God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
- Reinhold Niebuhr
The first thing I notice is the look on Gokudera’s face. Gokudera has a lot of faces, but usually they’re angry, or determined, or confused, or irritated. Once in a long while—more frequently if he’s around Tsuna—he’ll look happy as well. Those faces are the best, although I like the others too, because they’re all part of Gokudera.
But this face… this face doesn’t belong on him. He looks completely devastated; shocked, sad, like something horrible just happened. So of course, I ask, “Gokudera? What’s wrong?” Because it scares me, to see him look like that. Something’s hurt him, and I’m thinking, is he all right? Is Tsuna all right? And I need to know the answer, right now.
But Gokudera doesn’t give me answers. Instead, his head jerks up, so fast I almost want to wince, and this time the look that comes over his face is… it’s…
But I don’t even have time to react to it, because the next thing I know, it’s gone, and his expression now is angry. Defensive. Cold.
“Gokudera…” I say, because now I’m not just worried, I’m confused.
“No,” he replies. He gives me the cold look a moment longer, then shakes his head, turning his eyes from me. “Go away.”
“What is it?” I ask. “What happened?”
And I see his jaw set, his fist clench. But he doesn’t turn back, and he doesn’t answer me. He doesn’t say anything.
“Gokudera,” I repeat, more insistent now. “Tell me. We’re family, aren’t we? Tell me what’s wrong.” Mentally, I’m running through every option I can think of. Not Tsuna, it can’t be Tsuna (please no); he’d have told me right away if Tsuna had been hurt, no matter how devastated he was. He’d be taking charge, in a situation like that, not sitting here in his apartment alone.
…Bianchi, then? Or someone else in his family? He never talks about them, and I’ve never forgotten what Reborn told us about his mother all those years ago. That could explain his reaction, why he won’t answer my question. If it’s something personal like that…
That would make sense… but it doesn’t explain the funny feeling I now have somewhere in the pit of my stomach. Like I’m missing something, something obvious. It doesn’t explain why the fear in my gut is only growing stronger.
“Gokudera—” I try one last time, but once again, I’m not prepared for the way he reacts, the way he turns toward me suddenly, viciously.
“Go away,” he hisses in a way that would sound furious if I didn’t know him so well, couldn’t hear the ever-so-slight edge of desperation underneath. “Leave me alone.”
I just stand there, breathing slowly, trying to understand.
Finally his eyes close, and his head drops. And he says, so quietly it’s almost a whisper: “You’re not real.”
I stand there a moment longer. And then, without even thinking about it, I laugh, because I still don’t understand, but it’s absurd, and laughter is always my response to the absurd. “W… what?”
“Not real,” he repeats, and now it sounds more like he’s talking to himself. “You’re not really here. I’m just in shock.” He runs a hand wearily through his hair. “I need to sleep. You need to shut up.”
“Gokudera… what do you mean, I’m not really here? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
He shakes his head again, and starts to get up.
I laugh again, because this is just so weird, and step forward to take his shoulder and gently sit him back down. “Gokudera, seriously, what—”
Then my hand reaches his shoulder, and I stop, and he stops too, and my breath leaves me in a rush.
Because my hand doesn’t stop when it touches him, doesn’t touch him at all, in fact, but passes right through with no resistance. And it doesn’t hurt, but at the same time it feels like I’ve just been slapped in the face.
And he’s staring at me, eyes wide, and I take a step back, feeling like the world’s just dropped out from underneath me. On sudden impulse, I reach out to grip the desk beside me, to steady myself. My hand just passes right through, again.
“…What?” I hear myself ask, just barely, and it doesn’t even sound like me, it’s so unsure. I reach for the desk again, the half-empty mug of coffee sitting there, the chair sitting in front of it; anything. But there’s nothing. “What?” I say again, because it’s the only word I know all of a sudden. Suddenly, everything is one big, desperate question.
But one look back at Gokudera, and I see I won’t find any comfort there.
“…What do you mean, ‘what’?” he says at last, his voice shaking a little, but his tone bitter. “You’re dead, idiot.”
Two things I think of. The first is that “denial, anger…” five stages of death or grief or something. Because that’s how I feel right off the bat. First, “no, I’m not,” and then angry that he would say it, could even think it. I’m not dead. I can’t be dead. I’m right here.
The second thing I think of is Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense. ‘They only see what they want to see.’
And that’s when I start to get scared.
I take a couple of deep breaths (do dead people even breathe?). Then I look down at myself, forcing myself to relax, just for a moment. I need to be sure.
I’m dressed in my suit. Jacket open, collar unbuttoned, and tie hanging loose, the way it always is after a particularly long day. I look a bit disheveled, and feel a bit disheveled too, now that I think about it.
But there’s no blood anywhere. No wounds that I can see. I will myself to see, force myself to accept the possibility, just for a second. If it’s true, I need to see it, I need to be certain.
But there’s nothing.
I reach for the coffee mug again, and wince when my hand passes through the same as before. Panic starts to set in, and I fight it; I need to stay calm. I don’t feel dead, but…
…Maybe a dream. Maybe this is all a dream.
Gokudera stands up, and I see he’s keeping a wary distance from me now. This is wrong, all of it. The way he avoids my gaze, it’s like he can’t bear the sight of me, like I’m tormenting him just by being here. I feel sick all of a sudden.
“How can I be dead?” I ask him finally.
He doesn’t answer, just keeps avoiding my eyes, starting to move toward the door.
Suddenly I feel angry.
“Gokudera, I’m right here,” I say sharply, and I experience a moment of satisfaction as he finally does turn back. The feeling dies in the next moment afterward.
“You’re in the base, in a lab, covered with a white sheet in a refrigerated room so that your fucking insides won’t start to fucking rot before they can do the autopsy.”
He’s blunt and brutal in a way that only he can be, and only when he’s angry beyond all reason. It’s not until much later that I realize his anger isn’t directed at me, but at himself. As it is, the words—and the mental image they create—stab at me and I’m unable to come up with any sort of response.
Gokudera’s silent for a moment, then turns again and stalks down the hall. I just stand there, watching him, desperately wracking my brain for a way to get him to listen. If only Tsuna—
“What about Tsuna?” I ask, rushing after him. “Let’s find Tsuna—he can prove it to you. He can prove that I really am here, I’m not just all in your head.”
Gokudera pauses in the doorway to his bedroom, but doesn’t turn this time.
“The boss just lost one of his guardians,” he says quietly. “The last thing he needs is to start worrying that another one’s lost his fucking mind.”
He steps into the room without another word and closes the door in my face. A second later, I hear the click of the lock turning. This stops me for only a moment; then I finally start to realize that being a ghost or whatever just might have its advantages.
I take a step forward, and despite everything, grin when I see the edges of the door blur and melt around me. Then I’m in the bedroom, watching as Gokudera collapses on his bed without even bothering to take his tie off.
He does look exhausted.
“Can’t get rid of me that easily,” I say, but gently, my indignation at having my existence called into question fading. I try to put myself in Gokudera’s shoes. Being confronted suddenly by someone I thought was dead. I probably wouldn’t know what to think. Especially if I was tired, if I was still reeling from the shock of what had happened.
Maybe it’s not a surprise that he’d think he was going crazy. The way he’s looking at me right now, it’s clear he thinks one of us is, anyway.
“…You’re a goddamn hallucination,” he says at last, though the fight’s gone out of him now, snuffed out by his fatigue. “The only thing you have in common with the real Yamamoto is that you’re both fucking obnoxious.”
“Just wait. I’ll prove it to you. I’ll figure out some way.”
His eyes are only half-focused on me now, already drifting off. “…And you both never know when the hell to stop talking, either.”
I should let him rest. Maybe when he wakes up, I’ll stand more of a chance of getting through to him. And it’s not like I’m going anywhere for the time being. I think.
“I’ll still be here when you wake up,” I tell him.
His eyes open again and find mine, briefly. Just for an instant, I catch a flash of genuine regret.
“No, you won’t,” he says, and closes his eyes.
He doesn’t say anything more.
Apparently, ghosts don’t sleep.
Or at least I don’t. Or I’m not sleepy, at any rate. If I am a ghost, which I like to think is still up for debate.
So after a little while, I start thinking, why don’t I just go find Tsuna myself? It’ll be faster than waiting to try and convince Gokudera, and at this point, I’m really interested in doing anything that might get results. I don’t like sitting still. The fact that I can’t touch anything is bad enough. But at least I might still be able to talk to people.
So after a few minutes, I make up my mind and leave the apartment. After pausing to briefly wonder at the fact that I can walk through walls but apparently don’t sink through floors (though I’m grateful not to be plummeting through the center of the earth, don’t get me wrong), I head down to the lobby and out the door.
And back into Gokudera’s apartment.
At first I honestly think I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. Never mind the fact that I’ve somehow gone back inside and upstairs. It’s still the only thing that makes sense, because the other option is that I tried to leave the building and ended up right back where I started.
So I try again.
After two or three attempts, I finally give up and realize that I’m not going anywhere. Can’t go anywhere, more like. For some reason, my ghost body is chained down to Gokudera’s apartment. Or more likely, it occurs to me a little while later, to Gokudera himself.
Which means I won’t be able to find Tsuna tonight. And even if I did, there’s every chance he wouldn’t be able to see or hear me after all. Gokudera was right; it’s just him.
So then my only chance is to somehow get Gokudera to believe me. And I have to sigh at that, because I already know he won’t make it easy.
I ghost back into his room and just watch him for a little while. Well, haunting him, I guess, technically. But mostly just watching and wondering how I’m going to pull this off.
Okay, it has to have been at least a few hours. I don’t know what time it was when he fell asleep, but the sun is starting to poke out from behind the distant high-rises now. And I definitely feel like I’ve been sitting around waiting for a long time. And normally I’m more patient than this, but given the situation, it’s understandable, right?
“Gokudera,” I say softly. And then a little louder, “Gokudera?”
Nothing. And he’s usually a pretty light sleeper, so that’s kind of worrying. “Gokudera? Hey, it’s morning now.” Maybe I should have put a little more thought into how I was going to do this. It would be so easy if I could just shake him a little, nudge him, even.
I lean in close to his face. It’s the best I can do under the circumstances. “Gokudera?” I try one last time.
His eyes snap open.
And a second later he’s freaking out and jumping back and his hand’s going for a gun under his pillow (I always knew he was paranoid, but wow). I put my hands up quickly, apologizing: “Sorry, it’s me, it’s just me, sorry.”
He blinks, lowering the gun he fortunately hasn’t had a chance to aim properly yet. “Yamamoto? What the fuck are you doing in my—”
Sometimes, when Gokudera gets really startled, it’s like everything he’s thinking is openly on display. It’s like that now. He’s scared for a second, and then he blinks a bit more and his hand moves to pinch himself. And after that he looks even more panicked.
“You’re not dreaming,” I tell him, as calmly as I can. “I told you I’d still be here.”
I can see him alternate a bit more between panicking and trying to think things through. I wait. Finally, he gives me a long, considering look, and then darts off to a hall closet.
I watch, increasingly working to bite back a grin, as he shuffles through boxes, finds the one he’s looking for, and then starts pushing aside containers of incense and stacks of ofuda to reveal a cache of weird-looking gadgets underneath.
“…What are those?”
“Shut up. Stand still for a sec.” He waves one of the devices in front of me and frowns, then picks up another one. I wait patiently as he repeats the process. When he picks up the third gadget, his face turns stern. “Say something.”
“What? Um, okay… hi?” I pause, feeling a bit weird. Gokudera frowns again and waves a hand to usher me on, so I continue. “Haha… um, my name is Yamamoto Takeshi. I like baseball. I hope the Yomiuri Giants win this year. Maa… hey, Gokudera, what is that thing, anyway?”
“A digital voice recorder with an electret microphone for picking up electronic voice phenomena generated by entities attempting to communicate in the Infrasound range.”
I stare at him blankly.
He sighs. “It records sounds that normal people can’t hear. It’s used in ghost investigations to communicate with people on the other side.”
“Oh.” I consider this, then chuckle. “So wait, you keep ghost hunting equipment in your closet?”
He’s glaring at me. Oops. “Do you want me to take this seriously or not? You’re the one who keeps yammering on about ‘I’m really here and I’ll prove it,’ so put a fucking lid on it.”
“Sorry,” I say sincerely. He shoots me one last dirty look, and then hits a couple of buttons on the recorder thing. Rewinding it, I guess. He stops it after a few seconds and then plays it back. We both hear Gokudera’s voice—“Say something”—and then…
And I have no idea what that means, but I’m guessing, not good.
Gokudera turns it up to max volume and plays it once more just to be certain, then scowls. “Nothing.” He sighs, then throws the instruments back into the box. “None of this crap is picking up anything out of the ordinary.” He looks at me accusingly.
“Well, why do you need a machine to tell you what you can see and hear with your own eyes and ears?” I reason.
“Yeah, that’d be great, if I could trust them.” He gives me another look like this is all my fault somehow, then starts to pace around the hall.
“You’re not going crazy, Gokudera,” I tell him again. I need him to believe this. Come on…
He exhales, giving me another searching look. Then: “Maybe it’s an illusion.”
It’s all I can do to keep from rolling my eyes in sheer frustration. “I’m not…” I pause. Gotta calm down. I think things over carefully, trying to figure out how to prove this, at least. “…Okay, when Chrome and the others do a really good illusion, even the cameras get fooled by them, right? So if I was an illusion, wouldn’t one of your machines have picked up something?”
I can tell I’ve scored a slight victory here, at last; Gokudera frowns and takes on his thinking look once more. He’s quiet for a very long moment.
Finally, he looks up. “Do you have any way of proving that you’re not just in my head?”
And I can’t think of anything to say.
“…All right.” He gives me a look of resignation, then sighs. “Maybe we should go talk to the boss.”
He takes a step back toward his room… and damn it, it’s no good.
I make a sort of “aahh” noise to grab his attention and he pauses, looking back. “I’m not sure that will work either,” I confess, hoping to hell this won’t just make him give up altogether.
Already it doesn’t look good, but he’s listening, so I continue, “I kind of tried to go see him last night. The thing is… I couldn’t. Once I got past a certain point, I ended up back here. I think—I think I might be… anchored to you, or something. I think maybe you are the only one who can see and hear me.”
…Maa, his face; I can pretty much see every word I say driving the nail deeper into the proverbial coffin.
“…So you’re not just a ghost, you’re a ghost that’s haunting me, specifically,” he says, looking incredibly dubious.
“Maybe I’ve just got unfinished business with you or something,” I reply, risking a joke.
To my surprise, Gokudera gives me a sharp, almost nakedly fearful look. “Like what?”
I blink—not the reaction I expected. “Um…” Then it’s my turn to frown. “Well… I’m not really sure.”
“Do you… remember anything? Anything you might have…” He trails off.
No, I realize. I don’t even…
“I don’t,” I tell him, my eyes widening as the weight of that sets in. “I don’t remember anything.”
“What do you mean, you don’t—” he begins.
“I don’t remember dying. The last thing I remember, I was in the conference room with you and Tsuna, talking about the Bartolli family and the deal we were trying to work out. Then nothing, up until last night.” I don’t even remember going to his apartment. Just being there, all of a sudden, and that’s weird, really weird, why didn’t I notice that before?
He’s still frowning, but oddly enough, Gokudera doesn’t seem to be as panicked as before. “That meeting with the boss, that was two days ago,” he says almost thoughtfully.
“Why would I be missing two days?” I wonder aloud.
“If you… if you really are a ghost…” He still looks a bit unnerved by the idea, but continues on, “…there’s different kinds. Residual hauntings, poltergeists…” He wanders to his bookshelf and starts scanning through a row of magazines. “Some of them don’t even realize that they’re actually dead. They don’t remember dying, don’t realize how much time has passed…” He glances back at me briefly, then continues searching through the shelf.
“Like Bruce Willis,” I say, absentmindedly checking myself for any sign of blood again.
He gives me another long look, but doesn’t say anything. Finally, he finds whichever magazine he was looking for and starts flipping through the pages.
“Special Tenth Anniversary Ghost Edition,” he mutters, almost to himself. “There’s an index… here it is.” He falls silent and starts to read. I follow along over his shoulder for a minute, but quickly give it up. Something about trying to look yourself up in an index of the undead supernatural leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
It sucks. Being a ghost.
It doesn’t take long for Gokudera to finish the article, but then he is a genius, after all. Afterward, he sits there for a bit, seemingly lost in thought. Then he finally looks back up at me.
“Find me in there?” I ask, sounding less casual than I was aiming for.
He shifts his gaze away from mine. “Classic post-mortem apparition. Usually recently deceased; can sometimes communicate with the living; a lot of times, don’t seem to realize that they’ve died when they do communicate.”
My stomach feels like I’ve swallowed rocks. After a moment, I manage to nod.
“Only, most of those apparitions can be detected using one or more of the instruments I tried,” he goes on. “And you weren’t.”
I stare back at him uncertainly. Is he trying to say I’m unclassifiable… or that there’s a possibility that I might not…?
He’s staring back, and for once I can’t read him. “…There’s one more type that might fit,” he says at last. “Out-of-body apparition. There’s a story in here about a guy who drowned and was pronounced dead. He was lying there in the morgue for more than a day, not breathing. His ghost appeared to his family to tell them he was still alive. They went down to the morgue, asked them to bring his body out, and he recovered.”
For a moment neither of us says anything.
“How long have I been dead?” I ask him.
There’s a careful, measured look on his face. “About fourteen hours.”
“Did I drown?” I say, trying not to hold out too much hope.
He shakes his head, looking away from me again. “…Bled out.”
I can’t remember the last time I felt this anxious about something. But then again, I can’t remember the last time I had this much to potentially lose.
“…We can check,” I say at last.
There’s a long pause, and then he looks back at me, and he nods.
“We can check.”
There are only a few people inhabiting the base when we get there—or to be exact, when he gets there with me tagging along (at least I managed to make it out of the building this time). And I guess the morgue isn’t really the first place people want to go in the morning, because the lab is empty when we arrive down there.
Gokudera waits for the security scanner to clear him, then walks in. He heads straight for the back of the room, where a row of long metal tables is visible through another doorway. He shivers a little as he enters, and I’m guessing the air must still be refrigerated like he said.
Then again, it could just be that one of the tables is very noticeably occupied by a tall, prone form covered in a long white sheet.
Suddenly I feel cold as well.
Gokudera glances back toward me, looking much less certain now that we’re actually here. “Ready?” he asks me, and I’m not, but I nod anyway.
He pulls the sheet away from my face.
And I see myself.
And I don’t—I try not to recoil, but… but…
I don’t know what I was expecting. Sometimes people say that dead people only look like they’re sleeping. Like they’re at peace.
But I look dead. Stark white (and shit am I naked under the rest of that sheet I think I am), waxen, rigid. And I sure as hell don’t look at peace.
I sure as hell don’t feel at peace.
He must have known, Gokudera. Must have known that there was no possible way, no way at all, so why did he even bother…?
Because I didn’t believe it.
It’s true. I didn’t. Not fully, not quite.
Not until now.
I duck back out into the main lab, then come to a stop, breathing hard.
So stupid. I’ve been trying so hard to figure out the wrong thing. ‘How do I prove to Gokudera that I’m alive?’ When really all along it should have been more like… I don’t even know. ‘Why am I here?’ or ‘How do I move on or whatever it is I’m supposed to do?’
Denial really is the first stage.
Gokudera finally steps out into the lab behind me, and I don’t look at him, but wipe away quickly at the corners of my eyes.
“Sorry,” he says quietly. His eyes are a bit red too, but he doesn’t say anything more. I’m glad.
Okay. So I really am dead. That’s how it is, and I can’t change things. I take a deep breath.
“…So what now?” I say at last.
He just shakes his head. Doesn’t know either.
“Do you still think you’re crazy?” I ask him, only half-jokingly.
“Don’t know.” He looks back at me, and I can see he’s truly at a loss.
“…Either way, I guess the next thing is to figure out exactly why you’re here,” he says hesitantly.
Part of me doesn’t even care anymore. But the rest of me… well, the rest of me has never been good at giving up.
“How did I die?” I ask him finally. I figure that’s at least a place to start.
Gokudera suddenly seems to find the floor interesting. “You were shot,” he says shortly.
Somehow I get the feeling there’s something he’s not telling me.
But before I can ask, his brow creases. “Maybe it wasn’t supposed to happen. Maybe that’s why you’re still here. Maybe I’m supposed to do something to save you.”
“…What?” I say in total confusion. Because I’m only just starting to come to terms with the idea that I really am dead, and now he’s talking about it like it’s something that can be changed. Even though he was the one who convinced me in the first place.
“Why not?” he says, and even though I have no idea where they’re going, I can see the wheels turn as he continues, picking up steam. “Haven’t we already changed the timeline once to stop people from dying? Why not again?”
But… “That was the future, though. The past… that’s different, isn’t it? Doesn’t that make paradoxes and stuff?”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” For the second time that day, he starts to pace; encouraged in spite of myself, I follow him. Then walk right through him as he stops.
He doesn’t even seem to notice, lost in thought. “What we really need is an expert on parallel universes and time travel,” he ponders aloud.
There’s a pause. Then our eyes meet, and I know we’re both thinking the exact same thing.
“It might be dangerous,” I say, feeling a need to be the voice of caution since he’s the only one of us who still has a life to risk, after all.
“Yeah,” he replies. He turns to look back at the room where my body is, then seems to make up his mind. “…But fuck it.”
The Vongola have been keeping Byakuran locked away on an uncharted island, kept secret from everyone except a few key people. It’s actually pretty cool. Except I’ve never been too clear on how Byakuran turned out to be not dead after all.
“How does that work, anyway?” I ask Gokudera.
“Tenth killed the future him, not this him,” he replies, pushing a strand of hair out of his eyes. We’re standing out on the boat deck, and the wind’s blowing everywhere. I can’t feel it at all, though. Yet another weird thing to get used to.
“I thought they were all connected, though,” I say, trying to recall Shouichi’s confusing explanation from so long ago.
“Across dimensions. Not across time.” Gokudera’s saying all this like it should be completely obvious, so I take my cue to shut up.
Or not. “So then this is the past Byakuran? Does he even remember us, then?”
“…He’s never met us,” Gokudera says uncertainly.
“Yeah, but Uni and the others, they gave everyone in this time the memories from the future, right? Doesn’t that include him, too?”
He just looks at me.
He’s scary when he wants to be. Gokudera.
Take this, for example. Somehow, even though he has no authority to be here as far as I can see, he manages to intimidate his way all the way from the dock to the prison entrance to the secure ward where Byakuran is being kept.
Part of it is because his rank—right hand man to the Vongola Tenth—has the power to open a lot of doors. But most of it, I think, is just because when he gets in the guards’ faces and starts demanding things, most of them panic and fold. As someone who’s been on the receiving end of that glare more times than I can count, I think it’s pretty funny.
At any rate, within an hour of reaching the island, Gokudera and I are standing outside Byakuran’s door. Flanked by a pair of security guards, but that’s beside the point.
“Ready?” I say to him this time, forgetting that he can’t answer me without looking like a crazy person. But he sort of gives a half nod.
One of the guards punches in a code, and the door slides open.
The room is simple but comfortable. There are two chairs, a small (barred) window, and a bed. The man inside is reclining on one of the chairs, reading a book, and periodically snatching a marshmallow from a small bowl on the other chair.
“Hoh?” he says, looking up, and then straightens when he sees Gokudera’s outline behind the guard’s. “A visitor, is it?” He smiles, and a thousand memories come rushing back into my mind. More than a few of which aren’t completely pleasant.
Seemingly unfazed (which I know has to be an act, but a good one), Gokudera steps into the room. He shoots a look of dismissal toward one of the guards, who winces apologetically.
“Sorry, sir, but it’s orders. No one’s allowed to be left alone with him.”
Gokudera looks annoyed, but shrugs. “Fine.” He turns toward Byakuran.
“Hello,” Byakuran offers. He holds out the bowl. “Marshmallow?”
“Do you know who I am?” Gokudera demands, skipping right past the pleasantries.
“Hmm?” Byakuran shrugs, but his eyes pass over the crest on Gokudera’s belt with a look of interest. “My guess would be one of the Vongola.”
“My apologies. To be specific…” Byakuran looks back up at Gokudera’s face, smiling more knowingly this time. “Gokudera Hayato, Namimori Middle School, Class 2-A.”
Gokudera tenses ever-so-slightly.
“Ah, but…” Byakuran grins and sets the bowl of marshmallows on the floor beside him. “I suppose it’s been a few years since then. You’ll have to forgive me; I’m rather afraid I’ve lost track of the time, in here.” He plunks another marshmallow into his mouth, then gestures to the chair beside him. “Please, have a seat.”
“You’re locked up here for a reason, asshole.” Gokudera fixes him with a glare. “Don’t you dare pretend you’re fucking innocent.”
“Of crimes I never had a chance to commit? Perish the thought.”
“You committed them, all right,” Gokudera growls. “Believe me, I remember. And so do you.”
“Point,” Byakuran acknowledges, stretching back in his chair. “So why have you come to visit me now, years after the fact, Goku-chan?”
Just for an instant, Gokudera’s eyes dart toward where I stand, watching the two of them. Then he locks his glare back onto Byakuran.
“I want to know what you know about time travel.”
“What I know? Curious.” Byakuran lolls his head over the back of his chair. “Here I was under the impression that the Vongola family possessed the greatest experts in that field.”
“The Vongola and the Bovino are experts at traveling forward in time. I’m talking about going backward.”
“Backward…” Again the smile. “How interesting.” He looks as if he’s pondering it for a moment. “And how would I be compensated, were I to assist you in this… research?”
“Tell me, and maybe I’ll have your sentence reduced a bit. From forever to just shy of forever.” This time Gokudera’s the one who grins, though it’s a pretty humorless one. “Let you out when you’re eighty or ninety, and you’ll finally get to see the world.”
For a second I’m worried that he’s crossed the line. And sure enough, a glint of anger sparks in Byakuran’s eyes for the briefest of moments. Then it’s replaced again by his usual amusement.
“I’m sorry,” he says, looking anything but. “I just don’t think I’ll be able to help you out.”
Gokudera’s lips form a thin line. Then without a word, he turns back toward the door.
“I do have one question for you, though, Goku-chan,” Byakuran speaks up just as he’s about to step out.
Gokudera pauses, waiting.
“Just what is it that you’re trying to change?”
Gokudera says nothing. But after a moment, his eyes find mine again, ever so subtly.
Byakuran stretches, and yawns.
And we both understand. This is what he wants in return. No special favors, no time off for good behavior. Just this. Information. Because once again he senses vulnerability, a way to hurt, like a predator honing in.
I meet Gokudera’s eyes. “Don’t do it,” I tell him.
He turns around.
“Yamamoto is dead,” he tells Byakuran coldly.
And Byakuran smiles.
“Really?” he says. “My condolences.”
“Like I’d accept them from a bastard like you.”
“And you want to save him, then?” Byakuran continues, the insult sliding right past.
Gokudera says nothing. But he tenses, again.
Looking delighted, Byakuran leans forward to rest his chin on his hands. “You’re wondering if it will create a paradox.”
Gokudera raises an eyebrow. “…Well?”
“Hmm.” Byakuran tilts his head to one side. “Maybe. Or maybe not.”
I see Gokudera tense again, this time in a way I recognize. On instinct, I lunge forward to grab him, pin him back. And of course my arms pass right through again.
The guards are even slower. By the time either of them reacts, Gokudera is already gripping Byakuran by his shirt front, knocking the chair over and pinning him against the wall of the room, his eyes ablaze.
“Fuck you. I’m done playing, asshole. Either you give me a straight answer or I’ll stuff your throat with bombs and watch your fucking head blow off. See if that creates a paradox.”
He’s so angry he’s shaking. So angry I believe he actually means to follow through on his threat, at least for a moment. And Byakuran sees it too.
And the corner of his lip quirks upward.
Still shaking, still breathing hard, Gokudera stands there for a moment longer, and then roughly lets his hand drop.
“Fuck you,” he says again, then turns and strides back out the door.
I turn to follow. Behind me, I can hear Byakuran start to laugh. The hair on the back of my neck rises and just for a moment, I think about how much I’d really like to punch him.
But really, I know it’s my fault. I’m the one who should have seen this coming. Because Byakuran is trapped here now, unable to see or speak to anyone he knows, any influence he might have once had on the world rendered completely null and void.
And isn’t that the exact same way I feel?
Small wonder he jumped at his first chance in five years to wind someone up. We should have expected as much.
But just before the guards shut the door, I get my second surprise of the night. “Goku-chan!” Byakuran calls, and even though he’s already halfway down the hall, Gokudera’s steps slow a little despite everything.
“You should talk to Shou-chan. I think you’ll find he can help you.”
And as the door slides shut, Gokudera and I exchange glances.
“We should have thought of Shouichi before,” I say on the car trip over.
“I did think of him before, idiot.”
“Then why didn’t you go straight to him?” Avoiding an unnecessary encounter with Byakuran not only seems like the smart thing to do, but the obvious thing. Well, in hindsight.
“Same reason I told Byakuran; his specialty is traveling forward, not back.” Gokudera frowns as he turns a corner. “As far as I know, no one ever has gone back.”
I consider this for a moment. “So then, you went to Byakuran because…”
Gokudera turns onto Irie’s street, pulls up in front of the house, and stops the car. Just before he opens the door, he turns and looks at me.
“Just because no one in this universe has done it doesn’t mean it’s never been done.”
It turns out he’s right.
But it also turns out that backwards time travel is a lot more complicated than forwards. So much so that even Gokudera takes a little while to process it all.
“So you’re saying that no matter what, it’s impossible to physically send yourself back through time?” he says as he makes yet another round of Irie’s bedroom. Pacing. He’s been doing a lot of that lately.
“Unless you want to cause an incredibly dangerous and unstable paradox, yes.” Irie is sitting cross-legged on his bed, surrounded by laptops which all seem to be running complex-looking math programs. “Do you remember Ghost?”
Gokudera freezes mid-pace. “What?”
“No one said anything about a ghost,” Gokudera says quickly, making such an elaborate effort to avoid looking at me that I have to hold my breath to keep from laughing out loud.
Irie looks puzzled. “Ghost as in the last of Byakuran-san’s Funeral Wreaths…?”
Gokudera turns a bit pink and mutters something that sounds like, “Oh.” By this point, I’ve officially lost the battle to control my laughter. He just scowls at me before tuning back in to Irie’s explanation.
“Anyway, he was essentially a paradox created when Byakuran-san tried to transfer himself from one universe to another,” Irie says. “It just doesn’t work. The same person can’t physically exist twice in the same universe. That’s why the ten-year bazooka works by switching a person’s past and future selves.”
“So why can’t you just do the same thing when you go back?”
“Because of parallel universes. When someone travels back in time, they also create a brand-new parallel universe, because the very act of traveling back alters the course of the future. Because of that, it’s impossible to change the current timeline by traveling back in time. Whatever change you effected would only apply to the new timeline you created. The previous timeline would remain the same.”
By now I’m completely lost, but Gokudera’s just nodding along. “Okay, so that’s out. But you said it’s possible to send someone’s consciousness back.”
“Yes. At least, it should be.”
“And how does that work, exactly? You arrive as a ghost or something? Like Vongola Primo and his guardians when they communicate with us?”
“No, not at all. Primo and his family are able to do that because of the power of the Vongola rings. The rings possess an ancient power that’s more or less beyond science. Or at least beyond what humans are capable of achieving through current scientific methods.” Irie pauses to take exactly one breath before continuing. “No, with the method I’m describing, you would only be able to travel back if your consciousness had a physical body to anchor itself to on the other side.”
“So in other words, transferring your mind from one body to another,” Gokudera says.
“Exactly. Though technically, it would still be your own body, just younger.”
Gokudera frowns. “So you can only send yourself back to a time when you already existed.”
“Yes.” Then, “Though I don’t think you need to worry about that if all you’re trying to do is save Yamamoto-kun.”
Gokudera shoots Irie a caught-with-a-hand-in-the-cookie-jar look that I’ve rarely seen on him.
Irie smiles. “I’m not going to stop you, Gokudera-kun. After all the desperate things my future self did while trying to fix this timeline, it’d be pretty hypocritical.”
“…So you’ll help?” Gokudera asks warily.
“I am helping, aren’t I? You want to know how to do it, right?”
“So… so it’s really possible?” He shoots me a quick look. For my part, I do my best to look like I’m not desperately hoping Irie really does have this all figured out.
“I think so.” Irie glances at his computer screens uncertainly. “Though it won’t exactly be easy.”
By the time Gokudera and Irie finish hashing out all the details, I’m starting to understand why no one’s ever traveled back in time before.
This is how it works, I think. Irie will set up a machine that will zap what Irie keeps calling Gokudera’s “consciousness” back in time to whatever point Gokudera decides on. Then, once it arrives in the past, Gokudera’s consciousness will be transferred to his past body. So it’s like his mind is being sent back in time.
But this is where the confusing part starts. Because the past Gokudera’s body will already have the past Gokudera’s mind in it. So when Future Gokudera arrives, his mind will sort of have to share with the past Gokudera’s mind. In my head this all sounds kind of hilarious—two Gokuderas fighting with each other trying to control the same body—but according to Irie, it won’t be quite that bad. He says it will probably be jarring at first, but after a while, the two minds should start settling down and start merging with each other. It will probably take about a week for the future Gokudera to merge completely with his past self, but after that he won’t have to worry about voices in his head arguing with each other or anything like that.
“Fuck. It still sounds like a major headache,” Gokudera mutters, running a hand through his hair. “But I guess that’ll be the least of my problems. You’re sure the theory behind all of this is sound?”
“Almost positive,” Irie says. “My future self studied all of this extensively before he concluded that in his case, it would be better to bring all of you forward in time instead. I even had blueprints for a prototype machine printed up. That was all in the future timeline, of course, but I think I could recreate the schematics from memory without too much trouble.”
“Would you need any special materials in order to build it?”
“Nothing I don’t already have access to,” Irie reassures him. “To be honest, the machine itself isn’t nearly as complex as the theory. If I went to work right now, I could probably have everything set up by this time tomorrow.”
Even Gokudera looks impressed by that. “Really?”
“It’d be in our best interests not to wait too long, after all. The further back in time you have to go, the greater the odds that there’ll be complications.”
“Right.” I can see Gokudera running through all the details of the plan in his mind before he finally nods. “Then let’s get started. Anything you need, just let me know.”
“Just meet me at the base tomorrow. I’ll have everything set up, don’t worry.”
Gokudera nods. “…Thanks, Irie.”
Irie smiles. “No problem.”
“Aa. It means a lot.” Gokudera starts toward the door, then hesitates. “Can I ask you one last thing?”
“If someone did go back in time using this method… what would happen if they died?”
Irie frowns. “…I can’t say for sure. But it probably wouldn’t be good.”
Gokudera looks lost in thought for a second. Now I’m frowning too. But before I can open my mouth, Irie beats me to the punch. “Gokudera-kun,” he says, getting his attention before he continues. “You’re going back to prevent a tragedy, not create another. Just make sure you remember that.”
After a moment, Gokudera nods his head.
“What was that all about?” I ask Gokudera as soon as we’ve left Irie’s house.
“What was what all about?” he says indifferently as he unlocks the car.
I phase through the door, taking my seat beside him. “‘What would happen if they died?’”
“Just ironing out the details.” He puts the keys in the ignition.
“Hey,” I say a little more firmly, because this is important, after all. He rolls his eyes, but still pauses to listen. “He’s right, you know. Irie. You need to be careful.”
“What, you think I’m trying to get myself killed?”
“I’m just saying, you shouldn’t rush into all this without thinking.”
“For you of all people to tell me that…” His hand instinctively moves toward the side pocket where he used to keep his cigarettes before quitting; then he makes a noise of irritation and turns back to scowl at me. “I’m doing all this for you, you know. Least you could do is show a little fucking gratitude.”
“I am grateful, you know I am. I just don’t want anything to happen to you because of me.”
“Nothing’s going to happen, all right?” He gives a frustrated shake of his head, then starts the engine.
“From what he was saying, it sounds like a whole lot’s going to happen.”
“Nothing’s going to happen that I don’t have under control.”
I frown and turn to look out the window. “All right. Then what’s going to happen to me when you go back?”
Silence. Then he puts the car back in park, and leans his head back against his seat.
“…I don’t know,” he admits.
I move my hand to the window. It passes right on through, and I hold it out in front of the rearview mirror, giving a few halfhearted waves back and forth.
To me, the hand looks solid. But to the mirror, there might as well be nothing there at all.
“I still don’t even know if you’re real,” Gokudera says beside me, and I chuckle in spite of myself, because that’s one thing that hasn’t and never will change, at least: that stubbornness of his.
“…Tch. You’re the only idiot I know who’d ever laugh in a situation like this.” I look back at him, and he’s smirking too, ever so slightly. I guess I’m not the only one who laughs at the absurd, sometimes.
He looks at me questioningly.
“Then, since neither of us really knows what’s going to happen tomorrow… can you do me one favor?”
I give him a small smile. “I’d like to leave a message for Tsuna, and my dad.”
It’s a little embarrassing, I guess, since he’s the one who actually has to do the writing. I give him the login to my email so he can do it from my account, since it’s the simplest way I can think of to convince Dad and Tsuna that the messages really are from me. (It occurs to me that it ought to be enough to convince Gokudera too, but when I mention that to him he just snorts and informs me that only a complete moron would use his birthday as his password.)
In the end, the letters don’t turn out to be all that long. Really just a few I-love-yous, some I’m-sorrys and I’ll-miss-yous, with a don’t-blame-yourself or two mixed in. I tell them both that I’m at peace and I want them to be at peace too. The second part is true. The first… well, I’m working on it.
To his credit, Gokudera isn’t as awkward as I worried he might be. He doesn’t comment on any of it, just writes down what I say, looking as solemn as I’ve ever seen him. When I’m finished, he lets me read over both emails before setting them up to be sent out tomorrow night, right before we put the time-traveling plan in action.
After that, there’s not much the two of us can think to say, so he excuses himself and heads off to bed, while I settle in for another long night of doing nothing, touching nothing, and generally not existing.
I wonder if I really will disappear tomorrow, when he leaves. And I wonder if maybe that isn’t for the best.
“This is unbelievable,” Gokudera says as I nod in stunned agreement.
Irie beams modestly. “I told you, I already had the blueprints worked out; it was just a matter of recreating them and then getting this put together and calibrated. It was really the calibration that took the longest.”
“And you’ve got that all fixed now, right?”
“Pretty sure. Everything checks out.”
Gokudera takes a deep breath. “Okay.” He steps up to the machine, though I can see a hint of nerves starting to settle in now. “Let’s do this before I change my mind.”
“Yeah, me too.” Irie doesn’t look quite as nervous, but there’s definitely some uncertainty there. “First I’ll need to do a scan, though. Please step onto the pad, Gokudera-kun.”
He indicates a circular area on the floor that looks for all the world like one of the teleporter things from Star Trek. Gokudera obediently moves to the platform and stands still.
“Can I ask you one last question?” he says as Irie begins the scanning process.
“If I do change the timeline by going back… what will happen to this universe when I leave?”
Irie smiles, but I notice he doesn’t meet Gokudera’s eyes when he answers. “Well, to put it metaphorically… save.”
“Imagine a computer file, Gokudera-kun.”
“Now imagine you want to save that file. In general, there are two options: save, and save as. With the second option, you save all of the new data onto a brand new file. With the first one, however, you simply modify the original file, saving all the new data under the original filename.”
There’s a very heavy pause. Then, “You’re saying that everything in this original timeline…”
“Will be erased. Overwritten, by the new timeline that you create.”
Gokudera looks horrified. “So you’ll all disappear?”
“No, of course not. To be honest, it really won’t affect us at all. You have to understand that the only person who will even remember that there was a change to begin with is you. —Ah, please don’t shake your head, Gokudera-kun; it will throw off the scanner.”
“Fuck the scanner! And just because you won’t remember doesn’t mean anything! You’re basically saying I’m going to wipe you from existence!”
“Gokudera, just calm down for a sec,” I cut in, trying to keep him from getting any more agitated.
“That’s not true! I wouldn’t allow you to do it if that was the case!” Irie’s voice has taken on a decidedly more pleading tone by this point. “Please, just listen! The only thing that will be erased is our memory of what’s happened in this timeline. Everything else will still be here exactly as it was before. It’s more like we’re being reset.” He pauses to wipe his brow. “You’re not destroying anything, you’re just… starting over. Aside from Yamamoto-kun’s fate, everything else will hopefully proceed exactly the same way it did before.”
“Hopefully?” There’s more than a trace of skepticism in Gokudera’s voice.
“There is a slight risk. The butterfly effect is mostly exaggerated, but it does exist. There’s no way to know with one hundred percent certainty what kind of ripple effect even a very small change in the timeline will have. But it’s no greater than the same risk we take whenever we make any choice. You never know for sure if it will turn out for good or bad.”
“Shit.” Gokudera glances over at me for a long moment, and then finally sighs. “…I guess there’s no other way.”
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” I tell him. He just mouths the words ‘shut up’ at me before turning back to Irie.
“If anything, the change you’re enacting is for the better, Gokudera-kun. Just try to keep that in mind. Anyway, it’s not like the rest of us will even know the difference, either way.” He breathes out slowly, then hits a few final keys on his computer. “Okay, the scan’s complete.”
“Great. Now what?”
“Just stay right there. Well, assuming you’re ready to go.”
Gokudera briefly meets my eyes again, then nods. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
“How far back do you want to travel?”
“Eighty-three hours,” Gokudera replies without hesitation.
Eighty-three… eighty-three… so that would be about…
“So approximately noon on Tuesday?” Irie says, inputting the coordinates.
Noon on Tuesday… our meeting with Tsuna. When we talked about the Bartolli family. The last thing I told him I remembered. I shoot him a confused glance; this time, he ignores me. “Yes,” he answers Irie.
“All right.” Irie finishes entering the numbers, then hesitates, looking back at Gokudera. “…This is it.”
Gokudera takes a deep breath, and nods.
“Good luck,” Irie says.
I reach over to Gokudera; my hand passes through his, but he starts at the gesture and looks up at me, seeming to catch its meaning all the same.
“See you on the other side,” I tell him.
Then Irie’s screen flashes ‘CONFIRM’, and he hits ‘Enter’, and the world is swallowed by white light.
Gokudera is staring at me.
I stare back at him. Then blink, and look around.
And then I end up staring at me as well.
“Gokudera-kun?” asks Tsuna uncertainly.
“—Boss!” Gokudera starts, at the exact same moment that I say, “Tsuna!” Tsuna doesn’t give any indication that he’s heard me, but continues to look at Gokudera with concern. Gokudera glances back to me hurriedly, his expression flickering between confusion, panic, and that rapidly calculating look he gets when he’s thinking up a strategy right on the spot.
Then he turns back to Tsuna. “…Sorry,” he stammers. “I lost my train of thought for a second. …Uh, we were talking about…”
“Frank Bartolli,” I fill in. No, wait. He fills in. The other me.
This is really weird.
“Right,” Gokudera is saying. He looks slightly more composed now, though oddly schizophrenic, and I suddenly remember that if the time machine worked the way Irie said it would, Gokudera probably has his hands full just dealing with himself, let alone two of me.
“Wait, you can still see me, right?” I say out loud, hoping desperately that that hasn’t changed.
He shoots a discreet side glance at me in acknowledgement, then turns back to the others. “Bartolli… I don’t think we can trust the guy.”
“You don’t think the money will be enough?” the other me says.
“It still only comes to a fraction of what he was making before we chased his drug guys out of that territory. He’s gotta be pissed.”
“He definitely is,” Tsuna breaks in. “But his family doesn’t have the resources to threaten us, do they?”
“If they tried anything, they’d be wiped out by the retaliation,” Gokudera affirms. For the briefest of seconds he looks stricken; then he continues. “But if he feels like he has nothing left to lose, he might try it anyway.”
“You think he’s that desperate now?”
“I’m just saying, we can’t rule it out. We need to be on our guard.”
“Aren’t we always?” the other me laughs. Gokudera shoots him an odd look that’s sort of a combination of annoyance and unease, but other me doesn’t seem to pick up on it.
Tsuna does, however. “Gokudera-kun?” he says, fixing him with that familiar perceptive Tsuna gaze. When Gokudera turns back to him, he asks, “Is something wrong?”
For a second I’m certain Gokudera is just going to confess everything. But I’ve forgotten how good he can be at keeping everything locked in, because instead he replies, “I just think we should take this seriously, Tenth. I don’t have—”
(a good feeling about this)
“—a good feeling about this.”
I blink. What—
“All right,” Tsuna says. “If you’re that worried, I’ll get Reborn to make sure our people keep—”
(an extra-close watch)
“—an extra-close watch on them.”
And the other me is saying something too, but I can’t make out what, because all of a sudden the room is fading in and out, and I gasp, because it feels like my chest has suddenly been plunged in ice water.
Gokudera turns toward me again just as I fold in on myself, and his face is pale, but not out of concern; it’s because everything is losing its color, its focus. And I need to steady myself, but I can’t touch anything, so I close my eyes for a second, just a second…
When I open them again, everything is back to normal. I breathe a sigh of relief, and instantly feel warmer. Then confusion sets back in and I look around, realizing I’m no longer in the conference room. I’m standing outside the shrine entrance to the base, instead.
And there’s Gokudera, standing only a few feet from me, puffing away on a cigarette. “Hey,” I say, momentarily forgetting about everything else that just happened. “I thought you quit.”
And he spins around so fast he would have probably knocked me over if I were still corporeal. “There you are,” he bursts. “Shit, I thought I really did hallucinate you. What the fuck! One second you’re there, the next you’re gone!”
“Wait, what?” I ask, frowning. “What are you talking about?”
“Back at the meeting, idiot! All of a sudden you said something and grabbed yourself like you were cold and then you just disappeared!”
“Disappeared? But I’m right…” I trail off. I’m right here now, but a moment ago, I was…
“Not to mention, I can’t believe you’re still here to begin with! It’s one thing for you to haunt me when you were actually dead, but to follow me back in time and then be standing there two feet away from your physical fucking body—Okay, what the fuck is going on?!”
“What—” I start to ask, but he interrupts me, seemingly on a completely different tangent then before.
“Why are there two of you?! What the fuck is going on with my head, and what—” He pauses, then takes on an incredulous look. “—Time travel??”
He then goes completely silent for so long that at first I’m concerned, and then very abruptly it becomes the most hilarious thing in the universe.
“Gokudera…” I begin, fighting the urge to crack up, “Are you… arguing with yourself?”
“Shut up,” he says so forcefully that it really does sound like two of him saying it at the same time, and now I do laugh, and once I start it feels so good that it takes me at least a minute to finally get myself back under control again.
Gokudera glares daggers at me. “If you weren’t already a ghost, I would fucking kill you.”
I’m trying to calm down, really I am, but I still can’t help giggling a bit more. “O… okay,” I manage at last.
“Fucking hell.” He pauses, taking another long drag from his cigarette, then sighs. “And I can’t believe I’m going to be stuck like this for another week. Fucking Irie.”
“So what’s it like, exactly?” I ask.
“Like there’s two fucking people in my head,” he says, fixing me with a look of supreme exasperation. “The fuck kind of stupid question…”
I grin. “Maybe this is a good chance for you to get to know yourself better.” He glares at me even harder, if possible, and I wave my hands pacifyingly. “I’m serious! You’re a really great guy, you know. Maybe this can help with, like… your self-esteem…”
“Oh my God,” he groans, flailing his own hands around like he wants nothing more in the world than to strangle me right here and now (I’ve never seen him look more Italian). “I mean it, you know. The second I stop that fucking asshole from shooting you, I’m going to turn around and do it myself. Maybe then I’ll finally have some goddamn peace… oi. Yamamoto? Oi, what the hell…?”
I blink a few times; the room’s started to fade again. “What’s going on?”
“You’re turning all translucent, like you’re fading out,” Gokudera says, now looking thoroughly alarmed. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know…” I look down at my hands; to me they don’t seem any paler than the rest of the world around them, but if Gokudera says I’m fading… I look back up at him, at a loss.
“Fuck, it’s happening again,” he says, panicked, and the world gets brighter again suddenly, and I open my mouth to say I think it’s okay, it’s starting to pass… and then I realize I’m no longer there. I’m on a street, and the light has changed from the bright of afternoon to the reddish tinge of early evening—
(this is where it happened)
—and I’m on the ground but I can’t remember how I got there, and the sun’s in my eyes, and then Gokudera is there, cursing, yelling at me but I can’t understand what he’s saying, and his hands are pressing on my chest—
(he can touch me)
—they feel wet, slippery, and I try to take a breath, and it hurts, and he says something else, but then suddenly the pain is gone…
And I’m back in Gokudera’s apartment…
(you’re dead, idiot)
And then back on the teleporter pad…
(approximately noon on Tuesday)
—everything is dark.
I look around frantically, trying to orient myself. As soon as the residual panic wanes, I take a breath of relief, realizing I’m back in the apartment again. Okay. I can deal with that.
I then look around for the one constant that’s been there ever since this ghost thing started happening, and sure enough, Gokudera is seated on the couch a few feet away, his attention focused on the dim glow of his laptop screen. I lean in to see what he’s studying so intently; it looks like a map of a downtown intersection.
Weird; I wonder how long he’s been at it. “What time is it?” I say aloud, and his head snaps in my direction just like before. But this time he doesn’t curse me out; only stares at me for a long moment before he turns back to the computer again.
“What does it look like?” he says at last. “It’s the middle of the fucking night.” He sighs, pulling his glasses off to rub at one of his eyes. Then he says, quietly, “You were gone for more than twelve hours.”
“I don’t remember it,” I confess. “Just, one second I was in the shrine, and the next…”
He doesn’t look at me when he says, “…Maybe it’s a good thing. Maybe it means that this is working. —Is going to work.”
I wonder what that means for me, then decide I don’t really want to think about it right now. “What about you?” I ask, changing the subject. “Still all Doctor Hyde?”
“Doctor Jekyll,” he corrects, giving me a Look. But a moment later, he says, “…It’s not as bad as it was before. Starting to get used to it, I guess. Still annoying as hell, though.”
“You’re not going to smoke anymore, are you?”
Another Look. “Just checking,” I amend.
He shakes his head and turns back to the screen. I follow his gaze again, and suddenly it hits me why he’s looking at a map.
“That’s where it happened.”
He looks at me, surprised. “You remember?”
“Bits and pieces.” I try to concentrate. It’s almost there, but I can’t quite grasp it yet.
He’s looking at me apprehensively. Trying to hide it, of course, but it’s Gokudera.
“…Well, we’re going to stop it,” he says at last.
“Yeah,” I reply, because I can’t think of anything else to say.
“You look tired,” he says. Still looks concerned.
“I am,” I say truthfully. It’s the first time I’ve been tired in days. Ever since this started.
“Maybe because of the time travel thing? I mean, we still don’t really know how that worked.”
It feels like there’s a whole lot of things I don’t know. I shrug, but don’t reply. He’s starting to get uncomfortable, I can tell, and I feel a little guilty; it’s not often that he ends up being the one trying to keep a conversation going. But there’s just so much going on, so much to think about, and it feels like I’m running out of time to put it all together.
“When does it happen?” I say at last.
“…Tomorrow afternoon. Just after four.”
“So… we should probably get some rest now.”
He doesn’t even argue. “Yeah.” He hesitates for a moment, then sighs and folds his laptop closed. He stands up, but still seems to be hanging back, unsure.
“…You gonna be all right?” he says at last.
I have no idea.
“Yeah,” I tell him.
“Okay. …Good night, I guess.”
I wait until he closes the door to his bedroom, then close my eyes and breathe out slow.
I’m running through the street; it’s late afternoon once more. There’s an instant where I almost have another freeze-up moment, wondering how I got here. Then I realize I must have blacked out again.
Which means Gokudera… I scan the street up and down, looking for any sign of him, then hesitate. Was I looking for him… or…?
Someone else. That’s right. There’s someone else I’m after—
(the guy with the gun)
—of course—he’s the one—I have to stop him—where is he—
And I’m moving already, running on instinct even before I can fully process what I’m seeing. It’s like everything’s moving in bullet time. I see him lowering the window of the car he’s in, and I move closer. He takes aim with his rifle from the backseat, and I move closer. His target takes a step forward behind me—Gokudera—
—he’s aiming at Gokudera—
—the target is Gokudera—
—and he makes a final adjustment—
—and I move closer—but not enough, it’s not enough—
—and he squeezes the trigger.
A split-second later, Shigure Kintoki cleaves his neck from his shoulders. And I stumble back, the world spinning around me.
And I’m on the ground…
(I remember now)
And the sun’s in my eyes…
—but it’s early, just after dawn, and the light is bleeding in through the window blinds.
I’m back in the apartment.
I am on the floor, though. And Gokudera is crouching in front of me.
I blink at him.
“You were asleep,” he says. He doesn’t look like he’s gotten much sleep himself.
“I remember,” I tell him.
He’s quiet. Then he sits down beside me.
“How much?” he asks.
“You didn’t tell me he was aiming for you.”
He stiffens. “I didn’t…” He shifts guiltily, avoiding my gaze. “…It doesn’t matter,” he says at last.
He doesn’t reply.
“Is that what this is all about?” I ask him.
“Because it wasn’t your fault, you know. The guy came out of nowhere, it just happened. There wasn’t any time to react differently—”
“I said shut up,” he hisses, but I can’t, because I know him too well, and there’s a twisting fear working its way into my gut. I don’t want him to get hurt.
“Just tell me you’re not gonna do anything stupid.”
“I told you, I don’t have a fucking death wish, all right?” He pushes himself to his feet.
“But you think that’s why I’m haunting you, don’t you? Because it was supposed to be you? And I’m saying, that’s not true!”
He opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. He just stands there, breathing slowly.
“…You don’t know that for sure,” he says at last.
I look him straight in the eye. “I’d rather be a ghost forever.”
“That’s because you’re a fucking self-martyring idiot.”
Look who’s talking, I think, but what I say is, “Neither of us has to be, Gokudera. That’s my point. We know how it’s going to happen now, so all we have to do is change things around, so that we’re not on that street, or we leave at a different time.”
“No,” he breaks in, “we can’t change anything around. It has to be the same.”
“What, because of the timeline?”
“Because this is what we know,” he says, and at last he sounds confident about something. “That intersection. That car. That time. If we’re not there, then what? The fucker goes and ambushes us at some other place and time, and we lose the only fucking advantage we’ve got.”
“Okay, so then we tag the guy before he can do anything. I’m just saying, we don’t have to trade places!”
“What exactly do you think I’m planning to do, Baseball Idiot?”
Kill yourself for me. The same as I’d have done if it were you.
But what I say is, “Gokudera… it’s no good if both of us don’t make it out alive.”
And it scares me that I can’t physically do anything to stop him, that the most I can do is try as hard as I can to persuade him and then hope to hell he’ll keep his word. Because he can’t do this, he can’t.
And he is listening, but I can see that in the back of his mind, he’s reluctant to put this away completely. Because we’re too similar, the both of us, when it comes to things like this. Both too stubborn.
But he can’t. He can’t.
It seems like an eternity before he finally meets my eyes again, but…
“…Okay. Fine. Shoot the guy before either of us gets hit. And both of us make it out alive.”
…Neither of us is any good at giving up, either.
I smile, giving in to the tide of relief flooding through me.
“And then it’ll finally be over,” I say.
“I sure as hell hope so,” he answers.
It’s both the longest and the shortest day of my life.
Or, you know. Unlife.
The tension is unimaginable, and all day, I can’t seem to shake this sort of jumpy, shaky feeling, the kind I sometimes get before a big game. The hours seem to drag by, and it’s made all the worse by the fact that I still can’t do anything, and the only person who can even hear me has to pretend that I don’t exist.
On the other side of things, the dizzy, fade-out feeling from yesterday hasn’t gone away. Has only gotten stronger, in fact, so that one second I’ll be standing next to Gokudera in a hallway, and the next I’ll find myself in a different room more than an hour later. And all I need to do is look at his face to confirm that I disappeared, yet again.
It’s clear that something is happening, but I don’t have a clue what. And it’s not just the fading out, either. I’m also remembering more and more, getting feelings of déjà vu during random moments and conversations. I’ll be watching the other me do or say something, and all of a sudden I’ll remember saying it myself. Piece by piece, my mind is finally starting to fill in the blanks.
Just in time for the grand finale.
Four o’clock, Gokudera said, and I remember that now, too. The way the day was just beginning to fade. The way the traffic was just starting to build. Just enough to help the sniper’s car blend in, to keep us from spotting him until it was too late.
Not this time, though.
(this time I’ll save him)
And I frown, because there was something else just now, something important.
The last piece of the puzzle.
And it’s close, so close, on the tip of my tongue, almost…
(the target is Gokudera)
And there it is, I have it, just for a second, I have it—
—I’m on the street.
The street. The same street.
I start to panic.
Is this real? Am I remembering?
And I fling my arm out wildly, not even thinking, and it passes through a fire hydrant, of all things.
Not a dream, then. This is happening. This is happening now.
“This is it,” says a voice beside me, and I spin around—it’s Gokudera. “You were gone again,” he says, more quietly. But he barely even glances at me before he returns his hawk-eyed gaze to the street, and I realize—this really is it.
He’s looking for the car.
Looking for the guy with the gun.
I should be too, it occurs to me. And a second later, I realize that I already am. Because there he is, standing just a few feet away from Gokudera. The other me.
I sure hope you have better luck than I did, I can’t help but think at him.
And for what it’s worth, he’s on guard, just as much as Gokudera is. Gokudera must have told him, finally. Or at least he told him enough to know what to look for.
And we’re doing it all so obviously, in fact, that I almost wonder whether a sniper with any common sense would try to go through with the hit at all. I’m just about to open my mouth to say so, even.
And that’s when I see him. In the car.
Lowering the window.
And there’s no time.
“Ten o’clock,” I say hurriedly, and then again, louder: “Gokudera, ten o’clock.”
And his box weapon is already out, so fast it’s just a red blur—
And the other me has seen the car, too, and he’s starting to move—
“No!” Gokudera shouts, and his shields are out now, and the C.A.I. is locked on. “Get down!”
—do it, listen to him, please listen—
—and I do—he does—and so do a bunch of the bystanders—
And Gokudera fires.
And he hits the gun, which explodes in the sniper’s face.
And my heart is pounding a million beats per minute, but—we did it.
We did it.
And I look at Gokudera, and he looks at me, at both of us, elated, and the other me starts to climb to his feet—
And that’s when the second sniper fires.
My last moments are drawn out in unbearable detail.
The bullet hurtles through my neck before I can fully stand, arresting my momentum as I rise, sending me toppling backwards instead. Two more bullets arrive before I even hit the ground.
And as I do, a shout lashes through the air, not my voice, but Gokudera’s. Simultaneously a cry of devastation and a howl of pure rage. And he spins, and the man who shot me—the other man, the second sniper who was there all along, must have been, but we never knew it—is already in full sprint, running for his life. And it makes absolutely no difference to Gokudera, who dispatches him in less time than it takes to blink. Still roaring in outrage.
Because of course, it’s already too late.
And he’s turning again, even as his target collapses, and he drops to his knees beside me, the other me, and his hands are pressing down to stem the flow of blood from my throat and chest, and his mouth’s still moving but now there’s no sound coming out. And it doesn’t matter, because other people are screaming now, too, bystanders from all around, some moving in closer and others backing away from the scene as though their lives depend on it.
Gokudera’s lips are still moving, and now I can make out the intended words, a stream of “no, no, no”s. Not even cursing, just pleading. And he’s trying, pushing down hard, but the blood is everywhere, there’s no stopping it.
And none of it matters anyway, because I’m already dead. Was before I even hit the pavement. And he can’t see it yet, won’t, but he’ll realize soon enough.
And I watch it all, rooted in place, never moving an inch from where I stood when the man fired.
I watch it all, and at the same time, none of it.
Because what I see is not me lying dead on the ground.
What is I see is Gokudera.
Gokudera, covered in blood.
Gokudera lying dead.
And I remember it all now, I remember—
It was Gokudera who they shot.
Gokudera who they killed.
Killed him because I was too slow, because I couldn’t save him in time.
Not my fault, everyone said. Tsuna, Reborn, Dad. Even Bianchi forgave me eventually, after Reborn intervened, talked with her.
They forgave, but I couldn’t. Couldn’t forget, either. Night after night, I saw it happen in my dreams. The car, the shooter. Me running. Not fast enough.
Again and again, I saw him die. And I saw him live, too, and all the ways I could have saved him, could have done it differently.
And it was months before I thought of time travel, before I thought of Irie, before I finally convinced him it could be done, and finally convinced him I needed to do it.
I’d already convinced myself.
And then the machine, and the platform. We set the date—
(approximately noon on Tuesday)
—and I was there again, back again, with him—
—and there were two of me in my head, but it was all right, I explained what we had to do—
—and just after four the next day, sure enough, there was the car—
—and I saw him, this time, I saw him—
(but not the second one)
(neither of us ever noticed the second one)
—almost in time to save us both; fast enough to save him…
But not fast enough to save myself.
(what would happen if they died?)
(I can’t say for sure. But it probably wouldn’t be good)
But it was okay; he was the important one. I changed that part, I saved him…
(like there’s two fucking people in my head)
(if your consciousness had a physical body to anchor itself to…)
(you’re a ghost that’s haunting me, specifically)
Only, I think part of me got left behind.
I’m back in the apartment again.
And he’s there too, of course. Gokudera. Sitting hunched with his forehead resting on his hand, his other hand fiddling idly with a cigarette lighter. Lost, defeated. Beaten down by the situation that I forced him to be in.
And I remember all the months I spent reliving his death, and then I think one of the most selfish things I’ve ever thought: I don’t regret what I did. Even if he’s hurting because of it. Because at least he’s alive to do that much.
He notices me then, before I can say anything to him, and his eyes take on focus once more. And what he says to me is: “I’ll try again.”
And what I want to say to him back is, It’s not your fault.
And, It’s my fault, I’m sorry.
And, I’m glad you’re okay, please always be okay.
And I want to explain everything that’s happened, explain to him why I’ve been a burden on him for the past five days, and exactly what’s really going on.
But I can’t. Because once again my senses have been plunged in ice, and the world around me is starting to flicker, and everything is beginning to go faint.
And now I finally understand why. Because it’s been just about a week, after all.
And that’s all the time I had.
So instead, I swallow back the rest of it, the guilt and the regret.
And I tell him: “…Don’t give up, okay?”
Because I know now exactly what I’m leaving him to. And I know how hard it will be.
(it’s no good if both of us don’t make it out alive)
…But he’s stubborn, after all.
Just like me.
I meet his eyes, and he nods, biting his lip but saying nothing more.
------- Epilogue -------
Gokudera pauses by the curb, and does a long, thorough scan of the street.
“Looking for something?” I ask.
“Huh?” He looks up.
“You’ve been doing that an awful lot lately,” I say. Ever since that assassination attempt last Wednesday, in fact. But I don’t mention that part.
He makes a face and looks away. “It’s fine. Mind your own fucking business.”
I laugh, slinging an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, hey. Anyone ever tell you that you worry too much?”
To my surprise, he doesn’t try to shove me off. “That’s because you don’t worry enough,” he grumbles.
“Hmm… then I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got you to look out for me, right?”
He makes a noncommittal noise in response. But there’s an expression on his face that I can’t describe, when he looks back at me. Surprised, thoughtful, maybe even a little touched. It’s strange, because normally he doesn’t open up that easily. But he’s been acting like this a lot these last few days.
I chuckle softly, and grip his shoulders a little tighter, since he’s still not pushing me away. “Everything okay?” I ask as lightheartedly as I can. Letting him know that if he wants to talk about it, it’s okay. And if not, that’s fine too.
He’s quiet for a long moment.
“…I’ll tell you someday,” he says at last.
“Okay,” I smile, because if he says he will, he will. “So that’s a ‘yes’, then?”
And whatever it is that’s on his mind, whatever else he may be hiding, when he looks at me to answer, I know that this, at least, is the absolute truth.
“Aa,” he says. “Everything’s fine.”