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I’m real sorry I let you guys down towards the end of the fic. I’m especially sorry for having to make what I thought was the penultimate chapter the last one. =( I hope this will make up for it. I won't say anything about it cause I don't want to start negatively. =D
Casting his eyes up towards the dusky pastel sunrise, the sky untouched by even the softest caress of cloud, he released a stifled sigh. Standing stoic on that familiar beach, the same old morning mist encircling him with its cool touch, he was beginning to lose faith that these repetitive dawns would ever cease. The glimmers of hope within his heart were fading with each passing day. Grasping a smoothed pebble in his hand, he fingered the stone for a moment before casually skimming it over the surface of the calm, clear waters, watching it as it left a trail of ripples, disturbing the blue-pink reflection of the skies.
“Why?” he uttered, his voice snaking resonant around the trees, and over the waves.
His hands sunk into his pockets as he listlessly kicked a small pebble into the effervescent foam that lapped hungrily at the shoreline. The waters splashed up against his shoes, soaking the bottom of his trousers, but he made no effort to move.
While on the surface, Taiko remained the same loyal, strong, amiable man, inside, he felt a shadow of his former self. Since the day that Sora, Riku, and the others had brought him home, before burning away into the boundless azure beyond, he had remained optimistic that one day, they would return to him as promised. Yet, with each fruitless day, the unfortunate reality was setting in, telling him that they might never come back to this tiny, green planet. There was a hole inside him; one that only the sight of his friends, safe and sound, could fill.
Then again, the now familiar longing to see those smiling faces was not the only thing on his troubled mind.
That fateful day he had left with Mikado, he hadn’t even thought about the effect his departure might have had on his family. While they insisted they forgave him, Taiko was not entirely sure he could forgive himself. Remorseful thoughts often haunted his head, leaving him sullen, only half the man that once was. He often worried that his disappearance had left a lasting impression upon his family; each time he went to leave the house, he was met with the terrified gaze of little Ayura, her expression begging for him to stay. Worse was that no matter how many times he reassured her, she still would not grasp this concept; she seemed to forget all the other times he had come back quickly, as promised, simply remembering the lone time where he had not returned at all.
A sudden blast of fresh wind brushed past his skin, filling his airways with the crisp, familiar scent of the forest pines, removing him from these dank, saddening thoughts. Upon this breeze lingered the distant voice of a comrade, echoing out from the labyrinth of uniform tree trunks.
Heaving a sigh in response, hoisting his backpack over his shoulders, Taiko took a final look at the muted colours of daybreak before turning his back to the skies. Another day of work was ahead, and he could not afford to be late due to daydreaming about those long-lost friends of his. They were probably living full lives, somewhere in the endless reaches of this vast universe, without the threat of darkness to thwart them.
The pebbled shore of Lake Oulu clicked gently beneath his black boots as he strode along. He moved quietly through the outskirts of the little village, making his way into the misty, arcane forests.
Before long, the clustered buildings were nowhere to be seen, lost in the density of the woods. The streams of white sunlight, combined with the morning haze, and the continuous pattern of the trees tended to form an illusion to the untrained eye, blurring into a green and white mass. This strange illusion continued on throughout the forest, darkening as one moved further into it.
Walking through this place was lonely work, but it was fairly easy. Being a forest ranger was probably the simplest of jobs, considering that the majority of beasts lurking within had learned to stay away from humans; other than the physical demands, this job was - quite literally - a walk in the park. Not to mention, it left those employed with plenty of time to think.
Taiko adjusted his glasses before letting his hands fall into his pockets. His pace became leisurely, rather than the stride he previously moved in. After all, he had been walking for a few hours, and he saw no point in wasting energy by power walking. Besides, he wanted to take in the calm of the atmosphere. The forest was a peaceful, tranquil place, perfect for personal reflection. Other than the occasional flap of a bird in flight overhead, no noise was heard at all. People rarely ventured far into the undergrowth - unless, of course, they were rangers themselves.
While alive with the magnificent splendour of nature, each location bringing a new cavalcade of emotion upon whoever experienced it, there was no denying that it was a solitary place. Each step through the forest was like taking a step through the smouldering wasteland of Square-One. These daily treks reminded him of the long, ponderous, lonely walk he reluctantly took across that hideous world. Other than the beautiful scenery, and the preferable scenario, Taiko saw little difference between the two.
“The forest is much quieter, though,” he said to himself beneath his breath, as if conversing with his thoughts.
It felt like so long since those events had passed. These seven years had seemed to drag by so slowly.
Taiko stopped for a moment, feeling a short quiver in the atmosphere. He thought he could feel something approaching, but, after a few minutes of deliberation, he decided against his initial inclination and continued to walk.
Yet, there it was again, accompanied by the rustle of the thick undergrowth.
“Something’s following me,” he concluded to himself, continuing to walk. Having been in this situation countless times before, his instincts were enough to tell him what to do. “Keep going. When you hear it right behind, turn on it.”
Taiko continued to pace, without quickening, or slowing his footsteps. He did not want to let the predator know he was aware of its presence. Sure enough, hearing the snap of bracken right behind himself, he did not waste a moment.
A fraction of a second was all it took for Taiko to leap back, whirling around with a well-aimed attack.
However, upon meeting the blue gaze of the ’attacker’ - or rather, ’attackers’ - he lowered his tightly-curled fists, breathing a leaden sigh as his heart rate slowed to a normal beat.
“It’s you two,” he grumbled, scanning the two young men before himself with a narrow gaze. He resumed a relaxed stance. “What do you think you are doing, sneaking up on me like that?”
The two young men were Kiri and Kumo, now stood sniggering a short distance from Taiko with beaming grins upon their pasty, almost identical faces. The twins were notorious for their playful natures - none knowing more of this than Taiko, who’d had the pleasure of training them.
“Relax, old man,” Kiri laughed, giving his senior’s shoulder a playful push.
Taiko averted his eyes to the ground, still sour at this particular nickname; while he knew that this young charge meant no harm, Taiko’s previous association with this unwanted title still brought back those bothersome feelings of anger.
Noticing the aggravated look upon Taiko’s wrinkled face, Kumo quickly tried to apologise.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, his greyish-blue eyes gleaming with sincerity. While the twins were playful, and could often seem vindictive, they never truly meant any of their jokes in an offensive way. In cases of misunderstanding, they were always quick to right the situation. Kiri nodded, his mid-length silver hair being caught in the light breeze that passed lazily through the trees.
“We were just kidding,” he reassured Taiko, who nodded, looking them in the eyes once more. “We came to give you a warning, sir.”
“Warning?” Taiko repeated, silently alarmed at the unusual sharp tone of their voices. His aged voice crackled with anxiety. “Is something wrong?”
Kumo shrugged slightly, though his expression revealed his inner feelings of uncertainty.
“It hasn’t been confirmed by any higher-ups yet,” he explained, “but it’s been said that someone has spotted a large creature in the sky.”
Taiko’s eyes widened. No, it couldn’t be.
“Large creature?” he asked, clearly intrigued. “What was its description?”
Kiri and Kumo mumbled between themselves for a few moments. Evidently, they were trying to remember just what they had been told.
“Kaze was the one who saw it,” Kiri said. “He said he spotted it overhead - above Lake Oulu - while out walking early this morning. Just after you were due to start, I think.”
Taiko thought to himself for a few moments. If he judged correctly, then he had been walking for two hours now - meaning that the sighting was less than two hours ago, too. He looked to the twins with an unintentionally alarmed expression.
“What did it look like?” Taiko asked them, prompting a simultaneous shrug from the pair.
“Didn’t say,” Kumo mumbled, scratching his head.
After a few moments of deliberation, Taiko decided that he didn’t want to hesitate any longer. After all, this could lead up to the moment he’d been anticipating for seven years.
“Could you two do me a favour?” he asked, looking them in the eyes. The twins nodded, eager to please. “Are you doing anything right now?”
The twins narrowed their smoky eyes, shaking their heads in response.
“No, Kumo replied. “We just happened to bump into Kaze out here.”
“We have today off,” Kiri chipped in.
Thought showed within Taiko’s wrinkled face as he went over this situation in his head. Running his fingers through his grizzled black hair, he slowly nodded, before his jade gaze met the twins once more.
“Would you mind covering for me?” he asked, his face more serious than before. Realising how solemn and serious he must have appeared, he tried to lighten the mood a little. “You two have done this route plenty of times. It’s usually very quiet, so I doubt you’ll run into anything.” He smiled, showing his faith in them. “Even if something does come up, I know you can handle it.”
He received a inquisitive look, but no protests.
“Okay, sir,” Kiri nodded amiably. From his and Kumo’s matching, heartened expressions, it was clear they were too flattered to question his motives.
“Thank you,” Taiko smiled to them within a single breath. Not wanting to wait around, he turned on them, slinging his bag over both shoulders before starting into a run.
Taiko’s footsteps were heavy against the dewy ground. His pace was rapid, his stamina unrelenting. The cold air rushed past him as he ran, his own breaths now echoing pants in the streams of watery sunlight. Ferns and bushes clung to his legs in a vain attempt to slow him down. The trees appeared to stand in his way. With remarkable agility, Taiko darted around them, ducking under fallen trunks, and leaping over mossy logs.
His mind raced as fast as his footsteps, his head a mass of swirling thoughts.
This moment had been seven years in the making. He could not wait to see those familiar, yet long lost faces smiling back, could not wait to welcome them back after so long apart. He wondered all sorts of things about them; he wondered how they looked, how they had changed, how their lives had unfolded. He particularly wondered how they had coped with going back to their regular lives after the feats they had achieved.
There was, of course, one particular thing he’d be asking about.
For a long time - up until about a month ago - he had felt a strange, dark presence in the air; a sensation comparable to but one individual - Mikado. The only way Taiko could describe this feeling was to say that it was as though the man had somehow returned from beyond the grave. This would certainly be the first thing he would ask Sora about.
His attention wavering, Taiko stumbled over a small rock, but managed to retain his balance. His foot aching with the impact, he limped a little, but continued to push himself. It was going to take a while to get back to the village, so he had to move as swiftly as possible.
Looking ahead as he ran, he saw the green haze of the forest, penetrated by beams of light. Still no sight of the edge. However, squinting, peering through his glasses, he appeared to be approaching two figures.
“Kaze,” he said to himself breathlessly, his expression lighting. “And Oboro.” Perfect. Now he could ask some questions about this sighting.
“Taiko!” Kaze called, his large arm sweeping up to wave at him. His muscular build made him instantly recognisable, even in the distance.
Slowing his pace as he reached the pair, Taiko rested his hands on his thighs as he caught his breath. The three were stood in a large shaft of sunlight.
“Going somewhere?” Oboro laughed, offering the man a drink. Taiko declined politely.
While Kaze was still in training - despite his fit, muscular physique - Oboro was a fully-trained ranger, holding the same high rank as Taiko did. His similarly aging expression holding a smile, he pulled his mousy hair from his face. His blue eyes wandered over the exhausted man before himself.
“Kaze,” Taiko said, finally breathing normally once more. “I need to ask you something.”
Before his charge could reply, the slender man replied for him.
“Is this about the sighting?” Oboro asked, prompting an eager nod from Taiko. There was a strange look upon the man’s face; one that could only be closely described as reluctance.
“Yes,” he spoke with enthusiasm. “I didn’t realise you knew, Oboro. Kiri and Kumo said that no higher-ups were aware of the situation.”
“I just ran into him,” Kaze explained. “What was it you wanted to ask, sir?”
“I need to know what this creature looked like,” Taiko replied. His eyes showed a keenness to hear this information. A quiet sigh escaped Oboro as he shook his head, though, neither Kaze or Taiko noticed. Kaze nodded, the shine of the sunlight forming a sheen over his short, blonde hair.
“It was bigger than anything I’ve ever seen,” he began. “It was a strange-looking creature.” Taiko hung on his every word, desperate to know if this ‘creature’ was, indeed, the Gummi Ship. “It was greyish in colour, with a lupine face, and long, thick fur. Its wings were enormous.” Taiko’s expression fell with every word, disappointment swelling through his chest. “Oh, and it had a long tail.”
“I see,” he commented, devoid of emotion. Oboro tried to raise a smile.
“Kaze said he told Kumo and Kiri what it looked like,” he said, obviously trying to lighten the mood a little, “but I guess he should have remembered that those two aren’t the sharpest when it comes to remembering things!”
Taiko feigned a smile. Oboro noticed his friend’s ailing expression, and so asked his student to leave them for a moment. While Oboro was around the first time the strange ship had landed in the town, young Kaze would have been a mere child, and so, even a strange experience like this one would have been forgotten in the sands of time.
“Don’t look so discouraged,” he said, placing a friendly hand on Taiko’s shoulder. He understood how his friend was feeling. “It’s not like they’re never going to come back.”
“I know,” Taiko replied, his expression filled with gratitude for this concern. He forced a small laugh. “I suppose I shouldn’t have let my hopes get so high without knowing the full story.”
Oboro noticed the false laugh, and breathed a sigh.
“You came back all this way for nothing, huh?” he said gently. Oboro was a caring man, courteous to others’ feelings. Taiko nodded quietly. “There’s no point in you going back out. Just go home; I’ll get someone to cover for you.”
“Kiri and Kumo are doing it already,” he replied.
“Alright,” Oboro nodded, before taking a step towards Kaze. “Sorry, but we need to be going. We’ve lost enough time thanks to this sighting.” Reluctance showed itself in a watery smile. “I’ll come see you when my shift’s done.”
With that, he and his student left, walking into the green haze.
Taiko breathed a long sigh before trudging forward. Disappointment quaked through his body, his heart falling as a stone. He knew they would return as promised, but with all these fruitless leads, he could not help feeling discouraged. His dejected mind became a blank as he walked home, for no thoughts seemed to manifest themselves.
After around an hour - seeing as he had walked with such a lagging, dreary pace - he emerged from the leafy ferns of the forest, the gentle swath of the lake seeming to welcome him home. It was a little busier now that the day had begun - despite the darkening clouds overhead.
“Looks like rain,” Taiko spoke to himself once more, his gaze questioning the skies as he paced.
Walking through the narrow streets, dragging his feet along the sandy path, a number of people spoke to him, wishing him well. He thanked them for their kindness, but his lifeless expression told them clearly that his mind was preoccupied by other issues. Soon enough, he had reached his home again. A sigh fell from his lips as he eyed the familiar little building. He outstretched a single hand to grip the doorknob, but drew his grasp away sharply.
“I cannot bother her with this again,” he whispered to himself, stepping back from the door. “Kiruna always has to listen to my pining.” He could not count the amount of times he had returned home with a sour look upon his face, and disappointment in his heart. His jade eyes wandered to the windowpane. Peering through the window, through the open door inside, he could see her; she was busying herself in the kitchen. He noticed that Otaku was with her. “She must feel so terrible; she probably thinks that I am more interested in them than her.”
Taiko quickly moved away from the house before she noticed his presence. He felt too guilty about offloading his feelings onto her once more. Walking back up the path, he found himself at the lake once more. His eyes rolled over the gentle waves, reaching the opposite shore; his destination.
As he neared the pine trees at the edge of the forest - those that stood just upon the grassy verge at the lake’s side - he felt a cool splash upon his cheek. The heavens were opening themselves to the world below. Settling himself beneath the shelter of the tree, he rested his bag upon the ground, and looked out over the lake to the town across from himself. He would stay here for hours - well, as long as he normally would have been working.
The rain grew heavier, the droplets forming larger splashes with each passing moment. The people busying themselves around the village slowly began to disperse. Taiko watched them with a lethargic expression. Soon, he was the only person out there, left to contend with his thoughts once more.
“I do not know why I am so disappointed,” he thought to himself, his eyes losing focus. This did not matter, for his glasses were already blurred with drops of water. “I suppose it would be a great task for them to return here.” He sighed, silently remembering being brought back for the first time. “Foris is all the way out in the middle of nowhere. It is even further than Square-One - and that itself was so far from their home.”
A rumble of thunder echoed overhead, prompting Taiko to move further beneath the tree.
“I wonder if they even remember me at all,” he thought dejectedly.
Lightning flashed yellow across the grey skies. No, that did not bear thinking about. Sora and the others could never forget him. They were too caring.
“I just wish I had some way of knowing you’re all alright,” he thought, as it telepathically communicating with them. “I wish I could see you all again.”
Another rumble rolled resonant overhead.
“Perhaps I just shouldn’t get my hopes up so highly,” an intense look of dejectedness swept over his face. “After all, if I don’t get so optimistic, then I cannot be disappointed.”
The rain grew so much heavier than before; the large, cold droplets were falling through the branches now, stinging his skin. Another flash split the skies. Rising to his feet, Taiko decided to go home. At least it would be warmer there. Not to mention his mind would be taken off this hopeless pursuit.
Raising his hood, he broke out into a run, hoping to get back before the next lightning strike. A roll of thunder hurried him on as he went.
A short period of silence was heard before another low rumble filled the air.
“Strange,” Taiko commented to himself. “One lightning strike, two rolls of thunder.”
Though, this roll of thunder appeared to be ascending in volume, unrelenting even after a few moments of sound. Blinking, bemused by this odd occurrence, he looked over his shoulder to the grey expanse of sky.
The sight ground him to a halt. Turning, his eyes widening with each fleeting second, Taiko was unable to remove the smile from his face. Even a strike of thunder was not enough to deter him, nor to tear him from this unbelievable sight. Joy shivered through him, his hands quivering with anticipation. The moment had arrived, heralded on by the familiar clunking and rumbling.
They were back.
I'll keep my own opinion about it to myself. =3 I'm sorry that I had so much to do as well as the fic. School's been a nightmare, and I really need to work hard this year.
I'm going to keep writing but I won't be updating as regularly as I used to be.
Thanks a lot. =3 It means a lot that you guys stuck it out until the end; even when I got so inconsistent with the updates. <3 <3 <3