kitchen table talking about Ninomiya, almost as if he’s already dead, and eventually Jun realizes he should be checking on Sakurai. He gets up, the chair scraping across Mao’s floor, and she grumbles about it when he slips back into the secret room.
Sakurai’s found 3 faint signals, and the further back in time they go, the longer it takes to check each one out as transportation becomes less advanced. With clearance for only 48 hours, they have to use their time wisely. Sometimes the leads are false positives. Sometimes it’s someone in that time period awakening to their ability, someone Mao-chan will have to go out and bring in for recruitment at 50’s headquarters near Tokyo Station.
Mao snatches the computer printout from Sakurai without a word, scanning the data. Jun remembers when the machine had first been set up. He, Aiba, and another team had come to train her on it. The further back they went, the more frightened the Time-Locals often were by the future technology and the guts it took to keep it secret. But Mao-chan had stood there with such an unimpressed look on her face that everyone knew she was the right person for the job.
The 50’s are very quiet, and there’s only two or three people at headquarters in this era who have the talent. Sakurai hasn’t even bothered to note it on their list. Instead they’ve got a hit in Ibaraki, not far from the edge of their leap radius. There’s another in Yokohama. And then another in Yokosuka.
“He wouldn’t go to the naval base,” Sakurai says, yanking the printout back from Mao and moving to cross Yokosuka off.
“How do you know?” Mao asks him sharply. “Maybe he’s made friends with some American sailors and can’t bear to leave them. He’s a regular Yankee Doodle now.” Maybe you don’t know anything about him at all, she’s implying.
Sakurai scowls at her, slashing through the Yokosuka coordinates defiantly. Interfering at the naval base would be too risky anyway. “Yokohama today, Ibaraki tomorrow. End of story. We’ll be back after dark, so if you could have something warmed up for us and lunches already packed for tomorrow that would be helpful. Mao-chan, does your car have gas in it? We need to get moving already.”
She stomps out of the room, and Jun pinches the bridge of his nose. “Don’t talk to her like that.”
“Like she’s your god damn servant,” he spits back. “She’s Ninomiya’s friend too. She’s just as worried as you are.”
Sakurai shoves the computer printout at him, his fist thumping against Jun’s chest, and leaves the secret room. Mao’s upstairs fishing through her closet for clothes that will fit them. Plain, high-waisted slacks, ties, and short-sleeved button-down shirts. She sits them each down, even an impatient Sakurai, and trims their hair so they’ll blend in better. Finally, she hands Jun the keys to her Toyopet SA and tells him that if he crashes it, she’ll kill him.
He jingles the keys and tries to smile for her as they head outside, to give her some hope. Instead she says there will be soba for dinner and slams the door.
Yokohama is a bust. Mao even had a photograph in the house that she and Ninomiya had taken together, and nobody they’ve shown it to has seen him. They scouted the entire neighborhood where the trace had been. The portable trackers hidden in their pants pockets led them nowhere.
Sakurai is violently unhappy, and Jun and Mao do their best not to enrage him further. He goes to bed early, thanking Mao for dinner with as much sincerity as he can muster. Mao prepares tea and Jun clears the table.
“When I get married someday, Jun-kun, I’ll miss this.”
“A man pulling his weight with the chores,” she says with a sigh. “Why can’t I marry you again?”
“Because I’m from the future.”
“Oh that’s right,” she replies, chuckling. She sets down the teacups, sitting with her chin in her hands. “If you find him, you won’t hurt him, will you?”
Jun leans back against her kitchen sink. “Our orders are to bring him back.”
“And if he resists?”
He doesn’t answer, and her eyes well up with tears. From the moment they arrived that morning, he’s made her cry, and he feels terrible about it. But that’s Ninomiya’s doing, Ninomiya’s selfishness. Even if he’s a saint in Mao-chan’s eyes, he broke the rule they can’t break.
“Sho-kun would never let them kill Nino,” Mao says, sniffling. “Sho-kun wouldn’t let them lay a finger on him.”
“The same Sho-kun who’s been bitching at me about protocol and the agency’s rules for over a week now? That Sho-kun?”
Mao forces him to go to bed, nearly shoving him up the stairs. Her bedroom is on the left and the guest room is on the right. He finds Sakurai with a ratty atlas open, poring over a map of Ishioka in Ibaraki. Even as Jun changes for bed, going to wash up and returning minutes later, Sakurai hasn’t moved a muscle.
“You memorizing that?”
Sakurai jolts, the pages of the atlas shifting. “Huh?”
Jun sits down, crossing his legs. “Just joking.”
It’s quiet for a while, Sakurai squinting at the pages while Jun watches him do so. When he was in training, he’d been attracted to Sakurai, but he’d never done anything about it. They’d gotten their assignments, and Sakurai and Ninomiya went on to be the “golden combi” and spent more time in the past than in the present, training Time-Local recruits. It’s been over a decade since training, and Jun is a little embarrassed that the memories are flooding back. Sakurai with his friendly smile, his agency popularity, his engaging stories of his first time walking the streets of Tokyo when it was Edo.
He’s grown up, they both have. Jun doesn’t know the first thing about him anymore. Other than that he’s lost half of himself and is desperate to get Ninomiya back. Jun understands it. The more they leap, the more time exists between where Jun is and where Aiba is. He feels this tug, like a heavy river current, urging him to go back. Leaping with Aiba is like diving off a cliff into shallow water. It’s a rush that can’t be replicated, a rush that makes him feel alive. They match you that way, in the agency. The person who fits you best. It’s to cut down on the urge to stay behind, to stay in the past. Where your partner goes, you follow.
Jun wonders what will happen if Ninomiya does resist. The rules, the precious rules that Sakurai likes so much, say that Ninomiya has to be taken out. They’re traveling with a cyanide pill. Jun’s carrying it on agency orders. Clean and quick, the agency way.
Sakurai’s exhausted. Physically, mentally. There are bags under his eyes and a jitteriness to his limbs. How far back will they have to go? How long will they be chasing Ninomiya’s shadow back through the decades?
Jun blinks, seeing that Sakurai’s staring straight at him. “Why?”
“For coming with me. For keeping me grounded. Thank you.”
If “keeping me grounded” now means “putting up with my constant complaining,” then Jun must be doing a fantastic job.
“Can you apologize to Mao-chan for me?” Sakurai asks him, looking ashamed. “Nino is always helping me rein in my temper, so I’m a little rusty at doing it by myself…”
“You could be a man and apologize to her yourself. She’s not that scary.”
Sakurai laughs, maybe for the first time since Ninomiya vanished. It’s the deathblow, Jun’s heart admits. The smile and the laugh that made his stomach twist in knots when he was a teenager. When he hated himself for having this strange ability that he couldn’t tell anyone about. If Sakurai had it too, then it wasn’t really so bad.
They picked Jun because he’s supposed to be an unbiased partner. Someone who’s a colleague, but not a close friend. Someone who will get the job done if Sakurai can’t. Someone who didn’t have a close personal relationship with Ninomiya Kazunari. But when they’d briefed him, they’d never bothered to ask if Jun had at one point longed for a close personal relationship with Sakurai Sho.
Jun gathers his courage. “You never once suspected him? That he’d do this?”
If Jun had asked him days earlier, maybe even yesterday, Sakurai might have thrown a punch at him. Instead he shrugs. “He was always talking about how great it was to be born when he was born. Fancy toilets, video games, access to pornography 24/7…”
Jun laughs at that. “Can’t say I blame him there. We do live in a privileged time.”
Sakurai looks sad. “That’s what hurts the most, you know. If he was hesitating, if he was struggling with wanting to run away, dealing with those kinds of feelings and not saying anything. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”
“Maybe he wanted to protect you,” Jun replies quietly. “If you knew nothing, you couldn’t get in trouble.”
“But I could have talked him out of it. Or asked for an extension in some time period he wanted to fuck around in. We’ve worked our asses off, and I’m sure they’d have tried to accommodate him. I don’t know, if he wanted to play house with some Yoshiwara courtesans or something, maybe we could have worked it out.”
“Maybe, maybe not.”
“What would you do? If it was Aiba-kun?”
Jun meets his desperate, sad eyes straight on.
Mao’s hugging him so tightly it hurts, but he doesn’t mind. If only she had the talent, Jun’s pretty sure that Mao would be able to find Ninomiya first.
“Please don’t hurt him,” she pleads with him one last time. “Just leave him alone.”
What she’s implying, what she’s asking, violates everything. Time-Locals are picked for their loyalty. He’s sure that Sho can’t overhear them since he’s already sneaking a bite of onigiri from the food she’s packed for them. 1944 is a hard time, and there’s not a lot of food their contact there will be able to share with them.
“I promise,” he whispers, rubbing her back before letting go.
They stayed in Ishioka past midnight, turning up in Tokyo around 3:00 in the morning. They barely slept and they’re leaping into a war zone. Jun holds out his hand first, shouldering the satchel of food Mao’s given them. Sho, because it makes more sense for Jun to think of him that way now, seems far less hesitant this time when they touch, when they shut their eyes, imagine their destination, and leap.
Their contact already knows what they’re here to ask, guiding them into a small bunker. The computer is off, and the generator powering it is almost out of fuel. “I saved it so you could double check,” Okada tells them, limping painfully around the room. He was shot somewhere in Manchuria, has just gotten back from the front. “But you’re not going to find him. We registered his arrival and departure. Ninety-six minutes total. Can’t say I blame him for wanting to get out of here.”
It’s hard, being here and not being able to do anything. To know that Allied bombings are going to simply increase as the year goes forward. That thousands will die, here in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan. Okada’s not looking for their sympathy, but he does accept the food Mao’s given them. There’s an orphanage down the road that will be happy for it.
They don’t stay for more than two hours, listening to Okada talk about Ninomiya fondly. He’s made his mark, rippling back through time. It’s weighing heavily on Sho, knowing how many people will be upset if they go through with their orders.
Jun holds his hand out again, and they leap.
Yonekura-san’s husband is their usual contact in 1904, but they’re arriving later in the year than they had before. He’s just been shipped off to fight the Russians, and she’s happy to host them instead. Her husband’s rather modern in his thinking and had no qualms about training his wife to serve as a Time-Local in his absence.
She tells them that Ninomiya’s brought her makeup and perfumes that have made her the envy of her social circle. Jun watches Sho’s face as she blatantly flouts the rules, daring them to do something about it. It’s a large house, and he and Sho have been given separate rooms for the first time since they started leaping.
There’s only one hit on the computer, some small village in Chiba. Seeing Chiba coordinates on the map makes Jun’s stomach twist. Aiba’s from Chiba, proud of it, and he loves any excuse to see his home change and evolve across time. More than a hundred years separate him and Aiba right now, and Jun can feel that pull again, that visceral longing to get back where he belongs. The more he and Sho leap, the more Jun believes that Sho’s connection to Ninomiya has frayed and will soon snap. They could leap and leap and leap and never catch up.
The rail line that gets them most of the way out there is rather recently constructed. It’s slow and sends a dark cloud of smoke into the air as it chugs along. Even though Japan is in a period of rapid expansion, incredible growth, it still feels slow to the 21st century time traveler. The urgency of their situation makes the slow train ride seem almost painfully comical.
From there, they catch a streetcar, a second streetcar, and then hitch a ride in a vegetable wagon with an old man heading home. It’s a small village and they have no photograph this time. They describe Ninomiya down to the mole on his chin, the round tip of his nose, and they complete a full century without finding him. It’s going to be harder the more they go back now. If there are multiple hits, potential places to find him, they may not be able to get to them all in 48 hours. He and Sho may have to split up or contract out with their Meiji-era counterparts. Men and women with no attachment to Ninomiya who might be inclined to kill him on sight if he doesn’t cooperate.
Sho drinks copiously at dinner that night. A friend of Yonekura’s husband makes sake, and they seem to be keeping him in business. He’s upset from false positive after false positive, and before Yonekura-san finishes pouring he’s already bringing the small cup to his lips, letting it rush down his throat.
Yonekura takes her leave first, understanding that her guest is in a rather foul and rotten state. It’s up to Jun to get Sho to his feet, to put an arm around his waist and haul his heavy, brooding form to his room. When he’s finally managed to slide the door closed behind them, he tries to get Sho down on the floor. But Sho, who a few weeks ago was repulsed by Jun’s mere touch, is now clinging to him, sobbing. Yonekura was smart to isolate them elsewhere in the house.
“Sho-kun, come on,” he says. “You need to rest up. It’s only going to get harder from now on…”
Sho’s got a hold of him, grasping at his shoulders. There’s no sign of the handsome agency celebrity now. Just a man at the end of his rope. “He doesn’t need me anymore.”
Jun can’t say “that’s not true,” because otherwise they’d never have been chasing after Ninomiya in the first place. Instead he can only stay steady, a lighthouse on the shore beaming out to a ship in peril. Steady on, steady on.
“He doesn’t need me,” Sho is crying. “Maybe he never did…”
“Nobody needs me,” the sake’s blurting out now, taking the rational Sakurai Sho away. “Nobody’s ever going to need me.”
“I need you,” Jun says because sometimes he has awful timing. “I need you, Sho-kun.”
Sho’s eyes are swimming, and he stinks of alcohol. “What’s that?”
“I said I need you,” Jun repeats, trying to step back a little from what he’s foolishly admitted. He’s had his share of sake too. “To get home, we have to work together. If you’re not at your best, we might stumble. We might never get home. We have to trust each other. We need each other.”
“You’re right,” Sho agrees, swaying on his feet and patting Jun on the back. “You’re right, aren’t you?”
“I’m always right,” he teases, trying to lighten the mood, but then Sho’s grasping the back of his head and trying to kiss him.
He freezes up, hating himself for how much he wants this. All those lonely nights in his youth, wondering if by some miracle he and Sho would be partnered. All these nights now, sleeping inches away and not being able to do a thing about it, feeling himself grow closer to Sho, feeling Sho start to open up to him.
And now Sho’s kissing him, with too much tongue and gasping breaths. His hand’s on Jun’s ass, grabbing at him through the itchy wool of his trousers. Now’s not the right time. Sho probably doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He’s missing his real partner, and Jun’s half convinced that Sho is actually a little in love with Ninomiya. That he’s channeling all of that into the moment they’re sharing right now. That in the morning Sho will wake and be the same distant, quiet asshole he’d been when they’d held hands and leapt for the first time. That this never happened.
“Sho-kun, you need to sleep,” Jun says, gently pushing him away.
“Right,” Sho says, words slurring. He does, however, bring his fingers to Jun’s mouth, tracing his lips once, twice before fumbling for the buttons of his shirt, preparing to change for bed. “Right, sleeping.”
Jun leaves him to it, waiting until he’s in his own room before he rubs angrily at his eyes. Of all the ways to finally get what he wanted.
The decades fall away like waves retreating from shore. Jun wakes in the mornings with conflicting thoughts. One thought is always for Aiba, so far away that even his great-great-grandparents haven’t been born yet. And then another thought is for Ninomiya, who Jun selfishly hopes has leapt back so far that he and Sho will have to keep leaping together indefinitely. And then his last thought is for Sho, who is so out of sorts that Jun has to almost force him to eat and to remember to utilize speech patterns that match the time.
They’ve long since switched out of western clothes in favor of kimono and hakama, opting for fine silk garments that grant them high status and thus the ability to travel the area with more ease. The Americans haven’t arrived yet, the country is closed. The Emperor lives in Kyoto, and he’s almost an afterthought. The Time-Locals they work with are community outcasts who protect the agency’s secrets at the cost of their own livelihoods.
They land in the middle of food shortages, fatal illnesses that antibiotics could clear up in a day or two in their own time. They have to turn a blind eye to suffering. As they move back further and further, they have to waste valuable time practicing their speech, practicing their geography. Places have different names, territory changes hands. They need to know what things cost in the marketplace so they can try to buy information and not come across as insane.
Jun almost misses the cramped little rooms he and Sho shared, weeks back. At least they were safe, had proper bedding. Their options are more limited because of the need for secrecy. Instead they sleep in wooden shacks that could go up in flames with the tip of a lantern. They make do with stables, falling asleep on a pile of sodden hay. Jun would give anything for a decent pair of shoes, for a proper bath.
Sho is disappearing into himself. His speech during the day is so robotic at times that Jun has taken over most of the negotiating. Sho hangs back, staring at the dirt while Jun speaks. They’re searching for a servant who has fled their master, an act of such dishonor that people actually want to help, to prove that they’re loyal. That they’re good, honest taxpayers. “I saw someone matching that description, my lord,” they say, if only for a single coin. It leads to nothing, in the end.
It’s Jun who stays up long hours, poring over computer readouts. The machines are generator-powered and comparatively noisy, and their Time-Locals mostly serve as distractions. They get into brawls down the street, drawing attention to themselves until Jun gets all the information they need. When he gets back to their rooms, their shacks, their barn stalls, he finds Sho curled up in a ball, a shadow of the person he once was.
But when Jun lies down, when they know they’re alone, it’s Sho who moves first, turning so he can put his arms around him. Sho is empty, out of hope, and he clings to Jun at night because Jun is the only thing that’s real, the only thing that makes sense. They don’t kiss, they don’t do anything. Sho simply needs to know he’s still there, that he won’t wake up and find him gone.
When they get to 1714, there’s a hit across Edo Bay that’s so strong, it shocks them both. He sees a glimmer of true hope in Sho’s eyes for the first time in weeks, but when it comes time to try and arrange transport with a farmer heading home that way from one of the Edo marketplaces, he hesitates.
“He won’t come,” Sho says shakily.
“You don’t know that,” Jun replies, massaging his filthy, aching feet. “People who live here are used to it, but if he’s as used to pampering as you say he is…”
Sho examines the printout again, and Jun sees something different in his face. Not hope, not worry. Realization, recognition.
“What?” Jun asks.
Sho’s finger is shaking as he taps the printout. “We’ve been here.”
“In this time?”
“Yes…yes, we were here before. We had to help an 18th century team take care of someone in that village.” Take care of someone is agency code for killing someone, silencing them before they reveal what they could do. Jun doesn’t say anything. He’s rarely been tasked with coming back this far. He and Aiba, after all, aren’t the golden combi.
“So why would he go there?”
Sho doesn’t know, but at least now he has some motivation, even if he’s still hesitant about confronting Ninomiya. They manage to catch the traveling farmer just in time, and they’ve almost used up their entire time allowance getting there.
It’s almost dawn on the day they’re supposed to leap to 1704, and they enter a small fishing village along the shore of the bay. Sho seems to recognize a man standing along the water’s edge in tattered, filthy peasant clothes, a net in his hands. He’s about to go into the water to see what he can bring in for the day.
Sho speaks first, calling out “Ohno-san!”
The fisherman turns and doesn’t seem at all surprised to see them. He’s small, thin from what’s most likely malnourishment. His skin is dark, browned from years of laboring outside. He’s probably younger than he looks, but life takes a toll on commoners the further back they go. There’s a tranquility to him, though, standing calmly at the edge of the bay with his net. Jun knows that Ninomiya is here.
Sho, who’s been quiet and lifeless for weeks, breaks into a run, his straw sandals kicking up sand. Ohno-san doesn’t move, and he even smiles gently as Sho races toward him. Jun hurries as best he can, finding them already midway through a conversation.
“He’s been waiting for you,” Ohno says, and his voice is very gentle, very soothing. “It’s my fault he’s here. I’m sorry.”
“Where is he?” Jun asks.
Ohno gestures across the beach to a small cluster of wooden houses up the hill. “He is not someone who likes to rise early. He keeps odd hours.” Ohno inclines his head. “But you’ve come a long way, so he will most likely forgive you for waking him. It’s the third house on the right side. Please.”
They leave Ohno to his work, watching him ease himself into the water and spread out his net. Already there are other men coming down from the village to join him. Sho and Jun walk past them.
“Why did he come here?” Jun asks Sho. “Do you know?”
Sho seems almost embarrassed. “We were here for almost a month trying to track down the person with the talent. It was a few years ago, and we didn’t have the infrastructure in Edo that we do now. We were flying by the seat of our pants, I guess you could say. We posed as samurai, and we forced Ohno-san to take us in.”
“So you stayed with him for a month, that little fisherman?”
Sho nods, almost laughing as they leave the beach behind and approach the houses. There’s a strange kind of joy in his voice, something Jun hasn’t heard the entire time they’ve been leaping. “I was a fool for not realizing…it’s against the rules, after all.”
Ninomiya has given up everything for the peaceful man in the water. His cushy 21st century life, his friends, his family. Sho. How long had he wanted to come back?
They reach the third house on the right. Jun places a hand on Sho’s shoulder. “Do you want to go in alone?”
Jun takes his hand away, steps back. “Take all the time you need.”
Ninomiya Kazunari has told Ohno Satoshi about the shinkansen. About the World Wars. About computers and instant ramen and air conditioning.
“Who would I tell?” Ohno says, shrugging his shoulders as he spoons out dinner for the four of them. “Nobody would believe me. And I’m not sure I believe everything he says, anyway.”
Ninomiya has been here for months now, taking all the time he could before Sho and the agency could catch up with him. Making the most of his reckless choice. If he’s apologized to Sho, it happened when they were speaking alone. Jun had stood outside dutifully for nearly two hours before Ninomiya had opened the door with an exasperated look on his face and told him to come in for tea already.
There’s a closeness that Jun envies, that Sho seems to know he can’t fracture. Ohno and Ninomiya nearly sit on top of each other, unashamed of what they feel. In these hours, Sho has changed. He appears to understand now. He wasn’t abandoned, Ninomiya doesn’t hate him. He simply made a choice, putting his heart before everything else. Jun envies that courage, that depth of feeling.
Ninomiya loves Sho, it’s obvious in every little tease, every smile. But it’s not a romantic love. And Sho, seeing his partner with Ohno, gets that. By the end of the meal, it’s clear he even accepts it.
The house is nothing more than a one-room shack, barely enough space for the two current residents. Sho falls asleep first, and in the lantern light, Ninomiya meets Jun’s eyes.
“Take care of him. Please.”
The first thing Jun does in the morning is take out the cyanide pill, letting the three of them watch as he steps on it, crushes it into the dirt of the pathway outside. They hashed it out over dinner. The golden combi’s final mission.
Ninomiya complains at first when they ruin his clothes, caking them with dirt and mud, and he complains even more when it comes time to bloody them. It’ll cost a lot to get something new to wear. Ohno-san uses one of his fish hooks, sterilizes it with a flame, and then slashes it as gently as he can against Ninomiya’s palm. The blood on the clothes will be the only proof they bring back to 2014. Ninomiya made it as far as 1714, and all signs point to him having been killed.
As for the trace he leaves behind as someone who can leap, Jun has asked to do the honors. When they return to Edo, he’ll reprogram the computer. The little fishing village will be wiped from the databanks, and the signal Ninomiya gives off will be hacked, erased. Anyone leaping to 1714, anyone following up on what they’ve done here, will not be able to find him. It’s the ultimate betrayal of the agency, and Jun finds a strange satisfaction in it.
He’s obeyed them for years, using his talent only as they’ve instructed. Ninomiya’s not staying here to interfere with history. Instead he’s chosen to live out his remaining years in peace and quiet with someone who simply understands him, even though they’re from completely different eras. After all the leaping, it seems Ninomiya just wants to retire. There’s no reason to punish him.
They say their goodbyes, although Jun senses that they might not be final ones. They’ll assign Sho a new partner or they’ll move him up the agency ladder. But it’s pretty obvious that Sho will find a way to come back, and if Jun can be the one to help him, he will.
It’s Ninomiya who actually cries when he hugs Sho goodbye, clinging to the person who kept him safe, got him home time and time again. The person who leapt and leapt until he was found. Ohno has packed them some dried squid as a parting gift for their journey back to Edo, and knowing how impoverished the village seems, it’s an incredible gift. Jun inclines his head in gratitude.
“I never asked him to come back,” Ohno admits. “But is it wrong to be glad that he did?”
“No,” Jun replies. Sho lets his dear friend go, wiping his eyes as he turns away to head back to the road. There’s a spring in his step, a calm satisfaction that reassures Jun that everything will be alright. He shakes Ohno’s hand. “No, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
There’s no need to drag it out, so they leap back with all the speed they can manage. Sixty minutes, then another sixty, and then another, and when they get past the 1750’s, the 1760’s, they know that Ninomiya and Ohno are dead, but it doesn’t matter because they’ll always be alive when they’re alive. They’ll be there, waiting in that little shack for visitors.
Things are moving forward with them. The shoguns’ power declines, Japan is opened to the west, smokestacks rise into the skies. They stop to rest a few hours here and there to update their clothes, to eat. They tell each Time-Local along the way what they’ve found. A cascade of corroborating stories throughout time saying “we saw the bloody clothes, it’s too bad about Ninomiya-san.”
They stop for an overnight in 1954, but they tell Mao-chan the truth. They tell her everything about Ohno-san, his sunbaked skin and his fishing nets. Her friend Nino, throwing away all the comforts of his time to live in that little shack. Mao gives Jun a punch in the arm, smiling from ear to ear.
“I told you he was a good person.”
“I believed you,” Jun scoffs, rolling his eyes. “Don’t gloat, it’s unattractive.”
She hugs him tight. “If you ever do something like that, have a heart and tell me before you vanish.”
“How do you know I’m not planning to crash here permanently?”
She looks down the hall to where Sho is doing some sort of silly dance to a jazz program on the radio in the next room. “You’ve got your reasons,” Mao says, offering a sly wink.
When she offers a lame excuse, sleeping over at a friend’s, Jun decides that if Ninomiya can be bold, maybe he can too. Mao had beer for them, bought with her own money as a celebratory gift because Nino is alive and happy elsewhere in time. Sho has returned, the Sho from training days. Cocky and charming, but still rather silly at heart. If he’s upset about Nino, it doesn’t show in the way he’s fumbling around the room with one of Mao-chan’s pillows, his socked feet swishing along the tatami. He’s a little tipsy, but he’s not drunk.
“The hell are you doing?”
“Dancing,” Sho informs him. “I missed music.”
“You look like an idiot.”
Sho flings the pillow at him, and Jun catches it obligingly, setting it back down on the floor by Mao’s table where it belongs. As the radio announcer names the program sponsors, he and Sho enter a strange sort of staring contest. They never actually spoke about what happened at Yonekura’s that night, and Sho’s subsequent depression had kept them from discussing pretty much anything else besides finding Ninomiya.
Jun’s almost grown used to falling asleep with Sho beside him, their limbs tangled up, and by this time tomorrow he’ll be in his own bed, in his own apartment in 2014. Their time together like this has come to a close. After all, Jun’s agency partner is Aiba. That won’t change, and he won’t allow it either. But still…
“I’m glad it was you,” Sho admits, finally breaking eye contact. “They could have sent anyone, but they sent you with me. You got me there. You’ll get me back.” His face is red. “Thank you, Jun.”
The radio announcer’s voice is crackling a bit. It’s a few years yet before Tokyo Tower will be around to strengthen the signal.
“I think I know why Mao-chan left,” Sho says when the music starts up again, rocking back and forth on his heels, full of the same nervous energy Jun’s feeling.
“Oh really?” He takes a tentative step forward, then another when Sho doesn’t flinch away.
Jun kisses him first, pulling him by his loosened tie. When Sho kisses back, not full of anguish and self-pity but with need, with desire, Jun knows it’s real this time. They somehow get upstairs because they don’t dare leave a trail of clothes for Mao-chan to find when she returns in the morning. Sho’s soon got him pressed back against the wall of their guest bedroom, moaning softly whenever Jun arches up against him.
It’s been a while, Jun figures, for the both of them. He lifts his hands up, over his head. Sho twines their fingers together. They could leap, just like this, if they both think about it at the same time. Jun smiles into Sho’s kiss, getting the feeling Sho’s unable to concentrate on anything else at the moment.
The one thing they have, of course, is time, and Sho’s not afraid to touch him now. Their exploration is almost painfully slow, interrupted with another searing kiss here and a gasp for breath there. Jun drinks in Sho’s attention, his affection. It’s a warm night in Tokyo, and they’ve only got this sputtering little fan in the corner. Before too long, sweat has plastered their shirts to their backs. Sho helpfully starts to unbutton him, fingers fumbling hastily. Jun returns the favor, sliding Sho’s shirt off and letting it drop to the floor.
Sho can’t bear it much longer, and he unbuckles Jun’s belt, shoves the zipper on his slacks down, pushes them to his ankles. He offers Jun a brief grin before he drops to his knees. “Sho-kun,” he manages to murmur in surprise before he clumsily thumps his head back against the wall. It turns out Sho’s mouth is much better at this than at small talk.
It’s not long before he’s got Sho’s hair in his fist, begging for it until words desert him. Sho leaves him trembling, but smiling in surprise as he tries to come back down. Somehow Sho manages to be patient, a trait he often lacks with his need for strict schedules. Jun hopes it’s worth the wait, getting the rest of his clothes off and pinning him down to the floor.
“Jun,” he’s desperately muttering. “Jun, please.”
Jun curls up at his side, half on the futon with him. The pathetic little fan isn’t doing much more than blowing around a stray lock of Sho’s hair. Jun presses painfully gentle kisses to Sho’s mouth, his neck while he slips his hand between them and likes what he finds. Sho’s half-moaning, half-laughing in a minute or two. Sho’s aching for his touch, getting overwhelmed, squeezing Jun’s bicep hard enough to leave a bruise. And then Sho just lets go, the weeks of stress and desolate feelings falling away, giving in to his baser desires.
They lie there a while, watching each other, letting out the occasional embarrassed chuckle. Had it felt like a leap, plunging together into another time, another world? No, Jun knows, it didn’t feel like that.
But, he realizes now, there are different kinds of leaps worth trying.
Aiba’s annoyed, frowning in frustration at the mission briefing. “You know, I’ve got a date tomorrow and they really want us to go to 1844? They can’t send anyone else?”
Jun yanks the folder away as they turn down the corridor. “You’ll get back in time, what’s the big deal?”
His friend sighs, patting his frizzy hair. “She doesn’t like it when I show up late and get strange haircuts and can’t tell her why I did it.”
“Shallow as ever, Aiba-san,” he says in reply, hiding a smile. “We do this to save the future! It is our civic duty! Blah blah blah.”
While Aiba continues to complain, praying aloud that their Time-Local will let them use the “good” katanas in his arsenal this time around, Sakurai Sho comes down the hall heading the other way. He inclines his head, and Jun nods back.
Aiba’s too busy pretending to slice and dice like a true samurai to notice, so Jun doesn’t bother to tell him that this mission may also postpone his own date tomorrow. But, Jun figures, his date will definitely understand. Time is always tricky that way.
They make it to the main leap room, and when they pass their final health checks, Jun holds out his hand for Aiba to take.
“Well, shall we?”