24 Hours to Life
by Moon Momma

7:00 pm, Tokyo

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It was a beautiful evening by the harbor. Naru and Umino strolled along, people-watching, discussing what they wanted to eat, and planning out the study schedule for the evening. Or Umino was planning, anyway; Naru was more interested in watching the ships and the people and wondering how much longer she could stand this.

It wasn't that she didn't love Umino. She really did - or she thought she did, anyway. How did you know for sure if you really loved someone or if you just liked them or if you were just too used to being with them to imagine things ever being any different? She tried to imagine how she would feel if Umino wasn't with her, if he went somewhere far away to study or something like that. She tried to imagine not seeing him every day, not studying with him, not discussing with him whether they were going to get noodles or sushi for supper.

Maybe it was just lack of imagination, but she found that she really didn't feel anything, almost as though it wouldn't be any different from when he was with her. Again she felt that strange, detached sensation, as though she had slipped into a life that wasn't real, as though she was watching herself move through the actions of a play, speaking words from a script. As though she was a puppet, devoid of any real thoughts or feelings.

When was the last time she had really felt something? Any strong emotion, anything at all? When was the last time she had felt like she was in control of her own life, making her own choices, doing what she wanted? When was the last time she had even known what she wanted, other than simple things like whether she wanted sushi or ramen to eat, or whether she would rather study calculus or English first?

Maybe she had been studying too hard. These were silly questions, and this frame of mind was only stressing her out and making her unhappy. She turned her attention back to what Umino was saying. He had gone on to an entirely different topic while her mind was wandering, something about some new mathematical formula that had just been invented or discovered or whatever. She didn't understand any of it, but Umino seemed very excited about it.

Up ahead of them, a man emerged from the crowds of pedestrians and started walking towards her and Umino. Normally, Naru wouldn't have paid more than a moment's attention to any one person in the crowd, but this man stood out. He seemed so intent on her and Umino as he approached them. And he was handsome - so handsome she had trouble breathing when she looked at him. It would be too embarrassing to be caught staring, though, so she made a huge effort to look anywhere but at him. In the quick glances she allowed herself as she looked from Umino to the other pedestrians to the harbor, she noted that he was tall, lean, and well-built, and that he had amazing auburn hair that flowed in waves over his shoulders and down his back. Naru didn't normally like long hair on guys; it usually looked stringy and messy. But this man obviously took great care with his hair, and with the rest of his appearance. He wore casual but clearly expensive trousers and sportcoat with a silk collarless shirt. Several buttons were undone, revealing a lean, muscular chest. His face was fine-boned yet still entirely masculine.

She and Umino were walking hand in hand, and Umino's hand tightened around hers as the stranger came closer. Could Umino sense her strong fascination with the man? She hoped not. She wasn't worried about hurting Umino's feelings; it would never occur to him that she might think someone else was more attractive than him. But he loved gossip and if he thought she knew anything about this man, he would pester her with questions she had no answers to the rest of the evening.

And then the man came to a stop right in front of them, forcing them to stop as well. Naru made herself look anywhere but at him, and settled on staring down at her shoes. Before she looked away, she saw that his eyes were a beautiful deep blue.

And then he said her name. "Osaka Naru."

Naru's heart skipped about three beats. This incredible-looking man, whom she had never seen before in her life, knew her name? She didn't know whether to be thrilled or terrified, but she didn't dare show any emotion at all. Umino would tease her and question her and drive her crazy about it. As politely and neutrally as she could, fighting to keep any trace of emotion from showing on her face, she said, "I'm sorry, do I know you?"

So quickly she almost missed it, a look of intense sadness passed over his face, then was hidden. She felt like she should apologize to him again, for disappointing him, then Umino spoke up. "What do you want with my girlfriend?" The bravado in his voice didn't quite hide his nervousness. That was one thing you had to give Umino; he was never one to back down from a challenge, even if he was hopelessly outclassed. Naru didn't know if that meant he was brave, or stupid, or both, but it was kind of sweet.

An unformed thought, almost a shadow of a memory, fluttered through her mind, then disappeared before she could grasp it.

If the man felt bad that she didn't know him, he quickly recovered. "I'm sorry. It was rude of me to interrupt your date." He smiled a little, but the smile seemed forced. "Osaka-san, I met your mother once, at a jewelers' convention. She told me about her daughter, and how proud she was of you. You look very much like her, so I guessed it was you. Please forgive me for interrupting your evening and causing you to feel uncomfortable." He bowed his head politely, then stood aside so that Naru and Umino could continue on their way.

As they walked on, Naru forced herself to not look back. She couldn't understand why the man would be so disappointed that the daughter he had never met of a woman he had only met once hadn't known who he was. And she also didn't understand why when she looked at the man, she had felt like he was the one thing in the world that was real.

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The Nephrite and Naru Treasury