The one-man tollbooth landed smack in the middle of Tokyo - or what would be the middle of Tokyo, 20,000 years ago.
Gone were the skyscrapers, the pachinko parlors and the white Honda civics, the media blitz and the Hello Kitty vibrators - all the strange and shiny things that had become familiar to Kakei in the course of his stay in the 20th century. Now, he was simply surrounded by nature.
Pure, green, man-eating nature.
"We're here," Kakei announced, stepping out of the tollbooth in a refined, dignified manner. The first thing he did upon setting foot on the steady as-yet-unfossilized soil of the prehistoric glade was to take a deep breath of the unpolluted air. Then he fixed the ruffles on the ends of his stiff 18th century English cuffs. Then he fixed his hair.
Close behind him followed Kakei's slightly more sullen traveling companion, in a rugged white t-shirt and late-20th century denim pants... otherwise known (by Kakei) as the tackiest ensemble ever made for man. Good thing Shin filled it out nicely. "Where is 'here'?" Shin gruffly demanded.
"The Japanese Paleolithic age, my friend," Kakei answered, "many, many years before plumbing was invented."
This meant, of course, that Shin should have gone to the bathroom (or, as Kakei called it, the water closet) during their last pit stop before the next wormhole, but Shin decided at the time that he could still hold it in.
And now that the pit stop was thousands of years past, Shin didn't even bring it up. It wasn't very manly to air out one's suffering.
"And you're sure the real Eyeshield 21 is here?"
"Sir, please," Kakei exclaimed, offended. "You pre-Desolation blokes are so distrustful..."
Shin snorted. "Well, you say you've been trying to find the real Eyeshield 21 since you built your time machine when you were 12. And you say the way I accidentally smashed your instruments actually helped, but I don't think it would be so -"
"Hush." Kakei leapt back and laid a finger to Shin's lips before he could say something more embarrassing. "Something's coming."
For a moment Shin suspected nothing was coming. The gothi-eccentric time traveler had pulled that finger-on-lip stunt on him before, when Kakei thought he was being rude. But within the next minute he heard a crashing through the trees and intermittent howls of pain - like a rhinoceros in labor, or something with two legs that didn't have the first idea how to use them.
"What is it?" Shin's hand involuntarily went to the right back pocket of his jeans, where his weapon was hidden.
Suddenly, something burst through the foliage - something tall and hairy and arguably blond, wearing nothing but bits of animal skin (which would still be more aesthetically correct than a white t-shirt and denim pants, Kakei thought, if only it wasn't so filthy) and sporting huge hands and feet and eyes.
It was decidedly humanoid. It was also decidedly confused for five seconds. It stared at them and the tollbooth dumbly, then assumed the crouch of a threatened animal, lumbering towards the two time travelers, swinging its massive arms.
"UGAAAAA!" it screamed at them, making claws out of its hands.
Kakei tensed. "Step back, Shin..."
"I'll handle this."
The dark-skinned young man in the cravat stepped forward stiffly, authoritative and imposing. Then, as Shin watched, nervous and unmoving, Kakei started to say loudly:
"O-ook a-ack ack!"
"Ook?" The creature blinked and tilted its head to the right. WAY to the right. "Ook eep?"
"Eek. Oog-oog acka."
A huge grin broke on the shaggy thing's face. For no apparent reason, it curled into a ball and started bouncing up and down and around Kakei. Quite like a big blond furry pet basketball.
Shin whispered to Kakei, "You know what he's saying?"
Kakei stared at him. "You don't?"
Shin stared back.
"How can you be a time traveler and not know cavespeak?" Kakei asked him.
Shin pulled out a gigantic screwdriver from his right back pocket, waved it around in a manner that Kakei figured was supposed to be menacing. "See this? This means I don't have to learn cavespeak."
Kakei swatted Shin's screwdriver-holding hand. "Put that away, it's a wonder you haven't broken it yet."
(He conveniently failed to mention that they didn't know if it was, in fact, already broken - as Shin only ever used it to whack things, having found it to be extraordinarily stress-resistant.)
Before Kakei could do anything about it, the caveman uncurled at his feet and eagerly took hold of the hem of his jacket. Kakei shuddered at the touch of unwashed skin making contact with his favorite silks, but quickly composed himself.
"Acka. Ook acka. Oooooooooooo..." The caveman started rubbing his face up and down the soft fabric. Oh dear, Kakei said to himself, eyes shut tight, that will never wash off.
"Eek-ook," Kakei said to the caveman, in a gentler tone that made the shaggy thing sit up and listen, wide blue eyes fixed on Kakei's face. "O-ook eck eck racka backaracka eep um..." Lost for words, he raised both hands up to his face, and made what he hoped would pass as a non-verbal gesture for a football visor. "Agooga."
"Agooga?" The caveman scratched his head. Which was somewhere under all that hair. "Ook bagga ooga?"
Kakei nodded. He pointed to the tollbooth. "Packapacka boom."
This set the caveman off again. After a shrill sound that resembled laughter, he jumped up and down ecstatically, clapping his hands. "Packapacka boom! Packa boom!" he chanted.
"Uh..." Shin started to say, but the caveman was already stumbling out of the clearing on two - four - no wait, two legs again, yelping when he crashed into a tree. "Did he just say he found Eyeshield 21?"
"Or someone who looks like Eyeshield 21," Kakei said thoughtfully. "Who came in a packapack - I mean, a device like ours."
"Huh." Shin put the screwdriver back in his right back pocket. "You were right, after all."
"Yes. Well, let's not pat ourselves on the back yet, he may go off again before we can find him." With a triumphant smile and a gallant bow, he stepped aside to make way for Shin to finally take more than five steps away from the tollbooth. "After you?"
The caveman moved swiftly, but didn't seem like he was keen on losing his two new friends. Or one new friend and another new thing to ignore. It was clear that he didn't like Shin very much, although he worshipped Kakei, all but drooling on the young man's shoes when they had time alone together - which was every night since the hunt began.
The journey to where the caveman said Eyeshield 21 would be had already taken two days and three nights. Thankfully, Kakei had specifically designed the tollbooth for portability, and when they were not using it, he collapsed it and slid it into one of his numerous silk pockets. He straightened it out when night fell and they needed a place to sleep.
As a natural result, this was the third night the caveman spent inside the (marvelously spacious, much-larger-inside-than-outside) tollbooth, crawling up on top of Kakei's bed in his sleep and rubbing himself all over the soft fabrics of Kakei's long nightshirts. Like a cat who felt entitled to a newfound luxury.
"Kakei!" came the angry cry from across the hall.
"Tell the neanderthal to stop groping you, I need to sleep!"
Kakei He had left the door open in case the caveman tried anything more alarming than a nightly full-body molestation. Of course, that meant Shin - whose quarters were across the hall - could clearly hear whatever was going on inside.
"I don't think I can wake him!" Kakei shouted back. "And I don't think there's any polite way to tell a caveman to keep his hands off you at night..."
"Well, do something." The sound of Shin grumbling growing louder, which only meant he had left the comfort of his bed. "He only makes that loud purring sound when he's all over you. Lure him into the brig and stun him or something..."
"Shin, please," Kakei said sternly. "He's harmless. And he is not purring, he is snoring."
Shin dragged himself to the door to Kakei's quarters, eyes bleary and hair askew. Apparently, white shirt and denims could also serve as someone's nightwear. He blinked a few times at the snoring blanket of human hair on top of Kakei.
Kakei threw his hands as far up off the bed as they could go. "You were surprised? Anyway, that's strange... what happened to your earplugs?"
"The ones I gave you this morning, before we broke camp. When you were complaining about the noise?"
Pause. "Those were earplugs?"
Kakei rolled his eyes. "What did you use them for?"
"Never mind. I need a new pair."
"There is no new pair, sir. You've broken the only pair of deluxe Maturation-era custom-designed noise filter earplugs the three of us can ever enjoy."
"Just you and me, friend." He jerked his head toward the fuzzy blanket. "What's his name, anyway?"
"I asked, he doesn't know."
"Can I call him 'Ugh'?"
"No, that's a naughty word." Kakei cautiously brushed away the strands of blond hair getting into his mouth.
At least the hair was clean now - he had insisted on regularly running the caveman through the sonic shower, animal skins and all, if he was going to sleep inside the tollbooth. And especially inside his quarters, which was the only place the caveman felt comfortable in. Every other part of the tollbooth's interior had buttons that were not for pushing by cavemen or Shin.
Shin remarked, "He probably has a name. Cavemen of the early paleolithic moved in tribes, right?"
Kakei's brow furrowed. "Yes, I thought that was strange... we've been traveling for over two days, and we haven't seen a single shred of evidence of human settlement, not even a sign left over by a nomadic tribe..."
"Does that mean he's the only human being here?"
It seemed that Kakei hesitated before answering, "No." He gently patted whatever body part of the caveman was under the mass of hair on his chest. "Yesterday in fact, he did mention a tribe... one that was very far away. But he didn't seem like he wanted to talk about it."
The caveman stirred in his sleep, languidly rubbing one cheek against Kakei's left sleeve.
"You know, Shin... in cavespeak of the earlier Paleolithic era, there is no word for 'exile.' Only 'death'. If a person is... unfit to serve as a member of a tribe, he is executed - unless, of course, he somehow escapes his fate. But he can never return to his tribe, for obvious reasons..."
Shin was at a loss. The tactful Kakei clearly considered this a delicate matter. And what Shin really wanted to say at that moment was,Great, so what we have here is the runaway village idiot?
"Don't worry," Kakei assured, "I'll think of something to call him."
Shin shook his head. "Don't bother. We're leaving him as soon as we find Eyeshield 21."
Kakei looked down at the caveman, and a hint of remorse touched his normally stoic features.
"Anyway, let's talk about that later. I'm sleeping on the bridge, yell if you need me."
"Shin... when we've found Eyeshield 21, and we somehow find a way back to the Time Watch, will you still turn me in?"
Right then and there, Shin took a second to wonder how a person with a tall, bulky early paleolithic man sleeping like a hill on top of him could still manage to talk so much.
"Maybe. Maybe not." He smiled, or tried to. "I just want to see what kind of guy this is you screwed up space and time for. Let me think about it when we get our hands on him, okay?"
Kakei nodded. "I hope the bridge is kinder on your REM state," he said. Just when Shin thought the conversation had ended, Kakei called after him, "And Shin?"
"Don't touch anything."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
During the next few days, it became clear to the two time travelers on the hunt that their target was also moving around. And rather quickly, if they might say so themselves.
"He must have some geosynthetic device that's tapping into an inexhaustible power source," Kakei mused, "perhaps a lava skimmer, or a solar rover. He's not afraid of losing fuel."
"And on our end, we spend most of our time on foot, because none of our terrain vehicles are geosynthetic." Shin stretched. "We're so smart. Where's your monkey with our tea?"
"Off making it. And please do not call him a monkey." Kakei paused thoughtfully. "I think I'll call him Ochanomizu..."1
Shin snorted. "Too long. I'll just call him 'Ugh.'"
A much-peeved and remarkably cleaned-up Ochanomizu set the tray down on the table between Shin and Kakei with a loud BANG. Any louder and the tray would have broken in half. Mysteriously, both teacups were still intact, and decently filled with perfectly brewed, aromatic Earl Grey.
While the caveman and Shin exchanged death glares, Kakei took his cup. The sweet smells of home escaped from the teacup and filled his nostrils, soothing his nerves almost instantly. Nothing could spoil this day.
"I told you that was a naughty word," he said dispassionately to Shin. Then he turned to their new companion and said with a nod, "Eep agu, Mizu."
"Ook," Ochanomizu (which is hard to type. So we're going with Mizu as well) replied curtly. With a final warning snarl to Shin, he threw his chin up, tossed his heavy, beribboned blond braid over his broad shoulders, and left straight-backed, pointed nose high in the air.
"Oh look," Shin pointed out, craning his neck to watch Mizu leave, "he even walks like you now."
"He learns simple things at an unbelievable speed," Kakei absently replied, as he was busy poring over printouts. "I daresay he has an extraordinarily advanced brain, for his species..."
"Sure, listen, can you make him stop wearing that ridiculous costume? It's bad enough that it's made of ruffles, but coming from your closet, it's two sizes too small."
"Would you suggest he adopt your ungainly denims, instead?"
The manly Shin was incredulous. "Are you seriously comparing denims to ruffles now? Ruffles?"
Kakei said acidly, "It is called lace. Besides - he likes the silks, and he likes them tight. Leave him be."
As Shin was inspecting his cup for traces of some primitive poison, Kakei's brow furrowed. He smoothed the pixellated map he was holding over their synthetic oak tea table.
"Look at this," he said to Shin. "There's a pattern to Eyeshield 21's movement. Five days ago, our instruments first spotted him at this plain, which is a relatively small meteor crash site - rich in nuclear emissions. Then we lost him, and a day later we found him again over here - a treasure trove of titanium ore. Three days ago we spotted him at this quarry. Now look at this..."
Kakei pointed to another spot on the map. "This is where he's been for the past two days. It's an active volcanic area, which means he's probably harnessing the geothermal energy of the place. If he's armed with a set of Maturation-era high-capacity cells, he doesn't need to stay there more than half a day... that is assuming he's only planning to collect enough energy to run a shelter."
"That means he's not building a shelter." Shin pulled his chair up close to Kakei's, so he could see the map better. "He's either building something massively destructive, or a way out of here."
"Using untainted, unrefined raw materials... and he's almost done, in just five days." The awe could not be disguised in Kakei's voice. It was only during these times that Shin remembered him sounding like the naive 18th century English-cosplaying youngster that he actually was. "As could be expected from the real Eyeshield 21."
It was one of the first things Kakei had ever told Shin, when they learned they may be stuck in each other's company for the long haul, and may kill each other if they did not understand each other from the get-go: Eyeshield 21 was known as one of the greatest men ever to travel through time. He was said to have thought up some of the most widely-recognized concepts for efficient time distortion - one of which was the controversial "magpie effect." This theory stated that it was possible for a time traveler to leave trace material that would not interfere with the linearity of a historical progression, so that he could jump back and forth between those trace items more precisely than standard-issue time machines were capable of... theoretically.
He was also the first to advocate that it was possible to change history for the better, that there were ways to get around the Chaos Theory. His first rule was simple: Don't step on no butterflies.
The succeeding postulates in his completely undocumented (and thus, severely questionable) proposal stated that a single time traveler can eradicate all major man-made disasters in linear history, if he or she would have the patience and skill to travel back and forth as many times as it takes to do and redo every world-changing event he or she has created - or prevented. Time will not collapse and time will not "go haywire," as long as the traveler keeps all conditions strictly controlled.
This theory was called "Playing God," and was the foundation of the idealism of the next generation of Global Ministry of Time [GMT] prodigies.
He was not a member of the GMT. A time traveler not affiliated with the GMT should have been caught and executed, but so elusive was he that not even the Time Watch could lay a hand on him. He was known as Eyeshield 21 because of his frameless 21st century OakleyTM 2 sunglasses, which wrapped around his eyes completely, thus hiding their true color. It was said that he seldom actually wore these fabled sunglasses, but he carried them with him as an ID in every era he visited.
His unofficial disciples (i.e. Dr. Kakei Shun, the enfant terrible of the GMT) had taken to calling it an "eyeshield" because it was large enough to resemble a tinted visor on an American football helmet. Eyeshield 21 himself did not come from the 21st century, and his real name and appearance were not known.
Since stories of Eyeshield 21 started coursing through the GMT, replica OakleyTM sunglasses had been made to depict the legendary eyewear. And of course, every young person who hero-worshipped the mysterious and migraneously elusive Eyeshield 21 just had to have a pair. Time travelers took to introducing themselves as "Eyeshield 21" and flashing the sunglasses at every opportunity, hoping to borrow the legend's reputation for fun and profit. It was not exactly a crime, so the Time Police did not go after the little pranksters, but all of it only served to further obscure the nature of the real Eyeshield 21.
As far as Kakei knew, he was the only one of his generation who did not actually carry around a replica OakleyTM. He wanted to meet the real Eyeshield 21 himself, prove without a shadow of a doubt that the man - or woman - existed, and slap it in the faces of his delusional poseur peers.
"Well, he might have been here longer than five days," Shin reminded him. "If we're going out to meet up with him, we shouldn't overwhelm him by sounding like we're members of his cult." He put down his untouched teacup and stood. "Let's go. We don't want to keep your hero waiting."
"Gaa?" Shin failed to notice that Mizu was standing nearby, one large hand on his waist and the other holding a book upside-down. Possibly aping Kakei in his pensive moments. Now, Mizu was eyeing them with a slightly panicked You're going? Don't leave me!! look. "E-eek mu packapacka?"
"E-eek mu," Kakei answered, standing. "Come on, Mizu, you're going to be our guide again."
Instantly, the caveman reverted from ridiculous Kakei clone to... well, caveman, jumping up and down, swaying his arms every which way and tearing silk with every move. The gothi-eccentric clothing that Kakei had lent him swiftly started to resemble the skins in which he had walked into the tollbooth, five days ago.
Kakei wasn't worried. Plenty more where that came from.
Shin, on the other hand, was worried that he would soon need new shoes. The caveman used all available limbs to clear a path for his companions. And those were not always the straightest of paths, or the widest.
Coming from a generation where very little actual walking had to be done on a daily basis, all this using of his two feet was starting to get on Shin's nerves.
1 - Remember Tetsuwan Atom's favorite professor? Yeah, that's his name.
2 - The author does not endorse and is not affiliated with Oakley(TM) eyewear. Although she would love to own a prescription M Frame Strike.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
This was the day, Kakei told himself. This was his destined day.
He didn't expect to feel like this. His heart was in his throat. His hands were cold. As they approached the camp where the real Eyeshield 21 was sure to be staying, his throat dried up and constricted. (It probably helped that they were approaching a volcano surrounded by a river of lava, but Kakei was aware nonetheless that most of the symptoms were psychological.)
He had just realized that he didn't know the first thing to say if he ever came face to face with Eyeshield 21.
"Kakei," Shin's voice came in through the haze.
"...Hm? Sorry, you were saying something?"
"This Eyeshield guy," Shin bothered to repeat, for it was obviously important. "How will you know if he's the real deal?"
Kakei's default answer was "the genuine OakleysTM," but he knew that would sound ridiculous to someone who never grew up in the GMT. With enough caution, any time traveler could purloin an original custom pair of 21st century sports sunglasses - it wasn't hard. It would just be tacky, since your peers could still recognize you through a quick scan of your unique Time Watch ID (TWID), which was imprinted on every time traveler's genetic code to counter the Morphail effect.1 (According to legend, the real Eyeshield 21 did not have or need a TWID, because he was born with the ability to resist the Morphail effect. This would not make him human, that wouldn't be such a surprise.)
And then, of course, there was the simple fact that taking something from an era meant throwing acid in the face of history. A careless traveler could spark an earlier Desolation just by horking eyewear.
"I haven't thought about it," Kakei admitted, determined to keep his cool. "I guess if he's the real Eyeshield 21, then he is - and if he isn't, then he isn't."
"Right. I was about to ask you if you wanted to bet on it."
"I'll win, you know," Kakei said quickly... dismayed that he didn't sound too convinced of it, himself.
Out of unforeseen camaraderie, perhaps, or even fondness, Shin spared a smile and said "Yeah, you probably will."
Kakei tried to smile back.
"Ummugu ACK!" Mizu cried ahead of them. All of a sudden the not-so-well-groomed caveman dressed in strips of Kakei's best silks lunged forward, stumbling and howling like a crazed animal, crashing into bushes and trees clearly without fear of immense bodily harm.
"Good boy, Mizu," Kakei muttered. But when it was time to pursue Mizu, it was Shin who went first.
Their target was crouched over a large canister set at the edge of a very, very slow-moving river of molten magma. In the face of a prehistoric inferno, he was wearing the barest of essentials: an all-weather undershirt, freeze protection gloves, and a pair of aluminized pants.
And a round helmet adorned with a large blue OakleyTM visor.
He must have heard Mizu approach, for Kakei and Shin burst into the scene just as he was turning and getting to his feet - reaching for a sonic tranquilizer rifle along the way.
But when the stranger spotted Mizu, he froze. He stood up without touching the rifle, and removed his helmet instead.
Kakei's breath caught in his throat.
Holy hell, he was gorgeous.
"Machi!" the new guy in the undershirt greeted, with a grin of pure delight. "Look at you! You're all cleaned up!" The caveman mirrored this grin, magnified around a dozen times, and he rushed forward to tackle the new guy in the undershirt almost into the fire river.
Surprisingly, the new guy could take the caveman's large build, slender though he was. The helmet fell off his hand and rolled toward Kakei, who picked it up with his fingertips, afraid to further soil its already very soiled surface. The helmet had certainly seen better days.
Mizu/Machi and the slim stranger exchanged ook-ook pleasantries for a while, rolling on the ground like brothers at play, as if they had known each other a whole lot longer than Mizu/Machi had known Kakei and Shin. Kakei stood dumbly with the helmet in his hands, his faux-Victorian upbringing debating with him over whether or not he had the right to interrupt this (literally) warm reunion.
"HEY!" Shin cried, ending the tussle in a heartbeat. "Parlez-vous civilized human, please!"
The stranger and Mizu/Machi blinked at him. Then the stranger disentangled himself from the caveman, with surprising grace and ease. He brushed much of the dust and muck from as much of himself as he could reach, before approaching Kakei and Shin.
"So that's what you went off to do, Machi? Pick up strays?" In reply, Mizu/Machi chattered on happily. In half a minute he had told the story of the box-like packapacka and its two weird inhabitants, who had come looking for someone like themselves. Mizu/Machi relayed that he thought they were friends of the stranger, so he tracked the stranger down until he found him again.
Kakei would have interpreted all this for Shin, but he was busy staring at the stranger's fair features.
"Welcome to the early Paleolithic," the stranger said. "Thanks for taking care of Machi. He can be a klutz without someone to hold on to."
The stranger extended his hand. Kakei lunged for it and trapped it in both his own. "I'm... I'm pleased to meet you. I'm Doctor Kakei."
Puzzlement. "Doctor who?"
"No, Doctor Kakei. Kakei Shun. I've been traveling all around time looking for the real Eyeshield 21."
"Oookay... I'm Akaba Hayato." He glanced over at Shin. "And I presume is this guy beside you the real Eyeshield 21?"
Disappointment crept over the glow on Kakei's face. Shin saw it. If he were any other person, he would have missed it, but he'd had to spend an uncounted number of days just watching that face cycle between emotions - disappointment was a familiar expression to him.
"This is... Shin Seijuurou," Kakei said in the same eager voice with which he had greeted the man who did not introduce himself as Eyeshield 21. "He's an agent of the Time Watch. He specializes in unauthorized wormholes, and what happens when time travelers, er -"
"Screw up." Shin removed the large screwdriver from his right back pocket, as if it were a badge of authority. "I'm what you'd call 'damage control.' And this man..." He pointed the screwdriver at Kakei. "...is the Chaos Theory on antidepressants and two legs."
"Aren't you supposed to be catching him and locking him up, then?" Akaba asked him, glancing over at Kakei. Kakei scrambled to intercept the question. Shin, on his part, just found it funny that Akaba did not ask about the antidepressants.
"Well, there were some... complications." Kakei cleared his throat. "Actually, this man first came into my time machine with every intention to apprehend me, for opening several wormholes without the knowledge or permission of the GMT. During our struggle (which was more of a quiet argument about the quality of 21st century American football, over tea) he managed to cripple my navigational systems. When this happened, we ah - "
"Our photon drive died and our coordinates got scrambled. We lost all contact with the GMT and the Time Watch." Shin wasn't shy about admitting it; it was his fault, anyway. "In short, we can't go home."
"But!" Kakei interjected. "Though the navigational systems were rendered irreparable, the detection systems were - quite curiously - fine-tuned. We could home in on the Time Watch IDs of other time travelers and use them as anchors, as it were, in order to keep from floating aimlessly through time."
"Ah, like that thing... what do you call it. The magpie effect?"
"Exactly!" Kakei crowed.
Akaba frowned. "I'm guessing that's how you found me?"
"Yes... an unrecognized TWID. Which could only mean one thing: it was not implanted artificially." Kakei took a deep breath. He was running out of air, trying to say everything all at once. "There could be no mistake. Only the real Eyeshield 21 would have it!"
"Well," Akaba chuckled. He had a melodic laugh, low and controlled like his voice. "I'm sorry, but you haven't found your Eyeshield person yet. I'm a pre-GMT freelancer. I presume you've heard of us?"
"I have." It was Shin who answered. "I've also heard they've gone insane and died off one by one."2
"Yep!" Akaba replied with unsettling cheerfulness. "Pre-GMT freelancers were given the right to refuse TWID assignments, although we lost the right to travel on our own devices. So we had to accept TWID assignments, or succumb to the Morphail effect, stop moving around and settle at the end of time." He chuckled again, shaking his head. "And if you've been to the end of time, I tell ya... it's a nice place to visit, not to live in."
Kakei was looking off to somewhere far away. Shin was no longer sure if he was still listening. Mizu/Machi sat idly poking at the canister Akaba had abandoned at the edge of the lava river.
"Since our bodies were already permanently warped by the medicines we took," Akaba continued, "we couldn't detox and undergo genetic redesign all at once - the process of implanting TWIDs was deadly to us. The Time Watch didn't care, because they all thought we were incurably out of our minds anyway. Those of us who could, fled the Time Watch, hopped up on conventional drugs - you know, the crude meds we made in our private basements, which were supposed to suppress the Morphail effect and molecular degradation in transit..."
"Yeah, we know all that," Shin interrupted irritably. "So why aren't you deformed and crazy or deformed and dead, like all the other pre-GMTers in our records?"
Akaba smiled mysteriously.
"What makes you think I'm not deformed and crazy?"
This time, it was Kakei who spoke, in lifeless monotone:
"Mutation. His body has adapted to the drugs and given itself the semblance of possessing a TWID. Now he's built an immunity to the drugs and he doesn't need them anymore. He can travel on any makeshift time machine, while his genes shield him from the Time Watch's anomaly sensors. At a glance, he does have a TWID, and it doesn't look any different from yours or mine."
Akaba winked at Kakei. "Touchdown," he said softly.
Desperation entered Kakei's voice. "But," he started to argue, "that doesn't mean you're not the real Eyeshield 21! Eyeshield 21 could be pre-GMT, nobody knows! All anyone really knows is that he carries around a real - a really real OakleyTM visor..."
Before Kakei could finish, Akaba took the helmet from Kakei's hands, and before his horrified eyes, broke off the visor. "Here." He waved the visor in front of Kakei's face. "Twelve ninety-nine on Ebay," he said, then dropped the visor into Kakei's empty hands.
If Kakei had been disappointed earlier, he looked absolutely crushed now. Shin watched him hoping for another change in facial expression, but there was none.
"No Machi, don't touch that," Akaba called out to their caveman friend, who was shaking the large canister, trying to figure out how come he couldn't make it tip over the edge. Akaba strode over to Mizu/Machi and gently pulled him to one side, began to patiently explain the concept of a lava river and how bad it would be if he fell in while trying to dislodge a heavy Maturation-era high-capacity energy cell.
Shin laid a hand on Kakei's shoulder. Kakei looked up at him, drawn from his reverie. But all he had to offer Shin was a weak smile.
When they looked over at Akaba, he was walking back to them. "Well, you came all this way," he was saying, "we might as well have coffee together or something. But this isn't a good place to talk. Since my time machine is still in the works, mind if I crash your place?"
1 - "...any person travelling back in time will be naturally 'pulled' back forward to the furthest future point in their personal timeline, and that any attempt to change the past will exacerbate the character's being forced back 'forward' in time." - also a fun little explanation of my username from the Wikipedia
2 - seriously, time travel drugs? sounds a bit trippy, doesn't it? glad i'm not a pro SF writer and i don't have to explain that :D~
Shin urged Kakei to take their time machine out of his pocket and unravel it at the nearest safe, dinosaur-free spot. Kakei did this all in a daze, and entered the tollbooth along with his companions in absolute silence.
Shin thought it wise not to provoke his companion into saying anything until he was ready. Which was, if he knew Kakei well enough, when he had finally poured some tea into his gullet.
As instructed, Mizu/Machi brought in a tray containing a pot of hot water and three small cups of of Earl Grey, and from the scent alone Kakei found himself easing up. He ruffled the caveman's now-unkempt blond hair in a gesture of thanks, and the caveman arched up against his hand happily.
Akaba, now out of the shiny lava wear and in skinny civvies, was impressed with the place. "Not quite gylplyx, but comfy and big. Is this standard GMT issue?"
Kakei shook his head. "I designed and built it myself. It's GMT-licensed, but not GMT-issued."
Akaba nodded slowly. "Can I ask you something?"
"Why does it look like a 20th century tollbooth on the outside?"
This was the question Shin never thought to ask Kakei, ever - it was probably because he had seen weirder designs in his travels. He sat quietly in his chair nursing his teacup, letting his more diplomatic companion handle most of the pleasantries.
Kakei cleared his throat. "I er... encountered a... technical error while I was programming the extramatter shield. It was supposed to be shaped like a 20th century police box, but it read the wrong movie tie-in. And er... it got stuck."
Akaba took a first sip of his tea. In the soft light of the tollbooth's spacious interior, Kakei could finally observe the man whom he had hoped would be the real Eyeshield 21. He was probably from the 25th century, or even later, judging from his unusual height, sharp features and light skeletal structure.
He had red hair that was cropped short at the nape and allowed to grow long in the front, so it could drape over his eyes. It was a 20th century glamour cut that Kakei was familiar with, and he knew it would not be so strange for 25th century Maturation natives.
He also had red eyes, which could well be genetic and, Kakei knew, could mean nothing if you were born post-Desolation.
"Can I ask you a question?" Kakei ventured.
Akaba looked over the edge of his teacup, scarlet eyes piercing without being hostile.
"Why do you call him Machi?" The freshly-reattired caveman at his feet looked up at Kakei at the mention of his second name. He flashed another happy doofus grin, which never failed to make Kakei smile as well.
"He makes a friggin' great macchiato," was the straightforward answer. "Ever tried to ask him for one?"
Even Shin raised his eyebrows. "No," Kakei replied. "We only drink tea here..."
Akaba chuckled. "He did say you were weird. All I ever taught him before now was how to make coffee. Unfortunately, he wandered off before he could learn anything other than what they serve in Starbucks."
Akaba proceeded to talk about how much he loved coffee. He loved coffee so much, he said, that he had to travel back in time just for a handful of pure, organically grown, ancient coffee beans from all over the world - all of which he would brew and consume on the spot.
That was what got him to prehistoric times, he confessed: he was shooting for 13th century Malacca. But he wasn't sure about the coordinates, since he only got the data off another time traveler, and he had to go by memory. He overshot by several eons and landed in the middle of a tar pit in the prehistoric era, and most definitely not in Malacca.
Luckily for him, that wasn't the first time it happened, so he knew how to pull himself out, and how to pull himself back together... though he knew it was going to take a while.
He appeared most of all to be a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan of coffee, which sank Kakei's spirits to even lower depths (surely the real Eyeshield 21 wasn't a regular coffee geek? Surely?). But he listened politely and let Akaba tell his tall tales of home-brewing and hobnobbing with the natives... who had no idea how influential their crop was going to be in shaping history.
And then Akaba talked about Mizu/Machi. "I found him trying to shake the fruits out of a hardwood tree he was too lazy to climb. He was the first human being I caught sight of. Apparently, he's from a nearby Pacific island, but he was shunned by his own tribe. And he uh. Swam most of the way here." All three time travelers stared at Mizu/Machi, who, at the moment, was keeping himself amused by braiding his long wiry hair into dreads.
"Swimming across an ocean," Kakei said incredulously, "instead of going over a land bridge?"
Akaba shrugged. "Amazing what a body can do with a broken heart, isn't it?"
It was a strange thing for him to say, and he said it so casually. When Kakei looked at him again, however, he had gone back to surveying the interior of the tollbooth.
"Know something - I can give fixing this a shot," Akaba said after a moment. "It still looks more functional than my own time machine... which I hesitate to show you kind folks because it's in a real bad way. Would you like me to...?"
"Yes, please, by all means!" Kakei stood. "I could show you the photon drive now, if you'd like..."
Shin sat up, wanting to object, but Akaba was already standing up as well. "You should know that if I were stupid enough to want to sabotage your machine," he said directly to Shin, "I'd probably be losing an easy ticket out of here."
"If you wanted to sabotage my machine," Kakei responded with a wry smile, "it would fry you to a crisp. It comes built with a personalized failsafe that doesn't take kindly to strangers... and when Shin wrecked the navigation systems, it only got meaner. Shall we?"
Akaba paused, and Shin thought he spotted a swallow of nervousness before he took on that eager smile again, and allowed Kakei to lead him off the bridge. Mizu/Machi followed his two best friends, and for the next several minutes Shin was left alone with his thoughts.
And with the broken-off blue visor lying on the table before him.
It would be a while before Shin could find time alone with Akaba. Most of the time Akaba would be with Kakei, swapping travel stories and teaching Mizu/Machi new things. Shin was starting to think of Mizu as the family pet (who hated him) while the gullible Kakei and the handsome newcomer played the unromantic mommy and daddy who'd been apart from each other for an intolerably long time.
But when Kakei was indisposed, Akaba headed off to the engine room to work on the photon drive. Now and then he brought in materials from his own time machine - which he still would not show anyone, and seemed to be taking apart piece by piece just to fix the tollbooth. He certainly seemed ready to sabotage someone's device...
Not even the engine room was off-limits to Shin, provided that he didn't touch anything in it. So Shin was able to follow Akaba and corner him, while the latter was poring over the set of blueprints Kakei had left him - which, of course, did not include instructions on how to disable the failsafe.
"I came here to ask you something," was Shin's greeting. Akaba, who was used to the stern youth's bluntness, simply nodded and waited for him to continue.
"What are you really doing in this era?"
Akaba looked up from the blueprints and met Shin's cold gaze.
"You pre-Desolation people never trust anyone, do you," he said softly, with a guileless smile. "I told you... 13th century Malacca. I mixed up the coordinates - "
"Answer the question, Eyeshield."
There was a long, tense silence. Akaba's gaze was steady and hard, and Shin wanted to crack just a bit under it, but he'd come this far in life just with death glares - he could take anything Pretty Boy had to throw.
Akaba caved first. "Look, this Eyeshield thing is getting old," he sighed, rubbing his tired crimson eyes. "That's all the good Doctor ever talks about. But I will give you this - you're right, I didn't come here by accident."
Shin blinked. He didn't expect it would be so easy to make him confess.
"What did you come here for, then?"
A corner of Akaba's lips rose. "If I told you I came here to step on a butterfly, would you believe me?"
Well, that certainly wasn't a conventional answer. "No," Shin said cautiously, "and I'd think you really are deformed and crazy."
Akaba chuckled. "I didn't mean that literally, of course." He looked back at the blueprints and for a moment, it seemed that he was determined to let the matter drop. But after a long pause, he continued:
"Shin... do you believe in predestination? Would you believe it if someone came up to you, and said that God has fixed everything that's ever happened in your life? I mean - what if God had made it so that Doctor Kakei Shun would be looking all over time for a legend, andyou would just happen to be the one Time Watch agent looking all over time for Doctor Kakei? What if it was fate that you two should meet, fate that you should total his navigation systems and end up here, fate that you should come across Machi - or Mizu, whatever - and in the end, meet up with me?"
"I'd say God has a sick sense of humor."
Akaba outright laughed, this time. But not the kind of laugh that said he'd just told a joke, and Shin had bought it completely. It wasn't even a malevolent I AM GOD, YOU FOOL laugh - it was merely the sound of an ordinary human being somewhat amused.
"Anyway," Shin continued, "it's not possible for a single entity to tamper so much with 'fate', without the Time Watch detecting the anomalies. Every instance that changes history leaves a trace..."
"I'm not talking about tampering," Akaba amiably interrupted. "I'm talking about an omnipresent, omniscient, omni-everything individual standing over time and space and pulling all the strings. That would be the very same individual who created the GMT and the Time Watch. The same individual who knew exactly when and how you would be born, what you're going to do with your life, and when and how you're going to die.
"If there were such an individual..." He looked at Shin, and there was a sudden, mysterious gleam in his eye. "I bet even your precious Eyeshield 21 would be a player in his puppet show. This one puppet would probably be different, he'd probably know what was going on - but he'd still perform. Because like everyone else, that's what he's wired to do. Except, unlike everyone else, he won't leave a trace. Not a footprint, not an echo... nothing at all."
"He'd have to be a ghost," Shin said firmly, "and ghosts don't exist."
Instead of answering, Akaba turned his gaze back to the blueprints. As Shin fumbled for something to say, Akaba turned and faced a control panel.
His quick, long fingers glided over the buttons, and when he was done he waited for a response. It came in the form of a soft but growing rumbling in the heart of the photon drive, and a portentous glow starting to build from the cylinder's core.
"I'd step back if I were you," Akaba told Shin. "Looks like whatever I was trying worked. Oh, and here." He reached into his pockets, and threw something lightweight over to Shin. "Put this on."
Shin stared. It was a pair of large, stylish sunglasses, with the OakleyTM icon prominently embossed on the frame.
Lost for words, he looked over at Akaba, who met his surprised stare with a mischievous grin. "And keep it," Akaba told him, before the rumbling grew loud enough to drown out any other sound. "I have more." And right after saying this he procured a different pair from theexact same pockets, just when Shin thought nothing else would fit in those jeans.
Akaba wore his OakleysTM first, and Shin followed his lead. He spared a moment to wonder if dark green-tinted lenses actually looked good on him. Well, he would have plenty of time to preen in private, after this whole ordeal was over.
The light emitted by the photon drive grew stronger. Soon it filled the room, as if to say BACK IN BUSINESS, BABY. It would have been too bright to see anything else - but protected by the signature shades over his eyes, Shin could still see the face of his companion, who was watching over his accomplishment not with surprise or elation, but with a small knowing smile.
Akaba walked out of the engine room still wearing his 21st century OakleysTM. Shin had discreetly hidden away his pair, lest Kakei start asking about it and/or asking for a pair of his own.
"What was that noise?" Kakei excitably greeted. He had rushed to the engine room in his silk pajamas, followed by a bleary-eyed, widely yawning Mizu/Machi who was still wondering what happened to his king-sized plushie. "Is that the photon drive? The navigation systems are back online?"
"Yep!" Akaba reported. "Not good as new, but ready to get us out of here as soon as you're - what?" He stopped and blinked at the way Kakei was staring. "Is there something on my face?"
"Nothing," Kakei replied. "It suits you."
It was a safe, predictably fashion-conscious thing to say. Akaba ducked his head as he pushed his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose.
"We're ready to go right now," Shin declared. "Akaba says he's found another time traveler to latch onto, name of Sasaki Koutarou. So get dressed, because we might end up getting lost again."
"Give me a minute," Kakei said, suddenly breathless. There were so many things to think about. "What... what about Mizu?"
"The monkey?" Shin said. Mizu/Machi hissed at him.
"We'll have to leave him." It was Kakei who said it. "He's not a time traveler. He doesn't have a TWID, he'll - "
"This person we're off to see," Akaba interjected, "is a former GMT scientist who used to work in the TWID labs. He was supposed to undergo a mindwipe when he was, er, fired... but he somehow managed to escape that. He might be able to help Machi."
"Lucky thing the instruments found him then, eh," Shin dryly muttered. Neither Akaba nor Kakei paid any attention to that remark.
"But what if he can't help? The trip is too risky. Stealing a caveman from his natural timeline isn't a joke. It's not just stepping on butterflies anymore." He shook his head. "No... no, he has to stay here. This is his place."
Kakei glanced at the caveman, who flashed him the first happy doofus grin he didn't feel like returning.
"Have you thought about what'll happen if you leave him?" Akaba challenged.
Kakei didn't answer. He looked over at Shin, who only stood looking back at him, stoically watching his face change expressions.
"I'll tell you what'll happen." Akaba folded his arms across his chest. "Other humans won't come and settle in this place for another 300 years, give or take. That's still a lot longer than Machi has left to live. When we leave, even after we've mindwiped him, he'll wander the Earth with vague dreams of future things - things he knows but can't understand. Like how to wear silks or make Earl Grey tea or work in Starbucks. If he decides to leave this area, no other tribe will welcome him, no other hominid will want to even be near him - he'll be cursed as a bad omen for as long as he's alive. He will die a tragic death in a natural disaster - but not before he goes insane with loneliness."
In the silence that followed, Mizu/Machi stepped up closer to Kakei. He didn't know what was going on, but he somehow felt like his motionless plushie was being emotionally traumatized by something. He took Kakei's hand and shook it once. "Ook," he called.
Kakei's only response was to hold the caveman's large hand tightly.
"Mizu's smarter than that," he said weakly to Akaba. "That won't have to happen to him..."
"How smart he is doesn't matter. He's a speck in the eye of time, Doctor," Akaba said coldly. "He washes off."
Shin stepped closer to Kakei. He cleared his throat and avoided everyone's gaze.
"Well," he all but mumbled, "guess we could use a few more hands onboard. Akaba can earn his keep, and the neanderthal can be I dunno, our own private barrista. He sleeps with you just like always and Akaba and I can share a bunk. What d'you say."
It was a long wormhole slide from early Paleolithic Tokyo to 10th century Baghdad, where the fugitive (and more than slightly eccentric, if Akaba was to be believed) ex-GMT scientist Sasaki Koutarou was currently hiding. The new residents of the tollbooth had plenty of time to get to know each other.
Even if no one ever brought it up, Kakei knew it was all too coincidental. It turned out that Akaba - who still nonchalantly denied being Eyeshield 21 - had gathered only enough raw materials to fix the tollbooth's ruined navigational systems, not to fix the time machine he purportedly owned but then supposedly abandoned to disintegrate in a local tar pit. That struck Kakei as somehow suspicious.
...Although the man's passion for coffee was turning out to be more and more believable. Mizu/Machi was kept busy learning what the terms "frappe" and "blended" and "java" meant, and these were his launchpad to learning how to speak what Shin called "civilized human."
Mizu/Machi and Shin still weren't buddies, but they got along well enough. Shin found the caveman a very quick study in physical training and martial arts, essentials for any member of the Time Watch. Soon enough he was already talking about taking Mizu/Machi back with him to be sworn into service.
"There's no reason for us to trust him completely," Shin said of Akaba, while the latter was plinking away at his indescribable 25th century stringed instrument. Somewhere at his feet, Mizu/Machi howled a baleful tune. "But he did fix the machine, and maybe he can help us find Eyeshield 21 before we head back to the Time Watch..."
"That can wait," Kakei declared. "We need to get Mizu a TWID, first. Then, maybe..."
Kakei pressed his lips tight into something that seemed like a smile. "Maybe we can stop looking."
Shin was about to say something about how he had dedicated the best years of his life to hunting down the elusive Eyeshield 21... and now he was simply giving up. But there was uncertainty in Kakei's voice, a tiredness beyond his years - perhaps even a hope that the hunt truly was over. Whenever Kakei glanced over at their red-haired, red-eyed passenger, a thoughtful look came upon him.
The most important thing was, the tollbooth was much less lonely. It was only when Kakei thought of the absence of these weirdos that he realized it never was enjoyable to travel through time alone. If it was all a coincidence, or if it was fate, or if it was something orchestrated by an extraordinary time traveler filled with unfathomable mischief, it was a good thing to have taken place.
Kakei never thought of it before, but perhaps something that the fabled Eyeshield 21 was rumored to have said was true: a time traveler could build a life around a series of happy accidents.