The diagrams Nanami drew in the sand were washed away months ago, but when she looks at the ground beneath her, Manabu can still see them. Waveforms and quantum entities. A world being observed.
One of them will probably try to reach her tonight. No one comes to the playground this late at night, so the call will come through loud and clear.
Manabu sits on the swing while she waits, letting her feet drag through the sand as she rocks back and forth. Even after talking to so many versions of herself, it’s surprisingly easy to keep them straight. The only strange thing is when one of her becomes two, or three, four, endless repetitions of herself taking different paths when faced with a fork in the road.
If Tenjou was right about parallel worlds, then the timeline she’s looking for must be out there. And if not, Manabu will create it herself, passing knowledge from one version of herself to the next until the universe is forced to submit to her will. Marii Yukari will live.
Manabu rocks back on the swing, using her weight to create momentum. Wind rushes by her ears, cold and sharp. It should be coming any time now.
She closes her eyes and listens for the heavy crack of a branch being split in two.
One Hatou Manabu watches Nanami leave her apartment and lifts her left hand to her ear, ready to abandon the world around her, the world without Yukari.
Another version of her doesn’t.
She showers, and dries her hair. She picks up breakfast at the conbini around the corner and sits at her desk, laptop open to her latest writing assignment. She meets her deadlines and collects her paychecks, and talks to her parents once a week like a good daughter should.
And when Nanami calls, she ignores the guilt welling in her chest and picks up the phone.
It only takes three weeks of phone calls and coffee dates for Manabu to end up in Nanami’s bed. Nanami isn’t shy about it, the way some women are. She kisses Manabu with her mouth open, and her hands don’t shake when she pulls her dress over her head and asks Manabu to touch her.
Manabu steels herself as she gazes down at Nanami’s naked body. She’s scared, but not for any of the usual reasons.
She slides her hand across Nanami’s stomach. The skin is warm to touch – skin, not steel. Nanami carries no scar tissue or other signs of damage, and as Manabu presses her palm into Nanami’s side she feels only the hard curve of ribs. Skin and bones, muscle and blood. Not steel.
This iteration of Tenjou Nanami has no memories of what Yukari did to keep her alive. Maybe it’s for the best that she doesn’t know – or maybe in this timeline it never happened at all. Schrödinger’s cat, trapped inside a box in the shape of a girl. If Yukari isn’t here to see her, to remember, then maybe Nanami’s body is exactly as human as it seems.
Nanami takes Manabu by the wrist and tugs her hand lower, over the soft curve of her waist and down towards her thighs.
There’s a small flutter of nervousness in Manabu’s chest, the same one that occurs every time she has sex with someone new, but it passes quickly. After all, this is far from her first time. She rubs her thumb over the fabric between Nanami’s legs, teasingly slow. It’s not long before Nanami is pushing her body forward into the touch, hips lifting off the futon to find a better angle, more friction.
Manabu holds Nanami’s gaze as she slips a hand beneath her panties and starts again where she left off, tracing a line upwards between Nanami’s labia until she finds the swell of her clit. Nanami gasps, eyes falling closed as her hips strain upwards again, unsatisfied with the slow pace of Manabu’s fingers. A quick learner as always, Manabu starts moving a little faster. She lets her other hand start massaging Nanami a little lower, dipping almost inside of her. Nanami’s body is overwhelming in its heat, its softness, the almost gravitational pull that makes Manabu want to let herself be pulled in closer, closer, closer.
Her mind echoes with other women she’s taken to bed and the different ways they like to be touched. A shiver of pleasure rises from deep in her core as the memories pulse through her body: another woman’s mouth open against her neck; another woman’s clit hard beneath her tongue; another woman’s body squeezing her fingers tightly as she comes riding Manabu’s hand. A hundred selves ago, Manabu would have closed her eyes against these memories and denied they had any connection to her. Now, she knows better.
Her mouth wants. Her hands want.
Manabu slides her hand across Nanami’s stomach.
Manabu slides her hand across Alice’s stomach.
Manabu slides her hand across her own stomach, and thinks about what Yukari’s warm body would feel like beneath hers with nothing in the way to separate them. No, that’s not right – there would always be something. Even with her body pressed against Yukari’s, exchanging skin and spit and sweat, they would always be distinct from one another.
Projections of other worlds fall away, images fading one by one until there is only Nanami lying naked on a futon in the lamplight.
“Is something wrong?” Nanami asks. She brings her hand to Manabu’s bare shoulder, touching her hesitantly. “You went kinda zombie-like on me there.”
Manabu almost asks if she means a philosophical zombie, but keeps her mouth shut. It’s not worth it to go down that road, to open that box.
“I’m just tired,” Manabu tells her instead. “Lots of deadlines this week, you know.”
“We don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
Manabu shakes her head. “I do want to,” she insists.
“Good,” she says. “Then you can finish what you started.”
She lifts one of her legs and wraps around Manabu’s waist, pulling her back down towards the futon. Manabu lets her body fall where Nanami wants her, surprised at the strength of the happiness burning inside her chest.
It wouldn’t be so bad to live a life like this one. If Nanami could trick herself into forgetting, it might be possible for her too. There was no chance of saving Yukari in this timeline anyway. Manabu could break her connection to the others, and without it, maybe the other worlds would fade away until they were nothing more than ideas and hypotheses. She would wake up in the morning accepting that there was nothing else she could do – Marii Yukari was dead. Maybe then, she would live without guilt and frustration tearing at her insides. She would give in to the will of the universe.
Maybe then, she would be happy.
“I missed you,” Nanami says in the dark. “I didn’t realize how much until I saw you again at the reunion.”
Manabu stirs beside her, left drowsy by the intensity of her orgasm.
“It’s the same for me,” says Manabu. “I’m glad I found you again.”
“You know what else?” Nanami says, her voice starting to crack. “I miss Marii Yukari. After seeing you again, I can’t stop thinking about her. I’m not sure why. It feels like there’s something I’m forgetting.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Manabu tells her. “Probably just regret.”
“Maybe,” Nanami says, but she doesn’t sound convinced.
“It’s nothing,” Manabu says again. She takes the blanket sitting in a mess by their feet and pulls at it until it covers Nanami up to her shoulders.
“Let’s go to sleep, all right? I’ll make you breakfast in the morning.”
Nanami agrees quietly and shifts in the darkness, her back pressing into Manabu’s chest. It reminds her of sleepovers she and Yukari had during middle school. That was so long ago now – could she remember it accurately if she tried?
In the distance there is a sound like a door slamming shut.
And after Nanami has fallen asleep, when she is entirely alone, Manabu will lift her left hand to her ear and make a call.