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Kings and Vagabonds

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                Something was squeezing Eiji's left arm. Then he felt a prick, like a needle.

                Blood tests first—the memory of Solaris's words hit him all at once. Had Foundation X gotten him? He opened his eyes suddenly. He didn't recognize the room.

                But his eyes settled on Date, sitting at his side and drawing blood from his arm. Date caught his gaze and grinned for a moment before turning serious.

                "You're in pretty bad shape," he admitted. "Trying to check your blood right now to see what else we can do."

                Eiji didn't understand, but Date removed the tourniquet and the needle, then taped a piece of cotton over the hole in his arm.

                "Don't worry about that now," he insisted. "The important thing now is that you're safe."

                That Eiji understood, and he closed his eyes again.

                The second time he remembered waking up, it was because Date's voice was calling his name. As he opened his eyes, his vision was blurred, though he realized quickly it was from tears. He tried to wipe them, but his left arm had an IV attached. His right was in a sling. He had to blink them away.

                "Nightmare?" Date asked.

                His expression said the crying had been a lot worse than a few tears. Eiji managed to wipe one side of his face into his good shoulder. Date reached over and helped him wipe the rest of his face with a tissue. "If it was, I don't remember."

                His throat felt sore, and his voice was hoarse, but he no longer felt feverish. Now that he was awake, he was beginning to feel everything—on top of the sling, a brace was on his right shoulder to help with the sprain. The wound on his chest hurt and was bandaged; he guessed the same was true for his back. The burn Ankh had left on his wrist was also bandaged.

                "The Medal," he realized, gasping. His chest hurt worse when he tried to breathe quickly.

                "Calm down," Date replied, handing him Ankh's Medal. "It's right here."

                Eiji breathed a sigh of relief, holding the Medal. When he didn't answer, Date said, "Interesting how you managed that. Wouldn't mind hearing the story—not now, of course," he added when Eiji got anxious again.

                "Where am I?" he asked.

                "Still in Germany," Date answered. "Kougami Foundation hospital. You've been out for days—this is the first time you've been lucid. We found you in the forest, already in a hospital gown. Which reminds me." He tossed over Eiji's passport. "That was lying on top of you, probably in case someone else found you."

                Eiji took the passport, feeling a tight sensation in his chest that had nothing to do with his injuries. When his friends tried to rekindle his desire for travel by helping him renew his passport, Chiyoko had let him use Cous Coussier as his permanent residence. As far as the Japanese government, and he, were concerned, that was home. Having it in his hands now was a physical reminder of just how far from home he'd been.

                But someone had written a note on the cover, and he read off, "'Thank you'?"

                "We didn't recognize the handwriting, so we figured it must have been Foundation X," Date reasoned. "There was a lot that should have been beyond our ability to fix, but by the time we got to you, you were out of danger. The stitches on your chest and back are smaller than I've ever seen—you'll still scar, but you'll have a better range of movement. And while you definitely had some trace poisons in you and elevated copper levels, someone applied chelation therapy..."

                "What?" Eiji asked, looking at him in confusion.

                "In short, they neutralized the toxins in your body," he explained. "Metal salts, especially. We've lowered your copper levels—maybe over-lowered them, actually—and mostly balanced out the acidity in your blood, but honestly, what we've mostly needed to do is monitor you."

                "It wasn't Foundation X," he argued. When Date raised an eyebrow, he admitted, "I don't know how to explain it."

                Date nodded, and Eiji went quiet. Solaris had to have been the one to write the note. Part of him wondered if she was okay, since she'd returned without him. Most of him never wanted to see her again.

                Those were thoughts he didn't want to dwell on, so he asked, "I thought you were in Turkey helping with war refugees. How did you get here?"

                "Well, for one, you were missing for almost a week," he pointed out. "At first, everyone thought Foundation X got you, but one of our time-traveling friends hijacked me onto the Crazy Train and explained you got sent back eight-hundred years." Eiji had to smile. Den-O had been looking out for him after all. "They couldn't say much about you getting home, but they told us where to look and when, and just what we'd need to treat you."

                That eased a lot of his fears. Disturbing as it was to consider how important a role he'd played in the past, at least there had always been a plan for after he fulfilled it. That was probably how he'd gotten treatment in the first place—the Kougami Foundation easily could have developed the technology necessary to save him in the future, and once he was out of danger, they sent him back forty or so years to his own time.

                But thinking on that brought to mind his other symptoms. Hesitantly, he asked, "This is going to sound strange, but what color are my eyes?"

                "Brown," Date answered. "And it's not as weird a question as you'd think. Like I said, when we did your blood tests at first, your copper levels were a little high. There's a genetic disease that causes copper deposition in the eyes as one of the symptoms because the body doesn't eliminate copper the way it's supposed to. You don't have the genes for it, and your liver doesn't seem to be building up too much of anything it shouldn't, but we managed to wrangle a slit lamp in here to check your eyes just to be sure nothing else was going on. Normal."

                Eiji nodded, quietly confessing, "When they poisoned me, all of the chemicals they used? My eyes turned gold."

                "Hey," Date warned. "You don't have to tell me all at once if you're not up to it. But you're going to tell someone at some point, understand? Right now, we're working on a few things at a time. The energy in your body is extremely low—your blood sugar, for one, and you were bad enough when we found you that I was worried about the mitochondria in your cells. Your blood is still a little too acidic—all of that we're trying to correct with the IV. We'll start you on foods we think you'll be able to keep down—and yes, we figured out about the nausea. It wasn't just coming out of one end." Eiji couldn't help but blush at that. "But I'm going to make a deal with you."

                He shouldn't have felt suspicious, but the fact that Date was offering any kind of deals when it came to his medical treatment gave him pause. "What kind of deal?"

                "You do the best you can at all of this—you rest when I say to, you don't push yourself too far, and you take care of all of the physical and psychological therapy you're given? And I'll overlook the fact that you're probably still not going to be able to walk in two weeks and let you go home."

                That tightness was back, and he had to squeeze the Medal in order to keep himself from crying suddenly.

                "Home?" he asked. "Two weeks?"

                "If you feel up to it," Date reminded him. "And if you do what I say. We're not going to make the same mistake with you your father did. If you don't think you're ready or if I don't think you're ready, you stay. But keep in mind, this includes some kind of psychological therapy—the Foundation's providing a therapist, and I think it's a good idea. We care too much about you to let you end up in the same situation as last time."

                No stigma this time. No talk about how it would reflect on the family. No ignoring his emotional wellbeing. Just an offer to listen and to find someone who would be able to help if they couldn't.

                "Thanks," he said, his voice barely above a whisper at this point.

                "Anything for my patients," Date promised. "Also, Chiyoko wants you to send her a list of your favorite foods once you're able to stomach solid food. They're throwing you a birthday party when you come home."

                Now, Eiji looked at him in confusion. "My birthday isn't for another month."

                Date grinned. "You think that's gonna stop the President from baking you a cake?"

                Eiji laughed. "I guess not."

                "That reminds me, actually," Date said, grabbing a shopping bag. "Picked up your present early. Had to ask Hina about the size."

                Eiji managed to take the bag and smiled when he pulled out the gift. "New underwear."

                "I figured, since it looks like you destroyed yours to keep Ankh's Medal safe, you probably needed a new pair."

                "Thanks," he replied. "But I had another pair."

                The smile was gone from Date's face now, and he said, "I went through your stuff myself, just to make sure nothing was stolen. A lot of it was damaged, probably from water, but you had your phone and charger, some papers, your notebook, the Super Medals and sword, the Driver, some really weird jewelry and cloth..."

                "My underwear wasn't there?" he asked.

                A very unsettling question filled the air, one they wouldn't ask:

                Just what did Solaris want with Eiji's underwear?

 

~~~

 

                Solaris had blacked out during the time rift. When she woke up, Eiji was lying on the ground in the forest, dressed in a hospital gown, his wounds stitched and bandaged. She gathered what little she needed and let him keep the notebook—the Kougami Foundation could have the small discoveries—then wrote a note on his passport and left it on his chest. She didn't know who the sentimentality was meant for—him or whomever had saved him.

                She tried to forget it happened. Sentimentality and the possibility of Lima syndrome were too dangerous in her line of work.

                She kept out of sight, pilfering necessities here and there from town until she reached the rendezvous point she'd established with Foundation X. When she got there, she found a woman standing by with a stopwatch, surrounded by guards.

                "You're late," the woman said.

                Neon Ulsland. Former overseer of research projects in Japan, related to the Gaia Memories and NEVER. Now, thanks to the restructuring in the wake of Kannagi's betrayal and the Riders' victories, she was on the board of supervisors.

                "They called you in," Solaris replied. "I must have gotten someone's attention."

                She didn't kid herself. There were armed guards everywhere, some keeping within sight to block any close attacks to Ulsland, and plenty waiting in the shadows.

                "You missed your appointed rendezvous time and never contacted anyone about rescheduling," Ulsland pointed out. "Now, you come back empty-handed."

                "Not empty-handed," Solaris replied, keeping her hands visible as she reached for a plastic bag. "Though, I am relieved you're here. It saves me the trouble of having to contact the board myself."

                Ulsland raised an eyebrow. "Unless you have Hino Eiji in that bag, I don't see how you're going to make up for your failure. This was your last chance to redeem yourself."

                "I don't have Hino," she insisted. "But I have something better."

                She handed the bag over to one of the security officers. He took one look at it and offered it to Ulsland.

                "Where did these Medals come from?" she asked.

                "From Hino himself," Solaris explained. "They were created using his life energy."

                Ulsland cautiously looked up from the Medals. "And what happened to him after?"

                "He's still alive, though I can't imagine how," she admitted. "Either way, his body is too weak to withstand any testing. I was forced to leave him."

                "A shame," Ulsland confessed. "We could have learned a lot, studying him."

                "There may be another way to study him, and these Medals," Solaris said, handing over a second bag.

                Ulsland looked at it in confusion, taking out a pair of underwear. But something was inside it, and she unwrapped it to find a black knife, completely coated in blood, the cloth around it just as bloodied.

                "Congratulations, Solaris," she said. "This should be more than enough genetic material for cloning processes." She offered a hand to shake. "Welcome back to Foundation X. We'll debrief you soon enough."

                "Thank you," Solaris replied, shaking.

                Maybe Eiji had been right all along. Maybe all you really did need to face tomorrow was a clean pair of underwear—clean enough not to contaminate the DNA sample, anyway.

 

~~~

 

                The first week was rough. A few days of bland, soft foods, warnings about a feeding tube if he couldn't keep it down, and the IV making up for lost nutrients and sugars. When Eiji's digestive system finally started working normally again, they slowly introduced solid food and removed the IV.

                He wasn't allowed out of bed until the start of the second week, and even then, he had to stay in a wheelchair. He had just enough energy to stand and take a few steps, but no stamina to speak of. He was able to go without the sling, which Date admitted was overkill anyway, but he had to keep wearing the brace.

                He had nightmares too. Less confusing than when he'd been sick, but still disturbing. But he talked about them now, mostly to Date; the therapist they'd arranged for him would be in Japan. He was still weak, still slept a lot, but Date felt he'd improved enough to send him home. Being with everyone, at least, would do him a lot more good.

                He already felt better when Satonaka picked them up at the airport, took one look at him in the wheelchair, and looked at Date. It was nice having people genuinely worried about him, after everything he'd been through.

                "I know how it looks," Date insisted, "but he's actually a lot better off than he was."

                "I feel better too," Eiji promised.

                Satonaka wasn't one to wear her emotions on her sleeve, but he could still tell she wasn't completely convinced, and he didn't blame her one bit.

                "I did get sick once, back at the airport in Frankfurt," he finally admitted. "Lunch was a little heavier than I expected."

                Date gave a sheepish look to Satonaka. "We tried. Made sure he got a lighter sandwich for the flight."

                "That's something," she had to admit.

                They started to load their bags into the back of the van she'd brought, and once those were in, Eiji braced himself and stood up to climb into his seat. To his relief, despite how worried Satonaka had seemed, she didn't try to help him when he didn't need it. Knowing that he could still do this much on his own was just as important as the rest of his therapy.

                Satonaka and Date loaded the wheelchair in, then took their seats in the front. Conversation was, thankfully, casual. Date talked a little about the situation in the refugee camps, and Eiji asked a lot of questions that he was happy to answer. Satonaka barely had any interest in that discussion and said that Date better have brought back one of the Thuringian sausages she liked; he had, but he wouldn't be able to pull out the box until they got settled in at Cous Coussier. Eiji threw in that he'd have to mention some of the different foods they'd had to Chiyoko in case she needed inspiration for another theme.

                It was the last hour open at Cous Coussier when they arrived, and this time, Eiji let them help him out of the van and into the wheelchair. Date grabbed their luggage while Satonaka got the door for Eiji to wheel himself in. He smiled the moment he saw the decorations and food. A Sudanese fair—Chiyoko had indeed been ready for him.

                "Eiji!"

                The cry and hug came from Chiyoko, who almost sent him rolling backwards as she greeted him. Enthusiastic, but gentle—she'd seen him beat up too many times to hug him too tightly.

                Some of the restaurant's regulars were cheering or getting up to see him, and he asked in embarrassment, "Did you tell everybody?"

                "Well, of course I did," she answered. "We're all happy to see you."

                Date and Satonaka started moving the luggage upstairs to the attic, and Chiyoko moved Eiji over to a table near the kitchen.

                "Is Hina here?" he asked.

                "She had something she had to finish up, so I had to give her the night off," she explained. "She's really sorry she's not here to see you, but she..."

                "It's okay," he insisted, smiling. It felt good being able to really smile again, to relax. "No one can help being busy."

                "You'll see everyone tomorrow," she promised. "But right now, are you hungry? I can get you some stew and flatbread..."

                Before Eiji could even answer, Date called down, "I don't care if you're going to bed after this—eat something!"

                He laughed slightly, from embarrassment. "I guess that answers the question."

                "I'll get you just a little," she agreed.

                Satonaka and Date came back downstairs, with Satonaka holding the box with her food and a locked box containing the armor pieces and crown.

                "You're sure you want to donate those to the Foundation?" Date asked.

                Eiji nodded, as Chiyoko brought him a plate of food. "Trust me, I'll feel a lot better when I don't have them around."

                They nodded, and Satonaka said, "We'll see if we can recover any of the data from your phone while we're at it. But next time, you can just let the research team take care of transport. They know how to protect everything better."

                "Wish I'd known that before we packed everything," Date said, helping himself to some of Eiji's food. "It was a nightmare trying to get those through customs."

                "You should have seen the trouble we had with Ankh's body," Satonaka answered.

                Eiji paused for a moment, trying to picture what would have happened with them transporting a box containing a mummified Greeed. "I don't think I want to know."

                "You really don't," she answered. "Anyway, I'll see you all tomorrow."

                "Bye," he said. "And thanks."

                She nodded and headed off. Date continued to mooch off of his food (which was fine because Eiji honestly couldn't eat much, and this was the traditional way they were supposed to eat anyway) and rattled off instructions for care, along with the schedules of who was going to be staying with him in case he needed help and when. Nothing intensive was scheduled for the next day, because of the party, so for now, he expected Eiji to relax and be ready to celebrate.

                He had to leave the wheelchair downstairs just to get up to the attic, but Date helped him into the room. He was too tired to bother trying to figure out how to handle the bath, and he went to bed while Date volunteered to help Chiyoko with cleanup.

                He dreamed of villages in the desert and castles in the forest, but this time, he did not cry.

 

~~~

 

                Sunlight streamed in through the window next to him, and for a moment, Eiji forgot where he was. He woke up startled—since they'd first learned about Foundation X's plans to kidnap him, he hadn't been allowed in windowed rooms, since they were a glaring security threat, and his room at the castle hadn't had any windows either. But when he saw his familiar surroundings, he calmed his breathing and focused on every physical stimulus in the room. He was home. He was safe.

                Chiyoko had cleared out the attic to make enough room for a fold-out bed for Date and to ensure there wasn't too much clutter around for Eiji to trip over. Date wasn't anywhere in sight, but his stuff was still around, so Eiji didn't worry much. He moved his legs to the edge of the bed and sat, waiting until he was completely calm before standing up, bracing himself the whole way. Belatedly, he realized the wheelchair was still downstairs, but if he was up and standing, then he could walk a bit. Each step timed with a breath, and he made it through the door.

                Making it through the room was easy enough. Quickly washing up in the bathroom went fine, and gave him a brief chance to rest. The stairs, on the other hand? He held onto the banister as tightly as he could manage and took the first step. Inhale. Next step down. Exhale. Inhale, right foot. Exhale, left foot. It wasn't as easy as it once had been. His balance was off, and he had to hold onto the banister with both hands as he started to shake from exertion. Finally, he had to sit, still leaning on the banister. He hadn't even made it halfway down.

                He could hear voices downstairs—Hina telling Date to hold still, Shingo asking Goto where something went, Chiyoko taking orders for breakfast.

                He tried to keep the shakiness out of his voice as he called down, "Can someone help? I'm on the stairs."

                He could hear things being dropped and Date swearing, "Damn it, Hino, you're supposed to call for help first!"

                "Sorry," he called down, trying to catch his breath.

                Goto and Shingo made it there first. Both looked worried when they saw him sitting there, but he gave a tired smile and insisted, "I'm okay. I just couldn't make it all the way. Had to sit down."

                Shingo was the first to recover from the shock—after all, he'd been there before. Smiling back, he said, "No problem. Goto, you take one side."

                Goto nodded, and they each took one of Eiji's arms. Very carefully, they reached behind him and helped him to his feet, then guided him down the stairs.

                "I've got the chair," Hina said.

                "Good," Shingo answered, and as she brought it around, they gently helped him sit.

                Eiji was a little...not quite afraid, but certainly uncomfortable, looking at them. Shingo had adjusted quickly, but there was still a hint of shock on Goto's face—he'd seen Eiji far more beat up than Shingo ever had, but never this bad. He could tell Hina was doing everything she could to keep from crying, and he'd never felt guiltier. He didn't even have the heart to look at Date.

                Finally, Hina found the strength to speak, her voice normal. "Welcome home."

                He tried for another smile, but he knew he wasn't fooling anyone. Still, he was completely honest when he answered, "It's good to be home," and the tension on everyone's faces started to ease.

                Hina turned him around, and he could see what they were setting up. The display table in the middle was decorated with plastic coins and stuffed animals of various birds, wild cats, bugs, large animals, and aquatic animals. The doll Maki had left to Chiyoko was dressed as BraKaWani while holding a sign that read, "Welcome home, Eiji!" It was weird how touched he felt by that.

                All around were photos of Eiji during his various travels: Chad, Sudan, Australia, Greenland, Thailand, Siberia, Venezuela, Mexico, and a photo from just a few weeks ago in Germany, before everything started. There were also pictures of him back in Japan, a few precious ones of him, Hina, and Ankh.

                When Eiji couldn't speak, Goto said, "Chiyoko and Hina put this together. They decided to throw an Eiji Fair—just celebrating you."

                "I..." he stammered. "Thank you."

                "Hina, can you take over for me?" Chiyoko asked. "I need to check on breakfast."

                "I'm sorry, I forgot!" she said, checking to make sure Eiji would be fine before dashing over toward Date, who was holding as still as possible in a sleeveless grey hoodie and black jeans that reminded him of SaGoZo. Grey, fingerless gloves finished the costume, and Hina put the last pin in place on the hoodie before taking it off Date.

                "Sorry," she said. "I'll sew this up really fast."

                "No problem," he replied. "I'm flattered you think I'm that muscular, though." She laughed and took the hoodie to a table, where a sewing machine had been set up. Date looked over at Eiji. "Hey. Sorry about snapping at you like that."

                Eiji shook his head. "It's okay. I should have asked for help."

                "More like I should have thought about making better arrangements for when you woke up," Date said. "It's only natural you'd want your independence, especially when you're trying to recover. I need to figure out a way to arrange for you to do what you can on your own."

                Chiyoko came out of the kitchen with a few plates and set them on a table. "You know, Shingo told me there should be plenty of room at his and Hina's apartment, if you want."

                Eiji looked at Shingo in surprise, and he explained, "We've got an elevator, so it's a little more accessible. There wouldn't be as much company, but..."

                Eiji smiled, but shook his head. "It's a little tricky right now, but I like it here. I think constantly being busy helps."

                "Well, make sure you rest too," Chiyoko warned, setting a cup of green tea in front of him. "Moroccan mint—let me know how it is."

                He took a sip. Sweet, but not overly so—the mint took care of most of it. "Good."

                She breathed a sigh of relief. "I didn't want to add as much sugar as the recipe usually calls for, since I was worried everyone would think it was too sweet..."

                "It's fine," he insisted.

                She smiled back. "We've still got plenty of time before the party starts, so eat up."

                "I will in a minute," Hina promised. "Almost done."

                As Eiji gave her and the costume a curious look, Goto whispered, "The costumes were her idea. Everyone's got one, based off one of your forms. With you coming home early, she's been rushing to finish them."

                "Don't start feeling guilty again," Date warned, skipping the tea and going straight to the food. "You need to be home, and you know it."

                "Finished," Hina said, and she came back over with the hoodie. "Here you go."

                "Thanks!" Date replied, grabbing it and shrugging it on. "Nice fit."

                "Thank you," she answered. Then, looking over at Eiji, she added, "I made one for you too. When you're done eating, I want to make sure it fits, if that's okay."

                "I can do it now," he offered. "I'm still kind of full from last night."

                "Are you sure?" she asked. He nodded. "Okay. Let me help you upstairs."

                She started to lift the chair, not noticing the horrified looks on everyone's faces. Nervous enough, Eiji insisted, "I think I'll be okay to walk. With help."

                "Okay," she replied.

                She helped him up the stairs, and he could hear Date whispering at the table, letting them know just how bad his condition had been when they'd first found him and how he'd worried they'd been too late to save him. He took a breath. It was going to be a long road ahead, and he was going to be worrying everyone along the way, but he was going to recover his full strength.

                "Are you okay?" Hina checked.

                "Actually, yeah," he answered.

                When they got into his room, he sat on the bed while she helped him change. She managed not to react when she saw the stitches on his chest and back, but she was careful around those injuries and his shoulder all the same.

                Black pants, run through with green lines. Black shirt underneath a loose, yellow shirt emblazoned with TaToBa's symbol. A light, red scarf.

                "You really got my style down," he admitted.

                "Well, I noticed you liked loose clothes, and especially after being in the hospital, I thought it might be more comfortable," she said, hemming his pant legs. "I was home yesterday finishing this."

                "You did a great job," he replied. "Thanks."

                "You're welcome," she answered. "But that's not your only present—I'll give it to you downstairs, after we've all changed."

                "Actually, I've got a present for you too," he admitted, reaching across the bed for a gift bag.

                Hina took the bag and found the silk—gold, now, with red scrollwork resembling feathers. "It's beautiful."

                He grinned. "A gift from me and Ankh." When she looked at him in shock, he promised, "I'll explain everything when everyone's here."

                She smiled back. "Okay. You wait here. I'm going to get dressed."

                He nodded as she headed toward the bathroom. It was going to hurt to talk about it all, but all healing hurt at first.

                Hina had really outdone herself with the costumes. Chiyoko's ShaUTa dress had light blue sashes for sleeves, much like the eel's arms, tentacle-like ribbons on a blue tutu, suction cup tights, and a small top hat with an orca on it. Goto's GataKiriBa costume was based off his old platoon gear—a tight, long-sleeved bright green shirt underneath a darker green flak vest decorated with a stag beetle's horns, and green camouflage cargo pants. Hina herself had opted for PuToTyra, with a purple ribbon atop her head that ended with wings like a pterosaur, a pinker-colored top with three studs on the sleeves to represent a triceratops, and the darker purple skirt had a long sash much like a tyrannosaurus's tail. Shingo, however, had dressed as TaJaDor: a necklace with a hawk pendant, red peacock-feather print on a black top, black pants ending in red outlines of talons. But the right sleeve was red, and the design of the talons had clearly been inspired by Ankh's hand.

                When he caught Eiji staring, Shingo explained, "We planned this a long time ago. If it upsets you..."

                Eiji shook his head with a grin. "I'm just surprised you didn't go all-out with the hair too."

                Shingo laughed. "I'd rather avoid doing to my hair what Ankh did."

                Satonaka and Kougami arrived a few hours later, toting a massive cake. Satonaka had a black denim jacket with a faux fur lining around the collar, a yellow mini-dress with tiger stripes, and cheetah-print leggings. Kougami, however, had a bright red blazer over a yellow shirt with a black tie and green slacks—perfectly and horrifyingly Super TaToBa.

                Eiji whispered to Hina, "You didn't have to design any of that, did you?" She shook her head. "I thought so."

                "Happy birthday, Hino Eiji!" Kougami bellowed.

                "Thanks, everyone," he answered. Looking around at everyone, he said, "Well...I guess we should start, right?"

                The food was a mix of things Eiji liked from all different countries, along with a couple of Hina's own specialties. Nobody called attention to his small portions or if he didn't finish something. Today wasn't the day to worry about him; they'd done enough of that already.

                They were starting on the cake when they had him open presents. A backpack from Chiyoko, who thought it would be easier for him to keep his research materials in when he was traveling. The Kougami Foundation gave him a bonus, already paid to one of his favorite charities long before he could protest he didn't need it. Satonaka replaced the bracelet he'd torn apart protecting Ankh's Medal and made it clear what would happen if he destroyed this one. Goto and Date contributed one of the Birth system's Medal dispenser bracelets, to make it easier when he needed to grab Medals in a hurry. He wasn't surprised at all when Shingo gave him the newest model of his broken phone—in fact, he cringed.

                "Sorry about breaking it," he apologized. At least it was grey, and not silver or gold like he'd seen from some of the new models; he wondered if maybe the DenLiner crew had tipped him off too.

                Shingo shook his head. "You were due for an upgrade anyway. I got you the 64 gig model, so you'll be able to store more on there. The camera's up to eight megapixels, and video at 1080..."

                "Uh, sorry," he interrupted, "I might be fluent in three languages, but I don't understand a word you just said."

                Shingo blinked, and Hina laughed, "That's just my tech geek of a brother. Open mine now."

                He took her box and found a notebook, designed by the same friend she'd gotten the Medal case from. "Thanks. I ran out of pages in my other one."

                "I figured," she said. "That one doesn't have lined pages, so if you need to draw anything, it'll be easier."

                He nodded, then reached for his old notebook. "About that..."

                He spread it open on the table, placing the pages he'd stolen from Gara there too. Some of the ink had run, but whoever had rescued him had been careful about drying them—most of the writing was still legible, and the pages of his notebook had been dried just so that most everything remained instead of bleeding together completely.

                "I don't understand most of it, but those are from Gara's lab," he explained. "I knew the Foundation didn't have them, so I figured there wasn't any harm in taking them. But..."

                They waited patiently for him to find the words to explain. He couldn't, so he turned to the drawings, purposely setting them against his earlier sketch of the castle. Despite the water damage, the difference in talent between them was obvious—in fact, the pen strokes of the later drawings blended together almost like it was intentional. Immediately, the silence turned to shock, and Chiyoko asked, "Did you draw these? They're beautiful."

                He nodded. "Each one of them is one of the children I met in the kingdom."

                "I didn't know you could draw like that," Goto admitted.

                "I can't," he said. "It's part of what happened to me."

                Hina picked out one picture among all the others and asked, "Eiji, is this..."

                He nodded. "The girl I couldn't save."

                Date looked critically at the drawing, picking up the difference in the strokes and trying to read what had been lost from the soaking. "It looks like..."

                "It's calligraphy," he admitted. "In Arabic. It's funny—I can't even remember her name, but I wanted to tell her story. Everything of it I knew."

                And slowly, he began to tell them everything—about the children, the alchemists, the experiment, and the King. About Ankh and Gerhild and Solaris. About the nightmares and the way he wasn't sure if he'd dreamed Ankh being with him while he recovered, and his suspicions he'd been sent forward in time for treatment. It was hard at first, and confusing, but the more he said, the easier it became, even the painful parts. No one said anything—they all seemed to realize that if he broke his flow just once, he'd never be able to get it out again. But when he was done, Hina and Chiyoko hugged him, and he felt just a little bit better. Satonaka, as always, was hard to read, but Kougami looked grim. Shingo and Goto both looked serious, and Date exhaled as he sat back.

                "Knew it had to be rough, but I didn't expect that," he admitted. "Explains a lot of your symptoms."

                "It probably would have been easier if it was a straightforward kidnapping," Eiji confessed.

                Satonaka picked up the notes he'd started scribbling in various languages, giving them looks of confusion—and this time, not just from the way the ink had run.

                "Sorry," he said. "I don't even remember what I wrote. I suddenly understood all these languages I never did before, and I guess that was me losing control."

                "We'll find someone who can translate it," she answered.

                Goto, however, flipped through his notes about the disappearing wildlife. "Local extinction event...I can't believe something like that was used to create the Medals."

                "A side-effect," Kougami explained, his voice unusually grave, "of a large desire running out of control."

                "We can't use that to create the new Medals, or to revive Ankh," Eiji pleaded. "He saved me, knowing it would cost him his chance at life again. He wouldn't want to come back if it meant others had to die."

                "That's not how he was," Shingo agreed.

                "We'll find some other way," Kougami promised, "but it sounds as though you still want something regarding this."

                "I do," he admitted. "I want to look into this, to keep researching in Thuringia—not now, of course, but sometime after I'm better. I think if I can confirm this, it won't just mean we can find another way to save Ankh—I think we might be able to find some way to save more people too."

                When he saw everyone smiling, he knew he'd allayed their fears for a while. Sure enough, Kougami replied, "Wonderful! I'll put together a team from the environmental sciences division to assist the archeology department. You put that desire to good use."

                And now, Eiji couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable. Seeing the look on his face, Hina asked, "What's wrong?"

                "Nothing," he said. But nobody believed him, so he added, "Well, it's just...the King was a lot like you."

                Kougami nodded. "I'm not surprised. Everything I've done in my life has been inspired by my ancestor."

                "And I guess..." he paused again, trying to put it in words. "Everything I did as OOO was different from the King. With everything Ankh told me about him, I didn't want to be like him. And with everything that happened to me, I let everyone fill me with their own desires, and he took advantage of that. Even when I knew that, he still...he was still too much like you. And like me too, in some ways."

                "Being similar doesn't make you like someone," Chiyoko warned.

                "I know," he said. "But it didn't make it any easier."

                "Eiji," Hina said cautiously, "what was the King's name?"

                He gave a one-sided shrug. "I don't know. Even in his own writing, he called himself OOO."

                "Isn't that your difference?" she asked. "He forgot himself in his desire—anything that was good in him eventually was lost to his greed. You've stayed the same."

                "I guess so," he said.

                She took his hand gently. "You know. We all do. Ankh did too. Otherwise, he never would have come back to help you, or stayed by you while you were hurt."

                She placed his hand on the cracked Medal for emphasis, and he closed his hand around it. Hina kept her hand on his, smiling gently, and finally, he did too. One way or another, everyone was there—everything he wanted and needed. He was going to be okay—as long as he had them, he could believe it.