“Takashi!” Kawamura’s father waved at him frantically as he stepped into the sushi shop. “You know some English, right? Help me with this guy!”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” Takashi asked before spying the young foreigner huddled behind the counter, knees drawn tight to his chest as his eyes darted frantically between father and son. “Eh? Dad, who is this?” Takashi leaned down. “What’s the matter with him?”
“I don’t know! That’s what I need you for!” Mr. Kawamura waved his fillet knife around in the air for emphasis as he continued, “I can’t understand a word he’s saying. Just wandered in here white as a sheet and crying. A couple customers said he’s been all around the neighbourhood, don’t know why he decided to hole up in my shop.”
Takashi knelt down beside the young man and studied him carefully. His clothes, though odd-looking, were clean and neat, as was his soft blond hair. He probably just got separated from a tour group or something. “Hi,” he said in English, smiling, “what’s your name?”
The boy’s blue eyes widened. “You speak Skalan?” he asked in barely more than a whisper, grasping Takashi’s hand excitedly, “Oh, please, you have to help me get back! Seregil—”
“Skalan?” Kawamura’s smile faltered and he gently removed the boy’s hand. “I’m speaking English.”
The young man’s face fell. “You… you’ve never heard of…”
“Dad,” Takashi stood, “I’m going to take him upstairs, okay? Come on,” he added, holding his hand out to the young stranger, “we’ll figure out what happened to you.”
* * *
“These cookies say they have zero trans-fats,” Takashi called as he rummaged around in the cupboard, “do you want to try them?”
“What’s a trans-fat?”
“Um, never mind.” He found a box of Hello Kitty brand cookies and some vanilla wafers and dumped them in a bowl next to the teapot. He still wasn’t sure what country this guy… Alec, he said his name was, came from, but if they spoke English there then Takashi reasoned that tea and cookies might be a safe bet.
“You think I’m crazy,” Alec said blankly as Takashi poured a cup of Earl Grey. “You think I’m making it all up.”
“No!” Takashi assured him. “I mean,” and he scratched his head, “You’re maybe a little confused? Or my English could be a little outdated, maybe I don’t get all the slang words or something.”
“My name is Alec. I came from Skala.” Alec bit into a vanilla wafer, found it tolerable, and started quietly munching away at the whole bowl. “I was supposed to be transported to a small town up north with Seregil, but something must have gone wrong, because I’m in this strange place and he is nowhere to be found.” Alec eyed Taka. “And you think I’m insane. Have you any more of these?”
Takashi sighed and nibbled on a cookie, sliding the half empty packet of wafers across the table. True, what sense he could make of the foreigner’s babble sounded a little off, and by a little off we of course mean stark raving mad, but the poor boy looked lost and scared and Takashi really wanted to give him a hug and let him know that everything would be okay. “Tell you what,” he said instead, “why don’t you stay here a couple days? I don’t really understand what happened to you, but this guy you keep talking about can’t be too far behind. I’m sure he’ll come looking for you soon.”
“You’re inviting a total stranger to stay in your home?”
“Well,” Taka smiled, “I’m not sure what else to do with you.”
* * *
The elder members of the Kawamura household were as accommodating as Takashi himself. “Sure, he can stay here a bit,” Takashi’s father agreed, “Just so long as he helps out same as you kids do. We could use an extra pair of hands, anyway.”
“He’s not going to be taking my room, right?”
“‘Course not,” Takashi cuffed his younger sister gently about the head, “he’ll just bunk in my room.”
“I’ll call the police station,” Mrs. Kawamura volunteered, “to see if anyone’s looking for him. Where did he say he was from, dear?”
“Uh.” Takashi scratched at his neck nervously. “He didn’t say. It seemed like he didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Well, I suppose he’ll tell us in his own time.” Mrs. Kawamura placed two steaming bowls of sukiyaki on a tray and handed it to her son. “Take these to your room, Takashi, I expect he’ll be too nervous to eat with all of us right away.”
* * *
It was tough going for Alec at first, thrust as he was into some bizarre parody of reality where everyone except, it seemed, one burly teenager spoke a nigh incomprehensible language, and everything worked just like magic but nothing was. The dishwasher was much more handy than anything he’d seen Thero fiddling with, though, and he wondered if maybe he’d be able to bring one back with him.
“Just clean up after the customers,” Takashi had instructed him that first morning as he shouldered a hefty book bag, “and wash the dishes in the back. It’s not difficult. You’re foreign so I don’t think any of the customers will bother you, and if they do Dad will help you out.”
“You’re not going to be here?” Alec could hear the trace of panic in his own voice. Takashi spoke his language. Takashi taught him to use chopsticks. Takashi didn’t laugh at him when the alarm clock scared him half to death that morning. Takashi smiled like this was all perfectly normal and it’d all turn out right in the end. Alec twisted the hem of his apron. “What if—”
“You’ll be fine.” Takashi clapped Alec on the shoulder. “I’ve got to go to school now. Just remember to take it easy. Rest if you get overwhelmed. It’s only been a week.”
Alec took a deep breath and told himself that if he could help save the world from an ancient evil then there was no reason he couldn’t wash a dish on his own. He smiled and wished Takashi good luck with his classes and waved him out the door, all the while still clinging white-knuckled to the hem of his apron. Shortly thereafter he found a broom propped up in the corner near the door and clung white-knuckled to that instead as he swept furiously at the already immaculate floor.
“Pretty energetic, aren’t you?” Takashi’s father chuckled as he made ready to open. “Relax a little, kid, you’ll make the customers nervous.”
Alec of course could not understand a word the man was saying, but the tension in his shoulders eased a little and he found himself smiling back.
* * *
The boy that followed Takashi into the shop was stunningly beautiful, and Alec had for various reasons been in some of the most high-class brothels to be found, so he knew a thing or two. He was a good deal shorter than Taka, barely to his shoulder, and though Alec could tell the boy was toned with sleek, compact muscle, next to Taka’s bulk he looked almost delicate.
The boy flicked back his sleek brown hair and studied Alec with sharp, narrow eyes. “So you’re the one he’s been going on about,” he said.
Alec fumbled and bowed, introducing himself in the clumsy Japanese he’d picked up over the past month. Taka laughed and told him not to worry about it. “Fuji’s in the advanced English class with me,” he explained, “he’s better than I am.”
“Now, I wouldn’t go that far, Taka. Especially lately.”
“Guess I’ve just been getting more practice.” Takashi shrugged out of his uniform jacket. “You can head off if you want, Alec. I’m just going to go change.”
“I’ll stay on a bit longer, it’s busy today.”
“Really? Then I’ll be counting on you!”
Takashi made for the back to change out of his uniform, and Fuji knelt demurely at one of the tables, staring all the while at Alec. “You’re very pretty, aren’t you?”
“Blond hair and blue eyes.” Fuji rested his chin on his hands. “You must be a dream come true for someone like him. He loves Americans.”
Alec could feel his face go hot. “I’m not American.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’re foreign, it’s all the same.” Fuji cast his eyes to the back of the restaurant, to the door leading upstairs. “He’s not just kind to you, you know.”
“Of course I know that!” Alec said, slamming down a cup of green tea in front of Fuji. “He’s kind to everyone! I’ve lived here long enough to learn that much at least!”
The corners of Fuji’s smile quirked upward. “Just so long as we’re clear.”
“What’s all the noise, guys? Are you teasing him, Fuji?”
* * *
Alec leaned against the chain-link fence, panting softly. “I’m getting out of shape,” he muttered to himself.
“Are you kidding?” Takashi smiled and leaned beside him, holding a bottle of Pocari Sweat to Alec’s cheek, the cold making him jump. “Your stamina’s great! And you did awesome for your first time holding a racquet, you were really burning out there.”
Alec laughed. “Seregil always said I picked things up quickly. You didn’t even break a sweat though, are you sure it’s been two years since you played this game?”
“Pretty sure. Fuji’s always trying to get me to come practice with him, but…” Takashi shrugged, “I don’t feel worthy to share a court with him now after quitting. Don’t tell him I played you, okay?”
* * *
Alec only broke down once.
It was several months after his arrival, on a day only marginally worse than the average. He’d stubbed his toe on one of those damned low tables that he still hadn’t managed to get used to, and chipped a tea cup while he was washing, but all in all there was nothing to have an emotional breakdown over. So, there really wasn’t anyone more surprised than he when, shortly after dinner, Alec retired to the room he shared with Takashi and started sobbing so hard he could scarcely breathe. And when Takashi found him later and gathered him up in his arms and asked him Alec, what’s wrong, why are you crying, Alec couldn’t answer, because he wasn’t sure if it was because he missed his home or his lover or even his long dead father, or if it was just that he was beginning to doubt that they’d ever existed at all.
“Tell me about Seregil,” Takashi said, rubbing his shoulders and holding him closer. “Tell me about how he saved you from that dungeon and taught you coin tricks.”
Alec told him.
* * *
“Taka!” Alec shouldered his share of shopping bags and ran to catch up. “Really, you’ve already bought too much!”
“Mom said to make sure you had plenty of clothes and that’s what I’ll do,” Takashi said, grabbing Alec’s hand and dragging him towards a small boutique. “You’d look cool in these, Alec, don’t you think?”
“Really,” Taka ruffled Alec’s hair, “don’t worry about it. You’ve been here half a year and you’re still wearing my old stuff. You put in full days at the restaurant. You’ve earned this.”
Alec made a few more protests, but Takashi just laughed and dragged him to another store, pointing out everything from designer jeans to three-for-1000 yen t-shirts and exclaiming over how good they’d look on him. Alec was surprised at how much his friend seemed to enjoy shopping; Seregil had always taken pronounced joy in poking about the market when he had the time, but Taka didn’t seem the type.
After several hours of trekking around the local shopping district, they found an empty bench and collapsed. Alec was just starting to dread the walk home when he spotted a cluster of young girls near some sort of booth, pasting sticky bits of paper to their cell phones and wallets.
“Alec, I’ve already told you not to worry—”
“No, not that.” Alec pointed to the booth. “What’s that thing? I think I saw a couple of them while we were walking. What are they for?”
“Oh, purikura? It’s a booth that takes pictures and puts them on these little stickers…” Takashi pulled his cell and pointed to the tiny photo on the back, framed in pink and dotted with cartoon kitty faces. There were too many people crammed into the booth, sweaty and dishevelled, all wearing matching blue and white jerseys and flashing V signs. “That’s my old tennis club, after Nationals. I don’t know how we got everyone in the frame.”
“Is that Fuji? And you! You all look so young!”
“Do you want to try it?” Taka stood and offered his hand. “We should take at least one picture together before Seregil comes to take you home, right?”
Alec grasped the outstretched hand. “I want a blue border. I liked the cats, though.”
* * *
“Well,” Fuji said, “don’t you look nice today.”
Alec forced a smile. Over the months he had become something of a fixture at Kawamura Sushi, working from open until close nearly every day for lack of anything better to do. And so, too, had Fuji, seated at the table in the corner, staring at him with too-narrow eyes, become a fixture for Alec. “Takashi took me shopping a few days ago.”
“I know. I saw the picture.” Fuji let his head tilt to the side. “Awfully close, aren’t you?”
“You know, Alec,” Fuji mused, “you’re like a stray cat. The person who finds you will take you in, and feed you, and make sure you’re safe… but when your real owner comes along, you’ll go back without a second glance, won’t you?” The fake fell out of Fuji’s smile, and what was left was cold, cold. “If that’s the case, then I think it would be better if the person who found you didn’t get too attached, don’t you? That way it won’t hurt so much when you throw him away.”
“My owner doesn’t even know where to look for me.” Alec slammed Fuji’s bill onto the table. “I’ll stay with Taka as long as he’ll keep me.”
* * *
Alec liked the feel of a bowstring pulled taut; how his body went tense as he held the arrow in place, arms stretched wide apart, trying not to tremble from the pressure. The release was like a sigh, the arrow gone from his bow in a breath and his shoulders easing in its absence. He could hear the dull thud across the practice field as it struck home, center of the target, and he grinned.
Takashi let out a cheer from behind him. “You’re really great!” he said. “You look so graceful!”
Alec laughed and pulled another arrow from the quiver. “I’m terribly out of practice.”
“Then you must be unbelievable the rest of the time.” Takashi watched another arrow hit the target dead-center. “Are you going to start practicing regularly again?”
“I suppose. If the master here will let me.”
Alec loosed another arrow. He hit the target every time.
* * *
Alec stretched out on his futon and sighed contentedly. “Your mother really went all out with dinner tonight,” he said cheerfully, patting his stomach, “I wonder what the occasion was?”
“Eh, don’t you know?” Takashi sat cross-legged at Alec’s side. “It’s been a year since you came here.”
“It has?!” Alec shot up.
“Of course, haven’t you been keeping track?”
Alec shook his head and leaned back, resting his weight on his hands. “I suppose I got so used to it here that after awhile I didn’t think to count.” He let out a deep breath and looked around the room. “A year, huh? Sorry for taking advantage of your hospitality for so long.”
“What are you talking about?” Taka slung an arm around Alec’s shoulder and pulled him towards himself, ruffling his blond hair affectionately. “You’re one of the family now. A year, two, five, how ever long it takes, you’ll always be welcome here.”
Alec laughed. “I can’t leech off of you my entire life, Taka.”
Takashi squeezed him in a friendly hug and replied earnestly, “‘Course you can. I said however long it takes, right?”
Alec was almost certain he was the one who turned his head upward and pressed his lips to the other boy’s, but it was Takashi who pulled away red-faced, muttering “Sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.”
Alec kissed him again, just to be sure. And again, and again, and he would’ve kept on at it but suddenly Takashi’s hands were holding his head still and he was looking at Alec with such sad eyes. “Alec,” he said, and again, “Alec.”
Seregil’s face swam before his eyes. It wasn’t what he wanted, Alec knew it wasn’t. “I’m sorry,” he choked.
Takashi kissed his forehead. “Goodnight.”
* * *
A year and a day after Alec had burst into Kawamura Sushi in near hysterics to collapse behind the counter, another raving foreigner came crashing through the door. This time, however, the shop owner recognized a smiling face sketched on a scrap of paper, and heard a familiar name repeated over and over in desperation. He looked to his son.
Takashi’s smile was wide and frayed at the corners. He crossed the room and clapped a hand on the stranger’s shoulder. “You must be Seregil,” he said. “He talks about you all the time.”
* * *
He was thinner, more sunken-looking than when Alec had left. Probably hadn’t been sleeping well, the boy reasoned, and taking on more work than he could handle on his own. Alec stood, and Seregil pulled him into a tight embrace. Alec could feel his ribs sticking out sharply beneath his fingertips. “Seregil!” he exclaimed, “hasn’t Micum been making sure you eat?!”
“I have been eating! You try keeping up a healthy appetite when your beloved’s been lost in some alternate world because Thero sneezed the wrong way.”
“Is that what happened?”
“No,” Seregil admitted, “it was something insanely more complex.”
“Anyway,” Alec continued, “I was the one lost and I still managed to eat properly. Not that Mrs Kawamura gave me much choice in the matter. It’s nearly dinner, you’ll stay of course?”
This was too much. “Alec,” Takashi said, “Seregil’s here. You can go home.”
Alec flushed red as he flicked his bangs away from his eyes. “I know that,” he said tartly, “but there’s no need to be in a rush, is there? I’ve waited a year, a few extra hours isn’t going to make a difference.”
* * *
“I thought you’d be more excited.”
Takashi and Alec stood across from each other in the darkened bedroom. Cries of awe and delight came muffled from the living room where Seregil kept the family entertained with coin tricks and other slight of hand. Alec shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he adjusted the bundle hitched over his shoulder.
“I’ll miss you,” Takashi said.
“I know. Me too.” Alec looked around the room, to the tennis racquets leaning in the corner, his rolled futon standing by the door, the neat pile of clothes Takashi’s mother would have to donate to a thrift store. “I wish I could take it all with me.”
“Of course including you. I’d take the whole city with me. You and your parents and your sister and even Fuji if he promised to stop glaring at me so much.” Suddenly Alec grasped Takashi’s arm. “He really likes you, you know. I think he’s in love with you.”
“Yeah,” Taka said, “you’re probably right.”
“I want you to be happy. You’ll be okay, won’t you?”
“Don’t worry about things like that.” Alec could feel rough stubble scratch against his cheek, and wondered just how much he’d miss it.
* * *
Seregil lead him to an abandoned park, where they could make their return in secret. “Who was he?” he asked.
Alec thumbed the small, sticky bit of paper in his pocket, all grins and v-signs and cutesy cartoon kitties on a blue border. “A friend,” he said, “when I was in desperate need of one.”
“Then I am grateful for him,” Seregil replied, apparently satisfied.
Alec thought of a pendant he might paste the photo on, and smiled. “I am as well.”
* * *
The next day Taka told Fuji Alec had left. Then he confessed. The timing was poor and Fuji punched him in the face, but they walked home together holding hands, so that was all right.