Disclaimer: Not mine.
Reviews: A huge thank-you for everybody who kept reading, even though there were long gaps between updates. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing this. Some of you left terrific reviews that made me feel very good about myself, or helped me with little things I kept doing wrong for a long, long time (and still would, if it wasn't for you). *bows*
AN: Here goes the very last chapter. I hope it answers all questions - even though it does not entirely resolve the plot, but that is what I wanted to happen (a straight-out happy end appeared too far away after everything that has happened).
No trace of the incredible power Fuji had just sensed from Tezuka remained in the air any longer, yet the silence filling the hospital room was stifling. For a long while neither of them moved, while outside the first white snowflakes began drifting downward.
Tezuka's tentative question cut straight through the jumbled thoughts clouding Fuji's mind. He flinched, before reminding himself to keep his expression positive – there was no need to confront Tezuka with his dark suspicions.
Much less if Tezuka indeed understood as much as it appeared.
"Well, "Fuji cleared his throat, "At least this way we can be relatively certain she won't bother us again."
As long as Tezuka possessed the majority of her power, that was indeed not a danger. While Fuji knew he'd never be fully convinced – he had seen too many impossible things happen by now – the aged skeleton they'd pulled from the pond suited the bill rather nicely. There was no telling if the imposter of Mori-san truly was dead, though at least for now she would not trouble them any longer.
Even if something of her had survived – it was unlikely it would regain enough power to trouble them once more in one lifetime.
"That's good to hear," replied Tezuka quietly.
Fuji used the silence to study his friend once again. To somebody who did not know him, Tezuka merely appeared a little pale. Fuji on the other hand could discern fatigue in the way he held himself – the slight slumping of his shoulders gave away more than anything on Tezuka's face ever would. What disturbed him was the distant expression in Tezuka's eyes. He could remember too few moments when Tezuka had appeared absent-minded; and neither of those moments had been particularly good.
The last time he'd seen it was when Tezuka's grandmother had died a few years ago.
Fuji swallowed, and his heart clenched painfully.
"Tezuka," he muttered, his voice sounding choked to his own ears, "I… I'm sorry."
Tezuka's eyes widened. "Whatever for?"
"Getting you stuck with this," said Fuji, and directed his gaze to the floor, "I know this must be horrid for you. It was … such a thoughtless thing to do, but I couldn't think of anything else. I know it's not an excuse, but I didn't want anything else to happen to you. I just never thought about what it would turn out like."
Seeing Fuji withdraw physically, Tezuka reached out and gripped his friend's arm. Fuji flinched, but turned his eyes up and held Tezuka's gaze.
"Fuji, I think I told you before already – if you hadn't it, I'd be dead now."
Fuji blinked. "Aren't you angry?"
"Why should I be?" Tezuka let his momentary confusion show on his face. Suppressing his emotions now would do little good, when what they both so dearly needed were truth and honesty.
The pain in Fuji's expression intensified, and he tried to take a step backwards – Tezuka however, did not let go of Fuji's arm, and could feel small shivers running through the limb.
"I made you lose your humanity," Fuji whispered, "I turned you into a monster."
Tezuka abruptly felt cold. There were a thousand things and more he needed to tell Fuji, but the voice loudest in his head was the one screeching in denial, screaming he was no monster, never had been and never would be. The impulse was violent, forceful, foreign. Completely out of place among the usual voices of reason and fairness.
Fuji's eyes widened, and Tezuka's grip on his arm tightened.
"Fuji, stop it. One, you had little choice and I'd be more than an ungrateful fool to be angry with you for saving my life. Secondly, while I may not be an expert, the encounter left me with enough of my humanity intact – so I owe you far too much to even remotely contemplate being angry with you," said Tezuka, "As a matter of fact, I might just ask you the same – if I hadn't asked you to come with me then none of this would even have happened."
"You couldn't have known," replied Fuji, and Tezuka saw the tension drain from his posture.
"And yet I can't help but feel responsible," Tezuka straightened up, "But if you promise you won't blame yourself for saving my life, I'll try to accept that I had as small a chance of preventing what happened as you did."
Fuji pressed his lips together and averted his gaze. "All right."
Tezuka's tightened his grip. "I mean it, Fuji."
Fuji glanced up, and there were no words to describe the expression marring his face then. Something clenched violently in Tezuka's chest.
"I know, Tezuka," murmured Fuji, "I know."
And Tezuka knew no matter what he said, he would not convince his friend.
They saw each other a few more times before they returned to school only three days later. But as all of those encounters happened either in the presence of hospital staff or their families, no opportunity for a long conversation presented itself.
Tezuka did not like the way Fuji looked at him.
Yet he couldn't deny something within him had changed. The more time passed, the more he became aware of how he suddenly noticed things he had not paid attention to before. He found himself being able to exactly predict who was going to enter his room; and what mood they were in.
At times, when the white walls became too dull, and the numbers in his math book started to form cryptic messages, he let his mind drift. Wondered if he could wield those powers as he had seen the demon do.
His eyes fell onto the glass of water at his side.
She had made a lake freeze over in a moment.
Could he do it as well?
And then he recalled Fuji's worries, and Yumiko's calculating gaze. Power like this, as Nakayama had told him, was always corrupting. The demon they'd faced had – if their research was to be believed – once been a very morally upright woman. Though humanity was notoriously weak where power like this was concerned.
Would attempting to freeze one glass of water turn him into something like that?
In a fit he had asked Yumiko one evening, when they were alone for a rare five minutes. Part of him felt as if he was betraying Fuji by asking his sister; even more so since his action implied he doubted Fuji would answer him honestly.
But he wanted answers.
"Very, very few cases of individuals amassing powers as this have been known," Yumiko said thoughtfully, "and for obvious reasons, even fewer details are known. As it stands however, not one did retain their humanity."
"Which is probably a deduction from the fact that all those cases that have been documented involved harmful activities, I suppose," said Tezuka, "Theoretically speaking, would that not allow for an individual retaining their humanity to remain unnoticed?"
Yumiko tilted her head. "While that is a theoretical possibility, most individuals living longer than one human lifetime end up being noticed at one time or another. And unless they have made use of powers at their disposal, they would not have lived longer than normal."
"And it is not possible that one has escaped notice?"
She shook her head. "Not one. Tezuka-kun, human beings are not made to wield powers as this. Even the slightest use corrupts the soul – there is a good reason Nakayama-san is distrustful of everybody with a supernatural talent, as few bring about good things. And all of them, without exception, demand a price."
A shudder ran down Tezuka's spine, and he clutched the white blanket a little closer.
"The woman you faced had used those powers too long and too extensively. She had lost her mortality, her humanity and her soul – and yet she obsessed about gaining it back. While it will probably forever remain a mystery if it was to gain more power or for another reason – do you want to end like her?" Yumiko smiled at him.
Tezuka recalled the landscape he'd seen within her world. The archaic, ornamental palaces, the sandy mountains and the bright blue sky. Remembered the beautiful woman who had smiled so coldly as she had brought about Fuji's death.
There had been no emotions left within her.
But that world – could it truly have been so detailed, so beautiful, if no soul had created it?
He shook his head, chasing the thought away. It was not a question he'd ever be able to answer – and even if he could, the answer would not undo any of the damage, nor would it make him forget what he'd already seen.
Fuji's blood on his fingers…
"However," Yumiko's voice interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced up to find a small smile on her face, "Hearsay has it, that a few individuals after having been granted similar powers lived long and fulfilling lives without ever using their powers. They were never noticed for their supernatural abilities, and died, old and content."
Tezuka felt his lips quirking upward.
"I see," he replied, and already then the door opened once again to admit his mother into the room. Tezuka found other things to concentrate on – finals were coming, and while he wasn't too worried, the amount of material he had missed was far from trifling.
And anyhow, the way forward was clear.
Even if it left him practically without a choice.
When the bell finally announced the end of class with a shrill ring, Fuji couldn't quite help sighing in relief. While he didn't mind the subject – history – much, having spent most of his hospital stay reviewing school materials with Tezuka, he found himself rather bored. And tired, as well, but the concerned gazes of Eiji and Oishi already told him he still did not look entirely healthy.
With the weather this cold, it would take him even longer to recover.
"Hey Fuji, I was thinking about getting some fresh air," said Eiji. Fuji glanced up to see his friend watching him closely – his expression giving away what his light tone did not.
And then there were the rumors.
Upon his return to school Fuji had found many a curious gaze following him – Eiji had made certain to shield him from outright questions, but Tezuka's and his abrupt and simultaneous absence had raised questions. Given the incident with the dead cat's head in his locker, Fuji found himself unduly grateful that apparently nobody had heard of what had transpired in the student council room. He did not want to know how that had been done – and he ought to feel guilty about the truth being concealed, but fallout was already bad enough as it was.
If Hasegawa's murder had come to light…
Fuji swallowed. "Yes, that's sounds like a good idea."
They made their way to the roof, Eiji chattering happily all the way, while Fuji followed him rather subdued. He hadn't really forgotten about what happened in school during that week, but he honestly had not paid much thought to it. Thinking on it now – he owed quite some people at least an explanation.
He wished there was a way to undo that moment, when he had exposed Eiji and Ishida to the sight of Hasegawa's butchered remains. Or the cat's body – he could tell it had disturbed some of his fellow students severely. And he still did not know who else had seen Hasegawa's remains.
But there was no way to undo what had happened.
The roof was empty, covered only in a thin layer of snow. Overhead the sky was dark and grey, and down below the school yard remained deserted. Glancing toward the horizon, Fuji found the world looked as if it had been bleached, and all that was left were shades of grey and white. It was hard to imagine the landscape had once been so vividly colored. And even harder still to think that in little more than a month, the trees would start to bloom again.
"Fuji, are you okay? And don't you dare to smile and tell me everything is fine. I know you better than that!" All of a sudden, the smile was gone from Eiji's face, and Fuji bit his lip. Once again he wondered how Eiji managed to be so concerned for everyone else, when he had been exposed to sight that was beyond most people's nightmares?
"I'm more or less okay now," he answered, letting some of his fatigue show in the smile he directed at Eiji, "And yes, that's actually the truth."
"But something did happen," said Eiji, "Fuji, you don't need to tell me every detail that happened, or even whatever did – all I want to know is if it's still happening or not, and if there's anything I can do about it."
"I know," muttered Fuji, "And I wish I could tell you. It's just so…"
"Horrible? Surreal?" suggested Eiji with concern.
Fuji nodded without a word. Once more he could only marvel at Eiji's ability to speak of events he was doing his hardest to ignore.
Eiji sighed. "Don't worry, you don't need to tell me anything if you don't want to. But if it's okay, there were a few things I was wondering about," he waited for Fuji's slight nod, "This was one of those things that usually falls more into your sister's area of expertise, no?"
Again, Fuji nodded, his gaze concentrated on Eiji's sneakers. It was small wonder that no teacher had ever taken offense at the bright red laces Eiji liked to replace the common white ones with.
Eiji took a deep breath, and with obvious effort he lowered his voice. "I might be mistaken, and it all might be conincidental, but to me it appears Tezuka was involved as well?"
Fuji glanced up, and suddenly found himself unable to stand the inquisitive gaze of his friend. The honest concern directed at himself was too much – if Eiji knew about Tezuka then…
He turned once again to look at the snow-covered roofs. "Yes."
Eiji did not miss his reaction. "And it all ties in with that cat, and whatever happened in the student council room?"
"It does." Fuji made to continue – Eiji deserved at least an attempt at an explanation, but his red-haired friend held up a hand to stall those words.
"Last point: did I understand correctly that whatever has happened is over now? And should not affect you, Tezuka or anybody else any further?"
Fuji swallowed. "I think so."
Eiji heard the doubt in his words and raised an eyebrow.
"As far as I understand the situation," Fuji specified, "Nothing further should happen. The … being that is responsible for those incidents at school, as well as for what happened to Tezuka and me, doesn't exist any longer. At least, it's not corporeal anymore. Nothing should happen anymore, Eiji. Nothing."
His voice sounded shaky even to himself.
"Fuji, are you sure you're okay?" Eiji asked, grasping both of Fuji's shoulders firmly, "I only saw those incidents at school, and to be honest, the cat was enough to have Momo swear of all meat for a week, and what we saw in the student council room…."
Eiji trailed off. Fuji swallowed, once more reminded of the unnecessary violence he had inadvertently exposed his friends to.
"Look at me," said Eiji and Fuji forced himself to stop starring into the distance over Eiji's shoulders, "I can't tell what you're thinking, but you're not being yourself. Not that I would expect it after everything, but I'm worried. You don't even need to tell me anything, but if there's any way I can help…"
Fuji's throat constricted. The honest concern in Eiji's eyes was unbearable.
"I was wondering," he softly filled the silence, "Do you know who else saw the student council room that day?"
Eiji gracefully ignored the change of topic. "Of the students, I think it were only us and Ishida. I'm not certain about the teachers, though if you're worried about rumors – there are none."
"That is … surprising," muttered Fuji, though he did not know whether to be grateful or horrified at this. Keeping a secret crush quiet in the halls of Seigaku was something that generally didn't happen, so that an event of this size could be kept under wraps was nothing short of a miracle.
Or foul play.
"Only very few students saw, and the teachers involved were probably instructed to keep quiet about the affair," said Eiji while taking a small step backward. He did not release Fuji's arms. "Why the press got no wind of it, I've got no idea, but according to what I know, the room was locked after our discovery, and then the body got removed and the room cleaned within the same night."
Fuji's lips twitched. "Let's just say somebody in a position of influence was interested in keeping this quite. And to be honest, I can't say I mind."
Eiji joined the humorless chuckle. "Neither do I. Think what an uproar it would have been – and so close to exams none of us needed any more excitement. Or hysterical parents."
"You didn't tell yours?" Fuji tilted his head.
"Fujiko, honestly. My parents are brilliant, but you know my mom. She'd have pitched the fit of the century," Eiji shuddered at the image, "Probably wouldn't even have let me come into a 1km radius of the school. No, I didn't tell anybody about what I saw. Not even Oishi."
"Oh." There wasn't much Fuji could reply to this.
Eiji grinned. "And you don't need to tell me I should talk about it. I know that, but I'd rather talk to somebody who won't throw a fit, make me transfer to another school or inform the press."
Fuji raised an eyebrow. "And you haven't got any friends to fit that bill?"
"Well," Eiji tilted his head, "I can always talk to Oishi, but you know how he is. He'd probably worry himself all the way to a stomach ulcer. As for Taka, I'm not too sure how he'd react, Buchou is a little scary, and do you really want to find out what Inui would do with information like that?"
"I suppose I can see how talking to Inui might defeat the purpose of a conversation like that," Fuji smiled and his heart felt much lighter, "Though I can think of another third-year you did not mention."
"Normally I'd talk to you, of course. But seeing as you're up to your eyes in the entire affair, I guess you'd probably be better off finding your own person to talk to." Eiji's fingers tightened around his upper arms again, probably unintentionally.
"I think between Yumiko and Tezuka I'm pretty fine, though…" Fuji trailed off. There were issues, he recalled, he was hesitant to talk about with Tezuka. Considering his own involvement, his judgment was certainly clouded where Tezuka's recently acquired abilities were concerned.
Eiji smiled warmly. "How about it, then? I talk to you and you talk to me?"
This, thought Fuji, was much better than the suffocating show of concern. Even if it probably wasn't even half as helpful in the long run. "As long as you don't expect me to make sense… deal."
They shared a haphazard smile.
"So, how come Ishida hasn't spoken to anybody about what he saw?" Fuji already feared he'd been coerced into silence. Now that he had seen the means certain people were willing to employ - he shuddered.
"I have no idea, " Eiji shrugged, "And actually, we might never know. Last I heard he transferred to a boarding school in England."
Fuji's eyes widened. "Do you know if…?"
Eiji finally let go of Fuji, and kicked at the snow. "I suppose it might be a reaction to what happened. I don't know the exact circumstances, and I don't know anybody who's actually been friends with him and would know more…"
"Nor is it certain that he would have told his friends anything," ended Fuji grimly.
"I heard it was quite a famous school. Some mentioned he always had wanted to go there…"
Fuji caught Eiji's eyes. "And all of a sudden, the necessary scholarship happens upon him. I don't know, Eiji, but I guess the same person that kept the incidents under wraps took care of arranging that scholarship."
At least, Fuji resumed to himself, Ishida had gotten out something for keeping quiet. While he didn't want to speculate about long-term effects or other circumstances, for the time being he could probably live with this outcome.
"That's quite an influential character, then," said Eiji.
"It seems as if, though, to be honest, I'm not certain who exactly to hold responsible for this," Fuji could only shake his head at himself, "To be exact, the only party of some influence involved in this are friends or Tezuka's grandfather, and if their influence truly stretches this far…"
"There's some knowledge one can do without," Eiji commented, "It's what I always think during math."
Fuji had to chuckle. "I'm afraid Ryuuzaki-sensei won't agree."
"Well, I suppose we'd better get back in this case," replied Eiji and stuffed his hands deeper into the pocket of his jacket. The fresh air had grown freezing a while ago, and Fuji felt his cheeks growing numb.
"But, Fuji," Eiji turned, his hand already on the metal handle of the door, "You promise you will talk to me if anything comes up? I don't care what it is – just don't make me worry like that again."
And Fuji wondered whatever he had done to deserve a friend like Eiji.
The dark-haired boy turned around to see his friend approach. Fuji was almost unrecognizable under all the layers of cloth he was wearing, though Tezuka had to admit that the same was true for him as well. And as temperatures stayed firmly in the sub-zeros, scarves and gloves became permanent companions. Once more he wondered if meeting up in the park as they did in spring or summer had really been a good idea - the place was deserted, pathways, bushes and greens all covered under layers and layers of snow - but Tezuka never truly felt at home in those overheated cafés with their fancy plush chairs, regardless of how comfortable they were.
Fuji, or the part of his face Tezuka could see, was still too pale. How long had it been since he had heard those cursed words leave the doctor's lips? And while that spell had passed, Fuji had not died, and they were both whole and mostly healthy - he just couldn't forget what he had felt when Fuji had died in his arms.
"How are you?" Fuji asked, cheerful as if to spite the gloomy, frozen scenery surrounding them, "And how is your grandfather doing?"
"My grandfather is quite well, thank you. He is still convinced there was nothing truly wrong with him initially, and the doctors were only worried due to his age," Tezuka replied, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets, "I'm fine as well."
Fuji tilted his head. "You look a little pale."
Tezuka raised an eyebrow. In his opinion Fuji looked far worse than he did - after all, it was Fuji who had almost died. Tezuka merely had pushed his body too far and suffered from exhaustion. So at times, when he forgot to mind himself, he caught himself dragging his feet or taking an escalator where he'd usually opt for the stairs.
"Shall we walk a bit?" Tezuka suggested, suddenly overly aware of the bitterly cold air. He could practically feel it slowly, but surely making its way through his coat - though as long as they were moving, he should be fine. Fuji nodded, and they set off without a true direction in mind. Snow crunched under their shoes, as Tezuka glanced worriedly up to the grey sky above.
Once it begun to snow, they should head home. His parents had been unhappy to let him leave the house in this weather - undoubtedly, had they known he was out for a walk in the park, they would never have allowed him outside.
But he'd postponed talking to Fuji for far too long now. They rarely saw each other in school – and if they did, conversation remained stifled and awkward. Oishi had begun to notice, and Tezuka was not sure what to make of the way he had caught Eiji watching him a few times.
"Were you able to sort things out with your family?" asked Fuji.
Tezuka sighed and felt like kicking the snow. "I believe so. Between the Nakayamas and myself we were able to provide them with adequate explanations."
"Explanations?" questioned Fuji, without missing a beat, "Not the truth?"
"I wish I could tell them the entire story. You know I don't like lying. But..." He trailed off unhappily.
"It's too complicated," Fuji finished for him with a bitter smile, "Never mind, I didn't tell my sister quite everything either, though I suppose she can guess most of it."
Tezuka remained silent. He wondered if it was a curse or blessing to have a person able to guess what wasn't said. But then again, it would not make much of a difference in this case - not anymore, as things were over.
"She's worried," said Fuji suddenly, his voice ominously sharp in the silence of the deserted park, "About you, you know. And in light of what has happened, as well as Nakayama-san's stance on things... well, I can't help being concerned as well. Did he say anything to you since?"
A frown crossed Tezuka's face. "No, he did not. At least he did not address the issue of what happened to that thing's abilities. From what I could gather, he seems to believe her powers died with her. On the other hand, I think his wife suspects that this isn't the case."
He wondered if he should mention his short conversation with Yumiko. Or that he had made a conscious effort to suppress those powers whenever the Nakayamas were around.
Fuji nodded attentively, suppressing a shudder when an icy gust of wind passed them. The trees barely moved, frozen in place; only a few snowflakes were lifted from the ground and carelessly tossed through the air.
"Do you think Nakayama-san - should he find out - might do anything?" Fuji bit his lip, "I mean, he made his stance quite clear."
Tezuka took a deep breath. He'd been over this in his mind more than once. Saying it out loud, he found the words did not quite come the way he wished them to. "To be honest, I can't imagine him doing anything to me. However, this situation is out of the ordinary, so I have to admit I'm less certain than I'd like to be. For the time being however, I doubt it will be a problem."
"Is that so?" asked Fuji with a slight smile, "Then I'll trust your judgment on that matter."
Silence fell once again, heavy this time. The sky seemed to be growing darker, as what little daylight there was receeded. Temperatures were expected to drop steeply during the night - spring, it appeared, would arrive late this year. And they ought to head inside somewhere to warm up. This frigid air on top of everything else would do them little good.
"Fuji," Tezuka began, "Perhaps you remember that I told you about that tennis school in Germany I was interested in?"
"Actually, you told me you had applied a month ago or so. Did they contact you?" Fuji kept his tone light.
Tezuka swallowed. He didn't quite know why he was so hesitant to tell Fuji, or what that odd knot in his throat was, but he had trouble finding the words to say. "I've been accepted," said he, "So I'll probably leave next month."
He was relieved to see Fuji smile at him. "Congratulations, then. You always wanted to go there, didn't you? And that's a wonderful opportunity," and then Fuji's smile turned confidential, "Though I never doubted if they would accept you. It would have been too great a loss for them if they hadn't."
Fuji's faith in his capacities was heart-warming, though for a split second Tezuka found himself wishing for Fuji not to smile - because in a smile this wide his eyes stayed hidden.
"Thank you," replied Tezuka.
Fuji kept on walking, ignoring Tezuka slowing his steps. "So, when did the letter arrive?"
"A few days ago. I was still at the hospital at that time, so I'm not certain when exactly." Tezuka recalled feeling strangely unexcited when he found the envelope waiting for him at home. Prior to everything, he had been on the edge, waiting for the outcome of this application - if it worked out, that vague, vague dream of pursuing a career as a professional tennis player might actually come true one day. He hadn't dared to hope - considering his parents' conservative stance on education, the expenses involved, the little fact that few Japanese tennis player had been successful internationally - truly, a career in this field still was hard to imagine.
So when he had sat down and filled out the forms, he'd felt shaken. He never considered himself a person to chase his dreams, too rational to give much credit to the rare exceptions that populated shallow journals and self-laudatory biographies. But playing tennis for the rest of his life was what he wanted.
What he had wanted before.
Now he felt as if his entire life had shifted off balance
"So when will you leave?" Fuji asked abruptly, his expression bright and yet completely unreadable.
"Soon, probably. I'd like to be here for the graduation ceremony, but I'm not sure if that will work out," he took a deep breath. Seeing Fuji smile like this was almost painful. He wanted to reach out, exorcise the guilt that so obviously kept preying on his friend's soul.
"Well, I guess we'll find out," Fuji smiled, "Though I hope you'll tell us in time. I'd feel rather unhappy if you were to disappear without a word."
"I'll tell you as soon as the flight is booked," said Tezuka solemnly. He wanted to ask if Fuji was okay with it at all. If Fuji felt he was running away, abandoning him – but Fuji' behavior gave him no clue.
And he did not know how to ask.
"How about we go and get a hot drink somewhere? Any longer and I think my toes will freeze off."
And the next two weeks passed in the blink of an eye.
Exams, while not easy, were nothing that had ever particularly worried either Fuji or Tezuka. So even with everything that had happened, both were fairly confident to have done well, in spite of having had less time to prepare than their class mates. And to be quite honest, Fuji admitted to himself, they probably still had ended up investing more time in their studies than Eiji or Momoshirou.
Not that that impaired their willingness to celebrate in the slightest.
Even before Fuji had slid open the entrance door to Kawamura Sushi, he heard the excited voices of his fellow team members laughing loudly, and couldn't quite help the smile spreading on his face. This was what he had so desperately had longed for when things had gone to hell those few weeks ago - this carefree laughter, bright smiles and the incredible sensation of not having to worry about anything.
At least for the next few hours.
Fuji pushed the door to the side, and warm light spilled outside, giving the small banks of snow on the sidewalk a far warmer glow. He hardly had time to even unbutton his coat, before Eiji enthusiastically welcomed him - almost throwing both of them off their feet with the exuberance of his hug.
"You know, you're quite late," was what Fuji heard once Eiji's arms had loosened enough to let him regain his bearings, "Even ochibi is already here. We were just about to call you - I don't think even Tezuka, Oishi and Taka-san combined would be able to keep the food safe any longer. And I'm really hungry as well. Kawamura-san outdid himself, you know. It's torture to have to sit and watch all that food without being allowed to touch it. But now you're here, so we can start eating!"
Fuji watched Eiji toss his scarf in the general direction of the coat rack - which was already well buried under a veritable mountain of fabric. His shoes joined the general chaos, and then Eiji pulled Fuji along to one of the low tables.
"Hello," Fuji smiled, well-aware he looked just as wind-swept as he felt, "Sorry for being late, but traffic was quite slow tonight."
"Never mind, Fuji-senpai," Momoshirou returned, "Nobody's starved yet."
"Glutton," came the low-keyed hiss from Kaidou, which earned him swap on the shoulder, and a snort from Eiji, as Kawamura also took his place at the table.
"Well, I hope everybody enjoys the food, then," he uttered, a bit off-balance as all eyes came to rest on him.
"We're much obliged to you and your father", Oishi said, while the majority of their small group attacked the food vigorously, and Tezuka inclined his head in Kawamura's direction: "Thank you very much."
Fuji had barely tasted the first roll, when beside him Eiji exclaimed: "It's delicious!", and Kawamura - unable to reply with his mouth full - flushed pink. The next ten minutes were spent in religious non-silence, as everybody generously helped themselves to food, and more food. Only after the deepest pits of various stomachs had been filled the general pace slowed, and conversation was attempted over the clinking of ceramic bowls and chopsticks.
The evening went on perfectly. Everybody was having fun, laughing at outrageous things, toasting to the most ridiculous ideas, until even Oishi was brightly flushed, and Echizen kept staring at the table as if he'd never seen one before. They weren't drunk on much more than one celebratory cup of sake and air, but Fuji fairly basked in the warmth.
It wasn't until Eiji pulled him aside that he noticed he had barely done more than watch his friends enjoy themselves.
"Fuji, really," Eiji sighed, affecting an exasperated air, "I thought …"
He abruptly shook his head, and his expression became concerned. "You don't seem yourself. I don't know how to put it – I know it might take some time to get over whatever happened. Or adjust to it. But …"
Fuji had to suppress a flinch at the helpless gesture.
"I know. I just can't help it, Eiji," Fuji replied, "I'm sorry if I'm spoiling the mood."
"I very much doubt that, but I'd say quite some of us are noticing. And don't blame us for being worried. For whatever reason, Tezuka seems much more like himself already," Eiji hesitated, before adding, "Though given he usually behaves like a rock, that might not be too difficult."
Fuji smiled reflexively. Tezuka was acting like himself, sure enough, but underneath it all… how could any of them understand what he had done to Tezuka? Even Tezuka himself probably did not understand it yet, but there was no way he was not going to be furious once it all began to play out.
After all his rash actions had as good as killed the Tezuka they'd all come to know.
"Fuji?" Eiji asked, leaning closer.
"Sorry about that. I just spaced out there."
Eiji frowned. "It's Tezuka, isn't it? You're walking on eggshells around him – it's not obvious, though. Have you talked with him about what happened?"
"We… did," said Fuji, and Eiji's frown deepened.
"Obviously you should talk again."
It was one of the first days temperatures had risen above zero and snow was beginning to melt. Overhead, blue patches of sky promised spring, and on the way to the airport Fuji had gazed at the starting and landing airplanes with an odd feeling in his stomach.
Tezuka was leaving. Not for good, and they certainly had more than one way to stay in contact – yet Fuji wondered. He did not give into those thoughts – navigating the busy crowds of travellers took more attention than to be expected, and exchanging pleasantries with Tezuka's family kept his mind occupied.
"Thank you for coming here today," Tezuka once again told him the moment they were out of earshot.
Fuji shook his head with smile, and studied the display of a souvenir shop absently. "It's really no trouble at all. I can't quite believe time passed so fast. It seems like just yesterday we were drowning in snow, and now it won't be long before the cherry blossoms begin to bloom."
"I'll be quite sad to miss them this year," Tezuka replied, gravely.
"But certainly spring should also be nice in Germany as well, shouldn't it?" Quite fittingly, the display in front of them was decked out for the coming season - fans with cherry blossoms, pencils with cherry blossoms, cell phone cases, small purses and hand mirrors decorated with cherry blossoms - in part they were well done, yet everything still looked too much like a touristy souvenir.
"I suppose so," Tezuka answered, and slowly they made their way past the showcase of a restaurant that looked almost identical to the one where they had left Tezua's family at.
"You will find out," Fuji smiled, "And if it's not too much of a hassle, maybe you could send some pictures, from time to time. Most people don't quite believe it, but sending pictures at times is far less of a bother than writing emails or letters."
They strolled along, passing the odd mixture of people that populated airports without further comment, keeping their conversation light. Only when they reached the end of the shopping area, and very few travelers remained (of which not few had succumbed to jet lag or exhaustion on the few available seats), they came to a stop.
"Should we go back?" Fuji asked.
Tezuka glanced at his watch. "There is some more time left before my flight boards."
Fuji smiled, but stopped. "Well, I had always more expected you to be somebody who arrives at their gate well before departure time."
"I just don't like to sit there and wait," replied Tezuka, turning to gaze at Fuji, "It's boring."
Fuji had to raise an eyebrow at the atypical statement. "Well, in that case I'll…"
He abruptly trailed off and listened to a speaker announcement that was almost being drowned out by the cacophony of background noises.
"That's your flight, isn't it?" Fuji asked, "They've opened the gate quite early."
"It's a huge plane," Tezuka replied.
"I guess we should go back now," said Fuji, and now Tezuka could not protest. There were many things he wanted to say, and he was sure Fuji would not have shown up if he hadn't wanted to talk as well.
"In a moment," Tezuka made a decision and caught Fuji's arm before the other boy had turned away from him, "I had hoped we'd have some more time, but well…"
Fuji's eyes were wide-open, and Tezuka felt something in his chest clench.
"I was wondering if I did something wrong. Back there, when… on that beach," Tezuka bit his lip, "Somehow, you've not been yourself since then."
He swallowed, anxiously waiting for an answer.
"You did nothing wrong," Fuji shook his head, "Absolutely nothing. It's only… you should not have used that power. But that was my fault."
Tezuka took a deep breath and instinctively pulled Fuji even closer – Fuji had to tilt up his head to look at his face.
"Fuji, I think I told you before, but I regret nothing. While I could have done without the entire affair – we came out of it alive, didn't we? I only recall both of us doing what was necessary to survive."
Fuji shook his head. "You don't understand. Tezuka, what I've … You'll hate me once you understand."
"Never," Tezuka replied firmly, "And don't say I don't understand. I know what using those powers brings about, what the price is supposed to be. And do you honestly think me so weak I would succumb to using them when I've lived until today without them?"
He quirked his lips a little, and could see Fuji think.
"I still changed you," he muttered and Tezuka almost grinned.
"People always change," he quipped, "And the affair would have changed me anyway."
He turned to look imploringly into Fuji's eyes, "And in a way, I probably changed you as well. I may not know what exactly this will lead to, but I have no intention of succumbing to any evil power, selling my soul or joining any other ill-fated endeavor. So until we see each other again – stop feeling guilty. If anything is going to change me deeply, this coming term probably will – and not due to any kind of supernatural power."
There was a moment of silence.
Then Fuji sighed and let his head drop against Tezuka's chest.
"I really can't argue with you," he muttered, but for the first time in a very long while, his voice rang clear and unstrained, "While I doubt I can forget about it, I think I can accept you're still yourself. For the time being."
Tezuka raised his arms in what probably looked like a very awkward hug. But he'd never felt more content in his life.
"And that's all I wanted."
Later, when the plane was high over frozen Siberian tundra, Tezuka fell into an uneasy sleep. He dreamt of snow-covered mountains and beautiful palaces. And before a magnificent entrance stood Fuji and smiled at him.
That bright, honest smile Tezuka would pay any price to see again.
Well, please feel free to share your overall impressions with me. ^_^