"Paging Dr. Nanjo, Dr. Nanjo please report to Room 204…"
"…man, I can't wait to get home to the wife and kids after this shift…"
The only sounds between Nemuru and Sakaki, who sat a few seats apart, were the various conversations between patients and doctors, the occasional intercom announcement, and people bustling around the hospital of Jouga, otherwise known as the "center". It had been an hour since they had arrived in the ambulance with a grievously wounded Sora. The doctors had said he had a fifty-fifty chance of living as long as someone came through with a blood transfusion. Sakaki had volunteered, but it would take some time before seeing if it was a success or not.
Sakaki knew he would be arrested and sent to jail within a few hours, but for now, he hoped to stick around long enough to see if Sora would pull through the night or not. He leaned his head against the wall, closed his eyes, and thought back to Mieko, as he always did. If only Mieko were alive, this wouldn't be happening.
But no matter how much he tried to pin the blame on the Kushinada's in his mind, in the end, it ultimately came back to him. If only he had just turned around and seen Sora…if only he had waited just a few more seconds…if only he hadn't pulled the trigger…then the only part of Mieko he had wouldn't be teetering between life and death.
Sakaki opened his eyes at the sound of footsteps and saw one of the doctors that had been in the ambulance. He up straight as the doctor said, "Kushinada-san. Sakaki-san. May I speak to both of you?"
The two stood up and walked over to the doctor, who took them both aside. "The transfusion was a success, and the bullet has been removed," the doctor said quietly. "But he's not out of the woods yet. There is still a chance he could develop an infection, or there might be other unforeseen complications. He'll be kept at the hospital for a few days for observation. Right now, he's resting."
A group of doctors ran past the three and the phone at the reception desk rang. "Would it be possible for us to see him?" asked Nemuru.
The doctor eyed Sakaki. "Perhaps," he said.
Sora lay still in the bed, his chest moving up and down, his eyes closed. Sakaki and Nemuru sat in wooden, stiff chairs and waited for any sudden movement from the boy. Yet he continued to lie and sleep as though he had run many, many miles and needed to rest.
At last, Sakaki spoke, his voice broken:
Nemuru thought about her reply and said, "What exactly is 'over'? Your grudge against me? Your grudge against the entire town? Or just your revenge plot? Or is it something else…"
"My revenge," said Sakaki, his head low. "I'm done with it." He held Sora's hand.
"I understand," said Nemuru. "I also understand if it takes you years before you can move past what happened back then."
Sakaki stroked Sora's hand, which felt like ice. "He said you were twice the parent that I ever was."
"Did he now?" said Nemuru quietly, observing the sleeping boy's face.
Sakaki nodded. "And do you think there's any truth to that?" Nemuru asked.
Sakaki hesitated. Then, he said, "Leave us alone. Let me have this last moment with my son before I go."
Without protest, Nemuru stood and walked over to the door. She walked out, but closed it by a few inches and stood nearby. She'd also stay for as long as she could before leaving to tell Haruka that she could go home.
Sakaki woke up with a start. He was still at the hospital still holding Sora's hand. The sky outside was a hazy purple. How long had he been asleep for? Did that even matter?
He traced his finger across Sora's wrist. He still had a steady pulse, but it felt a bit slow. Or was Sakaki still a bit tired? With a heavy sigh, he continued to sit and think back to Mieko once more. In many ways, Sora owed his existence to her. This was obviously true, given that Sora had to have had someone to bring him into the world. But it was true in more ways than just that alone. It had been Mieko who had suggested the two return to Sakaki's apartment on that fateful summer evening. She had wanted to take the night one step further. And when the two learned of her pregnancy, she had been reluctant to go along with the "alternatives" he had proposed—"it's because I don't want to get rid of it that this is so hard" she had admitted—and had suggested ways they could make parenthood work.
And there was nothing Sora could do to repay her, apart from just living.
Sakaki remembered that day Mieko had taken him aside on campus to show him something. He had no idea what she wanted him to see, but it should've been so obvious: She smoothed out the front of her blouse to show the small bump on her stomach that had begun to grow. That bump he had never even noticed when he greeted her that morning, or when they went to their classes together; just when she pointed it out to him.
"So…I guess this means we'll have to tell our parents, doesn't it?" was the only thing he could say. He had felt no excitement or joy, just dread over how much more difficult and complicated their lives were about to become. He never considered abandoning Mieko, not even for a second, but the prospect of fatherhood right then had not appealed to him in the slightest. In contrast, Mieko was glowing as she replied, "Yeah, I guess it does."
Perhaps she had been as frightened as he had been and had just taken a more optimistic approach. Or perhaps this was a sign she would've been the much better parent than him had she lived.
He looked back on the day Sora was born. When his first cry broke out and the doctor announced "It's a boy!", it had been as though he were in a dream. He couldn't actually be here, cutting the cord, cleaning off the gunk, or handing tissues over to a crying yet smiling Mieko. This child, no bigger than the smallest watermelon, had to be an illusion. This was someone else's life had had to be watching over, not his own. Weren't he and Mieko still waiting for the next contraction to be over and done with? Weren't they still talking about what kind of wedding they would have?
But when Sora was placed into his arms, that small bundle in a blanket, his hair dark as his father's, his eyes open and curious…that was when he realized he was a father.
And he vowed to protect him.
And now Sora was lying in a hospital bed because of him, looking as peaceful in his sleep as he had when he was a baby.
Tears fell and splashed on Sora's hand. I'll do anything…just spare him, please, Sakaki thought, clutching the hand tighter. I'll give up my revenge if it'll spare his life…just please…don't take him from me, too…please….
Outside, the sky grew lighter as the sun began to rise. Sora's eyelids fluttered open and he looked over at Sakaki. "…fa…ther…?"
Sakaki gasped and let go of Sora's hand. For a moment, neither spoke. There was so much that needed to be said, but they didn't know how to say them or where to start.
For the first time in eleven years, Sakaki pulled Sora in for a hug. "Er…father…?" asked Sora, wondering what to make of this sudden gesture.
Sakaki hugged Sora tighter and whispered:
Four months later
"I would like to propose a toast to the bride and groom!"
The wedding guests sat around the table, their dishes neatly prepared and smelling delicious, their wine glasses raised. "For a time, I was reluctant to leave home even after I got married," Hiroshi began, "because I worried that my sister would still need me. Even after she and my father convinced me to move out, I still worried about her. But now, as I stand before her and her husband, I realize that she is an independent woman."
His voice broke, but he continued: "I toast to my sister."
The glasses met with a clank. As Sora took a sip of the water he had been given, he looked at some of the other guests around the table. Makoto was sitting in Isuzu's lap, resting his head on the table, his eyes closed. Isuzu was turning to Kaname and chatting with her while Kaname burped baby Cho over her shoulder. Nemuru and Hiroshi were sitting together smiling and chatting while Haruka sat next to Sora and looked up at him with big, wondrous eyes.
"Onii-san," said Haruka, "I heard mama tell papa that you might be allowed back home again soon. Will you come back for good?"
"Oh, I just might," said Sora, cutting up his steak. "I just needed to take care of my issues first."
Just then, Yuki came running back into the reception hall, her face flushed, her hand trembling as she attempted to balance the wine glass in one hand and the freshly-picked daisies in the other. She smiled as she approached Sora and sat next to him.
"Sorry I took so long," Yuki apologized as she placed the glass down. "I forgot where I hid my surprise for you, so…" She gave Sora the daisies and laughed, "Surprise!"
Sora took them, smiled, and said, "Thanks, Yuki-chan." He leaned over with the intention to kiss her on the cheek, but because she moved at the same time, he instead kissed her on the lips.
The kiss lasted for a few seconds before the two broke off, their faces growing warm as Makoto giggled. But still, having a girlfriend was nice. Heck, just having a regular social life was nice.
"Oi you two! Don't you know there are kids watching?" Kotara cried out as he hurried over to the pair.
"Yes, yes, I get it, I get it," laughed Sora, throwing up his hands. As he began to eat his dinner, he thought about how he should feel grateful that he had been allowed to invite Yuki and Kotara to Mana's wedding. Or that he had been allowed to come at all.
Over the past few months, Sora had been struggling to regain the trust of not only the Kushinada's, but everyone else in Jougamachi as well. When news broke out that he had saved Nemuru Kushinada's life at the risk of losing his own, the hostility died down. However, he was still mistrusted and eyed with suspicion.
He had returned to school a week after he had been released from the hospital. As expected, many of his classmates were reluctant to approach him. The only ones who spoke to him outside of small favours were Kotara and Yuki. Kotara's justification had been that he had spent the past week thinking about what had happened and that while it would take him a while to fully trust Sora again, for now he would just provide him with some company. Yuki had said nothing and just smiled shyly.
And as for his father…right now, he was awaiting his trial. Sora had considered not giving him the time of day ever again until he had been told by Nemuru how worried he was when Sora was in the hospital, and how he had gone as far as to donate his own blood to save his life.
"However angry you may feel, please don't hate your father," she had said. "He may have lied about his health to your face, but that look in his eyes after he shot you…no, that look could never be faked."
Sora had paid occasional visits to his father and told him about how things were going back in Jouga. Sometimes, his father would get a far-off, bittersweet look in his eyes, but Sora never questioned it.
On his last visit, which had been the day before Mana's wedding, his father had told him that it would take years before he could forgive any of the Kushinada's, but he might seek help while in prison. "Let's not kid ourselves," he had said. "We both know I'm going to prison for a long, long time, and it could be years before I get out…if ever."
Before Sora had left, his father had one more thing to say to him:
"Sora…if you have children someday, make your own mistakes. Don't repeat mine."
To this, Sora had smiled and said:
Now, as Sora sat at the table, watching everyone gathered laughing and chatting, he smiled. The peaceful, calming atmosphere gave him a feeling that from this point on, everything would be uphill. No more lying. No more secrets. Just the truth and happiness.
Nemuru stood up, tapped on her wine glass with a spoon, and said, "Everyone, I would like to make a toast."
With everyone's eyes on her, Nemuru went on: "Over the past several months, I have learned a great deal about the importance of family and loyalty. I've always held the ones I love closest to my heart—my husband, my daughter, and my friends. And now, the events from a few months ago have affirmed that love."
She turned in Sora's direction and announced, "I am pleased to welcome Sora Shinju back into my home starting next week. Here is to family."
With a clink of the glass and swig of the water, Sora felt an overwhelming joy spread in his heart. For now, after so many years of not knowing where his duties in life lay, he had found a family he truly belonged in.
A/N: And so ends my first OK multi-chaptered fic. I must be totally insane to write a fanfic for the friggin' anime (guilty pleasures aside). I must be even crazier to keep writing it, and then completing it, despite having no reviews. But I like to think that this taught me a lesson in self-motivation. To those who actually did read it…thank you.