THE DISTANT FUTURE
CHAPTER 3: CONNECTIONS
-EIGHT YEARS AGO-
When Jude arrived at the meeting spot, Leia has already bought the tickets and handed one to him. Without any further delay, everybody boarded the ship that its destination was Leronde Seaheaven. Gaius and Rowen also joined this trip. They sat together with Elize, Leia and Alvin. And somehow, it didn't matter whether they were on train or bus or ship, Jude's seat was always next to Ludger. Elle usually sat between them, but today, she chose to sit with the Fractured Milla.
The young doctor lifted his head a little to take a quick look at the mirror-image of a close friend he once knew. Unlike the original person, the Fracture Milla appeared to be more human without the Great Spirits. Aside that, both of them looked exactly the same, only in different clothes.
As usual, Ludger didn't talk much. Deep in thoughts, the man kept his eyes at scenery behind the glass windows. Meanwhile, Elle and Fracture Milla were playing and talking cheerfully in front of him. Honestly, these simple moments really put his mind at ease and gave him more energy to continue his work. Thus, Jude decided to go over his research notes.
Only after a while, he heard a snore.
Jude turned over, and the agent has already fallen asleep with his head leaning on the window. Elle also did the same. Closing her eyes tightly, the little girl slept peacefully on the fractured Milla's lap. Jude and Fractured Milla looked at two sleepers. For some reasons, both of them gave out soft chuckles. This wasn't the first time Ludger suddenly fallen asleep. He did it few times when they travelled on trains. However, it was rare to see Ludger and Elle dropped off to sleep at the same time.
"The two of them must have been busy lately."- Said the doctor with his eyes were still on the sleeping friend- "I'm a bit worried because they tend to push themselves too hard, especially our Ludger here."
"Yes, indeed."- The blond woman nodded while her fingers were gently going through Elle's hair- "You see, he took many jobs last week. Most of them are monster extermination requests. Of course, Ludger asked Elle to stay at home with me, but she refused. That's why I also gave him a hand there since I had nothing to do."- Rubbing her tired eyes, she continued- "Even so, there were lots of requests that Ludger did alone. It seems that he wants to pay off his debt as soon as possible."
"I see. I truly wish I could help him about it, but at this moment... I can't."- Feeling guilty, Jude kept his voice low. His eyes were back on his research notes again, but his mind was wandering somewhere- "It's a bit strange that Ludger suddenly so hurried about paying his debt, though. I mean, he was taking it slowly and easy few weeks ago. What is he trying to do?"
The blond companion tilted her head a bit as if she remembered something- "About that, I might know what Ludger is up to."
"You knew?"- The doctor couldn't hide his surprise in his voice.
"Well, I might."- Fractured Milla repeated-"I actually asked Ludger about it few days ago. He normally would avoid answering me these kinds of private questions, but that day, he was too exhausted to think straight. And so, he told me that it would be terrible to be in debt if you were going to have a lover."
Hearing this made Jude almost drop his notebook. He stammered, trying his best not to speak too loud- "W-what? Did you say... a lover? Ludger, he has a lover?"
The blonde frowned- "I don't know. If you are curious, why don't you ask him? Both of you seem to be very close, so he may tell you more."- Jude jolted at what Milla just said. And before he could ask her a bit more, she gave a sleepy yawn- "Well, if you excuse me... I think I need some rest, too. Call me when we arrive, okay?"- Then, she closed her eyes and quickly drifted into her slumber, leaving Jude with many questions behind.
Taking a deep breath to calm down, the young doctor stared blankly at his research papers. The white hair never mentioned that he was in relationship, so Jude always thought that his friend was still single. Come to think of it, they only knew each other few months ago, but he has already considered Ludger as someone very important to his life. And now, knowing that the agent might have special feelings for someone, a sharp pain could be felt in his heart. Was he jealous? Jude wondered. If that was the case, why did he feel this way? This feeling, he has never experienced before.
"Am I... really in love with him?"
Fortunately, nobody was around to hear his mumbles. They were all asleep.
"Does it hurt?"- There is no reply- "How are you feeling now?"- Again, only silence answers him. The black-haired doctor clears his throat and decides to try again. He raises his voice a little bit louder- "Hello, Jonathan? Can you hear me?"
With a startle, the young boy sitting in front him nervously speaks- "Y-yes...? W-What is it?"
Raising one of his eyebrows, Jude worriedly asks- "Are you all right?"- Jonathan slightly nods even though his face is so pale now- "You were deep in thoughts, weren't you? Don't worry. I do it all the time."- Says Jude as he slowly continues to bandage up the boy's arm- "I'm really sorry that I don't have enough mana to heal you and your sister properly now..."
"You went to help the survivors of the sunken ship accident, didn't you? It's fine. We understand, Doctor Mathis."
There was a short pause when Jonathan called him as "Doctor Mathis", Jude notices. Somehow, it gives him a feeling that the boy actually wanted to call him as something else. In addition, it's a little strange that Jonathan knew what he truly did today. Is his "do-gooder" nature well-known to everybody?
Jonathan and Lily, whom little Ludger claims that they are his friends, Jude hates to be rude, but he admits that there is something very strange about this siblings. Both of them still look very young, only around fifteen or sixteen. However, the way they speak and behave, it's more mature than he would expect from the teenagers at the same age. At first, Jude thought that the siblings were Spirius Corporation agents because of their military uniform, but Alvin has quickly confirmed to him that Spirius agent's uniform is totally different from theirs. And thus, Jude can't help feeling curious about this pair. Where are they from? How did they know Ludger? How did they end up wounded? He hasn't known anything yet.
"I have checked your sister's injuries, Jonathan."- Speaks Elize. She's standing next to the bed, which the young girl Lily and Ludger are sleeping on- "Asides from some scratches and bruises, she has some cuts as well. Fortunately, the cuts are not serious so I was able to take care of them. About Ludger..."- The blond-haired girl pauses a few seconds as if she is trying to find the right words to say- "...He's fine. He only has few scratches over his hands and knees. Now, a nice sleep is what the two need to recover from exhaustion. Food should help their empty stomach, too."
"I see. That's good to hear."- Jonathan sighs with relief. Standing up, he then bows down in front of his saviors- "Thank you very much for helping me, my sister and my friend. I really appreciate your kindness. How can I repay you?"
"It's all right! You don't need to pay us anything!"- The squishy toy answers with his cheerful voice- "Friends should help each other, and Ludger here is-"
"Ah! Stop it, Teppo!"- His owner quickly covers the puppet's mouth before it can finish its sentence- "P-Please don't mind him!"- She laughs nervously.
"...OK."- The older brother nods slightly. And he doesn't look very convinced at what Teppo said- "Still, is there anything I can do for you? You see, it makes me feel bad if I'm not able to return the favor. My parents always taught me to repay the debt of kindness."
"If that's the case... Maybe, you can repay us by answering some simple questions. Do you mind?"- Jude decides to take this chance in order to gather more information.
"...I don't mind. Please go ahead."
That is such a dryly reply. The doctor thinks and looks at his friend. Elize only gives him a nod, implying that he should be the one who asks the questions. Honestly, he isn't sure where to start because tons of questions are floating inside his head. Closing his eyes a bit, he breathes slowly. And when he opens his eyes again, the first question begins.
"Were you on the... You know, the sunken ship accident, were you one of the passengers?"
There is a tint of sadness or guilty at the corner of the young man's eyes. He quickly hides it by adjusting his hat down- "Yes, we were. A few days ago, Ludger suddenly asked us to visit a place called as Leronde Seaheaven..."
Both the blond girl and her puppet open their eyes wide- "Leronde Seaheaven? Isn't that...?"
"Yes, it's my hometown."- The spyrite researcher confirms and has a glance at the sleeping white-haired boy. This is such a surprise, and it urges him to ask more- "So, why did he want to go there?"
Jonathan shakes his head- "I don't know. He didn't tell us."
Somehow, Jude has a certain feeling that this boy here hasn't told him the whole truth yet. Something is still amiss, something that the boy refuses to share. Nevertheless, it would be a bad choice if he continued to push it further. They already had enough problems for today- "Thank you, Jonathan. I believe that we should leave you to get some rest first. We can continue later when all of you recover."
"If anything happens, please call us. We stay in the next rooms or you can find us downstairs, at the living room of the hotel."- Says Elize with a soft smile on her lips. She leaves the room after putting a blanket on Ludger and Lily.
The black-haired doctor still stays. Standing up, he walks to the bed to take a closer look at his old partner now in his child form. The memory when he watched the adult Ludger falling asleep on the train, it's coming back to him. He lets himself lose in those memories for few seconds before speaking again:
"How did you and your sister meet Ludger?"
This time, the silence is longer.
The noise of the chair being moved when someone stands up can be heard. Next, it's the sound of the footsteps heading towards the window. Still avoiding meeting the doctor's eyes, the older brother tries to keep his focus outside, on the streets below now is lit brightly by street lamps.
Finally, Jonathan raises his voice to break the silence.
"About that, I will tell you another time. I promise."
Trying to hide his disappointment, Jude gives out a slight sigh. It seems that he will need to find another way to seek the answers from the siblings.
Jonathan breathes a long sigh of relief when he is finally alone to gather his thoughts. Minutes ago, he could feel the tension, the pressure between him and Jude when the man asked him how he met Ludger. It has never been easy for him to discuss a serious topic with Jude Mathis. Those golden eyes of his, it seems to be able to pierce through and read Jonathan's mind. That is why Jonathan avoided looking at it.
"Now that they have met, I will need to think another plan."- The older brother mumbles, trying to concentrate- "Our injuries aren't going to be healed soon and keeping him around will slow us down."- Leaning against the cold wall, he casts a quick glance at the little Ludger. Lily and he have done well in protecting this special boy so far, and they truly love him. They always do. To be parted from him again, it will only bring them the feeling of guilt and loneliness.
From the pocket of his jacket, Jonathan takes out a silver pocket watch. It's a very strange pocket watch without numbers and the two needles. Nonetheless, the gears inside are still moving steadily. Somehow, listening to the tick of the watch usually calms him down. It gives him courage, and also reminds him that time will not stop for him. He must continue his quest.
With a frown, Jonathan tucks his pocket watch back to his pocket- "Anyway, we should take care of the sea monster first, or else more people will lose their family members. And before that, I definitely need to get some sleep. Food and explanation can wait."
The young man yawns and stretches his sore arms. Slowly, he drags his heavy body to the bed and lies down. However, uneasy feeling rushes through his body right after the moment he closes his eyes. Jonathan immediately gets out of his bed and heads to the window. This room provides him a clear view of what happens in front of the hotel, so he can see and identify who is coming or leaving this place.
There is nobody visiting the hotel now, but soon, there will be.
"No way!"- Grunts Jonathan in disbelief as he moves away from the window- "She's tracking us down faster than I thought! Lily, wake up! We must leave-"
"I've already done that."- Replies Lily while she is rubbing her tired eyes, forcing them to stay awake- "I'm able to feel her presence, too. She will arrive here in fifteen minutes, which is enough for us to leave without anyone notices. And 'us' here, I mean, two of us... If we brought Ludger with us, it would be..."
Lily seems to be hesitating to speak her thoughts, but as usual, Jonathan understands his sister at best. Lowering his voice enough for only his sister to hear, he says- "Yes, it would be dangerous for him to go with us. Our journey is getting more difficult each day. At this rate, we won't be able to protect him."- He touches at his injured arm with a frown- "If Ludger stays here, his old comrades will be sure to take care of him. They can provide him a new home; and he can have a new life without fighting and sacrificing himself again."
"That sounds good, but I can't shake of the thoughts... Brother, are we... really doing the right thing?"- The younger sister asks.
This time, Jonathan doesn't give his answer right away. He makes his way to the door and opens it quietly. Lily follows him, still patiently waiting for his reply. When they are outside of the room, he finally lets the words escape his mouth:
"I'm sorry, Lily. Honestly, I don't know."
That is also his confession.
Jude and Elize enter the hotel lobby, where Alvin and Elle are taking their seats in front of the fireplace. Elle is still keeping her eyes down on a round object in her palm. It's the silver pocket watch which was belonged to Ludger, Jude bets. In the meantime, Alvin is talking to the new guest whom they are familiar with.
"We're back, everyone!"- Says Teppo cheerfully.
"Hey, welcome back! While waiting for you guys, I gave the full summary of today news to my wife."- Says Alvin as he turns his eyes to the young woman who is sitting next to him- "She demanded to know everything, you see."
"Hello there, Leia!"- Jude greets his childhood friend with a smile- "How are you doing?"
"Hi, Jude!"- The high-spirited journalist greets him with a friendly embrace instead- "Hmmm? It seems to me that you have lost some weights. How many times have we told you not to work yourself too hard, Jude?"
"I'm totally fine, Leia!"- The doctor assures his friend while embarrassedly pushing her away. He never gets used to a hug in the public- "When did you arrive here?"
"I only arrived here ten minutes ago, right after Alvin called me."- Replies Leia as she takes a quick look around the hotel lobby- "The kids are upstairs, aren't they?"
Elize nods- "They weren't injured terribly, so we were able to heal their wounds. They still need some time to recover fully, though."
"I see."- Says Leila- "Since they are the survivors of the tragedy, I will have to interview them later. My journalist hunch tells me that they may know something. Of course, I'm not doing it now. They need a good rest first."
"Leia's hunch is right on the spot. However, I have a feeling that even if she asks them, they won't tell her anything useful."- Jude thinks inside his head- "Maybe, little Ludger can tell us about them. In that case, I will have to find a way to separate him from the siblings."
"Hey, Jude? What's the matter?"- His thoughts are soon interrupted by Leia's worried voice.
Leia immediately continues- "You can't hide from me, Jude. Let me guess. Are you thinking about Ludger?"
The young doctor flinches and realises that all his friends are looking at him and waiting for his respond, including Elle. With a defeated sigh, he admits- "It's obvious, isn't it? Although we have nothing to prove that boy is Ludger or not, I'm very happy to see him. There's no word to describe how glad I am."- His trembling words trail off into a mumble- "If this is a dream, then I'll refuse to wake up."
"Oh, Jude..."- Elle slowly stands up and walks closer to him- "It's okay. I also feel the same. And I believe all of us do."- Everyone nods in agreement- "Ludger's companions may tell us something about him. Have you asked them yet?"
Jude shakes his head- "I did, but they refuse to answer."
"You're bad at questioning people, Jude."- Alvin lets out a soft chuckle- "I suppose that we should leave this matter to the professional. Honey, are you ready for this task?"
Leia replies confidently- "You bet! I won't give up until I learn the whole truth!"
"Shall we continue our investigation tomorrow?"- Elize suggests- "We've had a long day, after all. I believe that all of us are very tired now."
Jude smiles weakly while trying to hold off his yawn- "Yeah. It's getting late, so you guys should go home. I'll stay here tonight to watch over them. Let's meet here again tomorrow morning."
"That sounds good to me."- Says the businessman as he stands up and rubs his empty stomach- "By the way, we should grab something to eat before heading home. I'm starving!"
"Same here! Let's go to the nearby restaurant. I think that they're still..."
The female journalist stops when the main door of the hotel suddenly opens, and a figure sternly steps inside. It's a long blond-hair woman with a pair of ruby eyes. The sudden appearance of this woman makes Jude and others speechless. They are completely stunned on their spots. This is someone that they haven't seen in a long time. And more importantly, they didn't expect to see this person here. Only Teppo is able to utter out his surprise:
"M-Milla?! Is that really you, Milla?"
The woman turns her eyes to the direction of the voice calling her name- "Teppo?!"- The Lord of Spirits can't hide her surprise either when she notices that her friends are all here- "Teppo and... everyone?! Why are you here?"- She asks and runs to the group.
"M-Milla, w-we should be the ones who ask you that question!"- Leia stammers- "Why ARE you here?"
"Ah, about that..."- Hesitation shows on Milla's face. After a quick look around the hotel lobby, her gaze stops at Jude who still remains in silence. Both of their eyes lock on each other for few seconds before Milla raises her voice again- "It's about Ludger."- She speaks low enough for her friends to hear- "This will be unbelievable, but have you guys seen him?"
"Yeah, we've seen him..."- Alvin replies.
"Good. Where is he?"- Milla quickly continues.
"He's upstairs."- Says Elize- "Hey, Milla... What is this about?"
"My apologies, Elize. At this moment, I don't have time to explain."- The Lord of Spirits answers shortly- "I need to know one last thing. Is Ludger alone right now, or is he with two people? One boy and one girl?"
"He's with them."- Jude finally speaks- "What about them, Milla? Are they..."
"This isn't good!"- Milla cuts off his words- "Lead me to his room! Hurry!"
The young doctor has no idea what is going on now, but judging on her serious tone, he understands what to do. He immediately runs upstairs with Milla behind. Both of them quickly rush to the room that Ludger stays. Unfortunately, when they arrive, the room is completely empty. There is no trace of their little friend and his companions anywhere.
"Where did they go?"- Jude worriedly asks- "They couldn't have jumped from the windows, could they?"
"No. The windows of this room are still closed tightly."- Says Milla after she inspects the windows- "I believe that they must have used another way. Let's search outside!"
Following his friend's suggestion, Jude leaves the room and takes a look around the long corridor of the hotel. It only takes him few seconds to notice that the window at the end of the hall is open- "Milla, come here!"- He calls for his friend while running to the suspicious window to check- "They might have jumped down here."
Milla nods- "Yeah. It's very faint, but I can sense them. They aren't far, so we can catch up with them if we're hurry."
"Hey, wait!"- Alvin calls as he and the others quickly make their ways to Jude and Milla- "Okay, what is happening here? Where is Ludger?"
"Ludger's gone."- Says Milla calmly- "We need to get him back from the siblings."
"Get him back from them? What do you mean?"- Asks Elle- "Are they bad people? I thought they are friends with Ludger..."
"Honestly, I don't know."- With a sigh, the Lord of Spirits shakes her head- "Believe it or not, those two are neither humans nor spirits. They are... something else, something that we have no knowledge. Besides, they are the ones who took Ludger from Spirit Realm. Therefore, I must get them as soon as possible."
Milla finishes her explanation and jumps from the window. Although this is the second floor, she lands on the ground easily and runs ahead to track down her targets, leaving the rest of her friends in puzzlement.
"Spirit Realm?"- Jude mumbles- Then, does this mean the little Ludger that we met... H-he is the spirit?"
He cannot believe it. And neither of them can. This case seems to be more complicated than they ever expect.
To be continued…