The sun shone over Yamanouchi. The darkness that had threatened to engulf the world was gone...for now...and for those responsible for making sure that the sun would rise for another generation it had been a costly victory. They had joined the ranks of all those young people who had sacrificed so much so that those who would follow in their footsteps would not have to. Their youth long behind them, they would never be the same.
Hoshi stood on the wall overlooking the valley. She'd forgotten how peaceful this place could be. All the days she spent training, sparring, and meditating at Yamanouchi and the one thing she missed most was the tranquility of watching the sunrise. She used to get up every morning like every student to prepare herself for the day's instruction, but always just before class she would stand on the wall and watch the sun come up. Each day brought with it the promise of something new; a renewal that washed away the grim of yesterday's mistakes. It reminded her that no matter how bad things seemed, there would always be tomorrow.
How naive she had been, she thought. They almost didn't have a tomorrow. It's amazing how fragile this peace truly was. Hoshi used to believe there was a routine to life, that no matter what changed the sun would always be there the following morning. It wasn't until now that she realized the sun didn't have to come up. If certain forces had their way, the world would be cast into total darkness, sweeping away the light like some malevolent broom. The world had no idea how close it had come to oblivion. Nothing was certain, Hoshi realized, and this epiphany made her look at the world with new criticism.
Her optimism waned to the point where she couldn't think of anything to alleviate the mood she and her friends had returned from battle. The whole of Yamanouchi came out to meet them. Fearing they were invaders attacking from a stealth ship, the students and faculty were armed to the teeth, but when Hirotaka stepped out they immediately lowered their weapons. Addressing Master Sensei first, he announced that they had wounded on board and Sensei had them taken to see the healers. Her wounds were only superficial, but Sensei had the healers look at her too. Hoshi did not like being examined like some incapable child but she was in no disposition to defy them. In truth, she was tired. This mission had taken its toll on Hoshi and for once in her life the ninja for hire kept her mouth shut, closed her eyes, and slept.
It had been an uneasy sleep.
Waking up the next day, Hoshi decided to check up on her friends but found them lost in their own contemplations. Kim Possible remained by Ron's side during his recovery. She never left the room they shared save for when she had to use the restroom. Ron's tiny animal companion, Rufus, was recuperating nicely and he too was adamant about staying with Ron. As for the Chosen One, Ron Stoppable was getting better every day. He wasn't happy unless he was complaining about something. Only the company of his best friend and girlfriend could he stomach being under house arrest for the remainder of their stay.
Hiro, meanwhile, had been briefing Master Sensei on everything that happened. Sensei was pleased to see Yori's brothers, Yusuke and Takashi, having been reunited with their little sister. Their meeting was somber, though, and as each brother aided Hiro in the recounting of their tale. It eventually overshadowed the exultation of their return.
Hoshi had been there during the debriefing. Surprising herself as much as she did Hiro, who would from time to time look at her to say something or to add any detail he may have missed, by remaining silent. Hoshi was one to alleviate the mood, to make light of their predicament, or to poke fun at a given situation. She wasn't feeling very happy. True she didn't know Kenji or Kimiko that well, but their loss had affected her almost as much as it did the Ishimura children. They should have been happy after defeating the demons and saving the world. Instead, Hoshi was content with just being a fly on the wall.
There was only one person on both their minds and she hadn't been seen since their arrival. It's not that she'd disappeared; Hoshi knew exactly where to find her, but the fact was that she did not want to be disturbed. Yori had not left her room in three days. She did not want to see anyone, not even her brothers whom she'd been reunited with just days earlier. It was so unlike Yori, and yet Hoshi could feel sympathetic for her. Losing her father and her big sister at the same time was a blow unlike anything the kunoichi had experienced. No sword, no weapon of any kind could inflict the kind of pain that this ordeal had dealt her. Hoshi tried to visit her once. She stood outside Yori's door, unsure of what she wanted to say. Hoshi knew that Yori knew she was there. If Yori wanted to see her then she would invite her in. She didn't. Hoshi remained at that door for what seemed like hours though it had only been minutes. Knowing she wanted to be alone, Hoshi left and hadn't been back since.
Outside the dorm rooms, Hirotaka was waiting for her to come out. He was reclining against one of the beams that supported the roof of the portico rooftop, arms crossed over his chest, eyes looking forward. They hadn't had a chance to talk since they got back and in truth, Hoshi was looking forward to that chance but could not bring herself to say the first words.
Unless Hiro said anything, Hoshi would just walk pass like she didn't even see him.
"How are you?" The question was so unexpected that Hoshi stopped mid-stride. How was she doing? Hiro knew exactly how she felt? She knew because despite his casual exterior, he was feeling the same way. He didn't look at her when he spoke either, which Hoshi took as a cue that she was meant to carry this conversation along. Hiro had opened the door. Now it was time for her to step through it.
"Fine," she answered. It was a false statement. That was because Hoshi had put the ball in Hiro's court. She wanted him to ask her more questions, to help her pry open this box that had become her repressed emotions so that she could stop feeling so burdened. Hoshi was not used to feeling this way. She didn't know how to handle herself around others without sounding cocky or arrogant. Loners developed this persona.
She waited for him to say something. Hirotaka had donned the traditional white gi used for training. Sensei had permitted him time off to recover from his ordeal, but Hiro was never one to lie on his laurels and he was back to training like nothing had ever happened. Hoshi knew it was his way of coping with what happened. If he stayed in bed or just talked to somebody about what he was feeling, it would drive him mad. Hiro was strong and proud and in many ways the same loner that Hoshi was. Since he couldn't talk to Yori in her self-imposed incarceration, nor did he know the Ishimura brothers well enough to reveal his feelings and Kim and Ron just wanted to be alone, that only left Hoshi.
"You should continue your training," Hiro went on to say. "Never know when the next battle might come."
Hoshi looked at him in disbelief.
"Lounging around was never your style, Hoshi. You should return to Yamanouchi. I think you would be welcome here."
Scoffing, Hoshi looked down at herself as if Hiro were talking about another person and not her. She was wearing civilian clothes: blue sweatpants, a white sleeveless shirt and white sneakers. Naturally she removed the latter whenever she entered a building. It was her own choice not to don the outfits of Yamanouchi because to do so would be to make the wrong statement. Hoshi had no intention of coming back; hence she would not wear the proverbial school colors. She was her own ninja now, free to do what she wanted.
But it was not Hiro's statement that ruffled her feathers. She just didn't like the callous tone he had taken with her. They were comrades at arms who fought side by side. Hoshi would even admit, if only to herself, that she liked Hiro as more than a partner. One would think they had learned to sense what the other was thinking.
Then it hit her that maybe she wasn't the only one that needed to open up.
"I'm not coming back."
"Shame." He still didn't look at her. "You had such promise."
"Excuse me? I know what I'm capable of. I kicked your butt when we last met in case you forgot." There. Challenging his manhood would hopefully get a stir out of the boy. She wasn't going to let him off that easy.
Hiro did not take the bait. "Strength is nothing without wisdom. You mistake victory for skill."
Puffing out her cheeks, which might have made Hiro smile were he looking at her, Hoshi clenched her fists and said, "Don't get all Sensei on me, brush head! I was fighting bad guys while you were still learning how to wield a sword."
"So what are your plans?"
"My plans?" The question caught her off guard. She expected Hiro to go on ridiculing her past decisions, to lecture her. "I don't have any plans."
"And in there lies the problem." Hiro stood up straight. "This mission has taught me a lot about the people I've fought beside."
"And what did you learn about me?" She challenged.
"Nothing." Hiro walked away. Pausing just slightly, he looked over his shoulder and said, "And everything." Then he was gone.
She had not seen Hiro since yesterday. She played back their conversation over and over in her head. What did he mean "nothing" and "everything?" She thought about confronting him about it but he had become too engrossed in his training to care about anything else. Hoshi watched him from afar. There was time, not long ago, when Hiro would enjoy trading barbs with her. It had become a sort of bonding between them. Now as much as she wanted to go over to him, Hoshi found herself being repelled by a force she did not recognize.
How she wished she could talk with Yori. Her brothers had become as reclusive as she did. Takashi spent almost every minute of everyday making repairs to the Kurunai. She admired his dedication, but also knew that it was his way of dealing with the loss of Kimiko and Kenji. At least his methods were productive. Yusuke was so lost that he became a ticking time bomb. It turns out he got into a fight with senior student over a discretion involving the best way to take down a larger opponent. Yusuke criticized the student's technique, calling him an amateur. He demonstrated the proper way to overcome an enemy by using the student as an example. This end up hurting the boy and his friends had rushed to his side. Yusuke vented the only way he knew how, by fighting. He proved to be more than a match for the seniors though by the time one of the instructors came along and reprimanded him for disturbing the class, Yusuke was already stumbling, looking for something to hit. Sensei had to step in and ordered the Ishimura to be grounded for fear that he might cause bodily harm to himself or to one of his students.
Of all the warriors, Kim and Ron seemed the most unaffected by the turn of events. However, their time spent in the company of Miss Tique had stolen some of their innocence. The physical wounds would recover, but the mental wounds of being tortured and helpless would stay with them for a long time. Hoshi remembered waking up one night to Ron's screams. He was begging Miss Tique to stop and Kim had to physically restrain him before he fell out of bed. Ron woke up in a sweat, recoiling from Kim as if she had turned into that despicable woman. Hoshi would rush in wanting to help, but seeing Ron wrapped in Kim's arms, consoling him, whispering soft things into his ear, she knew he was in good hands. She wasn't needed there.
With everyone either busy or sulking, Hoshi was left to herself. It's amazing, she thought. Here she was surrounded by friends and allies and she was still alone.
It was the late morning when she felt someone's presence behind her. Hoshi turned around as was instinct, fists at the ready, but found no enemy. Instead, she met with Sensei's wizened old eyes looking back at her from underneath a wrinkled brow. "Always on alert, I see."
It wasn't a good feeling knowing someone was able to sneak up on her without her knowing; even worse considering it was an old man. Then she reminded herself who it was that taught her now to sneak in the first place. Ancient as he was, Master Sensei was a legend in martial arts circles. All her instincts, all her training stemmed from his teachings. Was it really a surprise that she didn't know he was there until that moment?
Hoshi relaxed. "I was wondering when you'd speak to me...alone." She turned back to the view. The little villages spread out in the valley had no idea the protection granted them by Yamanouchi. It was probably better that way. Better to live in ignorance of the horrors of the outside world than to know what was lurking in the dark. "So were you satisfied with Hiro's story?"
Despite her lack of formality, Sensei showed no sign of insult. He joined Hoshi on the wall, his hands neatly folded beneath the sleeves of his robe. "He was quite explicit during the torture sequence inside the tanker. Are you sure you are feeling better?"
"I'm not as delicate as he is."
"It is the not the physical injuries that concern me."
Knowing where he was going, Hoshi sighed. "I'm fine."
"You are one who is used to being in control. Trapped there inside the tanker with no means of escape, you were at the complete mercy of this Miss Tique woman. Were it not for Yori's untimely arrival, I daresay you would be having much the same nightmares as Ron Stoppable."
She became sad. "Will he get better?"
"It is not an easy thing, to lose one's innocence. The Chosen One has faced many dangers in his adventures with Kim Possible. Sometimes it is easy to forget that they are so young." He turned to her. "Ron is strong, but enduring what he had to go through will stay with him for many years to come. From what Hirotaka explained, his torture was the worst."
"Miss Tique used him to get Kim to talk. She thought her presence meant that outsiders were coming to interfere with Saito's plan."
"Kim Possible will carry that guilt with her. She will blame herself with what happened to Ron."
"But it wasn't her fault."
"I'm afraid she will not see it that way." Sensei looked back at the view.
"She's not the only one who likes to take all the blame." Hoshi sat herself down on the ledge, one foot dangling over the outside of the wall and the other inside that that she was saddling up. Still looking away from Sensei, Hoshi said, "Yori's locked herself up in her room. I think she blames herself for what happened back on the island."
"It is not like her to wallow in self pity."
"You don't know what she's been through."
"Oh?" Sensei inclined his head to one side.
"What Yori had to do to save the world...I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
"It sounds like you two have formed a kinship with one another."
"We're friends if that's what you're implying. She's the toughest girl I've ever met, and I've seen myself in the mirror." A smile crept on her face. "I'd fight with Yori any day, anywhere, and against anyone."
"I'm impressed," Sensei began, "but not surprised by your statement. This was as much your mission as it was hers."
It took her a while to put all the pieces together but these last few days, Hoshi had nothing but time to think. "When you first contacted me, I almost didn't reply. I put Yamanouchi behind me years ago and I don't like looking back. Pairing up with Yori's brothers at the time seemed like a step up from what I'd been doing up until then."
"Her brothers had a goal, a purpose; these were things you were sorely lacking."
Hoshi brought her outside leg up to her chest and hugged it. "You wanted me to pair up with Yori because you knew we could help each other. She needed a level head to keep her from making mistakes-not that she listened half the time."
Sensei chuckled. "Indeed. That incident at the Nakasumi building must have been quite trying on your part. I have made sure Nakasumi-san was well aware of your contribution towards his release. Expect a hefty sum coming your way."
Hoshi said nothing.
"You were saying something about needs, Hoshi. What did you need from Yori?"
"A second chance."
"To do what's right." She blew out a sigh. "I've done a lot of selfish things with the skills I learned. Meeting Yusuke and Takashi helped put me on track, but it was Yori who taught me what a real ninja is. She's so damned honorable. Stubborn and narrow-minded. I don't know how Hiro put up with her half the time."
Sensei chuckled again.
"But she's something else. I've never known anyone like her. How can anyone carry so much weight on their shoulders and still find time to smile, to help her friends, and to put her life on the line for others?"
"I believe you already know the answer."
Hoshi glanced at him. With a sly smirk she added, "How did you know where to find me?"
"I always keep track of my students."
"But I stopped being a student when I left Yamanouchi."
"Yamanouchi was always a part of you, even if you did not realize it. Besides," he looked at her. "I had to make sure you stayed out of trouble."
"So you've been spying on me all these years?"
"I prefer to think of it as keeping an eye on a future asset."
"So I'm just a resource to be exploited, huh?"
Sensei looked away. "No, Hoshi. You are, and always have been, far more than that."
There was a long pause.
"Okay. One thing I have to know is WHY did you send Hirotaka along?"
"To keep an eye on you two."
Hoshi almost fell off the wall. "Keep an eye on us?"
"But of course. You both are proud and equally stubborn women. That is always a recipe for disaster."
"So you thought we needed to be babysat?"
"I thought you needed help. Hirotaka has proven to be calm and disciplined in the face of adversity. For Yori, who would have to come face to face with her past; and you, who was used to working by herself, he seemed the perfect candidate."
"And what about Kimiko?" Hoshi's voice turned serious, even menacing. "Did her psychological profile ever fit into your plan?"
"Kimiko would appear and disappear from time to time. I kept as close an eye on her as I could before she vanished completely over five years ago. I knew how much she meant to Kenji and Yuriko and felt it my duty to help her. My duties here kept me from searching for her myself. Had she known that Yamanouchi was looking for her, she'd have gone deeper underground."
"So you kept an eye on Saito instead. You know that Kimiko was watching him as well as soon as he made a move..."
"Kimiko would reveal herself. No doubt she'd try to contact Yamanouchi. By then you were my most reliable agent and I knew I could trust you to bring her message to me."
"Which is why you kept me in the dark about Yori's brothers until the last minute."
"They were wanted men by the Yakuza. I could not risk exposing them to harm."
"Yet you let adolescents face the Yakuza and an army of demons by themselves; that includes the brothers you were trying to protect." She swung both her legs over the outside of the wall, turning her back on Master Sensei. "You could have sent the entire school to help us. We could have used the help."
"A smaller force had a greater chance of success than large one. If the fate of Saito's forces were any indication, an attack by Yamanouchi on the youma palace would have proved devastating. Our losses would have been incalculable."
"What about alumni? They have skills and resources the students don't."
"To lose them would seriously hamper our other operations throughout the world." She could feel Sensei's eyes boring into her back. "Did you know that while you were fighting the demons, we had other operatives prevent a doomsday cult from releasing a virus in Sendai?" Hoshi looked over her shoulder. "One of our most senior alumni lost his life bringing down an operation that involved the trafficking of underage children as slaves in Indonesia. Two more prevented an international incident that might have thrown us into World War Three in the Kashmiri Desert. We are spread thin enough as it is. Any help we could have sent would not have been substantial enough to ensure your victory."
Sensei lowered his gaze. "Still, it pains me to know of Kimiko's fate. She was a wonderful girl, and I imagine an incredible woman."
"Yeah...I think she was."
The two gazed in silence as a mountain wind blew up from the valley below. It was a magnificent view.
"You should see Yori before you leave," Sensei said and walked away. "She will want to see you one last time."
Hoshi remained at the wall well into the afternoon. She had a lot think about.
Hoshi was not the only one with much to think on. Yori sat in silent meditation with her legs tucked underneath her. She placed her hands on her knees, back straight, eyes closed, and just concentrated on her breathing. A small candle burned in front of her. She had not left her room for three days and her sweat permeated the air. Yori had been fasting, which meant she had not eaten anything for seventy-two hours.
Isolating herself like this had given the kunoichi time to reflect. It's not like she didn't mourn the loss of her loved ones. Yori had cried herself to sleep her first night home. The outpouring of emotion made her realize that she had yet to complete her mission. The enemy was defeated and the world saved, but there was still one task left to the adamant warrior. There was still one foe left unconquered.
Even with all her discipline it took a great deal not to keel over from exhaustion. Yori was tired, hungry, and had yet to fully rest. She'd slept less than ten hours from the time they returned and her eyelids felt heavier than any weapon she ever held. The concentration involved in remaining awake was draining her reserves even more but still she fought off sleep. The combination of sleep-deprivation and hunger had pushed her over the edge. Now Yori was seeing and hearing things that she'd never have noticed otherwise.
This state of near-delusion was exactly what Yori had been hoping for. She wasn't trying to punish herself on purpose, only to achieve a higher state of consciousness. In this state, her body felt lighter, as if flying. The room had changed; she realized this without opening her eyes. She could feel a change in temperature, the currents of the air, and most vividly, the very chi that constituted the fabric of the universe.
A bird chirped nearby. The scent of grass so pure invigorated her tired body. There was warmth here uncommon anywhere on Earth. It was the purest source of heat, the one that came not from an outside heat source or a heavenly body; this originated from the purity of harmony. There were no shadows here. There was no darkness. There was no imbalance or lacking; no inadequacies of any kind. It was the closest thing to Enlightenment she had ever achieved.
Someone was there with her. Someone she knew very well. "Greetings, Kimiko."
This person sat beside her and Yori opened her eyes, carefully, for fear that what she sensed might disappear before she saw it. It didn't. The garden was the most beautiful thing she could imagine. Yori knew much of its design stemmed from her own personal interpretations of what nirvana was. There was no one definition as expressed in the Western Creator-based religions. Nirvana was a state of being, a stasis of absolute harmony with oneself and the environment. Yori always pictured it would be a garden. She filled it with a variety of flowers of every conceivable color.
Even with all the heavenly splendor displayed before her, Yori's attention was fixed on the person beside her. She looked with joyous eyes at the woman who was the same...and yet different. Kimiko wore a simple two-piece white robe with no shoes. Her hair was loose, leaving the strands to run free in the wind. There was a look of absolute tranquility on her face, as if all was right with the world. Feeling a bit envious, Yori wondered what happened to the negative-minded, sharp-tongued beauty she had come to know as her big sister? She knew that deep down in her heart, this was the woman Kimiko would have become had she not turned into an assassin. She was beautiful beyond words and her eyes sparkled like ebony embers.
"Hey, Yori. Long time no see." There was no hint of sarcasm in her voice. All traces of cynicism were gone.
"It has been three days."
At that, the former assassin's eyes widened. "That's all? Hm. Time really flies around here." Sitting in the same meditative stance as Yori, Kimiko greeted her with a smile. "How are you?"
The question left Yori speechless.
"I'm sorry. I mean, it feels like years since we last saw each other. I've had time to move on." Kimiko placed her hand on Yori's. "Yori...do you hate me for what I did?"
To that she said, "No." Then she grew sad. "What you did was the most selfless thing I have ever witnessed. But what I wonder is...why did you have to die?" Kimiko could see her fighting back the tears. "Was your death and that of our father the only way to defeat Akuyasha?'
"When your loved ones are in danger you do not think of the consequences of your action. All you know is that you have to act."
"But was it the right course of action."
Touching her chin, Kimiko said, "Seeing you, I'm convinced it was the right thing to do."
But Yori pulled away.
Kimiko sighed and scratched the back of her head. "I was never really good at these pep talks. Usually I had to smack Yusuke around for him to get to listen to me. Takashi was better but the boy was always so damned gullible."
"They are taking it really hard. Your death, I mean. Takashi hasn't stopped working on the ship since we've arrived. He heard the entire conversation we had while in the belly of the beast. He knew what you did before we escaped. I think he is angry with himself for not being there. He probably believes that his presence could have made a difference; that you and father did not have to die."
"Takashi's place is never on a battlefield. He's a smart kid. Brilliant, even. He'll soon realize that him being there wouldn't have changed anything." Kimiko forwent the meditation stance and hugged one knee to her chest. "How's Yusuke?"
"Getting into fights at school."
"Already? Boy doesn't waste any time."
"He's really angry. He almost hurt one of the senior students during a practice session."
"That's our brother."
"Do not make light of this, Kimiko. We are all grieving in our own way. I only envy my brothers for they knew you far longer than I have." She heard Kimiko chuckle and turned to look at her. "What is so funny?"
"Yori, in the short time we've spent together, we grew closer than most people do in their entire lives. We could have been twins, you and I." She fell silent a moment. "But then again, I always felt a kinship with you from the moment you were born. You knew me in ways our brothers couldn't have."
"Because we're the same gender?"
"Because we're comrades at arms." Kimiko raised her gaze to the sky. It was night and the stars were out. "It was so exciting to fight you the first time."
"A far less enjoyable experience for me." Yori's brow furrowed.
But Kimiko continued as if she hadn't heard her. "But the moment we escaped the Yakuza when we were being held on that platform in the woods, I felt like I had a purpose. It was to help you flee to fight another day. Then we raided the tanker together. We took on some bad guys, killed a few demons, and then laid siege to the youma stronghold itself. I felt that same feeling when Kenji and I were battling the Yakuza in our early days. Fighting evil to protect the ones we love. Things never felt so right since then. I didn't think I know what it was to fight the good fight again. But you, Yori," Her smile eased Yori's frown. "Made me feel right again. I can never repay you for that."
"Just as long as you do not plan to become intimate with me."
Kimiko burst out laughing. It was not Yori's intent for the kunoichi could only gawk at her outburst. "I am serious. You could have left out that part about you and father." Just thinking about it made her shiver.
Once her mirth subsided, Kimiko brushed back a tear. "Fortunately we're not blood so no taboos were broken. Say..." Looking at Yori, Kimiko flexed her eyebrows up and down. "How freaky do you usually get in your dreams?"
This made the older woman laugh even harder. Yori did not appreciate it. This was supposed to be a serious encounter and Kimiko was turning it hentai fanboy's wet dream. Thank the gods Takashi wasn't around to see this.
Half rolling on the ground, Kimiko managed to sit up and say, "I'm kidding. You're so damn serious."
"Just like your mother."
Both women looked up to see Kenji standing before them. Like Kimiko he wore the splendid white gi and his smile was brighter than any star in the sky.
Kimiko nudged her. "What wrong with you? Go say hi."
"Your body's stinking up a room somewhere. It's not going to wake up because your spirit decided to stand. Go."
At Kimiko's insistence, which was hardly needed as the girl was halfway up anyway, Yori got up and ran into her father's arms. Kenji embraced her and Kimiko could not stop the tears from falling freely now. This was the first time father and daughter were able to meet in this fashion. Eighteen years of separation. One would think they had not seen each other for far longer.
Her martial discipline gave way and Yori was no more than the daughter of Kenji. She was crying, holding onto her dad like he was her lifeline in a raging sea. Burying her face into his chest, Yori's sobs wracked her body. "I miss you so much."
"I miss you too." Kenji spotted Kimiko by herself and motioned for her to come closer. Kimiko shook her head, indicating that this was a moment long in the making and she dare not come between them.
"I can't believe I finally find you only to lose you once more."
Kenji moved her away just slightly. He would have held her forever if he could. "You never lost me. I chose to leave to make sure you were safe. You, Yusuke, Takashi, Kimiko; you were all I had left."
"But why didn't you come back for us? Why did you fight alone for so long?"
"I wanted to make sure Saito could never find you. I thought I could bring that monster down all by myself. That was my plan." He looked at Kimiko. "Your big sister was the only thing that kept me sane for all those years. Without her, I'd have become the monster you fought in that palace long before I ever met Akuyasha."
Kimiko stood up.
"But I'm not here to dwell on the past, Yori. I came here to speak with you one last time."
"Last...time?" Her face asked "why?"
"You cannot live your life in the past. That's what I did and it almost cost me my soul. Kimiko's as well. You and your brothers have a future now. That's what we fought for. It's what we died for. Do not waste it wondering about missed possibilities. You have a gift, Yori. You and everyone you know. You are that gift. The greatest thing I have ever had the pleasure of creating." He pulled her in again. This time his embrace was even stronger. "I am so proud of you."
Those words were the greatest compliment Yori had ever received. She thanked him by hugging him even harder.
Sniffs filled the air and they both looked back to find Kimiko trying to hide her tears. Yori wiped away some of her own. "Why Kimiko, are you crying?"
She shook her head. "No."
Kenji laughed. "Come, Kimiko. I am very proud of you too."
At that, Kimiko rushed to join the group hug. It was a touching moment for all of them but there was still one person missing.
"Yori." Kenji said as he and Kimiko stepped away. "There is someone here we want you to meet." Like parting waves, the two of them separated. Yori looked down toward a tree where a lone figure sat wearing a magnificent white kimono that was brighter than the greatest pearl. Her long, dark hair was a brilliant onyx and she had skin softer than silk. Turning to her, Yuriko's face beamed.
"M-Mother?" Yori could hardly speak.
"Hello, Yori." She spread her arms, bidding her to come. "My beautiful daughter."
"Mom!" Yori rushed to her. Kimiko and Kenji watched in silent joy as mother and daughter were finally reunited.
Hirotaka was on his way to Yori's room when to his surprise, and delight, he found Hoshi approaching the other way. They stopped halfway between them, neither of them making a move until they heard a thump emanating from the room. Unsure of what to make of it, the two of them rushed to Yori's door with Hoshi being the first one there. She opened the door and found Yori passed out on the floor.
"Yori!" Both she and Hiro exclaimed as they rushed to her side. Even in the dark they could see how pale she looked. She smelled of day-old sweat and her hair was matted to her head as was the rest of her clothing to her body. Lifting her head up gently, Hirotaka lowered his ear to her breast.
"She is still breathing," Hiro answered Hoshi's unfinished question. "Though she is very weak." He sat up. "We should get her to the healer as soon as possible." Hiro swung his arm beneath her legs and the other one around her back. Picking her up bridal-style, he proceeded to walk her out the room. Hoshi followed suit but paused at the doorway just long enough to watch the candle burn out. Taking it as a bad sign, she went after Hiro.
"Where are you going?" Hoshi asked when she noticed that Hiro was taking the long way around to the medical ward. "We can just cut across through the courtyard."
"People are still training. I do not want anyone seeing Yori in this condition." They'd left the dorm room behind them and circled around the dojo. It was when they came upon the statue of Toshimaru that Hiro stopped to consider Hoshi. "Go tell Master Sensei of what has happened. Have him come to the medical ward. Quickly, Hoshi!" He left her at the foot of the statue, making haste with all the stealth he could muster while carrying his wounded companion. His concern for Yori's safety touched Hoshi. It also had her asking herself uncomfortable questions. Nevertheless, she did as he asked and sought out Master Sensei in his quarters.
"Enter Hoshi." He had spoken from behind the door before she had even announced herself. Formality and respect for one's teacher demanded she kneel before opening the door with her head bowed, but Hoshi was never one for protocol. Besides, she was too on edge. Hoshi threw open the door and rushed in. "Master Sensei!"
Sitting in meditation on the balcony with a view of the valley beneath him, Sensei had his back to her. Without opening his eyes he spoke. "It is Yori." His voice was calm, as if he already knew what she was about to say.
Stopping dead in her tracks, Hoshi asked, "How..."
"The day something happens in my school without my knowing is the day you should worry." Sensei stood up, turned, and folded his hands before him. "Let us see her."
If Hoshi was shocked by his seemingly omnipresent attitude, she was even more impressed by how casually he walked out of the room. If he knew of Yori's condition then why wasn't he running? She fell in step with Sensei as they made their way out into the courtyard. It was evening now and most students were finishing their evening meals prior to late-night meditations. Those cleaning the yard stopped what they were doing to bow to Master Sensei. Hoshi remembered how intimidated she was when she first met the master. How can such a man, who was old even then, command such respect from others? Her freelance years had taught her that there were few things others respected more than fear or power. True respect was the most elusive outlook of all and yet Sensei commanded it in droves. She humbled and even unworthy to be walking behind him.
Passing the Kurunai, Hoshi spotted Takashi still busily working on the vessel. When he spotted them, he motioned for Hoshi's attention. "What is it?" He seemed to know it concerned before Hoshi ever opened her mouth.
That was all he needed to hear and Takashi abandoned the repairs to fall in step behind Hoshi and Sensei. They reached the medical ward and found Yori being tended to by the healer. Hirotaka was standing attentively at a respectable distance to allow the healer to do her duties. He looked away when they arrived. "Master." Hiro bowed. "We found Yori passed out in her room."
"I see." Without another word, the master approached the bed. "How is she?" He asked the healer.
A short woman with graying hair, the healer regarded Sensei with a brief bow as she was too busy tending her patient. "She is weak but stable." Placing a wet clothe on her head, the healer stood up. "She hasn't eaten in days and, I would guess, has been fighting off sleep. Her body is simply exhausted."
"But why?" Hoshi asked. "Why would she do this to herself?"
Hiro remained silent.
Takashi did not. He rushed to her side, nearly knocking over the healer in the process. "Yori? Yori, say something." He fell to his knees which, with his considerable girth, reverberated around the room. "It's me, Takashi. I'm here." He took her hand in his and fought the urge to cry.
"Be calm, young one. She is only deprived of rest and food. She is not dying." But Sensei's words were lost on the distraught man who couldn't stand seeing someone he loved in this state. Sensei placed his hand on his thick shoulder and said, "Your concern for your sister is admirable, but a needles display of affection will not help her."
But Takashi had buried his head into Yori's shoulder.
"I'm sorry...but I can't help it." He looked up, his watering. "I've lost my mother, my father, and my big sister. I've only just found Yori and I can't stand to see her like this. Looking at her now, sleeping, it reminds me so much of mom." He choked up. "She looked so peaceful when dad laid her to rest."
Finally understanding, Sensei squeezed his shoulder. "I understand, Takashi. But Yori will recover. She just needs rest."
"And food," the healer said. "I'll see to that. Poor girl will be starving by the time she wakes up." She left the room.
Turning to regard Hirotaka and Hoshi, Sensei asked them, "Will you see about Yusuke. I expect Yori will want to see both her brothers when she awakens."
Not understanding, he elaborated. "Trust me."
They left the room together. Entering the quad, Hoshi stopped just a few feet behind Hiro. "What is it?" he asked without looking back.
"Do you know what's going on with Yori?"
"She is a private woman, not one to talk to anyone about her feelings."
Hiro said nothing.
Hoshi circled around, confronting him. "But you're her best friend. How can she not talk to you?"
"It is just how she is."
"Don't give me that, Hiro. Yori loves you."
The statement gave them both pause.
Backing down just slightly, Hoshi spoke softly. "She does, you know. I see it in her."
Surprisingly, and to her embarrassment, Hiro smiled. "Are you jealous, Hoshi?"
"Don't start that again!" she snapped. "I'm only saying..."
He put a finger to her lips to silence her.
"Hoshi, Yori and I are comrades...who are not love." He removed the finger. "That is not to say that we don't love each other. I care for Yori more than I do myself and there was a time when I thought, maybe, there could have been something more between us." He looked disappointed admitting this. Hiro looked away. "I was, as Kim Possible once said, a crushing sheep."
Hoshi raised an eyebrow.
"I never understood what she meant by it either," he admitted. "As time passed I began to realize that my feelings for Yori, however strong, would jeopardize something I treasure even more, our companionship. Yori is as close to being my other half as one can get without becoming intimate. We complete each other like the proverbial Yin and Yang. Should we become any more than what we are I fear that balance, our friendship, would be destroyed and I can never in good conscience allow that to happen."
Hoshi crossed her arms, still not convinced. "I think you're afraid."
"You are probably right." Hiro chuckled. "I am as afraid of being wrong as you are."
"What are you talking about?"
"That your place is here, with us. You are Yamanouchi, Hoshi. Our battles together have shown me what a reliable and courageous person you are. Your skills are wasting pandering them off to the highest bidder."
"Takashi and Yusuke would hardly call them wasted."
"I have no doubt they would agree with you. But what happens now? Do you think they will return to a life on the run when they can put their respective talents to good use helping us secure world peace? The Yakuza and youma may have lost but they are far from defeated. We will need good people like them to assist us in securing humanity's future. Besides, I doubt they'll want to leave their baby sister behind now that they are reunited, don't you?"
Hoshi hadn't thought that far. She planned to leave Yamanouchi as soon as possible but after that...
"I would like you to stay, Hoshi." The look in Hirotaka's face was sincere. She saw no signs of insincerity as their eyes met. It was all she could do to keep from smiling.
"For what reason would I stay?" She asked him. If he wanted her here so badly, he would have to make it worth her while. "To train, study, and practice all day long doesn't sound like my idea of fun. I take a more hands-on approach to life. It's not easy but at least it's never boring."
"Yori and I will be graduating soon," he announced. "It is only a formality but as soon as it's done we will be able to go on assignment throughout the world."
"Yeah. You and Yori. I barely lasted a semester here. I don't want to start from scratch."
"Hiro." She put a finger on his lips this time. "I'd be lying if I said staying here, with you, wasn't a tantalizing offer. I like you, Hiro. I really do." She removed her finger. "But I have to know your feelings for me."
Hirotaka blinked, unsure.
"I know you like me too, but I do not want to take the place of Yori. I'm nobody's silver medal. If you can't be here with her than I don't want you to think you can just settle for me. If I stay, it has to be for something worthwhile. I'm a ninja, but I am not Yamanouchi." She leaned in close, their noses almost touching. "Can you look me in the eye and admit that your feelings for me are authentic and not just a way to fill in the void left by Yori?"
He didn't blink, but his silence spoke volumes.
Disappointed, Hoshi stepped backward. "That's what I thought." She walked away.
Yori opened her eyes. The first thing she noticed was that she was starving. Her nose picked up the scent of rice and Jasmine tea. That immediately brought her back to consciousness and she stirred in bed. This brought the attention of everyone around her. The first face she saw was that of her balding brother Takashi. His eyes were moist from previous tears and they watered again at her revival. "She's awake."
Yusuke appeared next. He had a black and blue on his right cheek from a previous disagreement but that did not take away from his handsome face. "Welcome back, baby sister."
Despite her weakened state, Yori had more than enough strength to smile. "Hello." Raising her head just slightly, Yori could see that she was in the medical ward with Master Sensei, Hirotaka, Hoshi, Kim Possible, and even Ron-san. Their faces brightened immediately. "Everyone?"
"It is good to see you up and about, Yori." Sensei spoke for everyone. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry." She sniffed. "Is that Jasmine tea?"
"Our finest brew." Sensei watched as Yori sat up, helped by her brothers since she was still very weak. Yusuke brought the meal with was an assortment of rice, vegetables, and salmon; complete with a pot of Jasmine tea. Yori's mouth watered at their sight and no sooner had he placed the table on the bed did she begin devouring her food. All table manners aside, Yori ate like it was her last meal.
"Guess asking for leftovers is out of the question," Ron said, and met with a playful jab on his gut by Kim. "Easy, KP. I'm still hurting."
"Then you shouldn't be out of bed."
"And miss out on saying goodbye to our friends? What kind of Chosen One do you take me for?"
That made Yori stop. With bits of rice all over her face, she looked up and asked, "You are leaving?" Her voice was muffled by all the chewing but was still understandable.
Kim stepped forward. "It's time for us to be hitting the dusty trail. We've been away for a while now and it's about time we head back to the States. It's kind of sudden but we figure Japan's in pretty good hands with you guys around."
"I told them they could stay longer," Hiro said. "But they insisted they go home."
"It's where the heart is," Kim said. "But we didn't want to leave before you got up, Yori. So Ron insisted that he come here and wait for that to happen." She glanced at him. "Even though he's supposed to be resting."
"Couldn't leave without saying goodbye to my favorite ninja."
"That's so thoughtful, Ron." Hoshi beamed.
"I meant Yori."
"Oh." She grimaced. "Well then, who cares about you?"
Everyone except Sensei started to laugh, though the old man did smile.
Rufus appeared over Ron's shoulder. "Konnichiwa!" He waved.
"Rufus-san!" Yori was thrilled when the tiny molerat leaped from Ron's shoulder to her arms. They embraced like life-long friends. "I am pleased to see you well, my little friend."
"You know I was beaten-up too," Hiro sounded jealous.
"But you are not as cute as Rufus-san."
"Ouch!" Hiro's expression made the group laugh some more.
When the mirth died down, Hiro asked the question that had been on everyone's mind. "What happened to you? Why did you lock yourself away for so long?"
"Forgive me. I was trying to find some closure."
"By starving yourself to death?" Hoshi asked.
Sensei spoke up then. "I think I can explain." When all eyes turned to him he did. "Yori attempted what is known as spirit walking. It is a state in which the spirit essentially leaves the body to enter the next world. It is a very difficult and very dangerous technique that should not be attempted by any without proper supervision."
Hiro had heard of the technique before. "Yori, why did not allow me to be there with you? Had Hoshi and I not arrived when we did, you could have starved to death in your room."
Feeling shamed, the kunoichi turned away. "Forgive me. I wallowed so much in my own grief that I forgot to consider the concerns of others."
"But why did you do it?" Takashi asked. "Yori I didn't try all these years to find you just so you could die alone in your room."
Petting Rufus' head, Yori went on to explain. "I am truly sorry." She fixed her eyes on her brothers. "I wanted to speak with Kimiko."
Their jaws dropped.
"The reason spirit walking is so dangerous is that one has to be in a near-death state to obtain it. That is why it should never be done alone."
"I'll say." Yusuke crossed his arms.
"Again I am sorry." After petting Rufus some more, Yori put him to the side and drank her tea.
"Well?" Hoshi stepped forward. "Did you see her?"
"Yes. I met with Kimiko."
Even Sensei looked surprised at that proclamation. "Very rare for one of your experience to successfully complete the crossing."
"I spoke with her on a higher plane of existence. She looks so happy there. All the burdens she carried with her in life are gone. I think Kimiko finally learned to forgive herself and has been able to move on." Remembering Kimiko's face, all bright and beautiful, she felt a tear come to her eye. "I also saw our father," she told Yusuke and Takashi. She told them of all that was exchanged between them. "He said he was very proud of all of us. And that he will miss us."
Her brothers exchanged happy glances before turning to Yori and saying, "Thank you."
"I saw mother as well."
Their jaws dropped. "But how?" Takashi asked. "You never saw her and I don't think I showed you a picture of her before."
"It was her. It was Yuriko." Yori's chest swelled at the mention of that name. "She was so beautiful." Lifting her hand, Yori removed the red headband that was a token of her mother. More precious than any gold or metal, Yori would keep it with her always. "Thanks to this, a part of her will be with me always."
"Don't forget about us." Yusuke sat at the foot of her bed. "We're here for you too, sis."
"Yeah. The Ishimuras will never be apart again." Takashi regarded Sensei and with a respective tone he asked, "May we stay here just a bit longer, Sensei?"
"Actually I was going to offer you a permanent residence at Yamanouchi." Seeing their faces light up brought a smile to the old man. "I believe you two have much to offer Yamanouchi and have a great deal to learn as well." Looking right at Yusuke he said, "Much to learn."
"What is he talking about?" Yori asked.
"I kind of got into a fight with a bunch of students. Sensei only let me out so I could see you."
"I didn't hurt him. Much."
Kim came up next to Sensei. "Sure you can handle all three of them living under the same roof?"
"I will try. Though you and Ron are more than welcomed to return in case things get out of hand."
"We'll do that." Kim's communicator went off. "What's the sitch, Wade?"
"DNAmy's been spotted at the San Diego Zoo."
"Say no more," Kim said when Takashi came up to her. "Wade-san. What's going on?"
"Hey, IT. Everything okay on your end?"
"Better than okay." Looking back on his siblings - Yori berating Yusuke for getting into fights - he said, "More than I could ever hoped for."
"Cool. Well I'll see about getting you a ride home, Kim."
But Sensei was there too. "No need. It would be our honor to see you three returned safely to America."
"Thank you, Master Sensei. Wade, tell the San Diego authorities we're on our way."
"Will do." Wade signed off.
"Let's go, Ron. We've got a zoo to save."
"Right with ya, KP. Rufus!"
Rufus jumped back into Ron's hands and sat atop his shoulder. Standing together, Kim, Ron and Rufus bowed to the room. "It has been an honor," she said.
"The honor is ours." Hiro said as the Japanese returned the gesture of respect. "As your people say, do not be a stranger."
With one last wave, Team Possible said their goodbyes and were gone.
"I'm going to miss that rat," Hoshi said.
"Yusuke, Takashi, there is one thing I would ask of you."
Takashi rushed back to her side. "Name is, sis."
"Take me to see mom."
"But you already," Yusuke started to say but a punch in his leg by Takashi shut him up. He was about to retaliate when he looked at his brother's face and realized what Yori had meant.
"Why don't you leave tomorrow when you are well-rested?" Sensei suggested.
"Yes, master." Yori bowed.
Sensei went to leave the room. "Hoshi, remember what we talked about." He left on that note.
Hoshi remembered everything that was said between them. She couldn't bring herself to look Hiro in the eye as she turned back to Yori. "So...slumber party?"
The following morning came too fast for Hoshi's taste. The time spent with her friends was the most fun she had had in a long time. She'd laughed so hard that her stomach was hurting, crying tears of joy. When the time came to wake up, Hoshi was the groggiest of all. Takashi had wanted to get a few things from his base before he set up shop here in Yamanouchi. She could not believe that her boys were actually going to settle down and act responsibly...not that she was one to judge, but was a funny observation.
After bathing and eating, Hoshi had gone back to her room to change into her ninja gi. It felt strange putting on that black suit once again. On the one hand, it was a reminder of her past life, slinking in between shadows of which she had come to call home. On the other, it also reminded her of where she had come from and where she was now. Hoshi began her life at Yamanouchi. While her path may have changed, she still felt like she was leaving a part of herself behind.
No time for second doubts, she thought. She gathered up her meager belongings and went off to say goodbye. Yori was still pale but her condition looked much improved. She hugged Hoshi upon arrival. "I will miss you, Hoshi."
"Same here." They pulled away. "You're the best damned ninja I've ever met."
Yori turned sad. "Are you sure you will not stay here?"
"They'd kick me out in a week. You know I'm not for rules and walls."
"I know. Your life is out there." Yori looked beyond the walls of the school. They were standing on the bridge overlooking the pond. It was there that Sensei had told Yori about Kimiko and the mission at hand. In a way, it was here where it all started. Funny how life makes you come full circle when you least suspect it.
"You know if this school thing doesn't work out, I can always use a partner." Hoshi's smile showed teeth.
"A tempting offer. And I will consider it."
"When you consider to get rid of that ponytail."
Hoshi looked like Yori had just asked her to remove her heart. "What?"
"It is impractical for combat."
"It's my style."
"The only style you need worry about is your fighting style."
"Have you seen me in battle? I'm incredible."
"If only your skills were as great as your ego."
"That's it. You and me are throwing down right now, kunoichi." Hoshi made playful jabs which Yori half-heartedly tried to block.
"Are you hurting my sister?" Yusuke asked as he and Takashi walked up the bridge. "Cause if you are, I want in on it." Grabbing Yori, Yusuke began to rub his knuckles on her head. "Noogies!"
"Aye!" Yori's expression had everyone laughing.
Pushing him away, Yori rubbed her head. "You are a horrible brother."
"It's my way of showing affection. Right Takashi?" When it was Takashi's turn, the portly man cried out. "Yusuke, stop!" He turned to run away and Yusuke was right on his tail. "Come on! Just a little noogie."
"No! Get away from me!" The chase proceeded into the courtyard and beyond.
"He's pretty fast for a fat guy," Hoshi mused. Then she stopped smiling. "I'm going to miss those two."
"In a way they are your brothers as well."
"Yeah. But you can keep them."
"Have you said your goodbyes?"
"Then all that is left..."
"Is you." Hoshi regarded Yori. She did her best to remain strong but seeing the smile on Yori's face meant she could tell Hoshi was fighting back the tears. "Damn." Hoshi wiped her eyes. "Lot of dust up here."
"We're standing on a bridge over a lake, Hoshi." Yori leaned in close. "There is no shame in crying."
"I'm not crying okay!" But tears began to come out. "I'm just...I'm just sweating through my eyes."
Before Yori could move, Hoshi grabbed her and pulled her into a big hug. Surprised at first, Yori returned the favor. Hardly the reaction for two close comrades at arms. More like sisters.
"You will always have a place here," Yori whispered into her ear. "Never forget that we're your family."
Pulling away, Hoshi covered her face. "I know." She sniffed aloud. "I'll come back when I'm settled."
"Have you decided where you will go?"
"Don't know yet." Composing herself she said, "I might visit America. Be nice to get in touch with the other side of my roots."
"The world isn't ready for you."
"But it's you it has to look out for. You're going to be big one day, Yori. Who knows? You might even end up running this place."
"Time will tell." Yori's eyes fell to the floor.
"I believe someone wants to speak with you."
The girls spotted Hirotaka approaching from the direction the brothers had run. Catching them seeing him, he appeared hesitant and looked like he would go away. "I believe it is time for me to go." Stepping back, Yori bowed to Hoshi and walked to Hirotaka. She whispered something to him as she passed. Still worried, Hiro eventually gathered up the courage to walk up the bridge.
"What did she say?" Hoshi asked when he got there.
"Be brave," he said. "And she really likes you."
Her eyes bulged.
"I made that last part up."
"Hiro!" Hoshi punched him rather hard.
Rubbing the pain, he chuckled nervously. "So uh...you come here often?"
Hoshi could scarcely believe what she had heard.
"Yeah...it sounded like a bad line coming up."
But Hoshi smiled soon after. "You're clueless you know that?"
They shared a nervous chuckle together. It wasn't long before they found themselves staring at the lake, leaning on the banister.
"Aren't you going to convince me to stay?"
Hoshi was disappointed.
"Aren't you going to convince me to go with you?"
Hoshi froze. Her face was shocked at what he hinted out.
"Because I am going with you." Hiro returned to his cocky smile. "I spoke it over with Sensei and we both agree that someone has to look out for our newest asset."
"But...Hiro I...you," her inability to talk amused him. "But you're graduating."
"It's just a formality."
"Will still be here when I get back."
"She has her own destiny to fulfill. Mine is at your side." He inclined his head to the side. "That is until the next pretty young girl comes along and tries to steal my heart."
She punched him again.
"Ow! Enough already."
"You ass." She was smiling despite the insult. "Do you mean it?'
"Unless you're using me to fill in the void left by Takashi and Yusuke."
She smiled at him. "You know I'm not."
"But does Yori,"
"She knows, Hoshi. As do her brothers." He took her hand. "My place is at your side."
A feeling filled her that was so alien and yet so wonderful at the same time that for a moment, Hoshi felt like she would lift off the ground. "I guess I have no say in the matter?"
Hiro raised an eyebrow.
"Well what if I don't want you tagging along?"
"Yori could not stop me from accompanying her." He reached his fingers around her head. "What chance do you have?" Their lips met as soon as he finished that sentence.
Looking at them from a concealed position in the trees, Master Sensei rubbed his beard approvingly before looking away. "That's two down." He remarked and could not help but smile.
The cherry blossom tree had bloomed to the point where it shone brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Three figures stood over a simple grave that consisted of rocks gathered into a little mound. Flowers sprouted around the tombstone as if fertilized by the most precious of souls.
The Ishimura children: Yusuke, Takashi, and little Yori, stood in that order in a straight line. For the brothers, it was returning to the most painful part of their lives; the place they had lost their mother. For Yori, the grave was a symbol of the life she never had. But standing there with her brothers, having known people like Master Sensei, Hiro, Ron, Kim, and Rufus-san, having been through what she'd been through and learning to appreciate life for all it had to offer, Yori did not feel regret.
She was sad, yes, but knew that she was not destined for a normal life. Yori wanted to protect people. She would protect all the peoples of the world so that no one would ever have to experience the loss of a loved one to a tragic death. This was her vow. Upon her mother's grave and before heaven itself, Yori would be a protector.
"Hey, mom." Takashi's voice was breaking even as he spoke that sentence. "We finally got the family back together." Takashi wiped the tears but more kept coming. "I'm sorry, but we're missing a couple." Unable to hold it in any longer, Takashi convulsed with sobs. Yusuke wrapped his arm around him and squeezed tightly. He too was crying but managed to appear strong.
"It's okay, man." He looked at heaven. "Mom's looking after them now."
Placing a flower on mound, Yori stepped back. Tears flowed freely from her eyes but like Yusuke she did not break. She would be strong for Takashi. "Our time together was too short." Her finger traced the red band around her head. "But I know you will be watching over me and brothers. Until the day comes when we're reunited, I promise you that we will live our lives to the fullest. And see to it that others have that privilege."
"Yes." Yusuke sniffed aloud. "We promise."
"Promise," Takashi could barely control himself.
Yori joined Yusuke in embracing their brother. She whispered soft things into his ear. "Come brother. Let's go home." She and Yusuke led him back to the Kurunai which was parked nearby. Not one of them looked back for fear that they would all succumb to their grief. The siblings boarded the vessel and took to the sky.
A wind kicked up at that moment. There were six petals in all on the flower. While swaying they did not give way to the wind. Like a family all their own, the petals remained together and would not budge. Nothing could separate them.
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