I've got more time to write now, so here you go with the next chapter
or Wild, Wild East.
This is still setup for the action parts, so it might read a little slow.
The whole story only blocks out to 10 chapters. Should be done by
next Christmas - or so. :-D
This story has been written without the knowledge or approval of Kou
Fumizuki - Hakusensha/ AIAO Project and Pioneer Animation. It is for
the enjoyment of Ai Yori Aoshi fans and written with respect for its
original creators and copyright holders.
The Wild, Wild East
Chapter 5 - Run, Run Away
by GL Sandborn
"Miyabi-san, is there no word yet?" Aoi asked as her guardian
entered the family room where she and Kaoru had been patiently waiting.
"I'm sorry, Lady Aoi," Miyabi said bowing. "I was just speaking
with your mother. She has taken an unusual interest in this case."
"Mother?" Aoi gasped. "I... I thought Mother was following the
Sakuraba Group's decision not to get involved."
Miyabi cleared her throat, averting her eyes as if this were
something of a secret. "Your mother has not always... not always agreed
with the decisions of the group."
Kaoru blinked as he looked between the two women. "Aoi's mother
acts independently of the Sakuraba Group?" he muttered.
Miyabi, however, clearly heard his voice. "As much as it pains me
to say, Aoi's mother has often displayed a streak of individual
thought." She looked at Aoi with a strange little smile. "Much like
Aoi's hands quickly covered all but her eyes. Kaoru couldn't be
sure but it looked to him like she was hiding a little smile of her own
behind those hands. She was obviously pleased with the thought of her
mother being so much like herself.
It also explained why her mother allowed Aoi-chan to stay with him
when it was obvious the group would be most displeased.
"She has been making quiet inquiries on her own through contacts
only she is familiar with," Miyabi said. Her eyes swept between Kaoru
and Aoi. "I'm afraid there is still no news concerning Miss Tina."
Aoi's hands slowly lowered and her chin dropped. The first makings
of a scowl touched her face. "I see."
"She wants you to know that she will continue her inquiries."
Miyabi seemed pleased with her news.
Aoi just nodded as if grateful for her mother's intervention.
"On another matter, your mother insisted that I relay to you an
important reminder." Miyabi shifted her weight as if what she had to
say made her nervous. "You are to attend the opening of the Sakuraba
Center this coming Friday. You are to wear your indigo kimono with the
gold obi. I will see to it that you arrive in time for you to enter
with your parents."
"Very well," Aoi said before turning to Kaoru. "I'm certain we can
provide Kaoru-samma suitable attire for the occasion."
"Perhaps I did not make myself clear. You are to attend this
function with your parents only," Miyabi said in a firm voice.
"What?" Aoi gasped, her eyes wide. "That is unacceptable.
Kaoru-samma is --"
"Not a Sakuraba," Miyabi finished for her. "Lady Aoi, this is a
very important event in which your family must present a harmonious
appearance." She hesitated long enough to look directly at Kaoru. Her
expression sent chills up his spine. "This is nothing personal, Sir
Kaoru. But it is imperative that we maintain appearances. Many
dignitaries will be on hand. Prominent people from many countries and
the Prime Minister himself will attend. There is even some suggestion
that a member of the royal family will be in attendance." She regarded
Aoi with the same stern expression. "I'm sure you understand how
important this is to your father."
With her eyes squeezed shut, Aoi shook her head. "I cannot accept
this. If Kaoru-sama cannot attend, then neither shall I."
Before Miyabi could launch into another of her lectures on proper
behavior, Kaoru interrupted. "It's all right, Aoi-chan. Miss Miyabi is
right. This is very important to your family." Aoi regarded him with
astonished eyes. "Besides, Professor Isemoto wants me to complete my
research for him by Monday. This will give me a chance to work on it at
the university without worrying about leaving you home alone." When Aoi
continued to stare at him like she didn't understand, he smiled at her
in a reassuring way. "It'll be all right. You go and show everyone how
much of a lady you are and I'll be here when you get back."
"Kaoru-sama?" Aoi asked in a tiny voice.
"It'll be fine. You'll see."
"Sir Kaoru, I am pleased you understand how things are," Miyabi
said in her most official voice. Turning to Aoi, she wore a satisfied
expression as she bowed. "I will see to the arrangements, Lady Aoi."
Miyabi quickly turned to leave, but not before casting one last
look Kaoru's way. To his surprise, she nodded as if extending to him a
As Miyabi left the room, Aoi gently touched Kaoru's shoulder.
"Kaoru-sama? Are you certain this is what you want?" she asked as if
she herself wasn't quite sure.
Kaoru nodded and smiled. "Everything will be fine. Miss Miyabi is
correct. It is very important to your father to maintain appearances
and the opening of their new conference center will be a boon to all
sorts of activities in Tokyo. I can appreciate why he just wants his
"You're almost family," Aoi noted with a hint of bitterness.
"Someday I will be a member but not just yet." He took her hand in
his and looked directly into her deep blue eyes. "I think it best we
follow Miss Miyabi's advice. Besides, it'll give you something to take
your mind off of Tina. I know you've been worried sick about her."
Aoi closed her eyes and leaned into him, her forehead pressing
against his chest. His arms gently enveloped her in a loving embrace.
"I truly do want to believe that she will come home again but it's so
hard sometimes," she said.
"It's only been two days since she disappeared." Kaoru stroked her
hair with his cheek. "Sometimes it takes longer for someone to return."
"Then you believe, too?" Aoi said, lifting her head to look up into
Kaoru suppressed a chuckle. "It's hard not to. Tina always seems
to land on her feet, no matter what."
Aoi's arms went around his body, pulling him into a tight hug.
"Then we shall believe together, Kaoru-sama. Nothing will keep Miss
Tina from returning. Nothing."
Tina's mind was far from the train car she was riding in.
Daydreaming about all the times she had taken trips with the photography
club through this part of Japan, she was trying to recapture the feeling
of those trips. In some ways, this journey wasn't all that different.
She wasn't alone and they had limited funds for such an expedition. Of
course, back then, she didn't have people hunting her who wanted to do
She glanced at Steven, just long enough to see his eyes were closed
as if taking a nap. Little wonder, she thought, he probably didn't
sleep much the night before, being constantly on his guard over threats
that were very real. Considering what he told her this morning, his
vigilance might also have been due to something else.
The thought that someone felt the need to protect her brought a
tiny smile to her lips. She never before felt like she needed
protection while traveling, even on her trip around the world. Having a
man feel the need to take care of her was something she could get used
to, so long as he understood she was an independent woman.
Steven's eyes blinked open as the train applied its brakes. He
quickly set about checking the other passengers with cold, suspicious
"You okay?" Tina asked.
"Fine," he abruptly replied as he shifted his attention to the
approaching train platform.
She wanted to say more, perhaps even admonish him a little for
being so cautious, but knew it wouldn't change a thing. His job
demanded carefulness. The Koreans were still be lurking about. The
threat to their lives was still very real.
As the train pulled to a stop, Tina started to get up but was
quickly pulled back into her seat. "Hey!" she yelled, frowning at
Steven and then at his hand gripping her wrist.
"We have to be careful, Tina. Slow and steady. Understand?" he
said in a low voice. It didn't sound menacing but conveyed exactly the
calm and serious way he was approaching this detour to Kagome.
Tina blinked a moment before nodding. "Oh. Yeah. Right." She
joined him in looking around, although she had no idea what constituted
a threat. In that, she kind of envied Steven. Despite his protests to
the contrary, he seemed to know what he was doing. Well, most of the
time, anyway. She was counting on him to spot trouble before it spotted
He waited for a few moments before nudging Tina out of her seat and
they gathered their bags.
Stepping onto the station platform, she scanned for signs
indicating the shop the old lady at the inn suggested while he continued
his threat surveillance.
"Why are you so nervous? We haven't seen a Korean since Tokyo,"
she said, still looking for the shop between glances his way. "I think
we lost 'em this time."
"The problem is that every time I start to think that way, the
Koreans show up again," he replied. "It's like they know where I'm
going even before I do."
Tina wanted to admonish him for being so paranoid but he probably
had a point. After all, they found him at the zoo and tracked him to
the Sakuraba house. Maybe his paranoia was justified.
"I wonder where that clothing store is," he said, eyeing a couple
of businessmen over by a vending machine.
"Don't know," Tina admitted, glad to put her mind to something more
pleasant. She dimly remembered passing through Kagome with her
photography club two years ago. But everything looked different while
half asleep on a train than from the station. Spotting what looked like
the town's main street, she tugged on Steven's sleeve. "Let's try down
Taking his hand, she practically towed him out of the station and
down the street. It took her a few tries but she eventually spotted
what appeared to be an abbreviated version of a Tokyo department store.
She paused to admire the window displays. "Yup, this is the
place," she chirped happily. When they got to the front entrance, she
hesitated at the sight of a familiar symbol above its polished glass
doors. It left her with a homesick feeling. "Sakuraba Group," she
"What was that?" Steven asked as if he only half heard her.
She averted her eyes from the symbol and shook her head. He probably
had no idea what she was talking about. How could he? The Sakuraba
Group couldn't have meant anything to him.
"Nothing," she replied in a dismissive manner. "Just something I
happened to remember."
A cheerful young lady bowed to them as they entered and welcomed
them with a childlike greeting appropriate for the time of day.
Bowing past the woman, Tina stopped and drew a deep breath. The air
smelled of merchandise and money. With a satisfied smile, she searched
for the women's wear department. It was time for some serious shopping.
"Keep it real, Tina," Steven warned. "We don't have a lot of money
"Don't worry," she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I
just need some underwear and three outfits."
"Underwear and TWO outfits," Steven corrected.
She frowned. What a skinflint, she thought. Still, since money
was an issue, she'd make the sacrifice - this time. After all, he was
going to owe her a lot more after this trip was over. Maybe a full
night shopping on the Ginza.
Cracking her knuckles like she was about to do battle, she led the
way across the store and into the women's wear department. Making sure
he was still behind her, she grinned mischievously at how uncomfortable
Steven looked as she wound her way towards the summer fashions.
"May I help you?" asked a young female clerk when they emerged from
the shoe section right in front of a whole wall covered with fashionable
"I need... uh, something casual and appropriate for the season,"
Tina said, eyeing some of the more expensive outfits on the wall.
"Very good. About how much were you looking to spend?" the clerk
asked, her smile never wavering.
"Oh, not too much," Tina replied, checking Steven. Seeing him nod
his approval, she started fingering a particularly nice skirt hanging
As the young clerk started towards the back of the store, Steven
hesitated to follow.
"What's wrong?" Tina asked.
"I need to see about something I don't have in our bags," he
replied, glancing towards the wall across the store. "You pick out what
you need and I'll meet you back here in half an hour."
"Well, okay," Tina replied with a sigh. It wasn't going to be as
much fun without getting to model various outfits for him.
She started to follow the clerk when a thought occurred to her.
"What a minute," she called towards the retreating Steven. "Half an
hour? I can't even pick out underwear in only half an hour."
"You'll do fine," Steven said from several aisles away.
With a growl, she turned on her heel and stomped after the clerk.
"Men!" she snarled.
Almost exactly thirty minutes later, she had indeed picked out what
she wanted. Most had been on sale so she added a nice pair of hiking
shoes to her selections. They went perfectly with the cargo shorts and
safari shirt she picked out.
Steven shyly arrived just as she was about to pick out some
"Find what you were looking for?" she asked in jest.
"Yeah. So, you finished here?" He glanced around like just being
in the women's wear department made him more nervous than dodging North
"Just need some personal necessities," she said with a giggle.
Holding up a pair of fairly common cotton panties, she smiled sweetly.
"You like these?"
Steven tugged at his collar and quickly looked away. "They're
She put them back and pulled out a pair of french cut panties with
a little lace around its waistband. "How about these?"
"Um, those are fine, too," he said, his face turning red. A couple
of middle-aged women shoppers nearby giggled together at his discomfort.
Tina almost joined them as she pulled out a full thong with a
series of tiny hearts on its single triangle of fabric. "These are
nice," she said innocently.
"You... you wear stuff like that?" he stammered, his eyes shifting
between the tiny strip of material in her hands and her innocent-looking
"No, not really. I'm just seeing how red your face can get," she
said, dangling the skimpy garment in front of him before putting it
"Will you just pick something," he hissed.
"Yeah, you're right. Cotton is much cooler," she replied with a
mischievous grin. She glanced at the giggling women and winked, causing
them to giggle even louder. A few other curious women had wandered
closer to watch the show. Clutching a package of bikini cut white
cotton panties to her chest, she sighed loudly. "I just don't know what
I'd do, if you weren't here to help me choose. After all, you're the
only man who will ever see me in these." She held the package out for
the clerk. Steven's cheeks colored deep scarlet and his head tried to
imitate that of a turtle.
"Tina, this isn't funny," he said in English.
"If a wife can't have a little fun, what's the point in being
married?" she asked, sounding like a Texas cheerleader.
Turning to the clerk, she handed over the panties. "He likes
these. We'll take 'em."
The clerk giggled, casting amused glances at the still embarrassed
Steven. "How do you get a husband to submit to such teasing?" she asked
Tina in a hushed voice.
"Well, you gotta train them early," Tina replied with a wink. "But
you don't want to overdo it. Scares them off."
The clerk giggled again, the other women giggled some more, and
Tina smugly soaked it all up. This part of the trip was turning out to
be more fun that she hoped.
Steven hastily paid for her shopping spree, never once commenting
on how much it cost him. He seemed more interested in getting out of
the women's department.
"You find what you were lookin' for?" Tina innocently asked. She
knew he was embarrassed at the show she had put on. His stony silence
hinted that he was also just a little bit upset. She felt a bit
irritated at how he was acting but there was also a hint of remorse at
putting him on the spot that way. He really didn't deserve it. After
all, he'd rescued her twice in the last few days and treated her pretty
well since. Perhaps she had gone too far this time. She knew her sense
of humor took a little getting used to and they hadn't known each other
very long. Maybe that was it. He didn't understand it was just her way
Casting furtive glances his way, she noticed he'd gone back to
suspiciously examining each person around them. Haunted by her own
confused emotions, she said nothing.
Tina was still quietly trying to sort out her feelings over her
little prank as they left the store. She had her new clothes in her bag
but for some reason it didn't comfort her as much as it should.
When they turned towards the train station, her indecision bubbled
over. "Hey, you mad at me?" she asked, tilting her head over to look at
"No," he replied abruptly.
"You sound like you're angry," she said frowning at the sidewalk.
His hand suddenly gripped her upper arm. Before she could protest,
he yanked her between two buildings. Spinning her around to face him,
Steven scowled her way. "Look, what you did was cause a scene," he said
in a scolding voice. "One of the first things you have to learn about
this business is you never do anything to draw attention to yourself. I
know that's hard to do being a Westerner in Japan but you have to try.
Causing a scene invites people to look. When people look, it can
sometimes expose you folks who want to do you harm. Do you understand?"
Tina pouted. She didn't like being scolded but had to admit it was
probably deserved. Despite their peaceful innocence, every place they'd
been was potentially dangerous. Her actions today compounded that
danger. "You're right. I'm sorry," she said softly.
"I'm not angry with you, Tina. I'm just disappointed. I thought
after what those guys did to you that you'd be a little more cautious."
He let go of her arm and adjusted the bag over his shoulder. "I don't
want you to get hurt, Tina. To be honest, I'll consider this mission a
success if I can get you home safe and free of the Koreans."
"But what about that... thing you stole?" she asked.
Steven shook his head. "It's more important to someone else than
to me." He looked deep into her eyes. "To tell the truth, getting you
home is more important to me than some lousy piece of circuitry. The
fact is, Tina Foster, I really like you and that's the part that makes
this even harder."
"I... I didn't..." she stammered, her cheeks burning with what had
to be the deepest blush she'd ever had. Did he just say what she
thought he said? All she could do was stare at him, her heart pounding
in her ears. She felt like a high school girl again, facing a guy who
sounded like he was confessing his feelings to her. The sensation was
exciting and frightening at the same time.
She was still trying to sort out what it all meant when he took her
hand in his. It felt warm, soft, and comfortable - like something she
never wanted to let go of.
"Let's get back into character and finish this trip so I can get
you home," he said.
Leading her back out to the sidewalk, they started towards the
train station again. As it came into view, Steven jerked to a halt
before darting into an alleyway, pulling the confused Tina with him.
"What now?" she demanded.
Steven looked like he'd seen a ghost. "They're back," he gasped,
pressing himself against the store wall.
"What? No way!" Tina released his hand and peered around the
corner. In front of the train station stood two men in dark suits,
eyeing each person passing by. One looked familiar, very familiar.
Turning back to Steven, her shoulders sagged. He was now squatting
down with his back against the wall. His face twisted into a mask of
torment and confusion.
"I don't understand," he gasped. "How do they keep finding me?
What am I doing wrong?"
Tina knelt next to him, a little shaken herself. Only she was
shaken more over his reaction than their predicament. "It might just be
a coincidence," she offered, not really believing it herself.
Steven shook his head. "NO! Everywhere I go, they show up. It's
like they know where I'm going to be."
She chanced another peek around the corner. There was no mistaking
the two Korean agents standing guard to the entrance of the train
station. She recognized both from the warehouse. Two more soon
appeared from the nearby bus station. There was no way she and Steven
were going to get past them and back on a train.
When she returned to her partner, he was still muttering questions
about the things he should have done to evade his pursuers.
"Maybe, they got spies all over the place who are reporting on us,"
she said. She couldn't believe that the kindly Mrs. Ohta was a North
Korean spy. She didn't want to believe that. There were others along
the way who could have informed on them but two traveling Westerners
were fairly common in Japan during the summer. Picking her and Steven
out of so many seemed like an impossible task. So how else could they
be tracking them?
Tracking them? That thought suggested an obvious possibility.
"You know, when folks in those big animal parks want to track the
movements of an animal, they put a tracking collar on 'em. Could the
Koreans have done something like that to you?"
"No," he replied, his eyes squeezed shut as he dismissed the idea.
"I ditched all the clothes I wore when we penetrated the Korean's
hideout back in Tokyo."
Tina hummed her agreement and slowly looked away as she rolled
around in her head the tracking collar idea. If the Koreans didn't slip
something into Steven's pocket or something like that, there had to be
She was about to dismiss the whole idea when something occurred to
her. "What about that gizmo you took?" she anxiously asked.
Steven's eyes popped open, like the same thought occurred to him as
well. He shrugged off his bag's shoulder strap and started clawing at
the collar of his shirt. In moments, he produced a small brown leather
bag that hung on a leather strap around his neck.
Yanking open the bag, he pulled out the stolen electronic card key.
Holding it up, he carefully examined both sides of the device. After
several minutes, he sighed. "I don't even know what I'm looking for but
I'll bet you're right," he said softly in disgust.
"Well, pitch it in the trash and we'll sneak out the back way.
They'll never find us in Japan without the tracking signal," Tina said.
But Steven only shook his head. "I can't do that. Sylvester
risked everything to get this thing and gave his life trying to get it
to our contact. I can't just throw it away."
Tina fought the urge to snatch it out of his hand and throw it as
far as she could. Only the look on his face when he mentioned his dead
partner kept her at bay. That left only one solution. "Okay, then we
have to cut off its signal," she said, glancing at his face to see if he
Receiving no response, she turned towards an overflowing trash bin
in the alley and began to gingerly sort through the refuse. It took a
few minutes of handling things almost as bad as hippo poop before she
found something that looked like it might work.
"Put it in here," she said, holding out a small metal mint
"I doubt that will be enough," he said with a degree of
"That's why I'm going to wrap it with this," she replied, holding
up a wad of used aluminum foil. "We used to make fun of people who said
aliens were bombarding their brains with mind control waves by offering
to wrap their heads in foil."
Shooting Tina a skeptical look, Steven sighed. "Your friends
thought aliens were trying to control them with mind control rays?"
"Only the ones in California," she said, taking the card key and
wrapping it in the cleanest part of the salvaged aluminum foil.
She finished wrapping the card key and tore off the excess foil
before fitting it into the mint container. Squeezing the lid shut, she
tied it securely with some discarded twine. A few minutes later, she
held up the container and nodded her approval. "What'cha think?"
"Well, it looks like it ought to work," he said. "I just hope the
foil doesn't short circuit anything on the key."
"Who cares?" Tina replied, dismissing his fears as easily as she
had the excess aluminum foil. "Even if it does, they won't be tracking
us anymore and you can still deliver what's left of it to your people."
When Steven agreed that her plan was pretty good, she blushed at
his compliment. "So, what now?"
"We need to get out of here," he said, standing up and shoving the
mint container into the pocket of his pants. "We better stick to the
Both shouldered their bags as they set off deeper into the alley.
It ended at a cross street that ran along side the railroad tracks.
Leaning over, she could see the tracks disappear around the corner of a
building a couple of blocks away, probably heading into the train
A gentle nudge from Steven and she turned away from the station,
staying close to the buildings as Steven followed her towards the far
end of town.
The minutes seemed like hours as they carefully picked their way
through the little town, keeping to the back streets and checking around
each corner before proceeding.
Before long, they emerged into the outskirts of town on a road that
seemed to hang on the edge of the mountain. It was only then she
noticed that Kagome had been built on a flat plateau that overlooked a
beautiful valley hundreds of feet below. Any other time and this would
have been a perfect photo opportunity. But this wasn't just 'any other
Steven turned off the road into a small grove of trees, his caution
as evident as ever. Dropping his bag he surveyed the possible escape
"We could stick to the road but if they figure out we cut the
tracking signal, that's going to be the first place they'll look," he
said, kneeling down to rummage through his bag.
Tina peered over his shoulder trying to determine just what he was
searching for. "I guess you probably have some high tech gizmo in there
that's going to tell us which way to go."
"Not quite," Steven replied. Pulling out a detailed map of the
region, he spread it on the ground. Adding a common compass, he rotated
the map until everything pointed north. "Okay, we are here," he said,
pointing to a spot just outside Kagome. Tracing the road with his
finger it only confirmed that it would be the most likely escape route,
one the Koreans would most certainly check first. Following the road
would probably expose them to discovery long before they got to the next
"What's those little dashes?" Tina asked, pointing to a couple of
dashed lines that left the main road and appeared to head into the
"Looks like some kind of trail." Steven traced the first but found
it just wound its way down to the floor of the valley and then back up
to the other side of Kagome.
The second wasn't much better, ending only a short distance down
The third, however, seemed to emerge onto another road in the
valley that led directly to the town of Katise.
"That's about five kilometers," Steven said, turning to Tina.
"Think you can make it?"
"Hey, it's downhill all the way," she chirped. "Besides, I've
walked farther on my trip around the world."
Steven started to fold up the map. "How are your ankles?"
Tina had forgotten about her painful injuries received from the
kidnaping. Wiggling one foot, she smiled confidently. "I'm okay."
If he suspected otherwise, he hid it well. Stuffing the map and
compass back into his bag, Steven pulled out a couple of brochure-sized
"What are those?" she asked, curiously leaning in, trying to pick
out some of the Japanese words printed on the documents.
"Bus and train schedules for the region," Steven replied as he
thumbed through a few pages. "I think we can catch a train for the
coast just before dark. That would put us into Aomizusaki a little
Tina shook her head. "You sure have a lot of amazing things in
that bag. What else you got?"
With a sigh, Steven just closed the schedules and stuffed them back
into the bag. "Just a few things I need. I packed this just in case I
got separated from my partner. Mienaku-Naru was my escape point.
That's standard procedure when on a mission."
"You don't have another gun in there, do you?" she asked, a little
unsure that she really wanted to know. She didn't like guns very much.
She had seen how they were used in some of the places she had visited on
her travels. They weren't the prettiest of memories.
"No," he replied. "My backup piece is in a locker back in Tokyo.
We don't dare go back to get it."
"Right," Tina said, feeling a little relieved and yet strangely
disappointed. A gun might be dangerous but it could also provide a
degree of protection should they run into the Koreans again. From what
she had seen of Steven's marksmanship, it might do more than that.
Gathering their things, Steven cautiously led her back onto the
road. The trail they wanted was only a few hundred meters or so.
Casting worried looks back towards Kagome, Tina followed Steven along
the road's edge.
It didn't take them long to find where the trail left the road.
The entrance looked overgrown and little used, perfect for two people
Tina followed Steven off the road and onto the narrow, winding path
as best she could. The difference in how she walked was noticeable.
Walking on a flat surface such as a street was one thing, negotiating a
crooked, rocky dirt path that was always going downhill was completely
They had gone less than a kilometer when the pain in her right
ankle got bad. Still, she tried to cover her growing disability by
appearing to be cautious, stepping more carefully over the rocky surface
cut through by exposed tree roots and dangling vines.
By the second kilometer, she was limping. Both ankles ached with
every step. Every time Steven looked back her way, she tried to pretend
to be stepping carefully over some obstacle. She hoped it fooled him.
A few minutes later, he stopped. With a heavy sigh, he turned to
look directly at Tina.
"What?" she asked innocently as she could.
"Give me your bag," he said, holding out a hand.
"Because you've been limping for the last half hour," he said,
grabbing her bag's strap and pulling it off her shoulder. "If you don't
have to carry any extra weight, you might make it to Katise."
Tina started to protest but knew he was right. Both her ankles
ached so bad she wasn't sure if she could make it at all. If she
couldn't, he would probably end up carrying her. That would be
Shouldering both bags, Steven resumed negotiating the trail but at
a slower pace. Tina had to admit, it was easier walking without the
added weight on her shoulder but it was still unpleasant.
By the time they got to the halfway point, her limp was really bad.
She felt flushed and wanted nothing more than to sit down somewhere.
Steven pulled off the trail opposite a small Shinto shrine. A thin
mountain stream cut its way close to the trail there and a couple of
boulders were placed next to the stream as if designed to give hikers a
place to rest.
Guiding Tina to one of the low boulders, he dropped the bags and
knelt down to examine her ankles. She watched with increasing anxiety
as he gently handled her bare leg.
"Swollen," he said before untying the laces of her right shoe.
Easing it off, he gingerly felt around the injured area. "This isn't
good, Tina. Your ankle is as swollen as it was the night I found you in
"That bad?" she asked, knowing full well it was that bad and
"Ordinarily I'd hole up somewhere until they healed enough for
travel but I need to get to Aomizusaki by tomorrow." He reached for her
other leg. Cradling it in his hands, he removed her other shoe and
sock. "What are you doing wearing these flimsy sneakers anyway?"
"Well, I didn't know we were goin' to hike all the way there," she
growled, crossing her arms defiantly. How was she to know they were
going to take this nature trail? The plan was they were going to ride a
train down to the coast.
Steven checked his watch and looked back up the trail as if
deciding what to do. "We've got less than an hour for you to rest. I
doubt that will be enough but it'll have to do. For now..."
Without warning, he spun her part way around on the rock and
plunged both her ankles into the swift-running stream.
The shock of the cold water on her skin caused her to throw her
head back and squeal loudly. Her frantic attempts to pull her feet out
were stopped by Steven's weight on her legs, trapping them in the icy
"What are you doing?" she managed to gasp.
"I don't have any ice. We need to reduce the swelling before I can
try to get your new hiking shoes on," he said in a surprisingly calm
voice - considering she was now pounding on his back in an attempt to
get him to release her legs. "They have better ankle support."
Her blows became weaker as she tired and her feet went numb. The
freezing water also numbed her throbbing ankles. With a heavy sigh, she
leaned back on the rock, supported by her hands. A shudder ran through
her body as the cold crawled up her legs to her hips. She might have
gone into a full shivver except Steven's warm body was still on her
"You can get up now," she said breathing more normally. "I think
the cold treatment is working."
Slowly Steven eased off her legs and sat back on the ground.
"Good. You know, you have a really wicked punch."
"A girl's gotta protect herself," Tina replied with a grimace as
another twinge of pain shot up her right leg.
Steven hesitated as if empathizing with her injury. "You do pretty
good, Tina Foster."
Tina blushed at the compliment. All along, she felt like she was a
burden but lately, with the discovery of the tracking device and his
compliment over her ability to take care of herself, she began to feel
like she might be some value to Steven's team after all.
As her feet soaked in the icy stream, Steven went about condensing
their two bags into one. Things he thought could be abandoned were. In
the end, all that was left were clothes for both of them and a few items
he must have thought necessary.
Thirty minutes later, after several cold water dunkings of her
ankles, Steven pronounced the swelling sufficiently reduced to try her
new hiking shoes.
Her feet were still numb from their icy plunge to feel much when he
slipped clean socks on them. The shoes only hurt a little bit as he
worked them gently over her feet. He tied the laces as tight as he
dared, hoping the added support would give her a chance to walk the rest
of the way down to Katise.
"Ready to try standing up?" he asked.
Tina drew a deep breath and nodded. Easing her feet under her, she
held Steven's hands as she slowly put her weight on her legs. The pain
was still there but it was much less now. "I... I think I can make it."
Steven shouldered their one remaining bag and again led the way
back onto the path.
They hadn't gone far before the pain returned. This time, Steven
didn't hesitate. Over her protests, he wrapped her arms around his neck
and lifted her onto his back. It took him a few moments to work her and
the bag into a satisfactory position before resuming his trek.
Ashamed at being unable to walk on her own, Tina closed her eyes
and rested her cheek on his shoulder. It wasn't easy to keep from
crying but she tried anyway. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "It's all my
"Nonsense," Steven replied, shifting her body as he carefully
stepped over an exposed root. "You've taken a beating over the last two
days. Anybody else would be laying in a bed whimpering. You're a tough
Tina sniffed and shook her head as much as her position allowed.
"You should have left me behind."
"That's not possible - partner," he replied. "I don't leave my
"Is that what you American agents are like?"
"I don't know about that. But it's what I'm like."
It took them an hour longer than planned but they eventually
emerged from the mountain trail onto a smooth road just outside of
"You want to try and walk?" Steven said, stopping just off the
"I'm heavy, aren't I?" she asked.
Steven chuckled. "No but I'm getting tired and it wouldn't look
good if I carried you into town. You remember what I said about
"Yeah, I guess a big American carrying a dainty little blond girl
on his back would attract attention." She eased herself off his back,
gingerly testing her ankles as her weight settled onto them.
To her surprise, they didn't feel all that bad.
Stretching and readjusting the bag still on his shoulder, Steven
offered his hand. She shyly took it and followed him onto the road.
Their pace was slower than normal, due to her stiff gait, but they
easily made their way into town.
From his earlier use of their map, Steven knew approximately where
the train station was. Remembering what happened to them in Kagome,
they warily approached.
To their mutual relief, there wasn't a Korean in sight.
"Looks like your hunch about the card key was right," Steven said.
"By now, I'm sure they've discovered they can't track us anymore. I'll
bet they're having kittens trying to figure out where we went," he said
with a chuckle.
Tina, placing each step carefully, just hummed her agreement. She
was determined to walk into town and get on the train under her own
power. She squeezed his hand in a reassuring way.
The distance to the train station wasn't all that far, certainly
shorter than what she walked that first night. Each step was stiff and
flat-footed as she tried to put as little strain on her injured ankles
as possible. Despite the slow pace, they made it onto the platform and
to a seating area near the ticket windows.
Easing into the seat, Tina groaned softly as weight left her
ankles. It was a blessed relief. Their walking was over, for now. On
the train, she'd have time to rest her ankles and maybe they'd be okay
for the rest of the trip. She certainly didn't want to return home
limping like some war refugee. That would have been embarrassing.
Home. Funny how that old Victorian mansion in Tokyo had come to be
called 'home'. It was really just another stop on her long journey
through life - and a temporary one at that. Sure, it had people she
regarded almost as much as her own family but they were only a
collection of misfits like her.
Taeko, the clumsy but good hearted maid, had no idea what she was
going to do after college. But then, that wasn't unusual considering
how the girl's mind worked.
Chika was a bundle of energy, just coming into young womanhood.
Despite her constant attempts to fix up Taeko with an eligible young
man, she meant well and was always a joy to have around. Her future was
the most open of them all. She still had the rest of high school and
then college to look forward to.
Miss Manager would probably stay by Miss Landlord's side but that
really wasn't much of a life for her. She'd just end up taking care of
Miss Landlord's children and repeating the cycle over without a chance
of finding someone for herself and maybe having her own children.
Of course, Miss Landlord was already fixed for life. Rich, cute,
and totally refined, she could have anyone she chose. Unfortunately, it
looked like her interest was in Kaoru. It was obvious he also had
interest in her. Just the way he looked at Miss Landlord when he
thought nobody could see him told Tina that much.
Tina drew a deep breath. Maybe... just maybe, there was no point
in holding out hope that Kaoru would return the love she felt for him.
Maybe it was time to move on.
She looked over her shoulder and watched Steven get their tickets,
still casting wary glances at every person who came or went from the
little station. Why did he say those things to her in the alley back in
Kagome? Did he really like her in that way? Why did that bother her so
She was still deep in thought, her eyes staring unfocused at the
floor in front of her when she felt Steven take a seat next to her.
"We're just in time," he said. "The next train is due in about ten
She heard him but only enough to acknowledge his presence. Her mind
was still working out what he meant this afternoon.
"We're not going directly to Aomizusaki," he said softly. He
sounded as tired as she felt. "We're heading west to Nagano. We can
catch a train heading south from there. That should put is in
Aomizusaki by dawn."
"Dawn?" Tina asked, snapping a confused look his way.
"We need time to sleep. At least, you do." He smiled down at her.
"We can't afford another place to stay. The ticket agent assures me the
seats we got are as comfortable as those on an airplane."
Airplane seats? Tina sighed and looked down at the station
platform floor. The last time she tried to sleep on an airplane, she
woke up with a terrible headache and a sore neck.
"After I hand off this card key, I'll get you home." The way he
said that made her feel uneasy.
"Home," she mumbled.
"After all, you've got a good reason to get home," he said. "Your
boyfriend, Kaoru, is probably waiting for you."
Tina's eyes blinked open. Kaoru? How did he know about Kaoru?
She only mentioned him once and that was in passing. It wasn't like she
told him everything. How could he possibly know about her relationship
- or lack thereof - with Kaoru Hanabishi?
"How...?" she started to ask but the look on Steven's face caused
her words to jam up in her throat.
"You talk in your sleep, Tina," Steven replied, turning away, like
he didn't want to even face her. "Last night, you sounded like you were
with him. You kept saying over and over how much you loved him." A
dark chuckle welled up from deep inside Steven. It sounded like someone
who was lamenting his own foolishness. "I guess, I should have known
all along that a pretty girl like you would have a boyfriend. He must
be something special to be part of your dreams."
When Steven turned back, his painful smile was like that of a
condemned man facing the inevitable. She tried to say something,
anything, but the words wouldn't come out. All she could do is move her
lips in aborted attempts to explain.
Before she could work the right words free, Steven slapped his
knees and stood up. "Well, I guess I better see about some coffee," he
said. "I'll just be a minute."
As he walked towards a row of vending machines at the far end of
the station, Tina sagged into her seat. Squeezing her eyes shut she
hissed through gritted teeth, "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" What was wrong
with her? Why couldn't she say anything? Why couldn't she tell Steven
it was all a mistake, just a dream from her past? Kaoru had been part
of her dreams for a couple of years now. At first, they were hopes
about things that might become real. Lately, they had become dreams
like any girl might have about some unobtainable guy - like a rock star
or athlete. They weren't to be taken seriously in real life, and this
was as real as life got.
Hanging her head, she shuddered like a chill had take her body.
She'd screwed up again. One of the nicest guys she'd met in Japan had
given up on her and was about to walk out of her life, if only in an
Despite her best efforts, she felt the first tear work its way
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