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The following morning, the other woman makes you breakfast. It is a small, simple meal—a bowl of rice, some fish, a soup of an origin you are unable to identify by scent alone—but you are thankful, just the same. It would have been within your hosts' right to simply shoo you out the doorway without food or direction, as one might an errant fly.
It's this kind of generosity that serves as the occasional reminder that there is good in the world, after all. It's a fact you find worryingly easy to forget.
Then again, you have doubtlessly forgotten many other things that you do not even remember you have forgotten, so perhaps it's all relative, in the end.
You have finished half of your fish and a fourth of your fish when the other woman says, “Mr. Burke—John.”
You look up. Chen looks up from her own meal as well, perhaps as surprised as you. “Yes?” you say.
“I was wondering,” says the other woman, “if you could tell us more about where you came from.”
It is an easy enough request, and one you do not mind fulfilling. Before you can open your mouth, however, you are overcome with a sudden, almost blinding realization. It is as if some esoteric knowledge you were unaware you were in search of for your entire life has just been uncovered with nary an element of gravitas, or even a muttered 'voilà'.
“You don't need to tell us, if you don't want to,” the other woman says, when no immediate response is forthcoming. “It's only for information's sake. It's my—job, I suppose, to monitor incursions through the border—”
You shake your head. “I'm sorry,” you say. “It's my fault. It's just that—even though you allowed me to spend my night under your roof, I never asked you your name.”
“Oh!” The other woman looks surprised, then smiles. “Well, then. I am Ran Yakumo. I'm sorry, too—I should have introduced myself earlier. We haven't had guests here in a while.”
“You've treated me graciously—Ms. Yakumo. It is the least I can do in exchange for what the both of you have already done for me.”
“It's the same for me,” Ms. Yakumo says. “When someone says 'Yakumo' I look for somebody else. Please—call me 'Ran'.”
“I see—er, Ran.” The woman's smile curls upwards at your near misstep, but mercifully, she says nothing. You move quickly to less embarrassing matters. “What is it you want to—”
Chen strikes her chopsticks flat against the surface of the table. “Are you two flirting?” she cries, irritably, incredulously, sucking the comfortable mood from the room as one might suck the viscera from a small child.
“Chen!” Ran says, appalled.
You, on the other hand, can manage little more than confusion, and so stay silent.
“You are flirting!” Chen picks up her chopsticks again, electing to use them as a pointer. “I can't believe this—just anyone shows up, and you would—you—”
All at once, whatever tirade Chen has built up within seems to collapse into itself, taking the majority of her rage with it. “Forget it,” she says, pushing away her bowl. “I'm not hungry. You—the two of you do whatever. Shrine. Whatever.”
She leaves the table, and the room. She is, you notice, still carrying her chopsticks as she does so.
Ran sighs, and pushes away her own bowl. “Well,” she says, “I guess I should take you to the shrine.”
You guess she should.
Flight has long been a dream of mankind, and perhaps still is today. Yes, the modern airliner has made travel through the skies possible in ways the earliest of philosophers could scarcely have imagined, but there still remains the fantasy of flight unencumbered by massive machinery. Flight by wing or thought, in other words—in the manner of birds, comic book superheroes, or the sandlot angels.
Ran allows you a taste of this dream, and it is a flavor both wonderful and nauseous. Your hand is clammy around her wrist as you look downwards at the empty air that goes too far beneath your feet. When the two of you land at the shrine, your first action is to find a solid object to lean against.
“Someone else from the outside?” somebody says. Your eyes are too fixed to the ground to see who.
“Yes,” Ran's voice replies. “I've brought him here so you can take him back.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. Nobody comes here otherwise.” There is a pause, and then: “Hey, is he okay? He doesn't look so good.”
It takes great effort to raise your head. When you do, you see the source of concern—a younger woman, wearing a bright red dress with detached, white sleeves. You wonder what dark rituals she uses to keep them from sliding to her elbows. If this is the shrine, and she the person in charge of it, she must surely know of at least a few.
“A slight airsickness,” you say, sounding as unsteady as you feel. “It should pass.”
“The flight didn't agree with him,” Ran adds, unnecessarily.
“I see,” says the younger woman. She bends, slightly, to catch the eyesight of your stooping figure directly—then seems to lose it, her gaze drifting first through you, then beyond you, as if there is a particularly interesting object on the horizon and you are empty air.
Her eyes snap back to yours suddenly.
“Done,” she says. “You can leave whenever you like. Just walk through the gate and you'll be outside the border.”
“Would you like to wait until you're feel better?” Ran asks.
You shake your head—carefully. “Thank you,” you say, “but I've taken too much of your time already. I appreciate the kindness, however. I know I've said this previously but—it's very likely that the two of you saved my life. Thank you.”
Ran smiles. The younger woman raises her eyebrows.
You give one final nod of thanks—because mere words seem unable to express what you owe this savior—and stumble through the gate.
The instantaneous teletransportation is disorienting, just as it was last time. Perhaps you should have waited, after all, but it's much too late to make that choice again. You find the nearest building and make yourself uncomfortable against the side of it as you wait for the effects of your travel to subside.
With one eye open, you look upon your familiar surroundings. How ever will you explain this?
“What—how the hell are you still here?”
Perhaps there is no explanation, you muse. Perhaps there is no explanation to anything. Perhaps the components of the universe turn as they do not according to any plan, but by mere chance. On the other hand—perhaps there is a plan, but perhaps it is one that you have no hope of ever understanding. Perhaps it was set into motion long ago, before the first approximation of apes crawled, mewling, across the surface of the earth. Perhaps some ancient god unknown to man slumbers even now, waiting only for its machinations to at long last fall into their final arrangement.
You shrug in Chen's general direction. She doesn't take it very well.