Aki and Haru always felt more at ease under the stars.
That was one of the nice things about Binan. It was small and quiet, without a lot in the way of crime or bad neighborhoods. Night owls like the Beppu twins could wander around after dark without worrying about getting into trouble. Not that they weren't perfectly capable of getting out of trouble again, but that wasn't the point. The point was that they wanted to go jogging while the city was dark and cool, and they didn't want their run interrupted by idiots who thought that since they were young and cute they would also be easy to rob.
Also, there were other good reasons to be out after dark...
The route the two of them were following, carefully plotted after weeks of experimentation, took them past a certain grocery store. As far as stores went, it wasn't anything special, beyond the fact that it was close to their home and the prices were reasonable. For certain other purposes, though, it was a valuable landmark. This was because it was the store where Gora did his grocery shopping, and since he had to keep an eye on the Kurotama during normal business hours, this was the time he shopped. And if a couple of active young men happened to be out jogging at that hour, and if they just happened to run into him, well, they were neighbors, weren't they? It would be only natural for them to walk home together.
At this point, they were reasonably sure that Gora had figured out what they were doing, but since he never complained, they went on doing it. Actually, he seemed to like the company.
The twins jogged past the front doors just as they slid open, and Gora stepped out with his arms full of shopping bags. He smiled when he saw them.
"Well, hello there," he said. "Out for your evening run?"
"We're on our way home now," Aki replied.
Haru nodded. "How about we walk home with you? We can help you with your bags."
"You don't have to do that..." Gora began, and then stopped, because it was obvious they were going to. It was always the same argument, and the twins always won. The two of them each filled their arms with shopping bags and fell into step alongside him. He smiled down at them as they began the trek back up the hill towards the Kurotama.
"You're such good boys," he said, and the two of them glowed.
For a while, the three of them walked in silence. The twins had learned by now that he was not the sort of man who felt the need to talk all the time. That was all right. He listened. The Beppus had been performers for years. They'd played to packed auditoriums, they'd sold albums all over the universe, they'd given interviews for TV and magazines, but everything they'd ever done had been scripted. There hadn't been a lot of people in their lives who wanted to hear to what they really had to say.
"The stars are so bright tonight," Haru murmured.
Gora raised his head and looked up at the sky, rather as if he had forgotten that stars were actually there.
"Hm," he said. "So they are."
He stopped walking, and the twins paused give him his time. When he didn't move, they put down the things they were carrying and waited. They were starting to learn. They had only been on friendly terms with him for a few weeks now, and they still ached to know everything about this man who had been so much a part of their life and yet always so far away before. They had figured out by now that Gora was not the kind of man who spent a lot of time drawing attention to himself - he genuinely didn't seem to think anything he had to say on that subject would be very interesting - but they had also learned that if they were quiet and patient, eventually he would start to relax and let tidbits of information drop. "I once got lost in that mall for two hours before my parents finally found me," he'd say, or "That sandwich shop used to be an ice cream parlor. I used to go there with Yumoto on Sundays and we'd both have an ice cream cone," or sometimes, "The guy who got turned into that cactus monster used to live there. I still see him around town sometimes." These comments had been infrequent at first, but they were becoming more common as time went on. It pleased the twins immensely to think he was coming to trust them.
"It's funny," Gora said now. "It's been a long time since I've really looked at the stars. I guess I just stopped liking to see them."
"How come?" Haru asked. He felt a little hurt. Stars were their thing, after all.
"Well..." He ran a hand through his hair as he tried to find the right words. "They made me feel like a bad hero."
The twins looked at each other in blank astonishment.
"But you weren't a bad hero," said Aki. "You were amazing. You were the best."
"I know you think so." Gora turned away from the sky long enough to flash them a small smile. "But it didn't feel that way to me. Do you know how it all ended?"
The two of them shook their heads.
"We never got to see the ending," said Haru. "The show got cancelled."
"That's right," said Gora. "I always figured, sooner or later something dramatic would happen - that whoever was sending these monsters at my planet would decide to confront me himself, or I'd find a secret lair somewhere and go in and put an end to things. Instead, I just got told that the show was over and everyone was going home. It wasn't even something I did - just something some network executive decided. All that fighting, all that work, and it was just... over. Every time I looked up at the sky, I had to remember that the people who tried to destroy my world just for the sake of a TV show were still up there somewhere, maybe doing the same thing to some other planet, and I hadn't managed to stop them."
"Gora-san..." said Aki softly.
"It wasn't like that," said Haru. "You know it wasn't like that."
Moving on impulse, the two of them pressed themselves against his sides and hugged him. He wrapped his arms around them both and held them close.
"I know," he said. "Meeting you two again helped me remember. You've grown up so much and learned so much... even if I hadn't done anything else, I'd be happy to know I saved you two."
"You did more than that," said Haru.
Aki nodded. "You inspired everyone who saw you. Even the ones who thought at first that the Earth should be destroyed changed their minds because of you. You didn't win because you were stronger than someone or won a fight with someone. You won because you made so many people realize what they were doing was wrong. That's why the show was cancelled - because no one wanted you to lose."
Gora looked surprised. "No kidding. That's what happened? Really?"
Both boys nodded solemnly.
"I never knew it was like that," he said. "That makes me feel better." He turned back to the sky again. "You know, after I rescued you two, I thought we'd never see each other again. I figured you would go home, and your parents would convince you it was all part of the show, and you'd forget all about me. To know you remembered all this time, that you were always watching over me., and that you came all this way to find me... I never thought anything like that could happen. It's a kind of miracle to me. And now I can look at the stars again, because now they can remind me of you. Thank you."
The two boys glowed brightly enough to outshine the stars. Gora grinned at both of them and gave them one more quick hug before releasing them.
"Come on," he said. "We'd better get this food home before it melts. Yumoto's going to be wondering where I ran off to."
The twins hastily scooped up the bags they'd been carrying and started back towards the Kurotama again.
"You know," said Aki after a while, "the roof of our theater has a really good view of the stars."
"Oh?" Gora replied.
Haru nodded. "So if you ever wanted to come over to look at them..." In a burst of generosity, he added, "Yumoto can come too, if he wants."
"I might just do that," said Gora. "I've probably forgotten all the constellations, after all this time."
"We can teach them to you again," Aki promised.
"After I've put these groceries away, then," said Gora.
Both boys gave little squeaks of excitement, and he laughed.
"You really are good kids," he said.
The three of them hurried home, keeping their eyes on the sky as they walked, and it seemed to all of them that tonight the stars shone just a little bit brighter.