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.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 4

The Indiscreet Cat was originally a jazz bar, but when jazz bars had started to become too common, business fell off. So instead they had taken a “long tail” approach, booking bands of just about any genre, especially groups who couldn't seem to get gigs anywhere else, because their style was too hard to define. This earned the club a reputation as a launching pad for some of the town's more eclectic music acts. The lay-out was simple enough – a bar area near the entrance, and further back, a larger seating area, with some space cleared in front of a black curtain hanging on the wall, flanked by PA speakers. When Aya arrived, the after-work crowd was just beginning to trickle in. The manager, who was also the owner, was happy to talk her about the bar and its reputation for attracting unusual acts.

“In fact,” he added, “You're in for a treat tonight. The band scheduled to perform is a local favorite. Perhaps you've heard of them – The Heavenly Dogs?”

Aya took a sip of her sake. She and the manager were seated a table near the bar area. She shook her head. “I honestly haven't, I'm sorry. But I look forward to hearing them.”

Aya hadn't expected to spend a very long time at the club, but the band wasn't slated to begin performing before nine. Not bothered, Aya ordered a larger bottle of sake, opened her Bunkachou, and began to take notes on modern human behavior.

In the centuries that Aya'd been alive, she'd seen humans make incredible progress for themselves, while their mentality and mannerisms remained largely the same. Something had happened in the past century, however, that made modern humans change noticeably.

For one, despite their courtesies towards one another, they seemed on the whole to be detached from one another, as if everyone had a great cache of secrets that no one else could know about. When she watched people at the office, and at this club, talking to each other, it was as if they were speaking from a thousand miles apart – or rather, that they were each talking to a mirror. For another, it seemed as though no one really paid attention to what was happening around them. One day on her way to work, she'd watched as a woman a few paces in front of her accidentally tripped when the heel of her shoe broke. She fell to the sidewalk, but everyone around her just kept walking, and no one stopped or so much as looked at them even as Aya helped the woman to her feet. People just stepped around them, continuing in their directions, unwilling or unable to acknowledge what had happened.

It struck her as remarkably callous behavior, but as the days went on, she saw that it was also a part of a modern human's stunted perceptions. For example, a group of people standing at the bus stop might be unaware that a gorgeous rainbow had arched over the buildings right across the street from them, even though it was in plain view of everyone. Something had happened to humans, she decided, that made them willfully ignore the world around them, and each other. What that something was would be crucial to her story on the outside world.

The club gradually filled with people. Before long, the musicians had arrived. She watched as they set up. They were all young, in their early 20s, she guessed, comprised of four men and one woman. One of them – a tall, thin young man with sad eyes - had a laptop, which he'd opened on a bar stool and plugged into a speaker he brought. Two other guys - who looked similar enough to be brothers - set up a series of large drums. Another had an electric guitar. He was about Aya's height, his face unshaven for a few days, hair long enough to fall frequently into his eyes. While he, like the other three men, wore a T-shirt and jeans, the guitarist wore also a black leather jacket. Aya thought he must be quite warm, and indeed, there was already sweat on his forehead. The young woman, though, despite wearing a black hoodie, jeans, and beat-up sneakers, Aya found very beautiful. Not so much for her physical appearance – although being taller than the men in the band, she did stand out – but rather for the confidence she projected from her expression, her stance. Aya was already intrigued.

The young woman adjusted the height of the microphone stand. Aya followed with rapt attention. The singer smiled at the crowd, who cheered enthusiastically. “Thank you. We're the Heavenly Dogs,” said the singer.

The song began with the two brothers beating on the drums with their hands; a steady, driving rhythm. But then some odd sounds that Aya had never heard before seemed to emerge out of nowhere. There were low, booming tones that matched the rhythm of the drums, but also some stranger tones that Aya couldn't quite identify – some were high and staccato, others were subtler, like wind blowing in the background. It took her some time to gauge, by the faces in the crowd watching him and the movements he was making, that the guy with the laptop was producing all these sounds.

The singer began to sing – a voice that matched the power of her poise. She sang with joy on her face, her eyes closed, her body moving to the rhythm, swaying side to side. Others in the club began dancing more energetically. And then, the guitarist began to play.

Aya was dumbstruck. He wasn't using some nearly-magical device to produce sounds – just strings stretched over a shape, like a koto – but from it he produced a melody of heartbreaking beauty. Notes spun and rose like crows riding a column of warm air. Their harmonies pushed on the edges of a bittersweet tension, and as he slowly wound up the intensity, Aya could feel goosebumps rising on the nape of her neck. And yet despite all this, he played with a relaxed, almost serene pose, in total mastery of the melody in his hands.

As they played, the music and the dancing got more intense. At one point, Aya had to stand up on her chair just to see the band. She got some good photos this way. The more energy the music had, and the more the crowd grew more ecstatic, the more she found herself enjoying this strange music, too. It took a while to get used to how loud it was, but once that happened, Aya was able to discern melody from noise quite easily. The musicians themselves had an almost innocent charm in the joy with which they played their songs, like children, or fairies. The tengu decided she'd interview the guitarist first, and then the singer.

As the show concluded, the crowd seemed unwilling to let the band go, and managed to encourage two more songs out of them before relenting. As people began to move away from the band, and the band began to pack things up, Aya approached the guitarist. Seeing her approaching, camera and dictaphone in hand, he smiled.

“Hey there,” he said. “Saw you standing on a table taking photos. You a reporter then?”

Aya smiled, and bowed politely. “I am. Aya Syameimaru, reporter for the Mercury. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.”

“Koji Takitana. And sure, I'll answer your questions.”

“Alright. Well, first-”

“But I get to ask you questions, too. A question for a question. Sound fair?”

Aya paused, and regarding Koji's steady, unwavering smile. “That's an unusual request.”

“Well, what can I say? I like to know who I'm talking to. You seem nice enough.”

“I try. So, um, what was the name of that first song you played?”

“Ah ah. I'm first. Remember? A question for a question.”

“Oh. Of course.”

Koji thought it over a moment. “You're not from around here, are you?”

“No, I'm not. So then – the first song?”

Koji laughed. “Evasive, are we?”

“You just need to know how to ask questions.” Aya smiled. “Like, 'I'm guessing you're not from around here – where are you from?', for example.”

“I guess that's why you're the journalist, and I just play guitar. Alright, it's called Skybreaker.”

“Interesting title. I have to admit, I've never heard any music quite like it.”

Koji nodded. “So you hated it, in other words.”

Aya was surprised, but Koji's smile was relaxed. Was this a joke? “What? No, I liked it a lot, actually.”

“Alright.” Koji accepted. Putting his guitar in a kit bag while his bandmates similarly packed up, he asked, “So where are you from then?”

“Hanam, it's a small place just outside of Seoul. I've been living in Japan for a few years now.”

“Eh? Really?” Koji sounded impressed. “You have no accent whatsoever. That's pretty amazing.”

“Thank you.” Aya cleared her throat. “Why do you play music?”

Koji rolled up the cables for his guitar and amps. “As opposed to?”

“Well, anything else, I suppose. What makes you want to play music?”

Koji paused and considered it a moment. “You know, I have no idea. I just have to. It's just my nature, I guess. It's a big part of the things I need to stay alive.”

The singer walked over then. “Hello,” she said to Aya. “Are you reviewing us?”

“Ah, well, not entirely,” Aya admitted. “I was sent to review this club. But since you were playing here, you'll be part of the article, though.”

“Ah, I see.” The singer nodded. “I'm Hitomi.” She looked at Koji, then back at Aya. “Is he explaining to you why his guitar was out of tune for the second half of the set?”

Aya was embarrassed for Koji, but he laughed it off. “Well, maybe I'd be able to hear it better if your monitor wasn't so loud.”

The two laughed then. “Actually, Koji told me the first song you played tonight was called Skybreaker,” Aya said to Hitomi.

“Did you like it?”

“I did, very much. I've never heard music that sounded like that. It was quite an experience.”

“Well,” Hitomi smiled broadly. “I'm pleased to-” She looked at Aya a moment, and then shook her head. “I'm sorry, you reminded me of someone for a moment. Don't worry, she was one of my best friends.”

“Ah, well, thank you.”

“She's Korean.” said Koji. “Only moved here a few years ago.”

“Is that right?” Hitomi asked. “And how long have you been in town?”

“Oh, just a few weeks now.”

“Ah, I see. Done much exploring?”

“No, actually.” As she thought of it, she realized she hadn't really been out that much, apart from going to work. She frowned a little at the fact.

Hitomi smiled at Aya. “Are you busy? Do you have to be anywhere?”

Aya shook her head.

“Well, why don't you come over to our place then?” Hitomi asked. “I can give you an exclusive.” She laughed. “Seriously, you've been in town a few weeks and still haven't seen anything? That needs to be taken care of.”

Aya didn't hesitate. A direct invitation to visit people in the outside world, right where they live? There was no question. “I wouldn't want to be too much trouble … but yes, I would.”

“Great.” Hitomi smiled. “Can you get the cables?”

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 3

Aya sat at her desk, scanning the police blotter in one window, and the city homepage on the other. In the past week she'd concentrated solely on adapting to a human routine. This meant a series of tasks in just preparing for the day that were completely alien to her. The clothes did suit her, and Yukari had done well to be generous in supplying them, even if they did look a little plain to her – today she went with a green blouse, navy blue skirt, black tights and pumps. She'd learned to walk to work avoiding eye contact with anybody along the way.

The office dynamic was easy to figure out, since Ryu and Hideaki were the only full timers in the editorial department. Nearly everything else was freelance. The graphic designers were technically independent contractors, and the sales people were on commission. Aya thought it was impressive that such a loose band could run a newspaper, while Ryu found it a source of endless stress. He seemed to be continuously agitated, which worried Aya a bit at first, but Hideaki downplayed it. “He's fine. He actually does his best work under pressure, and he knows it.”

Using the computer had also been easy to pick up. Reading the city home page and writing up the shorter local pieces on cafés, clubs, bars, any exhibition openings, any live music, it came with doing, as Hideaki had said. In between pieces, she'd do her own personal research. But of course, there was only so much you could learn at a desk.

Aya closed her police blotter text, took a breath, and rose from her desk. She walked to Ryu, who was at his desk, typing. “Excuse me, Mr. Ogawa, but I was wondering if you wanted me to get a story.”

Ryu stopped typing and turned from the monitor. He shook his head. “I don't understand.”

I mean, is there a chance I could get into the city and find some news, too?”

Ryu rested his elbows on the desk, and nodded. “You want to go into the field, as it were?”

Yes? Yes. I'd like to do some reporting.”

The editor had to take into account a few things: on the one hand, this was an intern who literally walked in off the street last week with no real resume, claiming to be Korean when she clearly wasn't, and who'd never even attended university. On the other hand, she was a hard worker, turned in more than enough material, and she could write. Plus, something about the look on her face told him that he'd likely have to argue with her if he refused, which was a prospect that tired him.

Alright,” he said. “But I'm giving you an assignment first. I have to see how you cover events as they transpire, so I know that you can be trusted with the task.” He turned back to his monitor, glancing over his e-mails. That's right – one of their freelancers dropped an assignment that day, saying she was swamped. A band in some club. 500 words max. He turned back to Aya.

Your assignment is: you're to go to the Indiscreet Cat tonight at six. It's their live music night. I want you to review the café, throw in the band as well. Have you ever done music reviews?”


Doesn't matter. The focus is the place itself. The atmosphere, how the service was, what you had to drink, that sort of thing. Sound alright to you?”

It was perfect for Aya, being asked to closely scrutinize humans in their natural environment. She readily agreed. “Yes, thank you very much.”

Alright then.” Ryu smiled a little, and turned back to his monitor. “Have a good time.”

Aya still felt as though Ryu was holding her back a bit, but she knew she had to be grateful and get along if she hoped to cover her real assignment. Returning to her desk, she leaned down, and turned off the computer. Looking up, she saw Hideaki gesturing her over to his desk. She approached.

Leaving early?” he asked.

No, actually, Mr. Ogawa asked me to cover a story.”

Hideaki smiled, proudly it seemed. “You see? That's what you can accomplish when you show some initiative and push the guy a little. Good for you.”

Thank you.” Aya blushed.

So, let me guess – is it an exhibition, a concert, or a dog show?”

Aya frowned. “A concert. Was it that easy to guess?”

Those are just the assignments most freelancers wouldn't touch with a barge pole. No one wants to do them, so Ryu has to make someone do them. Don't take it bad. He'd likely never pick you yet if you hadn't stood up to him.”

Hideaki paused a moment, tapping his pen on the edge of his desk. “This is how you prove yourself, Aya. It's like … well, alright, in a restaurant, there's a chef, and the chef has his assistants. When assistants start, they might be just chopping vegetables for months. Eventually, they're allowed to make broths. But no one ever gets anywhere standing around waiting to be told what to do. Cooks become chefs because they step forward, volunteering for extra work, practicing dishes on their own time. They become masters of the craft because they were the ones who wouldn't take 'No, you're not ready yet' for an answer. So it is with journalists. I can see the fire in your eyes. You want to be the ace reporter, breaking huge stories, your by-line in the feature pieces?”

Yes,” Aya affirmed.

Hideaki stood. “You want to be the next newshound to earn the coveted NSK Award?”

Aya had no idea what this meant, but it sounded important. “Yes!” she said. “I do!”

That's the spirit! Then you go down to whatever forgettable hole-in-the-wall the old man's sent you to and you cover that equally forgettable concert!”

Yes!” Aya said, and turned.

Hideaki smiled with admiration. She could really go places if she didn't get burned out first. Then something occurred to him. “Wait.” he said. “Do you have a dictaphone?”

Aya stopped, turning back around. She'd played with the office's dictaphone – the one with the name of the paper scratched into the back of it, the one everybody uses – but never had any reason to use it professionally. “Well, no, I was just going to take notes.”

That's no good. If you quote someone on the record, and we print it, and they have a problem, it'll be your word against theirs. Hey, don't give me that look. I trust you. It's just a legal thing, OK? Here.” Hideaki opened his top desk drawer, and put his dictaphone on the desk. “Take mine. Some photos would probably be nice, too. Are you pretty good at taking photos?”

I've had some experience with it, yes.”

That's good. Take some shots of the club from the outside, the interior - if they'll let you - the manager, that kinda thing.”

I'll do my best.”

Hideaki regarded Aya for a moment. When she smiled, her whole face lit up. Her eyes flashed with an intensity that was a little unsettling to him. There was a tremendous power in them, like she was more a force of nature than anything else. That would have to be the case, he imagined, when it came to any person capable of moving to a new country and settling in within just a few years, even if it was fairly obvious that she was a foreigner. He pitied the poor soul who got in this girl's way.

Alright, Aya. Have fun."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 2

Aya spent days online. Yukari had given good instructions on how to use a computer, but what she'd omitted to say was easy to learn anyway. It wasn't that complicated a machine to use after all.

Information on the outside world proved overwhelmingly abundant. It was, in fact, a mess. None of it was organized very well. Much of it was comparable to things in Gensokyo, and she found more information on things from the outside world that had been brought into Gensokyo, but there was still a great deal to learn. Figuring she'd never make any headway taking a broad approach, she narrowed her subject to the city itself. This proved a lot easier, even if it was still time consuming. Yukari was right about how people lived. It seemed there was an endless amount of things to do, but that people worked too many hours to possibly see them all. How these two facts reconciled was beyond the tengu.

One morning, she decided to skip breakfast and head right out to explore her surroundings. She got dressed in the clothes Yukari had laid out, ignoring the other choices for now. Putting her contacts in went better than she expected. Pocketing some of the money, she stepped to the door of her apartment, and into a hallway lined with identical looking doors - with the exception of one at the end of the hall, an exit sign above it. Walking through that door, she headed down the stairs. She could hear the cars more clearly. Reaching the door at the bottom of the stairs, she paused, taking a deep breath, and opened the door, stepping outside.

It was a gorgeous day. People walked by, very quickly, and the ever-present cars rolled slowly down the street in both directions. The sound and the energy itself was a tad jarring, but Aya believed she could get used to it. Following the directions Yukari gave her, Aya turned left.

Yukari had been right – these humans did live much differently than any other she'd met. They walked faster, their faces were closed, and their machines made all kinds of noise. But soon enough, the shop appeared.

The tengu noticed that no one on the street had given her a second glance, which was a good sign, but this would be her first interaction with a human from the outside world. Aya stepped through the sliding glass doors.

It was brighter on the inside than it was on the outside. Noticing the baskets by the door, she took one up and walked down the first aisle. She knew what sorts of things to expect on the shelves, but she found the choices confusing. She walked down one aisle, past food in foil bags, and up the next, canned food on the shelves. The tengu didn't see anything she wanted. Could she even eat these things? What if they gave her an allergic reaction, or even turned out to be toxic? She'd have to get something she knew was safe.

She reached the end of the canned goods aisle. A young man behind the counter – presumably the shopkeeper – was looking at her. Then the shopkeeper smiled, saying, “Good morning!” Aya smiled back, “Good morning,” she said quickly, and turned down the next aisle. To her relief, she saw fruit. She picked up some oranges and grapefruit. Further down the aisle, she found rice.

This should do it, she decided, and turned towards the counter. The shopkeeper waited behind his till. Aya gave him a small smile as she set her food on the counter. The tengu watched as he pushed buttons on his till, bagging her food, and occasionally stealing glances at her. What is it? she thought. Do I look so different after all?

At last, the shopkeeper finished bagging her food and gave her a price. It was a lot more than she expected it to cost, but she'd fortunately brought enough money. Giving Aya her change, the shopkeeper smiled politely, “Please come back soon.” Aya smiled in return, picked up the bag, and walked casually out of the shop, back onto the busy sidewalk.

Aya smiled to herself as she walked back to her apartment. Nobody knows who I am. I'm just another person walking home.

Ryu Ogawa looked with suspicion at the young girl seated across from him at his desk. Interns never literally walked in off the street. Actually, The Mercury had never had an intern. They'd been around for barely two years and were struggling on a staff of twenty. The larger papers were long established in the city, with a loyal subscriber base, and they all had the money to put boxes on practically every corner of town. Ryu had even been considering lately the idea that if things continued as they were for another year, they might have to fold.

But this girl seemed very enthused about working for them.

So.” Ryu tapped the edge of his desk with his index finger. “Why our paper?”

Aya cleared her throat. Their offices were the closest to her apartment. Ryu looked older than he probably was. His hair was gray and receding a bit, and he had a paunch. He had a face that looked like he'd worked outside a lot at one point in his life.

Well, I really like the name, for one,” Aya said. “And I feel it's a paper that really suits me. I'm willing to help out on any story, any time.”

Ryu nodded. “Alright. Have you done any journalism before?”

Aya recalled her coached responses. So far the interview was going as Yukari told her it would. “Yes, I ran a local newspaper in my hometown for a long time, but it became economically unfeasible.”

Ryu made a short laugh through his nose. “Yeah, tell me about it. So where are you from? What school did you go to?”

I'm from Hanam, near Seoul.”

The editor raised his eyebrows. 'Syameimaru' didn't sound Korean to him. “Well. How long have you been in Japan?”

A few years now. I've been traveling around.”

You speak pretty good Japanese for just a few years.”

I'm a fast learner.”

Ryu said nothing for a moment, and then nodded. “That's good. What university did you go to?”

I skipped university.”

Oh? Why's that?”

I wanted to travel. I thought it was more important to see things I'd never seen before firsthand, rather than read about them in a classroom.”

Ryu considered Aya a moment. It was clear she was sharp, but a little off center. She seemed pretty enthusiastic about working for free though. And that was always a plus.

Did you bring a sample of your writing?”

No, in fact, but I can bring you some, if you like.”

Ryu looked at his monitor, and then back at Aya. “I have a better idea.” He stood up. “Come on.”

Aya rose, and followed the editor out of his office and into the main room, with its rows of desks mounted with their computers, telephones, papers, and odd little objects she didn't recognize the purpose of.

Ryu led her to a table at the back, and gestured to the computer there. “Here. Go over the police blotter, and type up three articles for me, no more than 300 words each. You have one hour. Fair enough?”

Aya froze. This she hadn't expect at all. And what was a police blotter? “Of course.”

Alright then,” Ryu smiled, satisfied, and walked back to his desk. They could always use an extra hand for the grunt work, anyway. And you couldn't beat the salary.

Aya sat at the machine, and brought up the browser. She opened the bookmarks, but a column of page titles spilled over the screen, none of them saying “police blotter”.

She heard a man's throat clear behind her.

Turning around in her seat, she look up at a thin young man wearing a pair of thick black-framed glasses. He took a sip from a paper cup. “Having some trouble?”

Aya smiled. “Hello. I'm Aya Syameimaru. I'm hoping to be an intern here.”

Ah?” the man replied. “Well, that's interesting. I'm Hideaki Yoshimoto. I'm a staff journalist here.” He glanced past her at the computer. “Doing the police blotter, eh?”

How did you know?”

It's Ryu's way. Trust me, we went to university together. And if you walk in here offering to work for free, he's just going to get you started. We could use all the help we could get.” Hideaki stepped to the desk, and took the mouse. “Here. This bookmark's for the police blotter. The username and password is on a text file on the desktop. Should get you right in.”

Aya smiled, grateful for the help. “Thanks very much.”

Don't mention it.” Hideaki said, finishing the drink in his paper cup. “Good luck.” With a brief wave, he walked back to his desk, at the other side of the room.

Aya turned back to the screen. Three stories. Should be no problem.

I have to be honest, I've never seen Ryu react to new material quite like that.” Hideaki smiled, taking a sip of beer. Aya was seated across from him, at a table in a local bar. His way of congratulating her on a good first day, as he put it.

Aya laughed a little at the remark. “I'm not sure if you mean that as a compliment or not.”

Oh it's a compliment alright. He told me he'd quote, never read anything like it, end quote.”

The tengu tapped at the base of her untouched glass of wine. “That still doesn't sound necessarily positive.”

Hideaki gave a dismissive wave. “Really, he was pleased. Especially with the stolen bicycle story.”

Really?” Aya brightened a bit. “I did put a lot of work into that one. But then, it practically wrote itself.”

Definitely. There's plenty of bicycle theft, sure. But it's not every day police actually recover a stolen bike. Pretty noteworthy, I'd say. You made me care about the plight of the bicycle owner, and I felt happy for him when he got his bike back.”

I don't think you're being entirely serious,” Aya chuckled. “But thank you.”

Hideaki nodded and turned towards the window. It was early evening. The streetlights were on, but she could still see the long shadows of dusk along the buildings. The flow of traffic and people was unchanged.

So tell me, Aya. Why journalism?”

The tengu considered the question for a moment, or rather, how to filter Gensokyo out of what she wanted to say. “Well, where I'm from, the place has a very old history. For a long time no one recorded anything that happened. Fortunately, there were a few people who started taking down the oral history, but to me it always seemed … I don't know, perhaps a little sad? That there was so little written by the people who were around then. So I decided, well, I'm not going to let that happen again.”

Ah, so you're recording history?”

Makes me sound a little conceited, I think.”

Oh, I didn't mean it like-”

No, it's alright. It might be a little conceited of me to think that, but it's true.”

Hideaki nodded. “You know, I have to respect that. That's a good approach to journalism, I'd say. But let me ask you-”

No, hang on. What about you? Why journalism?”

Hideaki took a sip of beer. “Easy. The perks. They're mostly from blackmail, of course, which I realize only lasts so long, but-”

Aya laughed. “You can't be serious.”

I'm not. Eh, I don't know.” Hideaki shrugged. “Probably because I wasn't really good at much anything else. You know for a while I worked in a car garage? Applied for the job because I needed one, lied to them and said I was a mechanic.”


I did. I lasted a whole week just by going online, reading about engines and basic car trouble. For some reason didn't think to start by learning how to change oil. Anyway, the point is, I pretty much fell into this gig because of Ryu. He really pushed me, and I don't know – I don't have the heart to turn down a friend who offers me a job.”

Aya nodded, relaxed back in her chair, and turned towards the city streets again. Now it was night, but the streets were as bright as mid-day. But not like sunlight is bright, the tengu noticed. It was a sharper light, as if it were drawn onto the air with a stiff brush. And everywhere, there was a faint buzz in the air. Unlike the wind sound made by cars, this buzz had no fluctuation. It was a steady hiss, just below the background noise of the bar, which was itself pretty loud.

Well, one thing's for sure,” Aya said. “This place is a lot different than my hometown.”

It's like anything else.” Hideaki shrugged. “Adaptation. I grew up in the north. A little non-descript place with one traffic roundabout in the center of town. Moving here was a bit of a shock to me at first but I guess ...” He considered the words, as if trying to read them forming in the air between them. “I don't know. You just pretend you know what you're doing, until you just do.”

Ah, but that got you in trouble at the car garage. You didn't last a week.”

This is true.” Hideaki nodded, and finished his beer. Aya smiled and turned towards the window again, watching the traffic, the people walking by.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sound of the City: Chapter 1

Laying on the grass on a summer afternoon, Aya Syameimaru was reading some recent story ideas in her Bunkachou, when she started to feel a little drowsy in the sun. A bee flew by, to nowhere in particular. As she sometimes would when her mind wandered, she started flipping through older pages.

It amazed her how vividly exactly where she was when she jotted down a line or some questions could be brought to life. Here, for example, “Does anyone buy anything from Korindou?” - Aya was standing under the short awning of a noodle stand when she wrote that, the cool mist of a heavy downpour on her arms. In the margin, here, just the word “flowers”, she'd written practically in her sleep, woken up by an unknown noise, finding herself suddenly open-eyed to the night sky.

But then Aya caught one sentence: “Talk to Yukari.” This was what started the story she couldn't finish, the article she never put to print. She felt her heart skip a beat.

“The outside world is fine in small doses,” Yukari Yakumo had told Aya back then, during an interview about her encounters outside the border. “But I could never live there. It's just too boring.”

They were seated together in the main room of her home, the doors open to the mountains, the border there, silent and absolute, invisible. It was early evening, and the mists within their valleys were beginning to rise with the cooling day. Aya tapped her pen against her wrist.

“That's easy for you to say. You've spent more time out there than anyone. I bet there's all sorts of things going on. I mean, you brought the shopkeeper all kinds of strange things. I'd love to get a better look at where these things come from.” Of course. This was feature material.

Yukari scoffed. “Well, it's not that simple. You don't just go bounding into the outside world. There are no youkai. You'd stick out like a sore thumb.”

Aya considered this. The wings were concealable, but her ears and eyes would certainly give her away.

Yukari smirked, considering. “You know, actually, it wouldn't be hard for you to pass as human.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Well, if you had the right clothing,” Yukari nodded, thinking out loud. “You'd have to make sure you kept your hair over your ears, of course. Hm. And you could get some colored contacts.”

“Some what?”

“Small pieces of colored glass that you wear on your eyes, to change their color.”

“On … on my eyes?


Aya looked at the mountains, and turned back to Yukari.

There were always new guests to Gensokyo, so news of the outside world, even from sometimes fourth-party sources, often came in. But it had never previously occured to her to go into the outside world itself to do her own coverage. She had to admit, it was an intriguing idea. She imagined a multi-part feature series, loads of photos and interviews. It would be a historical record. “Do you really think I could pass as human?”

Yukari nodded. “Yes. Just so long as no one catches you flying.”

And so the preparations began. Yukari went across the border and returned a week later to fetch Aya. She found the tengu at the Human Village, approaching the school.

“Aya,” Yukari smiled. “Are you ready to leave?”

“I am,” she said without hesitation. The idea of going into the outside world to do an investigative piece became much more attractive when Yukari had told her that she could be a journalist in the outside world, too. Yukari had explained the concept of interns, and while it sounded appealing, Aya wondered how she would live. “I'll take care of that part. You concentrate on what I told you. And on your story.”

Aya stopped short of the school house, and put her notebook away. “So when do we go?” She asked.

“We can leave right now, if you like.” Yukari said. “But maybe not in the middle of the village.”

The apartment was small. There were a pair of small windows opposite the door, a table, a cushion, a futon alongside a wall shared with a closet to the left, and to the right, the kitchen. Aya regarded the metal fixtures of the sink, the steel box beside it, and made a note that the kitchen was the most advanced area of the household. The windows were covered, but Aya could hear a strange wind outside, a constant breeze that rose and fell in pitch.

The gap closed behind them. Yukari turned to Aya, then looked back at the room. “Well, this is it. This is where I stay.”

On the table sat a device Aya didn't recognize. She eyed it curiously as she tried to parse what function it could serve. Yukari noticed Aya's bewildered expression. “Ah, this ...” Yukari approached the table, sitting at the machine, “is going to teach you everything you need to know about the outside world. It works a lot like a typewriter, only it can do much more.”

Yukari pressed a button in the side of the machine, and it whirred softly to life. When the monitor lit up, Yukari took the mouse and opened a browser. Aya followed with rapt attention.

“You'd better learn how to use one of these things,” Yukari said. “Especially if you want to be a journalist out here. Not just for writing, but also for research.” She opened Wikipedia. “You can start just by typing in that box what you want to know about, or you can just click where it says 'random page'. There are other places on this machine you go to, too, and I've marked those for you here.” Opening bookmarks. “Make good use of these, and they'll help you learn about how things are out here. I can't be gone for days on end to answer all your questions, and I think you'll learn faster this way, anyway.”

Aya nodded. “You're right, research is key. I have to blend in. I don't want anyone thinking I'm a tengu.”

Yukari laughed a bit. “There's little danger of that. No one believes tengu are real, so it's the last possibility they'd consider if they discovered you didn't know what a car was, or how telephones work. Most likely, they'd conclude you were either newly arrived from some primitive village, or that you just weren't very bright.”

“I see.” Aya frowned.

“Anyway, spend a few days at least with this machine. Take your time. There's enough food to last you a week. After that, you're on your own, but there's a shop not far from here where you can buy food. I've left you more than enough money, in the closet.”

Aya nodded. She considered the room. It wasn't as much space as she was used to, but it would do. She kept expecting to somehow feel different, just by being in the outside world. It surprised her that she felt this comfortable. A wave of resolution swelled up inside her. “OK. So, what do we do first?”

“First,” Yukari turned with a smile to the closet, “You need to get changed.” She removed a small armful of clothing and placed it on the futon.

Yukari turned to the window as Aya stepped to the futon, and looked at the clothing. They looked so plain and unflattering. Reluctantly, she undressed, and put on the costume. “Alright.” she said at last, “Do I look human?”

Yukari turned around. Aya had taken off her tokin hat. Her hair covered her ears. She was wearing a white turtleneck with a tan suede vest, a black knee-length skirt, charcoal grey stockings and a pair of simple black flats. Yukari caught her breath.

“Better than I expected!” Yukari arched her brows, then gave an approving nod. She stepped closer, adjusting the tengu's hair a bit around her ears. “Now we just have to take care of those eyes.”

Contact lenses proved to be a real struggle. Yukari had insisted Aya learn to put them in and take them out herself, but the thought of putting something on her eyeball made Aya squeamish. But red eyes would be a problem, so in they went, eventually. Yukari regarded her face from different angles. She could sometimes see a thin crescent of red around her pupils, if she looked at her at just the right angle, but most likely no one would believe her eyes were actually red.

Yukari pulled her face back as Aya wiped tears from her cheeks. Yukari smiled. The tengu looked surprisingly human. If Yukari were drifting in the night sky over any street in this city and saw Aya walking past storefront windows, she'd suspect she was an ordinary recent university graduate from an ordinary school in this ordinary world.

“What is it?” asked Aya.

“It's nothing. I just want to remember this.” Yukari answered. “Say, lend me your camera. I want to get a picture of this.”

“Of course! We have to keep a visual record.” She took her camera out from her skirt pocket,

“No, not that one.” Yukari tapped the closet door with her umbrella. “Bottom shelf.”

Aya turned, and laughed nervously, opening the closet door. There, on the bottom shelf, was a flat, metal camera, smaller than her hand.

“That's your new camera. Much easier to carry around, much more discreet. Plus you'll need one, if you become an intern somewhere.”

Aya picked up the camera, turning it over in her hand. The internship. The perfect combination of fully covering the outside world with hiding in plain sight, and by working her trade as well. Aya felt her pulse quicken a bit at the idea. It might be tough working somewhere else, but the tengu was confident. There wasn't any going back now.

“Here, I'll show you how it works,” Yukari said, reaching for the camera.

Yukari coached Aya on a number of aspects of the outside world that evening.

“The biggest difference between the outside world and Gensokyo is not only the lack of faith in the gods and youkai. Symptomatic of that is the pace at which they live.” Yukari began. The two were sitting at the table, drinking cold barley tea in the warm little room. Aya could hear music playing through the walls, but did not recognize the melody, or the instruments.

“I'm used to humans. I've talked to plenty of them.” Aya took a sip of tea.

“These aren't like the mikos, or even the humans in the village. People in the outside world are very busy people. They are constantly working, going places, doing things, meeting people. They don't have a lot of free time.”

“I see. And there's really no belief in the gods at all?”

“Well, of course, there is some faith. But even that's a different sort. It's not the kind that serves the gods, but serves them.”

“I don't understand.”

“You will. Anyway, that's not important. Just always keep in mind the speed at which they live. It influences every other aspect of who they are.”

Aya nodded. “I'll have that in mind.”

“Now.” Yukari put down her glass of tea. “Let's talk about your job interview.”

Later that night, after Yukari had said her good-byes, Aya was sitting on the futon looking at the money Yukari left for her. Beautiful slips of paper with writing and drawings on them. The apartment was hers for as long as she needed.

Aya listened to the wind outside her window. It was unending, but unobtrusive, rising and falling, accented from time to time with soft rumbles. She realized she hadn't even looked outside yet. The tengu stood and walked to the window, pushing aside the blinds.

Across from her she saw a wall with windows in it - a three-story building. There were others lined up on either side of it, spaced very close together. She looked down and there, in the space between her house and the one across from her, she saw the cars Yukari had told her about. Strange to see them in action. They looked like dark, shiny beetles sliding across a surface of white ice. Aya watched them for a while, then walked back to the futon. She laid down, looked at the money a little longer, and drifted to sleep.