Notes: pre-canon. Manga-centric, likely to diverge in the future. This chapter in Yumiko's point of view.


I. Uprooted

The decision to move was by no means a democratic process, but even if it had been, Yuuta would have been entirely outvoted, because he was the only one with serious objections to the relocation from Chiba to Tokyo when Tousan came home and announced that he was being promoted and transferred. He argued strenuously--first against the move, and when it became clear that he was the only one who minded moving, to be allowed to stay behind, with his classmates and his friends.

Yumiko imagined that it must have come as a surprise to her youngest brother, who was used to getting his way, when his objections were overruled. His woebegone look as he sulked through the packing process was pitiful enough--and the fact that she couldn't blame him for not wanting to transfer just before his final year of elementary school--that she approached her parents with an offer. "I could get an apartment here, at least until he finishes the sixth grade," she offered, since she was commuting to Tokyo every morning for her job anyway. "I can survive without that extra hour of sleep for another year."

Kaasan looked like she was taking the idea seriously. "Perhaps we could..." she started.

Tousan interrupted her. "No." He frowned. "It's a generous offer, but you really shouldn't have to take on the responsibility of raising your brother at this age." His frown darkened. "And I'm afraid that Yuuta is just going to have to learn that sometimes life doesn't go the way you want it."

And that was the final word on that.

Afterwards, Yumiko wondered what would have happened if Tousan hadn't chosen that moment not to indulge Yuuta, and how much trouble they could have averted.

They moved in the break between school years. Shuusuke was his normal, cheerful self: if it bothered him that he was abandoning his plans to go to Rokkaku Chuu in favor of enrolling at Seishun Gakuen, he never said. Perhaps, Yumiko thought, he felt that Yuuta's general air of woe made up for his equanimity.

But even Yuuta was not wholly immune to the excitement of the move, and was beginning to be cheerful again by the day that the new school year began. He marched off to school, looking determined to make the best of his situation.

Shuusuke certainly took to Seigaku, and spent dinner that evening chirping away about the interesting people he'd met, and the tennis club, and the subjects he was taking. Yuuta didn't say much. "It's okay," he said, when Kaasan asked him about his first day at Shinno, and just shrugged without volunteering anything else about his day. "May I have some more rice?"

Yumiko wondered, in retrospect, whether that should have been their first warning sign.

Spring wore on to summer, and Shuusuke continued to thrive at Seigaku, and Yuuta went quiet--with the preoccupation of sixth grade, Yumiko supposed. He certainly spent enough of his time in his room, studying, although he never said much about his schoolwork or his classes. He preferred to talk about his tennis lessons, or the latest emails he'd gotten from his friends in Chiba, or the video games he was playing.

That, Yumiko decided, should have been the second sign, that he only showed enthusiasm for the things that linked back to Chiba, but she hadn't noticed at the time, because she'd been busy securing a new job that paid better than her previous position.

Yuuta caught her one evening, lingering in her doorway in the way he did sometimes when he had a question. "Neechan?"

"What is it, Yuu-chan?" she asked, absently, concentrating on the polish that she was applying to her toenails.

"I was wondering... is it really hard to get a job?"

Yumiko looked up and laughed at the serious expression on his face. "What on earth are you asking that for?"

"I was wondering. Since you've been so busy with it." His face was solemn.

"You ask the strangest things," she said, but since he seemed serious, she capped the bottle of polish and set it on her bedside table. "It can be hard to find a job," she said. Her mouth quirked, in light of her recent experiences. "Harder for girls than for boys, maybe. But you're a Fuji, so you won't have any problems when you get around to hunting for a job."

The little wrinkle between his eyebrows cleared. "Oh," he said, "okay."

Yumiko stood, walking carefully to keep her polish from being marred, and pulled him into a hug. "You're so funny, Yuu-chan."

Three days later, Yuuta didn't come home from school.

Kaasan noticed that he was later than usual, getting home, although she said later that she'd hoped it was because he was with friends and had just forgotten to call. She didn't worry, though, until it was suppertime and Yuuta still hadn't come home, or called.

The next forty-eight hours were a nightmare. Yumiko tried not to remember them if she could help it, although snatches of images haunted her sleep for weeks after the crisis--the police, suggesting that he had been kidnapped; Kaasan, crying into a dishtowel at the kitchen table; Tousan, strained and angry and unshaven as he placed call after call to friends and neighbors; and Shuusuke, face pale and frozen amid all the chaos.

It was just as well, Yumiko decided, that she was there to be the sensible one, to make sure that someone fed Shuusuke, and to shepherd her mother to bed when she would have stayed up all night, just in case Yuuta came home, and to answer the policemen's questions, and show them through Yuuta's room, and keep an even keel while everyone else fell apart.

And it was because she was the one thinking straight that halfway through the second terrible afternoon that she announced, abruptly, "I'm going out to look for him."

"I'll come, too," Shuusuke volunteered, instantly.

Yumiko hesitated, and almost vetoed his plan, but the strain on his face changed her mind. If he needed to get away from the oppressive atmosphere, so be it. "Okay," she said, and stooped to hug Kaasan, quick and fierce. "We'll be back, Kaasan. I have my phone, if you need anything."

"Be careful," Kaasan rasped.

"Of course, Kaasan." Yumiko patted her mother's shoulder, and made her escape.

Shuusuke was quiet as she bundled them into her car, and he didn't say anything at all until she pointed the car away from Tokyo. "...Neesan?"

"The problem," Yumiko said, keeping her eyes fixed on the road, "is that no one has bothered to think like Yuuta."

Shuusuke fidgeted in the passenger seat. "Think like Yuuta?"

His unspoken question hung in the air, heavy. "I don't think he was abducted, if that's what you mean."

"You don't?" There was a measure of relief in Shuusuke's voice. "Why not?"

"Call it a hunch," she said, absently.

He didn't say anything else, but stirred a little, when he recognized where they were going, and barely even blinked when she parked the car on one of the side streets of their old neighborhood in Chiba. "Where do you think we should start?" she asked him.

Shuusuke frowned. "...with his friends here."

Yumiko nodded. "You know them better than I do."

Shuusuke directed them from house to house, from the Fujiwaras' to the Suyamas' to the Takeuchis', and they asked after Yuuta at each one, only to be met with sympathetic expressions and shaking heads. Yumiko was rethinking her hunch when Shuusuke stopped short on the Ogatas' front step. "Koujirou," he said. "We need to try there next, Neesan."

"Kou-chan?" she echoed. "I thought he was your friend, Shuusuke."

"We need to go there," Shuusuke insisted, mouth settling into a stubborn line.

"All right," she said, and drove them to the Saekis' house (just a few doors down from their old house, and maybe it made sense, but hadn't Yuuta always been the tag-along when Shuusuke and Kou-chan played?) without questioning him further. She knocked on the door, and waited patiently for someone to answer.

Saeki-san answered, and her eyes went wide to see the two of them on her doorstep. "Yumiko-chan, Shuusuke-kun, what are you doing here?" Her tone dropped. "Have they found Yuuta-kun yet?"

"Actually, Saeki-san..." Yumiko's voice trailed off as she looked past Saeki-san, up the stairs, to where Kou-chan was skulking in the upstairs hall, trying not to look too interested--or too guilty. "Actually, we're here to take Yuuta home."

"To take..." Saeki-san was at a moment's loss, until she turned and followed Yumiko's gaze up the stairs, just in time to see her son trying to duck out of sight. "Saeki Koujirou, you come down here this instant!"

Kou-chan shuffled downstairs, wearing an expression that was trying for innocent and failing pretty miserably. "Yes, Kaasan?" he asked, giving Shuusuke a little wave.

"Don't you 'Yes, Kaasan' me, young man." Saeki-san put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "Growing boys need extra food, do they?"

"Erm... we do?" Kou-chan's smile was strained. "I think I put on another centimeter overnight, Kaasan--Yumiko-nee, you don't want to go up there, my room is a mess!"

"I'll survive," she said, brushing past Saeki-san and Kou-chan both, and taking the stairs two at a time. Reiko's room was on the left, and Kou-chan's was further down from that, with the door firmly shut. Yumiko threw it open, and even then almost missed the blur of motion that was Yuuta diving for the window.

He was halfway to wriggling through when she caught the back of his shirt and hauled him back inside, and his glare was mutinous. "I'm not going back!"

"That's what you think," she said, tightening her grip on him, and looked up to see Shuusuke hovering in the door. "Shuusuke, do me a favor and grab his things."

He nodded, and it didn't look like there was much to gather--just Yuuta's school bag, emptied of books and stuffed with clothes and what was probably Yuuta's life savings. Yuuta watched in stony silence, while Shuusuke kept stealing glances at him.

"Koujirou, you are so grounded." Judging by Saeki-san's tone as Yumiko marched Yuuta down the stairs, Kou-chan's immediate future was not a bright one. "Yumiko-chan, I am so very sorry that my son is an idiot, and--"

"It's not his fault," Yuuta interrupted. "I made him promise not to tell I was here."

"He still should have known better," Saeki-san said, with a glare for her son. "Yumiko-chan, tell your mother how very sorry I am--no, I'll call and tell her myself."

"Just call and tell her that we have Yuuta, and that he's safe, so she can stop worrying." Yumiko sighed. "And we had better get him home. C'mon, Shuusuke." She propelled Yuuta through the door, keeping an eye on him in case he decided to bolt, but he went quietly, and huddled in the back seat, glaring at his knees.

Yumiko held her tongue for a few minutes, while Shuusuke fidgeted with the straps on Yuuta's bag, until her phone rang. "Shuusuke, would you mind?" she murmured.

"Of course not," he said, and fished around in her purse for her cell phone. He answered. "This is--hi, Kaasan." A pause. "No, we really have him." Another pause. "He's okay, Kaasan." And another. "No, really, he's fine." Another pause, and then he twisted in his seat. "Yuuta, Kaasan wants to talk to you." He offered Yuuta the phone.

After a moment's hesitation, Yuuta accepted it.

"Hi, Kaasan." A pause. "I'm fine, Kaasan." Yumiko watched the rearview mirror, and saw the guilt flicker across his face. "I was going to send a letter--" A wince as he held the phone away from his ear. "Sorry, Kaasan." Another pause. "No, it wasn't Sae's idea." Another wince. "I don't want to talk about it." And another. "Sorry, Kaasan."

The conversation carried on for a few more minutes before Yuuta finally closed the phone and passed it back up to the front seat, wordlessly. His glare, when he turned his gaze back to the window, looked a bit shaken.

Shuusuke twisted in his seat. "Yuuta...?" he ventured. "Are you okay?"

Yuuta hunched his shoulders. "I'm fine."

Shuusuke hesitated. "Why'd you run away?"

Yuuta was silent for so long that Yumiko thought he might not answer at all, but finally he mumbled, indistinctly, "...hate Tokyo."

"What's wrong with it?"

To his credit, Shuusuke probably hadn't meant for that to sound as confrontational as it did.

Yuuta gave him a glare. "It's not home."

"But it's not so bad--"

"Shuusuke," Yumiko said, eyes flicking to the rearview mirror and Yuuta's face. "Just leave it."

Shuusuke gave her a puzzled look, but subsided, and they finished the trip home in silence--Yuuta angry and brooding in the back seat, and Shuusuke puzzled in the front seat, and Yumiko thinking about the way they'd wanted to ask Yuuta's school friends if they knew where he might be, only to find out that he hadn't made any friends in the months since they'd moved, and had been picked on. Being a little shy, and a little too emotional, hadn't worked against him in Chiba, where Shuusuke had always been the first to defend him, but Shuusuke wasn't at the same school any more, was he?

When she pulled into the drive, Kaasan swooped out of the house to meet them, and there was barely time to get out of the car before she had pounced Yuuta, all tears and laughter and scolding. Tousan was more circumspect, although the lines on his face had eased considerably in the handful of hours since she and Shuusuke had left.

Once the reunion was over, they grounded Yuuta--"For the rest of his natural life," according to Tousan, although Yumiko suspected that it wouldn't be quite that long--and Yuuta accepted his punishment stoically.

Later, Yumiko would put her finger on that moment as the point when her baby brother, the sweet and moderately-spoiled Yuu-chan, disappeared, to be replaced by the prickly stranger who stopped hanging around her, asking questions and confiding little secrets, and had stopped running to Aniki with all of his problems (although later, when she and Shuusuke talked about it, he said that Yuuta hadn't done that since well before he tried to run away).

Tousan had wanted Yuuta to learn that sometimes life wouldn't go his way.

Yumiko didn't think that was quite the lesson that Yuuta had learned.