Saturday August 14th;
With everything packed up, and everyone ready to return home, the team now waited at the airport gate for their departure time.
"This week sure hasn't been boring." said Suzuka as they waited
"Why do we have to get up so early?" Keiko asked "It's 3:30 in the morning."
"Because 4:00am is when the plane takes off." said Meiko "Don't forget that we're going west over the date line. By the time we get to Narita, it'll be 10:00 at night."
Just then, Taeko arrived with Mina Meier in tow
"Mina Meier? What are you doing here?" Keiko asked
"I've got business in Japan." Mina said in Japanese, much to everyone's surprise
"You speak Japanese?!" Suzuka asked
"I've been practicing over the last couple of years." Mina replied
"Unbelievable!" Keiko thought
"What business do you you have in our domain?" Nanami asked
"I'm sure these two will find out near the end of the month." said Mina, looking at Keiko and Suzuka
"What does she mean by that?" Keiko thought as a middle-aged man who just got off a nearby flight from Syria sat down next to her "And what's with this guy? Is he doing a layover? Wait a minute... this middle-aged man looks familiar." Just then, the man pulled a photo out of his wallet, and Keiko recognized it right away! "That picture! I've seen that same one in Yuki's old room! That's Yuki and her parents! This man.... It can't be!" Her curiosity getting the better of her, Keiko decided to confirm what she thought "Excuse me, sir."
"I've seen a copy of that picture in a friend's room. Do you know a girl by the name, Aziza Sharafi?"
"Yes." said the man "My name is Tariq Sharafi. Do you know my daughter?"
"I knew it! My name is Keiko Aizawa, sir."
"Keiko? Aziza told me about you in her messages." said Tariq, suddenly speaking Japanese
"You speak our language?" Suzuka asked, joining in the conversation
"I learned it from my late wife. Tell me, how is Aziza... er... I guess she goes by 'Yuki' now."
"Yes. She's my best friend in the whole world." said Keiko "And she's doing well. She now lives in the same building as the two of us."
"That's good to hear."
"I've heard about how you were forced to return to Syria years ago, but I've been wondering about Yuki's beginnings." said Suzuka "How did you get to be in Japan in the first place."
"I've been wondering for a few years as well." said Keiko "How did you get to meet her mother?"
"I might as well tell you, since we have time, and you're such good friends with my daughter." said Tariq as he launched into story "Let's see; it all started when Damascus fell to the Free Syrian Army. Assad had vanished and the Loyalist Government was forced to disperse, myself included. Within a few days I wounded up in the UAE, and boarded a plane headed for Japan. That's when I met Azi- Yuki's mother, Yoshiko Nonomiya (芳子 野々宮). She was a Japanese journalist covering a story of the President of the UAE possibly having illegitimate children. But it turned out to a wild goose chase and she was returning to Japan in frustration. I sat next to her on that flight, and got acquainted with her. Although the language barrier didn't help."
"Japanese and Arabic is pretty different in many many ways." said Keiko
"Too true. Thankfully we both knew English perfectly. When we arrived in Japan we intended to go our separate ways, but met up again almost immediately after going through the passport procedure. I tried to get a cab, but I didn't speak any Japanese at the time, or have any Yen. Thankfully, Yoshiko helped me out and let me stay with her since I had no place to go."
"Yuki's mother was too nice." said Suzuka
"I'll tell her you said that. I had intended to only stay until I got a place of my own... but, little by little, the longer I stayed, the more I grew attached to Yoshiko. We were doing almost everything together. She taught me Japanese, she found me a job. I couldn't imagine my life without her. I always felt guilty for hiding who I truly was from her, but I just couldn't bear to lose her trust. I fell in love with her. We officially became a couple six months after I first met her. Then, two years later, we found out she was pregnant, I proposed to her, and we got married. But it was through an elopement since her parents didn't approve of me at all! Azi- Yuki, was born about five months later. I'm sure you two know the rest."
"I had a slight suspicion that you two were runaways." said Keiko
"Passengers for flight 22364 to Narita prepare to board." an airport employee announced from the intercom
"That's us people, let's move." said Taeko
"We can talk more through the flight." said Keiko "I'll tell you how Yuki's been holding up for the last eight years."
"Wait! Wait a minute!" called Jade as she ran up to them "Seguridad ... aquí ... se también ... estricto." Jade panted
"What?" Keiko inquired
"She said 'security here is too strict'." said Suzuka "But, Jade, what are you doing here?"
"I came to see you off." said Jade as she straightened up "Another thing; I know we live in separate countries, but we'll see each other again, right?"
"Count on it." said Keiko
"But make sure you send your e-mails in English." said Suzuka
"Right. Last thing; I've got no chance of qualifying for the World Cup, but all three of us will be at Casablanca 2036."
"That's a promise!" said Keiko
The plane took off twenty minutes later. During the flight, Keiko told Tariq all about the Yuki she knew, and Tariq was please to know that she was doing just fine. After a four-hour flight, they had arrived at Narita Airport, at almost 10:00pm.
"Japan at last!" Suzuka moaned when they exited the gate "I just wanna go home and collapse in my bed from jet-lag."
"My aunt's meeting us at the luggage carousel." Keiko said to Taeko "You'll understand if we part with the team there."
"That's fine." said Taeko "Everyone's meeting people or going straight home. Meier, you'll stay with me for a few days."
"Thanks so much." said Mina
After Keiko, Suzuka, and Tariq went through customs and retrieved their luggage, they found Mito. She was most surprised that the man with them was Yuki's father. All four of them then got in her car and was back at Sakagami by midnight.
"Welcome back you two." said Haruto, who, along with Yukiho, Natsumi and Miyuki, and Yuki had waited to greet them
"How was Panama?" Miyuki asked
"Very hot!" Keiko and Suzuka exclaimed
"I imagine so." said Mito
"Did you bring back some souvenirs?" Natsumi asked
"Sorry, Natsumi. We're mostly empty-handed." said Suzuka
"I have a souvenir for Yuki though." said Keiko
"What kind?" Yuki asked
"The best one of all. That's your que..."
Right then, Tariq emerged from the car. Yuki clapped her hands over her mouth in shock when she saw his face.
"I'm home, Sweetheart."
"Daddy..." Yuki said weakly, tears welling up in her eyes as she ran into his arms and hugged him "I missed you so much!" Yuki cried
"Yuki-chan's dad?" Natsumi and Miyuki asked
"I was surprised too." said Mito
"Daddy... come to my room. I have so much to tell you." said Yuki, calming down at last "And, Kei-chan, Saito-kun's waiting for you. Although he might be asleep, since it's late and he's had it rough with his mom making him work at the hospital."
Everyone parted ways for the night and went to their rooms, Tariq joining Yuki in her room. Keiko, dead tired herself, made her way to her and Saito's room.
"He left the door unlocked." Keiko thought when she opened the door "So careless." Keiko closed the door and removed her shoes
Inside there was evidence that Saito had taken a shower some time ago. When Keiko looked around the inside door to the main room, there was Saito, lying face down on the bed wearing nothing, probably having collapsed without getting dressed. Unable to help herself, Keiko started stripping.
"That you, Michiru?" Saito asked into the pillow as Keiko stripped as quietly as she could "I told you to stop coming here so late at night. Just because it's summer and Keiko's not here that doesn't give you free reign in our home." completely nude now, Keiko laid her bare self down on Saito's bare back "Michiru, what're you... no... you're too tall, and your breasts are too big to be my little sister's."
"I missed you." Keiko whispered into Saito's ear.
Quickly, almost like lightning, Saito slipped Keiko under him and embraced and kissed her with so much passion
"I missed you too." said Saito "So, so much."
"I'm home." said Keiko
Overjoyed at being together again, lateness of the hour forgotten, Keiko and Saito made love once before falling asleep together.
Sunday August 15;
Keiko and Saito woke up at the same time the next morning, but only Saito had any real energy.
"I take it you're still sleepy?" said Saito as he got dressed
"Can it." said Keiko as she turned on her side to face Saito "I had to get up at 3:00 in the morning, local time, yesterday. Can you blame me for falling asleep the instant we finished last night? I don't even have the energy to get up right now."
"I can't. You can rest a while longer. But try to hold still."
Saito took out his sketch book to a clean page. Keiko, smiling, got the hint and shifted to a more comfortable position.
"Did anything interesting happen while I was away?" Keiko asked as Saito drew
"Plenty." Saito replied "The biggest of which was; Saki-chan's mom found out about Hiroki-kun."
"Was it bad?"
"You don't know the half of it. She tried to stop Saki-chan from seeing Hiroki-kun again. It took some convincing from Nana-san and Kakeru-san, but she allowed them to keep dating. What really did it was witnessing Hiroki-kun's first international game with the U-13. It was against the American U-13 Youth Team, with the final score 0-5 for Japan, Hiroki-kun pulling off some truly remarkable saves."
"That's my brother." Keiko said proudly "Ooh, that reminds me. It was by sheer coincidence, but Suzuka and I met Yuki's father and brought him here last night."
"You're kidding!" said Saito as he erased a jagged line he made out of surprise
"It's true. We should probably go say hi later."
A half-hour later Saito finished the drawing, and Keiko finally had enough strength to get up. After getting dressed and having breakfast, the pair were greeted by some early morning visitors.
"Nee-chan/Kei-nee/Onee-chan!" exclaimed Keiko's siblings when they burst into the room and hugged Keiko
"Hold on you three, I can't breathe." said Keiko as Hiroki, Ryo and Koichi squeezed her
"Sorry, Keiko, I couldn't stop them." said Chloe, who just walked into the room with Saki behind her
"Welcome home, Onee-san." said Saki
"Good to be home." said Keiko as her siblings released her "I heard you played in your first international match while I was away, Hiroki. Pulled off a shutout too."
"It was awesome!" said Hiroki "And I have another match this Wednesday."
"Do your best, Hiroki-kun." said Saki
"By the way when did you get home?" Ryo asked
"Late last night." Keiko replied "Sorry for not calling right away."
"Don't worry about it." said Chloe "Everyone was sound asleep anyway."
"Onee-chan, let's play soccer!" said Koichi
"Koichi, Kei-nee is still tired from her trip." said Ryo
"Actually, I could use a workout." said Keiko
They picked up Yuki and Tariq before going to their usual park to practice.
"Okay, first half; Yuki and Ryo against Chloe and myself." said Keiko as Saito, Tariq, Koichi and Saki sat on the nearby park bench and Hiroki set up to be Keeper
"Even if it's just practice, I actually get to see my little girl play." said Tariq
"Prepare to be amazed, Daddy." said Yuki
"Don't get full of it." said Ryo "Here I come, Kei-nee!"
Ryo ran with the ball at Keiko, but Keiko, without even flinching, managed to seal the ball away with only her leg.
"Ryo, why do you keep losing the ball?" Keiko asked
"Because you're so much better than me." said Ryo
"It's true." said Koichi
"I wasn't asking you." Keiko replied "Ryo, I won't deny that our skill levels are different, but you have a weakness that's bad for a forward."
"I've noticed too." said Chloe
"W-what weakness?" Ryo inquired
"Like Hiroki, you have a tendency to focus on what you're doing, so...."
"....Figure it out yourself."
"That's cruel, Keiko." said Saito
"Shut it! If she can't figure it out then there's no point."
"Onee-san's right." said Saki
"Soccer's more complicated than I thought." said Tariq
"Kei-chan, pass me the ball." said Yuki "Ryo-chan, come here." Yuki passed Ryo the ball and asked her to try and pass her. "Stop! Where were you looking?" Yuki asked before Ryo could move
"I was looking at the.... I get it. I'm looking at the ball too much." said Ryo
"Bravo." said Hiroki as he walked up to Ryo
"Was that sarcasm?"
"Papa had the same problem when he was our age." said Keiko "You could ask him how he overcame it and try it yourself."
"That sounds like a good idea, but Dad's kinda indisposed right now. Ow!" Ryo nudged Hiroki in the rib with her elbow
"Indisposed? What does that mean?" Keiko asked "Did something else happen while I was away?"
Nearly everyone looked away uncomfortably.
"Hey, Aizawa-senpai." called Noriko from the road "Welcome back to Japan."
"You need something?" Keiko asked
"Not really. But why are you here and not visiting your dad in the hos...." Noriko stopped talking as Yuki repeatedly drew her hand across her throat behind Keiko's back, but Keiko noticed.
"What happened while I was away?" Keiko demanded of the group
"No one say anything!" said Chloe
"Hiroki. Ryo. Koichi. Front and center."
The kids did as told and Keiko gave them all a piercing stare that made it look like she was towering above them. Still they would not speak.
"Keiko, you really shouldn't...." Saito stopped talking as Keiko gave him the "Girlfriend Look".
That look was enough to make Saito talk, and he explained that Kakeru had been hospitalized while Keiko was away.
Keiko, Saito, Yuki and Tariq all went to Kamakura Central Hospital to see Kakeru, while Chloe took the kids to wait at the Aizawa house
"Papa!" Keiko exclaimed when she burst into Kakeru's room
"Keiko?" said Kakeru, who was in bed reading a magazine "What are you doing here?" In response, Keiko went up to Kakeru and hugged him around the neck "Keiko, I can't breathe."
"I thought we asked you not to tell her." said Nana, who was sitting at Kakeru's bedside peeling an apple
"She was a little forceful." said Saito as Keiko released Kakeru
"You looked at me in the eye without blinking the night before you two moved into your apartment." said Kakeru
"You never gave me the 'Girlfriend Look'."
"If you're looking so well, then it can't be so serious." said Tariq
"And who're you?" Nana asked
"I'm Yuki's father, Tariq Sharafi. Thank you so much for taking care of my daughter all these years."
"You're Yuki-chan's father?!" Kakeru and Nana exclaimed
"I am. I met your daughter by coincidence back in Panama and she brought me to Yuki."
"Kei-chan is beyond lucky." said Yuki "I owe her big time."
"Enough of that! Papa, what were you hospitalized for?" Keiko demanded
"It's nothing serious. I was just overly exhausted." Kakeru replied. But Keiko felt like Kakeru was lying.
Just then, the door opened again and Ayaka Mine walked in.
"Kakeru-kun, Nana-chan, I just got the test results back and the it's worse than... we...." Ayaka stopped talking when she realized Keiko was there "I'll come back later."
"Hold it!" said Keiko, stopping Ayaka in her tracks "What's 'worse than'?"
Ayaka looked at Kakeru.
"Go ahead." Kakeru sighed "She'll find out eventually. And as the oldest, she has every right to know."
"What's going on?!" Keiko demanded
"I wasn't hospitalized from over-exhaustion. It was due to a problem with my liver." Kakeru admitted
"(sigh) Saito-kun can stay, but you two please leave. This concerns the family." said Ayaka, and Yuki and Tariq left the room "Please try to remain calm as I explain.... Kakeru-kun has Liver Cancer."
The last two words hit Keiko hard.
"What... did you just... say?" Keiko stuttered
"Liver Cancer. No doubt about it." said Ayaka "It appears to be in the middle stages, but it seems to have mutated in a little understood way. We don't know how to treat it at this point, I'm sorry."
Keiko's mind was almost blank, and felt her knees shaking like jello.
"You said it's in the middle stages." said Nana, her own voice cracking "How long...."
"I don't know." said Ayaka. "It seems Kakeru-kun's actually had it for awhile, possibly two years. Kakeru-kun may only have a year. Possibly September next year."
"It can't be." Keiko said weakly
"(sigh) Liver cancer huh?" said Kakeru "Since I was the recipient of a heart transplant, I knew better than to expect to live a full life... but this?"
"Papa, don't talk like that! There has to be something! A transplant or..."
"Until we know if any of you are possible live donors, or we know if there's a donor available, I'm unlikely to make the list."
"The odds of Kakeru-kun getting on the list of likely recipients is too slim anyway." said Ayaka
"What about Radiation Therapy" Saito asked, holding Keiko's shoulders to keep her standing
"Too risky. Kakeru-kun was tested for that kind of treatment, but tested cells reacted badly." said Ayaka "Kakeru-kun might not survive radiation treatment. I'm sorry, there's nothing to be done."
"We can't just give up!" Keiko exclaimed
"Keiko!" Nana shouted, then lowered her voice to normal "This is why we asked the others not to tell you that your father was in the hospital, we knew you'd react like this. I've had myself prepared for something like this for years, but it's only natural that this caught you off guard. We have to ask you to accept reality. The day when you have to say good-bye to Papa may be coming."
Hardly able to accept this, Keiko fell to her knees and cried in Kakeru's lap. Saito got to his knees as well and put a comforting hand on Keiko's back.
"What about Hiroki-kun, Ryo-chan, and Koichi-kun?" Saito asked
"We'll tell them ourselves." said Nana "Hiroki and Ryo are at the age that they may understand, I don't know about Koichi."
"As for you, Saito-kun," said Kakeru "Take care of Keiko."
It took more than a little persuasion to get Keiko to leave the hospital later. Yuki and Tariq had been eavesdropping and offered Keiko their deepest sympathies. By evening the entire Aizawa family, Nana's parents, the Shirayukis, Kakeru and Nana's old high school friends, pretty much everyone close to them knew of Kakeru's condition.
Yuki and Saito tried to comfort Keiko the best they could, but the instant they brought her home she locked herself in the bathroom of her and Saito's apartment and wouldn't come out.
"Kei-chan! Come on out, please." said Yuki as she knocked on the bathroom door
"We know you're upset, but hiding yourself away isn't going to change a thing!" said Saito
"What would two people who've lived most of their lives without a father know how I feel?!" Keiko called from inside
"Now that's going too far." Yuki said to Saito
"It's the truth though." Saito replied "Look, Yuki-chan, it's getting late. Don't keep Tariq-san waiting."
"Text me if there's any progress." Yuki put her shoes on and left a moment later
"Keiko... you're right. I can't understand how you're feeling right now. My father left the house before Michiru and I even knew him, and we had to grow up without him. But that doesn't mean I have absolutely no idea how it feels. Kakeru-san's the one who's been a real father to me. I can at least try to understand, if you'll let me."
Keiko emerged from the bath, naked soaking wet since she was in the tub, and threw herself around Saito's neck.
"You don't have try so hard." Keiko sobbed into Saito's neck "Just let me lean on you."
"That's what I'm here for." Saito replied, one hand on Keiko's back the other on the back of her head
Keiko and Saito both went to bed without eating that night. Keiko sobbed into Saito's chest through half of the night before finally falling asleep.