She can still hear the metal grinding of the chains being pulled back up from the murky lake, winding around and feeding through the machine bolted to the stern of the search and rescue boat.
Fifteen hours. It took fifteen hours for the divers to find him. “The rovers kicked up a lot of dirt, we had to stir the lake bed to...” The woman had paused and pursed her colorless lips while Mai stared at the back of Naru’s head instead of at her eyes’ weary blues. “To float him up.”
“Right,” Naru had said, and his spine sloped elegantly beneath the fine, rumpled fabric of his shirt, as if they weren’t talking about his brother. As if it didn’t even hurt anymore. As if he could feel nothing at all, not even the scrapes throbbing on both palms.
Standing at the shallow edge of the forest, Mai listens to the remaining sounds of the recovery team, their laden gears and far-off voices bouncing off the rocky shoreline and filtering up through the trees as they prepare to pack it in. Pale beams of light heat the backs of her legs, inflaming the purpling bruises and bleeding scrapes she collected when they stumbled and slid their way to the lake’s volcanic edge, swept away by the adrenaline of knowing.
The adrenaline is long gone. She shivers in her dirt-stained, yellow tank and fraying shorts. Naru has his back to her and his face turned up toward the tree line, a slowly darkening canopy of green rustling above them, blackening the sunset. She can’t remember at what point he lost his blazer; the wrinkled back of his black dress shirt is just as tired and muddy as Mai’s. A few yards to their left, a flock of birds takes flight from the branches of an ancient maple, dispersing in a flurry of staccato cries and beating wings, and for once Mai doesn’t even startle, is too transfixed by the rigid line of Naru’s shoulders, the stillness of his body. Gene’s presence niggles at the back of her consciousness, and for not the first time that day she wonders why she is the one he seems to be set on comforting . Go to him , she wants to say, follow your brother home , but she can’t bring herself to reach out and touch his consciousness like he’s urging her to do.
And home is, inevitably, where Naru—where Oliver —will be going.
Mai squeezes the small metal object in her fist and feels it firm her resolve. Her instincts plead with her to speak, to step forward, to do anything that could possibly close the rapidly expanding distance between them, but her voice is faltering, her feet are fixed to the earth, and the space continues to expand in almost-silence.
Fifteen hours. Mai knows it would have been faster, far less painful, if Naru had let her wander off into the trees and sleep like she’d wanted to, let her astral body glide over the water so she could see Gene beckon, but she has been dutifully silent today, and he has been duly firm on not taking risks.
He’d also pointed out that there would be no real way to inform the searchers without arousing suspicion, anyway, but it felt more like he was telling her that she wasn’t needed, that she was as useless as she’d always known and feared, like he’d found what he was looking for—and who was she to stand by his side during a moment so concomitantly significant and repelling, such as this?
Here and now, wrapped in the goffered shadow of the trees, wearing her feelings in the pinch between her shoulders and her neck, “Naru,” is all she manages to utter—quiet and uncertain, too far from her persona and too close to the truth. Pitiful.
Slowly, like someone emerging from some deep meditation, he lowers his face and turns a quarter of the way to meet her eyes. His indigo eyes have gone flat and, if Mai weren’t able to feel his suffocating aura pulsing between them, she might think he’s possessed. Absently, she rubs the metal object between her index finger and thumb, letting it absorb her humanity and become warm. He doesn’t speak, and Mai is too tired to wince from the sting of Naru’s indifference.
The sun is quickly setting, deep purple light beginning to peak out from between the tree trunks, and Mai can feel her heart in her throat as her thoughts insist that she is almost out of time, that now is her last chance to tell him—that she has to tell him how she feels, just once, before he leaves. But something else, something that lives and grows inside her and is stronger than her needy-whimpering-soul, holds her back even as it pushes her body forward, and she takes one, two, three steps, stopping in the orange-dusted leaves less than a foot from his back.
She watches his once impeccably shined shoes displace earth and shorn pieces of tree bark as he turns to face her. At some point during her observation, she must have begun holding her breath, and she is reluctant to let her lungs go. Forcing the air from her lungs, she extends her hand out, the weight of her former house key centered in her upturned palm, and flinches when her fingertips brush the fabric of his shirt. She doesn’t wait for his response, throws the rest of her strength into her words.
“Take it,” she says, and doesn’t dare look up.
It is important to her that he knows she didn’t come here to argue; Naru’s purpose in Japan has expired, and there’s nothing she can do to change that. Her chest aches, but Mai has become accustomed to untimely departures and the pain that comes with them. She didn’t follow him here for anything but goodbye.
As the silence broadens, she almost wishes she could see his face, but she can easily imagine his calculating frown. The image brings a soft smile to her lips.
“Stop being an idiot and take the key,” she says, unable to keep her smile or the moisture gathering in her eyes out of her voice.
She is unsure if she imagines the gentle caress of fingers against the back of her hand as he carefully takes the key from her palm, but it’s over before she can do more than question her senses. Hesitantly, she lifts her eyes and is met with the full intensity of Naru’s gaze.
“You’ll need another job,” he says, not unkindly.
Her irritation is weak; she wasn’t expecting a ‘thank you’ anyway. Her stomach feels hollow, and sweat is gathering at the nape of her neck.
“I’ll be alright,” Mai says, and puts on a show of shrugging with a cheeky grin, tries to be more like the version of herself that has made a home at SPR—a home she will soon be losing.
“I didn’t ask,” comes his toneless reply.
This is the part when Mai is supposed to huff and rage, but she feels the fight leave her at the same moment that the fatigue of the day finally knocks her in the knees, causing her to stumble one step to the side. She misses the way Naru’s open hand twitches toward her before she rights herself, but she catches the movement of him sliding her cherished old house key into the front pocket of his slacks.
Relief she can’t describe or justify rolls through her with his acceptance of the token, nearly weakening her to the point of collapse. She can feel Gene fluttering about the edges of her consciousness in a mild panic, and she can’t help the disjointed laugh that briefly bubbles out past her lips. Tears spill from her eyes and run into her mouth and off her chin. She is going to miss them; she is going to miss everyone so much.
The hand on her shoulder doesn’t surprise her as much as it should. Naru’s eyes are more detached and inspecting than sympathetic, but his discomfort is apparent in the tension of his shoulders and neck. His hand is so warm. She is close enough to smell his shower gel, subtly spiced. It makes Mai want to laugh even more. Why does my chest hurt so much?
Sudden movement in front of her startles her, and her eyes focus on the small rectangle of paper that Naru is holding too close to her face to be anything but socially inappropriate or impatient. Swallowing, Mai slowly takes the card from him with both hands and examines it with obligatory graciousness before raising her eyes to his in question.
“Your business card?”
Naru seems to find his calm in the face of her confusion, relaxing his shoulders as all traces of discomfort leave him. “Though you will no longer be employed by SPR, I expect you to inform me of any changes or developments in your psychic abilities. Lin or myself will arrange a schedule of monthly over-the-phone check-ups in order to monitor your progress.”
Sound refuses to come out as Mai works her lips in irritation, and she finds no words with which to articulate her building indignation that are as biting or intelligent as she wants them to be.
His smirk is every bit of condescension he can fit into one look. “I’m a researcher, Mai.”
With a sigh, she falls back on routine. “Narcissist.”
In the distance, Lin’s voice can be heard, likely calling out for Naru’s location; they’d wandered off without telling anyone their destination. Mai sets her jaw and moves to turn toward the sound, but is stopped by Naru’s grip slipping down to her upper arm, keeping her at bay—unable to move closer, unable to fall further away, and isn’t that how it has always been? Hasn’t it always been Mai dangling over some dark edge of bleakness, with only a firm grip on her forearm keeping her from falling out of sight? She can hardly remember when things were any different.
She opens her mouth to comment, but catches the upturned corner of Naru’s lips and bites her tongue, vexation coming back full force. “What?”
Naru continues to smirk, his hand a distracting weight. “Try to stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”
For a moment, Mai is struck dumb. Maybe it’s the context, being in the forest so near his brother’s painstakingly recovered body, but she can’t help but take the request-disguised-as-an-insult seriously. But for dignity’s sake, she rolls her eyes and tugs her arm free before pivoting away, making her way back to the lake. Listening to Naru’s soft tread behind her, Mai clutches his business card tightly in her hand, ignores the strange tightness in her chest and tries not to imagine herself slipping farther away, or the icy grip of the abyss that always feels too close, ready to pull her in, held back by only the thinnest of milky films. She thinks of none of these things, and keeps her eyes on the ash-brown haze of dirt and rock before her.
These feelings are only temporary, anyway.