Disclaimer: See Chapter One
C+C is welcome at hawker(underscore)748(at)hotmail(dot)com. Goddamn QuickEdit…
This story idea was inspired by SimmyC, who graciously allowed me to pick up the ball and run with it.
"X" Spoken words
Manga continuity, after the "Burn-Up Blade" story line
Ships in the Night
Chapter Seven: Maelstrom
Keitaro had experienced a silence this awful once before, and like that one, Toshio was the main reason. Keitaro stared at Toshio in absolute shock, riveted to the spot by fear. The icy hand that gripped his insides only tightened when Toshio raised his eyes and locked his gaze onto Keitaro.
Defying all of Keitaro's expectations, and fears, Toshio didn't leap up and attack him in a rage, he merely stayed where he was, placidly sipping his tea. The only sign he gave that he even noticed Keitaro was the raising of one eyebrow. Toshio took another sip from his mug and set it on the table. "Hello Keitaro…"
Keitaro was only able to produce some strangled sounds in reply, before he regained control of his mouth. "Wh-what are you doing here?" he stammered.
"That's my line," Toshio deadpanned. "This is… unexpected. Thought I might surprise Tsuruko, coming back like this. Can't say that I expected to see you though…"
Keitaro felt himself start to tremble, his fear of Toshio growing with every second. It was the man's sense of unnatural calm that unnerved him the most. If he'd gone ballistic, screaming and swearing, and gesticulating wildly, Keitaro would have felt oddly reassured. That would have seemed to be the normal reaction of a husband coming home and finding the man his wife had slept with bringing groceries into the kitchen.
But Keitaro had firsthand experience with Toshio's temper, and he knew that the calm façade of impassiveness masked a rage capable of inflicting much damage; the rather off-hand way he had shattered Keitaro's existence at Hinata House still stung in his mind. He figured it was just a matter of time before Toshio made his move.
Keitaro blinked, having been so wrapped up in panicked thoughts that he'd almost missed the question. "Pardon me?" he asked faintly.
"How long what?"
Toshio's lips tightened faintly, the only sign of his annoyance. "How long have you been here?"
For a second, Keitaro considered lying to Toshio, and saying that he'd just met up with Tsuruko and offered to carry her groceries for her, but deep down he knew Toshio wouldn't buy it. "Over two months…" he murmured softly.
Toshio's only reaction was both of his eyebrows going up. "Two months?" When Keitaro nodded faintly, a thoughtful look came over Toshio's face. "That's not too long after I left," he murmured, more to himself than Keitaro. He then calmly took a sip of his tea, seemingly oblivious to Keitaro's state of near panic.
For his part, Keitaro stood rooted to the spot, the forgotten groceries warming up on the counter. Trying to stop his nervous trembling, and casting surreptitious glances at the hallway, he weighed his options. 'Run for it?' he wondered, gauging the distance to the door. 'But what about Tsuruko?'
'She can take care of herself, remember?' his survival instincts reminded him. 'Why didn't you leave earlier, you knew he was gonna come back, right?'
As Keitaro was having his internal argument, the last part of the equation came into play. "Keitaro," Tsuruko called out as she walked into the kitchen, "are you sure…you…don't…" Her words died off as she finally noticed her husband sitting at the table. "Toshio…"
"Hello Tsuruko," Toshio replied softly. "It's been a while…"
"It has…" she answered quietly.
"I thought about calling first," Toshio continued evenly. "But I figured I'd try to surprise you. But this isn't the quite the surprise I intended…" He looked over at Keitaro, who flinched instinctively. "I'm a little curious why he's here…" Toshio finished calmly.
"I invited him," Tsuruko answered before Keitaro could open his mouth.
"I figured that much, though I didn't think he'd just make himself at home…"
"He didn't have a home anymore, remember?"
"I see," Toshio replied. He turned to Keitaro. "Things didn't go too well at Hinata House?"
Unable to look Toshio straight in the eye, Keitaro whispered, "No…"
Toshio sighed and his shoulders slumped a little. "That was kinda cold of me, wasn't it…"
"It was," answered Tsuruko, with a hint of coldness in her voice. "Even after I asked you to not do anything."
"I know," Toshio replied softly. "I was too upset to care, and I'm sorry." He chuckled mirthlessly. "It's a little late, but I'm sorry I burned your bridges Keitaro. I was upset, but that's no excuse."
"…sorry?" Keitaro repeated incredulously.
"I'm sure it sounds hollow, but I shouldn't have sandbagged you like that. I guess I just wanted to share the pain." He took a moment to study Keitaro. "Looks like it worked…"
Thinking back to the day Toshio had arrived, and the misery that had followed, Keitaro could only offer a faint, "Yeah…"
A look that resembled regret came over Toshio's features, and for a few moments no one spoke, each of them in deep thought. "I'm still not sure how you ended up here, though," Toshio commented after some contemplation.
"I met him in a park in the rain."
"Deja-vu, huh?" Toshio interrupted, before he shook his head and let out a deep breath. "Sorry, that was petty. Go on…"
"It was after I left Hinata House," Keitaro continued, not wishing to merely be a spectator in the proceedings. "I arranged to have someone take over my duties there and I left. I was just wandering around, trying to think of what to do, when she found me."
Toshio turned to look at his wife. "You were in Hinata?" When she nodded, he asked, "Why?"
"You'd been gone for some time, and I was worried about what Keitaro was going through," Tsuruko responded. "When I arrived, Motoko called me and said that Keitaro had left. I was wandering randomly, and we just happened to encounter each other."
Toshio regarded Tsuruko carefully for a few moments before commenting, "You know, I believe you. You never were one to lie, or make up excuses… But why'd you take him in?"
"Don't you remember? He didn't have a home anymore," Tsuruko replied, disapproval manifest in her voice.
Toshio grimaced at the most recent reminder. "I know, but you thought it was a good idea to let him move in with you?"
Tsuruko spared a glance in Keitaro's direction. "It seemed the only decent thing to do, or should I have left him like that?"
"I didn't move in with her," Keitaro interjected suddenly.
Toshio gave him a hard look. "You're living here, aren't you?"
Keitaro winced at the glare. "Not in the house, next to the dojo."
"You mean the students quarters?"
"Yes. I asked to stay in a guest area, and I've been paying rent and doing chores," Keitaro added.
"Chores?" Toshio looked at Keitaro skeptically.
"Yes, chores. I keep the house clean, I cook, and I work on upkeep of the grounds." Keitaro was struggling to keep the tremor out of his voice as he spoke. "I wasn't go-going to just move in here, I was just trying to be useful, I was a caretaker at Hinata house, and I know how to look after things, and, and it was one of the conditions I insisted on before I accepted her offer."
"How thoughtful of you," Toshio replied blandly.
"There was one last condition, remember Tsu- Aoyama-san? I'll be out of here in fifteen, no, make that ten minutes."
"Excuse me?" Tsuruko replied, a confused look marring her lovely features.
"The last condition? It's happened," Keitaro remarked, gesturing to Toshio with his head. Keitaro took a deep breath, and for the first time, lied. "I've been setting up a place of my own for sometime now; it wasn't easy finding a place I could afford. I was going to leave at the end of the week, but a few days early won't matter."
"You were planning on leaving?" Tsuruko asked faintly. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Was going to tell you over dinner tonight," Keitaro remarked casually. "I've been here long enough, and I've obviously worn out my welcome. What can I say? It's time to go…" He said that last bit with his back turned, putting away the groceries, so neither Tsuruko or Toshio would see the pained look on his face. Taking a deep breath to regain his focus, and compose his features into something approaching casual ease, Keitaro turned back towards the Aoyamas. He then bowed at the waist and spoke formally. "Aoyama-san, I thank you for your hospitality and your generosity. I will always appreciate it." Relaxing a little, Keitaro added, "Lemme go get my things and I'll be outta here in ten minutes." He turned to Tsuruko's husband and nodded politely. "Toshio."
"Keitaro," he responded in kind, eyeing him with a thoughtful look.
Keitaro gave Tsuruko one last look, before he nodded, and took his leave, heading upstairs to retrieve his laundry. Nothing was said after his exit until Toshio took a long look at his wife and said, "Tsuruko… I-I think we need to talk…"
"Not now Toshio…"
"Please, Tsuruko…" Toshio replied, sounding surprisingly weary. "Hear me out…"
'Laundry. Gotta get my laundry,' Keitaro thought to himself. 'Doubt Toshio would be happy finding my underwear in the hamper… No-no-no, not good, not good at all. Gotta vanish, can't leave anything behind…' This thought coursed through his mind as he opened the hamper and began unceremoniously rooting through it for his clothes, taking care not to miss anything.
Keitaro paused, blinking to clear away the mild burning he felt in his eyes. "Shoulda put an air-freshener in here, this is making my eyes water," he muttered under his breath as he continued to ransack the hamper. After a few minutes of careful searching, Keitaro was satisfied that he'd collected all of his dirty laundry. He tied the sleeves of his 'Bounty Hunter' sweatshirt together, shoved the rest of his dirty clothes into it and carried the makeshift sack out of the laundry room.
After a brief stop in the washroom, he stopped in the hallway to take a breath and collect himself. His psyche chose that moment to start tormenting him. 'What did you expect, that Toshio'd never come back? You're an idiot for even considering that… And even if he didn't, you think that Tsuruko'd be interested in you? Bah. The only reason she was with you is because she was drunk out of her mind.'
Keitaro harshly wiped at his eyes, determined to not let his emotions betray him, but he found that he couldn't argue with himself, and he wasn't sure if he really wanted to.
'Yeah, you're a great catch Keitaro,' the voice taunted him. 'Betrayed everyone you cared for, dropped out of school, then you up and left everyone behind, and ended up here, and you've been sniffing up Tsuruko's hakama since you arrived…'
"No…" Keitaro rasped. "That's not why I'm here, I didn't come to be with her…"
'Maybe you didn't plan on it, but you've sure as hell thought about haven't you? What were all those stains in your underwear?'
Flinching at the internal rebuke, Keitaro resumed his journey to his room, using the back staircase to avoid the kitchen, and moving even quicker than he needed to, practically in a dead run, desperate to escape. He figured he could stay in a hotel for a few days while he found a place to move into. "Shoulda done something about this earlier," he murmured.
Keitaro was only dimly aware of his surroundings as he exited the house and crossed the yard, heading for what had been his home for the past couple of months. Memories of the times he'd spent here flashed through his mind, images flashing by like film projector on amphetamines. Tsuruko smiling at the dinner table, demonstrating perfection in the dojo, and the various, innocuous conversations they'd had together. But for Keitaro, two memories stood out above all the others; coming home and discovering a sobbing Tsuruko, and the feel of her in his arms when she cried openly onto his chest. And this afternoon, when her little finger had touched his, the electricity of the contact causing his mental processes to short circuit.
Upon reaching his room, Keitaro quickly, and without ceremony, began shoving his few possessions into his backpack and duffel bag, not taking the time to fold them. Stuffing his bags to practically their breaking point, Keitaro tried to pretend that he was glad that Toshio had finally returned. "Guy finally came to his senses and came back," he said to himself. "I mean, what took him so long, did he expect Tsuruko to wait forever? You don't make a woman that wonderful wait for you, you hold on and never let her go…"
Keitaro stopped his packing in mid-cram, surprised by that last comment. He then shook his head quickly to clear away the disturbing, but not unpleasant, thoughts he was having. "I haven't fallen for her," he told himself, resuming his hasty efforts at packing. "I haven't. Sure, we talked, but she was just lonely, and Toshio wasn't here. Having feelings for her would be inappropriate, and wrong."
'That didn't stop you last November…' his psyche chimed in.
"That was a mistake!" he snarled. If he'd been in a clearer state of mind, Keitaro might have been concerned that he was holding a conversation with himself. "We were both loaded, and I let myself get carried away. If either of us had been thinking rationally, it wouldn't have happened." Keitaro took a deep calming breath as he finished shoving his things into his two bags. "It'd be better off if it hadn't happened, then I wouldn't be feeling like this…"
Not wanting to dwell on that last thought, or it's implications, Keitaro took a last look around the room. Except for his cell phone, which was sitting next to his pillow, and his jacket, which was hung up at the main door, all of Keitaro's worldly possessions were inside the two bags, both of them straining to contain their poorly packed loads. 'Not much to show for all this time, huh?' he thought, echoing a similar musing he'd had when he left Hinata House. 'I've heard of traveling light, but this is ridiculous…'
Keitaro stooped down and picked up his cell phone, slipping it into his pocket. "I guess this is it…" he murmured softly. He shouldered his backpack and picked up his duffel bag, and was giving the room one last, long look of farewell, when the door opened behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and found Tsuruko standing in the doorway. "I'm done in here Tsuruko," he told her. "I just gotta grab my jacket from the front door and then I'll be outta here. Just gimme a second or two…"
"What are you doing Keitaro?" Tsuruko asked him evenly.
"Isn't it obvious?" he replied glibly, forcing his voice to stay even.
"Yeah, obvious," Keitaro confirmed. "You remember what I said when you invited me, right?" When Tsuruko nodded slowly, Keitaro continued. "Toshio's back, and I'm gone. Period." He turned his gaze forward again, ostensibly to look at the room, but he was actually finding it difficult to look Tsuruko in the eyes. "I wonder what took him so long…" he added under his breath.
"What was that?"
"I was just wondering what took Toshio so long to come back," Keitaro clarified, embarrassed that he'd accidentally said that out loud. 'Doesn't matter I suppose, I'm leaving anyway…' "Anyway, I'm-I'm glad to see that everything's going to work out between you two," he continued with forced cheer, curling his lips up in an attempt to smile. He cast his eyes about the room, looking everywhere except at Tsuruko. "You two didn't deserve to have me ruin things between you, after all. You're a wonderful woman, and Toshio must have finally realized this and…"
Keitaro realized that he was practically babbling, and that if he didn't get out of here now, he'd say something he'd end up regretting. "I-I've got my things ready, and it's time for me to go. Thank you for your hospitality, and I'm sorry that I was burden for so long."
"I can't wait Tsuruko, I've got to get to my new place. Besides, I said I'd be gone in ten minutes, and I don't want to be a liar..."
"Keitaro, please listen…"
"No-no-no, there's nothing to say now. I've got to go, don't want to upset Toshio again, I've already caused you two enough pain." Keitaro adjusted the load on his backpack and tightened his grip on his duffel bag. "Take care Tsuruko…"
"Keitaro…" Tsuruko called out with some urgency.
Keitaro was beyond hearing. "Give my regards and apologies to Toshio," he added, before he turned his back on Tsuruko, more to keep his own feeling private than to snub her. With an internal sigh, Keitaro reached for the latch on the sliding door…
…and for the second time in less than fifteen minutes, felt his heart stop. With a solid -THUNK!- a knife embedded itself into the door frame, effectively nailing the door shut, and missing Keitaro's fingers by a few millimeters.
Keitaro felt himself go ashen with fright, and he was sure that his hair had to be standing straight up like in a cartoon. A detached portion of his mind patted him on the back for using the bathroom after he'd emptied the laundry hamper. The shaking in his hand caused his fingers to brush up against the cold, razor sharp steel of the knife.
With terror induced slowness, Keitaro turned around and saw Tsuruko with her left arm extended, and a scowl on her features. She took a breath to calm herself and lowered her arm, her facial expression losing its harshness. "Sorry Keitaro," she apologized, "but you didn't seem to want to listen to me…"
"I'm listening," Keitaro squeaked faintly, afraid of further provoking Tsuruko.
"Why are you so eager to leave?" Tsuruko asked. "Wait," she immediately added before Keitaro could reply. "You're keeping your word," she realized. "That's fair enough, but, but do you know what happened after you left the kitchen?"
Making an effort to not stare at the knife embedded in the door frame, Keitaro replied, "No, I didn't hear, but isn't it obvious?"
Keitaro let out a brief snort, almost resembling a bitter chuckle. "Toshio fought his demons, realized what a prick he was for hurting you, and came back, promising he'd changed his ways and begged for your forgiveness…"
"Why do you think that?" Tsuruko wondered.
"It's what I would have done…" Keitaro instantly replied.
Tsuruko blinked at that and regarded Keitaro closely. Keitaro couldn't meet her eyes, as he was afraid that the look on his face would betray him. 'I have to go,' he thought desperately to himself. 'Please don't make this any harder Tsuruko…' Keitaro pleaded silently, eyeing the door. He'd never be able to pull that knife free and get the door open to leave; he was trapped, forced to keep his feelings on a tight leash.
"What do you feel about all this?" Tsuruko asked softly.
"Oh? Why not?"
"I'm the guy who caused all this, remember? I'm the odd man out, what I feel isn't important…" Keitaro took a deep breath to steady his nerves. "Would-would you mind letting me go please?"
"Very well… But before I do, I want you to tell me exactly how you feel about this… Truthfully…"
"I-I've never had-"
"Have you really set up somewhere else to go?" Tsuruko interrupted.
Her intense gaze incinerated any compulsions Keitaro might have had for deception. "No… I haven't…"
"Didn't want to upset Toshio," Keitaro replied. "I've already done enough to piss him off, why throw more gas on the fire, especially now? He's back, and the two of you can put your lives back together. I don't want to jeopardize that…"
"I still need to know how you feel…" Tsuruko insisted.
"You won't like it," Keitaro warned. "I'm not proud of it either…"
Keitaro closed his eyes and shook his head sadly. 'Well, you asked for it… Why couldn't you have just let me go…' he opened his eyes and locked his gaze upon Tsuruko, idly wondering what his face looked like. "I'm not happy about it," he stated, surprised by how openly he'd said that. "I-I think I've started to care for you, but I shouldn't! I don't deserve to feel anything, I should be relieved that Toshio came to his senses and came back."
Keitaro looked at Tsuruko as if she'd gone mad. "You're married! He loves you, you love him, you even told me he was a wonderful man, remember? And I ruined that because I got drunk and lonely one night and couldn't keep it in my goddamn pants! You have a chance to start over with him, and you should be marching me out of here at sword-point, not asking me how I feel!"
"Why are you being so harsh on yourself?" Tsuruko asked softly.
"Because I deserve it!"
Keitaro felt like tearing out his hair in frustration. "I'm a washed up Tokyo University drop-out, who's an absentee landlord with no real prospects. I ruined a good marriage, several friendships, and destroyed the trust others had in me because I foolishly lost control! I've caused so much trouble for everyone, that the best thing I can do is leave before I do anymore harm…" By now Keitaro could feel his eyes start to sting, and he blinked harshly, determined to maintain his dignity, if nothing else.
Tsuruko listened as Keitaro gave voice to all of the guilt and shame and regret that he'd been suppressing for months. "You… care for me?" she asked gently after a few moments.
Keitaro's shoulders slumped in defeat. 'I shouldn't have said anything,' he thought miserably. 'I couldn't even make a clean break; I've got to get out of here…' Unable to keep looking at Tsuruko, Keitaro lowered his eyes as he spoke. "I've come to care for you, worry about how you were feeling, and I've been relieved to see you acting more like you used to. I shouldn't have let myself feel like this, I should have done the right thing and left, but I didn't. Now, because I screwed up, it's going to be even harder to do the right thing."
"What's the right thing?"
"Leave," Keitaro replied. "Let you have your life with Toshio back, and just move on…" Keitaro hadn't felt as miserable since he'd left Hinata House, and if he didn't get a chance to be alone and deal with his thoughts and feelings, he'd probably end up bawling like a child. He was so wrapped up in maintaining his self control, that he didn't notice that Tsuruko had moved until he felt her right hand on his left cheek.
Surprised, Keitaro nearly jumped out of his skin at the contact, and looked up at Tsuruko, an astonished look on his face, as a detached part of his mind noticed how gentle her touch was.
"Why are you so sure you have to leave?" Tsuruko asked in a voice scarcely over a whisper.
It took Keitaro a couple of tries to get his mouth to work. "To-Toshio's come back…" he stammered. "I-I promised I'd leave if that happened…"
Tsuruko lowered her head and shook it. "That's right, you weren't there," she said, more to herself than to him. "Yes, he came back, but… What do you think he said?"
"What I would have said, 'I'm sorry, please forgive me…'"
"Well. You're half-right," replied Tsuruko. "He told me that he'd spent most of the time away thinking about how he'd acted, and what he'd done. He said he didn't like how he'd behaved, and mentioned something about how you'd know what he meant…"
"Yeah, he mentioned that when we met last time…"
"He said he loved me…"
Keitaro flinched inwardly. "Never said he was dumb," he murmured almost silently.
"He said he never meant to hurt me…"
"I believe him," Keitaro replied honestly.
"So do I…"
"Yeah… But what do you mean I was 'half-right'?"
After a moments contemplation, Tsuruko clarified. "Actually, you were all right, he did ask for forgiveness."
"And you gave it to him." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, I did."
"Then why are we still talking?"
"Because that's not all he said."
"Do you believe in redemption?"
"Huh?" Keitaro was confused by the apparent non-sequitur.
"Redemption, the notion that people can make up for past wrongs," Tsuruko explained.
"I don't think I qualify for it," Keitaro admitted.
"Toshio talked about it, how he felt about it. He said he came to a decision, and that seeing you here proved him right…"
'Oh no…' "Wha-what do you mean?" Keitaro wasn't able to keep the nervous tremor out of his speech.
"He said he saw how you looked at me, and how I looked when I came in. He said I haven't looked like that in far too long, and he knew he was responsible. You know what happened then?" When Keitaro shook his head, Tsuruko added, "He smiled sadly, told me he was sorry for all the pain he'd caused you, said he'd always love me and cherish the time he'd had."
"What-what are you saying?"
"Toshio told me that he knew what he had to do, then he bid me farewell and walked out…"
Keitaro stood there, shocked by what he'd heard, before his body finally regained its capability to move. He grabbed the handle of the knife with both hands and pulled hard, desperately trying to yank it free. "Help me get this out! That idiot, what does he think he's doing…" Keitaro was pulling with all his strength, but even with his feet braced against the door, he couldn't budge the knife. "I…can…catch…up…with …him," Keitaro grunted between tugs. "Drag…him…back…"
"Why? The longer I'm here the-" Keitaro broke off when he noticed the look in Tsuruko's eyes.
"I don't think you could change his mind, and, and I'm not sure if I'd want you to…"
"I-I don't understand…"
"You said you've come to care for me… Do you think I couldn't feel the same?"
"But-but you love Toshio, you're married to him…"
"That's true," Tsuruko acknowledged. "But even though I've forgiven him, I don't know if I could live with him anymore…"
"You, you have to try, you can't let it end like this…"
"Even if it's starting something else?"
"But I caused all this," Keitaro nearly sobbed.
Tsuruko sighed and shook her head. "Keitaro, listen. Do you honestly believe that I didn't have something to do with what happened that night?"
"You-you'd been drinking, you weren't thinking clearly…"
"Yes, I'd been drinking, but, but, I still knew what I was doing. Believe me, if I'd changed my mind, you'd have known."
"But Toshio loves you! He wanted to spend the rest of his life with you, he told me!"
"I know Toshio still loves me," Tsuruko replied candidly. "But he left because of that, not in spite of that…"
"I-I don't understand…"
"If you're lucky, you'll never have to…" Tsuruko replied sadly.
Keitaro felt the room spin, his senses overloaded by information. Toshio had come back, but apparently he was leaving again, and his wife had told Keitaro that he didn't want to be stopped. 'What the hell's going on here?' he raged. 'Everything could go back the way it was, but no one seems to want that but me! Toshio's leaving because he loves Tsuruko, Tsuruko loves Toshio, but she's letting him go, and she's babbling about starting something and-'
Keitaro's train of thought derailed at that last bit. "…starting something else…?" he murmured softly. He swallowed hard, attempting to get some moisture back into his mouth, and clenched and opened his fists at his sides spasmodically, trying to prevent them from trembling, as he slowly lifted his gaze to meet Tsuruko's. "What… did you mean by that?" he practically whispered.
Tsuruko was close enough hat she was able to hear Keitaro's faint question. "What I meant was," she replied, softly returning her left hand to his right cheek, causing him to shudder involuntarily, "I've-I've starting to like having you live with me…"
"Why?" was the only coherent thought Keitaro could manage.
"How come you can't accept that people could care for you?"
"I-I don't deserve it," Keitaro replied weakly. "Everyone I care for I hurt. Naru, Motoko, Shinobu and the others at Hinata house, you-" Keitaro instantly cut himself off.
Tsuruko wasn't letting him off that easily. "Me? You care for me?" she asked, gazing into his eyes.
"I already said that," Keitaro answered, looking up into Tsuruko's beautiful eyes, noticing his own reflection in them. "I shouldn't, but I do," he continued quietly. "I don't deserve happiness."
"You do Keitaro," Tsuruko responded instantly. "You're kind, considerate, supporting, and you don't hesitate to put the feelings of others ahead of your own…" She caressed Keitaro's cheek with her soft fingertips, causing him to gasp out.
"But I've hurt everyone…" Keitaro protested, having trouble thinking clearly due to Tsuruko's touch. "The residents, Toshio, you, everyone…"
"You're only human Keitaro. All of us are, even me, despite what Motoko sometimes believes. You're never malevolent, and you've always felt remorse, even when it wasn't necessary. And you were there for me, even when it would have been easier to just walk away. I wouldn't have blamed you if you had…"
"I couldn't have done that," Keitaro replied truthfully.
"Then when someone calls you 'special', you should believe them," Tsuruko replied.
"I'm not 'special'," Keitaro responded faintly.
"I disagree…" Tsuruko whispered. She then gently lifted Keitaro's chin with her thumb, and slowly leaned down, tenderly pressing her lips to his own.
Keitaro stood there motionless, his bags falling unceremoniously to the floor, not even closing his eyes, his rationality at war with his desires. The rational part of him was telling him to escape, through the window if necessary, chase down Toshio, and either slap some sense into him, or twist his arm behind him and march him back to the house.
His desires wanted nothing more than to melt into Tsuruko's embrace and never let go.
Then, for the first time, rationality and desire ceased their arguing, and tried to work out their differences. As such, Keitaro's rationality decided to drop its objections, at least for the time being.
The internal debate had taken place in less than half a second…
Closing his eyes and tilting his head slightly, Keitaro tentatively responded to the kiss, marveling that Tsuruko's lips were as soft as he remembered. The two of them stayed motionless, sharing the soft, languid kiss for a few minutes, before Tsuruko broke it off.
Keitaro could feel that his face was flushed, and opening his eyes he could see that Tsuruko appeared to be in a similar state. He could feel himself trembling due to nervousness, but also due to excitement. Belatedly, Keitaro noticed that his breathing had quickened, and an entire flock of butterflies appeared to have taken up residence in his stomach. The feeling of Tsuruko caressing his cheeks was causing sparks to shoot up his spine, and on impulse he reached up and took her hand in his and gently kissed her palm, prompting her to take in a quick breath.
Tsuruko took hold of Keitaro's free hand, interlocked her fingers with his, and with her other hand reached over and took hold of the knife, effortlessly pulling it free. Keitaro blinked in surprise at that; he hadn't been able to budge it with all of his strength, and he idly wondered just how strong Tsuruko was. With the knife removed, the door slid open nearly silently, and Tsuruko stepped through the opening, her grip on Keitaro's hand indicating that she wished for him to follow her.
Despite the way his heart was pounding, and the lump that had appeared in his throat, at that moment, Keitaro would have followed Tsuruko into the very pits of hell if she'd asked him.
Fortunately, she had a much more pleasant destination in mind…
Wordlessly, Keitaro followed Tsuruko across the compound, the feel of her hand in his pushing aside most other thoughts. His survival instincts did cause him to tense up as they passed through the kitchen. 'If Toshio's still here…' he thought nervously, feeling an overpowering urge to yank his hand from her grip, but it passed when there was no sign of Toshio; even the empty mug had been placed in the sink, he noticed detachedly.
Feeling equal parts nervousness and anticipation, Keitaro allowed Tsuruko to slowly lead him upstairs, until she stopped in front of a door. Keitaro knew what was behind that door, but he had never even opened it, much less gone through it. Tsuruko's bedroom. The one room he had made an active effort to avoid. The only room he hadn't entered, even to do cleaning. He hadn't felt it was appropriate, and since she'd never mentioned it, Keitaro figured that Tsuruko hadn't minded.
'Now, I won't just be going in there, I'll… I mean we'll…' Unable to complete the thought without starting to tremble from nerves, Keitaro nonetheless blushed to the point he could feel his face burning. With a soft click, and the almost silent sound of polished wood sliding, the door opened. For a moment, Keitaro had the strange compulsion to sweep Tsuruko up in his arms and carry her across the threshold, but he was able to resist. 'With my luck, I'd probably drop her, or hit her head on the doorframe, or trip, or I wouldn't be able to lift her…' He shook his head to end the verbal stream, as his mind found that it was easier to think about anything else than what was going to happen.
Keitaro nervously walked into the room, looked around, and was a little surprised by what he saw. He'd expected Tsuruko's bedroom to be somewhat spartan, perhaps even austere, but it was surprisingly warm and comforting. All of the furniture, dressers, wardrobe, end table, and bed frame, were made of an unknown wood, which had been stained and probably hand rubbed until the wood was a dark golden color, and the grain of the wood stood out beautifully. The bed itself, Keitaro noticed belatedly, was a king sized four posted canopy design.
'That's not so different from the one at the hotel,' he noticed offhandedly, before Tsuruko let go of him and took hold of his face with both hands and kissed him again.
From that moment on, Keitaro no longer felt any need to pay attention to the room's furnishings…
At the end, sweating heavily and breathing hard, Keitaro tried to push himself up so he could move off of Tsuruko, but she was holding him firmly but gently where he was, so he stayed there, nestled in Tsuruko's bosom. He heard her softly whispering his name and felt her running her fingers though his hair. Keitaro thought that it would be proper to move, but it was so comfortable and felt so secure that he ended up drifting off to sleep, Tsuruko's tender embrace driving away all unpleasant thoughts, and allowing him to sleep like he hadn't since he was a child.
Keitaro opened bleary eyes at the sound of Shippu's cry. 'Another…dream?' he thought groggily, recalling the last time he'd encountered Tsuruko's bird. He then realized that while he was in a bed, he wasn't resting ON one, and that his head wasn't resting on pillows either. The fact that he could feel Tsuruko softly stroking his hair put to rest any notion that he was dreaming. Although the realization that his head was resting between Tsuruko's breasts gave him pause.
Shippu's cry brought Keitaro's attention to the fact that the bird had moved so that its beak was now less than three inches from his nose.
"I'm not a snack, bird…" Keitaro warned.
Ignoring him, Shippu pecked softly at Keitaro's nose, earning a yelp from him. His snarl was cut off when he heard Tsuruko giggle softly. "I think he likes you…"
Pushing dark thoughts about Shippu out of his mind, including one that involved stuffing and cranberry sauce, Keitaro eased himself off of Tsuruko and laid down beside her, wondering when she'd pulled the blanket up over them. He ended up with his head on the same pillow as Tsuruko, their faces about six inches apart. 'It's nicer than the last time we woke up together,' Keitaro noted idly, before he began to speak. "G-good morning…"
Tsuruko smiled softly in reply. "You mean, good evening," she corrected. "You were asleep for about an hour." She then reached up and caressed Keitaro's cheek, causing him to close his eyes and nuzzle her hand, before he carefully brought up his own hand and caressed Tsuruko's cheek. He opened his eyes and found Tsuruko gazing at him, and neither spoke for some time, the two of them enjoying the intimacy of the moment.
It was Keitaro who first broke the comfortable silence in the bedroom. "I-I guess I'm staying then…" he said timidly. "I-I mean, if that's what you want," he added rapidly. "That-that's presumptuous of me, thinking like that, I mean, you could still want me to leave now, and-"
"You're babbling again."
Tsuruko had an amused air about her when she spoke next. "I wouldn't mind if you stayed, Keitaro…"
"But… why?" Keitaro wondered. "I'm a pretty poor catch, if you ask me. Not many prospects, I left Tokyo University…"
"I told you, you're still kind, caring, considerate, and-and, I've grown to enjoy having you around here, with me."
Keitaro tried to get his thoughts in order, but having Tsuruko caressing his cheek, the fact that her lovely face was inches from his own, and they were both naked, wasn't making it any easier. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath to focus himself, Keitaro replied, "I-I know you said that, but-but I-"
"Keitaro," Tsuruko interrupted by placing a finger on his lips. "What do you feel about me?"
Keitaro's eyes widened in surprise, not expecting such a direct question. When he didn't reply after a few seconds, Tsuruko repeated the question, clearly wanting his answer. 'What-what do I tell her?' he wondered, even as he answered his own question. 'The truth, it's what she deserves…'
"I-I care for you Tsuruko," Keitaro stated quietly. "I've grown fond of you, but, I don't know if it's right for me to feel like this…" He sighed audibly before continuing, looking deep into Tsuruko's eyes. "I don't know if I can say I love you, I'm not even sure what that's supposed to feel like." He closed his eyes and pursed his lips, remembering his drawn-out and stormy relationship with Naru. Returning his gaze to Tsuruko, Keitaro added, "could you even believe me if I said I loved you?"
Now it was Tsuruko's turn to look contemplative; she pursed her lips for a few moments as she formulated her reply. "I don't think I could say I love you right now either," she remarked. "But, I-I think that I'd like to try… I care for you Keitaro, and why don't we see what happens?"
Keitaro felt his heart skip a beat at Tsuruko's candid admission, before his sense of self-depreciation kicked in. "But, but what if it doesn't work out?" he asked faintly. He shuddered when Tsuruko began running her fingers though his hair.
"Who knows if it'll work," Tsuruko admitted. "But does that mean we shouldn't even try? Why not take it a day at a time?"
Keitaro considered everything Tsuruko had said to him, and his own feelings for her. "We could try," he answered softly, "see what happens. I-I'd like that…" 'Although I don't know if it'll last,' he added silently.
Tsuruko cocked her head and took another look at Keitaro. "How do you know that I won't go for another walk in the rain?" she asked.
Keitaro smiled at that, and traced the outside of Tsuruko's lips with his finger. "Invite me along, and we'll walk in the rain together. It isn't all bad…"
"I think I'd like to find out…" Tsuruko said, kissing Keitaro's finger.
Having come to an understanding of sorts, Tsuruko scooted over and rested her head on Keitaro's chest, wrapping her arms around him, an action he reciprocated, and began stroking her hair. For the next few minutes there was only silence, the sound of breathing the only disturbance, as the two of them found comfort in each others arms. Keitaro soon found his thoughts wandering, and issues of his own survival surfaced. "Motoko's going to kill me," he murmured. He would later swear he felt Tsuruko blink in surprise.
"You're thinking of her?" Tsuruko asked, her tone oddly neutral.
Keitaro kicked himself mentally at his faux pas. "Sorry, sorry, survival instinct," he apologized sheepishly, before his mood became more serious. "We'll have to tell them, you know. We can't keep this a secret…"
"I know," acknowledged Tsuruko. "But let me worry about Motoko." She then lifted her head and gently kissed Keitaro. "Just trust me…"
Tsuruko gave Keitaro one last languid kiss before she snuggled back into his embrace. "Goodnight Kei-chan."
"Goodnight Tsuru- Kei-chan?"
"I am older," Tsuruko stated frankly.
Keitaro tried to think of how to answer that, before giving up an accepting it. 'Kei-chan… I could live with that,' he reasoned. "Goodnight Tsuru… Tsu-chan?" he replied carefully. When Tsuruko giggled and held him a little tighter, Keitaro figured that calling her that was okay with her.
Kissing the top of Tsuruko's head, Keitaro then laid his head back and closed his eyes, letting sleep overtake him. As he felt himself slip into unconsciousness, Keitaro took comfort from the feel of Tsuruko in his grasp, unsure of what would happen, but willing to face it to be with her.
As Tsuruko drifted off, her thoughts were running along a nearly identical path.
From that day on, Keitaro and Tsuruko slept in the same bed. Having Keitaro move in hadn't taken much effort, simply bringing his already packed bags from the guest room to the master bedroom.
A couple of days later, Keitaro called Haruka, using the house phone, not his cell, and explained where he'd gone after he'd left. After a few seconds of dead silence, he'd heard her mutter something about the pool going unclaimed. As fate would have it, the residents happened to have been in the café when he'd called, and Motoko recognized the number on the caller ID. When she'd realized who Haruka was talking to, she'd let out a scream of fury that made Keitaro go pale, despite the distance.
From the sound of things, Motoko had tried to grab the phone from Haruka to curse him, but she hadn't been able to get a hold of it. Snarling, she'd stomped out of the café, her eventual destination obvious. Haruka remarked casually that he sure knew how to make things interesting. Keitaro wasn't sure if she was complimenting or insulting him.
The realization that Motoko now knew where he was and where he'd been staying spurred Keitaro into action. He hastily bid farewell to Haruka, hung up, retrieved his passport, and went to pack, telling Tsuruko that he'd heard that the Florida Everglades were nice this time of year, with plenty of turtles around. When Tsuruko cheerfully pointed out that there were crocodiles as well, he replied that he'd be more likely to be able to reason with them than with her sister.
He's ceased his panicked packing when Tsuruko placed a hand on his shoulder and told him that she would talk with Motoko. When he'd started stammering reasons why he should leave, his very survival topping the list, she smiled at him. In a tone that brooked no argument, she told him to go into the city for a few hours and to trust her, and that she'd call him when it was over. Looking into her eyes, he'd found some courage and relented, reminding her of his number, and he left, now more concerned for Tsuruko's safety than his own.
He'd eaten alone, seen a movie, and killed time in a café, both dreading and anticipating the call, even as the hours crawled by. Finally, some six hours after he'd left, his phone began to ring, making him jump. When he answered it, Tsuruko simply told him he could come home now and hung up before he could respond. He hurriedly made his way back to the compound, relieved to find that it was still standing. Tsuruko said nothing to him other than that she had discussed things with Motoko, and that was it. Keitaro wanted to know exactly what happened, but the look in Tsuruko's eyes convinced him to hold his tongue, so he made both tea, and did his best to be there for her.
It would be nearly two years before Tsuruko and Motoko would speak to each other again…
Keitaro re-established contact with a few of the residents at Hinata House by phone, even though it wasn't easy for him, especially with Naru. She was still upset with him, but she'd moved on a little, and while she was astonished to hear where he'd been living, she didn't bear too much of a grudge. It was probably better for the both of them that they only talked over the phone, since neither could see how hurt the other was, and it was easier to believe that the other was as good as they claimed.
Kitsune was glad to hear from Keitaro again, although she would never admit just how much she had missed him. She groused at him for costing her a fortune in the 'Where's Keitaro?' pool, but out of respect to her friend, never went into any serious discussion with him.
Su's main concern was disappointment that her Keitaro Detector hadn't been able to track him all the way to Kyoto, and promised him that Version 2.4 would have worldwide range.
Shinobu and Keitaro talked a little more frequently, a couple of times a month, usually trading recipes and the like, and while Shinobu was upset that she hadn't been able to make good on her crush, she was glad that she could at least talk to her sempai again. To work through her disappointment, she'd taken up gardening, showing a surprising aptitude for it, even producing some award winning pumpkins. When asked about the secret of her success, she'd say it was all in the fertilizer.
It was nearly two years later when Keitaro and Tsuruko finally paid a visit to Hinata House. Keitaro had called Haruka ahead and given her a heads up, and she'd told Reika to discretely lock up some of the more fragile objects, and ask her father if he possibly wouldn't mind coming out of retirement if the damage was too much for her to handle.
By a quirk of fate, Motoko was out when they'd arrived, and the first indication she'd had of their presence was encountering them in the living room when she returned home. As a warrior, she'd thought about how she would handle meeting up with her sister again, or the…male…she'd taken as her lover. She'd considered virtually every variable and contingency, except for the two tiny green eyes staring at her.
There are few things in the world that can sap the will to fight more than the presence of a two week old baby, but having her introduced as Natsuko, and being told that she was your new niece was one of them. Even Motoko couldn't hold onto her anger while a young child gurgled at her happily, smiling with the delight infants have at meeting new people. Her head spinning with new developments, Motoko found herself agreeing to talk with Tsuruko in private, following as her sister lead her to her own room.
Keitaro nervously held court in the living room with Natsuko, playing with her to keep from twitching, and casting anxious glances upstairs, bracing for the sounds of violence. After nearly an hour of excruciating waiting, during which his daughter was fawned over and had more funny faces made at her than in her admittedly short life, the Aoyama sisters made their way downstairs. Tsuruko smiled gently at him and while Motoko didn't smile, she didn't look like she was deciding where to insert her sword into him either. While she would always remain somewhat distant from him, she immediately fell into the role of devoted aunt.
A year and a half later, Natsuko gained a sister, Akiko, and two years after that, a brother, Akira. After Akira was born, Tsuruko told Keitaro that if he wanted another child, he'd have to be the one giving birth. Keitaro simply shook his head and smiled; they'd already been blessed with three beautiful children, why press for more?
Despite having three children together, Tsuruko and Keitaro never married, even though Keitaro had mentioned the idea in passing to Tsuruko before Natsuko was born. Tsuruko had felt no pressing need to remarry, and Keitaro had come to agree with her. Neither cared what others might have thought, they loved each other and their children, and no ceremony was going to make a difference in that. They were even able to avoid common-law, as Keitaro maintained Hinata House as a mailing address.
Their children didn't realize that their mother and father weren't husband and wife until they were older, and by the time they found out, it didn't matter to them. Their mother and father clearly loved each other and had done a fine job raising them, so what did their marriage status really matter? Their parents obviously didn't mind things the way they were, so why should anyone else? They had the occasional disagreement and argument, of course, but that made them just like any parents. No, the only strange thing about mom and dad, the Aoyama children decided, was their curious mistrust and avoidance of coffee houses.
For sixty-two years, five months, and eight days, Keitaro and Tsuruko were all but inseparable, parting only when Tsuruko took the one journey on which Keitaro could not join her.
Tsuruko's illness wasn't long, but it had been serious, and despite the care she'd taken of herself throughout her long life, in the end, it was just too much for her. On her final day, the doctors could do nothing but assure that she was pain-free until the end. On her deathbed, surrounded by Keitaro, their children and grandchildren, Tsuruko finally faced the one opponent she couldn't defeat. Keitaro tried to be strong for her, to keep her from having his tearful face as her last image of him, but it was terribly difficult. Smiling at her family, Tsuruko took Keitaro's hand and gave it one last gentle squeeze, and told him, "I'll be waiting…" before her grip went limp, she closed her eyes, and passed away.
Keitaro's control disintegrated, and he collapsed upon her body, continuing to hold onto her hand, crying openly and loudly, his shoulders wracked with powerful sobs, not caring about how he looked. Through his overwhelming grief, he felt shameful disappointment that his secret, guilty wish hadn't been granted; to die first, so he'd never have to face the reality of having to try to live without Tsuruko. He stayed there for some time, sobbing over Tsuruko's body, only the presence of his children and grandchildren keeping him from sinking into absolute despair.
If one ignored the occasion, the day of Tsuruko's funeral could have been called a nice day. It was a clear, sunny day, with calm air, and even bird song was audible to those who attended. Keitaro, who looked to have aged more in the past few days than in a few decades, was little more than a shell of himself, still wracked with grief, but able to at least able to put up a façade of calm. At least for a while. Despite his and Tsuruko's unusual relationship, he was seated where a husband would have sat, and he was treated as widower.
As Tsuruko's closest blood relative, Motoko sat near Keitaro, with her own husband, children, and grandchildren near her. She wore her late sister's sword on her waist, having been bequeathed it, and she wore it with all the respect that it deserved. One day she would hand it down, possibly to her youngest granddaughter, a six year old sprite named Asuna. She looked at the man who was her brother in law in all but name. He was crushed, more depressed and heart-broken than she'd ever seen anyone. Looking into his eyes, she saw her own grief reflected in them, and she finally allowed herself to see Keitaro as family, burying the last fragments of her former resentment of him.
After the service, and after Tsuruko's casket had been inserted into the furnace for cremation, Motoko went to Keitaro and talked to him, something she would have normally done only if it was unavoidable. Keitaro was little surprised that Motoko was trying to comfort and console him, but in his mourning he accepted her condolences, offering her his own as well. Afterwards, they returned to the Aoyama home, talking about the woman they had both loved deeply.
The two of them would continue to meet at least once a week at the ancestral home, attempting to make up for decades worth of missed conversations, both of them feeling that Tsuruko would have wanted it. The talks seemed to revitalize each of them a little, both of them becoming more animated during their talks, but while Motoko came out of the talks feeling better, Keitaro seemed to collapse even further. His children worried that he was slowly giving up on life, but they had no way to make him stop. Keitaro's soul had in essence died with Tsuruko, and only his body survived, moving around without any guidance.
Four months and two days later, as everyone had both dreaded and expected, Keitaro was reunited with his beloved Tsuruko. To Motoko, it didn't matter that the doctors had called it death by natural causes, she knew, along with everyone else, that Keitaro had died of loneliness and a broken heart.
The day of Keitaro's funeral, the weather seemed more appropriate, Motoko decided. It was a bleak, overcast day, with light rain that mixed with tears, and instantly prompted a more somber mood. Motoko felt like she'd been to too many funerals recently, the price of a long life. It secretly bothered her that at the way things were going, she'd be the last of her friends to die, and that there wouldn't be anyone left but her children and grandchildren to come to her funeral.
Keitaro and Tsuruko's burial instructions were as unorthodox as their life together had been. Tsuruko's ashes were disinterred, and combined with Keitaro's ashes in a new urn. Motoko thought that this was fitting; they'd been all but inseparable in life, and now they were completely inseparable in death. As the urn was re-interred, and Tsuruko and Keitaro took their final resting place among the other members of the Aoyama clan, Motoko happened to look away, as she was wiping at tears.
From the corner of her eye, at the edge of the grounds, Motoko saw a ghostly image of her sister and Keitaro, holding hands, and looking as they had when they were younger. They were smiling softly, and waving, but when Motoko blinked, they disappeared. In spite of her sadness, Motoko couldn't help but smile. "We'll meet again…" she murmured softly.
"Grandma? Are you okay?" It was her youngest granddaughter Asuna, who would one day come to possess Tsuruko's blade.
"I'm fine Asuna-chan. I was just thinking, your Aunt Tsuruko and Uncle Keitaro would have enjoyed today…"
"Why grandma?" To Asuna, rainy days were no fun at all.
Motoko wiped her eyes one last time, and bent down to pick up her granddaughter. "They always loved to walk in the rain…"
End of Ships in the Night
Full Version posted at MediaMiner(dot)org
Okay that's it. It's over. Don't expect a sequel…
This project was something I've wanted to do for a while, and now that it's over, I feel a sense of satisfaction. One of my goals was to not only write a Keitaro/Tsuruko story, but to do it without simply offing her husband, and having Keitaro just walk in.
I also wanted to set the bar high, and set a new standard for this pairing…
Only you readers can tell me if I succeeded…
Comments, criticisms, and compliments are welcome at hawker(underscore)748(at)hotmail(dot)com
Once again, special thanks go out to random1377, who, when he wasn't creeping me out with 'Stability,' served as pre-reader on this fic, using his patented "DeSuck-o-Matic 3000" to insure this fic ran well, with minimum clunk, and maximum readability. That being said, all errors in continuity, logic, and common sense are my fault, not his.
Thanks to all who read and reviewed.
See you in the next fic!
Whatever it is…