I watched shell-shocked as Kaitou and Kichirou stared right back at me. There was so much I wanted to say at the moment, but the words of denial, of fear and of worry for Ojiisan failed to articulate themselves, even though they were already on the tip of my tongue. I didn't know what to do first; to run or to simply admit I was their failure of a sister so that we could all rush ourselves to the hospital to see our dear grandfather. We wasted another good ten seconds in that stiff-necked position, not sure who would make the first move, or even what move would be the most appropriate one to make in such a bizarre circumstance.
Finally, I decided that I would be a kangaroo in the spotlight no longer. Who wants to be road kill anyway?
"Come on Kaitou, Kichirou, it's me," I pulled off my mask and shifted my wig slightly in one swift motion, enough for them to see my blond locks beneath, exactly the same shade as Kichirou's. "At least you don't have to waste time picking me up. Can we go now?"
Kaitou looked about as stunned as yesterday's meatloaf being taken out from the freezer to be reheated for a meal, if meatloaves were entitled the privilege of emotions. Kichirou looked no better, and it crossed my mind that he would have just realised that he spent the last half an hour first hitting on his little sister, and then sharing a little deep dark secret with her without him even knowing it. My heart ached for his poor traumatised and tormented soul.
"But…but why Etsu?" Kichirou stammered. "No, how? When? Why?"
"You owe us a long, long explanation, young lady," Kaitou stepped closer with a flabbergasted smile and briskly hid my yellow locks beneath the striking red wig, "but after we see Ojiisan, and most definitely after you change that blasted ringtone of yours."
Kichirou shuffled to my side, looking up and down at my ensemble, his face still reflecting the utter disbelief he felt. I playfully grabbed his arm as we tactically made our way out of the ballroom, inwardly laughing at my scowling, second brother, who did once tell me that there was nothing to hit on, and did exactly that. And I must say I saw him blush earlier when I hugged him without abandon. Taking one more look at him, Kichirou's long lanky form stared daggers back into me, before his features finally softened and he shook his head with a gentle, slightly disbelieving yet altogether disarming smile.
Just as Kichirou leaned over to kiss my head, it should have registered in my mind that any girl receiving obvious physical endearments from not just one but both of Japan's most desirable men should at least be watching out for any image capturing devices.
As the first son of the Tsuruga family bustled his younger siblings into his sleek black Mercedes, he made me sit at the back, crouched down and legs tucked in, at least until we were out of a 2km radius of the hotel that LME had fully reserved for the party. At Kichirou's signal, I emerged from my rather uncomfortable position on the rough inner carpet of Kaitou's car. Kichirou took the liberty to stare at me once again.
"I can't believe you didn't recognise her," Kaitou smirked, "you guys talked for at least half an hour."
"She was wearing a mask!" Kichirou retorted.
"Come on onii-san, even I know how terrible that lie is," I chuckled from the backseat as I watched Kichirou fold his arms in a huff. "I'll explain everything later, don't worry."
"You'd better," Kaitou stated plainly. "Etsu, call Okasan; they left already, and we should be catching the next flight out to Washington DC."
I gingerly dialled my mother's familiar number and got through to a very calm, yet oddly annoyed woman. Putting the phone on speaker, I quickly replied her irate "hello" with a more cheery version of "Okasan!"
"Oh, Etsu, are you with Kaitou and Kichirou now?" Okasan's voiced was laced with the once again, odd tinge of malice.
"She's in the car, Okasan. What's wrong with Ojiisan? And why do you sound so cheesed off?" Kichirou piped up, echoing my sentiments exactly.
"Well, you can either send Etsu home, or head back to the Happy Grateful party," Okasan stated mirthlessly, "it seems your baka Ojiisan simply ate too much over the holidays and suffered a minor heartburn, and then your Obaasan just sounded the alarm without thinking twice. He'll be fine."
You've got to be kidding me. I revealed my identity to these two idiots for almost absolutely nothing? Now I could understand why my mother sounded as about irritated as a reluctant spotted cow made to change its perfect grazing spot to a less than perfect one far away. It even was her day after all; my mother would be celebrating yet another successful year in her life. And the perfect night had to be interrupted by her father-in-law crying wolf due to his inhumane penchant for scarfing down everything he wanted; hook, line, sinker and the entire wharf; at those American party buffet spreads. Served him right to be a beached whale now. A part of me pitied my mother, and the other part had the utmost sympathy for the party hosts that had to cater enough to feed my glutton of a grandfather. And like a cow, that old fart probably had four stomachs. Or more.
"And I'm taking your mother on a well-deserved holiday," Otousan's voice suddenly broke my train of cows – I mean – thoughts. "Since we're already at the airport, right Kyoko-chan?"
"For the love of reindeer can you two get a room?" Kaitou grimaced, the throbbing vein on his forehead already threatening to pop out. "I can hear the pheromones oozing through my telecom service provider already."
"That's exactly what I intend to do, and more; much, much more," a sultry, emperor of the night voice echoed within the confines of my brother's car, just as the line went dead, leaving all three Tsuruga offspring with chilly spines, in the worst way possible.
Kichirou was the first one to break the disgusted silence, if silence could ever be disgusted in the first place.
"Kai, Etsu; do you think that sick bastard of a father enjoys tormenting us like this?"
I replied in the affirmative.
"Most definitely yes."
The amicable, light-hearted banter between the three of us continued throughout the drive to my apartment, where we unanimously agreed that it was the safest place where we could talk. This jovial atmosphere, however, came to an abrupt halt when we finally entered my humble abode, where my brothers immediately sat down and grilled me like a salted fish on a thin bamboo skewer. I spilled everything; how Yuuichi asked me to film the video, how Lory encouraged me to join the business, how Jelly-san insisted she disguise me and give me a whole new persona altogether. It somehow felt good to get it out of my system, and my brothers listened with open minds and ears.
"So it's only been a month since you've been on the scene?" Kaitou quizzed. "Nothing out of the ordinary, no one approaching you and saying you look like Okasan?"
"Nope," I shook my head in the negative. "No one suspects anything yet. But…some of my schoolmates do know who I am. Yuuichi for starters, Hikaru is a given, and the school president. No one other than those few and I do trust them to keep quiet about it."
"That's good to know," Kichirou chimed.
"Don't tell Otousan and Okasan," I immediately jumped at the chance to keep the situation as contained as possible.
"Why not? Once they know, they'll be able to protect you so much better."
"Kaitou, I'm already 16, there's no need to be protected! Okasan wasn't, and she turned out just fine."
Another wave of silence washed over the three of us, but it wasn't a comfortable one. I looked at both my older brothers, and it seemed as if once again, there was something I didn't know. They shared bonds and experiences that I would never be able to understand, because I was alone. The selfish Etsuko in me simply kicked in all over again and I turned my eyes to the plush carpet in my living room, moving my toes around and seeking whatever warmth it could offer in the surprisingly chilly room.
"Kai," Kichirou started, "we should tell her."
"No," Kaitou's sculpted features hardened into an obvious frown, yet as Kichirou stared rather wide-eyed at our eldest brother, the latter's stance changed. "Fine, she'll have to know one day."
I narrowed my eyes at my siblings. What had they been hiding from me? I didn't like the fact that they were still reluctant to speak about something so obviously important, yet expected me to be completely honest with them about why I had joined the family business. Right about now, I found myself loathing the way my family conducted its business, obviously leaving me out of a critical loop. Kichirou read the lines of anxious annoyance etched across my face, and took the liberty to start the ball rolling.
"Okasan and Otousan never thought of hiding us away because they weren't expecting anything to happen," Kichirou stated, then looked at me rather gingerly, "but a few months before you were born, Kaitou and I were kidnapped, right at the doorstep of our kindergarten."
I blinked. Kai and Kichi Oniisan being kidnapped? This was new.
"Kichirou was only four then. There was no ransom note, no absurd demands, nothing," Kaitou stared into the distance, as if something was plaguing him, a demon that he couldn't shake off. "We were taken away for the entire day, and the strangest thing was when we were dropped off right back at our doorstep that very night, unscathed and perfectly fine."
"That's it?" My voice was laced with disdain and shock that I didn't bother to conceal. "That's all you're going to tell me? Who took you? Why?"
"It doesn't matter who took us, or why," Kaitou raised his stern voice a decibel too high for my liking. "The bottom line of telling you this is so you'll understand that all Okasan and Otousan wanted to achieve by hiding you away from the world of showbiz is because they want to protect you more than anything else. As long as you work in showbiz, no one must ever know your real identity."
"There's a lot you're not telling me Kaitou. I don't like that."
I watched as Kichirou heaved a sigh, scratched his blond locks and shook his head at Kaitou.
"Kai, if you're going to tell her, do it properly. It's a lot more complex than he's making it out to be." Kichirou's tone suddenly turned serious and he leaned forward toward me. "But Etsu, you need to promise me that you won't get too freaked out."
I nodded my head in acceptance, wondering where this conversation was going.
"That entire afternoon we were so well taken care of, it didn't feel like a kidnapping at all. The van headed straight for Kyoto, where it stopped at a worn-out, run-down inn. A meal of saba-shio and piping hot miso had already been set out, and a really nice elderly inn-keeper made sure we had eaten well, and then prepared the onsen for us. And the food, it tasted exactly how Okasan would make it."
"A while after we came out of the bath," Kaitou continued, rubbing his temples, "another elderly woman came to meet us. She was almost skin and bones, it was frightening. But there was something in her eyes that couldn't help us from being drawn toward her, yet quake in fear. She didn't say anything at all; just looked on with a stern, unwavering gaze."
"Then she pat our heads, muttered, 'good job, Kyoko', and simply left the room."
"After that, we were bustled back onto the van, and this time, there was another man inside, other than the driver. Black hair, lanky form; haunted and piercing blue eyes. He didn't say anything, and neither did we."
"Until the van pulled up right in front of our house in Tokyo, where Otousan and Okasan were already outside, waiting, like they knew we were fine and were on the way home," Kichirou said quietly. "The man came out of the van with us, but Okasan immediately stood between him and us. Otousan hugged us tightly and whisked us inside the house, but not before I turned around and saw Okasan give the guy a hard slap on his cheek."
They kept silent for a while, alternating between observing my reaction and looking down at the carpet, hoping that it wasn't too much for me to take it. My mind worked on overdrive for a while. Why would our parents react that way? How come Okasan knew that they were coming home? Why didn't they call the police? How could Okasan dare to lay her hands on such a dangerous man? There was only one plausible explanation, yet as I ran it through my mind, it already sounded as absurd as I thought it would have.
"Did Okasan and Otousan know who the kidnapper was?" I ventured cautiously.
"Bingo," Kaitou's voice was soft. "And what that man told us seconds before we left the van is precisely why Okasan decided never to reveal your existence to the press."
"What did he say?"
Kichirou pursed his lips.
"Tell your mother I hope your sister grows up to be as beautiful as she is."
I didn't know how to react. That must have been some serious stalking skills, having known that I was a girl even before I was born. But there was one question still left unanswered.
"So who was this man?"
"Etsu," Kaitou leaned in ever so slightly, "have you heard of this particular Fuwa Shoutaro?"
AND THE PLOT THICKENS. LIKE CHICKEN SOUP BOILING OVER. Also, thank you Gin-chan, for pointing out to me that grandfather is Ojii-san, not Oji-san. =)