The cake looked delicious--everything Umi baked did--but every time Hikaru brought her fork up she just ended up putting it back down again without taking a bite. She shook herself, knowing that it would only worry everyone if they caught her wasting food--much less cake--like this, but she just couldn't muster any enthusiasm. Then arms wrapped around her shoulders from behind, the subtle perfumes of Fuu and Umi wafting on the air, and it was too late to pretend nothing was wrong. They didn't ask, though, didn't say anything at all, just waited for Hikaru to be ready.
Hikaru didn't know what to say. The thoughts tumbling around in her head felt petty and ungrateful, but they weighed on her anyway. She had everything she'd wanted, everything they'd all worked for! Cefiro was recovering, Autozam was recovering, Eagle was awake and well, and the three of them had finally turned 20 and were free to choose how they wanted to live--and where. Earth was her world, the world she'd been born to and the world her family lived in, but Cefiro was where she'd met Lantis and Eagle, where so many of her dearest friends were, and she'd spent the last two years--since the end of high school--just going through the motions, convinced that as soon as she was free everything would fall into place and she could be with them all any time she wanted.
But that was kind of it, wasn't it? "I don't think I can stay here." It hurt to say it, but like a pulling-off-a-bandage kind of hurt. Every time they came to visit it was wonderful to be in Cefiro, but only as long as she stayed in the castle, as long as she didn't go out there, where people looked at her with hope and resentment in their eyes, wanting her to be their Pillar after all and take all the hard work of making Cefiro thrive off their shoulders again. The castle was a nice place for the length of a visit, but she felt like her dreams of really making Cefiro a home were crumbling in front of her every time they looked at her with those eyes.
Umi, of course, immediately puffed up and looked ready to explode at whoever or whatever had upset Hikaru, but Fuu hugged her a little harder and sighed. "It's always more complicated than we think it's going to be, isn't it?"
There wasn't much Hikaru could say to that, and she felt a little silly for having imagined that just getting older would somehow make everything simple and easy.
Lantis was in his favourite spot, eyes closed as the sun shone down on him through the leaves, but Hikaru could tell he wasn't actually napping today. He opened his eyes and looked down at her, smiling; his smile reached his eyes these days, or it did most of the time. The sadness of losing his brother and Princess wasn't gone, any more than Hikaru's was, but she thought he probably felt the same way she did--the grief was lighter, less oppressive, because they'd broken that system with their own hands and hearts.
Though it was nothing like that old sadness there was a shadow in his eyes today. It faded as he looked at her, and she felt her own worries loosen their grip and shrivel up in the light of his smile. She wondered if this was what love was like for everyone, or if it would fade with time. She'd asked Fuu once about how she felt when she was with Ferio, but Fuu had only blushed and changed the subject.
Since Lantis didn't seem inclined to come down, Hikaru climbed up to join him on the broad branch--she was pretty sure that if it could support one whole Lantis, an extra Hikaru's worth of weight wasn't going to be a problem. It felt as sturdy as solid ground under her feet, and she was able to find a spot to sit even with Lantis taking up as much space as he did.
He touched her cheek gently, and for a moment the look on his face made Hikaru think he might kiss her, but he only smiled again and let his hand fall away. That was okay--she didn't really mind if he kissed Eagle when she wasn't around, and she couldn't imagine Eagle minding if Lantis kissed her when they were alone, but what they had was so new that she couldn't be mad at Lantis needing to treat it like something precious and fragile. So until they were all together, Hikaru was plenty happy with little touches and hugs and gentle smiles. And, like he knew what she was thinking, Lantis said, "Eagle should be here by tomorrow. He had something he needed to finish up at home."
Tomorrow they would probably have to talk about the future and other uncomfortable things, but for now Hikaru settled against Lantis's side and let everything else fall away.
Still just a bit breathless from the enthusiastic welcome they'd given Eagle, Hikaru kept trying to pat her hair back into place, even though she knew it was hopeless until she got her hands on a brush or at least a comb. It was better than thinking too hard about the awkward silence that was filling the room now. Eagle's arrival had been everything she hoped for, but now she kept trying to find a way to start the conversation she didn't really want to have, and the words wouldn't come. Worse, she had the sinking feeling that Lantis and Eagle had their own things they needed to talk about and didn't really want to, so the atmosphere was increasingly uncomfortable for everyone.
Eagle broke the silence by asking how school had gone since the last time they saw each other, and then about what her summer break had been like so far. They had plans to celebrate her birthday again, together, but they wanted to know how it had gone celebrating with her family. Hikaru found it easy to get enthusiastic talking about that, and for a little while she felt like her old self. But as her story about Masaru and Kakeru making a scene in the ice cream shop started to wind down, Eagle's smile turned a little sad and regretful. "And now? What do you plan to do next?"
Hikaru felt her own smile falter, and she shook her head. "It's silly, I thought... I don't know why, but somehow I thought I could just keep on like nothing changed, except I'd be a grown-up so I could come here whenever I wanted." And then she told them about the people and that look in their eyes, and about the goals she'd had before ever coming to Cefiro and how naive they seemed now, and she realised she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life anymore. She wanted all the people she loved to be in her life, somehow, but it was getting harder to imagine what that would look like in the future. "We fought so hard for everyone to be happy, but what if not everyone can be happy at the same time? I guess that's what it means to grow up, but I don't like it."
Neither man said anything, at first, but Eagle bumped his head into Lantis's chin as they both moved to wrap their arms and cloaks around her, like they could cocoon her away from the world. And for just a minute, she let them.
"It's not just growing up." Lantis rubbed his chin as he spoke, until Eagle smiled apologetically and leaned in to kiss it. "Change is hard for everyone. I was a knight with nothing to guard, until I found my own purpose. And now that the pillar system is destroyed, most of the work is the same old things I was doing to fill my days before--hunting monsters, helping with the building where I can. I'm just drifting along again."
Someone sighed, or maybe all of them did, and Eagle spoke up next. "I'm in much the same position. I'm not a researcher. The work towards restoring Autozam started without me and can continue without my input, though they pretend to need me because I'm the president's son."
"And because of what you sacrificed for them," Hikaru insisted firmly. "They respect you, not just your father." Hikaru might not have met any of Eagle's people outside of Zazu and Geo, but she couldn't believe that they were blind to how much Eagle had done for them.
"Maybe so, but it's still pointless busywork. They don't know what to do with me when there's no war for me to fight." Eagle smiled and kissed Hikaru on the forehead, but his eyes were sadder than she'd seen them since before his long healing sleep.
Lantis pulled them both closer, burying his nose in Eagle's hair. When he spoke again he sounded less sad, less frustrated, and more thoughtful. "All three of us being at loose ends at the same time feels like more than coincidence."
Eyes closed, Eagle still somehow gave the impression that his gaze was locked on something distant that no one else could see. "I've been thinking, lately. The Creator left us this universe, trusted us with it. And the worlds that have come together so far have all learned so much from each other already. What if there are more worlds out there? More Roads, more things to learn?"
"Roads? Eagle..." Lantis had that look on his face that he got when one of his people was doing something he thought was too reckless.
"It wouldn't be like before. With all three of us working together we could make a Road without it draining any of us to excess." Eagle's words didn't completely erase the concern from Lantis's face, but Hikaru could see he was thinking about it. And when she thought about it...
It felt light something inside Hikaru lit up for the first time in... she couldn't remember how long. Excitement bubbled up, thinking about having something to do, something that might be different and new and mean something. And with Lantis and Eagle! Then she thought of Umi and Fuu and her brothers, and all the other people of Cefiro and Earth that she loved, and the glow dimmed a little. "It wouldn't be like going back and forth between Earth and Cefiro, would it?"
"No." Eagle brushed her hair back from her face, a little of his own eagerness draining out of his face. "We wouldn't know how far we might go, or how long it would take."
Hikaru wilted a little. Could she even do that? Leave her family for months--or more!--at a time? Leave Umi and Fuu? Or worse, would her friends worry so much they'd insist on coming, when they had things here that they needed and wanted to do? Fuu was going to marry Ferio someday, and be the Princess that Cefiro really needed--kind and compassionate and smart and practical. Umi had been starting to talk about going to pastry school and learning even more about baking, and bringing happiness to more than just her friends with her wonderful cakes.
Being with the people she loved--all the people she loved--had gotten Hikaru through everything life had thrown at her. But they were all moving forward, finding places they wanted to go and things they wanted to do and she wasn't. "Being together" wasn't a direction, and she needed to find one. "I want to go. I want to see everything and then come back and tell everyone all about it." Almost everyone. What she would tell her brothers... that was going to need more thought.
"We'd need a ship. Something smaller and easier to maintain than the NSX. Something we can take care of ourselves if necessary."
"I think I can make a case for funding for it. It will take time to build, but it can be done." Hikaru didn't doubt that Eagle was right--how could Autozam deny Eagle anything, after he brought them hope for a future?
Lantis looked at them both, lingering traces of a frown fighting with the excitement in his eyes. "This is really what you both want?"
Two voices answered, "Yes!"
"Then let's go see this universe the Creator left us."
Hikaru laughed and threw her arms around both men, her sudden movement energetic enough that they all went over into a pile on the floor.
It wasn't as easy as that, of course. Eagle was right that it took time to build the ship (and Hikaru was right that no one really tried hard to say no to Eagle--they started drawing up plans after the very first meeting). Once the construction started, Hikaru got to see Autozam for the first time. She spent her first days there learning how to use their technology; it was more like magic than she'd expected, and came pretty easily once she started thinking about it that way. It was as tiring as magic, too, and Hikaru was glad to get a better sense of the signs of overuse--Lantis was going to be watching Eagle closely, but now she could, too.
She also met Eagle's father. He'd been very stern and official and a little intimidating, but after the meeting was over and everyone else had left the room, he asked her to stay behind for a minute and he hugged her! He sounded a little choked up as he thanked her for saving his son. Hikaru hadn't really known what to do at first--he was the president of a whole world! But he cared so much about Eagle, all Hikaru could really do was hug him back and promise to keep taking care of his son.
There was a lot of hugging and crying going around, but Umi and Fuu seemed to be going a different route.
"What if you go somewhere super cold?" Umi added another winter coat to the pile of things Hikaru was supposed to somehow pack up and take with her. The pile was starting to teeter worryingly.
"Umi, there's two coats in there already. And some sweaters. She can only wear so many layers." That Fuu said that while sneaking a second sewing kit into the stack was especially funny to Hikaru. She didn't even know how to sew! She'd have to ask Fuu to teach her, before the time came to leave.
Hikaru braced the pile as it started to go over, and tried not to laugh. Her friends loved her and wanted her to be safe, and that was always a wonderful feeling. On the other hand, the Endeavour wasn't a big ship, and there wouldn't be any room in it for Lantis and Eagle at this rate--maybe not even room for her! There was still a month before they planned to leave, at least--lots of time to trim down the excess. "Maybe you should talk to Geo. I think he's in charge of supplies for the ship."
"Geo! What does he know about packing for a girl? I'll have to set him straight." Umi sniffed, trying to sound mad, but when she turned away to look at the pile her eyes were wet.
Eyeing the pile thoughtfully, Fuu admitted softly, "Maybe it is a little much. We'll get it sorted out with Geo."
Both of her friends were trying so hard not to cry, trying so hard to be happy and supportive, and Hikaru just felt overwhelmed for a moment. Then Umi pulled her and Fuu into a hug and asked, her voice wobbling only a little, "You're sure you'll be able to stay in touch?"
"When I take Eagle and Lantis to meet my brothers next week, Zazu is coming with us to get a look at how our computers work. He seemed pretty confident." Hikaru tried to sound more sure than she felt. She trusted Zazu, she really did! But she didn't think he totally understood just how different Earth technology was--she sure hadn't, until she saw Autozam for herself.
Fuu seemed to guess what Hikaru was thinking, because she gave her an extra squeeze and said, "I'll help him if he needs it. We'll figure it out before you go." And that made Hikaru really believe it would happen--Fuu and Zazu together could probably figure out just about anything.
They all fell silent, after that. She was really going. She missed them already.
Eagle looked right at home in the button-down shirt and slacks she'd picked out for him. Lantis, though, was standing so stiffly, the fabric pulled a little too tight across his shoulders. It had been hard to find anything that even came close to fitting him! Maybe she should have let him wear his clothes from Cefiro--not the armour, of course, just the turtleneck and trousers he wore under it--but it was too late now.
The crowded streets of Tokyo had bothered Lantis less than Hikaru had expected, but then she remembered that he'd spent time on Autozam, which was in some ways even worse.
They'd gone up Tokyo Tower--Eagle had wanted to see it up close, after the glimpse he got during their fight to become the Pillar. It was a clear day, and the view from the platform was just perfect. Eagle touched the glass carefully, looking out over Tokyo. "Such a huge city, and the sky is so clear. Autozam could be like this. Someday."
"I hope so." Hikaru tried not to think about Tokyo looking like Autozam someday, instead. There were problems with the environment here, too, but she had to believe that people were trying to fix them.
Looking out over Tokyo, Hikaru felt another pang. She still had a few weeks, but after that... when would she see this view again? "This is where it all started for us. We met here, and were taken to Cefiro..."
Lantis silently put a hand against her back--not a hug, not here, but the subtle touch was enough to steady her. Eagle looked back at them and smiled, reaching down to touch Hikaru's hair. "It's a beautiful place to start a journey."
"It is, isn't it." Hikaru remembered her excitement, back then. She'd never stopped loving this place, but it was nice to have a little of that innocent feeling come back--enjoying Tokyo Tower just because it was fun, and the view was awesome, and she was here with people she loved. They slowly made their way around the observation deck, and she pointed out some of the fun places they could go down in the city. There wasn't enough time to show them everything--if she had a lifetime to do it she still couldn't show them everything in Tokyo--but she was starting to get excited about giving it a good try.
The sun started to set and Hikaru wanted to show Eagle and Lantis the city lights, but it was time to go home.
"Masaru and Kakeru can be a little dramatic. They're really great big brothers! But don't take the yelling and crying too seriously." Hikaru was frozen with her hand on the door, but neither Lantis nor Eagle pushed her to hurry up and go in. They also didn't point out that she'd told them about her brothers lots of times before. She liked to think maybe they were as nervous as she was, but they were probably just humouring her.
The door slid open and Masaru leaned out, ruffling Hikaru's hair. "You're back! Whatcha standing out here waiting for? Dinner's already on the table. Hey, do you know why Satoru set two extra... places..." He looked up, and saw Eagle. And then up some more, and saw Lantis. "Who are these guys?" His eyes narrowed suspiciously, and he grabbed her arm like he was going to pull her inside and slam the door.
"These are my friends!" Hikaru was pretty sure Masaru wasn't ready for 'these are my boyfriends.' "This is Eagle, and this is Lantis."
Masaru still kind of looked like he wanted to slam the door in their faces, so Hikaru stepped aside to let them in the house first. Lantis had to duck to get in the door, so Eagle distracted Masaru with a gentle smile and "You must be Masaru. Hikaru's told us all about you."
"She hasn't told us anything about you," Masaru muttered darkly. But it was hard to stay too hostile when Eagle was smiling at you, so he took a step back to let them in.
Dinner was delicious and a lot less awkward than Hikaru had thought it would be. Masaru and Kakeru were fuming, but Satoru made polite conversation. When it came to the "what do you two do for a living" question, it went shockingly well!
Eagle said, "I'm a pilot."
Lantis said, "I'm in law enforcement."
Someone--probably Fuu--must have coached them, because Hikaru sure hadn't thought to. Of all the things she was worried about when she imagined Lantis and Eagle meeting her family, that question hadn't even crossed her mind.
The question she had worried about was "How did you meet our Hikaru?" But Eagle distracted everyone with a story about Zazu and some creative repairs he made to a coffee maker, and then it was time to clean up, so the question never got asked. Eagle offered to help Hikaru with the dishes, which left Lantis alone with her brothers. By the time she got back out there, though, Masaru and Kakeru were just off in a corner amping each other up about how they could totally beat Lantis, and Satoru was discussing different sword techniques with him.
Both men smiled at her when she came into the room, but there was a serious look in Satoru's eyes. "It's wonderful to meet more of your friends, but I think there's more to this visit than that, isn't there?"
Hikaru knelt across from Satoru, Lantis to one side and Eagle to the other. "Satoru..."
Satoru smiled again, and put his hand on the top of her head. "Didn't I tell you, you have to make your own decisions in life? Whatever it is, I'm sure you've thought about it long and hard."
Tears sprang to her eyes, and Hikaru nodded. "I have! I really have! Eagle's and Lantis's homelands are rebuilding after some really tough times, and I want to do something to help them. But it means I'll be going away, maybe for a long time..."
"What?!" Hikaru hadn't thought Masaru or Kakeru were listening, but as soon as she said that they dashed over and pulled her away from Lantis and Eagle. "You can't leave with these... these brutes!"
Kakeru had tears in his eyes as he demanded to know if they had threatened her, was that why she was talking about leaving? How dare they!
Lantis's eye twitched, just a little, but Hikaru thought probably only she and Eagle knew him well enough to know how funny he found her brothers right now. Well, she had warned him.
"You know I love you all." Hikaru hugged Masaru and Kakeru hard, wanting to cry a little, herself. "But I have to grow up some time, right?"
"Do not." Kakeru muttered into her hair.
She could have stayed like that forever. She had the best brothers. But Satoru eventually shooed Masaru and Kakeru off so that they could talk properly. (They didn't go far, though--she could see their silhouettes lurking just on the other side of the shoji, ears pressed to the paper).
"This has been on your mind for a long time." Satoru didn't make it a question, and Hikaru couldn't blame him--she'd done okay in University, because it wasn't in her not to try her best, but she'd been thinking all along that it was temporary, something to keep her busy until she was an adult. She hadn't even looked at registering for a third year. It was probably pretty obvious to Satoru that something was up.
Sighing, Satoru sat back on his heels and looked hard at Lantis and Eagle. "I don't know either of you well enough to trust you with my little sister." Then he looked at Hikaru and his frown softened. "But I don't need to trust them. I trust you."
"Satoru!" Hikaru leapt on her brother, who caught her easily and pulled her into a hug. She heard crying from the other side of the shoji, and then it slid open and her other brothers were piling on the hugs.
The command deck of the NSX was littered with books and printed out diagrams, plus the guts of at least one computer; another computer was intact and it and a portable battery of some kind were wired into the ship. In the middle of it all sat Zazu, looking like a kid in a candy shop. "I can't believe these machines can do so much without any mental interface at all!" He waved the keyboard at the battery like it was a revelation. "It's all machine language and electricity, and once you know how you can tell the machine to do just about anything and it doesn't tire you out at all!"
Hikaru crouched down beside him, looking at the screen of the intact computer, but whatever he was doing it was too complicated for her. "We don't have ships like this, though. Autozam is pretty amazing."
Zazu nodded absently, "Oh, yeah. This stuff is pretty primitive in that sense. I'm just thinking maybe we can incorporate some of these ideas for the more basic, day to day stuff we do. We don't need a full interface for everything, we already use inputs like this, but maybe we can copy the power source."
"Can you make it so I can e-mail home?" Hikaru had thought that was what Zazu was looking into, but it seemed like he'd gotten sidetracked. It sounded like a good idea, though, and anything that made life better for the people of Autozam was a good thing.
"Huh? Oh, that. Yeah I figured that out days ago. Depending how far you go there could be a time delay. A day or two tops, round trip." Zazu didn't even look up from the screen when Hikaru hugged him. She could still talk to the people she was leaving behind!
Compared to the NSX, the Endeavour was much smaller, but it still seemed huge to Hikaru. There were bedrooms for all of them, with storage for personal items and narrow beds that could be secured if weird things happened to the artificial gravity. There was also a room just off the bridge with a much bigger bed, which was supposed to be for them to rest after they opened a Road. That was what Eagle had told the people drawing up the plans, anyway, and maybe sometimes they would use it that way.
Everything was very compact but there were lots of rooms. A kitchen, with high-tech Autozam machines and a few Earth tools that made it feel almost homey. There was a cake in the fridge, just sitting there beside all the fruits and vegetables and preserved things Hikaru couldn't identify. Umi had even written 'Bon Voyage' on the top in frosting, and the sight of it made Hikaru tear up all over again.
The computer room was where Hikaru felt Fuu's touch the most. Tucked in between all the fancy things that made the ship run was Hikaru's little desktop; the wallpaper was set to show a slideshow of her family and all her friends from Cefiro. There were even little post-its stuck to the monitor frame reminding Hikaru to e-mail often, and wear a sweater when it got cold.
There was an exercise room, full of machines Hikaru didn't really recognise, but tucked off in a corner was a miniature version of the dojo from home. Eagle came up behind her while she was staring at it, snagging an arm around her shoulders. "Do you like it?"
"It's amazing! There's even a replica of great-grandfather's sword!" Hikaru toed off her boots, the metal of the deck cool under her feet for a moment before she stepped up onto the polished wood of the dojo floor.
"That's not a replica." The door hissed shut behind Lantis, and he moved to wait at the edge of the dojo with Eagle.
Eyes wide, Hikaru dashed across the smooth wooden floor to get a closer look. There was a note pinned under the sword stand, and she opened it with shaking hands.
I trust you to take care of yourself. But you're still my little sister and I trust you more with this in your hands. Don't let anyone push you around, and come home safe.
"Ready?" Lantis held a hand out to each of them, and Hikaru squared her shoulders and took it.
Standing on the command deck, Hikaru heard the hum of machines and the quiet sounds of the final checks, but all her attention was on their linked hands. The three of them formed a triangle, just as she and Umi and Fuu always had when they traveled the Road from Earth to Cefiro. This time, though, she wasn't reaching out for an old, familiar path, but for a bright new place none of them had ever seen before. All of the readings and tests from Autozam marked it as a likely place to start, and she felt the picture of it forming in her mind's eye.
"Opening the Road in 3... 2..." Eagle's voice came over the ship's speakers, but Hikaru thought she heard an echo of it inside her head, too. "1... and go!"
Lantis's and Eagle's hearts connected with hers, and the Road shimmered into life ahead of them. The world blinked, and their ship leapt ahead, down the Road they'd charted for it. To the ends of the universe, with the men she loved.