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Forever SK (09)

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Oct. 26th, 2014 | 01:14 am

Previous: chap08

* * NINE * *


[ Core ]


The Mage of Sleep and Dreams entered the sacred grounds of Truth and continued on to the heart of the temple. She stopped near the stairs that led to the very center of the arena and looked up to see a figure swathed in darkness.

"Papa," she said. "I heard that the Mage of Air and Breath and the Mage of Creation came here."

The Prophet stared ahead of him and kept his silence.

"Papa," the Mage of Sleep and Dreams continued, undeterred by his ignorance of her, "the Rising Star does not come. The Land is dead and the people are hungry. They are in pain. What must I do? The Mages and the Holders and even the Caretakers are running out of food pills. What is wrong with His Essence? Why does he not care? Why is he ill?"

When still she received no answer, the Mage fell to her knees and bowed her head. "How can we save our Guardian? Please tell me, Papa. How can we help the Heart of this Land?"

At last, the Prophet spoke. "Prepare yourself, my child. His Essence and this Land will need you. You must be strong, strong enough for our Guardian. The time will come for everything."

The Mage hung her head and closed her eyes. "I must be strong."

The Prophet continued to look ahead of him, into nothing. The silence becomes complete.


SATOSHI:
Father, maybe it's too late to change anything. Even then, I don't regret it. I found what was important.

I am the Heart of Core, Father, but I am me. Just once more, I want Core to listen to my selfishness.
After that, after I have treasured my happiness, I will love no more for myself. I will give my Heart to the Land and to my people, completely, for the thousands of years that will come.

Kazunari, just once more, please listen to my selfishness.


[ the Courts of Core ]


As soon as Kazunari dropped in front of Satoshi, he writhed on the ground and screamed. His shrieks of pain echoed throughout the Great Hall until they overwhelmed the Guardian.

Afraid for the Prince, Satoshi knelt beside him, trying his best to calm him down. He only realized the enormity of the situation when he saw the blood soaking through the white bandages that wrapped around the entire upper half of Kazunari's body.

(( MASAKI, COME HERE! NOW! )) Satoshi screamed from his mind. Tears nearly blinded him as he reached to touch his brother, but stopped midway, afraid to inflict more pain on his wounded twin. He hadn't known it was going to be this way. He had no clue his brother had been hurt so badly.

Kazunari's head fell back against the floor and he struggled to breathe through the intense pain that threaded through him. The iron smell of his blood filled their nostrils and his ragged breaths echoed in their ears.

Satoshi cradled his brother's head and looked into his clouded eyes, filled with their own tears. His every breathy gasps pierced deep into the Guardian and he wished he could shoulder all the pain.

"Draw on my life, Kazunari," His Essence pleaded, sobbing. "Why won't you do it again?"

Kazunari stared up at him with glassy eyes, unable to process his words through the fog of pain in his mind.

Satoshi refused to believe that his brother no longer needed him. "You used to instinctively draw on my life force when you were hurt. I'm still here for you, Kazunari. Take it," he begged. "Don't die."

Kazunari turned his head aside and the tears that had accumulated around his eyes streaked down his face. He gasped out, "Jun." His body reacted to the name, his heart already broken, and he screamed again as another wave of pain wracked through his thin frame. Blood pooled beneath him.

Seeing the blood and the stench intensifying, Satoshi burst into harder sobs. "Kazunari, don't die. You promised me. Don't die."

Kazunari tried to huddle closer to his brother's warmth. "I lied," he murmured, his voice weak. "I want to see Jun again. Even if..." His back arched off the floor as pain surged through him again. He gasped out the last words between whimpers and tears, "...even if Jun hates me..." Shuddering, he became silent.

The Guardian pressed his lips together, trying to stop the sobs that tried to choke him, and he vehemently shook his head, wanting to believe that this was not happening, not to Kazunari or him.

The Prince turned his head and pressed his face into his brother's hands. He shivered and his teeth clattered.

Satoshi felt for and found his mellow pulse. (( MASAKI! )) he called again and hovered over Kazunari's motionless body.

Voices whispered in his head and enveloped the room, so strong, that gusts of air whirled around them. The specter Counsel burst into Satoshi's mind. (( RESTORE YOUR POWER! ))

(( NO! )) he refused and shook his head as the Counsel of Spirits took shape around the Great Hall, trapping them in. (( Leave me! ))

(( Guardian! )) they commanded.

(( You must protect Core! ))

(( YOU MUST! ))

(( Be gone! )) he screamed back at them, refusing to crumble now that the most important person was in front of him. (( Go back to your sleep, Counsel of Spirits! LEAVE! ))

Their voices were forced out of his head. Confronted with his frustrations, their presence fled from the Great Hall. In a rush of air, the chamber fell into a silence that was only interrupted by the Guardian's quiet sobs and his brother's heavy breathing.

Satoshi crouched lower over the Prince's limp body and took Kazunari's right hand. He touched it to his cheek. "Why won't you take my life force again? You have to live. You have to be happy."

Nothing mattered more to him. He was the Heart of the Land, but Kazunari was his heart, his twin, his brother, another part of him.

*

Seven hundred years ago, Satoshi had found his Mother. He remembered the lifeless child in her arms, his dead twin brother.

"Guardian! Please save him," she had begged, clutching her child to her chest. "He's all that I have!"

In his solitude, Satoshi had not forgotten loneliness. He wished it on no one, even the Mother that wasn't his.

*

He remembered calling on the Mage of Air and Breath, the Mage of Creation and her lover the Mage of Time. He remembered reaching for Kazunari's young soul clinging to his listless body, remembered their promise to be together forever.

*

Do you remember, Kazunari? he asked as his tears fell on his brother's open palm. I called to you and you answered. From that moment, I knew I was no longer alone.

*

"Will you come back with me to the Land?" Satoshi had asked the young spirit.

Wide-eyed but mischievous, Kazunari instantly latched on to the Guardian's hand. "You have to stay with me if I do," he said.

Satoshi had smiled with relief and nodded almost like he was a child himself. "Promise."

"Then I promise it, too," the boy replied. Forever.

*

Satoshi had sinned.

He remembered that his Heart cried with the Mage of Creation when the Mage of Time died that day, but from his death he had gifted Kazunari a life by giving away Satoshi's time.

And so the Guardian eventually learned that like an hourglass, the Prince's life force filled in and took away from his very own, but he did not regret it.

*

Satoshi remembered that as the infant Kazunari drew his next breath the Prophet's prophecy rang in his ears once again and he knew that although they had promised, it was inevitable that forever was impossible for the both of them.

*

When Five reaches Three of Two pairs and One, the silence becomes complete.

*

Against Kazunari's cold palm, Satoshi breathed out gently, "Kazunari, is Jun the one?"

The knowledge made him happy. He was glad that without him, Kazunari would not be alone. "But Jun has to treasure you," he said, choking down another sob, faltering as he did so. "Like I treasure you."

He knew that one day, his brother would leave him. That he'd find his own happiness that wasn't theirs. And that was okay.

But you called for me, Kazunari, and I brought you back. I wanted to see you one more time.

Across the distance Satoshi felt the Mage of Nature and Life stir in his mind, felt the Mage's desperation, running to reach there as quickly as he could, but Satoshi knew he was still too far. Even then the Guardian refused to give up hope. He had not struggled all these years for nothing.

He set Kazunari's hand down and leaned down to press his forehead against his brother's. He reached for that link between them that had always been there, that had strengthened the day of their promise. Satoshi felt Kazunari's soul struggle to hold on to his damaged body.

*

Kazunari, just once more, stay with me.

I'm tired, the Prince said from where he had run to hide.

Satoshi crouched down and curled in the bottomless darkness of their connected minds, waiting for his brother. Hold on for a little longer. You promised. Do you remember?

I remember.

Satoshi waited and still his brother did not come out from hiding.

Satoshi. Now it was Kazunari that called him. Satoshi, are you sick? Is it because of me?

The Guardian hid his head in his arms, afraid to answer.

Answer me, Kazunari urged. Is it because of me?

The Guardian nodded, only once. He felt his brother's presence draw back deeper into his own mind. He wished Kazunari would come out and comfort him.

Dammit, Satoshi. How can you be so stupid?

Satoshi thought he'd weep again. He wanted his brother to understand. I wished someone would smile for me. I needed something to treasure, too.

You're stupid, Satoshi. You are the Heart of Core.

Satoshi shook his head, wondering if someone would understand his own loneliness. Did that mean I could not hold on to you, Kazunari? Did that mean I could have nothing?

He knew his brother contemplated and Satoshi sat in the swirling mists of existence around their minds wondering if even his brother could not accept his selfishness, the only thing he had kept hidden because he wanted it for himself.

No, it's not wrong, Kazunari answered and with just that reply Satoshi felt the burden that had clung to his heart, his secret throughout the hundreds of years, give way to relief.

*

From where the Caretaker had paused in the forest to grieve over his own loss, his Guardian's anguished calls shocked him and flushed his own pain away. He had locked deeply the loss of Sho inside his heart and ran with all the energy he could muster to the Palace. From the forest, through the dark plains and around the dark mountains, he had run with everything that he had. He had sung his ultimate magic and the Land had moved beneath his feet to bring him closer to the cries of his name.

Soaked in sweat and exhausted from his use of power for that day, Masaki finally skid to a stop as he entered the Great Hall. He saw Satoshi leaning over the limp body of Kazunari, their foreheads touching. Blood pooled around them and stained the bandages around the Prince's torso until they were no other color but a deep red. Despite the horror that he witnessed, the Guardian and Prince's expressions were at peace.

Masaki swallowed down the tears that threatened to overwhelm him and steeled himself. He ran to and dropped before his Guardian and best friend.

"Satoshi, let's move him outside," he suggested quietly, afraid to break the spell that had overcome his best friends.

Slowly, reluctantly, the Guardian opened his eyes and saw Masaki. He nodded. He moved away from Kazunari and scrubbed away the lines of tears over his cheeks.

The Caretaker looked down at his deathly pale friend and wondered how he would dare to move him. Now that Masaki was closer, the smell of blood was overpowering. He hadn't even removed the bandages to see the extent of the Prince's injuries. He swallowed again, wondering if he could do this. His first time seeing Kazunari again and his friend was this wounded. The reality of it was almost too unbelievable to comprehend.

Masaki felt a grip on his arm and he turned to see Satoshi look up at him, hopeful and as afraid as he was. Kazunari had been the most mentally determined among them. Between just the two of them, without the Prince, they faltered.

But they had to be strong. Masaki knew he had to be the one to give his Guardian strength this time.

Summoning his courage, he took a deep breath and went on his knees. He carefully wrapped his arms under Kazunari's shoulders and knees. As he lifted his friend, Kazunari stirred and cried out weakly. Masaki felt himself quake and his lips trembled as he tried to hold himself together. He gathered his willpower once more. With the smaller man securely in his arms, he turned to their Guardian.

They left the Great Hall.


[ the Green Gardens ]


Masaki set Kazunari down on a patch of dirt. His friend did not stir this time, remaining motionless and silent, his lips purple and his skin cold. Satoshi sat down beside them.

"We have to remove his bandages," Masaki said through gritted teeth. "Satoshi, can you help me?"

His Guardian nodded.

The Caretaker took out his knife and began to cut the strips around the Prince's bodice while Satoshi removed the bandages along Kazunari's arm. The flesh that was revealed to them was swollen and Masaki saw that the threads that had been sewn into him had become undone. He saw damaged bone, muscle and tissue. Unhelpfully, Masaki's hands trembled and he felt his eyes well up with tears. What world had Kazunari gone to? How had he survived it?

He saw that the flesh along Kazunari's arm was worse and he turned aside to hold down his bile and weep. The Caretaker gulped between gasps, running an arm across his eyes. His hands were already caked in blood and the iron stench clogged his nose.

If only he'd come sooner. If only he'd been close by when the Guardian had called him. Whoever had helped Kazunari in their world, whatever they had done, it had stopped working in Core. Masaki was only one man with the power of healing. He wasn't an entity above life and death. He could repair tissues and mend broken bones, but he couldn't bring someone back from the brink of death. He couldn't save the dying. He didn't have enough power in him for that. He was only one Caretaker and a Mage.

But how could it be that he might not be able to save his best friend?

Beside him, Satoshi had burst into tears as well. Once again, he leaned in to touch his head to his brother's.

This is the last wish I will ever ask of you. Kazunari, take my life force.

In his mind, Satoshi felt Kazunari reach for him. He prepared himself, gripped his own power and decided that no matter the cost to the Land, as long as he secured the Barriers around Core and did not make the same mistake again, he would give everything to his brother.

Kazunari touched him. Satoshi gasped in pain and relief as the Prince took from him.

Beside them and unaware of the extremity of Satoshi's sacrifice, Masaki watched in a trance as energy flowed from one body to another. The force around their bodies shimmered, too beautiful that his eyes began to hurt and he had to finally look away.

The Land beneath them rumbled and quaked.

In the dark skies above, one by one the light of the stars went out. Satoshi gasped as he held on to life and the sanest part of him enforced the Barriers, only that.

*

I cannot let Core die, Kazunari whispered across their minds. Satoshi, you cannot let Core die. It's our World. You cannot sacrifice our people.

I know, Satoshi murmured back to him. I am the Heart of this World, Kazunari. This is my Heart. For you, this is my last selfishness. That's why, I'm going to let you go.

*

Around the World, the Mages and Holders stepped outside and turned their heads to look up at the skies as the stars above them died and their death song rang across the open space. Tears streaked down their faces as they watched. The cries of the dying stars and their helplessness rooted them to the spot.

(( Come to me. ))

"Guardian," they whispered as he called them.

(( We will wait together. ))

The Mage of Sleep and Dreams turned to walk out of the sacred of grounds of Truth. At last, she knew it was her time.

*

We were wrong, Kazunari. I should not have hurt my people.

Is that your absolute conclusion?

Yes. But you stood by my side. You believed in my selfishness. That made me happy.

You're you.

I know. Kazunari, please tell me about Jun.

He doesn't deserve to be mentioned.

But you called him, even before you called me. Jun will be the one with you. I'd like to know him. I want to hear about him from you.

Jun lied to me. He hates me. He gets angry very easily. He shouts. We always argue. That's what you should know about him.

Is that true?

...No. He worries a lot. He's very serious. He does his best. And he's very kind. Too kind.

I'm happy.

Satoshi, I know our life forces are tied. I know that I have to leave Core. I'll live on Earth. Even if it's under a hundred years, I'd like to be with Jun and die as a Human with him. And then your life will finally be your own and Core will be safe again.

I know.

But, dammit, I don't want to leave you. I'll never see you again, Satoshi. I can't never see you again.

Don't.

If I don't say it now, you'll never hear it.

Please. Just. Don't forget me.

I'll stop. I won't say anymore. I can't.

Okay.

Don't cry.

If when the next Guardian is born and I die, I do not want to join the Counsel of Spirits. If I have one wish left, I want to be reborn. I want to have my own heart.

Satoshi, will you make a promise with me? Promise me that we'll be together forever.

It's impossible.

But even so, let us believe it.

I promise.

Do I have to leave now?

Masaki's going with you.

Are you not going to give him a choice in this?

No.

Satoshi, brother, please dream about me.

*

This World will sleep.



The Mages and Holders entered the Great Hall and saw their Guardian in the center waiting for them. He looked small, forlorn; weary. He looked vulnerable and it wasn't expected of the Heart of their Land.

"Your Essence," the Mage of Sleep and Dreams spoke up as she drew nearer to him. The other Mages filled into the Great Hall around them.

"I'm sorry," Satoshi told his people.

Closest to him, the Mage of Creation held back her tears and nodded.

"Please give Kazunari time," he said. "I will wait, no matter how long it takes. Will you all please stay with me? I don't want to be alone."

The Mage of Air and Breath, of Steel, of Creation, of Detachment, of Strength and Mass, of Elasticity, of Sleep and Dreams and all the Mages and Holders around the vast chamber gave him their confirmation. He was their Guardian, he was their Heart, the most beloved being in Core. They would stay with him.

"Thank you," Satoshi murmured as he felt their unwavering loyalty and love.

(( Thank you all. )) He spoke to all his people.

He reached for the Mage of Sleep and Dreams' hand and she took it.


[ Earth ]


It had only taken Sho a week to decide that crying and moping about was not what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He then took a train to the nearest countryside alone and hiked through the forests. At night, out in the open he watched the stars with the moon shining brightly beside them in the sky.

He knew the Earth was beautiful, appreciated it's natural glamour, but it wasn't the same. The memory of Core and Masaki shook him again and again he grieved for what would never be possible anymore.

Masaki had been like a dream, but a dream so beautiful that he didn't want to forget. The Caretaker's smile, his kindness, his touch; everything about him had been magical.

What am I going to do without you? he had asked the stars.

Sho didn't know if he could move on, but the sensible part of him knew he had to. He had to live, as Masaki would've wanted him to.

So he dived into work. He contacted his manager, assured her he was fine and not likely to break down again, and told her he wanted to work. She gave him bad news, but he accepted it. He knew it would be this way. His injured leg had been an inconvenience, and many of his shows and appearances had been put on hold, but at the time a complete halt to his activities had not been determined yet. His immediate disappearance had been met with extreme disapproval.

Sho knew and he was determined to work. He bowed his head to the staffs he'd troubled and pleaded with producers and executives for another chance; to take all responsibility for his spontaneous and long absence. Jun, who had locked himself inside his apartment for a week, returned suddenly and begged with him as well. Having his partner and long-time friend beside him was reassuring and Sho understood that Storm would strive to get out of this slump. There was no going back.

After another such meeting with the staff at their agency, Jun said to him, "I'd like to talk to you."

Sho agreed. They had a lot to explain and discuss. Even if Sho did not think he could talk about Masaki to anyone, he had to say something to his colleague who deserved some sort of explanation.

*

At the agency where they had gone to negotiate their future yet again, they finished late and left the office at night. On the way out, they learned they had a visitor waiting for them in the lobby.

Once they saw who their visitor was their manager pulled them aside, but Jun stopped her.

Sho also recognized their visitor, although he did not know her personally. She was another talent, a singer from a marginally successful band that he'd seen a few times, especially when Jun was around.

"I'll speak to her," Jun said. "Go on without me. I'll meet you next time."

"All right," Sho replied, deciding he trusted his partner to manage his own issues. He took the stack of scripts they'd taken from their meeting, roles they hoped to audition for, and with only one last glance at an expressionless Jun, he left with their manager.

*

Inside the car as they drove back to his apartment, Sho asked their manager, "There was an assistant who worked on the news with me. His name was Nakamura Kenji and he went missing around the same time I did. Have you heard anything about him?"

"No," his manager said. "There's been no trace of him."

"I see," Sho said. Inside his gut, he knew. Kenji had not returned with him from Core. Like Masaki, Sho would never see the assistant again. He decided he would not ask anymore. He had to leave the things he couldn't change as they currently were and try his best at what he could.

*

After two weeks, Fuji Tohru had secretly visited the hospital again and belatedly found out that Jun's cousin had left (without anyone having seen him leave) on the first day that he'd visited. For a while, he'd heard no new information about the Idol as well. It was almost as if the Storm member had gone missing. Tohru decided he had to be contented with accept the situation as it was, at least until Jun barged into his life and messed it up again. He just had to worry about Mine.

So he was surprised when at a studio recording where he made a guest appearance, he saw Jun waiting for him outside his greenroom. It was the first time the Idol had sought him out and not the other way around. He believed he wouldn't be seeing the Idol for a long time and was unnerved for being caught off guard. The musician despised that the other man made him feel that way.

As he neared his greenroom, Jun took off his sunglasses and crossed his arms. "Aren't you going to invite me inside your room?" he asked.

Tohru snickered. "Why should I?" He hadn't even invited the Idol here.

"I suggest that you do," Jun said, his expression and voice suddenly cold. "We should move away from prying eyes and cameras."

Tohru experienced shock. He'd made the Idol frustrated many times and had reveled to see the man struggling to hold back anger, but he'd never seen the Storm member like this. Gathering his wits, his expression hardened in response and he pushed past the Idol to enter his greenroom. He did not stop Jun from entering behind him.

Jun closed and locked the door. Then as they turned to face each other, he began to unbutton the cuffs of his shirt. He rolled up his sleeves.

Instantly, Tohru did the same.

A small table separated them and they stood on opposite ends, glowering at each other.

"You met with my cousin," Jun stated, did not ask.

"That's none of your concern," Tohru stood his ground.

"Mine came to my agency," the Idol told him calmly. "Coincidentally, I was there. She wanted to know how long Storm would be on hiatus."

Tohru seethed at the information. Trust Mine to go behind his back again and embarrass him. His hands curled into fists and he took a stance. No one was here but the both of them anyway. No one could see them. He realized this was what the Idol may have wanted too by inviting himself in and maybe they should have already done this a long time ago. This fight was long overdue. He was ready for this.

Still calm, Jun faced him. "I told her to fuck off," he said. He raised his fists and positioned himself. "Both you and her."

"How about you take your own advice," Tohru said. He jumped onto the table and across and took the first swing.

*

An hour later, Sho had been working on memorizing a script at the cafe where he'd had lunch when he received a message from Jun stating that he was heading to Sho's apartment. The Idol finished his drink and gathered his things to depart. He wanted to reach home before his partner.

Despite his hurry, he reached his apartment and saw Jun waiting for him. Sho's first reaction was shock then horror. Although his band mate wore sunglasses and a scarf, Sho could still see the the black bruises on his face and shading his cheekbones.

"Your pretty face!" he screamed in the hall then quickly looked around to make sure no one had caught him breaking proper neighborly etiquette.

Jun winced and pointed at the door. "Aren't we going in?"

Sho scrambled for his keys and once he'd opened the door he ushered his friend in ahead of him.

"Who did this to you?" he asked.

Jun shrugged. "It was a fair fight. You should see the face of the other person. Fuji will look like a raccoon tomorrow."

"The Fuji Tohru!?" Sho bellowed even as he led the way to his sitting room and beckoned for Jun to take a seat. "The one whose girlfriend came to see you the other day!?" He connected the events and said, "You have something going on between you?"

"No fucking way," Jun scoffed. "And even if we did, it ended today."

He watched a mirage of subtle expressions come over Sho, first horror then confusion. He knew he shouldn't find his band mate's reaction funny, but he did. Sho didn't take shock very well. Suppressing his laughter behind a cough, Jun waved at the air around them. "Don't you have medicine in a cabinet somewhere?"

Sho straightened with a start. "Ah. Sorry." He disappeared into his bathroom and came out with a first aid kit among other ointments, sprays and relief patches.

"Why do you have so much?" Jun wondered as Sho set them down and went back to grab a mirror.

"It's a precaution," Sho answered.

When Jun settled into his sitting room and began to work on fixing up his face, Sho went into his kitchen and fumbled around for something to do.

"Do you want a drink?" he asked.

Jun hummed. "Just warm water."

Sho set his kettle on the stove and waited in the kitchen. Silence wrapped around them and permeated the room.

After a few minutes, Jun stood. He had done as much as he could do with his face and hiked up his shirt. From the where he watched, Sho winced when he saw the purple and blue bruises that marred his partner's skin.

"Can you help me?" Jun asked.

Sho immediately stumbled forward to do his bidding.

Jun selected a spray and handed it to Sho then took off his shirt. "I noticed this a few days ago. Your leg's completely healed."

"It is," Sho agreed and for just a second his hands trembled as he remembered Masaki. "It's like magic." He paused, wanted to change the subject, and asked, "Can I ask about your attack?"

He realized he shouldn't have brought the subject up when Jun immediately clamped shut his mouth. Their manager had briefly told him about what had happened during his absence and he had felt guilty for not being there for his partner, but his own grief had, at that time, stopped him from caring about anything else. He reprimanded himself, knew he should be as cautious about his band mate's pain as well.

But Jun wasn't as adverse to speaking about it as Sho thought he was. After a few seconds of awkwardness, Jun finally said in a murmur, "I wasn't the target of the attack. I was barely hurt."

Relieved that he had not stepped on a land mine, Sho nodded. "Your cousin," he said. He had also heard about Jun's cousin who had come abruptly and left as mysteriously despite being put under intensive care and the doctors even worried about his chances of survival. They had been amazed that he could even move.

Quietly, Jun confessed, "He wasn't my cousin. Kazunari was someone important to me." He looked up at his band mate and then away. "When you were gone, did you go to his world?"

Sho nearly dropped the spray. When he glanced up at Jun's face, the taller man was looking at him again. He gaped. Did this mean what he thought it did? Did Jun know?

"Sho-san, do you remember what happened at the mall the day you broke your leg?" Jun asked.

Slowly, Sho set the spray down and sat on the floor. He nodded. He couldn't speak. The memories of Masaki bore down on him again.

"Did you go to their world?" Jun questioned, moving down to sit facing him.

Sho swallowed, a lump in his throat. Could he talk about Masaki? But Jun understood him. Jun wouldn't think he was crazy.

Working past his hesitation, he croaked out, "I went to Core. I met Masaki. I saw the people. I saw their magic." A bubble of nostalgia and with it pain swelled in his chest and he broke off to quell it down. Masaki loved him and Sho would never have the chance to tell him the same. He hadn't been given the chance to treasure it.

Jun understood the hint of sadness in his voice. "I made a mistake," he confessed. "I doubted Kazunari and I came to the wrong conclusion. I hurt him and he left me." His hand reached up and closed around his throat. "This regret, will it ever go away?"

The answer to his question went unspoken. They both knew it never would.

*

Eventually, the Storm duo took up their routine again. Unaffected by their short hiatus, their popularity continued to slowly but steadily rise. They resumed activities and accepted new gigs.

Jun's extra role in the hit movie he had been promoting just before Sho's disappearance allowed other directors to take notice of him and he was casted in another minor but more substantial role. Mine continued to watch him from afar, but neither approached Jun anymore.

Meanwhile, Sho worked his way into his coworkers trust again and was allowed to continue his weekly appearances on regular shows. He was even offered an MC spot of a corner in a late night variety and accepted it.

The Idols did not bring up the topic of Core again. The private conversation in Sho's apartment had been left unfinished, but neither could have said more without baring his naked soul.

As days became weeks and months, Sho and Jun chose to lock their memories and feelings deep inside themselves. They would never forget, but that part of themselves they could never share again. No one else would understand.

*

Six months later.

As he drove, Jun spoke into the earpiece that was attached to his cell phone. "It's not reassuring that I have to attend this dinner party alone."

On the other end of the line, Sho coughed into his hand and cleared his throat before replying, "If I feel a little better later, I'll come."

Jun sighed, feeling guilt. "No, you rest. Only one of us needs to be there anyway and it'd do us both no good if you're going to look like you're dying to leave. You won't be able to drink anyway." He turned his steering wheel and drove into an open parking spot outside a florist shop. "Go to sleep. I'm hanging up."

"I am," Sho complied. "I just need to buy some cough medicine first so I can get some sleep."

"I'm surprised you don't already have any."

"I did. You took it home last month. Signal down in three-two--"

They ended the call at the same time.

Jun turned off his car engine and stepped out. He pulled on his sunglasses and adjusted his suit before he entered the small florist shop. The worker standing by a pot of plants in a corner saw him and brightened.

"Welcome! How can I help you?" the man cheerfully said with a smile and quickly ran behind the counter.

"I want a bouquet. Something for a celebration," Jun said.

The worker continued to smile, but his brows creased in a half frown. "You'd like flowers, right? What kind?"

I don't know. Jun thought. "Anything you could suggest?"

"Um..." The man looked around them and Jun could almost see him thinking. "Something red?"

"Anything else?" Jun asked. "More than one color would be nice."

Quickly, the man turned aside and looked down at a chart beside the cash register. Jun glanced down too and saw that it was a chart of different flowers in several colors and its meaning. The worker leaned in closer, no longer pretending that he wasn't looking, and in an excruciatingly slow manner he tried to read out loud what was written.

He must be new, Jun thought with another sigh and crossed his arms, preparing himself for a long wait. He tried to think of a more believable excuse for being late to the party than the real reason. Truthfully, he wasn't sad to miss the most of the celebration.

Suddenly, the worker stopped reading and glanced across the space at Jun. He cleared his throat, "Sorry for asking, but are you Matsumoto Jun?"

Jun was caught off guard by the abrupt question. It was not that he had not expected to be recognized, but the timing of the question was off.

"Yes, I am," he answered, deciding that it didn't bother him to be so open about it.

The man opposite smiled cheerfully at his response and Jun wondered if he was a fan (a fan who wasn't too sure what he looked like).

"Will you come with me after this?" the man asked.

Jun's outburst was a split second late because he couldn't believe it. Was this person hitting on him? "What!?"

Eagerly, as if he had not noticed the Idol's aversion, the worker placed his hands on the counter and leaned forward still smiling. "Kazu, Kazunari, he's been waiting for you."

The name dropped like a pin in the sudden silence within Jun's mind. He held his breath and was unconscious of it, the shock and disbelief mixed with longing and desperation. He stared at the worker, unable to move or speak. This man had spoken of Kazunari, the name he thought only he'd remember and would keep locked up inside his heart, the person dearest to him.

Behind the counter, Masaki continued to smile at him and waited for his answer.

*

In another part of Tokyo, Sho also parked his car outside a convenience store and entered. He was glad the store appeared empty because he was coughing into his hands and he didn't want other customers, if there were any, to think that he was disgusting and spreading germs.

I'll buy the first thing I see and get out of here, he thought.

As planned, Sho headed straight to the medicine section and grabbed the first cough suppressant he came across. He went to the counter to conclude his purchase, but no one was there. He waited, but no worker came to his rescue and Sho finally turned back to view the entire store. As it appeared to be the first time he entered, the store was empty. It shouldn't be.

"Excuse me?" Sho croaked out, to himself sounding very much like an old crone. He heard a rip and what sounded like many boxes falling onto the floor from behind an aisle.

"Dammit!" someone cursed.

Curious, Sho went over to the aisle. He saw a small man dressed in the employee uniform crouched down on the floor. Boxes of condoms that he had been stocking were spilled at his feet. Feeling awkward and a little sympathetic, Sho went to help him.

After he'd piled some of the boxes on the side and the worker had gathered the rest in his arms, Sho asked, "Excuse me, can you ring up my purchase?"

The worker furrowed his brows and appeared clearly irritated. "Ring up? What does that even mean?"

Sho shuffled his feet. "I'd like to buy something." He pointed behind him at the cash register. He had left his medicine at the counter.

"Oh that," the smaller man said. "You'll have to wait for my comrade. I'm not supposed to touch the cache ragistur." He dropped the boxes in his arms and cursed as they knocked over the pile Sho had neatly stacked on the side. "Dammit! Why do people buy so damn much of this stuff!? What is this anyway?" He grabbed a box of condoms and closely scrutinized it.

If Sho didn't feel so horribly sick, he would've laughed.

From somewhere else in the store, someone called out kindly, "Nino-chan, you have to stop cursing or you'll scare the customers away."

The man now known to Sho as Nino-chan glanced down at his own name-tag and snorted. "That's me."

Sho found the worker amusing and he would've stayed longer to be entertained, but he still felt horrible so he stumbled back to the counter again and called out, "Excuse me, I'd like to purchase something."

From the back, a young woman in her late twenties came out. She saw Sho, recognized him, and her jaw literally dropped open.

Sho pretended that he didn't know she knew him and indicated his cough medicine. "Please," he said and as if his body wanted to make the point clear, he burst into another fit of coughing.

In another minute, Sho finally finished what he had come to do and left the store. He reached his car and was relieved to be finally heading home when someone called his name. He turned with his hand on the handle of his car to see the first employee standing with arms crossed.

"So you are Sakurai Sho," the man said. "Finally. I thought I'd never find you."

Sho feared that he was another jealous boyfriend and hurriedly picked out his car key. He didn't have time for this. Although, a small part of his mind wondered if someone who didn't even know about the use of condoms would have a girlfriend.

"Sakurai Sho, I have a song for you," Kazunari announced. He couldn't help the smirk that turned his lips to see the Idol fumbling to leave.

Sho had opened his car door and moved to step in, but he paused at that. "I'm sorry, you'll have to go through the agency." He closed the door behind him and started the engine.

Kazunari sighed and uncrossed his arms, thinking this person that his best friend had fallen in love with was so troublesome. He fisted his left hand and raised it to his eye level.

"Masaki, this last bit is for you. It better be worth it," he muttered.

Before Sho could accelerate the car, Kazunari rammed his fist into the bumper. Sparks snapped and crackled from his fist and ran along the car.

Sho choked on his gasp as the vibrations went right through him and the lights in his car popped. His battery and car sputtered and died. Unbelievable. He sat in the driver seat gaping at the smaller man out front.

Kazunari grinned at the expression of disbelief on the Idol's face and he leaned down to place his hands on the car's bumper. Through the windshield, he stared straight into Sho's eyes and locked onto them. Under his breath, the former Prince of Core began to sing.

He sang one of Storm's love song, the greatest one, giving sound to the lyrics that Sho had written. But unlike anything Sho had heard before the smaller man's melody emanated with faint energy, of contained power that brought the words to life. It had come true, a love that have transcended distance and will outlive time.

Unexpectedly, tears came to Sho's eyes as he listened.

At last, Kazunari stopped and he stepped away from Sho's car. He reached a hand towards the Idol.

"Will you come with me?" he asked. "Will you come meet Masaki?"

Sho felt his breath hitch and he swallowed down his tears. He struggled to keep at bay all the longing he'd held back for so long. Unable to speak, his throat closed, he nodded.

Kazunari read the emotion's on Sho's face and he was glad for his friend.

*

I have left.

I will no longer see my World of beautiful mountains, rivers and my people. Where our songs create. Where our traditions hold. Where all live and thrive. Where the Land is beautiful.

Just for you.


* *

Next: epilogue

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