Thursday, October 28, 2010

Out Of Breath: Chapter 3

Eirin and I are sitting on the bed watching a movie on her laptop. It's an action movie; Eirin picked it. I prefer comedies, personally, but she's been asking to see this one for a long time. My attention keeps drifting, even though the explosions and gunfire on the screen are relentless. Eirin is intently focused on the movie. The light of the screen casts shadows across her face, making her features look sharper than they are.

There's a knock at the door.

Eirin hits the mute button. We sit perfectly still. I can feel my chest squeezing. No one knocks on our door, ever. We say nothing. The knock repeats itself. It is gentle but insistent.

Eirin looks at me, putting a finger to her lips. She slides out of bed, and pads slowly towards the door. My hands begin to feel very warm. I am ready to unleash danmaku, even in this tiny apartment, if that's what I need to do.

Eirin leans towards the door, an open eye towards the peep hole. Her mouth drops open slightly, and a gasp escapes her throat. She turns to me, her hand on the knob, looking at me, her eyes opened wider.

"What?" I mouth to her.

She opens the door.

A person wearing a black hoodie, jeans and boots, standing a head shorter than Eirin, walks into the room. Eirin quickly closes and locks the door behind the person, then grabs her by the shoulders from behind, pushing her to the floor. I stand up on the bed. The person turns over, onto her back and elbows, her hood falling away. Her long white hair falls out, two crooked rabbit ears standing up.

I feel my heart hammering against my ribcage. A moon rabbit.

"Who are you?," Eirin says. Her hands are shaking.

"Don't hurt me!," the moon rabbit implores. "I came alone."

Just looking at the moon rabbit's terrified eyes brings it all back to me - the spacious palace I called home centuries ago, the pure sea as flat as a mirror, the smiling eyes of courtesans who would later be my accusers, my judge and jury, casting me away with disgust and shame. An old wound is being slowly torn open.

"Why are you here?" Eirin hisses, her fists clenched. "Hm? How did you find us?"

My palms break out in cold sweat. They know where we are. We stayed here too long. A solid, heavy ball begins rolling in my stomach.

"Look, I just-" the moon rabbit begins. Eirin kicks her in the side, hard. She cries out in pain.

"I have no qualms with ending your life right where you lie," says Eirin. "I have killed before, remember. I would lay down my own life for the Princess. And anyone else's. So I'm going to ask you again: why are you here? Choose your answer carefully."

She holds up a pleading hand. "I came here to warn you. And to help."

I can feel a wheel turning in my mind, accelerating, unsteady.

Eirin laughs humorlessly. "You lying little-"

"Stop!" I shout. "Beating this rabbit isn't going to help me. Shouldn't we at least listen to her?"

Eirin looks at me, breathing deeply through her nose. She turns back to the rabbit. "Who are you?"

"I am Reisen, Mistress," she says with a shaking voice. "I am a friend. You have to believe me. I have important information that may save you from the Lunarian's wrath."

Eirin crosses her arms. "Alright. What is this information?"

"The Lunarians are planning another attack of the Earth."

Eirin snorts derisively. "They tried that before, didn't they? They don't stand a chance."

"Maybe, maybe not." says Reisen, sitting up. "But they will be sending many emissaries to Earth. You can't afford to be careless anymore."

I get down from the bed. "How many are coming?"

Reisen turns to me. "Thousands. Maybe even tens of thousands."

"And just how do you know this?" Eirin asks.

"I still have a few friends on the Moon. Friends who would never betray me."

"How fortunate for you. But we're not too keen on having the company of friends of Lunarians. Why should we trust you?"

"Because I'm running from them, too, alright?" The moon rabbit's eyes flash with the fear of a cornered animal. "I've been running from them for over 40 years."

Eirin laughs. "Is that supposed to impress us? Do you have any idea just how long we've been walking this planet?"

"I do. I didn't want any part of the last Lunarian invasion and fled here. It hasn't been easy. But all this time I so hoped I would find you again. I can't tell you how hard it was. But you're here." She turns to me. Her red eyes are welling with tears. "Princess," she says, and lowers her forehead to the floor before my feet, her hands on either side of her head. "I cannot tell you how happen I am to see you again, and see that you are well. I see the Mistress has taken good care of you. I beg you, as a lowly, undeserving subject-"

"Quiet," I say. "Sit up." I don't want to hear this kind of talk. I don't want to see anyone grovel at my feet. The child I used to be would delight at this behavior. That child has evaporated into the darkness of space centuries ago.

Reisen sits up obediently.

"Look at me," I say. Her eyes meet mine. In their depths, I see the terror of the chased, the panting of the fugitive. I know it well - they're the same eyes that look back at me when I look in the mirror. I turn to Eirin. "This rabbit stays."

"Princess, you can't be serious," Eirin says incredulously.

"I am. She stays." I turn to Reisen. "But in exchange, you have to help us."

The moon rabbits readily nods. "Of course. Anything you want."

Eirin sighs. I know she disagrees with me entirely, but she isn't going to go against me. Reisen's contact with the moon might aid us in staying out of sight when this invasion begins. At the same time, I know Eirin will have one eye on this rabbit at all times, and will react with swift finality should she prove untrustworthy. This delicate balance can only work to our advantage.

"Good. Now then." I lean closer to the rabbit. "You will tell us everything you know."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Out Of Breath: Chapter 2

I sleep fitfully. After waking up for the fifth time and seeing now the sun beginning to rise, I give up. I sit up, change out of my pyjamas and into my street clothes. You only need to walk down a street in any given city for a few minutes to get an idea of what "non-descript" would be. And that's what I wear.

I ask Eirin if she wants anything and she shakes her head.

"Are you working?" I ask her.

She nods. "This won't take long. Just six more fortunes." I know she'll be done by the time I get back. Eirin's fortunes are very popular, and people pay good money for them. We've left a string of closed bank accounts across the planet.

I step out into the stairwell and walk four flights down to the morning streets. We've been here about five years. We haven't seen the sisters since we came here. The last meeting ended with the older sister being taken up in the arms of a goddess, a column of searing white light that lifted her soundlessly into the night sky. "I will ensure you both come to understand mortality," she said to us.

I think of these words now as I walk to the store. This woman does not understand mortality herself. Her life may end one day, but you cannot understand mortality if you are a part of it. From the moment the elixir hits the pit of your stomach, all mortal life seems as ephemeral as snow falling onto a lake. When you cross this point, you see for the first time just how brief your life would have been, how very young you are. And of course, the only people you can truly know are others like you, whose lives will run to the ends of the universe. Everyone else meets your gaze momentarily with a smile, and then are gone.

I reach the coffeeshop on the corner. I walk in, and it's still a little early for the professional crowd, so the line is short. I plan on just picking up some pastries and two coffees. I know Eirin will want to eat when she's done. I look at the showcase beside the register to decide what to get, and that's when I see her.

Seated by herself, her arms resting on a table, a mug by her elbow, and looking right at me - the Fujiwara girl. She's smiling. Her eyes fall on me casually. She's not going to make a scene here. I approach her table.

"Are you expecting anyone?" I ask. She gestures to the seat across from her. I stay standing. "When did you get to town?"

"Four months ago," she says, and wipes her chin.

"Liking it so far?"

"Yes, it's not a bad place. I can see why you'd settle down here."

"Yes." I look around the dining room. There's an old man reading a newspaper, and two salarymen speaking quietly together, a laptop open between them. "Mokou. Do you enjoy finding me?"

I don't know what prompts me to ask her this. Maybe that dream shook me loose a little bit, like it always does. I know that for most of the day, I'll still be a bit rattled. The memory of that night is a dark pool deep in a cave. When I slide my hand into the water, the chill strikes me to the marrow.

The Fujiwara girl inhales very slowly through her nose. "You know, Kaguya, I'm a simple person. I don't need a lot out of life. I'm content to travel where I can, when I can. But a person needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It doesn't even have to be a reason you like." She takes a sip from her mug. "You just need to know it's going to be there. And you - you're not going anywhere."

She's right. Mokou's mission towards me had long been a source of mild annoyance at best, but that was when I thought she'd grow out of it. Lately, though, I've just been feeling sorry for her. Sometimes, I want to laugh in her face. She wanted to be sure that she could follow me forever, so she did what I did, and now she knows what it's like to be trapped. "That's very pragmatic. Well, I'm going to get breakfast now." Even here, I don't turn my back on her.

"You enjoy that breakfast." She nods, her eyes hardening almost imperceptibly. "I'll be seeing you."

I nod back, and resume my place in line. By the time I've paid, she's left.

Eirin eats two sticky buns, and I have a chocolate muffin. I decide not to tell her about meeting the Fujiwara girl.

"Do you want to go out someplace today, Princess?" she asks as she yawns into her coffee.

I've already finished my coffee. It looks like it will be a sunny day, and it's been a very rainy fall. I wouldn't mind going to the park, but I want her to rest. "No, I don't know. I didn't sleep too well. What about you?"

"Well, we can't eat take-out all the time. I'll do the shopping, like I said." She rises from her desk. "Is there anything special you want?"

I love the fall. I like how low the sun hangs in the sky as it moves over the horizon, how long the shadows become. The mountains are the best place for this season. Remembering the mountains in fall ... and I'm there again.

I've been living on Earth for about 20 years. I still miss the Moon, and looking at it makes my heart ache. One fall night, I can't sleep, so I decide to get some air. It's a cold, clear night, and a dark moon. I feel more at ease walking with the Moon's back turned. Waxing and waning crescents are sideways-turned glances of suspicion, and the full moon is a still face of scorn.

Walking down the path from my home towards the garden, I hear faint but distinct music. Bells, a flute, drums. A steady refrain as soft as a heartbeat. I walked towards the music and into the woods. Following the music takes me onto the trail up the mountain. I've walked up this trail with my family many times, but this is the first time I do so at night. Further up the trail I go, but the music doesn't seem to be getting any closer. It occurs to me that I might even be following the echo of a far more distant music coming from a different direction. And so I stop, and realize where I am.

I'm standing on a look-out point, with the valley stretching out below me to the ashen mountains fogged by the night. Above me the sky is nothing but stars. I try to imagine a moonless Earth. Seeing my past evaporate before my eyes, I feel as though the earth I stand on might disappear.

I decide that I have to remember what this feels like. And I still do.

"Actually, yes." I tell Eirin. "Aren't pomegranates in season?"

"I'll check. Anything else?"

I shake my head. Eirin picks up her purse from the chair by the door, and flashes me a brief smile as she leaves.

I stuff the muffin wrapper into the empty coffee cup, and toss it into the waste basket by the desk. I stand and walk to the window, pulling down the shade. Then I float a few feet off the floor, my arms outstretched, my eyes closed. In the sight of my mind, I can see the Fujiwara girl. She is reaching out to me in the darkness, a scream rising in her throat as she rushes to me soundlessly as an arrow. She is going to strike through the center of my soul, and cannot see the gaping abyss that awaits her on the other side.

Out Of Breath: Chapter 1

Eirin is covered in blood. She is as still as stone. I'm shaking so hard I feel as though I might crumble to pieces. Laying on the grass are five dead men. High above us, the moon is still waxing - soon the barrier between this place I've come to call home and the True Moon will open. And then the Lunarian emissaries will come looking for these men. And when they find them, they'll be coming for me and Eirin.

"Now," says Eirin, only her mouth moving, looking down at the five dead men, the short blade still in her hand. "We need to find a place to hide."

I feel as though I might vomit.

"Are you listening to me, Princess?" she asks. "We cannot stay in this town. The moon is almost full and-"

I turn, drop to my hands and knees, and wretch onto the cool grass.

"Well," says Eirin. Her voice is so steady. "I suppose we'll just have to keep moving. Princess." She steps over to me, offering me her hand. I don't take it. She crouches down next to me, and lays a hand on the small of my back. "Princess, it is important that you understand what I am saying here."

My bones begin to shake. "Why did you do that?"

"For you, Princess."

"You did ... this ... for me?" I can see my life now, dropping out of my hands like a plate. I am watching it now in slow motion as it falls, and I know that it will soon strike the ground, and shatter.

"Yes. They were going to take you away from this place, and you didn't want to go. It's my fault you're here in the first-"

"Stop saying that!" I turn to her at last, and I know I'm crying because I can feel the wetness on my cheeks. But I don't feel anything right now.

"Granted, you told me to make the elixir. Refusal of a royal order does have serious consequences. But you have no idea, Princess, no idea whatsoever how guilty I felt when you were banished to this place. And there was nothing I could do. Until now."

For the first time in my life, I am afraid of her. I feel afraid that she has lost her mind. "By killing?" I can't stop the sobbing. I look at the dead men laying there in the moonlight, their faces twisted in terror still. I wish they would sink into the earth. I wish Eirin had never attacked them. A great, heavy door has slammed shut behind me now though.

"Princess," she says, very quietly. "This was the only way. Those men had to die."

I pull away from her, and stand. "You're insane." I can feel panic crawling up the front of my chest, reaching for my throat.

She rises, and shakes her head.

"You're insane!" I scream, trembling. I take a deep breath. I cannot fall apart. It takes all of my energy to keep from shattering completely. I am holding together the pieces of myself by sheer force of will.

"Princess," Eirin says, and a small smile grows across her lips. "Don't worry. I will protect you."

"You'll protect me? From what you- I can't believe this." I cross my arms over my stomach. I do not want to vomit again. I take another deep breath. If I think out loud, maybe I can control my thoughts. "Do you realize just how ruined I am now? I'd miss this place, yes, but I'd get over that, even if it took hundreds of years. I could probably even visit here. You didn't need to ... do this."

"I suppose you are right," Eirin nods. "But it's done now. I take full responsibility for what I did. I want to atone for getting you banished. Even if that means following you to the ends of the Earth, forever."

I want to rush to her and strangle the life out of her. I want to push her into the soil with my bare hands. I hate Eirin so much right now that I feel like my skin is on fire. She walks to me now, slowly. And as much as I want to, I cannot lift my hands to her.

"Princess. I understand you're confused right now. With this one act, I have thrown away everything that I ever achieved. All of the work I did with Lord Tsukuyomi, the home we built with our own hands, the Lunarian society that we created. But listen to me." She places her hands softly on my shaking shoulders. "Listen, Princess. You were the Jewel of the Moon. And they threw you away. Because of me. Do you have any idea how that made me feel?" Now her eyes are welling with tears. "I betrayed the crowning spirit, the very essence of the Moon itself. But more than this, I betrayed my best friend."

Eirin embraces me suddenly. I can feel the stickiness of her tears, or the blood, on the side of my face. "When I came here with the emissaries, I never intended to go back. I would put myself in your place and stay here forever. When you told them you wanted to stay here ..." Eirin pulls away from me now. Her ancient eyes are steady, unblinking, motionless. "When you said those words, I knew at once what I had to do. And I did not hesitate. For you, Princess, I would never hesitate."

Her words fall over me like summer rain. My anger washes away in rivulets over my skin, soaked up by the Earth. What that water will nourish, I cannot say.

She's right. The Moon did betray me. But Eirin did not. She is the only friend I ever had. This does not change the fear I feel now. I have to leave my friends and adopted family here. I have to go into the dark of the unknown. I will walk this planet forever. The future is a cold, howling wind. But at least I know I will not be alone.

"Where ... where do we go next, then?" I ask her.

She points, her long slender finger aimed at the road. "We go there, and we begin walking. For as long as it takes. Until even the Moon itself forgets we ever existed."

I wake up. The bed is stiff, and I am covered in sweat. My throat is dry. Turning my head, I can see the city lights outside the window, the giant video billboard with the dancing girl and her bottle of perfume. The traffic roars endlessly below. Across the tiny room, Eirin is sitting at a desk, looking at the screen of her laptop.

"Bad dream?" she asks without turning to me.

I don't respond. I sit up, placing my bare feet on the floor. "Is there any food left?"

"Only pretzels. I need to do shopping. Why, are you hungry?"

"Not that hungry. It can wait until morning." I stand up and stretch. "What are you doing?"

"Just reading the news."

I step over to her, looking over her shoulder. There's been another earthquake in Japan. "And what about the sisters?"

Eirin sighs. "Still no sign of them since last time. But they'll be back."

I turn to the window. Placing my hand on the pane, I look down at the traffic below. This is a city of millions. Very easy to hide in plain sight. And all of these people will grow up, die, and fade into the fog of memory in the blink of an eye; a span of time that means nothing to Eirin and I. And nothing to the sisters.

"I guess we should consider moving soon," I say.

"Mm," says Eirin non-committedly.

"Unless you think it's alright to stay here longer."

Eirin doesn't say anything.

I turn to look at her. I feel words beginning to form in my head. The words I want to ask her, the same words that have tried to coalesce since we started running. But just like every time, they fly from my grasp.

Eirin turns to me. "What is it, Princess?"

I smile and shake my head. "It's nothing. Just thinking about breakfast."

"I can get something if you like. Denny's is open 24 hours."

"No, it's alright." I walk back to bed, and sit down. "It can wait until morning." It can always wait until morning.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 11

Koji, Hitomi and Aya sat on the corrugated roof of the warehouse, using towels to keep the metal from burning them. Even so, the late afternoon breeze was cool. They watched for a while in silence as boats drifted over the surface of the water. Aya's mind wandered in the form of semi-transparent images sliding by in her mind's eye, overlapping each other as they moved in opposite directions. She saw the Heavenly Dogs playing to the dancing crowd, the food court of the mall, Ryu's smile when she broke the smuggling story, the press conference, walking down the sidewalk on a busy day, washing her brown contact lenses in a small plastic tube, watching the traffic crawl by, far beneath her window.

Hitomi squeezed Aya's hand, bringing her out of her reverie. “It's really good to see you again,” Hitomi said, smiling. “I'd wondered where you ran off to.”

Aya was touched by Hitomi's sincerity. “Well, I have been pretty busy.”

“And Koji told me you were ill.”

“Yes, that, too. A few times, actually.”

“Oh?” Koji looked worried.

“Have you gone to a doctor?” Hitomi asked.

“It never occurred to me to see a doctor,” the tengu replied, thinking out loud.

“I don't blame you,” Koji said. “I don't trust doctors.”

“Sick how?” Hitomi pressed.

“I get these really bad headaches.” Aya explained. “They're very powerful. My eyes got blurry, my ears ring, sometimes I even vomit. It's terrible. I've never experienced anything like it.”

Hitomi nodded. “Migraines.”

“Oh.” So that's what they're called.

“Yeah, my grandfather used to get them pretty bad. He'd just lay down in a dark room and wait for it to pass. And we had to be super quiet then – he couldn't handle any noise. He told me he's had them since he was a teenager.”

Aya considered this. “I never had them before I moved to town.”

“Could be stress related. You never had these in Korea?”

“Never,” Aya said, watching the ships on the water.

Hitomi smiled. “Definitely sounds like stress to me. There's medicine you can take, though. Or you could learn how to live with them.”

Aya nodded. She knew it wasn't simple stress. She'd experienced stress before, many times. Living in Gensokyo was often times the height of stress – there was simply no comparison between trying to meet a deadline and dodging a lightning fast barrage of danmaku.

A tanker ship and a sailboat passed each other on the water, the latter giving the former a wide berth as it made its way past, easily avoiding its wake.

A thought solidified within the tengu. What she was experiencing was something different from stress. It was more like an allergic reaction. And there was no helping an allergy. You could take medicine to make you more comfortable, but the allergy would remain. In truth, there was only one way to get rid of an allergy.

“Hitomi, would it be very rude of me to ask if I could stay the night here tonight?”

Koji looked surprised, but Hitomi beamed warmly.

“Of course you can,” she said. “Our couch is always open to you.”

Aya smiled. “Thank you, Hitomi.”

Aya didn't sleep that night. She stayed up with the Heavenly Dogs, talking, drinking, laughing. She even made an attempt at drumming when a jam session began. Hitomi's voice was clear and strong, and Koji's guitar work was as intricate as a woven tapestry.

Aya needed this. She needed to celebrate life with these people, relish their freedom with them. As they dropped off to sleep one by one, she kept wanting to say something, but the words wouldn't come. Hitomi was the last to go to bed.

“Aya,” she'd said as she spread a blanket across the couch, “You really got to come by more often. I mean really. You're a lot of fun, kiddo, y'know that? I know you've been sick, and working a lot, but don't work too much, OK?”

“I promise I won't work too much.”

“Good, good. It's important in life to remember what makes it worth living. And you know what that is, don't you?”

“Doing what you love?” Aya suggested.

“Eeeeexactly. Right. You're a smart girl, Aya.” Hitomi yawned. “Woo … think I had a bit too much beer. Anyways, Aya. Listen. Don't get caught in the rat race. Be yourself.” Hitomi shuffled off to her futon. “You're so cool. Good night.”

“Good night,” Aya said, watching Hitomi walk away.

“What do you mean, you're quitting?” Ryu asked, raising his voice. “Is this about making you work when you were sick? Because I really had no idea that-”

“No, it's not like that,” Aya assured him. “I really like working here. It's for personal reasons. I need to go back home.”

Ryu studied her face for a moment, trying to decide something. “Look,” he lowered his tone. “I'll try to scrape together a salary for you somehow, alright? I can't promise anything stellar, but … damn it, Syameimaru. You break a huge story, and that's when you decide to quit?”

“I'm sorry. But it's what I need to do.” Aya bowed deeply. “Thank you for giving me a chance.”

“Yeah,” Ryu grunted, releasing a sigh.

Aya straightened and turned, walking away from his desk.

“Syameimaru,” Ryu called after her. “Keep us in mind if you're ever in town again, alright?”

“Will do!” Aya called back. Hideaki eyed her as she walked to his desk.

“Did I hear that right?” he asked. “'If you're ever in town again'?”

“I'm afraid so.” Aya smiled. “I just resigned.”

Hideaki shook his head, confused. “Why? What's wrong?”

“Personal reasons. I need to go back home.”

“For how long?”

“Well, I don't know. But I don't think I'll be coming back for a very long time.”

“That's a real shame,” Hideaki said. “I know you haven't been feeling well lately, physically and emotionally, but after you broke that story I thought you might brighten up a bit. Most journalists wait their whole lives for a story that big.”

“I know. And I'm very grateful for your help here.”

“Nonsense. You're naturally talented. All I did was cheerlead.”

“You're too modest.”

“No, I mean it. You could go all the way if you wanted. So, I do hope if you never come back here, you at least never give up journalism.”

Aya nodded. “I promise I'll never give up journalism.”

“Alright then.” Hideaki stood, and bowed. “It's been an honor working with you.”

“And with you as well.” Aya didn't know what else to say. “Just … take care of yourself, will you? Learn to relax sometimes.”

Hideaki appeared to start to say something, but then changed his mind. “I will. Good bye, Aya.”

Aya smiled, turned, and walked through the doors of the office, the ringing of phones, clattering of keyboards, and the undertones of office conversations following in her wake. She stepped onto the sidewalk, lifted her face to the sun, and walked home, just like any other person on the street.

Koji woke, cautiously opening his eyes. The moment the early afternoon sun hit them, he felt the searing pain of a white-hot coat hanger being pushed through his forehead, and he shut his eyes again. Way too much beer last night. It had been his own fault for trying to keep up with Aya. Who knew a girl that petite could drink so much without even seeming to get drunk?

Koji's thirst reached to the pit of his stomach. He felt he would crack in two like a stale cracker if he didn't get some water. With great effort, he eased himself to an upright position. Blinking a few times to clear his head, he brought himself to his feet and stepped towards the refrigerator, sending a sheet of paper skittering across the floor.

Koji regarded the paper sideways for a moment, and then noticed his name was handwritten on it. He stopped, picking it up:

Hello, everyone! I just wanted to thank you all for a wonderful night, for being such gracious hosts. I can honestly say I've never met anyone like you (and that's a compliment, Koji). But I need to go back home now. I'm not suited for living in the city, I decided, and it's affecting my health. But more, my home isn't here, and never will be.

I came here hoping to learn more about people, to figure out what makes them what they are. I'm sure I didn't learn everything there is to know, but I did learn that nobody is the closed-off machine they seem to be. Some people, while living in the same routine, day after day, for years on end, are still empathetic people with a passion in their hearts. And then there are people like you, who live by their hearts alone. You should be very proud of this.

I don't think my experience here would have been the same without you all. I know I wasn't available very often, but I want you to understand how much it meant to me to meet you.

How can I explain it? Imagine that you left home, and ended up some place so different from everything you know that you felt like you were on another planet; that the faces passing you on the street belonged to another species. But then, out of nowhere, you meet people who are almost exactly like the ones you grew up with. That would make things a little better, wouldn't it? I know it meant a great deal to me. Knowing you has been invaluable.

Sometimes you remind me so much of people I know back home, but unfortunately, I can't take you with me. I did, though, leave you something to remember me by, on the table in front of the couch. I'll never forget any of you. Know that I will think of you fondly, and often. Thank you. - Aya

Koji read the letter twice. He felt the powerless desire to say good bye to her, but there was nothing he could do. She was gone now. He closed his eyes and brought the page to his face, inhaling slowly, breathing in her words, her smile, his memories of her.

He put the letter down on his futon and walked to the couch. He looked at the small table that sat in front of it. It was perfectly spotless, except for a single, long black feather.

Aya closed her Bunkachou and lay it next to her, stretching on the grass before sliding her hands under her head, looking up at the clouds drifting across the Gensokyo sky. She crossed her ankles and took a long breath, letting her eyes slowly close. As the summer wind flowed soundlessly over her skin, Aya took a deep, slow breath, and drifted off to sleep.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 10

The tengu knew that the chilly night would be even colder at the harbor, and she wanted to dress non-descriptly, so she donned a black hoodie, wool cap, black jeans and the running shoes that she hadn't worn up until now. A camera with a very long lens hung around her neck, tucked safely inside her hoodie.

It had been ages since Aya had seen the ocean. Even before the Hakurei Border raised, she seldom left the mountains, but she'd been to the shore once or twice. She wondered if the wind off the waves was still the same, or if even the ocean itself had changed.

Aya walked slowly through the shipping warehouse lot towards the peer. She checked the watch Hideaki had given her. Twenty minutes before midnight, when the shift change was set to begin. There would be no dense and lightning-fast barrage of danmaku to dodge here, but her pulse began to race all the same - this was real, breaking news that she would be bringing to the table. Provided everything went well, that was. She moved into the shadows between two warehouses, drew a deep breath, and took the sky.

The lights of the ships docked, the sodium lights around the stacks of shipping containers, the dim glow of a window of a trailer - it all gave an oddly compelling shimmer to the waves. Aya flew higher. The sea air this high up was exactly the same as it had been hundreds of years ago. If she closed her eyes, she could pretend she was there. It brought a smile to her face.

There were a number of ships farther out from the pier, floating in the harbor. Further out to sea, where she couldn't see the waves, the distant lonely lights of boats on the ocean stood still as stars. As she looked at the horizon, she wondered how far she could fly to the east. Would people be any different out there? Or were modern humans the same no matter where you went? The tengu imagined herself in other lands, hearing languages she didn't understand, in a faraway place where no one had even heard of tengu. It gave her a lonely, bittersweet feeling as she hovered there, wings silently stroking the air, her eyes on the horizon.

The stirring of an engine below her caught her attention. She watched as a fishing boat of some kind with writing on its hull that she didn't recognize slowly drifted up to Pier 4. Aya smiled to herself. Her instincts never failed her. It was good to see they were as sharp as ever. She unzipped her hoodie, lifted the camera, and zoomed in.

Aya had never seen Ryu smile so openly before. He and Hideaki stood at Aya's desk, looking at the gallery of photos she'd taken as she flipped through them, one by one, on her monitor – boxes offloaded from the fishing boat, carried into a shipping container, the crew quickly getting back on board and sailing off.

“These are really well done.” Ryu nodded, still beaming. “I knew that expensive camera would get put to good use some day.”

Hideaki appeared both impressed and confused. He clicked back to the shot of the boat at the pier, men carrying the boxes down the dock. “How did you even take this shot? This is incredible.” He turned to Aya. “Seriously, how? There's nothing out there. Did you rent a helicopter or something?”

Aya shrugged. “I took these from the top of a building near the harbor. The lens was really something else.”

Hideaki nodded, turning back to the photo. “Even so … that's an amazing shot, Aya.”

“Now do you see why I was saying it's a waste to use that camera for parades and culture festivals?” Ryu smirked at Hideaki. “Your crappy little digital will be just fine for that kinda thing. Alright.” Ryu clapped his hands together. “Now, let me handle the police end of this. I'm on pretty good terms with a detective there who's been itching to crack a big case. I'll forward him these photos, and he'll send in the posse.”

“I guess we should send Aya to the harbor to get some shots of the raid.” Hideaki added.

Ryu laughed. “I think Aya's earned herself the rest of the day off. You can go down there instead.”

“I think I can live with that,” said Hideaki, smiling, and turned to Aya. “Well, what do you think, Aya? Guess you better get started on writing the article for this piece now.”

The tengu smiled, and bowed to him. “Thanks again for letting me take on this story.”

Aya knew she should be thrilled with this accomplishment. She had taken an anonymous tip and broken a huge story, one that no one else in the news business had. It was an article that would earn the respect of other papers, with her name right in the by-line. She had proven herself in the world of modern humans; she could excel as one of their journalists. She thought she would be overjoyed.

But looking at the photos, and knowing what she'd accomplished, she felt strangely indifferent. Almost as if this were happening to someone else. The past few weeks had been exhausting – doing the same thing virtually every day, the repeated spells of sickness, Koji's bizarre behavior at the zoo, the thousands of miles of distance she felt between herself and everyone around her; it all just tired her and made her feel not even a part of the world around her. Breaking a major news story wasn't enough to shake her out of it.

“Thanks again, Syameimaru.” Ryu said. “You really proved yourself here. If I had the budget for it, I'd hire you fulltime on the spot. But maybe this break will change that. Or, I could just fire Hideaki here and pay you his salary.”

“You can't fire me,” Hideaki deadpanned. “Slaves have to be sold.”

The main number rang. Ryu picked it up from Aya's desk. “Mercury.” He looked at Aya. “One moment please.” Ryu covered the mouthpiece. “Guess who.”

Aya sighed. What was the point of ignoring Koji forever? She felt too tired to even avoid him anymore. She might as well hear what he had to say. “I'll take it.”

Ryu handed her the receiver, and he and Hideaki discreetly walked away.

“Hello?” Koji asked.

“It's me,” said Aya. “What do you want?”

“Aya.” Koji paused a moment. “I can't tell you how sorry I am about what I did. I was way out of line. I don't really have an excuse for it. I guess I just misread you. I thought … I don't know, I thought the feeling was mutual.”

Aya didn't know how to respond, so she stayed silent.

“The feeling isn't mutual, though, is it?” Koji asked. “I can live with that. Look. Aya, I don't want things to end like this. Can we put aside my clumsy misstep and forget it ever happened? Or do you really despise me that much?”

Aya was confused by this remark. “I don't despise you. I just-” The tengu looked around her. People at their desks were typing away, talking on the phone. Below the office windows, the rest of the world moved on, oblivious and uncaring. “I don't feel like I belong in this town.” Saying the words brought a pang to her chest. Aya knew from the start that this wasn't her world, and expected that she'd feel like an outsider. She just hadn't expected that these humans would be a whole other species from the ones she knew, that this world was an unfeeling facsimile; hollow, and painted in primary colors.

“I understand,” said Koji. “It's tough enough being a foreigner in this country without some guy complicating things with his clumsy romantic overtures.”

Aya didn't feel like correcting him. “Well, anyway, I'm sorry if I hurt you.”

“Nah. I've been shoved to the ground by bigger girls than you.”

Aya laughed. “I was going easy on you.”

“Alright, whatever you say.” Koji sighed. “Look, Aya, you know, Hitomi's been asking about you. And it'd be great to have you over again, you know, just to hang out and chat.”

“I did enjoy the first night we met. I don't think I've had that much fun since.”

“So why don't you come over? There's a great view of the harbor from the roof of our place.”

Aya looked up. Hideaki was watching, smiling.

“Alright. I'll come this afternoon.”

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 9

The night was a bit chilly, so Aya wore a denim jacket over a red blouse and jeans. As she rounded the last corner before the zoo, she felt happy for the change of pace, the chance to spend some time with a friend. It had been entirely too long since she last did this.

The gates to the zoo appeared, and there Koji stood waiting, dressed in his usual leather jacket, white T-shirt and black jeans combo. He smiled warmly when he saw her. A single yellow light illuminated the space just in front of the zoo's old iron gates and ticket booth, the shade of its window down.

“Well,” Koji said with mild surprise. “You showed up after all. No red contacts tonight?”

“Ha, no. Decided to be natural. Just regular brown eyes.”

“Natural is always best. Glad you made it either way.”

“I said I would, didn't I? Why would I not show up?”

“You have to work in the morning. Maybe you're tired. Maybe you changed your mind. Maybe your cousin needed to be rescued from gangsters. You never know what can happen.”

“I suppose. But I don't tell people I'm going to do something if I don't intend to do it.”

“I figured.”

For a while the two stood there in silence. Had Koji actually planned anything? she wondered.

“So-” Aya began.

“Right,” Koji said, and clapped his hands together, rubbing them. “The surprise.” Koji knocked on the ticket booth window. When nothing happened, he knocked again, louder. “Hey! Wake up in there!”

A light came on behind the shade. Aya could hear a door opening. A tired security guard appeared behind the gate. He yawned, and gave Koji an annoyed look.

“Why are you waking me up, Koji? I was having such a nice nap.” The guard then noticed Aya, and then turned back to Koji. “Ah, I get it.” He sighed, fishing for his keys. “You're lucky we're brothers. You know that, right?”

“I know.” Koji nodded with a smile. “I can always count on you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the guard said, unlocking the gate. “Are you at least going to introduce us?”

“Of course. Yoshikichi, this is Aya Syameimaru. She gave our band a glowing review, so I'm showing her my appreciation. Aya, this is my brother.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Aya said.

“Likewise,” said Yoshikichi, opening the gate. “So did you actually like that noise they make, or did you just pity them?”

“Oh, I really liked it. I'd never heard anything like it.”

“Yeah, me neither.” Aya and Koji walked through the gate. “OK, you two enjoy yourselves. Almost all the animals are asleep, so I don't know what you expect to see, but to each their own, I guess. And Koji, don't tease the gorilla this time. He doesn't like it.”

“I wasn't teasing him. I just wanted to see him beat his chest.”

“Whatever. Just leave him alone.”

“You got it.”

Yoshikichi closed the gate behind them. “You have an hour. After that, The next shift takes over and they won't be happy to see visitors. So unless you want to hide in the bathrooms until the zoo opens again, be sure you're not late.” With that, he went back into the ticket booth.

“He seemed friendly,” said Aya.

“Really? Well, that's a first.” Koji took a deep breath of the night air. Aya wished she had brought her camera. Photos of animals from elsewhere in the world, even sleeping, would make for great copy.

“Shall we?” Koji said. Aya nodded, and let him lead the way.

The walking path led first through a wooded area, before coming to a part flanking an iron fence upon which hung a sign that read “Brown Bear”. Beyond the fence was a wide, open pit, at the bottom of which was a rocky mound, an artificial tree, and a pair of caves against the wall opposite the fence. The bear was presumably inside the caves, asleep.

There were similar pits on either side of the path, each with a different species of bear. None of them were out.

“All the animals are sleeping,” said Aya, disappointed.

“Not all of them,” Koji said. “Many animals are nocturnal. You can't see them active when the zoo is open. That's why coming at night is a real treat. I'll show you.”

Koji led Aya to a pit in which two leopards were pacing. While one walked the perimeter of the pit, the other paced in tight circles, panting. The sound of the cat's breathing reminded Aya of nocturnal youkai, moving unseen in the bamboo forest. But these leopards lacked the pride of wild youkai. They looked broken and confused. Aya felt as though she'd done something terrible just by coming here.

“Aren't they gorgeous?” asked Koji. He then turned towards Aya. “You know, you're a rare person.”

The tengu turned to him in surprise. “Pardon?”

“I've never met anyone like you, but I've always wanted to.” There was that look again.

As innocent as his words were, Aya felt she had to clarify her feelings. She looked at Koji, searching for the words. “Koji, I-”

Koji took Aya by the shoulders, suddenly and clumsily, and pulled her towards him, kissing her on the mouth. Aya's reflexes took over, and she slid two hands up to his chest, pushing him. Koji stumbled backwards, landing on his elbows and back.

He said nothing as he looked up at her. Aya restrained her instincts, but didn't know how else to respond. She stood very still, her eyes unblinking, and felt as though she might explode with rage. She remembered what Hideaki had said about the city's ways.

“Aya ...” Koji began, starting to rise.

His voice tripped a switch inside of her, and all she wanted to do was get away from him. Without another word, Aya turned and ran into the shadows. Seeing the ticket booth ahead, she ducked into the darkness of the trees and rose on silent wings into the night sky.

Aya sat at her desk, going over the cultural events listings on the city's home page. The office main line rang, making all the phones ring at once. While normally she'd be one of the first ones to pick up, she stopped answering it after what happened at the zoo about two weeks ago. Koji had tried calling her a few times since then, and Aya had refused to accept his calls. Hideaki had been polite enough not to ask Aya why, but she sometimes considered bringing it up to him herself. She was fairly certain by now that what Koji had done had been inappropriate, but she didn't quite know how to react from this point. For the time being, she believed it best just to keep her distance from him.

Hideaki took the phone on the third ring. He spoke in hushed, cautious tones – unusual for a man known to speak on the phone loud enough for Ryu to complain about it, anyway.

Aya watched Hideaki as he quickly scribbled onto a notepad. Then he looked up at her, and gestured urgently for her to come to his desk. She was already out of her chair.

“Yeah,” Hideaki said into the phone as he jotted down notes. “Yeah … OK … And you know this because? Hello?” Hideaki replaced the receiver, and shook his head. “ Well. This is interesting.” He looked from his notepad to her. “How'd you like to follow a scoop? A big one.”

Aya felt her pulse quicken. “Of course.”

“Alright. Here it is.” Hideaki leaned forward a bit. “That phone call was from an anonymous source claiming that a major shipping company is using our harbor to aid smugglers.”

“Wow. That really is something.”

“Yes, but we have to be careful. This could be some rival company making it up in order to smear the competition. We can't run this story without solid proof.”

The story possibility was huge, Aya saw at once. “Does this happen often?” she asked, incredulous.

“Not really,” said Hideaki. “I think we may never have followed a crime tip from an anonymous source, let alone one involving a huge company in this town.”

The tengu was relieved to be able to finally set her journalistic sights onto breaking a major story. She felt like a part of her brain had re-awakened.

“But wait.” Aya thought out loud. “If this was from a competitor, why wouldn't they just call the police?”

Hideaki shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they want to see these guys humiliated in the press, and then arrested, as opposed to just arrested and getting written up after the fact. It's happened before. Just never at our paper.” He cleared his throat, and read from his pad: “Apparently security guard shifts were changed by the shipping company offices a few months back. The changes made a four-hour window without security guards at Pier 4. The smugglers dock and offload there during these times. It's mostly electronics and household items.”

“Alright . . . so, if we get photos of this happening, then-”

Hideaki laughed. “Photos? Are you kidding? No, we need to find a more substantial connection through a paper trail. Do some digging at city offices, see what we can find. Put that together with the security guard shift changes, run it, and then the police swoop in. We get the scoop on the raid and take photographs then, of the arrestees being led away.”

The tengu couldn't imagine the idea of tagging along with others leading the way, or worse, having to wait out of sight while the best part was happening. She wanted to be the one to bring the story to light. “Well, anyway, we're not calling the police right away, right?” Aya said, shaking her head. “It might be nothing. On the other hand, it might be a great story.”

He smiled and nodded. “And it would also be a scoop.”

“Yes, that too. There might be more ... effective ways of breaking this story, is all.”

“Hm.” Hideaki looked at his notepad, and then back at Aya. “What are you thinking of doing?”

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 8

Part of observing humans in their natural habitat, Aya decided, would have to include going to where large groups of them could be found. To this end, she decided she was going to spend Sunday afternoon at the mall.

The tengu did not anticipate doing any shopping herself, but she decided to bring money with her anyway, just in case. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, canvas shorts and sandals, Aya took up her camera and headed out the door.

The mall was only a few blocks away. From the outside, it looked like any of the other anonymous office buildings downtown. Once she stepped inside, though, she was immediately assailed with a whole other sensory experience.

The air was significantly colder in the mall than it was outside, and seemed to be stripped of any scent that could even remotely resemble air, replaced instead with perfumes and odors that blurred and overlapped, many of them unknown to Aya. A static din filled the spacious lobby – the hum of the escalators, the conversations of others, barely discernible music from somewhere, the splashing of the fountain in the lobby's center, and numerous other anonymous noises and tones of unknown origin crowded the air.

But what really struck Aya was the visual contrast: dozens of shops were available, and yet the people strolling by gave none of them so much as a glance. They milled about as if walking around inside the building was the point of going to the mall, and buying something was an afterthought. She'd apparently been mistaken to think of a mall as just a larger, indoor version of a market. Nodding, she took photos of the escalators, the crowds, the almost empty shops.

Aya decided some exploring was in order, so she took an escalator to the second level. Walking past the different shops was a bit overwhelming – the sheer level of variety made it difficult to decide which shop to enter, especially if you'd arrived without a clear idea of what you wanted, like she had. Aya began to understand why most people were walking past the shops, but entering none.

Before long she saw the food court. The tengu wasn't particularly hungry, but she felt this may be a good opportunity to at least taste something modern humans in the outside world drink or eat; something wholly modern. She approached the food stall closest to her. A teenaged boy in a yellow shirt and matching hat smiled, welcoming her. Aya smiled back, then looked at the menu. She found it confusing to work out just what the items on the menu were. They had names like “The Salaryman's Special” and “Mom On the Go”. She knew quite well what the listed ingredients under these titles were, but nothing struck her as all that interesting.

“I guess I'll just have something to drink,” she shrugged as she approached the counter. “What do you recommend?”

The boy was apparently unaccustomed to being asked for his opinion of the stall's drinks. He hesitated a moment. “Coke?” he offered.

“Sure. I'll try that.”

Aya took her small Coke to a nearby table and sat down. She sniffed discreetly at the straw. It smelled sweet. Then she took a sip.

The tengu recoiled in disgust. What horrible creation was this? It was sweet, but it burned; it was cold, but it was boiling. Who would make something so awful, and why would anyone drink this? Aya stood, tossed the drink into a nearby trashcan, and left the food court.

Aya found the mall to be a bit boring. Even buying herself a red cashmere scarf didn't perk up her mood all that much. It was as she walked along the lower level again, wondering if she should look around some more or go home, that the headache came back in a sudden, rushing wave – her vision blurred, her ears rang, and nausea began to build. Remembering what happened last time she started feeling this way, she knew she had to get out of sight before she became ill. Looking around, she saw an exit sign above a pair of doors. She pushed through them, hurrying down the corridor beyond them, breaking into a run. At the end, another door, which she burst through, her heart pounding, the pain in her head coming in ever-stronger waves.

Aya stood on a landing overlooking a narrow alleyway. Without a moment's hesitation, she unfurled her wings and shot straight up, into the sky. She didn't care at this point if anyone saw her, nor could she think about where she would land. The only thing on her mind was the automatic compulsion to get away, as fast as possible.

Within seconds, the tengu was up over the clouds. She hovered there for a bit, trying to collect her thoughts. Her nausea was gone, and her vision and hearing were almost entirely back to normal. Even her headache was already reduced to a faint throb behind her ears. Maybe flying cured her sickness, she considered, but this still didn't explain what got her ill in the first place. Aya looked down. In her haste to get away, her sandals had come off during her ascent.

“Well this is perfect,” she sighed. She really liked those sandals.

A couple weeks later, Aya was walking to work, thinking about her time in the outside world so far. She'd been sick twice more since her trip to the mall – once, while at the library, she felt it coming on, and immediately went home, collapsing onto her futon for the rest of the day; and another time while riding the train. Fortunately, she'd been able to get off at the next stop and clear her head at a nearby park before it got too bad. She was learning how to deal with the attacks. That they were becoming more frequent still bothered her.

She thought about what she'd learned so far. She knew that modern humans could be not just detached but willfully ignorant of their surroundings – incurious, self-centered, and uninterested in seeing anything they didn't expect or even want to see. On the other hand, there were people like Koji, Hitomi, and the rest of the band. Koji specifically said that he had rejected the rules of society. But “society” wasn't a set of rules dictated by one person, or a council; society was everyone, and its rules arose from collective behavior. In other words, if these warm, friendly, sincere people were society's rejects, what did that say about society?

At the same time, it wasn't as if the modern humans who did buy into society's rules were entirely bad people. Hideaki had always been kind to her, and even Ryu wasn't a completely cold authoritarian. These people she worked with, though, were still quite different from people like Koji and Hitomi. They were, despite their good natures, bound to a system that they chose to take part of, and that seemed to her to be very difficult to live without.

Aya pushed open the office doors and said her hellos as she walked to her desk. She sat down and turned on her computer, as she had many times before. That was another thing – life in the modern outside world was grindingly, weepingly dull. She supposed it was something you learned to get used to, especially if the alternative was to live in an abandoned warehouse.

Yet even knowing all this, she still felt as though she hadn't touched the surface of modern humanity. There just wasn't enough material yet for a real article. Well, unless it was a review of the Heavenly Dogs, or a public health warning about Coke.

“Syameimaru!” Ryu called from his desk. “Line two! And would you join the rest of us in the twenty-first century and buy a mobile already?”

Aya quickly took up the receiver, and smiled when she saw Hideaki giving her a joking scowl.

“Aya Syameimaru,” she answered.

“Hey, it's Koji.”

“Oh.” Aya lowered her voice. “How are you?”

“I have a surprise for you,” he said. “Meet me at the front gates of the zoo, at midnight, tonight. Got it?”

The zoo? “Yes, but-”

“Good. See you then.” The line went dead.

Aya looked at the phone for a moment, incredulous, and then hung up. Strange, but intriguing. She liked his playful nature. But right now, there was work to do. Aya clicked open the police blotter.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 7

Aya lay on her futon, the shades down and a wet cloth over her eyes. Fragile rays of dusk peeked through the edges of the window. She felt more or less better, a dull ache behind her eyeballs being the only remnants of her feeling ill. Being sick was exhausting. Hopefully she would drift to sleep and wake up the next morning fully refreshed. The tengu sighed. What a day this had been.

The phone rang. Aya sat up with a groan, the wet cloth falling in her lap. She groggily knee-walked to the phone, already annoyed. Why is the office calling me? They know I'm sick. She lifted the receiver.


“Aya? It's Koji.”

It took her a couple seconds to place the name. “Koji?”

“The guitarist? Remember? I'm sorry, am I interrupting anything?”

“No, I remember you. I'm not busy, no. I was just resting. I'm not feeling too well.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, do you want me to let you sleep?”

“I do need to sleep but … hang on, how did you get my number?”

Koji laughed nervously. “Um, well, you wrote it down for Hitomi last night.”

“Oh.” Aya vaguely recalled doing that, just before going to sleep on their couch.

“I do hope I'm not being too forward.”

“No, really, it's fine.” Aya cleared her throat. “Can I help you with something?”

“No, no. I just wanted to chat. But if you're feeling ill, maybe I should bring my special secret soup instead.”

“Your … what?”

“My special secret soup. It's a recipe generations old, fiercely guarded since ancient times, and made especially when someone is sick. But if you need to sleep, I'll understand. Maybe we can meet another time.”

Aya hadn't eaten all day, and had nothing in the fridge but half a withered apple. Despite her hunger, the idea of going out shopping at the moment exhausted her. And she'd never had a guest in this apartment.

“Actually, I am quite hungry.”

“Yeah? I don't want to impose. But it is really good soup. It can cure anything.”

“Is that right? Sounds powerful.”

“It is, but you wouldn't guess to taste it. That's where the power lies. It surprises you, like a wildcat in the night.”

“I don't think a wildcat could sneak up on me.”

“What would surprise you then?”

“A wildcat inside a grapefruit.”

“That would be pretty surprising.”

After she hung up, Aya rolled up the futon and put it away, changed out of her T-shirt and shorts into a black polo shirt and jeans, and straightened up the apartment a bit. Satisfied, her only concern was Yukari gapping in while Koji was over. That would be difficult to explain, and she shuddered to think how Yukari would handle such a situation.

Almost an hour went by before there was a knock at her door. Aya peered through the peephole and saw Koji, a cloth bag under his arm. Aya opened the door with a smile.

“Hello, Koji.”

“Hey, sorry it took me so long to-” Koji paused, frozen as he looked at Aya with obvious confusion. “Um, I had to make the soup first. It takes a little time.” He stepped inside, taking his shoes off. “And then I had trouble finding the address you gave me. I'm terrible with directions.”

“It's no problem,” Aya said. “Do you want some tea?”

“Yes, but let me make it, please,” Koji insisted. “You just relax. I'll take care of everything.”

“I won't argue with that,” Aya said, sitting at the table. Watching Koji heat the water and bring bowls and spoons to the table, taking the thermos of soup out of the bag and carefully pouring it into the bowls, it occurred to her that she'd never been served in this way before. She wondered what prompted this behavior.

“So then,” Koji said, sitting down at the table at last. “I hope you had fun last night. I know Hitomi did,” he chuckled. The soup looked and smelled to her like miso, with noodles and vegetables added. “I've never heard her talk so much. You really have a gift for making people open up.”

“It comes with the territory.” Aya smiled, taking a sip from her tea. She noticed Koji kept his eyes on her.

Koji broke his gaze with a light laugh. “Sorry for staring. I've just never seen eyes that color before. You probably get that a lot, though, eh?”

The contacts. She'd taken them out as soon as she came home, to try and relieve her headache a bit, but in the rush to straighten up the apartment, forgot to put them back in.

“Ah, really?” she said, her pulse quickening. “Are they that unusual?”

“Not in a bad way,” Koji emphasized. “I think they're quite beautiful. Usually girls get the oversized-iris contacts, or even – ugh – blue. I applaud your tastes. I'd never guess red contacts would work, but the color really suits you.”

“Haha. Thanks." Aya felt a small wave of relief. "Was just trying something new.” Aya looked down at her soup, and tried a spoonful. “Hm! This is really good, Koji. Just like you said.”

“Of course it is. I'm a very honest person.”

“That's good,” said Aya, trying not to eat her soup too quickly. “Say, Koji, can I ask you something?”

“Fire when ready.”

“You talked last night about rejecting society. How did you come to this conclusion?”

Koji took a sip of his tea before answering. “My father.”

“How so?”

“Well,” Koji began, lowering his tone a bit, “It's not that special a story. One you've probably heard before, even: father wants son to take over family business, son wants to be a musician, father disowns son. You know,” he shrugged, “Just a typical story in our society.”

“Really?” Aya frowned. “But that makes no sense.”

“It doesn't have to make sense. It's just how it is. And I decided I want no part of it.”

“I see.” Aya finished her soup. “Sorry for bringing it up. I didn't mean to bring down the mood of this lovely dinner.”

“Nah, it's alright. I'm glad you're interested in what makes me tick.”

“Of course I am. I'm always interested in what makes people tick.”

“And that's why you became a journalist.”

“One of the reasons, yes. I guess that's why I'm such a nosy person.”

Koji finished his tea. “A nosy friend is better than the alternative,” he smiled.

Koji offered to help clean up, but Aya was already quite tired, so she told him to leave it. As he chatted away about music, it seemed to Aya that Koji wanted to stay longer. But Aya had no patience for dropping polite hints; at last, she had to tell him that she was going to sleep. He apologized for his thoughtlessness, rising.

“I tend to forget people work for a living,” he said as he put on his shoes. “I guess if you go to sleep and wake up when you please long enough, you tend to take it for granted.”

Aya laughed a little. “It's quite alright. Most of my friends back home are the same.” Thinking about it, she added, “Actually, so am I, usually.”

“Well, try not to work too hard, eh? Leave room for fun.” He opened the door, and turned back to Aya.

“Good night, Koji. And thank you again for the soup. I feel better already.”

“Good night, Aya,” he said, pausing with a smile for a beat, before stepping into the hall, closing the door behind him.

Aya listened to his footsteps walking down the hall. The tengu sensed an undercurrent in Koji's look that she hoped she was wrong about. But it was a look she'd seen before, and she knew what it meant. Aya sighed as she gathered the bowls and cups from the table. Too exhausted to wash the dishes, Aya left them in the sink, rolled out the futon, and fell into a black, dreamless sleep.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 6

“Let me ask you something, Syameimaru.” Ryu said, tapping a finger on his desk. “If you were an editor, and you sent an intern to do a light, 500-word review of a club, and she came back to work the next day some time after lunch, without an article, what would you do?”

Aya's head was throbbing, and her eyes still stung a bit, even after rinsing her contacts. “Ask her if everything was alright?”

Ryu nodded and waved his hand. “Yes, OK, then?”

Aya didn't know where Ryu was going with this, but she answered honestly. “Ask her if she enjoyed herself at the club?”

“Hilarious. Consider this your first warning, Aya. You get three. After that, you're gone. Understand?”

Aya bowed politely. “Forgive my irresponsibility. Should I get started on the article now?”

“If it's not too much trouble.” Ryu sighed.

“Will do!” Aya smiled, and walked back to her desk.

Aya sat down at her desk, trying to ignore her headache, and plugged her dictaphone into the USB port behind the computer tower under her desk. When she rose back up, she saw Hideaki approaching, a knowing smile on his face.

“So,” he said. “Arriving late, in the same clothes you wore last night, eh? Have a fun night?” Hideaki took a long sip of his tea.

“Oh, definitely.” Aya said. “This amazing band played at the club. The guitarist was just incredible. I went back to their place afterwards and stayed the night.”

Hideaki raised his eyebrows. “Well! That was unexpected. I was just making a joke. You're pretty candid, aren't you?”

Aya detected an undertone in Hideaki's words that she didn't quite understand. “How do you mean?”

“You know, meeting someone, going back to their place, having fun … ?”

Aya blinked. “Right?”

Hideaki took another sip of tea, then nodded. “We're talking about two completely different things, aren't we?”

“I think we are.”

“Yeah. Well, I better get back to-”

“No, wait. What are you talking about?”

Hideaki hesitated. “I was just making a stupid joke. It was pretty out of line of me, actually, and really none of my business. I often shove my foot in my mouth, though. Just forget I brought it up.”

“Hideaki, please. Just say it. Whatever the joke was, I promise not to get angry with you. Alright?”

Hideaki moved his tea from one hand to the other. “OK, look, I was just making a joke about one-night stands, that's all. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. I was actually going to congratulate you on getting lucky so soon after moving to town. But I'm guessing nothing like that happened, I'm an idiot, and the embarrassment is all mine.”

Aya furrowed her brow as she listened, nodding. After a few beats: “Oh! You're talking about sex, aren't you?”

Hideaki cocked his head, considering this response. “Aya, do you mind if I ask you a personal question? And please, feel free to tell me to go jump off a bridge if I'm overstepping here.”

“Of course.” Why was he being so serious all of a sudden?

He sat down at the edge of her desk, and leaned in a bit. “You've never had a … boyfriend, have you?” he asked quietly.

Aya shook her head. “No, I don't think I have.”

Hideaki nodded. “That's what I thought. Could I give you some advice, speaking from a man's point of view?”

“I suppose.”

“Men in the city are a bit different from the ones you might be used to in your small town. Everything in the city moves at a faster pace, and that includes dating. Don't let that pressure you, alright? If you're not ready, you're not ready. Any guy who respects you will understand this. OK?”

Aya smiled. “That's very good to know, actually, thank you.” She made a mental note to include something about courtship rituals in Bunbunmaru.

Hideaki seemed pleased. “Alright then.” He rose from her desk. “Guess I'll let you get to work now.”

“OK.” Aya nodded. She turned back to her monitor as he walked away.

By mid-afternoon, her article on the club was finished and she was nearly done with the police blotter, too. However, the headache she woke up with was only getting worse.

“Aya,” Ryu called. “Come over here a moment.”

Aya rose and walked to Ryu's desk, where he was reading his monitor. The tengu expected Ryu to have a problem with her article on the Indiscreet Cat – she more or less ignored the assignment, writing mostly about the band. Aya stood at Ryu's desk, prepared to defend her decision.

“You called?”

“Yeah … got a job for you,” Ryu said, distracted, still reading the monitor. “There's going to be a press conference at city hall in half an hour. The Transportation Committee chairman is going to unveil their new light rail plan. I need you to cover it.”

Aya brightened. “Of course! I'd be happy to-”

“500 words,” Ryu continued. “Take down the good bits of his statement. Get some photos, too. Also take down questions and answers between other reporters and the chairman.”

“Can I ask questions, too?”

Ryu looked up. “What would you ask, Aya?”

The tengu smiled. “I won't know until I hear what they have to say about the train, will I?”

Ryu nodded. “Alright. Sure, if questions come to mind, go on and ask.”

“You got it.” Aya waited for Ryu to say something about the article on the club.

“Anything else?” Ryu asked.

“Did you get my article?”

“The one on the club? Yeah, I got it.” Aya waited. Seeing she wanted feedback, Ryu continued. “You spent a lot of time on the band. A bit too much for a review of a club. But as a concert review? Yeah, it wasn't bad. Made me want to hear this band, anyway. You do interviews pretty well. Photos weren't bad, either.”

“Thank you.” Aya smiled. “I wanted to capture the almost ethereal tones of their-”

“Syameimaru. Press conference.”

“Right,” said the tengu, hurrying back to her desk.

“Try and make it back today, if you don't mind,” Ryu called after her. “As a little favor, for me, alright?”

Standing in a throng of other reporters in front of city hall, Aya could not help but smile. In this crowd, dictaphone and camera in hand, she was just another reporter. It made her content to know she could chameleonize like this, hiding in plain sight.

If only the headache would go away. It had only been getting stronger throughout the day. She knew it couldn't be from the sake she had at the café. As a tengu, only oni outclassed her in terms of tolerance to alcohol. She closed her eyes, taking a long, deep breath. Even her ears were ringing. What was this?

Suddenly, the group of reporters pushed forward, cameras flashing. The city officials had come out. Aya ducked under the shoulders of the men in front of her and quickly pushed her way to the front of the group. She ignored the murmurs of disapproval as she crouched at the front of the crowd, dictaphone switched on as she snapped photos.

“Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press,” began a man in a dull gray suit. Two smiling young women had wheeled out a table draped in a white cloth, and stood next to him. “It is my great pleasure to present you: our city's new light rail system.”

The women drew the cloth back. Aya, anticipating the crowd, quickly zoomed the shot and scooted forward a bit, snapping a string of shots of the model train.

Aya's headache began to throb, her ears ringing louder. The man droned on, but Aya couldn't pay attention. Fortunately the dictaphone was doing the listening for her. She could feel a cold sweat breaking out on her forehead, and extending down her back. Her breathing started to get shallow.

The reporters were asking questions now. Despite how awful she felt, Aya saw she had a chance to prove herself. Taking a deep breath, ignoring the growing pain in her head, she spoke up.

“Excuse me,” she cut in, interrupting another reporter. “But why does the city need this train?” Her vision was starting to blur a little now, and she was starting to feel dizzy.

“Light rail,” the man corrected. “I'm glad you asked that question. The fact is -”

Aya waited for the man to stop talking. It was all she could do to keep from collapsing. When at last he finished answering her question, he took two more questions from other reporters before thanking the press. With that, the reporters began to disperse.

It took great effort just for her to turn around and put one foot in front of the other. She managed to make it halfway down the block before the contents of her stomach rose up, spilling onto the sidewalk.

This had never happened to her before, and it surprised her to see. She felt embarrassed, but no one reacted to the event beyond furtively stepping around the puddle. Aya took a few deep breaths and pressed on, headed for the office.

What could have brought this on? she wondered. Her diet hadn't changed since she moved to the outside world: water, fresh fruits and vegetables, rice, and the occasional sake. She'd even taken care to never drink tap water, even if the price of all those bottles added up. Whatever it was, she'd never felt this awful before. All she wanted to do was curl into a ball and go to sleep. But she couldn't. She had an assignment to finish. Aya pressed on.

By the time she got to the office, the tengu's headache was rising and falling in waves. Each time it rose, her vision blurred and tunneled, the ringing in her ears became a roar, and her legs weakened.

“Back,” she stammered as she walked past Ryu's desk. He nodded without looking up from his keyboard, intent on his typing. Aya made her way to her desk, and sat down heavily. She felt nauseous again. Fighting it back, she plugged the dictaphone into the computer tower, opened a text file, put on the headphones and began to type. The going was slow, as the position of the keys kept swaying left and right. She took deep breaths, trying to concentrate.

“Aya?” Hideaki said, tapping her on the shoulder. “You're as white as a sheet. Are you feeling alright?”

Aya shook her head. “I've got … to finish this article.”

Hideaki frowned, putting the inside of his wrist to her forehead. “You're burning up. What are you doing here?”

“Ryu said.” Aya took another deep breath. “Ryu said to cover the press conference.”

Hideaki scowled. “Turn off your computer. Go home.” He then turned from her, striding to Ryu's desk. “Hey, old man! Is this how we treat our interns now?” he said, pointing at Aya.

Ryu looked at Aya, then Hideaki. “What's your problem?”

“Don't you see how sick she is? You sent her to cover a press conference like that? Eh? Are you punishing her for being late or something?”

“Wait, hang on.” Ryu stood, defensive. “She was fine when she left. And where do you get off talking to-”

“You haven't changed since university, you know that? Same old stubborn Ryu.”

Ryu was fuming. “Don't think that just because we're friends that you can just shout accusations at me like that.” Then he saw Aya approaching his desk – deathly pale, sweating, eyes glazed. Ryu was taken aback by the sight of her. “Aya ...”

“I'm sorry,” she said hoarsely. “I'm … not feeling very well. I think I need to go home.”

“Mm.” Ryu nodded in agreement.

“You just take care of yourself,” Hideaki told her. “Come back when you're feeling better. Some things are more important than work.” He looked sideways at Ryu.

“Thank you. I'm sorry,” Aya said, and headed for the door.

Hideaki looked at Ryu, shaking his head.

“She wasn't like that when she left,” Ryu insisted. “You think I'm some kind of monster or something?”

Hideaki smirked. “Only on your good days,” he said, and gave him a clap on the shoulder before returning to his desk.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 5

The band's place was not like the small apartment Aya and her neighbors lived in. Rather, they all drove in their van to the harbor. They rolled through a gate in a long chainlink fence, which surrounded a lot upon which six large identical dark green warehouses stood. Parking in front of one of the buildings, they all unloaded the van, Aya again with the cables.

Hitomi opened a door in the side of the building. It was dark and the air smelled musty. Aya followed the band up a flight of stairs to their space – it was enormous. The group had the entire second floor of the warehouse to themselves. A vast wooden floor, interrupted by concrete support pillars, stretched to the windows that ringed the entire space. There was furniture clustered in groups – a futon and a trunk here, a sofa there, three chairs and a small table at another spot – with no central living area.

“Wow,” Aya gasped. “I guess you must be pretty successful to afford such a big place.”

This provoked laughter from the entire band. “You could say that,” chuckled Hitomi. “We make almost nothing, and for this place, we pay nothing. So in proportion to our incomes, we manage.”

They unloaded their equipment against the wall at the top of the stairs. Aya set the cables down with the rest of the equipment, and then followed them to the couch and chairs.

The two drummers weren't particularly social. The took out a shoji game and set to playing without a word to anyone else. The laptop artist opened his laptop as he sat in a chair opposite the couch. “Let's see if I can get that signal I found yesterday ...” he said, distracted.

Aya sat at one end of the couch. It was old – the fabric was torn in places, and she could feel the wooden frame bend and creak. When Hitomi sat at the other end, she half expected the couch to collapse altogether. Koji, who had wandered off, returned with an acoustic guitar, plucking out a meandering tune.

“So, Aya,” Koji began. “What do-”

“No noodling, Koji,” Hitomi scolded playfully. “If you're going to play, play something. Don't just pick at it aimlessly like a crow in the garbage.”

Aya frowned. “Crows don't eat garbage.”

“Correct,” Koji smiled. “They eat food that people think is garbage. They find the useful in the discarded. Hitomi, you could learn a couple of things from our Korean friend here.”

“That's not exactly what I meant ...” Aya said.

Hitomi rolled her eyes at Koji and turned back to Aya. The tengu felt a surge of warmth, being in the presence of such good friends. “So, you don't pay anything to live here?” Aya asked.

Hitomi shook her head. “We rent a tiny storage space a few buildings over. Then Yazutaka did a little exploring around the pier and found this place.”

The man with the laptop nodded. “All thanks to me.”

“Yes, all thanks to you,” Hitomi smiled.

“But, isn't that dangerous?” Aya asked. “What if you get caught?”

Hitomi shrugged. “Then we'll move.”

“We made a decision,” Koji said, “Long ago, as a band. We vowed from the day that we formed that we would never, ever work again.”

“Never.” Hitomi emphasized.

“We reject the false promise of happiness that society dangles in front of the nation's youth.” Koji said, strumming a dramatic tune. “The great lie – go to a good school, get a job, get married, buy a pile of worthless junk with your credit cards, spend, buy, consume, pay. No! we say. We would rather live as paupers with dignity than-”

“Koji,” Hitomi cut in. “Please, don't bore our guest with your long-winded manifestos.”

“No, really, it's fine.” Aya said. “It's fascinating, really. Tell me more. Are there many people like you?”

Yasutaka snort-laughed. “Yeah, they're called 'homeless'.”

“Ah, but see,” Koji said. “There, right there, you're buying into the great lie. The stigma that a lack of material possessions means you've failed in life.”

“Consider the crows.” Hitomi smirked.

“Exactly!” Koji said. “You're making a joke, but that is precisely my point. Do the crows care for material things? No. Do we consider them failures as birds? Hardly. Their happiness is not predicated upon owning stuff.”

“I think Koji makes a very good point.” said Aya.

“Thank you.” Koji grinned with satisfaction, and continued noodling, pacing slowly.

“Anyways, Aya, tell me more about you,” Hitomi prompted.

“What do you want to know?” Aya liked Hitomi's casual demeanor.

“Hm.” Hitomi tapped her chin with her index finger. “Why Japan? Why not Mongolia, Bhutan, Algeria or Guyana?”

“Why didn't I go far away, in other words? Well, I have a pretty big family of sorts. I can't go too far from them. But also, I was interested in modern Japanese culture. I know enough about the medieval history already.”

“Ah, really?” Hitomi brightened a bit. “I love history. Is that what you majored in at university?”

“I didn't go to university.”

“And you got a job as a journalist, in Japan, with no university education?”

Aya shrugged. “Well, when I want something, I let nothing get in my way. It's just how I am. No reporter worth their salt would back down.”

“Yes!” Yasutaka exclaimed, drawing everyone's attention. “Got the signal. Hehehe. Alright, let's see how long this lasts ...” The brothers went back to their game.

Hitomi turned back to Aya. “That's an admirable attitude.”

It was then that Aya noticed Koji staring at her as he played. Being stared at was nothing troubling in itself. It was more the look in his eyes – as if he were trying to memorize her face. Aya met his gaze nonchalantly anyway. Koji quickly turned away.

Aya cleared her throat. “Yes.” she said to Hitomi. “I quite agree.”

The brothers finished their shoji game, and one of them rose, speaking for the first time. “Who wants sake?”

When Aya woke up, she was curled up on the band's couch in a very uncomfortable position. Hitomi's hoodie was draped over her. Her head ached and her eyes burned. That's right – she hadn't taken her contacts out, as Yukari had advised. Slowly, she sat up.

Sun poured in through the windows. The cement pillars cast long shadows across the floor. It seemed no one was awake. A low snore was slowly rising and falling somewhere in the loft. Aya stretched her arms, legs and toes, yawning. It had been quite a night. The “sake” was some suspicious homebrew, which she declined, pleading a weak stomach. The band drank, though, and things descended into an improvised jam session late in the night. After a while, one by one, they went to their separate futons. Only Hitomi and Koji had been awake when Aya began to feel tired.

“Please,” Koji had said. “It's not safe to walk home this late at night. Just crash here.”

Hitomi nodded. “I have to agree. The couch is all yours.”

Aya wasn't worried about what she might encounter on the city streets, and even if she were, ground travel wasn't the only option for her. But she felt the normal thing to do would be to accept their hospitality. And she was, after all, very tired.

“If you say so,” she'd said with a yawn. “I have to get to work in the morning, so-”


Aya stood up. By the angle of the sunlight, it was probably late morning. Hurriedly, Aya slipped on her shoes. She considered leaving a note, thanking them, but there was no time. With a sigh, she hurried down the stairs and out the door.

She momentarily considered flying. She'd get to work faster that way, sure, but it was a clear, cloudless day. She'd have to get pretty high up to avoid being seen, and even if she could, she couldn't just drop down in front of her office. She'd have to land some place hidden, and even then only after wasting time getting up to a ridiculous altitude, and she might still get spotted during her ascent or descent, and-

Aya sighed again and started walking. Making a job out of journalism was taking all the fun out of it.