The things he remembers:
– His mother's patient hands, poised carefully as she taught him how to write the characters in his name. The smell of the ink stone. The steady swipe of the brush as she taught him the strokes, cool and cutting as the passing of a blade. The clumsy stutter in his own hands as he tried to imitate her. He dripped ink everywhere.
“Sorry,” he said.
“It's all right,” she said. She unfurled another sheet. She took his wrist and corrected his grip. “We will try again.”
– The name his father gave him. It was different from the name his mother taught him to write.
Once, he asked her why she called him that.
“When you are a man, there will be many who will call you by your true name,” she said, “but for now, you are still mine, so you will be my little bird.”
– His mother’s voice, rising in the yard as she washed a yukata one summer morning.
His mother loved old songs. She played them on her phone, which she kept propped between two bonsai at the window. He never thought to ask her why she was washing that yukata, though he remembers the sink was stained red after she had finished.
He never thought to ask her what the song was about, either. Later on, he could guess: it was about a deep, yearning love. The sort that weathered all seasons.
Those songs were always her favorite.
– The lines of his mother's tattoo, peeking out from the sleeve of her kimonos. Pink camellia, the symbol of the branch family, twined from her arms to her ankles. He asked her how the paint stayed on. He remembered being very young when he asked this question. She rolled her sleeve, and told him only the truth.
“Oh,” he said. “Did it hurt?”
She was very patient with him. “Yes,” she said, with the faintest smile.
– The smell of burnt hair as she came home one night. She would not say where she'd been. She stumbled at the door frame. He helped her remove her sandals. He sat her down on the futon. He helped her cut out the damaged pieces of hair. His mother was well known for her hair: long and black, it fell nearly to her waist.
“Why didn't you stop her?” he asked. He was old enough to speak up. “You're stronger than her.”
“It is not about strength,” she said, while the burnt pieces fell away.
“It is about loyalty.”
In the end, there was no way to fix it and keep it even. They cut it into layers and put it up with carefully chosen comb. He held the scissors. The loose strands caught in the sleeves of her kimono. Black on red. His hands shook, while she showed him how to do it.
– The day the other children threw him down the well.
He fractured his wrist. He bruised his ribs. He broke two toes. He stayed in the well for most of the morning, until one of the servants finally had the courage to summon his mother — only after his father's wife had left the compound for a quick trip to the city.
His mother asked him, “Who did this to you?”
He didn't answer. He was older, then — old enough to understand silence was the best language in that house. He spoke it like a second tongue.
Still, she held his hand while the family doctor wrapped his wrist.
“It will not happen again,” she said.
– His mother’s urgent voice, when she woke him in the middle of the night.
“It’s time to go,” she whispered.
“Eh?” he said, and then, as she steered him through the quiet halls of their tiny house, he managed: “Go where?”
His mother didn’t answer. A car waited outside. The windows were dark. A man in a suit gave her a folder full of papers.
“Who is that?” he asked.
“Hush,” she said. “Please, get in the car.”
He could count the number of times he’d ridden in a car on one hand. They drove through the complex, and out onto the open streets. She gave him a coat with a hood to cover his face.
It is only when the car entered the city that he understood that they were leaving. He asked about breakfast and father, and his mother put her hand over his without a word — it was only then that he understood that they would not be back again for some time.
– The island. His first day of school, writing his name on the board with the cool, confident strokes she had always taught him. He didn’t write the name written in mainland legal records. He wrote down what his mother called him, because he hated the name his father had given him.
Besides, he was a boy. A boyhood nickname suited him best.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said, boisterously. She had advised him to treat them with confidence, to be his open self — he had such a charming smile. “I hope we can be friends.”
The other children watched him with suspicion and whispers. They didn’t like his grin, or his strange name. He couldn’t bring himself to be terribly bothered by it. It reminded him an awful lot of home.
– Coming home from his first day of school with his knuckles scraped raw. He tried to hide it from her, tried to tuck his hands under the table as she arranged leftovers from her job in front of him. She caught him when he reached for a dumpling.
She held his hands over the sink. The water was hot. It stung.
“I hope it was a fight worth finishing,” she said.
It was. He’d been surrounded. It’d been pretty unfair.
“Hm,” she said, as she wrapped his hand. “Did you win?”
“Of course,” he said. It’d been really unfair.
– His second day at school, when word about the fight got around, and suddenly everyone wanted to be his friend.
– A voice like a fist in his hair, dragging his attention down the hill: “Let me go, let me go, LET ME GO—”
He dropped his school bag and ran before he thought about it. He came in on a bad scene: three boys, one with a pair of scissors. The kid on the ground thrashed. He elbowed one of the boys in the stomach and cracked the other across the face.
That was all the hint they needed that it was time to get gone. They looked at each other and ran, dropping the scissors. Their victim got up into a crouching position and stared with eyes wide like a fish. The kid had so much hair, and it was so bright — sticking out at all ends just then — he couldn’t help but stare right back.
He remembered to smile.
“That could’ve ended badly.” He kicked the scissors off into the bushes and offered a hand. “Hey, are you all right?”
“They didn’t get you, did they?”
The kid shoved hanks of hair back into the safer folds of the coat. “Mm.” Emphatically, this time.
“What’s your name?”
“That’s a funny name,” he said. “Promise mine’s funnier. Let me walk you up the hill.”
That earned him a glare. “No.”
– Asking his mother, “What do you do when you want a girl to like you?”
His mother looked at him, confused. “You’re a bit young for that, yet.”
He insisted. He explained: they’d gotten off to a bit of a bad start. He’d scared her. He didn’t want to leave off so badly—
“So, it’s like that,” his mother’s tilted her head, amused. “Flowers will do. Paper ones. I have never liked the way the real ones wither and die. Come, I will show you how to make them, so long as you promise not to run off and get married, just yet.”
“I promise,” he said, because the idea was so silly. He could not imagine ever doing anything like that.
“Then that is fine,” said his mother. “The paper is in the drawer.”
– Showing his friend how to fold paper cranes in the playground, while they waited to be picked up.
“This is stupid,” said the girl, who was — he knew by then — actually a boy. His friend kept his hair tucked into his hood, and glared at the wreckage of a half-formed bird. He threw it down. “You liar. It doesn’t work.”
He laughed. He picked it up. He unfolded it, smoothing out the crushed bits. “You just have to be patient,” he said. “I didn’t get it right away, either.”
“This is stupid,” said the boy, red in the face. It was getting late, and dark skies were scary to small children.
So, to calm him, he said: “It isn’t. If you put wishes in them, they come true.”
The boy blinked, properly distracted, if suspicious. “Really?”
“Really,” he lied. “We do it like that in Japan all the time. Tell me whatever you want, and I’ll make sure to write it down.”
“But if I tell YOU—”
“It’s okay,” he said, winking. “I can keep a secret.”
– The sway of his mother’s sleeves, just the faintest motion, before he fell on his back, wincing at the hard floors.
“Again,” said his mother, standing over him. He was aching, bruised all over. His hair fell in his eyes. She stood pristine and untouched. She waited for him to fix his grip on his wooden sword. She held hers at her side, expectantly.
He tried again. His sword connected with hers once, twice, three times — before she shivered to the side and dumped him on the ground again.
“Hm,” she said, considering, pushing a strand of hair out of her face. “Again.”
He made it to five connections before the flat end of the practice sword caught him across the forehead. He dropped to one knee, head ringing.
She knelt over him, and pressed a wet handkerchief to his face.
“You dropped your guard,” she told him, and the warmth in her eyes as she said it told him that practice was over that day, “but your footwork has improved.”
– Festivals on the island, his mother catching him by the ties of his yukata. She showed him how to tie it. She showed him where to put the pinwheel. She combed his hair out of his eyes. She hated it when it hung in his eyes. It hid his face, and that, she insisted, was a terrible shame.
“There,” she said, “my handsome boy. Don’t you go getting yourself gobbled up. I will not have you stolen from me just yet.”
“I won’t, I won’t!” he laughed, as she spun him for one last look. “Besides, I’m already spoken for!”
It was a joke between friends, but one she never liked. She sighed, and stopped him.
“Don’t marry him, either,” she said, playful, but just a little exasperated. “He’s much too young, and has no money besides. How shall you care for me in my old age, if you cannot find someone who can support you properly?”
“Mother!” he said, scandalized. He hadn’t meant it at all.
“But it is good of you to look after that boy,” she allowed. “Kindness has its own rewards, I suppose.”
– His mother, calling quietly down the hall: “Welcome home.”
He suspected something was wrong the moment he toed off his sandals, because she was very rarely home before him. He knew something was wrong when he found her seated at the shared kitchen table. Her hair fell in her eyes. She always bound it back when she went to work — it hid the bald stripe of scar tissue close to her ear.
He knew she hadn’t been to work that day.
“What?” he said. “What’s wrong? What is it?”
And then, on the table, he saw it:
A pink camellia. Made of paper, just for her.
“We are leaving in three days,” she told him.
– His goodbyes, all the thousands of them, in a thousand paper notes he threw away, in a thousand wastebaskets he emptied before anyone could find them.
“Show me how to make cranes again.”
They were getting pretty good at those, though some of them still bent weirdly, and a few looked more like airplanes, but what of it? They sat together in the playground, tearing out notepad paper, as they waited for Grandmother together.
‘I’m leaving tomorrow,’ he didn’t say. ‘I don’t know when I will be back.’
‘I don’t want to go,’ he didn’t say. ‘I like it here.’
“Sure thing,” he said, “but let me get a pen.”
In the end, he jotted down a quick, scribbled goodbye, and turned it into a clumsy flower. He pinned it to the buttons of his friend’s coat. At the time, it was all he could think to do.
– His father’s eyes, following him in a cold fury, as he put a lid on the rice bowl and took it from the table.
“You are not dismissed,” said his father, his voice rumbled with command.
“Then it’s good that I’ll be back in just a moment,” he said, with as much of a bow as he could stomach.
It was the first cold winter day. There was snow in the courtyard. The family ate inside, with the garden doors closed. All but one. He could see her shadow through the screen doors, alone on the walkway outside.
“You will finish your dinner,” said his father.
He made it as far as the door, before two of his father’s men stepped in his way.
– Standing in the courtyard alone, the snow soaking through his socks. His father had not allowed him even the most basic of coats. His shoes were back in the door. The wind blew through his yukata. The snow caught in his hair. His shoulders shook under the weight of the buckets he’d been made to hold. Still, he refused to lower his head. He stared across the yard.
“You will be allowed to return,” said his father, “when you have remembered humility.”
He was out for half the night before his knees gave out.
– “We could go.”
His mother’s hand on his forehead, as he lay spinning in fever.
“You are tired,” said his mother.
“Just leave. Like we did before.”
“That is not an option.”
“They made you eat outside!”
“And where would we go?”
He opened his eyes. He saw yellow and blue flowers and sparrows. Her sleeve hung over his face. “Well… back. To the island. We could live the way we did before. It could just be us, and Grandmother, and—”
“Go back,” she said, in a tired voice, “to a place like that...”
He pushed himself into a sitting position. His elbows ached. “Mother—”
Her eyes, dark like his, went hard. She shook her head, and somehow that motion was enough. His breath caught. He stared at her, all at once helpless. “That is not the life I promised you.”
– The cold realization that, while she loved him, she had always hated the island, and she would not go back.
– Kneeling at his father’s feet, trying his best to look filial.
“I’ll do it,” he managed, hissing between his teeth as he stared at the tatami mats. “Father.”
– The stench of ink and burning flesh as the man worked on him. It took the better part of a year.
“You are very tense today,” noted the artist. “You must be quite angry.”
“Such manners. Surely you’ve been taught better than that,” said the artist, driving another needle into his back. “In fact, I know that you have. I am from a branch family as well, you know. Much like your dear mother. In fact, I believe she is my cousin. Isn’t that lovely?”
He didn’t care. He said as much.
But the artist continued, with that soft, wheedling voice. He poured himself tea, heated his needles, and did it all again. “I was an assistant when my master worked on her tattoo, you know. We have always trained with the retainers. It was nothing so remarkable as a commission for the main house, of course, but one must always begin somewhere.”
He wished he wouldn’t talk so much. He said that much, too.
“Your mother was not nearly so disagreeable,” laughed the artist, as he drove the needle in again, “but then, your mother is so very loyal. She has done quite a lot of work for the main house, in her own way. My, my, but what do you think I mean? You are both so alike. Please don’t mistake my intention. It is simply that lately I have thought a lot about how one orders their loyalties. If the main house were to burn down tomorrow, who do you think she would save? You? Or your honored father?”
He bit his arm to keep from answering. The blood welled in his mouth. Years later, he’d have scars from doing it, small half moons of thickened flesh, hidden beneath the lines of the finished tattoo.
“Such colors,” said the artist. “I see now, why she calls you her little sparrow.”
'Shut up,' he thought. 'Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.'
The things he does not remember:
– Closing his hands over the heirloom sword. The one that always rested on the wall in the hallway. He was much too young at that time to hold it properly. His hands shook too much. The tip dragged along the mats, thumping as he stumbled his way to the main hall, shadow splayed ahead of him like some great demon on the march.
– The ragged jerk of the sword coming loose from his father’s neck. The warm rush of blood over his arms and his bare chest.
His mother, sitting cross-legged a step away. The reflection of a great, red beast hovered in her wide-eyes. Her hand hovered over the hilt of her sword.
– red, red, red, redredredredredred
The things he wishes he did not remember:
– The stinging of the blade passing deliberately over his face, piercing through the heat and anger like a needle through a blister.
His mother’s knife, clattering to the floor next to her sword — a sword she'd never drawn it from its sheath. His mother’s arm, wrapped around him, even though his blade had passed through her stomach and out the other side. His mother’s weight, on his shoulder, as her body trembled with tears and shock.
He had not expected her to be so light, but, still, he sank to his knees.
“Ah,” she whispered, her sticky hand fumbling for the cut she’d given him. “Your face. You should… let me clean that… I…”
– Listening to his mother’s rattling breaths, as she choked on the name. The limp weight of her on his lap, holding her as she apologized again, and again, until there was too much red to speak.
– “How shall you care for me in my old age, if you cannot find someone who can support you properly?”
– The sound of sirens, and the tip of the sword, stinging on the soft spot just below his navel as he took a breath, took another, grasped for any prayers he knew, and
The things he remembers:
– His friend’s — Aoba’s — dubious expression, scowling across the dinner table. The boat had docked at noon that day. It had taken an hour to find the old address — nothing had changed much. Except for everything. “Seriously? Just two weeks? I mean, fine, if it’s okay with Granny, but didn’t you say you were broke?”
He laughed, as he counted the beads of his rosary beneath the table. It had cost nearly everything he’d earned over the years to get back — and it was worth all of it, to suffer such a cranky, suspicious stare. “I’ve got a nest egg.”
That narrow eyebrow, raising just a touch. “Yeah?”
“I’ve got ten thousand yen to my name. That’s more than enough for a start.”
“That’s barely enough for a pair of shoes. If you’re planning to freeload, at least be honest about it. What kind of job’s going to get you enough for a place in just two weeks? You’re not planning to join a host club or something are you? Because I think you look a little out of date for—”
Granny chose that moment to give Aoba a sharp jab with her chopsticks. “No talk about whoring at the dinner table.”
Aoba yelped. “I’m just asking about jobs! I think if I’m going to have to share my room with some hobo I have a right to ask how long he’s planning to stick around!”
“Ask when you haven’t been fired from three places in two months,” said Granny, with her typical bluntness. “He can stay as long as he has to, hobo or not.”
– Granny’s sideways glance, as she asked: “I assume, from the look of you, your mother finally figured out how to feed you more than with disguised take-out. I didn’t teach her how to cut a damn daikon for nothing.”
He clutched the rosaries under his sleeve as he answered, with as steady a voice as he could muster: “She did. She appreciated your help. She always spoke well of you.”
“Hm,” Granny eyed him, catching the tenor in his voice and the darkness in his eye. She added, “Well. Make sure to give her my regards. I’ll make you some dumplings to take along with you, if you plan to leave an offering up at the temple.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I think she would like that.”
– After he’d found his own place, spotting Aoba in the pack of onlookers as he set up shop.
“Yo!” he called. Aoba froze, not expecting to be spotted, but impossible to miss even in a crowd.
Sea Breeze 560 to 450. He’d learned the exact dyes years ago — for no reason, he told himself, other than his own curiosity.
So, spotted and resigned, Aoba sighed, and helped him set up his spot on the sidewalk, showing characteristic wariness at the assortment of scissors and the curling iron. “So, you’re a hairdresser now. How’d that happen?”
He laughed. He imagined it would seem like a funny profession. “Ah, it’s a something I picked up over the years. I travelled a lot when I was a teenager. It was good to have a skill on the go.”
“Yeah? What kind of places did you go?”
– A garden in an estate out in Hokkaido where, at age sixteen, he pulled his sword out of the back of a dead drug lord. The cartel had had a habit of tattooing their operatives to ensure their loyalty. A corpse in the river had led him to that garden, and to a man who had, much to his frustration, told him nothing about the design…
– A warm street in Midorijima where, at twenty-five, he said, “Ah, just some places in the mainland.”
– Aoba, some weeks after that, handing him a card with an address. “I work for the junk shop down the street,” he said. “I’m sick of you texting me for directions at all hours. We just got some all-mate overflow stock in. You should come by and pick one of them up. I can give you a discount. Just do it.”
“That’s thoughtful of you.”
“No.” Aoba scowled, an expression so familiar in its general grumpiness that it was hard not to take his hand and kiss it, the way that had worked so well when they were younger. “I’m really sick of your texts. I’m not your personal tourist kiosk!”
“Do I look like a tourist?”
“You look like a street performer,” said Aoba, “but, anyway, while you’re here, you should get an all-mate. It’s way easier than sending me your line-by-line dictation of Journey to the West.”
“You’ve read Journey to the West?”
“No.” Aoba gave him a flat look. “That’s my point.”
“All right, all right.” He tried not to laugh. “But, you should know, I’m not planning to go anywhere.”
Aoba paused. He’d been turning to leave. “...Yeah? Aren’t you on some world tour? Having fabulous mainland adventures?”
“I did travel a lot,” he said, “but Midorijima’s been my last stop for awhile.”
“Huh,” said Aoba, going quiet for a moment. “...Well, whatever. Stop by the shop, and Granny’s making stew tonight. Just so you know.”
Things he wishes he didn’t remember:
– Waking up some nights in his apartment to discover that the red had crept back while he’d slept. He sat in front of his bathroom mirror, running his hands through his hair (black, like his mother’s) until he found the strands that were red (like his mother’s lips, as she’d died).
Sometimes he’d find just a strand or two, the result of a morning of melancholy or a vague ache in his gut. He plucked them. A slight sting, and it was over.
Sometimes, though, he woke to find his tips all shot through with red. Those were the nights he dreamt of red. Those were the nights his back burned so badly he bled from clutching his beads.
Those were the mornings he spent with his scissors, carefully picking and snipping, until all the bright strands lay on the bathroom floor like spilled ink. He swept up the pieces. He threw them in the trash. If the remaining ends were a bit choppy and uneven, no one ever said a thing. It was the style, nowadays. He brushed his bangs back over his face, got dressed, and went to face the day.
“I felt like a bit of a change,” he said, when asked about it.
The things he remembers:
– The names of women. Kaz, who worked at the local fabric shop. Hannah, who worked in a theme bar in the entertainment district. Saya, Kim, Claire. He went out with all of them. He slept with some of them. Sometimes they just came over for some highlights.
Kaz was the one who wanted to dye her hair blue.
“A really bright one. A nice ‘fuck you’ bright. Like, ‘oh god my eyes’ bright. With a gradient. Like… hm,” she said. Kaz’s birth name was Kasumi. She came from a traditional family that had moved to Midorijima from a small town in Japan proper when she was young. They expected her to work the family store until she died. She liked to be contrary. “You know, the guy who works at that junk shop down the road? Ever seen him around?”
He had dinner with him the other night. “Yes, I might have,” he said, because some clients didn’t like a stylist who overshared. “He’s pretty distinct. Gotten tired of me?”
“Oh, shut it. I don’t do guys the same height as me. My sister thinks he looks like a highlighter.” From Kaz, there was no higher praise.
He couldn’t tell her how Aoba did it, but he could tell her the closest color combination. “Ah, but that’s a bit of a bigger job,” he demurred. “I’d hate to give you anything less than the ‘oh god my eyes’ bright you deserve. You’d have to drop by my place.”
“You don’t say?” Kaz grinned. He’d meant it as a professional offer, but he saw Kaz for drinks sometimes. “Can you fit me in tonight?”
It was his mother’s birthday. He was terrified of spending it alone. So, of course, he said yes.
– The blank-eyed all-mate in the box. Aoba grinned as he shoved it across the counter. For a moment, he forgot to check out the product. He was distracted by that particular crooked smile. Aoba was good at those.
“That’s… interesting,” he said. “Custom?”
“Nope. Reject,” said Aoba. “No one buys them in the stores, so they either send them back to the manufacturer, or sell them down to secondhand shops like us. These flying types eat battery like nothing else, and they have to be light, so they don’t take a lot of attachments — unless you’re dealing with the expensive surveillance types, in which case...”
“A-ha,” he said, not understanding the significance of any of that.
That earned him another sly glance. “...Nooot that that matters to you.” Aoba smirked. “This model’s just the bare bones, but I saw him and thought, ‘Well, shit, I pretty much have to.’”
He picked up the box and turned it around. “Well, that’s thoughtful,” he said, holding it up to his kimono sleeve. “The color does match nicely…”
“Not that, you metro freak,” said Aoba. “It’s a sparrow.”
– The names he wrote in the dirt, on the playground.
– The names he wrote in ink, in his family’s garden.
– Saying, with a tight, aching smile, “Ah. Yes. You’re right. It’s kind of perfect.”
– Easing the sword blade close to the nose of the Rhymer his men caught outside the club, smiling pleasantly. The kid was twenty-one, with mint green hair and truly offensive zig-zags shaved into the sides of his head.
“I’ll consider your advice,” he said. The kid saw the blade and went bug-eyed. “But, seeing as that’s a bit anatomically impossible, let’s try this instead.”
“What the hell!” The kid squirmed. “You’re crazy! You’re fucking crazy! I told you, I don’t know anything about any drive-by’s!”
“Boss…” one of his men, Kichi, mumbles, “this brat’s high as a kite… are we really gonna…”
But he took the back of the chair and pulled it forward, easing the Rhymer closer to the bared blade. The kid really started to sweat.
“All right,” he said, “so why don’t you tell me more about your team... What was it called?”
“Ruff Rabbit,” said Kichi.
He nodded. “‘Ruff Rabbit?’ Hell of a name. So.” He leaned down, meeting the kid’s eyes across the gleam of the blade. He turned it slightly, letting the reflection catch his own eye, and turn the angles of his face into a demon’s grin. “Who’s the boss?”
– His father’s men, seizing the back of the chair. One of them held the chair. One of them held the sword. The man — a snitch, they said, an informant from another gang — turning grey in the face as they tipped him towards the waiting blade.
“Don’t look away,” said his father. They watched from the back of the room. “If you haven’t the stomach for this, then you haven’t the stomach to protect what’s important to you.”
‘As though you ever tried,’ he thought.
The man in the chair began to scream.
– When they released the kid — uninjured, but shaved almost entirely bald. He eyed the list of names, handed them out to his people, and told them to do some digging. He thought about Aoba. He thought a lot about Aoba.
“Shit, boss,” said Kichi, as they watched the kid run, vanishing off into the alleyways of Midorijima at night. “That was something out of some movie. Where the hell did you learn to do a thing like that?”
“A colorful upbringing,” he said. He could feel the red beating on his back. “Never try it.”
“Yes, sir,” said Kichi.
– The woman with the spider tattoo. Her dark eyes watching him in quiet consideration as they sat together in the club. With her friend gone, she’d removed her hand from his knee and dropped all pretenses. She sat leaned away from him, careful and business-like.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve been his assistant for ten years. He has no particular loyalty to Toue. He doesn’t really work for the money.”
“I know,” he said. The tattoo on her cheek flickered and crawled down her neck. She sighed, reaching up to fix her hair. Her gold spider all-mate perched on her index finger. It stuck a little silver thread to her index finger, and dangled. Around them, the club lights beat and the music blared.
“And I don’t think he bore your family any hatred,” she said. “Revenge, resentment, rage — I don’t think he’s ever felt anything like that himself. That’s not to say he feels nothing at all… but he is so consumed by what he does, there are just some things that are beyond him. It’s why he picks subjects that are so full of it. To try and understand the aspects of the heart that are beyond him. He loves the potential of the human heart — ah, but that’s not what you came out to hear, is it?”
“It’s really not,” he said.
“Do you want to know why he betrayed your father?”
“I don’t care about my father.”
“He sent me to get you,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
“He wants you to find him,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
The glass cracked in his hand. Just a slight fracture, but the liquid inside oozed like blood over the table. She glanced down at the spreading pool.
“You can’t say I didn’t try.” She sighed. “Here, then.”
She slid him a card.
“One more question,” he said, feeling the red swim at the corner of his vision as he pocketed the card.
“How old were you?” he asked, nodding in the direction the spider tattoo — at that time curled under her jaw.
The all-mate stopped swinging.
“Thirteen,” she said, not looking at him.
“I thought so,” he said.
The things he does not remember:
– The gold eyes staring straight into his. A voice like a fist in his hair, dragging him from the hot body beneath him: Let me go, let me go, let me GO.
The things he wishes he could forget:
– The mark on Aoba’s neck, bright, red and fresh, as his dearest friend asked him: “Why?”
- knowing no answer could ever make it right.
The things he still remembers:
– The tip of the blade skipping on his abdomen and hip-bone, leaving a shallow, jagged line as he fell to the floor. He rolled onto his side, clutching the cut. It was no deeper than the one over his nose and arms, but somehow it stung the most. He didn’t try to lift the sword again. He couldn’t look at it. He stared out over his mother’s still figure to the open doors leading out into the main garden. It was night, and the lanterns had gone unlit that evening, but, somehow, in his delirium, he still expected the sky to be blue.
When the outside world came to collect the dead and dying, they found him just like that: bloodied, gasping, and inexplicably alive.
– That morning in the hospital, waking up to a song on the radio. He knew the song, though not the singer. For a moment, warm and confused, he thought he was back on the island, that his mother had left the radio on. It was one of her favorite songs, after all: the one about a woman who waited all seasons for the one she loved to come back over the mountain…
The nurse came in. She called him by his legal name, and told him the rest of his family was dead.
– That morning in the hospital, waking up to the sound of people talking. Through the corner of his eye, he saw the shadow of a man outside his room. He would never remember his face, nor very much about him at all. He saw only the vague shape of his suit in profile, and heard his deep, pleasant laugh as he discussed his fate with the doctors.
“Of course, money is no issue,” the man said to one of the doctors. “His father was a close friend of mine. I owe quite a bit of my success to his support. I’d like him transferred one of my private facilities as soon as possible. It’s the very least I could do…”
– The scream of the medical equipment as he escaped that night, crawling out the window on the second floor. No one expected him to manage a drop like that. No one expected him to be conscious, at all. No one expected him to dash off into the night, barefoot and alone, vanishing into the countryside, and into an empty quest that would take him ten years to realize was entirely without relief, reason, or end.
The things he will not remember:
– That morning in the hospital waking up to a song on the radio. He knew the song, though not the singer. For a moment, warm and confused, he thought he was back on the island, that his mother had left the radio on. It was one of her favorite songs, after all: the one about a woman who waited all seasons for the one she loved to come back over the mountain…
“Woooow,” says Aoba, “you really can’t sing.”
“Ngh,” he grumbles, his throat hoarse from all the medications, “One to talk.”
Koujaku opens his eyes.
“Aoba.” Aoba’s sitting on the window sill, one leg up, one leg dangling. As he’s wearing a hospital gown, this is a particularly daring move. “Shouldn’t you be in the other ward?”
“Yeah,” says Aoba, “probably. I asked the nurse to let me go for a walk.”
“Okay, I miiight have cheated a little,” admits Aoba. In the light filtering through the window, his eyes look more gold than brown. He pushes off the window and pads to his bedside. His feet don’t make a sound, and a moment later he’s peering over at Koujaku, his feathered hair dangling between them like a curtain. “But they said you weren’t taking visitors yet. Fuck that, I said. I wanted to see you, and I’m allowed to have some fun.”
“Ah,” says Koujaku.
“Aaah?” says Aoba, tilting his head.
“This is another dream,” says Koujaku.
“‘Another’ dream?” Aoba’s eyebrows came up. “Oh, shit. Koujaku dreams about me. I’m soooo… completely unsurprised. We’ve done this before. Don’t be boring.”
“Oi,” says Koujaku. “Well, that’s fine. Feels more real, when you talk like that."
Aoba pauses. For a moment, Koujaku forgets himself. He raises his hand towards those swinging curls. He stops, and settles for flicking his forehead instead. Aoba follows the movement. His gold eyes flick from wary, to amused, to impressed.
“So,” says Aoba, moving his head away, “did you mean it?”
“What you said in the Tower,” says Aoba, “about accepting me, and all that?”
“Have I ever said anything I didn’t mean?”
“You’ve fucking talked around so many things you make my teeth hurt,” says Aoba, “and just because you told me before doesn’t mean you’ll tell me now. Tell me now. Did you mean it?”
“Yes,” says Koujaku,
“And you’ll keep meaning it?”
“You accept me? All of me? Every last bit?”
“You make it sound hard," despite everything, Koujaku laughs, "Worried?"
Aoba scowls. He rubs the bridge of his nose.
“Okay,” says Aoba, after a moment, “but if you go away someplace again and just leave me a note, I will wreck you. I mean, I will completely destroy you. I’ll devour you. I’ll eat you up, and spit you out, and there will be nothing left of you that isn’t mine.”
“Like you haven’t already.”
The corner of Aoba’s mouth quirks up.
“Okay,” he says, satisfied, “works for me.”
And Aoba leans back over him, all gold eyes and silky hair. The tips of his hair brush his face. They’re burning, they’re vibrating, like wires plugged into the wall, and that’s different. He’s never ever felt it like that, not even when he’s slept—
“Koujaku,” whispers Aoba, in a voice that’s as silky and hot as his hair, “go to sleep.”
– The person who left the paper crane by his bed. He will find it on his bedside when he wakes up, alone. It’s lopsided, half crumpled, and one wing is torn. No one he asks will ever take responsibility for it.
He’ll have his suspicions, though.
The things he will always remember:
– At home, waking up one morning several mornings after everything changed, sore, breathing deep, and very much alive. Koujaku slides out of bed. He pulls his hair back in the mirror. He finds small red strand close to his temple. He plucks it out without much thought. He puts on a yukata. He wraps his rosary around his hand. He lights a dish of incense, and sits across from the little memorial shrine he keeps on the far side of the room. He counts the beads, and, when he’s done counting them, he looks up and smiles.
“Good morning,” he says, to the lacquer comb that rests next to the incense.
“...You know,” says Aoba, “Granny might have a photo.”
Koujaku blinks. He forgot that Aoba was still asleep in the bed. He forgot that Aoba lives there now. Aoba settles next to him, attempting his own clumsy version of seiza.
“...Sorry,” says Aoba, “I don’t actually know a lot about things like this.”
“It’s fine,” says Koujaku, “I don’t need a photo. Mother was always a little wary of getting her picture taken, anyway.”
“Yakuza,” says Koujaku.
“Oh,” says Aoba, “right.”
They sit together like that for awhile. Aoba sits close enough that their knees nearly brush. He’s rumpled. The ends of his hair stick up at the neck. Koujaku takes a break from his contemplation to brush a piece of it back into place, and Aoba swallows.
“You know…” he starts, stops, then starts again: “Granny taught me how to make dumplings. Those are good, right? For this kind of thing?”
“That works, but you don’t have to.”
“Eh, don’t mind,” says Aoba, “I don’t remember a lot about when we were small, but I remember your mother was always pretty nice to me. Never had the chance to change her mind about that, I guess.”
“Mm. I think she’d still like you,” says Koujaku. Then, after a long stare from Aoba, he catches himself: “All right. She’d be annoyed that you work in a junk shop, and the business with Rhyme, and all the stuff about those fights… but, she’d come around. I think she’d really love you.”
“Well, I love you,” says Koujaku, “and she’d know better than anyone there’d be no changing that. She’d just have to accept you as her son-in-law and be done with it. The issue of grandchildren, though…”
Aoba’s cheeks go red. “...Ngk. That’s— you hippo—I’ll go make those dumplings.”
Koujaku catches him around the waist. Aoba squawks, falls onto his lap, struggles, kisses him, and worms out from under his arm. He escapes to the kitchen in a flushed, muttering mess. Koujaku sits in the room alone. He marvels at how unquiet the quiet is: the sounds of clanging in the kitchen, the soft ping of Ren and Beni charging in the corner. He brushes his bangs out of his eyes, and turns back to the lacquer comb. He folds his hands and bows his head low.
“Good morning, Mother,” he says, “looks like I’ve lived another day…”
– How to write his mother’s name.