I cannot but still I see.
Disclaimer: see prologue
Warning: see prologue
Congratulate me. I relased on time. Haha, though it's a bit late considering Christmas is nearly over. I owe this to many people. Most of which I owe to monster1 who is stopped me from making all those weird grammar mistakes and punctuation marks and to my sister who served as my muse all through out. Thank you very much.
IMPORTANT: this is the raw version of chapter 8 I'll be reposting a heavily re-editted version in this month as well. Plot wise it will remain the same. The style transition and detail will just differ a bit.
This chapter really seems/feels rushed but I think most of you will enjoy it. Especially Kabutoiwa. The only thing missing there is Tezuka saying "I can show you the world" and Fuji answering "A dazzling place I never knew." Really! It's true.
Again the places are real (except bear park. Cuddly Dominon's real. Neat place by the way. Search it on the web). So if I lack in the description department do tell. I'll try and fix it. Though recently I noticed myself diverging from the most of what reality shackles with. Great. If I get too off course, tell me about that too. I distorted train schedules here in truth. But let's not talk about that.
I'm at a crisis with Oishi and Eiji. Writing them annoys me. Not because I don't like them but because I find them hard to read. Rather hard to see into the future. They're such a "present-time" group I can't see them much further. Oddly enough it's Oishi that's giving me the most problems.
Okay enough of this really long note. Merry Christmas everyone. :)
PS reviews make nice Christmas presents ;)
Thank you also to Clam.Clam, yoshikochan, yamatoforever, tampabayrocky and Maron(leave your mail please!)
Thank you too reader and to all my previous reviewers.
European Studies:Chapter 8
Fukuoka prefecture was known for baseball, snowboarding and their bachelors. So it was not unusual for men in their mid-twenties, sometimes even in the prime age of forty, to come in companies with neither family nor girl in tow. It caused a ruckus as a darkly tanned girl suddenly began waving at Tezuka's group much too eagerly when no one had even seemed to recognize her.
"Thief-bro!" The name rewarded them with stares of varying degrees. From shocked to scared; wary to unforgiving. And they couldn't do anything about it. Pouting at the faceless reactions she received, the girl zipped for them and hugged Tezuka's free hand. Yukio barely acknowledged her arrival and clung unto his cousin's neck. "Thief-bro! Don't tell me you forgot already."
She was given an appreciating look by the four men. Her knee high boots offered more style than comfort. The shorts she donned revealed too much skin for winter, and the sleeveless army shirt didn't help either.
"Ping-pong! And Senri-niisan told me you'd changed. You're still the same!"
Oishi brightened at this piece of information and shook the girl's hands. "It's nice to meet you Miyuki-san. Thank you for taking care of Tezuka before."
Removing herself from her self-enforced hug, she blew at her nails. "Well thief-bro sucked at tennis so much that I had to teach him."
With piqued interest Eiji joined the conversation. "You taught Tezuka tennis?"
Her cheeks colored at the question and she fumbled for an answer. "I didn't know he was recuperating from an injury then."
"We both had a case of the yips." Tezuka offered as an explanation.
Miyuki beamed and took the bags on Tezuka's left shoulder. "I'm Chitose, Miyuki. I was ordered by Senri-niisan to take care of all of you so I will be your guide for today. Please take care of me." She bowed deeply, her pigtails bouncing as she did so, and the others made their introductory speeches as well. "I heard you booked rooms in the Washington Hotel. So shall we eat in Canal City first?"
Oishi sat immediately, thankful for the opportunity to relieve the burden on his shoulders. He observed as each of his friends settled at the round table. Tezuka was the next to take a seat and chose one directly across him, followed by Yukio who sat on Tezuka's left. Fuji took one seat apart from the bespectacled man, and Eiji deftly cut Miyuki off from taking root on Tezuka's right, leaving her to sit beside the medical student.
They left most of the ordering up to Miyuki and Eiji who had become fast friends during the short walk to the restaurant with Tezuka pitching in with a bowl of clear soup for Yukio. In retrospect, it might have been the best to let Fuji order the meals in an Italian restaurant.
When the waiters had gone Oishi was left to struggle with the silence that loomed over them and the many badly timed glances he'd been receiving from his former doubles partner. Though, somehow, conversation had sparked on their table, he preferred to stay out of it. Requesting an update on Tezuka's his life was already done and over with. If it were not for the mere fact that they considered each other best friends, he might not even be here. Fuji did not seem as reluctant as he first thought on Sumire's going away party. The man was actually enthused to speak of anything regarding London, Oxford and Big Ben, but something stopped him mid-sentence often enough especially when the memory they were recalling dated longer than two years ago. And then there was Eiji.
Eiji was a matter all on his own.
The two of them could keep pretending that there was nothing wrong. They could even fool the best drama troupe. He confided in Tezuka not for advice but for the confidence that their close friendship presented. Tezuka rebuked him silently for the idiocy but made no move nonetheless. With Fuji in the mix he didn't know what to expect. He'd already received many warning looks from him which he felt were unwarranted. Though neither of the two, he concluded, knew what the fight was all about. They could guess but guessing could only do a little better than being told to digest a lie.
That day was still fresh in his mind. Standing Eiji up on what would be their first official date was something he had not planned to do. But it was definitely the best course of action. They both waited for ten hours - Eiji by the fountain and him seated faraway carefully watching and effectively cutting his next class. Neither noticed lunch had passed or the sun had begun to set. The redhead tried calling him, of course, several times even but Oishi was too scared of picking up. He would lose what little resolve he had left.
Much like today.
Ã¢Â€Â½Right, Oishi?Ã¢Â€Â Fuji looked at him meaningfully and tapped his hand lightly.
He acquiesced with a smile though to what he wasnÃ¢Â€ t prepared to know. The arrival of the food let Oishi breathe and put some space between him and his friends. He couldn't handle anymore stimuli. His senses were already overloaded.
In between mouthsful of food, they planned their activities for the day, with Miyuki acting as head. "So if it's decided that you guys are splitting up, I'll escort the ones who'll have most trouble." There was a wave of voices with Oishi's at the forefront telling her they were fine but she brushed them off. "I like playing tour guide. It's a high school girl's dream. Anyway since Fuji-san and Eiji-san will be staying in Canal City, I'll go with Tezuka-san and Yukio-kun to Marine World. But Oishi-san are you sure you're fine staying behind for check in time?"
Fuji tapped Oishi's hand again and that was when he realized he'd been conned.
Fuji and Eiji explored the depths of Canal City from its starting point to its ending spiral. They wove into the shops even going through the Jump collection on the lower ground floor. In the beginning, Oishi stayed but after sometime he'd excused himself to study as Fuji had earlier advised while they waited for three o'clock.
The place was beautiful and Fuji couldn't stop the trigger happy sensation. Eiji commented how they looked like tourist kids but neither minded. The vines cascaded from the balconies of the shopping center. And from their standpoint what they both dubbed as the "Riverwalk" taken from the Starwalk of Hollywood it looked like a waterfall of green. The river fountains sprayed them, giving them light dousing. The water blended with the laughter. The air was heavily veiled with the joy of each person. The mime show continued to impress the crowd unfailingly- from a botched kamehame wave to the impersonation of Van Gough.
A hand drawing from one of the Santa stalls was also something to look forward to. People in different shapes and sizes went for their own portraits, mostly caricatures. The place was brimming with young talents who held greater value than eager and dedicated greens. These artists did not only have skill with their hands but also charisma that only stopped short from a reunion with a lost friend. Their ability to speak extended from their mouths to their fluid movement and riveting eyes. Wherever they focused their customers on, they drank in and communed with each stroke of the pencil. It was testing to keep still when the red dressed elf sketching their faces was very much engaging in conversation.
Fuji massaged his thighs as inconspicuously as he could. The amount of pressure he unknowingly put was enough to bruise and break skin because his muscles complained as loud as if they were in constant motion. He did not want any attention on it but it would be impossible to ignore by someone watching as intimately as their artist. The boy reprimanded him lightly then inquired of his well-being. Eiji poked at him in question. "Just stress." Fuji snaked an arm around his best friend as a self-enforced check and balance.
Santa's elf smacked his lips together and passed the illustration board over to them. "I won't keep you anymore then. It's done. I hope you like it, sirs."
Giving their thanks, they proceeded towards the amusement circle. If one looked up, the area transformed into a coliseum bathed in red, adorned with greenery and bright lights for the season. It affected the sky in a way that gave its infinity a definite border and yet a deeper endlessness. "So Eiji is this article worthy?"
The redhead beat his chest and laughed. "Anything's article worthy as long as I make it."
The sharp feeling from yesterday came back. Previous misgivings on the source of his restlessness drained away. Before Tezuka told the truth, this sensation would still be an unknown danger to him. Even if he now knew he couldn't do much except run for his life. Fuji clasped Eiji's left hand in his and hissed. "I'll take commission for the photographs. We'll make it sell."
"And go into advertising? No way! I love my job." Eiji didn't have to be signaled twice. They ran for the basement. Deciding between the overpopulated escalator and the uninhabited stairs Eiji pulled for the latter option. Jumping three steps at a time, both took to their earlier route. At the last step Eiji nearly skidded causing him to hit the glass door and stumble thereafter to an enlarged comic book scan of Bleach and other Jump titles.
Past two or three Lolita stores and cosplay stalls, through gashapon alleys and blending with the general crowd, they darted for the exit on the far end of the building. In the off chance that they'd lost whoever was after them they crossed the street and hopped over a fence to a neglected city park.
"Well I'm..." Fuji had started to say when his knees buckled, forcing him to kneel on the cold pavement. After mustering the will to say it aloud, he finished with his breath leaving him as well. "...jobless."
The wall of greenery was lined with homeless people who worked on the things people threw away. It was an area well hidden by commerce and development. An old man was fishing on the polluted side of the river for either live catch or garbage. The tents were made up of plastic straw mats people used for transport. It barely provided warmth if at all. Kids were playing by the flower beds and the well-lit tree that served as a main attraction.
"Bocchama, could I ask you to move your foot? It's getting pretty cold." An old lady rasped as she picked on something they accidentally stepped on - a cigarette butt.
Eiji steered his friend away from the site and towards the toilet. "Really, Fuji, are they that well off in Europe?"
Fuji tried the tap and splashed his face with the ice cold water. He needed to wake up. "No, but I was semi-cloistered. Student visa. Dorm life. Not much chance to go out." It was a universal problem. Fuji knew but he just couldn't turn a blind eye. Then again he was being naÃƒÂ¯ve. "You must be thinking of how weird I am."
"No, Fuji. I'm thinking of how people like you saved the world." Eiji patted him on the back then pulled him in a tight hug. "Let's do it one at a time." They headed out and on a random venture chose a kid they'd be giving Christmas a whole new meaning to.
Oishi hefted his bag on the queen sized bed, the only bed in the room, and thanked the bell boy. When no one had returned at six he asked for assistance from the hotel staff and left the keys under the name of Kikumaru and/or Fuji with a spare for Tezuka. No matter how light anyone packed he couldn't bring all their things to the sixth floor alone.
He unzipped the biggest stroller and spread the various textbooks he'd brought along on the floor. Sitting on his haunches, he arranged the heavy reading according to level of difficulty. He had been unsure if he wanted to pursue medicine as a profession until the very end of college. His family was supportive of course but he didn't know if the urge to take it was his own or theirs that they had laid before him.
Flipping open his Atlas of Human Anatomy, he stopped at a random organ. The heart. The heart has two representations known by the world - the anatomic model and the child's. He hovered over the page and formed the latter model to superimpose it on hard cold fact. They were worlds apart in differences. Closing the text, he recited the parts and functions of the muscle. Coronary arteries, parietal peritoneum, visceral peritoneum, right atrium, right ventricle, left atrium, left ventricle...
The lock clicked open and a healthy Yukio came bounding inside. "Shuichirou-niisan! Look, IÃ¢Â€ ve got a dolphin key chain!" The little boy brandished the freebie from Marine World. It was a light blue dolphin curved in a perfect jump and was just about the size of Yukio's hand. "Ano ne, ano ne, they let me feed the dolphins and pat it on the head! There were lots of fishies and Yukio couldn't believe his eyes. There were colorful fishies. Mitsu-niichan even told me a story of the angel fish and the devil fish."
"Really? That's great. Would that be the one where angel fish guard even the devil fish who loves to prey on him?"
Yukio nodded his head hurriedly, and Tezuka poked him on the forehead. "Keep doing that and your head will really fall off." He hoisted his cousin off his best friend and seated him on the bed. "Shuichirou-nii is studying. Let's not disturb him for awhile, okay?"
"I wasn't really." Oishi fixed himself on the floor to sit Indian style and more dignified. "Seems like you guys had lots of fun. Where's Miyuki?"
Yukio bounced on top of the bed which warranted another light scolding from his cousin. "She took off as soon as we got inside the park. Said it was too expensive for her."
"Didn't you get that from Atobe as well? He's shelling out a lot for us. I feel like I've accumulated a million yen debt I can't pay."
Tezuka paused in thought then proceeded with his unpacking. "He owes me. Big time. Anyway, we leave what time tomorrow? Yukio, let's get you cleaned up." The little boy went into the bathroom dutifully and did as his cousin ordered.
"Train leaves at 15:10; breakfast is at seven and checkout is at one. We can have late lunch at the station." Oishi informed his friend. His stomach growled though it didn't feel as if he'd done much between lunch and dinner. "What about food tonight?"
"Order. We'll put it on Atobe's tab."
Oishi contemplated on Tezuka's current mean streak and chose to defend Atobe even if it would never be appreciated by the young entrepreneur. "Tezuka, Yukio won't mind our sleeping together, right?"
Miyuki helped them with checking in the hotel at three even if their scheduled arrival was at six. She had come back the previous night specifically for their schedules so as to smooth out any problem that might occur, emphasizing that tourists shouldn't even bother with such inane things such as hotels. Her time of departure would get her to Aso, Kumamato earlier and she'd be with either her brother or her unlabeled boyfriend the rest of the way to Miyazaki. The farewell session at lunch would have been amusing to a third party as each sleepy head tried to get out of the girl's bear hug to no avail.
Village Aso was a small tight knit community. One could traverse in it the whole day and have a second round. Even though Oishi still rented a car for themselves. Everyone speculated it had been his being cooped up in the hotel with only books, bags and books that brought this about. Eiji offered to go to a variety of places but the majority was for the air balloon festival.
As per usual in a cultural activity the streets were jam-packed with parlor game stalls. They bought a number of Takoyaki plates and tried a hand at the different games, with the Tezuka-Yukio pair showing the most fervor for them. With the night beginning to settle, they barricaded around one large air balloon that would fit all of them together. The conductor laughed and let them board as soon as he was geared up.
"First time in a hot air balloon?" Four nods and one shake. "Well let's take you away. Fireworks will start in an hour so we're going to have to go faaaar away before that happens."
"Will we still get to see the fire-flowers?" Yukio piped as he settled on the stool at their feet.
"Yup, kid but at a safe distance. Can't have you on fire now, can we?" Upon closer inspection the conductor was female, and Yukio chose it appropriate to state his revelation. He received a noogie for it. "Anyone who's scared can back out now before we set out." All of them had a tinge of fright painted in them but no one wanted to sit this out. Accepting their witless reactions as an affirmative, she confirmed lift off.
She turned up the gas burner. Soon the distance between the basket floor and the asphalt had grown in expanse that one could only swallow any trepidation he had left. Pointing to the north she formed the figure of a mountain. "That's where Kabutoiwa is. Been there?" She said over the sound of the wind as it picked up. "It's great for young lads like you. You seem like the athletic type. Then again there's that Fureai Farm. Plenty, plenty things to do in Aso village. Many hot springs too." The lady pilot trailed off as she concentrated on the task at hand. Danger was not something you played and tempted.
"Makes you feel like we're high school kids." Oishi averred.
"Like road tripping." Eiji supplied.
"Like time traveling!" Yukio suggested. Friendly debate erupted between the two with the precursor acting as juror.
Tezuka observed quietly. Road trips would stop time. Time travel would erase the very definition of an instant. Outside the basket the bulbs on the decorations became small penlights. Merriment was drowned out by the gusts of air yet the festive mood reached them. He glanced at the other who kept out of the banter.
Fuji had been extracting his camera from a hidden pocket when he felt Tezuka's stare. He beamed, taking Tezuka's picture.
Tezuka returned the gesture and joined the discussion. "No, it's like picture taking."
"Exactly." Fuji voiced, shooting it in rapid succession.
The blast of the gun powder cut their conversation short. The light show was beginning. Reds splattered over greens and yellows. One after the other, rockets zoomed to spread its simpering lights. Blues sprouted in the black sky similar to hydrangeas. The throng of people below them gave sounds of varying appreciation. To all the people in the balloons it was more than just beautiful. The attraction was captivating. It was as if you could pluck the blazing flowers from their stems and keep them burning for eternity.
The last explosion covered the sky with innumerable flora and marked midnight. Melody entered their ears, and Fuji was the first to recognize the Christmas carols for what they were. He laughed at the slurred attempt of his friends at the western greetings and they all laughed with him. Kyushu was probably the only island in Japan that didn't treat the Christian holiday as a commercialized hype.
It wasn't all that surprising to find time had flown by the end. Dinner was bought from the nearest convenience store and eaten inside the Toyota. It was half past two when they entered the hotel. Yukio slept soundly on an appendage of his cousin, and the adults were envious of it. They took to their rooms and closed the doors for the night.
Oishi readied his things for their leave tomorrow as Tezuka tucked his cousin to sleep. He folded his clothes and found a brochure of Aso as a tourist spot. It featured the mountainous range and the hot springs earlier mentioned. "Weren't you planning on hiking?"
"Not with my cousin. Why?" Stepping out of the bathroom, Tezuka sat beside his friend. He saw the pamphlet and glazed over the thought. "Ah, Kabutoiwa would be nice at sunrise."
Oishi raised an eyebrow. If he remembered correctly Tezuka had the same reaction when the conductor had talked of the viewpoint. "You've gone there?"
"No. That's what the flyer says." He replied pointing to a section with exclusive information for hikers and sightseers. Reading it aloud made him want to head out even in this late hour.
Oishi resumed his folding and packing. He had always been proud when he learned how to hook Tezuka and when to reel it in. "You know, it will take time before you get to hike somewhere new again." He paused in thought. "I'm pretty sure Tokyo mountains already bore you."
Tezuka chortled a never but it died out.
"I'd go with you but I'd fall asleep on my feet at this rate. If you go there now you'll just be in time for the sunrise you've been waiting for." Oishi stood to prepare the bath. When he had not heard Tezuka move, he threw at the man the car keys. At the back of his mind he knew he'd regret sleeping away the three day vacation but he'd blame it on the travel. His body couldn't acclimatize fast enough, and grades and health always came first. Kyushu was just too darned far from his civilization. "Don't worry about Yukio, and if by chance you get stuck somewhere we'll meet at the station at three."
The bathroom door closed, and Tezuka was left to finger the metal. The opportunity to see Kabutoiwa had been one of the main reasons he came after all. He kissed Yukio good night and made a dash for the car. He almost jumped out of his skin when he had caught a glimpse of Fuji beside him.
"Where do you think you're going?"
Tezuka buckled up before easing out of his parking space. He'd have to cross out any real trekking if Fuji was to tag along but he didn't mind. "I wanted to see if the in between of heaven and earth really exists."
Fuji chuckled at the determined look on his friend's face. "And you're not taking anybody, huh?"
"And you are what?"
"A stowaway in hiding." Fuji stated in a sing song voice, holding his knees together. He pressed scan on the radio and it skipped stations every minute or so. When Tezuka had thought he'd finally made up his mind he would change the song again. It was tempting to hold the other man still and just as distracting.
No one took to the road this late at night. The gentle slope up the majority of the valley was spent in quiet companionship. The radio station Fuji had settled with buzzed pleasantly and served as a filler throughout the drive. They welcomed the cool breeze the night offered and kept the windows open. Pampas grass grew taller and taller in average as they went uphill. Its flowers bent with the wind, silently obeying it. Pity they were dead with the season. Even now they provided beautiful imagery of silver feathers unfurling from its body.
They alighted upon reaching the observation deck of the mountain. Fuji whistled. "I wish I had brought the camera when I snuck in."
"I thought you were glued to that thing." It wasn't contempt in his voice, Tezuka debated later, but after twenty blackmail threats multiplied by a thousand from those who benefited from the same material, he'd had adequate experience with it.
Fuji moved to sit on the hood of the car. Stretching, he patted the area beside him. "There is value to the absence of proof. Moments are cherished with the heart rather than memory, Tezuka."
The melancholy in Fuji's voice was hard to miss. Tezuka had not forgotten his promise to Yuuta and wondered really on how much help he could give. All of them expected a more eventful day but that was quickly dwindling away to nothing but a wish. Everyone presumed that time spent together would give Fuji a jolt in the subconscious. Nothing changed.
As sunrise was still about an hour away Tezuka surmised, he smiled. Locking the car, he offered to take Fuji's hand. "Then let's take you somewhere you'll never forget."
Fuji had never taken to uncertainty well but with his friend it was always that way. He searched for any sign that this was a joke for this place was just as new to him. Tezuka stood with a slight bow and an extended arm. It was hard to say no. Fuji slipped his hand in Tezuka's and mumbled. "I'll kill you if you lead me to a rooftop." That was the first time Fuji heard him laugh unrestrained. It was a low reverberating tune that flowed deep from its origin.
They took to the forages of the mountain. Without the proper shoes, they stumbled and tripped often enough that Fuji could keep track of it. If they came to close to a tall patch of green it would cut at their bare skin but not once did Tezuka let go during their slow climb. The viewing point of Kabutoiwa was sufficiently high up that it didn't take them more than thirty minutes to arrive the end of the trail. True to his word, it was more enchanting than anywhere Fuji had been to. They stood at a place just above the lower clouds. He could almost reach out and hold the white puffs of plume. The silvery grass towered over them with its flowers tickling his nose. And in the horizon the day had just begun.
"You know," Fuji murmured. He was reluctant to remove his hand and relished the few seconds it would stay that way. "I feel like I've done this before."
"Maybe you have." was Tezuka's immediate reply. He led him to a rock bed, and they sat watching the rest of the day greet them. "Does it matter? We're cherishing moments more precious than memories can remember."
A knock on his door disturbed Eiji's sleep. Rubbing his eyes at the visitor's impatience, he hollered. "Hold your horses and wait!" He honestly didn't mind spending his vacation in La La Land. It was much more interesting if he had the time to explore. He matted his hair down as much pleasingly possible and grumbled on the way to the intruder. Swinging the door for effect, he growled. "What?"
Oishi blinked. "It's twelve. Aren't you eating yet?"
Realization warmed over him. Apologizing under his breath, he let his friend in. "Has Fuji come back? I couldn't sleep until four because of him."
Stepping inside carefully, Oishi closed the door behind him. "He isn't here?"
"Not since around two thirty. He went over to you room to borrow the map. We lost ours." Eiji pulled a fresh shirt on and washed his face. "Not that he isn't old enough but where is he? Leon's been calling him."
"He's probably with Tezuka then. He went to Kabutoiwa last night." Eiji looked at him through the mirror while he brushed his teeth. It was comical how they were still acting comfortable around each other.
"So I'm guessing Yukio isn't with you either." Oishi added later.
Eiji spat the foam in his mouth and attempted at garble-speak. "Yu-chan's missing?" The fierce look on Eiji's face startled Oishi for a second time. He dropped all pretenses and took out the stick in his mouth. "Why didn't you tell me in the first place?"
"That's what I came here for."
"No you didn't. You came here to eat and dammit, Oishi I'm sure you've been pacing outside the door for an hour." Wiping his face with the towel he fixed the front buttons of his shirt and pulled on a wool cap. "Why? Can't you trust me?"
Sidestepping the question he deadpanned. "He said he was going out with an ojichan."
Eiji didn't know whether he should be angry at Oishi for being so lax or with himself for being livid. "Yu-chan's a kid for crying out loud! When you were his age your parents wouldn't have let you alone with Tezuka either!" The other man paled at the argument.
The redhead sighed. "Does he know?"
"He's not answering his phone."
"And Fuji's is here." There were only two ways they could do this and both required help from the police. One was to start searching immediately. The other was to wait and hope he comes back safe. "Let's inform the desk and instruct them on how to handle Tezuka. We'll go to the police from there."
"Your cellphone's ringing."
Tezuka blinked from his disgruntled state. They had fallen asleep at the peak, supporting each other's weight sandwiched by a tree and stone slab. Their wake caused only the increasing warmth on their skin as the day inched away. He squinted at the crossroad, almost making a wrong turn. "Could you get that for me? I don't trust myself to multitask yet."
Fuji dipped his head in search for the offending piece of contraption. "Eiji. Sorry about last night."
Kikumaru could have woken the dead with his scream. Tezuka hit the breaks hard with shock and yanked the phone from Fuji's hold. "What do you mean Yukio's missing?"
Fuji sequestered the abused phone from the older man's grip and put it on speaker mode. He motioned for him to keep driving slowly. There was an audible gulp before Eiji related what Oishi had told him. He stuttered to add more. "The suspect has also contacted the hotel. I'll play the recording:
"(Sato Yukio is with me. Please tell Tezuka-kun to not worry and start calling unnecessary people. He'll be back by 4:45) End of record. His background was pretty noisy as it is. We couldn't understand the rest. We've been trying to contact you for an hour now. We cancelled all thought of calling the police after hearing this. Oishi's been on the edge since this morning."
The voice in the recording was vaguely familiar to Tezuka but he couldn't pin it on anyone. "...We'll meet you in the lobby."
Fear held Fuji close when Tezuka speeded downhill. He touched Tezuka's left arm with his hand and whispered, "Recklessness won't magically produce your cousin." He held on tighter than expected that it was almost hurtful.
Tezuka pursed his lips and conceded. The vice grip on his left arm was loosened but not let go of until the hotel came into view. Oishi ran up to the car and even helped Tezuka out of it. As much as he wanted to point the finger, it was of no use. It would just destroy everything. No one expected this to happen.
Eiji jogged towards them and proposed, "Let's split up. I'm done with waiting."
"I might even have an idea where he is." Fuji took on a pensive air and continued, "But no, I'm not completely sure so we might as well divide."
The decision was left to Tezuka in the end. He vetoed them and opted for a compromise. "Oishi, Eiji, both of you need to get back in time tomorrow. Head for the station now before you're late. We'll try to catch up."
"We'll take care of your things here." Oishi offered. When he wouldn't, couldn't look at anyone in the eye a soft touch on his shoulder had made him jerk his head up.
"Stop worrying Oishi, we're going to find Yukio. No one's blaming you." Fuji assured him soothingly. It was an assuaging thought and though it was not reason enough Oishi took some liberties in forgiving himself only if Yukio was unscathed. "I'll take a northbound route."
"Then I'll take south, meet here at six." Tezuka announced, ready to depart. He returned the keys to his best friend and patted him on the back. "Fuji's right. I'll leave our things with you."
Eiji handed Fuji his phone before reminding them: "Train leaves at 5:15. Try to come back earlier!"
The first things Fuji saw were Yukio's tears, a stranger, the hand holding Yukio's and a forceful tugging. Fatigued, he wasn't thinking straight anymore. Instinct took over him. He ran towards the twosome. "Who do you think - " he heard him begin to say and punched him squarely on the face. The man fell with the impact and had his face greet the floor.
He made a half-turn and faced the boy. "Yukio, come on, let's go. Don't talk to strangers like that!"
Yukio screamed. Fuji was grabbed from behind and thrown into the air in one great sweep. The man he attacked a while ago was hunched on his legs, waiting and before he fell gave him two strong blows on the abdomen. He flew across the park for a good two meters before sliding against the gravel.
The assault made his body numb all over. It wasn't just his abdomen that hurt. His whole right side ached from the friction. His hearing was impaired by static, his sleeve was torn, and a metallic taste washed over his mouth. He struggled to stand. Defending five year-old kids from bullies in the past was different from defending them now, especially when the little brats grew up to be strong twenty year-old men and the victims were still just as small. He coughed out some blood. When he had done that, the sounds became clearer, and he could hear Yukio screaming for his father.
"Papa, stop it! Stop it Syuusuke-niisan! Why are you fighting?! Don't fight!" Yukio was crying for a whole different reason now. He hugged his father's legs and made sure to keep them locked in place. He peeked at Fuji and whimpered.
Fuji groaned. /It was his father. His father. /He stood and covered his stomach with his two hands. The pain wouldn't go away anytime soon. It was as if he was reliving the attack Kirihara gave him a hundred times over and then some. The slow walk back to the pair was excruciating and humiliating. When he had gathered the courage to look at the man he had assailed and so wonderfully lost to, he saw the emotion that Yukio's father held was neither fury nor annoyance. It was pure unadulterated shock. He dipped his head in shame, doing so he saw Yukio still crying on his father's pant leg mumbling weakly.
"Yukio, I'm leaving." Sato stared at him then patted his son's head. "You're the friend of Kunimitsu? Forgive me, I need to leave. Apply some ointment on your right arm and try not to get your stomach hit by anything else. You'll be fine in a day or two." He paused and eased out of the kid's vice grip. "Don't let him follow me." For a moment Fuji thought he saw a flicker of regret then it was gone. Sato pushed his son towards the brunette and bade his good-bye, briskly walking away.
Up till now, Yukio had kept as quiet as possible. Though agitated, he never interfered in the short exchange Fuji and his father had. When he had realized his father wasn't going to come back and that he wasn't being taken with him, he ran towards the same direction as fast as his feet could carry him. But Sato was already gone from the periphery of either.
Fuji was at a loss for words. He had foolishly butted in because of panic, fatigue and paranoia. His body hurt, but hearing Yukio's wails tore at his heart. He ran after him not knowing what he was doing anymore. Catching up in no time, he blocked his path, kneeled and held him in an awkward hug. He didn't exactly hear the conversation, but whatever it was Yukio didn't seem to care as long as he was with his father. The boy was still thrashing about, fighting Fuji to free himself. Yukio wanted his father to take him home. Then all too suddenly, everything stopped. The sniffling was gone. The small hands pounding on his chest had fallen dead. Yet Fuji couldn't let go. He understood the boy. These feelings were akin to a lost friend knocking at his door.
"Yukio," Fuji whispered and hugged the crying kid tighter. "What does your mother look like?"
The question surprised them both but Yukio managed to answer. His mama was beautiful. Thick long soft curly black hair. Yellow orbs that seemed to glow the same way that rock shone. Tall. Graceful. Pretty. Warm. Soft. Loving. His voice cracked at the very end, but persevered.
"You love her very much, ne?" Hopefully what helped Yuuta fifteen years ago would help now. He pulled away and tenderly kissed the kid's brow, staying there for a few seconds, then his right cheek, then his left eye. There was a comforting smile on his face and whatever happened in their first meeting was forgotten. He stroked Yukio's hair lovingly, and gazed into his eyes for a few seconds. It wasn't pity. They were kindred spirits. He rested his forehead on Yukio's, lidded his eyes and murmured. "Close your eyes and if only for a few seconds, imagine I'm her."
Yukio didn't need to close his eyes. He threw himself at Fuji, calling him 'mama' over and over again until the sun set and he fell asleep.
When Tezuka agreed to split up, he had not thought of the possibility Fuji's pursuers coming up. He berated himself for being stupid. He had not thought period. Fuji sounded pained and tired over the phone. Barely able to keep the mouthpiece close the man was faint as he tried hard to describe where he was. Entrance of bear park - wherever that was.
According to the tourist map, a zoo park was near their hotel but after having gone on the opposite end it took him longer than he felt it should.
The bright lights of Cuddly Dominion had begun to shut down and the fireworks from the balloon festival were starting up ahead. He ran for the entrance gate and asked, more like demanded where his friend and cousin were. After some incoherent descriptions Tezuka got his bearings and did it over from the beginning, even took out pictures in the process. "Have you seen these two people?"
The security guard scrutinized the pictures trying to bring forth some recollection of the faces that had passed him. With no luck, he shook his head. "No one's inside except the workers. We close early these days."
Tezuka quickly tucked away the photos. It was one thing to have a little boy missing; having an adult injured and pursued with him was another. "Are you absolutely sure? They may have been attacked or assaulted."
"The animals housed here are completely friendly sir unless they were attacked first." A new voice parried.
Tezuka frowned and faced Chitose, Senri. "Not the animals, Chitose. Have you seen them or at least one of them?"
The Hawaiian dressed man shrugged. "Hundreds of kids flock here, Tezuka. Do you honestly believe I'd recognize the boy? I'm worrying half the time that one of them will start wreaking havoc. As for Fuji, it's a negative. He hasn't been anywhere inside." When Tezuka didn't look convinced, he raked at his hair and sighed. "Look, I'd help you if I could but strictly no one's allowed inside past closing time. It's nearly five and we stop admittance at 4:30. I'm sure they're not there. Do you have anything else you're going on?"
"4:37. Entrance of bear park."
The security guard started with a choke. "Cuddly Dominion is fairly new sir, but if your friend came here when he was around the age of your cousin he might know of the public park hosting bear like features. Locals called it bear park. It's also a five minute walk from here."
"Tell me how to get there."
It was difficult to pinpoint on the tourist map but the nostalgic smile on the young guardsman didn't leave. "If Chitose-san allows, I can take you there."
The manager didn't even contest it internally. "Just be back in time for the change in shifts, Masa-san. I'll cover for you, and Tezuka, this is for taking care of my sister."
Tezuka didn't think it was something he needed to be thanked for but took it graciously. He bowed low to both men and asked his guide to take lead. As he followed, he caught sight of the train station and was glad he asked Oishi to go on a head with their baggage. They might still make it. More than that, he'll get the other two in safer ground faster. The security guard was correct. They were by the swings.
When they had approached them Tezuka asked Masa to get any form of first aid he'd be able to get hold of. Fuji was hunched in a guarding position for Yukio. He pinned the boy to the wall not only effectively blocking anyone from getting to the youngster but also baring himself as an impromptu shield.
Fuji regained some level of lucidity and croaked. "I met Yukio-kun's father."
Asking for some space, Masa peered at the two. He took of his cap and efficiently began what he was trained to do. "You should report who did this to you sir."
When Fuji had stopped in mid-sentence, Tezuka panicked. "He lost consciousness." The security guard swabbed the right arm with iodine solution in a circular motion and cleaned the rest with alcohol as a temporary replacement for hydrogen peroxide.
Helplessness was unfamiliar to Tezuka. It was the prevalent emotion now. "Will we be able to catch the 5:15 train? I believe he'll be safer home."
Masa looked at him straight in the eye and broke out into a lopsided grin. "I'll run with you."
End Chapter 8