Rain fell in drops from the grey sky. When Tamamori suddenly woke up, he was lying in front of Umebachidou. He brushed off the dirt, stood up, and headed toward Umebachidou on shake legs.
This was all wrong. How many more times would he have to make the same mistake? To see his friends die? He had lost count of how many times he had jumped through a puddle from a broken future.
It was then that a string of beads crunched under his shoe. Tamamori lifted his foot and stared at the bead necklace at his feet. It looked out of place, so he picked it up from the muddy ground. He fiddled with the beads, which calmed him down slightly. The fog in his mind slowly began to clear up, allowing him to consider his next move.
“Ow!” Tamamori suddenly cried out. He looked at his hand and found a splinter sticking out of his thumb. It must have come from one of the beads he had been fiddling with.
Grimacing, he pulled the splinter out. He watched a tiny droplet of blood form on his thumb. His clothes weren’t exactly clean at the moment, so he opted for licking the blood off instead.
The taste of iron spread through his mouth as he sucked on his thumb. It reminded him of something, but what he couldn’t tell. There was a memory pushed in the back of his mind, giving him a feeling of déjà vu. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on that memory, but found it painful to do so. The closer he came to remembering, the more his stomach began to hurt.
He wanted to pull back, to be returned to reality, then he noticed another memory somewhere in the back of his mind, and another one, and another one. Long since had he lost track of how many times he had repeated the same three days, but these memories… they were not his. Or, at the very least, it hadn’t been him who had experienced them. This troubled him.
Then, he remembered. Professor had explained to him that he was just hopping from one world to another. He was stuck in world B, repeating it over and over. But what if… he wasn’t the only Tamamori repeating the same world? One could have started in world C, but now found himself repeating world D. Another from E, repeating world F, and so forth. Somehow that made sense to him, even if the thought did make his head hurt.
Parallel universes. There could be so many Tamamoris out there, all making their own mistakes and watching their friends die as they tried to find… a better ending. It didn’t seem impossible to him now, but that wouldn’t explain why the memories of other Tamamori seemed to be in his reach.
“I don’t get it,” he said after taking his thumb out of his mouth.
Defeated he stared at the bead necklace once more, almost hoping as if Buddha or any God out there would hear his plea for answers. He furrowed his brows when the beads revealed something unexpected. There was a layer of black paint on the beads which made it hard to see, but four of the beads had the characters for the phrase ‘shinjitsu no koi’ or ‘true love’ engraved in them. After taking in the sight for a moment, Tamamori suddenly felt that he knew what he had to do.
He wasted no time in returning to Umebachidou. Using all his strength, he pushed the doors open and made a dramatic entrance. There, the storekeeper stood in front of the register. The look in his piercing blue eyes told Tamamori that he had been expecting him. Tamamori glanced down at the wet clothes on the floor just for a moment. The manuscript next to them was gradually soaking up what had remained of his other self. It seemed the storekeeper had beaten him to taking the hashihime’s power.
“Perfect timing,” Tamamori said as he closed the doors of Umebachidou behind him. “You’re just who I wanted to see.”
Tamamori smiled at him as he revealed the bead necklace. He couldn’t explain why, but he knew what he had to do next. He pulled on the necklace until it snapped. The moment it did, the world changed. Bright, bold colours appeared everywhere, turning the musty bookstore into a world of wonder. The beads fell on the now festive looking floor and rolled away.
He hadn’t counted the number of beads the necklace had before, but the number of beads rolling over the floor exceeded the number it could have been by many. The hundreds of beads started glowing light blue as they scattered. In each of them was a fragment of a memory. They were all his, even if he hadn’t been the one who had experienced them himself. The countless memories he had made with Kawase, Hanazawa, Professor... Minakami. He didn’t need to look at them to remember, they were all so clear to him. As clear as if they had taken place only yesterday.
Laughing his signature laugh, Tamamori spread his arms wide.
“It’s not useless! I’ve beaten you before! You can’t touch me. You can’t stop me. Even if you stop me, another me will follow in my place. We won’t give up. You… You are the only one of us who has given up.”
No reaction. The storekeeper didn’t speak, not did his face betray any of his feelings. Tamamori lowered his arms, but he didn’t stop laughing.
“You must feel pretty silly right now. You went back in time, and for what? To save the world or whatever? I’m perfectly capable of doing that on my own. I can stop them without the need to take their lives. Don’t you see? With this, I can make them understand. I… We can change the future.”
The storekeeper hadn’t been looking at him during his spiel. Instead, he had been studying one bead in particular. He held it between his thumb and forefinger. The blue light reflected in his glasses. It was the storekeeper who finally broke the silence between them.
“This bright future with Minakami… Can you make such a bright future with him and everyone else?”
“Of course I can!” Tamamori replied, approaching his future self with confident steps. The beads under his feet rolled away by themselves before he could step on them. “Wasn’t it you who pushed me to my limit? That limit has long since broken, I’ve gone beyond what just one person can achieve in the same three days. You can’t stop me.”
The storekeeper looked up at him and smiled. The rain outside drowned out the noise of tears falling to the floor. “I won’t try to stop you, not anymore, but I can’t believe in such a future. She won’t allow it. Those with her power can never save someone without paying the price.”
“And I will pay that price! I will pay it a thousand times over.”
The storekeeper was confused. He opened his mouth as if wanting to speak, but then closed it. Shaking his head, he held out his hand with a bead inside of it. Knowing what to do, Tamamori reached out his hand as well. The storekeeper placed the bead inside his hand before becoming nothing more than a pile of wet clothes on the floor.
Tamamori sharply inhaled through his nose, barely stopping tears from rolling down his face. Despite everything the storekeeper had made him go through, Tamamori still felt a sense of gratefulness somewhere in his heavy heart.
Clenching the bead with his happy future with Minakami, Tamamori moved forward. Colours and shapes were dancing on the shoji that led to the storekeeper’s room. He slid the door open without hesitation and was greeted by an unexpected scene.
Water rushed from the opened room to the front of the bookstore. The beads were lighter than the water and were swept up into the new space. The water was reaching his hips when Tamamori stepped through the shoji. On the other side was Suidou Bridge, albeit be it in more saturated colours. Looking up at it he saw her.
The hashihime squinted her eyes at him as he entered her domain. Her loose white robes revealed that her skin was sickeningly pale, almost as white as the robes in question. Despite being out of the water, her black hair seemed to move on its own as if moving weightless underwater. She was also carrying five lit candles, three were placed on her hand and two were in her mouth.
“I’ve come to make a deal,” Tamamori began, trying his hardest not to make his voice waver now that he was in her presence. The hashihime smiled, causing the two candles in her mouth to point upwards.
“You cannot safe them without paying the price,” she spoke without moving her mouth. “For each life you safe, I take a life. I want to safe them all, but you cannot pay the price. You have but one life to give.”
“N-No…” So far for not making his voice waver. Tamamori inhaled a shaky breath before he continued. “I can, I can pay the price! I can pay it a thousand times over. You just haven’t realized it yet.”
The candles in the hashihime’s mouth moved downward and Tamamori felt her rage in the waters around him.
“Please, allow me to explain! It’s true, I can pay the price. In exchange for one bright future with my friends by my side and no blood on our hands, I want to offer you these!”
Tamamori gestured around him to all the floating glowing beads. Her eyes pierced through his soul as she considered his offer. The laugh that passed her lips was chilling.
“You would forsake yourself and the futures you fought so hard for? You do realize the gravity of what you are offering? If I were to take these experiences, these worlds would disappear.”
“That’s fine! That counts right? I would be sacrificing everyone’s lives over multiple worlds. You don’t even need that many, but here I am, offering them to you anyway.”
Tamamori clenched the bead with his future with Minakami in his hand. He was offering all the others, but not this one. As long as she didn’t know…
As if sensing his fear, the hashihime lowered her eyes to his hand. Her worn robes moved as she pointed her bony finger at the bead he was hiding. “I will take just that one as payment.”
Tamamori blinked to stop tears from escaping his eyes. The water was rising, but he paid it no mind. Frantically he gestured around him again.
“I’m offering you these hundred others. Surely they must be worth more.”
She laughed again. The sound left Tamamori shaken.
“Not to you.”
Tamamori clenched hand trembled. He was able to give everything up, everything he and his other selves had worked for, but… not this future. This Minakami and Tamamori should be left alone. Hadn’t they suffered enough? Hadn’t they lost enough?
In desperation, or maybe it was actually a sly move, Tamamori covered his mouth with his hand and took the bead into his mouth. He swallowed it, then showed his empty hand to the hashihime.
“……..Just kidding. There is nothing in my hand.”
Some yokai were easier to deal with if you knew the right answer to give them. As far as Tamamori knew there was no way to bargain with a hashihime or any trick to escaping her wrath. He had just acted on impulse.
The hashihime smiled before jumping off the bridge. When her body made contact with the water it seemed to have no impact. It didn’t splatter or make any ripples, she was just gone.
Suddenly, Tamamori got yanked down roughly. He gasped and was able to get his lungs full of air before disappearing under the water’s surface. The floor he had been standing on just a moment ago had disappeared, and now a seemingly endless abyss of water was under him.
The bony hands around his ankle, pulling him down, possessed a strength he couldn’t match. Air bubbles escaped his mouth as he tried to kick the hands off, but it was of no use. The sharp nails of the hashihime pierced his skin like a predator’s teeth.
Tamamori couldn’t swim, so he desperately tried to claw upwards. As the surface moved further and further away, the shining beads began to sink as well. Their decent was peaceful, beautiful even. They spiralled downwards, forming some kind of flower pattern as they too were taken by the abyss.
“Smart boy. Clever, clever boy.” The hashihime’s voice was distorted underwater, giving it a killing edge. “I’m jealous, so jealous. You find no value in yourself, and yet you are surrounded by people with a deep love for you.”
It was no use. Tamamori no longer had the strength in him to kick at the hands around his ankle. He grimaced as he tried to hold his breath just a little longer, clinging to life as his tears got lost in the water.
“And yet you are truly selfish. You aren’t doing this for anyone but yourself. Not even for your other selves, just for you. How cruel. You put me to shame. I am but a fair maiden next to your monstrous form. Kekekeke.”
The hashihime’s words barely registered with Tamamori. He gasped and the last air in his lungs escaped him. Darkness was creeping around the edges of his vision.
“It’s a deal.”
Tamamori’s back arched when he hit the ground hard. Clutching his chest, he rolled over to one side before coughing up the water in his longs. Tears clung to the corners of his eyes as the water came out of him in waves. His stomach was empty so he didn’t throw up any food, but after heaving for a while he did manage to spit the bead out he had swallowed before.
His breathing was hard and rigid, and because of the ringing in his ears he hadn’t heard the sound of a door sliding open nor the hurried footsteps approaching him in the rain.
“Tamamori?” Minakami spoke beside him, worry in his voice. “What is going on? Why are you…”
Minakami pushed Tamamori’s shoulder, turning him over so that he was laying on his back again. Little specks of blue lights were dancing around in Tamamori’s vision as he looked up at Minakami.
“Stop making a ruckus and come inside,” Madam’s voice came from somewhere. Tamamori couldn’t place where.
“Ah, y-yes!” Minakami replied before sliding an arm under Tamamori. While supporting his back, he made him sit up straight. “Can you stand?”
Tamamori couldn’t tell if the water streaming down his face was the rain or his tears, but he supposed it didn’t matter either way. The warmth of Minakami’s arm around him and the hand supporting his back gradually seeped through his soaked clothes.
“Mm…” Tamamori hummed, unable to give a better reply.
Minakami supported him as they rose from the ground. If it hadn’t been for Minakami’s support, Tamamori’s legs would have given out immediately. Tamamori didn’t even have the strength to cling to Minakami as they made their way inside.
After stepping through the shoji, Tamamori was surprised to see his room. Not his room in Umebachidou, but rather the room Madam had given him when he had still been living in her house. This is where Minakami’s study room should have been, but instead, there were manuscripts everywhere and Tamamori’s goldfish swum happily in his bowl on the edge of the desk.
No sooner had Minakami gently placed him down on the tatami mats or Madam stormed into the room. Her eyes showed concern for just a moment, before her face twisted in a look of disgust.
“Why are you wearing these rags? Are you making fun of me?”
“Huh? Ah, well… I….”
Tamamori didn’t know how to reply to that. These were the clothes he always wore. Madam shook her head and angrily walked up the closet. She pushed the sliding door open with more force than necessary before retrieving a clean and dry set of clothes in his size. She handed them to Minakami while keeping eye contact with Tamamori.
“At least wear the clothes I made you, you ungrateful brat. Quick, get into them before a fool like you manages to catch a cold.”
Having said her piece, Madam stormed out of the room leaving Minakami and Tamamori in awkward silence.
“…What was that about?” Tamamori finally asked.
Minakami shook his head and frowned slightly as he began to strip Tamamori down.
“You should consider Madam’s feelings once in a while. You’re always so engrossed in your manuscripts that you haven’t noticed how many nights she left her lights on to work on your clothes.”
“What?! That makes no sense. Why… why would she…” Tamamori’s train of thought was interrupted when Minakami started to unbutton his shirt. “W-Wait! I can do it myself.”
Tamamori pushed himself back on the tatami mats, creating some distance between himself and Minakami. Tamamori waited for Minakami to leave, but when neither of them moved he sighed and began undressing in front of him. He bit his bottom lip in an attempt to not get too embarrassed about it.
While undressing, he noticed something was off about the Minakami sitting in front of him on his knees. Instead of his uniform, Minakami was wearing a simple white shirt.
“Why aren’t you in your uniform?”
“My uniform?” Minakami repeated, clearly confused. “What use would a roninsei have for a school uniform?”
How could Minkami admit that truth so easily? Minakami hadn’t admitted to being a roninsei a single time in the three days Tamamori had repeated without end, not unprompted anyway.
Tamamori’s breath caught in his throat when suddenly Minakami placed a warm hand on his forehead.
“You’re acting weird. What happened to you?”
“Nyahaha,” Tamamori laughed. He gently moved Minakami’s hand away. “I made a deal with a hashihime is all.”
Minakami’s bright blue eyes opened wide, it was then that Tamamori noticed they had that colour for the first time. Oh…
“Kidding! Just kidding. I must have been getting lost in one of my fantasies again after reading about the hashihime. Nyahahaha!”
Wasting no more time, Tamamori rose from the floor and quickly got out of his soaked clothes. They did look like rags next to the handmade clothes Madam had worked on tirelessly. The new clothes were dry and warmed his body and heart. He also made sure to take off his shoes now that he was inside.
“You should change to, Minakami. Your clothes are also wet.”
Minakami looked down at his damp clothes. He had rushed outside without putting on any shoes, so his socks were muddy and wet. He took them off immediately before standing up and heading to his room with Tamamori’s wet clothes in his arms.
“I will be right back.”
Tamamori nodded as he watched Minakami leave. That left him with some time to think, alone. He closed his eyes and searched his mind for answers about this world he had suddenly found himself in. He… remembered.
After failing his entrance exam he had swallowed his pride and gotten on his knees to beg Madam to let him stay. Strangely enough, he clearly remembered Minakami by his side, begging for the same right to stay. She had shaken her head and said something along the lines of ‘Boys will be boys’ before allowing them to stay in her home again. Naoshi-kun had giggled behind her back.
Umebachidou didn’t exist in this world, or at least not as it had in the worlds passed. The storekeeper hadn’t travelled back in time to buy the place. Instead, Hanazawa and Professor had bought it and started a business together. The store was called Tinkering Toys and they sold Professor’s inventions. After Tamamori had written an article about it in a local newspaper the store’s popularity had exploded with kids and adults alike, but ah… he was getting ahead of himself.
Hanazawa and Professor hadn’t gotten far in their military ranks. After their meeting, Hanazawa no longer sought after adventure in the form of machines of destruction. Instead, he found he was perfectly happy imagining fantasy adventures with the toys Professor made. Hanazawa didn’t have the skill to make these toys himself, but if Tamamori were to believe Professor then their brainstorming sessions always reached new heights because of Hanazawa’s enthusiasm and imagination. They both had quit working for the military in search of their dream of sharing these toys with the world.
Kawase was doing well and also working towards his dream. He was at the top of his class, but his academic success didn’t come to him naturally. Not to say he wasn’t a genius, because he was! But he was aiming for something so much higher. He wouldn’t rest until he was the best doctor in all of Japan.
There was no doubt in Tamamori’s mind that he would succeed and grab that honourable title. At the very least Kawase had the work attic needed to reach that dream. Tamamori clearly remembered coming over to Kawase’s mansion and gently placing a warm blanket over his sleeping form after he had fallen asleep behind his desk. That memory was especially clear, so it must have happened multiple times.
Their relationship was nowhere as sadist as it had been in the previous worlds. In this world, the adults of their home village had involved the police and Kawase’s dad had been arrested for domestic violence. As a result, Kawase hadn’t killed his dad, and Hanazawa’s dad had been spared too. Not to mention… Kawase hadn’t tried to kill Tamamori either, which meant Minakami hadn’t needed to travel back in time and time again to try and save him.
The Kawase in this world had also been adopted by Ikeda, but as far as Tamamori knew the old man had never laid a finger on his friend. Ikeda had died of a heart attack one day and although he and Kawase hadn’t grown particularly close in the short time they had lived together, it had been clear to Tamamori that the funeral had been hard on Kawase. Tamamori had started visiting the Ikeda Mansion more often after that, which Kawase pretended to despise. They would bicker with the front gate between them for some time before Kawase would let out a sigh and say he wasn’t happy about this. That was a lie because he hadn’t sent Tamamori away even once.
As for Tamamori’s relationship with Minakami, well… Tamamori wasn’t quite sure what it was they had at the moment. They were both roninsei and had been studying hard to be able to pass the entrance exam of the Imperial University for two years now. Tamamori was taking his studies seriously this time around, but of course, that meant he would stay up late to make time for writing his manuscripts.
He hadn’t published anything as of yet. That being said, he was writing for their local newspaper to make some money on the side. It wasn’t as exciting as immerging himself in his fantasies, but the pay was good and his peers appreciated the effort he put into writing about the happenings in and around their district.
Tamamori seemed to meet eccentric people no matter where he went, so he found always something exciting to write about. Sometimes he did some investigating in local rumours. Other times he would write about a new store which had opened. He only wrote about small everyday things, but the way he wrote about them gave the stories the extra flair they needed to gain interest.
He didn’t think much of these stories, but there was one story in particular he was proud of. Jinbouchou's Irregulars Regiment had uncovered a scandal, one that didn’t involve Kawase. Because Naoshi knew he was working with a local newspaper he had come with the story to him first. Tamamori clearly remembered frantically taking notes when Naoshi told him about the scandal for the first time. He had worked hard to write the story with the gravity and justice it deserved.
Of course, Naoshi had brought the story to other newspapers as well, he had wanted to make a splash, but the sales of Tamamori’s newspaper still had been the highest in that week. Word on the street had been that all the juicy details could be found in the local newspaper and they had been right about that. The only other time Tamamori had gone through so many all-nighters was when he had been repeating the same three days over and over again.
The orphans of the Jinbouchou's Irregulars Regiment had been adopted and lived happy lives in their new homes, but they would still meet up often and play detectives, always looking for the next big scandal to uncover. Naoshi joined them during his off hours.
This world’s Tamamori hadn’t figured out that the waitress surviving him every day in his favourite café was none other than Naoshi himself, so Tamamori decided to keep that knowledge to himself there and then. When Naoshi would feel comfortable coming out as a woman he would be ready for it… and ask Professor for his help while he was at it.
Minakami was shaking him by his shoulders when Tamamori opened his eyes. He had been so occupied exploring his memories that he hadn’t noticed Minakami had returned. Tamamori smiled at him and Minakami returned that smile reluctantly.
“You really are an idiot,” Minakami sighed as he gently brushed some hair out of Tamamori’s face. He leaned in closer and pressed his lips against Tamamori’s forehead. They were warm and soft, causing Tamamori’s heart to skip a beat.
R-Right… His relationship with Minakami was complicated. He showed him the same amount of affection Naoshi showed around his friends, kissing his forehead and pulling him in an embrace unprompted. It was exactly because Tamamori had seen Naoshi display the same level of affection to his friends that it left him confused as to where his relationship with Minakami stood currently.
Even in this seemingly perfect world, Tamamori was struggling with loneliness and the concept of friendship and love. That was why his fantasies still kept him company when there was no one else around.
“Eeeeehhhh? Tamamori-san! What is going on?!”
Speaking of the devil. The frog man was currently making a fuss around his feet, running circles around him at high speed.
“Minakami-kun k-ki-kissed you! Kissed you right on the forehead! Aaaahhh, I’m so happy for you. So very happy.”
“Be quiet!” Tamamori said to the frog man, not lowering his voice in the slightest because he knew Minakami couldn’t hear him talk when he was conversing with his hallucinations. “You’ve seen him kiss me many times before, right? Stop making such a fuss!”
“Aaaaahhh but Tamamori-saaaannnnn. Every! Single! Time! He kisses you, I just get so overwhelmed!”
The frog man was now rolling on the tatami mats back and forth and showing no sign of slowing down. He presented Tamamori’s childlike innocence and dreams… sort of, so it was no surprise that he would get this excited every time Minakami showed affection to him.
“W-Well! Get used to it! Before you know it we’ll be doing much more!”
The frog man stopped moving and slowly came to sit up straight. His big round eyes were sparkling as he looked up at Tamamori.
“More? Oh! Is it finally that time?! I’m so happy, Tamamori-san. You’re finally going to confess to him.”
“Nobody said anything about confessing! Idiot!”
Minakami giggled, almost as if he had somehow been able to follow that whole conversation. He pressed the back of his hand to one of Tamamori’s cheeks. His hand was cool to the touch, or maybe that just meant Tamamori’s face was burning up.
“Maybe you are coming down with a fever after all. What am I going to do with you?” Minakami spoke softly. Suddenly, he took Tamaori’s hand and placed something inside of it. “I found this outside. Is it yours?”
Tamamori looked at the item in his hand and saw it was the bead he had spit out before. He brought it closer to his face and studied it for a moment. It was one of the four beads which had something engraved in it. If you looked at it closely, you could read the symbol for ‘love’.
Silence hung between them, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Minakami rubbed his left arm with his right hand as his gaze wandered elsewhere. A rosy colour dusted his cheeks as he smiled to himself. Tamamori’s fist clenched around the bead in his hand for a few moments as he tried to take deep breaths. All he could think as he looked at Minakami was that this had to be love.
His free hand gently grabbed Minakami by his chin and turned his face so he could look deep into his bright blue eyes. It pained him to see those eyes, but at the same time, they were a testament to the long journey he had taken to get here.
The hashihime had taken the futures of so many Tamamori’s, of that he was certain, and yet… he still remembered everything. The good and the bad. Mostly the bad, honestly, but the reason he had faced all of these hardships, again and again, was standing right in front of him.
Tamamori closed his eyes when he leaned in and closed the distance between their lips. His breath caught in his throat when Minakami returned the kiss with full force without hesitation.
To think Tamamori would be the one to be taken by surprise here. Still, he didn’t allow his momentary confusion to distract him. He gasped as he parted his lips, allowing Minakami to deepen their kiss if he so desired. Minakami’s fingers curled into Tamamori’s hair as he eagerly took in more of Tamamori. They both groaned softly into the kiss in between shaky breaths and sloppy noises.
Tamamori’s heart was racing in his chest when Minakami finally broke the kiss. Being so caught up in the moment, Tamamori stood there with his eyes closed longer than was necessary. When he did open his eyes, he was greeted by a sight he could never forget. Minakami had taken the hand which had been holding his chin and was gently pressing it against his face.
“Minakami, I…” Tamamori swallowed hard, his eyes out of focus as he came up with the right words to say. “……I’m home.”
Minakami giggled and suddenly his bright blue eyes had a warmth to them Tamamori had never seen before.