A/N: Comments, critique and the like, all welcomed and appreciated.
"We have finished our calculations," professor Yamato, who was standing next to Inui, spoke to his audience, Ryoma's parents, Nanako and the Seigaku regulars that were all gathered around Ryoma's hospital bed. "And we have concluded that…" Professor Yamato coughed, flipped through the papers in his arms, scratched his beard and looked at Inui. "That…" his eyes went to his audience, nervous at the eager eyes, all focused on him.
"Inui," Tezuka said, his tone demanding action.
"The calculations have limited our options. From the machines settings we were able to narrow the possibilities down to thousand."
Shocked silence followed Inui's words. No one could think of anything to say.
Rinko began sobbing quietly.
"A thousand!" Nanjiroh yelled. "I want my son back!"
"There were millions of possibilities, to narrow it down to a mere thousand is-" professor Yamato began explaining only to be cut off by Tezuka.
"Not good enough. Fix it, Inui."
"There is a possibility to narrow them down," Yamato spoke up again and captured everyone's attention. "But there is a risk involved."
"What ever it is, we'll do it for O'chibi!" Kikumaru yelled, getting nods from his friends.
"Very well, I will need a volunteer that is willing to travel," Yamato said.
"I've always wanted to see new and exciting places," Fuji said, smiling.
"You do understand that he is talking about travelling to parallel universes with the help of an un-tested machine, Fuji?" Inui asked.
"What could be more exciting than visiting a parallel universe?" Fuji answered. "And it worked well enough for Echizen."
"Fujiko, are you sure?" Kawamura asked. "It's dangerous. And even if nothing goes wrong, how are you going to find Echizen and know it's him? Really him."
"Simple, I'm going with him," Nanjiroh said.
"I'm afraid that's impossible," Yamato interrupted. "We cannot send two people at the same time, the machine is not equipped for that. It can only take one person at a time, and even then there is a risk that something might go wrong. It has not been properly tested for humans, there might be side effects, radiation, heart failure, brain damage-"
"You mean my son could end up as a vegetable when he gets back?" Nanjiroh yelled, and Yamato very wisely did not correct the 'when' to 'if'.
"That is a possibility," Yamato answered and pondered if now would be a good time to run, as Nanjiroh's face darkened.
"So when do we start?" Fuji asked, eagerly grinning.
"Mou, Fuji. I think you're a bit too eager for this," Kikumaru pointed out.
Yukimura stared at the different paintings and drawings hanging on the walls of the class-room the art club used, and tried to pick out the ones that had been drawn by Ryoma without looking at the signatures.
It was a game he'd been playing for almost half an hour and he'd only managed to find two. One was a watercolour of a Himalayan cat and the other a pencil portrait of a man whose features looked blurred, like he was someone out of a dream, not a real person.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Ryoma-kun!" a girl shouted, sounding almost terrified at how disrespectful the boy was.
Yukimura turned to look at the pair standing by the classroom door and smiled at them, though his eyes narrowed when he saw the girl. He hadn't heard that the boy was dating. "I was just looking at the drawings. They're very good, especially this one," Yukimura turned back to the pencil drawing of the man and soon Ryoma was standing next to him. "Who is it?" Yukimura asked, turning to look at Ryoma, expecting a scowl or a yell that it was none of his business.
But the boy was looking at the painting with a confused frown, like he didn't know the answer. He bit his lip, took hold of the bottom of the paper and pulled it down so he could get a better look.
When recognition flashed in the boy's eyes, shock and horror soon followed and the paper was torn apart in to tiny little pieces. "It's no one," the boy answered, his voice harsh.
"Ryoma-kun, why did you do that? That's a picture of -"
"Shut up, Ryuzaki!" Ryoma yelled, not looking at the girl. He let the pieces of ripped paper fall on the floor and stormed out of the classroom past the other students coming in.
The girl stared after him, her lips parted, hurt and disbelieving. "He's… He's never… He…" she stammered, lost for words.
"Not himself?" Yukimura suggested softly and the girl turned to him, her lips trembling.
"What would you know?" she asked, nearly crying and then followed the boy's example and stormed out of the classroom.
Yukimura picked up the torn pieces of paper and stared at the pencil strokes on the paper, trying to remember what the man in the portrait had looked like. As vague as his features had been, there was still something hauntingly familiar in them.
Yukimura looked more closely at the piece where one eye and the corner of the mouth were showing. There was more detail in the eyes, something familiar in the way they were narrowed. The look in them was challenging and mocking at the same time. Amused and certain Yukimura could never rise to the level that would make the man take him seriously.
"Well aren't you a charmer," Yukimura murmured and placed the torn pieces of paper into his uniform pockets and left the class-room before the teacher arrived.
"Ready Fuji?" Inui asked from the other boy who was standing in front of a strange, oval shaped ring that's surface glittered with flashing lights, small lightning bolts that's colours varied from pure white to deep blue.
"I just step through this and I'm in another universe?" Fuji asked, though they had gone over it at least a dozen times already.
"Yes, and when you wish to return, just step through it again," Inui said from his place beside a small desk of to the side.
They were in an empty classroom at school, the machine that had caused Ryoma's comatose condition had been moved in the middle of it and the desks had been cleared away.
"I'm suddenly feeling a little nervous," Fuji said and straightened the collar of his school uniform, wondering if he should have dressed differently, but it seemed appropriate. They were at school, after all. Though it was well past the normal time and no one should have been there at all. But Inui had gotten hold of the keys, somehow, and arranged for the machine to be brought here.
"Do not worry, Tezuka will catch your unconscious body before it hits the floor and when you return it should be as easy as opening your eyes. In theory," Inui added and scribbled something down on his notebook.
"It's the theory part that has me worried," Fuji muttered.
"You do not have to do this," Tezuka said from the other side of the blue and white lighting storm. Fuji couldn't see him, but knew Tezuka was there, and he trusted Tezuka without hesitation. The same could not be said for Inui.
Thus the hesitation.
"Just tell me again how do I get back?" Fuji asked Inui. Professor Yamato was nowhere around. He'd retreated to his own study, claiming he would be more use doing the calculations than taking part in the practical tests.
"The gateway, once you have arrived, will be visible to you and you will be able to return through it at any time unless the device is shut off from here," Inui stood up from his seat and walked over to them. "You are the only one that it is visible to, unless, of course, you run into Echizen."
"And you've tested this?" Fuji asked.
"Many times," Inui said. "With rats."
"Is that why Echizen hasn't returned? Because the device was shut off?" Tezuka asked. "Shouldn't the gateway then appear before him when the device is turned on?"
"Hmmm," Inui turned back to the teacher's desk and on his notes. "I don't know. It's a possibility."
"Ryoma-kun, stop!" Sakuno screamed, stepping in his path and placing her palms against his chest. "What are you doing?" she asked, her eyes wide and confused.
"Let go, Ryuzaki," Ryoma ordered her, not sure, and not caring anymore if that was what he usually called her.
"No!" she yelled and squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm not letting go until you tell me what's wrong! We're best friends!"
Ryoma really wanted to ask how that had happened. He couldn't imagine having anything in common with her and she was always so shy around him. Or at least she was in the universe where things made sense. Here she didn't seem to have any troubles with speaking, or even screaming at him. And despite the fact that he'd sometimes wished she'd have more of a backbone, he'd give anything for her to be shy right now.
"Just leave it, Ryuzaki," Ryoma grunted and pushed her off, not too gently. He turned his back on her and turned right on the next corner that he came to, trying not to think about the fact that he didn't know where he was going.
He spotted an exit sign and got out of the school and ended up somewhere he really didn't want to be. Just a few metres away was the tennis court, and practice was about to start.
He looked around, wondering which way he should go when he spotted Yukimura heading his way. Ryoma swore and turned to go to the other direction, only to freeze. Straight ahead of him was a swirl of white and blue colours, an electric lightning storm trapped in an oval shape. It shimmered and pulsed, and emitted a humming sound that vibrated through him.
"I'm glad you waited for me, Ryoma-kun," Yukimura's hand coming down on his shoulder was like a shackle trapping him between the other boy and the raging light show.
"Hnh," Ryoma grunted and stepped back, away from the strange light storm and almost pressing himself against Yukimura. Right now the other boy, no matter how odd or creepy seemed like the lesser of two evils.
Yukimura placed his other arm on Ryoma's back and steered Ryoma towards the tennis court. "I want you to meet the team," Yukimura said.
"Yeah, wait, what?" Ryoma yelled and dug his heels on the ground, refusing to move another inch. He looked behind him at the light waves and shivered, almost yelled a warning when another student walked through it. But he was unharmed. Maybe the lights were just some strange visual hallucination? "Why?" he asked Yukimura.
"Because I want you to meet them," Yukimura repeated his reason, and sounded a little frustrated at having to do so.
"That's not a reason," Ryoma said, and before Yukimura could say anything more, added, "At least not something that'd convince me."
Yukimura frowned and folded his arms. "Just do it as a favour for a friend."
Ryoma crossed his arms, mirroring Yukimura, and narrowed his eyes, still keeping one eye on the shimmering light storm that kept pulsating, almost in-sync with his heart beat. "Why are you pestering me? Isn't there someone else you can bully, who'd actually like all the extra attention from you?"
"But I'm not interested in them." Yukimura said, causing Ryoma to take a step back.
"You're interested in me?" He asked, almost screaming.
Yukimura's smile was bright, almost blindingly so, and his answer came with a cheery voice. "Yes."
Ryoma coughed, and tried to will away the blush he knew was covering his face. "You're interested, interested?" he asked, just to be safe. "As in… Interested?"
Yukimura kept nodding, happily, but then his eyes widened at the realization, and he chuckled. "No! No, no, no, I mean just plain interested."
"If that was meant to be clarifying, it really wasn't," Ryoma remarked dryly.
"I'm really not interested in you," Yukimura grinned.
"You just said you were," Ryoma said, happy to drag the thing out as long as he could.
"Yes, but I'm not, I mean-" Yukimura snapped his mouth shut and closed his eyes, then drew in a deep breath and formed a thin, stressed smile. "Just come and meet the team, please?"
Ryoma shrugged. "All you had to do was ask." He started walking towards the tennis courts, leaving a fuming Yukimura, and most importantly, the freaky lights behind him.