The storm was gray and black. He couldn’t see the sky or the ocean. All he could see in the gathering storm was the blue eyes, dark as the night. The white shirt seemed to absorb light and glow with an eerie radiance, the only speck of brightness in the seething black where the sea should have been.
There was no sound. He should have heard the shriek of the gale, the roar of the waves, but all he could hear was the sound of his own breathing. The howling wind whipped him back, and he stumbled back a few steps, and fell.
A scream was lost in the wind, then came back to him, startling him with its stridency.
“...hello? Kikumaru-san? This is Fuji Yuuta. I was wondering if we could meet up? I have a few questions, and I would really like to ask them in person...”
Fragrant steam wafted from the cup, carrying the promise of chocolate and vanilla. Eiji inhaled happily and took a sip, careful not to burn his tongue. Over the rim of the cup, he studied his companion, who seemed very absorbed breaking the whipped cream on his mocha into tiny white spuds.
“So, um. What did you want to talk to me about?”
Yuuta fixed him with an earnest gaze, and he stilled in his seat. The boy had his brother’s patented serious look where it counted. After a moment, the brown eyes dropped back to the mocha and the sunken remnants of whipped cream floating on the surface.
“I never...really asked what happened, that night. I want to know.”
Eiji sighed inwardly. “It’s been a while, you know.”
“I know that.” Brown eyes were shuttered, defensive, and Eiji sighed aloud this time.
“I didn’t mean it like that. I mean, do you really need to do this? I know it’s not a memory you’d like to relive.”
“I want to know the truth.” The serious gaze returned in full force, and Eiji mentally resigned himself. “You were with him that time. And I—”
“Well, yeah. But I wasn’t with him that night when it happened.”
“Was Echizen really the only one, then?”
“What did he say?”
Eiji shook his head. “Nothing. He didn’t say anything. Tezuka and Oishi were the ones who found him. But when they got to him, Ochibi was unconscious. And he was sick as a dog all night. Didn’t even wake up until the next day. Tezuka and Oishi said it must have been an accident.”
“And the police thought so, too.”
“You...don’t believe them?” Eiji asked, and took a longer sip. The temperature was just right: hot, but not scalding.
“I just want to find out for myself what exactly happened.”
Eiji shrugged mid-sip. “Well, it’s your right. He was your brother.”
“Right.” A longer pause. “Before....before my dad took us overseas, I’d heard stories at my school. About what happened.” Yuuta winced. “It was the topic of the year. I couldn’t go three steps without overhearing someone talk about it.”
The specks of vanilla beans were sweet on his tongue. Eiji rolled them in his mouth, and barely refrained from making an embarrassing sound. This café served the best hot chocolate ever. He was so glad they were meeting here. He’d known this would be a very awkward talk, but he couldn’t have avoided it, either. Without something to distract him, like his heavenly hot chocolate, Eiji wasn’t sure if he could survive the whole thing. Fortified with the chocolate courage, Eiji turned his attention back to Yuuta. “Stories, like what?”
Yuuta looked uncomfortable. “Um. A lot of stories. But mostly about Echizen and Tezuka-san.”
Eiji put down his cup. “Oh. I see.”
Yuuta bit his lip, and looked at him seriously. “We...Aniki and I didn’t talk much then. I didn’t even know about Tezuka-san until after. You were in the same class with him. Could you tell me?”
A long exhalation. He hadn’t really wanted to talk about that if possible. “Okay, I guess.” He took another sip of his cocoa, and was displeased to note it was already too cool. He took another sip for a good measure, then began.
“Tezuka and Fuji had this -- on and off kinda thing? They hung out when they weren’t practicing, and all that. I don’t know what else they did together. Fuji never said.”
“Um,” Yuuta said. “Okay.”
“Well, until our third year there wasn’t really anything per se. Thing is, I don’t even know when they got together or what. They were both so quiet about it. I mean, we sort of knew, but it wasn’t like we were gonna go up and ask them.”
Yuuta nodded, and Eiji continued after few more sips. “Then Ochibi came to the club. Nothing really happened, that I know. But Tezuka was almost...fixated on Ochibi, right from the start. Hell, nearly ruining his arm just to prove a point – yeah. It’s Tezuka. When he’s into something, there’s just no middle ground.” Eiji could see Yuuta looking slightly apprehensive, and grinned around the rim of his cup. “I remember having that conversation with Fuji, actually. About what he’d do if Tezuka fell for Ochibi instead? Y’know, like the little mermaid who never had a chance to tell the prince how she felt, and the prince ended up falling in love with someone else? Did you know he knew some really bizarre stories about mermaids?”
Blank look. “Mermaids?”
“Yeah.” Eiji chuckled. “I’d said, ‘If you were the little mermaid, you’d have taken the prince with you when you jumped off the ship’. He said something about that being not half as effective as giving the prince something to remember her by. Because she would never truly die as long as the prince remembered her.”
“That’s, er, unique. Sounds like something Aniki’d say.” How did he forget his brother was such a freak? Right, Syuusuke hadn’t been around to remind him for the last ten years. The thought brought an ache to his chest, and Yuuta swallowed, concentrating on his over-sweet mocha.
“And something about man-eating mermaids. Like, mermaids that parade around on land as people and lure humans into water and eat them or something. He kinda lost me after that.” Yuuta looked cross-eyed, and Eiji chuckled again, taking another long sip. “Anyway. He didn’t really seem to care. Or at least, he didn’t do anything about it even if he did. Maybe he thought it was Tezuka’s choice, I don’t know.” Personally, Eiji would never have left it to his partner’s choice. At least when his last girlfriend dumped him, she hadn’t dumped him for another guy. That he knew, anyway. “I don’t know what Tezuka thought about the whole thing. Or Ochibi. They’re not exactly very talky when it comes to personal stuff, but... When we went on that trip at the end of the summer, it was awkward even staying in the same room with those three. Man, talk about tension. Anyhow, they were dancing around each other the whole time we were there. None of them was really talking, and they were all driving me crazy. So when that happened, there were a lot of rumors like maybe Fuji killed himself because Ochibi and Tezuka—”
“Aniki would never have done that,” Yuuta interrupted. Something about his eyes made Eiji think twice before contradicting him. Eiji had never believed Fuji was the kind of person who would commit suicide, no matter what the cause, and he doubted Yuuta would, either.
“Yeah, I know. But people still talked. Hell, people didn’t really notice Tezuka and Fuji before, and it wasn’t because they were hiding it. It’s just there was nothing to see, you know? But after – it was suddenly like, the love affair of the century or something. Everyone had a story to tell. It got to the point Tezuka glared if you looked at him funny. Ochibi was worse. He wouldn’t even stay in the same room with Tezuka.”
Yuuta mulled over that for a moment. “And the other story was Echizen pushed Aniki, because of Tezuka-san.”
“Shit, you really did hear everything, then.” Eiji didn’t sound particularly surprised about that, however. “Well, pretty much everyone I know from Kanto region knows, anyway. I guess it couldn’t be helped.” Eiji sighed. “You know, I don’t think there’s anything new I can tell you then. I only heard everything afterward, and you already know everything I know. If you’d like, I can give you Oishi’s number. You can ask him yourself.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Yuuta said. Eiji turned on his phone, and took Yuuta’s proffered phone to type in a series of numbers, then returned it. Yuuta accepted the phone back with murmured thanks.
“I’m sorry about – about the whole thing, by the way. I never got a chance to say.”
Startled, Yuuta bobbled his head in a short bow. “It’s okay. I should have come see you back then. But dad had us move so fast, there was no time.” After a moment of hesitation, Yuuta added. “I didn’t even get to visit where – where it happened.”
Another moment of uncomfortable silence passed. “Well, um. Thank you very much, Kikumaru-san. I should get going. I’m holding you up.” Yuuta stood up, giving a short bow. Eiji followed the suit readily.
“No no. That’s okay. Um. You’re welcome. And...if you need anything, just give me a call, okay?”
“There’s not much to tell.”
Yuuta knitted his brows. “So I heard. But you and Tezuka-san were the only ones who—”
“No, no.” Oishi looked a bit embarrassed. “I meant, we were there, but we didn’t actually see anything. There was a storm going and it was pitch-dark, you see.”
“Then why were you—”
Oishi sighed. “I take it you weren’t happy with the police report.”
“It didn’t mention details,” Yuuta agreed. Oishi’s lips quirked at that.
“I guess it wouldn’t. Alright. So...that day. It was evening, and we’d all finished eating and gone back to our rooms. I went downstairs to the lounge and found Tezuka sitting near the fireplace – they had this electric fireplace there. Anyway, we started talking about future plans and such, and heard someone run out the front door. The storm was just starting up, so we went out to see who it was and bring him back before the rain started pouring. It was already so dark, we nearly didn’t find Echizen. Good thing he was wearing that white cap of his. Echizen was way ahead of us by the time we spotted him and he was running straight for the beach. There was this seawall on that beach, you see, and it served as a lookout during low tides. The wind was picking up and the tide was in, so it was really dangerous out there with the waves hammering on the shore. Echizen ran straight out to the seawall and screamed Fuji’s name. That’s when we started running. When we reached him, there was no sign of Fuji. And Echizen – he didn’t actually say anything. He fainted just as Tezuka caught him and remained unconscious for the whole night. When we came back, Tezuka and I found out Fuji really was missing and reported it. It was impossible to do a search then, not with the storm. So the police and the coast guards set out in the morning, but...”
“They never found him,” Yuuta finished, and cleared his suddenly tight throat. The aftermath of the incident had been terribly hurried, because their father was in a rush to relocate the whole family overseas, close to where he worked. He’d been so eager to spirit away the remainder of his family to safety, and to leave behind the painful memories. (Even now, Yuuta knew their father was wracked by guilt for not having been there when it happened.) So they’d rushed through the funeral and left as soon as they could. There had been scant two months between Syuusuke’s disappearance and their departure.
All Yuuta remembered from that time was confusion, disbelief and chaos. His mother and sister clinging to him as if he too could be taken from them at any time. School being a nightmare, awash with gossip about the circumstances surrounding his brother’s accident. Not quite believing it, even as the whole family stood at the graveyard, before the stone marked with Syuusuke’s name: FUJI SYUUSUKE, 1988.2.29 – 2002.08.30.
“Stupid Aniki,” Yuuta murmured, and felt his breath stutter. What was he doing out in a storm anyway? Always so exasperating, doing things his way...
Oishi looked liked he wanted to reach over and pat his hand or something. Yuuta hoped he wouldn’t. It was embarrassing enough that hearing the details about the...incident was making him react like this. He hadn’t thought it would affect him so deeply after ten years, even if some days, he still woke up expecting to hear Syuusuke’s annoyingly cheerful voice telling him to get up.
Furiously, Yuuta scrubbed at his eyes. “What the hell was he thinking, fancying a dip in the middle of a goddamn storm? Stupid Aniki.”
Oishi made a sympathetic noise. “Actually, Eiji once said he was a really good swimmer. Kind of surprised me. He never used to join us when we went to the pool. Even Tezuka came with us a few times, but never Fuji.” His eyes turned nostalgic and distant, a sad smile tugging at his lips. “I miss those times so much. We were so close, all of us.”
“Aniki?” Yuuta repeated, startled. “A strong swimmer? Seriously?”
“Yes,” Oishi replied, equally surprised at Yuuta’s reaction. “Eiji said he was very graceful, gliding through the water like a fish. Eiji did mention Fuji said he didn’t like the smell of chlorine. But we all had to swim during PE class, see.”
“Aniki didn’t swim. When we were little and living in Chiba, me and Aniki and Saeki-san went down to the beach all the time but...Aniki would never actually get in the water. ‘Neesan said he fell in once, when he was like, two or three. After that, he wouldn’t go near the water. So ‘Kaa-san warned me and Saeki-san never to tease Aniki about that. I mean, we still teased him, but we never tried to make him swim, you know?”
“Well, you didn’t have a choice at Seigaku. Everyone had swimming as part of the PE class there. But yeah, he never went swimming out of his own volition. Even during that trip, Fuji never joined us. He and Tezuka just sat there in the shade reading the whole time while we were swimming in the ocean and playing beach volleyball.” Oishi shook his head ruefully. “Honestly, it’s no wonder those two never developed a tan. Even with all the practice we’d been doing outside that summer. Taka-san used to say they looked like they’d never seen the sun in their life.”
“Ah, yeah. Kawamura Takashi? One of our third-years back then, the one that used Hadoukyuu?”
“Oh! The one who used to pair up with Aniki for doubles.”
“Yes, that’s the one. He’s working as a sushi chef at his father’s place now. Fuji was...well, you remember. He wasn’t very open about himself. But they got along so well with each other. I mean if—if you need to talk to someone about it.”
“Ah...thank you,” Yuuta returned reluctantly. Actually, he’d prefer not to talk about it with anyone, but it would be rude to refuse a suggestion made in kindness. So he dutifully accepted the slip of paper, and left.
Perhaps it was an uncharacteristic bout of nostalgia. Yuuta was sure his sister would laugh at him if she heard, but he couldn’t help it. It had been ten years since he’d last seen the house, and he hadn’t even lived in it during his final year in Japan. So he’d walked all the way to the house where he and his family used to live. Their old house had been in a posh residential area. Their father, who had frequently been away on extended business trips for as long as Yuuta could remember, had always made sure his family would live in the best environment. And – while he tried to maintain a strict decorum with his own children, he also spoiled them endlessly. None of the Fuji children had ever lacked anything growing up, and now that he was grown up, Yuuta thought perhaps it was their father’s way of making up for his frequent absences.
Ah. There was the window to his brother’s room. His brother hadn’t been interested in cacti when they first moved here, but the window with long ledges had been quite useful once he was. Which meant the other window belonged to his room. Their rooms had a bathroom in between, and...
Yuuta shook his head. This was stupid. This wasn’t his house anymore. It wasn’t like he’d lived there all his life. Just because it had been the last house Syuusuke lived in, it didn’t make it any special.
Briskly, Yuuta walked away. It was growing late. If he could find a restaurant open, sitting down for a nice hot cup of tea would be nice. And maybe a light snack – he was getting hungry.
After twenty minutes of walking, Yuuta finally ran into busier streets. He went into the first restaurant that was still open – a sushiya – and was greeted by a loud greeting. “Welcome!”
“Uh...thank you,” Yuuta replied, and went up to the counter to sit down. “Can I have some tea? And a cucumber roll?”
“Certainly! It’ll only be a minute.”
When the small plate of cucumber roll arrived with a steaming cup of green tea, he accepted them with polite thanks. Then, instead of moving away, the chef paused. “Hey...aren’t you? I’m pretty sure – could you be...Fuji Yuuta-kun?”
Startled, Yuuta looked up at the chef, who looked vaguely familiar, now that he thought about it. Wait, the name of the restaurant was Kawamura Sushi, and it hit him.
“Kawamura-san,” Yuuta guessed. “From Seigaku, right?”
“Yes! What – how did you – are you visiting? Wow, it’s been what, ten years? How are you? How’s – how’s your family?”
“Fine. We’re all fine. We’re living in California and... I mean, ‘Neesan’s married now and living in Italy, and me and my parents live in California. But we hear from her all the time.” He hadn’t exactly planned to visit Kawamura, but he was already here, and might as well take advantage. “I’m just visiting. Just...wanted to check on some friends. Catch up.”
Kawamura nodded, looking genuinely pleased. “I’m glad you dropped by. What kind of sushi do you like? On the house. If I’d known you were coming, I would have asked what your favorites were so I could prepare. Fujiko-chan mentioned you liked sweets before. He used to—” Yuuta watched him as his mouth worked, then stopped with an unhappy frown. “I’m sorry,” Kawamura said softly. “It’s just... It’s been a long time, but I still can’t believe it, you know?”
“Oh,” Yuuta breathed, feeling a sudden sense of sympathy and camaraderie. “I know. Believe me.”
“Sorry,” Kawamura reiterated. “If anything, your loss was so much greater. He was your brother.”
“Yeah.” His damnable, oh-so-perfect brother, always a step ahead of him. And he’d left home to surpass his brother, only to realize they’d had so much more in common than he’d thought. But before he could tell Syuusuke that, his brother just had to go and—
Stupid, stupid brother. Yuuta picked at a piece of sushi, feeling his eyes burn.
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this?” Kawamura’s voice was tentative. Yuuta looked up at him, and only saw warmth in those honest eyes, and nearly smiled. No wonder Syuusuke and Kawamura had gotten along well. Kawamura was one of those really nice people who didn’t have a malicious bone in his body. And as much as his brother could be difficult at times, Syuusuke used to recognize goodness and kindness in people with an uncanny instinct.
“No, it’s...” Yuuta sighed, and gave up the pretense of eating entirely. “I came back because it felt so...unreal. Unfinished. I wasn’t here. And I never—”
“I see.” Kawamura was quiet for a long moment. “Fuji was...well. Very different. He used to come round here, sometimes, after school. Not just with the rest of club to celebrate, but just to – you know, hang out. He was the only one who always ordered the house wasabi rolls.”
“Sounds like Aniki,” Yuuta said with a snort. “He loved spicy food.”
Kawamura laughed. “Yeah. No kidding. Fuji was special. In a lot of ways.”
Something about the way Kawamura said it made Yuuta glance at him sideways. The two of them had been close, Oishi said. Had there been more to their closeness than friendship?
“I wasn’t there, that year,” Yuuta said softly. “We hadn’t spoken much since we entered junior high school. I didn’t even know Aniki could swim.”
Kawamura looked puzzled, and then understanding. “Oh. That. Well, I think Fujiko-chan didn’t like getting wet. Like, even when we were burning hot under the sun and were pouring water all over ourselves at the water tap, he never sprayed himself or anything. Always so – clean and white, you know? I used to wonder how he kept his skin so fair. I figured he must use sunscreen all the time. Wouldn’t surprise me – he’d burn right up in the sun otherwise. Almost all our club practices were outdoors.”
“Sunscreen?” As far as he knew, Syuusuke never used sunscreen. In their household, only Yumiko had a bottle she kept in the bathroom cabinet, but even she’d used it so rarely. During his last summer in Japan, he’d once come home to find Yumiko preparing for a short trip to the beach. Her sunscreen had expired, so she’d had to purchase a new bottle for that trip.
“Yeah. Well, I didn’t think about it. But the few times I saw him wet, he had this...glow on his skin, you know? Like when you spill petroleum on the pavement and it rains? Visible only when sunlight hits it just right?” Kawamura shrugged. “That’s how I figured – sunscreen. I thought it made his skin look kind of...well...kind of pretty, really.” There was a faint blush along his neck. “Kind of like what you see on live fish, you know? Really fresh fish. When they have those silvery scales and stuff, they glow like little rainbows in the right kind of light.”
“Oh. I guess?” So Syuusuke’s skin used to glow like iridescent fish scales when he got wet? That was a bit weird as analogies went, but Yuuta supposed it made sense Kawamura would put it that way, since he saw fresh fish every day.
“Sorry. I’m babbling.” Kawamura gave an embarrassed laugh. “I miss him. Fuji was a great friend. Would you like more tea?”
“Oh. Yes, please.”
Yuuta automatically picked up the cup when Kawamura reached for it, and their hands brushed for a moment. Kawamura waved off Yuuta’s apology, refilling the cup with hot tea. “I guess the low pressure thing doesn’t run in the family, after all. Fuji always had cold hands. But your hands are warm.”
And Yuuta had to think for a moment to recall the last time Syuusuke physically touched him. Honestly, he couldn’t recall if Syuusuke’s hands had been cold or not. But to admit that would only add to his growing guilt. “I didn’t think Aniki touched people often,” he said instead, which was the truth. Kikumaru hung all over his friends, but from what he’d remembered, Syuusuke wasn’t exactly reciprocal to Kikumaru’s physical affections.
“Um, no, he didn’t. You just...kind of notice that when you’re in a match or a practice and. A few times, he’d touch my wrist or something, you know? And when you’ve been exercising hard, you notice it when someone has cold hands.”
“I guess,” Yuuta said, noncommittal, hoping Kawamura wouldn’t see through the lie.
“Kind of like...touching a fish. Fuji’s hands, I mean. They didn’t ever get sweaty. Just kind of...slippery. And cool. Yes, kind of like a fish.” Kawamura looked sheepish. “Without the smell. Fuji always smelled like apples.”
Yuuta remembered that. Syuusuke used to fill his drawers and closet with sachets of apple potpourri. At the time, Yuuta had been convinced Syuusuke did it just to drive him crazy. After all, it was such a girly smell. And his brother’s favorite scent – the green apple – was so strong, it was overpowering. Even now, memories of Syuusuke were often accompanied by the scent of green apples.
That Kawamura would remember such small detail was...well, Yuuta wasn’t sure how he felt. On one hand, flattering perhaps, that someone else remembered his brother with such affection. On the other hand, this was his brother and that someone would have been interested in his brother that way was a deeply uncomfortable thought. Hell, Tezuka was a downright scary thought. (And he wasn’t ever going to go talk to Tezuka about it, Jesus, he had some sense of propriety. And self-preservation.)
Maybe, what he needed was a more impartial look at the whole thing. Talking about impartiality and facts... Yuuta nodded to himself shortly. “Kawamura-san, would you happen to have – um. Inui-san’s contact?”
“Yeah, hold on. Let me just get that for you, and I’ll be right back.”
While Kawamura bustled away, Yuuta frowned, deep in thought. Try as he might, he couldn’t remember when he’d last seen his brother in water, if at all. Surely they must have taken a bath together at some point, they were brothers. True, his memories of his earliest years were hazy; for example, he didn’t remember how the scar on his temple came about, even though he still had it after all these years. But why was it that he couldn’t ever remember seeing Syuusuke swim? And never mind the iridescent skin thing; had Syuusuke’s hands really been that cold? Come to think of it, he had to admit – Syuusuke had had extremely pale skin. Stranger yet, he had never seemed to develop a tan, even during the hottest days in summer.
Yuuta shook his head. He was wasting time. He was here to find out what happened on the night of Syuusuke’s disappearance (even now, he couldn’t bear to refer to it as anything else). What did it matter if Syuusuke had secretly been a terrific swimmer, or that his skin was cold, glimmering, and unnaturally pale?
“Here you are. That’s Inui’s number. And email, in case you can’t reach him on his cell.”
“Thank you, Kawamura-san. And – and for the rest.”
“You’re welcome, Yuuta-kun.” Kawamura shook his hand warmly. “Come by anytime you like. I’d love to see you again before you go back.”
“On the evening of August 30, 2002. Ah, yes.”
The way Inui said it was too much like something out of a detective novel for Yuuta’s comfort, but he nodded dutifully. “I’ve already spoken to Oishi-san. I understand he’s one of the three eyewitnesses? He couldn’t tell me very much, and...well. I guess I want to know.”
“You’ve already spoken to Eiji, I presume?”
“Yes. How did you—”
“Elementary,” Inui said, elongating the vowels just a bit, and Yuuta resisted the urge to groan. Seriously, if Inui pulled out a magnifying glass, he was running for the door. At least the path was relatively clear. “Fuji and Eiji were close friends during our third-year in junior high. Naturally, you’d have sought him out first. And you could only have gotten Oishi’s number through Eiji.” A dramatic pause. “With Tezuka and Echizen gone, your only option was, of course, Oishi.”
There was being polite and there was being practical. With an audible sigh, Yuuta chose the latter. “Could you tell me something more or not?” he asked bluntly. Inui’s glasses twinkled in a way that somehow communicated amusement, and Yuuta winced. What with Syuusuke being absent in his life for the past ten years, he’d forgotten how exasperating it was to deal with someone like this.
“Depends on what you’ve already heard,” Inui replied.
Yuuta’s sigh was louder this time. “Aniki went out wandering in the storm alone. Echizen went after him. Tezuka-san and Oishi-san heard Echizen go out and followed, but didn’t see what happened. There was tension among Aniki, Echizen, and Tezuka-san.”
And the elongated vowels thing was beginning to annoy him. “Well?”
Inui’s glasses glinted some more. “Did Oishi also happen to mention Atobe?”
“I’ll take it as a no,” Inui drawled. “It’s no wonder. To Oishi, Tezuka is a very important friend even now. He wouldn’t dream of breaking confidence like that.”
“But you would?” Yuuta couldn’t help himself. Dealing with Inui was a bit like dealing with Syuusuke at his exasperating best.
“No, of course not.”
...Scratch that. Dealing with Inui was worse.
“But you are Fuji’s brother, and I should think if anyone, you deserve to hear the whole truth.”
“O...kay?” Yuuta mentally resigned himself for riding out the whole debacle. “What have you got, then?”
“Well, first of all, I’m sure Eiji was convinced Tezuka and Fuji were dating. I do not believe, strictly speaking, they were. In fact, I have evidence to the contrary. If we consider the end result to be the most important part, then ipso facto, we must—”
“Inui-san,” Yuuta said pleasantly. “I could come back tomorrow to catch the tail end of your story, if you’d like.”
Unexpectedly, Inui chuckled at that. “You’ve changed, Fuji-kun. Far more resilient, I see.”
“It’s been ten years,” Yuuta said simply.
“But you still can’t let it go, can you?” Inui straightened in his chair. “Very well. To the heart of the matter, then. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumor Fuji was involved in a love triangle with Tezuka and Echizen. And that Fuji either killed himself or was killed because of that. But you should know this also: the one Tezuka ended up dating wasn’t Echizen. It was Atobe.”
“Atobe?” Yuuta echoed. “As in, Atobe Keigo of Hyoutei?”
“One and the same. Tezuka and Atobe had kept contact after their first official match. Back in the Regional, if you remember it?” Yuuta nodded. Of course he did. Anyone who’d seen that match would have remembered it. “Fuji became...unexpectedly jealous. Or perhaps protective is a better word. Anyway, I know for a fact Tezuka and Atobe continued to keep in touch during that year, despite Fuji’s continued objections. And shortly after Fuji – well, you know – they got together. They had to be very discreet, of course. Tezuka’s plans to transfer to Germany and become pro tennis player were already set by then. And the other person was Atobe Keigo. Oishi and I knew about it. But I don’t think Oishi’s told anyone, not even Eiji. Not that Eiji would have believed him anyway. Eiji remained so convinced of a tragic love triangle.”
“Wait a minute. You’re telling me it wasn’t a triangle. Then how does Echizen fit into the picture?”
Inui shrugged. “I didn’t say there wasn’t a triangle. I said there is an unknown dimension Eiji and others aren’t aware of. It’s true that there was tension among the three of them. But with Echizen, there was no active sabotage of any kind on Fuji’s part. That’s why it was surprising that Fuji objected about Atobe. But Tezuka can get really stubborn about some things. That Fuji was so strongly opposed to the idea only served to make him more determined, in the end.”
Inui was silent for a moment. “When Tezuka and Oishi brought him back, he was unconscious. And running a high fever. He didn’t wake up until the next day, but wouldn’t say anything about what happened. It took the police three days to get a short statement from Echizen. That he’d seen Fuji go outside, had followed, and saw him fall in when a tall wave hit the seawall. That night, the waves were reaching six, seven meters high with the storm. An evacuation order had to be issued for the residents in the lower grounds.” Inui gave him a shrewd look, and Yuuta squirmed in his seat. “What Tezuka and Oishi saw matches what Echizen said. When Fuji went to the lookout, the waves must have been crashing down on top of it.”
“...What are you saying?” Yuuta’s voice was low and scrupulously neutral. Inui studied him, pushing up his glasses.
“I am saying that Fuji, for whatever reason, saw how dangerous it was, yet chose to go there alone. Whether or not Echizen or Tezuka had something to do with it doesn’t change that fact.”
Yuuta gritted his teeth. He hadn’t imagined just how much the insinuation would hurt. “Meaning?” he demanded, voice colder and harsher.
There was no change in Inui’s posture that hinted at nervousness, but he didn’t look much like his earlier confident self, either. “I am not trying to imply anything, Fuji-kun. I am merely saying nobody forced Fuji to walk all the way out there. That was his choice.”
“And why would Aniki choose to do that?”
That had come out more defensive than Yuuta intended. Belligerent, even. Inui didn’t seem offended, however, and merely gave him a considering look. “I can’t tell you that. In fact...” Inui scribbled something on a piece of napkin, and Yuuta had to squint to realize it was a number – and a familiar name. “If you really want to know, perhaps you should talk to the last person who was with your brother. He’s in the country right now, as I understand it.”
“You... He’d been in contact with you?”
“Didn’t stop you, though,” Yuuta pointed out, staring at the napkin.
Inui let out a quiet sigh. “I don’t always disrespect the wishes of someone who doesn’t wish to be contacted. But you do have a right to know.”
“Oh.” Great, now he felt like the bad guy. “Thank you, Inui-san,” Yuuta said sincerely.
“Fuji was...” Inui hesitated. “He was a very good friend. But I have to be fair.”
Yuuta sighed. Meaning, what happened likely wasn’t Echizen’s fault. Or at least, Inui didn’t think so. “I do understand, Inui-san. Thank you.”
After they parted, Yuuta spent some time staring at the napkin and the number sprawled on it. It was his choice, in the end, whether to call Echizen or not. And Inui was right. He had to be fair. Most of all, he knew Syuusuke. Syuusuke wasn’t someone who was easily influenced by others, which was why he’d never believed it was a deliberate suicide. But, the likelihood of Echizen actually committing cold-blooded murder was... After all, he couldn’t eliminate the possibility something happened before Tezuka and Oishi arrived on the scene, especially since Oishi said they hadn’t seen Syuusuke at all. But, then again, Echizen had followed Syuusuke to that seawall. What had prompted Syuusuke to go out there in the storm in the first place?
That was the thing, wasn’t it? He had no way of knowing.
Slipping the napkin into his pocket, Yuuta continued walking.
“...You could have called, you know.”
Alright, that wasn’t the most intelligent response. But Momoshiro thought he was doing pretty well given the shock he was operating under at the moment. As he expected, the other merely shrugged. “I did. Your mother said I’d find you here.”
Here being the tennis club where Momoshiro worked as a coach on Saturdays. “So...what brings you here, then?” Momoshiro asked cautiously. Echizen hadn’t kept in touch with anyone except Momoshiro. And even with Momoshiro, it had been limited to occasional postcards. In ten years, Echizen had never set a foot in Japan again, not since the...incident.
“I guess I got curious.”
And he was almost afraid to ask just what Echizen was curious about. “So...are you here to just catch up with me, or do you need me for something?” At the look he received, Momoshiro shrugged. “You’re here, Echizen. I think I’m right on the mark when I say Japan is the last place you’d want to visit. And you actually came to see me in person. You wouldn’t have unless whatever you’re here for also involves me.”
Echizen was quiet for a long moment. “Where...is it?”
His first instinct was to ask, Where is what? Oh. Oh. That definitely explained why he was here. “I can take you there. This afternoon, if you want.” Then, he sighed deeply. “Though, Echizen, you should know this before you go. He’s not there. They never found him.”
After they’d returned from that fateful trip, as soon as Echizen was cleared of all suspicions, Echizen’s concerned parents had taken him back to America. That had been three weeks after the incident, and the search was still ongoing then. It was six weeks after that the search was stopped, and the case label changed from disappearance to accidental death. Momoshiro supposed no one could have told Echizen that during the past ten years.
Echizen’s eyes were dark, their expression inscrutable. Momoshiro waited for a few more heartbeats, and inhaled quickly. “You know...I never asked.”
The expressionless eyes did not look at him. “I didn’t push him off, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“I know it was an accident,” Momoshiro said hastily. “I just...what happened that night?”
Minutes ticked by in silence. Finally, when Momoshiro was about to give up, Echizen spoke. “I met Tezuka-buchou on the staircase. I was about to go upstairs.” Momoshiro remembered the trip and the seaside resort where they’d stayed in perfect details; it was a small place, but very scenic, with a paved walkway leading from the resort’s garden down to the beach. Once on the beach, one could follow the curved boardwalk to the seawall, and then all the way out to the end of the seawall which also served as a lookout during the low tide. By the time they’d visited, it was past the vacation season and the resort had been empty. As an off-season special, the resort had offered them free upgrade to single rooms. It also meant half of their team had ended up on the second floor. Echizen had been one of them.
“We...talked, and he...” Echizen hesitated, and the frown on his face made him look distressed rather than angry. “...He kissed me,” he said at last. “And...I saw Fuji-senpai. He...” Echizen shook his head. Momoshiro’s jaws tightened. The rumors had spread like a wildfire afterwards, but it seemed at least one part of the rumor might have had some basis on the truth. “He turned around very quietly, and went back to his room. I heard the door lock behind him.”
In fact, when Tezuka and Oishi had returned with unconscious Echizen, they’d checked Fuji’s room first, and found his door locked. Inside, Fuji was nowhere to be found, and the window had been open.
“I went upstairs. I looked out from my window and – I saw Fuji-senpai walking toward the beach. I ran downstairs and followed.” Tezuka and Oishi had, in fact, reported they’d heard Echizen go out. But neither of them had heard Fuji leave the building. Given Fuji’s room was on the ground floor, the police had concluded that Fuji must have slipped out of the window. “He went straight to the seawall and...the waves...”
“You followed him all the way to the seawall? In that storm?” Momoshiro couldn’t help the worried disapproval slipping into his voice. There was a lingering protectiveness that Echizen always provoked in him without fail.
Echizen nodded slowly. “The waves were all around it. Fuji-senpai was just standing there, at the edge. I called his name. He turned around, and then...”
“He fell?” Momoshiro guessed. He’d always guessed that was the likeliest scenario. Well, now he knew why Echizen had been so reluctant to talk about it. Echizen must have felt guilty, because he probably thought Fuji had done that because of him.
“No.” Echizen’s voice was strange. Not exactly reflective – in fact, he sounded frightened. “He just...stood there. The waves – they didn’t touch him until that moment. It was—it was like the water was wrapping around him, somehow. He held out his hand to me, and then— Then he was gone.”
“I’m sorry, Echizen,” Momoshiro said gently. He supposed witnessing someone’s final moments would rattle anyone badly. And Echizen had only been twelve at that time. The uncharacteristically poetic description aside, that Echizen remembered every last detail was proof how deeply the event had affected him.
“His expression...it wasn’t...it wasn’t fear. Or anything at all. There was nothing reflected in his eyes. They were just...endlessly dark, like...like the ocean at night.” Echizen shuddered, and Momoshiro felt a prickle of chill running down his spine at those words. Momoshiro reached out to cradle him in a tentative hug, and to his surprise, Echizen leaned back, for once seeking warmth on his own accord. “I was so scared. Not of the waves. Of...of him.”
The last admission was pulled from him reluctantly, and Momoshiro frowned. He supposed...well, actually, he knew what Echizen was talking about. Always, during the time he’d known Fuji, he’d been uneasy around the ever-smiling upperclassman. First there were the flashes of unsettling, macabre humor Fuji showed at times. Momoshiro could never explain it, as Fuji was unfailingly kind to everyone. But something felt off about Fuji, and his discomfort around Fuji stemmed from a deeply instinctive level. No matter how gentle he seemed, no matter how attractive he was, Fuji’s presence always held a sense of unnerving tension underneath. There were several second-years during that time that had harbored a crush on Fuji. And Momoshiro had a sneaking suspicion one or two third-years might have been similarly affected as well. Yet, when Fuji was passing by, people parted before him like a school of tuna before a hungry dolphin.
But Echizen never seemed to fear Fuji, back then. Not even when the awkward dance among him, Fuji, and Tezuka was at its worst. What about Fuji’s last moments could have brought about the change? He wanted to ask, he really did, but...
“Stay the night at my house,” Momoshiro said instead. “We can figure out what you want to do tomorrow. Tomorrow’s Sunday, so I can drive you anywhere you want, okay?”
Wordless, Echizen nodded.
That night, after Echizen had been tucked into a spare futon in his room, he called Kaidoh. Once the usual insults were out of the way, Kaidoh listened attentively while he related what Echizen had said earlier. Then, after a moment of complete silence, Kaidoh let out a hissing sound. “Why are you telling me all this?” Kaidoh asked bluntly, and Momoshiro grinned. How like Kaidoh to be so concerned about other people’s privacy. Like they needed to stand on ceremony between them after all these years.
“Just wanted you to know, I guess. Now we know for sure.”
There was a strangely pregnant pause.
“There was something else. About that time,” Kaidoh said slowly. “There was – look. There was something that happened before the trip I never told anyone else. You remember during the Nationals, between the semifinals and the finals, we had three days off and we were practicing. The second day was self-training. Do you remember?”
“Yeah, of course I do.” Momoshiro briefly wondered where this was going.
“That day, I saw Atobe-san from Hyoutei. He and Fuji-senpai were talking.” After a short pause, Kaidoh corrected himself, “Arguing.”
“I didn’t hear. I heard something slam into a wall. I went over to find out what happened, and... Atobe-san had Fuji-senpai backed up against the wall of the clubroom. Atobe-san had blood on his knuckles.” Kaidoh paused, then continued. “I was about to go over, and I heard Atobe-san ask, ‘It’s not me you want out of the way, is it?’ And Fuji-senpai answered, ‘It’s not you I need out of the way,’ very clearly. That was it. A moment later, Atobe-san pushed off the wall and left without another word.”
Atobe? Atobe Keigo was involved in this, too? “Does...does Inui-senpai know?”
“...I don’t know,” Kaidoh admitted quietly. “I never asked.”
“Yeah,” Kaidoh said, which was a sign that he was as disturbed as Momoshiro was feeling; usually, Kaidoh told him off about his swearing habits.
“Did you know? About Tezuka-buchou and Atobe-san getting together after Fuji-senpai died?”
A pause. “Yeah,” Kaidoh said quietly. “Figured it wasn’t my business. You?”
“Same here. They were careful, yeah, but I saw them around a couple times. I didn’t say anything because Eiji-senpai was so upset and...well. Taka-san. I don’t think they knew.”
“So...what are you going to do?”
“Go see Atobe-san first thing in the morning,” Momoshiro decided. He’d always assumed Atobe Keigo hadn’t entered the picture until after Fuji’s death. Now that he knew that wasn’t the case, he wanted to find out what happened on that end. He owed Echizen that much. “The way my mom’s been fussing over Echizen, I don’t think he’ll be able to set out any time before lunch, anyway.”
The pause was hesitant this time. “D’you want me to come with you?”
“Nah. I can handle Atobe-san.”
“I’ll tell him you said hello. Come by tomorrow at lunch, if you want. Echizen wants to go visit Fuji-senpai’s grave. We can go together.”
“Good night, Kaidoh.”
When Momoshiro arrived at Atobe’s mansion (locally nicknamed Atobekingham), he was let in with minimum fuss. He was a bit surprised, however, to be immediately shown to Atobe’s personal study without so much as a question about the purpose of his visit.
“Look what the cat’s dragged in,” came a drawl, and Momoshiro followed the voice to the desk, where Atobe lounged on a large armchair. “Not quite the expected sort, however. Where’s Echizen?”
It was Momoshiro’s turn to blink in surprise. “Wait, how do you know Echizen’s in Japan?”
“Tezuka,” Atobe said impatiently. “How else? Tezuka called me and said the brat might be wanting a word with me.”
“Tezuka-buchou called you just to tell you Echizen was coming to visit you?” Which, by the way, was news to Momoshiro. Echizen hadn’t mentioned anything like that to him.
“No, Tezuka called to tell me about his engagement. Don’t be obtuse. He just happened to mention Echizen tracked him down after Monte-Carlo Rolex this year. For some inexplicable reason, he seemed to think Echizen would want to talk to me next.”
Atobe’s usual rich drawl was just a bit slower than usual. It was then Momoshiro finally noticed the smell permeating the air. And a half-filled glass in Atobe’s hand. More telling still, Atobe’s shirt looked crumpled. In all the time they’d known each other, Atobe had never been anything less than immaculate. The only time even a hair was out of place was when Atobe played tennis.
“Atobe-san...are you drunk?”
Atobe gave him an unimpressed look. “Brilliant deduction. What was your big clue?” He drained the rest of the glass with a practiced motion, then refilled it from a crystal bottle sitting innocently on one side.
Momoshiro chose to ignore the comment. He was on a mission here, and he might have to work fast to get what he wanted; the bottle was nearly empty, and now that he was watching for signs, he could tell Atobe was on the verge of passing out. “Why does Echizen need to talk to you?” Or Tezuka for that matter, but he had a feeling the two were related.
“Fuji. What else?” Atobe took another long draught of his no-doubt expensive liquor.
At this rate, he might just have to skip all the pleasantries and cut right to the chase, discretion be damned. The smell was too strong for the amber liquid to be anything less than cognac. “You had an argument with Fuji-senpai just before our Rikkai-match.” It was not a question. “What was it about?”
“The usual nonsense Fuji kept up. So I confronted him rather than suffering through any further interference.”
Atobe gave him an exasperated look. “About Tezuka and me, of course. He’d been going on about it since Tezuka and I had our first match back in the Regional. What the hell did you think Fuji was, the little mermaid cast aside by the prince for another princess? No. If anything, this little mermaid was working to cast aside the other princess.”
“‘It’s not you he needed out of the way,’” Momoshiro quoted, eyes shrewd and watching Atobe carefully.
Atobe snorted. “It never was. He just kept up a damned good pretense it was. Even Tezuka fell for it. Hook, line, and sinker.”
“Echizen?” Momoshiro hazarded a guess, but something about that was...off.
Atobe’s sudden laugh startled him. After a moment, Atobe sat up and speared him with a look of bitter irony. “You’re not stupid, even if you act it. So use your brain, Momoshiro. Do you really think the little mermaid didn’t understand it? Nothing obligated the prince to choose her, not even the fact she saved his life. One doesn’t choose whom he loves.” Momoshiro wondered if he’d misjudged how much Atobe had to drink. Atobe’s eyes were clear, and perfectly sober. “She didn’t jump to spare the prince. She did it to bind the prince to her forever. If she died on his wedding night, no matter how oblivious the prince was, he couldn’t possibly miss the significance of that. He would never forget. All of his life, he would always remember: she died because of him.”
“But...” Tezuka had moved on, hadn’t he? Tezuka started dating Atobe soon after Fuji died. And – according to Atobe – was now engaged to some girl who probably couldn’t believe her luck. But then again, Tezuka had broken up with Atobe in the end. Was that what Atobe meant? “Is that why you and Tezuka-buchou broke up?”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Atobe gave him a pitying look. “Tezuka is the one who left. Tezuka is the one who went pro. Tezuka is the one engaged to some airheaded bimbo from France. It turned out exactly as Fuji planned.”
And Momoshiro still couldn’t see how Echizen fit into this picture. Tezuka had kissed Echizen. But it hadn’t gone anywhere, because right after, Fuji had—
“Oh. Oh God.” The dawning realization stunned him, and Momoshiro leaned his weight heavily on Atobe’s exquisitely carved desk.
“Oh, yes.” Atobe’s drawl was back, silky and malicious. Staring fixedly at the glass in his hand, Atobe continued, his voice softer. “Fuji was one of the few people Tezuka took seriously. And Fuji had been so adamantly against me. I wanted to get it out of the way, whatever it was.” Momoshiro was suddenly struck by a strange pity, realizing that Atobe had been serious about Tezuka. Maybe, he thought, swallowing dryly, Atobe still was. “So I went to see Fuji directly. And I realized all of his incessant interference, the insinuations that I was unsuitable for Tezuka – all of it was for the show, nothing more. Because when he looked at me, he felt nothing. Even when we were talking, his eyes didn’t reflect anything at all. They were just—”
“—Endlessly dark, like the ocean at night,” Momoshiro finished. The unsettling, prickling sensation over his spine had returned.
Atobe nodded, resting his forehead against his folded hand. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet, devoid of feelings. “Tezuka was never Fuji’s target.”
Tezuka had a stubborn streak. Momoshiro remembered it well. It wasn’t implausible, that objection made him even more set on wanting something. Just maybe, even enough to go after something that wasn’t quite what he wanted. And when Tezuka did, he left behind what he had wanted. The true prize. The prince, who never forgot.
Atobe’s voice, soft and expressionless, rang like the last strain of a fading knell.
“Tezuka...was Fuji’s rival.”
The phone buzzed, signaling the arrival of a message. The receptionist looked up, and shrugged. The phone’s owner had left his duffel bag behind. She could easily return the phone to him when he returned. Besides, she was nearly finished with the day’s Sudoku. It wasn’t like the resort had any guests except for that cute young man with the white Fila cap; the summer vacation season didn’t start for another two months. After a minute later, the phone vibrated, the screen turning on to show an incoming call. The receptionist, talking on her cell phone animatedly, did not hear, and half a minute later, the phone stopped vibrating.
Outside the resort, Ryoma meandered down the path through the garden. He supposed he should have told Momoshiro. Or at least waited until Momoshiro came home from wherever he’d disappeared to so early in the morning. But after he heard the grave he’d intended to visit contained no body, he knew he needed to come here. Unaccompanied, unhindered by anyone else. He owed that much.
The beach looked exactly as he remembered. He must have passed through this very path, on that evening ten years ago. But he could remember nothing, only the gray and black of the storm, white of Fuji’s shirt, and the dark blue eyes. His fever-wracked dreams that night had been full of the same colors. And there was...he thought he remembered a gentle touch, carrying the scent of the ocean, but too cold to be comforting. He’d woken up the next day, fever broken, but feeling as if he hadn’t slept for days.
Across the boardwalk, the wind carried a mixture of strangely familiar scents. Ryoma closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The smell of the ocean, the fishy tang, the stale stench of burnt oil...and green apples.
Ryoma frowned, opening his eyes. He’d arrived at the end of the boardwalk. After a moment of hesitation, he took a tentative step onto the concrete seawall. His hand automatically flew up to grasp the rusted iron of the guard rail. The tide was in, but the sea was calm today, shimmering patiently under the occasional glimpses of the sun. The clouds were tinged with gray, merging with the dark blue sea on the horizon. Cautiously, Ryoma took another step, then another, keeping one hand on the guard rail. The seawater rolled scarce inches below the top of the seawall, but the concrete on top was still dry. Squaring his shoulders, Ryoma walked faster, straight to the edge, where the seawall ended.
The sun quietly slid behind the clouds again, and the waves returned to a lusterless dark hue. Ryoma stared at the water lapping gently under his feet. So deceptively peaceful... One almost forgot what it was capable of, once roused. There was a hypnotic quality to the way the ocean waves came and retreated, as if enticing one to step in, to step closer. Ryoma slowly dropped to his knees, and reached between the iron bars to dip his fingers into the water.
The sky was rapidly darkening overhead. Ryoma waited for another moment, then retracted his hand, feeling rather silly. What was he expecting, really? It was just the ocean. Nothing strange or mysterious about it. Just because his overactive imagination thought he’d seen something ten years ago...
Wiping his hand on his pant leg, Ryoma reached for the guard rail again, and was startled to feel it give. The guard rail was positively ancient, rusted and flaking in his hand, but he hadn’t expected a whole section of it to just come off like that. With an annoyed huff, he flung it to the side. The management would take care of it later. Through the resulting gap in the guard rail, the ocean was even more inviting. After a moment’s hesitation, Ryoma took off his shoes, and sat on the edge of the concrete seawall to lower his legs in the water. Ryoma cursed as he felt cold water soaking the hem of his shorts. It was still spring, and the water was too cold to swim in it, but he wasn’t feeling terribly inclined to get up. He had a change of clothing in his duffel. He could change when he went back to the resort.
With a sigh, he closed his eyes again.
The smell of the sea was stronger here. A cold, wet scent of water, and the undercurrent of another smell: green apples. And there was an unmistakable prickling along his nerves that warned him he was being watched.
Ryoma’s eyes shot open.
Shapely lips took on the delicate curve of an amused smile. Ryoma blinked, but the apparition did not disappear. There was Fuji, chest-deep in the water, bobbing with each wave, looking as if he’d merely been out for a swim. Fuji’s skin was perfectly white, as if it had been chiseled out of white porcelain. Slowly, a pale, slender hand lifted out of the water, reaching upward until it hovered just over Ryoma’s cheek. Ryoma couldn’t help a flinch; the chill emanating from the hand was startling even without a physical contact. Fuji’s other hand rose to cup Ryoma’s other cheek, still not quite touching.
Blue eyes, dark and fathomless, beckoned him closer without a word. And Ryoma thought he should remember why there were so many things wrong with this. Followed swiftly by all the questions he’d never asked, and everything else he’d never said. But Fuji was patient, drawing him closer, coaxing him to bend lower still, until Ryoma’s face was a mere inch away from Fuji’s upturned face.
“Fuji-senpai,” Ryoma breathed. Their lips were nearly touching now. His breath washed over Fuji’s slightly parted lips, and each inhalation brought back the scent of green apples. Fuji’s eyes were endlessly dark. The only breath Ryoma could feel on his face was his own.
Ryoma’s lips parted in a tiny gasp.
And Fuji’s cold hands covered his cheeks tenderly.
Yuuta finished filling up the form, and returned the clipboard and the pen to the receptionist. Just then, the phone rang, and the receptionist murmured an apology, and picked up her receiver. While she was talking, Yuuta pulled out his cell phone, looking over the text message he’d been composing for his entire trip here.
I want to meet up with you. I’m at the place where Aniki—
This is Fuji Yuuta. I’m at the place where you guys were ten years ago.
I’m at the place where Aniki disappeared. I’ll be here until tomorrow afternoon. I need to see you, Echizen.
Finally, Yuuta decided on the last draft of the message. He typed in his name at the end, and hit the button to send it.
A moment later, a cell phone resting on the counter buzzed. The receptionist looked up and gave him a smile and a shrug. She took the phone to put it on top of a duffel bag sitting behind her chair, and continued with her conversation on the phone. Yuuta put away his own phone, resigned to wait until she finished. Outside, the sky was clearing up again, and the sun was peeking through the gray clouds.
Yuuta set down his baggage on the floor, and mouthed I’ll be right back at the receptionist, who nodded. The doorbell chimed as he stepped outside, and Yuuta found himself in a small but well-maintained garden, with a paved footpath leading to the beach. Yuuta walked down to the beach at a leisurely pace and stopped at the boardwalk to survey the scene. The boardwalk went all the way around the beach, and was connected to the seawall. He knew with unerring certainty that was the very seawall that his brother—
With a sigh, he turned his gaze away. No reason to agitate himself until Echizen got here. If Echizen ever did, that was. He wasn’t sure if Echizen would respond to his message at all. Slowly, Yuuta turned, retracing his steps, and headed back to the resort.
Down at the beach, white foam crawled over the sand each time the waves came in, then retreated with the water. Lost amidst the drifting foam and seaweed was an abandoned white cap.
On the front of the white cap, above the brim, was an embroidered letter F, enclosed by a blue square.