Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

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Craftyatom
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:41 am

I post all of my one-shots in my own thread, but here's my entry:

From Craftyatom for Mirage_GSM - Rising Steam

Hope you enjoy!
Main route: COM(promise)
One-shots: Crafty's One-Shots (Dark Winter Sky, Dreamy, Path of Least Resistance, Project Blue Curtain, and more!)
Old poetry: Google Drive Collection

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Craftyatom
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Craftyatom » Fri Dec 25, 2020 2:46 am

ProfAllister wrote:
Thu Dec 24, 2020 10:39 am
Dear Hisao
I'm not usually a fan of "diary-style" stories, but I found myself quite enjoying this one. You do a good job of making the monologue feel weighty, without being overly dramatic.

And of course, as I'm sure has been said before, there are probably a hundred different endings you could've used. This one is very simple and wholesome, which (as brythian said) makes it an excellent choice for a secret santa fic!
Main route: COM(promise)
One-shots: Crafty's One-Shots (Dark Winter Sky, Dreamy, Path of Least Resistance, Project Blue Curtain, and more!)
Old poetry: Google Drive Collection

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BristerXD
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by BristerXD » Fri Dec 25, 2020 3:24 pm

Well, this was quite the crunch. And what a fun crunch it was. I tried really hard to do the best that I could with this prompt since it had so much potential. I really loved toying around with ideas for this and now all I can hope for is that the person it was meant for really enjoys it. Speaking of which...

Victim: Feurox

Prompt: "Two characters (that are not the main girls) see Hisao and his chosen partner at the Christmas Festival and reminisce on what a year it's been.


To be chilled and to be warm

“How come it never snows on Christmas when I’m in a good mood.”

It seemed like Takashi had finally run out of concrete things to complain about. Things he had actual control over. Things his actions and thoughts could tangibly influence. Of course, Takashi would say that this was a control he never had to begin with. No, he was painfully aware of the lack of control he had in his life. He was to be a forever wandering spirit. A self-aware speck of dust on the ever-winding mortal coil who has the self-awareness to know where he is yet is powerless to change his circumstance. So instead he channels his horrible pain into his art, dedicating it to reshaping the common world all the other specks see in the hopes of illustrating how things really are. Outline for them the pain in seeing the unalterable...

Taro on the other hand, instead of trying to come to grips with the incomprehensible machinations of life, was busy using his grip to bring up more fried chicken to his mouth.

“Well, I was told as a kid that a cloud’s rain was its tears so if anything I doubt the clouds are having that good of a time. Though I guess the teachers never tried to explain what snow was… Hey you think following that line of logic snow would be the clouds c-”

“Thanks for taking my emotional plight seriously Arai, nice to know you’re really listening.” Takashi sighed to himself, taking his indignant foot off the bench and standing from his philosopher pose.

“Well sorry for trying to bring some Christmas cheer to the Christmas festival. Next time don’t invite me to tag along if you’re just planning on brooding. Least I can do to entertain myself while you’re like this. Especially since everyone else seems to be having a good time.”

With outstretched drumstick, Taro motioned towards the admittedly jollier school crowd. While the stalls may have carried the same design they did from the school festival earlier in the year, they all had been transformed in some way to carry that good old Christmas spirit. Every fixture was adorned with light with certain rows chaining them up between booths. Some had ceramic Santas, some had plush hanging Santas, some had students dressed up as Santa behind the counter. Though everyone worked as if they were his elves, serving up warm dishes of broth soup, pillowy strawberry shortcake, and of course crispy fried chicken. And once anyone had their fill of the holiday harvest, they could amble out to one of many lit figures or decorated trees organized by the art club. A path that was clearly favored by the school’s couples. They strolled arm in arm, laughing at the most modern interpretations of Christmas lighting, gazing in awe of either their partner or the more spectacular pieces, and all the other things Takashi felt that he should be doing with his own love.

“Aw yes, why wouldn’t I have my spirits lifted from watching other people's joy? From hearing their cherry giggles and strawberry sweet nothings over the chilling winter winds as I just sit here, getting cut by that same wind, making me shrivel up solid like an old piece of coal. A piece of dead earth that is simply a vestige, a memory of a previous life. Well Arai, as that old guy said in that movie, Ba hambone.”

Takashi turned away from Taro in a huff, looking like he was about to storm away but instead he stayed put, hugging himself as the wind suddenly seemed to cut cold on the pair. Taro, still being warmed slightly by the fresh bucket of fried chicken, looked on at Takashi’s back. Instead of puffing out a big cloud from his mouth like Takashi the grump dragon did, Taro simply let a long stream of steam out his nose like an only slightly irritated dragon. But he wasn’t irritated, only stuck in thought about what to say next. He knew Takashi would be this way. Any sane person would know a grinch when they saw one. But Taro, in all his years being in school with Takashi, knew there was something below all the pompous pageantry.

“I see you’re taking cues from Lezard. Your inner turmoil must be serious.” Taro chuckled to himself, hoping to get something out of Takashi. He simply hugged himself tighter, not giving any visual confirmation that he even heard Taro. His bad ear was towards him. “Look, I get it, you got a lot of things to brood over. And me dragging you out of your room and into the bitter cold and blinding lights is hindering that. You want to be left alone. And I’ll be happy to let you off the hook. Just look me in the eye and say you want me to leave.”

Taro sat up, leaving his bucket to his side and pulling his arm in-between his legs so he looked like he was holding his hands together in patience. He leaned more and more, trying to get even a glimpse of Takashi’s face. For a while he still was curled in on himself but eventually he seemed to muster enough strength to turn towards Taro. He locked eyes with him, trying to give a determined glare. It falters faster than a poorly packed snowball. His back hit the bench and his eyes go back to the couples strolling the path, seemingly just having a hundred-mile stare in its general direction.

“...I know you don’t want to be alone Takashi… no one does this time of year.” His inability to put his hand on Takashi’s shoulder at that exact moment was one of the few instances Taro was truly angry at himself for being disabled. “Tell me what happened between you and Saki.”

Neither said anything or made a move. The footsteps of others crunching snow and the more distant murmurs of conversation become a form of radio static between the two. The falling snow started to collect on the upturned collar of Takashi’s jacket. Taro started needing to wipe away the flakes catching his eyelashes. It was as if they were just little dramatic figures in a snowglobe. A still-life story that would be stuck in a permeate state of melancholy.

“How did he do it Taro…” Takashi’s words seemed to hang in the air.

“Who?” Taro asked, expecting the opposite pronoun.

“Him.” Takashi pointed over back to the various couples walking the path. Taro didn’t really follow the direction suggested by the outstretched finger but quickly figured out who he was referring to. The boy with the very present hair fin. New boy on campus Hisao Nakai. And his lucky partner was the ever effervescent Emi. Both were bundled up like everyone outside with Emi having a rather long festive scarf around not only her neck but Hisao’s as well. It would have probably looked more fluid if it weren’t for the significant height difference between the two but that only added to the charm of the smiling pair.

“Hisao? What did he do?”

“Get better.” Takashi turned back towards Taro, eyes meeting once again. Though instead of trying to just look through Taro, Takashi searched for something. Like he was trying to ask a question without any words.

“Remember when he first came here. How he shoved his own foot in his mouth trying to introduce himself?” Takashi chuckled to himself, that moment being just about the only thing memorable about that day. “I mean you could really tell he was new to this whole ‘disabled’ thing. And for the first week or so he walked around like a lost dog. He never tried to open up or anything.”

“Is that why you weren’t thrilled about having him during that one group activity?” Taro responded in a light tone, happy to remember what felt like a simpler time.

“Yeah, kinda…” Takashi dulls for a moment, a flash of regret crossing his face. “I mean I
thought he was just too moppy for his own good. Like he didn’t realize he was in a school full of people who had been there already. Just so happy to just sink in the mud and be... Plus, a complete nerd who made me realize how bad I was at science so I guess I was a little jealous too.”

Taro tried to laugh at that last part but it was clear that it was simply a distraction. Not only for him but for Takashi himself. He once described painting to Taro as the process of him trying to answer a question. Sometimes it was a straightforward one that only requires time to answer. Sometimes he needed to pull it apart section by section to get the answer he wanted. Sometimes he ran into the answer just by swiping his brush. It seemed he had one of those moments again, even if didn’t want to. And Taro just sat there silent. Waiting for Takashi to finally paint the full picture.

“Now look… who the hell am I to judge. Man has a bum heart is dating the school’s motivational pamphlet bait story track star. And he’s not just hanging around, apparently he actually runs with her in the mornings. Looks happier, started some science club all on his own, all after being dropped here during possibly the most hectic part of the year. And it’s not just him. Tezuka got picked by Nomiya to do some art gallery, Ikezawa actually joined a club, with people no less, Lezard got published in a freaking literary magazine, you started working out and losing weight like you always had been saying you would, and Saki…”

Saki. The ornament that finally broke the tree branch. Takashi, his eyes firmly fixed onto the pair of Hisao and Emi the entire time of his rambling, finally broke it to look on towards the girl’s dormitory building. There was a chance she was still on campus. As sad as the image was, if she was still locked in her room, there was still the chance for Takashi to make things right. To finally say the right thing, to apologize, to do anything to make her see that he still loved her. Or she could be gone already. Back in the company of a family she completely resents. Better company than the boy who had no control.

“She is… is still such a good musician. She was so excited for this album with Chisato. All she could ever talk about was wanting to record all she could as fast as she could and then… fucking Ataxia starts flaring up. All of a sudden she doesn’t think she can play like she did before. Starts worrying about the future, saying she has plans to…”

The tears hurt enough on their own. The freezing cold that made them feel like jagged knives cutting down his face was just poetic justice to Takashi. Even in his misery, he couldn’t help but think how he would draw this scene on the canvas. What color of oil paint would best represent the dichotomy between his somber face and the blink lights just above. He wished he didn’t have to wipe the tear away so he could see how Taro looked when he stood up and started rubbing his shoulder. The one thing he didn’t want to commit to memory for later was what the passerby looked like seeing him start to break down. He had to at least finish his thought before that however.

“After our fight, I went back to my room and tried just-do what I always do. Sketch something out, try to finish something, anything. Then I found an old painting in the corner of my room. One of the old statue in the city. I painted it when I first transferred here and walked around the city for the first time. I then looked at what was on my easel and saw… the same painting. I was so stressed out from everything that I went back to town to paint and ended up doing the same thing I had done four years ago. It’s like… everyone else is moving past me. New kid, armless wonder, toilet girl, human owl, all the people I thought I had figured out. But they, they seem happy. Ready to go forward and meet the world. Of course then Saki came into my life and that was enough to make it feel like I was actually going somewhere but now.. even she has moved past me. I don’t think I’m… enough anymore. I feel the same way I did when I first got here. Alone. Miserable. Like all I had to give was my art. And if that’s now stagnating with the rest of me, what’s left? Was I ever worth anything?”

This was usually the moment people started sobbing. Runny nose, faltering words, the kind of ugly cry you have when watching the happy ending to a family Christmas film. A part of Takashi wished he could just lose control of that. Lose awareness, get lost in a flood of emotions, feel drained of everything in his body. Instead, his own question sat in his stomach like a lead ball. A ball he felt like he had toyed with all his life. There was no Sisyphus like tragedy to it. Only weight. Weight that brought down only a tear or two at a time.

“Remember when we first met?” Taro asked, sitting back down on the bench right next to Takashi. “We were paired together in math and you looked like he wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.”

“You were asleep drooling in class,” Takashi said chuckling softly, “I figured I’d be better off with a plant for help.”

“Yeah, that really wasn’t off the mark. We both have always been bad at math. But even with a clear lack of knowledge, you tried to explain to me what you did know. You were a bit condescending of course but I found it funnier than anything at the time. I had never met a person who tried so hard to present themselves as something proper. Never felt like a hick until I met you.” Taro produced his own little laugh, remembering the conversation they had during lunch that same day.

“Is the point that I’ve always been an asshole?” While Takashi said in a jestful tone, there was clearly a part of him that worried that was the only correct conclusion to draw.

“No, the point is that you have always been you. It was that past me that managed to make friends with that owl looking guy across the class. It was that past you that willingly showed your work to a bunch of snobby assholes in suits. And it was just recently past you that managed to land a girl as nice as Saki. I’m sure you’ve made mistakes from our first day to now but everything good that I have seen happen to you has also been by your own hand. Quite literally in most cases. You are worth something, you made sure of that. You think you’re the only person who’s ever felt like they were going nowhere…”

Never before had an accusatory and patronizing question sounded so friendly to Takashi.

“Like you said before, I’ve been trying to lose weight ever since I got here. Doctors have been on my case for as long as my arm hasn’t worked. While it’s of course expected given my condition, they’ve always stressed a routine or something would do me wonders. And I ignored them, happy to coast on with my larger than average frame. But then I met you, just about the farthest thing removed from an Emi I can think of. Yet you still inspired me. Through your passionate talks of working on your ideas and keeping to a tight schedule, I decided to finally try and shed the pounds. That all took place the first year I met you. It’s taken me till four months ago to finally get under 250 pounds. And this is the first year I truly enjoy a bucket of Christmas KFC guilt-free. Things stall out, we slip up, let things get out of hand, everyone here knows that. And they also know wishing you were something else doesn’t help the issue. What does help is knowing who you are, what you really are made up of. Honestly might be harder than the former but, at least this way you have your friends to help you out.”

The two boys look over at each other, small grins on their lips and giant smiles in their eyes. Sometime during their talking, the snow had finally let up. The air seemed to finally be at a standstill. Taro reaches over to his side and offers Takashi a drumstick. Of course, at that point, all the meat had gone cold and slightly soggy from the snow. They both shared a look of slight disgust then hearty laughter.

“I guess I owe you a new bucket,” Takashi said standing up and offering a hand to Taro.

“Naw, I’m gonna take it as nature’s way of keeping me on my diet.” Taro gladly took Takashi’s hand, turning around once he was on his feet and taking hold of the now icicle cold bucket of chicken. He quickly dumped it in a nearby trash bin, wiping any remaining grease from his hands. “But you know, I can probably make room for some ca-”

“Takashi, that you?” A voice from behind sent both of the boys spinning around to see who it belonged to. It was Mr. Main character himself, Hisao, looking as slightly sheepish as ever. Taro was quick to step forward in greeting, Takashi feeling the sense that there was cosmetic karma about to be dished out with the arrival of his classroom foe.

“Oh, hey Nakai! Merry Christmas! We saw you around earlier with Emi, what made you want to ditch her warm company for us,’ Taro asked with a smirk, casually pushed Takashi up closer to Hisao with a nudge.

“Well she’ll be back soon, I just…” Hisao rubbed the back of his, a trademark sign of his awkwardness by that point of the year. Those wandering eyes that constantly seemed to look behind the pair was certainly a never before seen tick “I just figured that I should come over and say… Merry Christmas.”

Hisao stuck his hand out towards Takashi, offering with it a slightly stilted yet genuine smile. Takasi, taken slightly aback by the universe’s sudden change in its understanding of karma, quickly stops trying to understand it all and firmly grasps Hisao’s hand.

“Thanks Hisao, merry Christmas to you too. Though I hope this isn’t some sneaky way of making me feel back for not getting you a present.” Takashi and Hisao both exchange a quick laugh but Takashi’s face falls soon afterward. “You didn’t actually get me a gift did you?”

Hisao only snorts and lets go of Takashi’s hands, using his own to signal behind him. Before Takashi can take the hint, a small voice that he is sure to recognize calls out.

“Takashi…”

As Saki and Takashi locked eyes and sped up to meet each other, Emi walked back over to Hisao’s side. She clutched his arm and let out a girlish sigh.

“Don’t they look cute together,” Emi asked, giggling to herself. “Sorry to interrupt you man-date Taro.”

“Naw, it's fine,” Taro said, turning with the couple in their walk away from the rejoining one. “I actually hope you don’t mind me tagging along. I had a few questions about how you managed to get loverboy here in shape…”

ProfAllister
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by ProfAllister » Sun Dec 27, 2020 7:39 am

In the hopes of not taking forever to leave my comments like I did last year, let's comment on the current crop now, and move forward on more as they come.

Christmas at Rock Bottom

Reading your annual Secret Santa pieces really makes me wish they weren't the only fics you've written here in ages...

I'll admit a slight fondness for the melancholy theme of "fast forward to several years past graduation and people not quite reaching what they expected, and the fallout thereof". It's said that an Irishman is only happy when he's sad, which is probably relevant here.

Twain

brythain at his brythain-est - the nostalgic ramblings on an old man, coming from the mouths of teenage girls.

I will admit that the title has developed an unfortunate correlation for me. Whenever I see the word, my mind goes to something to the effect of the following:
One twain departs from Misquehoga station heading north at 55 miles per hour. Another twain departs from Cuyatonic station heading south at 70 miles per hour. Misquehoga and Cuyatonic stations are on mutually independent rail networks, and never the twains shall meet.
I'd apologise, but that would mean that I'm sorry.

Dear Hisao

Normally I just leave some sort of dismissive comment on my own work. This year, I'm gonna do something different, and present an alternate ending. Hopefully I overdid it enough that the bathos is evident

-----------------------------------------------------------

Though only a couple ounces, the rose hit the gravestone with the weight of hundreds of tear-strewn, sleepless nights.

She had never been able to work up the strength to visit until now. And yet the sight of the grave did not make it feel any more real.

Rain poured down in angry torrents, as if the world itself shared in her grief.

"Goodbye, Hisao. I'm sorry it ended up like this."

A few final tears, not of sadness, but frustration. Then, composing herself, she descended the hill, back to the warm and welcoming confines of the world of the living.

However, her visit was not unnoticed.

Standing under a tree on a neighboring hill, a man watched all that had taken place. Thirteen years, and this was the only time she had been released from the asylum. As soon as he got word, he knew where she'd go.

It hurt to watch. He ached with every fiber of his being to run over, hold her in his arms, and assure her that everything would be okay. But alas, it was not to be. She cannot know the truth. Too much of the past decade's work would be lost in a minute. It is better this way. This is how it must be.

With a sigh, Hisao Nakai walked away. As always, he was to be forever The Boy with the Broken Heart.

fin.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Simpathy for the Devil

An interesting way to turn the meme into the drama it was always intended to be. Well done. (But you seem to have been bouncing back and forth between "Tenshi" and "Tenchi". Ryoko would not... nah, Ryoko would approve, but Ayeka wouldn't.)

Rising Steam

Well, you managed to write a hot springs fic that managed to be more gay than the one I wrote which was pretty much two naked girls rubbing their hands all over each other, so there's that. :p

On a more serious note, it almost feels like you should have a trigger warning for overbearing families on that thing.

It kinda feels like there's a bit of an overuse of the Male Gaze, but it's understandable, given the subject matter and the idiosyncracies of the author.

Featuring Yuuko was a nice touch and very much on-brand for KS.

To Be Chilled and To Be Warm

A fun change of pace, and a nice hopeful note appropriate for the season. But I must strenuously object to the shabby treatment of fried chicken. Fried chicken is often better when it's cold/leftover. To toss an entire (half-)bucket like that is just criminal.
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NoticeMeOppai
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by NoticeMeOppai » Sun Dec 27, 2020 8:48 am

ProfAllister wrote:
Sun Dec 27, 2020 7:39 am
you seem to have been bouncing back and forth between "Tenshi" and "Tenchi". Ryoko would not... nah, Ryoko would approve, but Ayeka wouldn't.
Dammit. Fixed now, cheers for catching that. Not watched Tenchi Muyo I'm afraid though so not entirely sure what you were getting at there.
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Feurox
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Feurox » Mon Dec 28, 2020 1:39 pm

BristerXD wrote:
Fri Dec 25, 2020 3:24 pm
Well, this was quite the crunch. And what a fun crunch it was. I tried really hard to do the best that I could with this prompt since it had so much potential. I really loved toying around with ideas for this and now all I can hope for is that the person it was meant for really enjoys it. Speaking of which...

Victim: Feurox

Prompt: "Two characters (that are not the main girls) see Hisao and his chosen partner at the Christmas Festival and reminisce on what a year it's been.


To be chilled and to be warm
A pleasant surprise to be sure. I make no secret of the type of story I enjoy, and my prompt probably reflects that. I'm glad you saw the potential for it, and I'm glad it went to someone who clearly enjoys melancholy reflection... Have you read much of Brythain's writing, by any chance? :lol:

This was a delightful story, and though I might find it a little convenient at the end with Saki appearing, well, it's Christmas (was Christmas),and if that doesn't warrant a little chrimbo cheer then what does?

What really spoke to me, and where I felt the story was the strongest, was with Takashi's initial opening up. In particular, this line got me:
“Get better.” Takashi turned back towards Taro, eyes meeting once again. Though instead of trying to just look through Taro, Takashi searched for something. Like he was trying to ask a question without any words.
Sometimes it takes seeing someone else to show us the world is passing us by... Takashi seems to be having that moment now, and while I would have probably written this reflection ending with a quiet realisation that, yes, sometimes we do just get left behind, I can't be upset that you turned it around - sometimes someone comes back for us, and sometimes, the world never really passed us by at all.

Anyway, this was a cracking tale - written after my own heart, and rather excellently done at that. Was it proofed, by the way? Only a few points read awkwardly / were typo's, but i was quite impressed by how fluid and well written this was. Good job.

P.S, I don't know if this makes much sense, or if it's even that interesting, but you seem to write how I used to write. At times, it purples, but then, I think we could stand to gain a little colour in the literary grey.

Many thanks mate, and good job.

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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by BristerXD » Mon Dec 28, 2020 9:40 pm

I'm glad you liked it so much! I originally thought when I settled on my idea for the prompt that I was gonna be making it too heady and sappy for the general tone of the event as a whole. I did not expect to be the comic relief :lol:. But even with that fear I knew my idea for the prompt was too good to pass up so onward I pushed. And crunched which means I didn't actually get it proofread or even ran my idea past anyone so I'm glad it came out as smooth as it did. I haven't actually read much of Brythan's work, all the melancholy is of my own thought as well. Not that it should be a brag. If anything a concern for my therapist XD.

I originally had envisioned the story to be more about Takashi's artist-driven ideals affect his relationships and view of the world with Taro dragging him out to the festival to ground him once again, classic grinch's heart growing three times its size kind of thing. That's what I originally try to set up with the beginning paragraph being as verbose and pretentious as it was. However, as I kept writing I kept thinking back to that opening bit that took too much time and realize I kinda wrote myself a more believable set than I intended. So I kinda just freeballed it till the end, that unapologetically cheesy Saki ending always being the goal in mind.

That whole "world leaving me behind" messaging wasn't even my intention honestly. I think I was more writing Takashi's struggle with the idea of "I know I need to change but I too scared to so I'll just stay put." It was kinda the inversion of Rin's arch. Instead of taking the active path of self-destruction, Takashi was barricading his crumbling shelter. He has lost faith in himself to do to really fix his situation so he just keeps trying to plug the same holes in the ship. Taro of course being the person to remind him he built the ship, to begin with when it was good and it has traveled so far already. All that he needs to do build a new one and steer it better.

I think however our ideas naturally intersect and that kinda plays into what you mentioned right at the very end. I think we are similar writers and people just at different points in our lives. While maybe not by much I am younger and fresh onto the scene so maybe this reflects the old stereotype of the old mentor/hero finding the reason he started doing it all in his bright-eyed and untainted sick-kick. Or it could be us American's are more inclined to spring for the happy ending as compared to you grey brits. A multitude of factors can apply. Maybe it was destined for me to meet you in the snow- I mean for me to get your prompt.

Either way, it was great fun and I hope you have a hopefully less melancholy New Year.

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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Hacksorus » Tue Dec 29, 2020 2:20 am

I haven't read all of them yet and idk when I will, but I just wanted to say before I forget that I really liked Dear Hisao and Rising Steam. The diary-style entries in Dear Hisao were engaging, and I'm glad there was a happy ending. And as for Rising Steam, honestly I'm just a huge sucker for well-written yuri.

I plan to submit my entry soonish. My procrastination vice is out in full force but I'm determined to get it out in 2020.

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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Hacksorus » Thu Dec 31, 2020 9:53 pm

Me: "Here we go, my first attempt at submitting something to the forum after years of telling myself I would someday. I hope the prompt isn't too hard!"

nuclearstudent: "Auftragstaktik"

Me: "Oh"



In this, my first attempt at voluntary creative writing, I attempted to make a short yet coherent story with this weird-ass prompt, insofar as it's even possible to bring a German-created style of military command into a story about a Japanese high school for disabled kids.

If anyone feels up to it, I'm always down to get constructive criticism.


*****


Looking out over the grounds of Yamaku on this, my first winter away from the city, I am entranced by its beauty. A light snowfall dances down from the darkening sky, and the reflection of the outside lights off of the light ground layer of snow brightens up the scenery in a way I've never seen it lit up this late at night. The pure layer of snow on the walking paths, yet to be tarnished by passers-by, bathes the surroundings in a glow of comfort and wonder. Has this beauty always been there, or am I just now seeing it for the first time? I have changed, I realize. These grounds were always a sight to behold, but I just wasn't ready to see it when I first arrived here. I feel an uncomfortable chill form on my face from being practically smushed against the window, but be smushed I must; if I step away, a glimpse of the disasterous room I'm currently holed up in will enter my peripheral, and the view will be ruined.

"What the hell, man?! I told you how dangerous it was to open those blinds! Do you want these walls painted with your brains? Because I sure as hell don't want to clean it up!"

A panicked voice shrieks out from behind me, waking up me and all of the two or three people who haven't cleared out of this building for winter break yet. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

---

Here I am sitting in Kenji's room, for the first time and, I decide in this moment, also the last. Not that the room itself is terribly offensive, really I was expecting much worse. Clothes that are scattered about the floor, pizza boxes stacked so neatly that I wonder if he considers it part of the decor, and a desk that doesn't look like it has ever been used for schoolwork. Well, I suppose there's also the hundreds of sticky notes on the walls with the names of various girls I've never heard of written in bright red pen, with about half of them violently crossed out. But I'm trying not to worry about those so much.

"Hey man, thanks again for sticking around," Kenji looks to be in unusually high spirits. "I knew you'd see the merits of chilling here over break. There's too much valuable intel kept in this place, I can't believe those bitches have the audacity to only leave a token force behind. With you and me in this together, I think we can make some serious strides in the fight."

I decide not to tell him that I'm heading back to the city to see my parents tomorrow. Not least of which because I'm bringing my girlfriend. Suddenly I feel a little bad for him. Does he really spend his Christmases alone here?

"Sure, sure," I reply, "So what's this big surprise you've got ready for me, anyway?"

Kenji flashes me a smile that one of my old friends might have described as a "shit-eating grin", and reaches into a paper bag on his desk. He pulls out a large bottle of what I realize is probably not something I'm legally allowed to drink. The label says "Jägermeister". Kenji looks at me expectantly.

Oh, god. Does my pity for this lunatic run deep enough that I'm willing to drink whatever the hell that is with him? At the same time, I have to admit that I'm a little interested. The me of a few months ago would surely have rejected this out of hand, but I find myself in a bit of an adventurous mood. Maybe it's another sign of Shizune rubbing off on me.

"All right, fine. Hit me." I say.

---

"..so I told that bastard, I told him, it doesn't matter how many hours you spend painting in that pansy-ass club with that clown of a teacher. It's all wasted! I'm telling you dude, he's just trying to get laid with all that art bullshit. He doesn't see the big picture. If he applied himself to something more manly, like rugby or baking, he could make something of himself."

I nod along with him solemly. I've decided to pace myself with the alcohol, because I really don't know how it'll interact with my meds. And maybe because I don't want to throw up. Even so, for a time, the alcohol made keeping up with Kenji's ramblings almost fun. Now, even my relaxed patience is starting to give way. Even so, I came all this way, I suppose it wouldn't kill me to play along.

"What makes you think he's trying to get laid? Maybe he just like painting." I say.

"Not a chance, dude. It's just like those frogs. Like, they're doing it to make themselves look cool cause their dicks aren't big enough."

"Frogs paint?" I ask.

"No, NO! The frogs croak really loud when it's mating season, cause the females know the loudest frogs are the biggest ones." Kenji's getting really worked up now. He's also wearing some sort of knockoff military officer's hat. How long has he been wearing it for? Where did he get it? What purpose does it serve? Those questions feel more important than the inane ramblings that are spilling out of his mouth like a foul-smelling waterfall.

"So the small frogs know they're gonna be wiped out of the gene pool. But- listen, this is really important- some of them sit and yell in drain pipes, cause the echo makes their voices sound louder."

"What does this have to do with artists again?" Trying to make sense of this is probably a foolish endeavor, but as the closest thing this room has to an authority on science, I feel a strange obligation to try.

"The painting is the sewer pipe, man. I read about it in a book once. The artist paints a bunch of gibberish and those women are all like 'Look at all those deep, important emotions he has, he must be qualified to fill me up with his genetic material.' They think they're so goddamn cool. Well, I'm not letting it slide. It's up to us real men to set the score straight."

"What about Tezuka?" I ask. "That painter girl with no arms. Is she trying to get laid too?"

"Fuck if I know. That girl scares me."

As close to a natural end to the conversation as I could have hoped for, I suppose.

---

"This is it, man. We're at optimum alcohol levels. It's time to make our move."

I start to ask myself what he could possibly mean by "our move", but quickly decide I don't care enough to try. I don't know about him, but I don't think I belong around other people at the moment. Including Kenji. Now that I think about it though, Kenji seems to still have it together, insofar as he ever has anything together of course. And this is despite the fact that he's definitely been drinking more than me. I suppose this being a regular occasion for him might explain all the missing brain cells.

"Come on, man, are you still with me? Get your shit together! Today's the day you harness your destiny as a key member of the organization." He's standing up straigher than I've ever seen him stand up, one hand adjusting his knock-off military cap.

"What organization?"

"Not the point. Anyway, we're gonna break into the student council room."

"What. What? No."

"This is the perfect time," He argues adamantly. "School security is lax, and since you're on the council, you know how to disable all the traps."

"There aren't any traps."

"Excellent, I knew I could count on you."

I'm surprised by how unsurprised I am by this development. Really, tonight had been too tame so far. If Kenji's the way that he is sober, I should have expected that alcohol would make him want to do something this stupid.

"Why do you even want to go in there, anyway?" I ask. "Do you have any idea how boring our work is most of the time?"

"You guys were in charge of processing the costume orders for that play the drama club put on last month, right? You should still have those forms lying around." He replies, his voice taking on an unsettling, excited tone.

I think I know where this is going, but I'm afraid to ask.

"And you want those forms because..?"

"The measurements! God damn. You can't be this thick. Do you have any idea what this means? If we know the girls' sizes, we'll have that much more insight into where they're hiding the weapons and cameras. And that's just the basics. We've got this one chubby girl in her class, and I have a feeling she's just a meaner, skinnier girl using a second skin."

I don't buy it for a second. Beneath all the neuroticism, Kenji's a pervert on the inside. But then again, would just the measurements be worth all this trouble, even to a huge pervert? Maybe he actually believes this crap on some level. I'm a little disturbed by how coherent he is in his own way, given how much alcohol he's downed.

"Do they really have that kind of technology?" I decide to humor him.

"It is during wartime that all the greatest technological developments happen. Steam engines, helicopters, the Sony Playstation. Everything! When the world wars started happening and they started letting women into the factories, that was when we sealed our fates. Ever since, the feminists and their employ of soyboy engineers have been hiding all the best stuff from us. Well, not any more. All of that ends tonight. Besides, I'm doing you a favor. If there's anyone in this school who's definitely wearing a second skin, it's that pink-haired drill girl."

I briefly imagine it. Misha, giving her iconic "Wahaha~" while pulling the skin off her face, revealing some grey, slimy monstrosity like those made of CGI for mediocre 90's movies.

"I've got it all figured out," He continues. "I will be the commander of this operation, and will take charge until we make it to the student council room. Then, as the man on the ground on with the most relevant info and expertise, I'll be delegating authority to you until we're ready to make our escape."

He describes this in a casual sort of tone, as if he's suggesting we might go for a picnic. As insane as all of this is, I feel slightly flattered by the fact that he seems to have this much faith in me. What's the worst that could happen if I play along, anyway? If he's got all this planned, he'll probably go even if I say no. This way I can keep an eye on him. Or so I'm choosing to tell myself.

---

Well, here we are. The student council room, in the middle of the night. Honestly, this is all going better than expected. Just like Kenji insisted, we encountered no resistance on the way here. Maybe it's the alcohol, but somehow Kenji knowing the schedules of all of the night staff feels perfectly reasonable. And who cares about that anyway, we're here now, and that's what matters.

"BAM! Just like that. I'm telling you dude, you and me, we got this by the ass! This school is as good as ours. I'll start at in the corner over there, you check these files."

..Okay, I may have given him too much credit. Nobody with half a bit of sense would be yelling now like he just did. And besides, wasn't I supposed to be in charge of this part of the operation? Given the fact that I'm actually on the goddamn student council, he maybe should be interested in my input on where exactly we should be looking. Oh, whatever. He'll probably just yell more if I try to change plans at this point. Hopefully we can wrap this up quick.

To pass the time, I take the opportunity to look some of the archives from before I transferred. As expected, it's not terribly interesting. If there's one thing I learned over my many hours in the student council, it's that paperwork isn't very fun. Even so, I find myself getting a little amused over how Shizune's and Misha's starkly different personalities can even be discerned when looking at the way they handle this menial labor. Shizune's pen strokes are neat, efficient, and consistent. Misha, on the other hand, is barely legible at times. Perhaps in rebellion of the fact that Shizune doesn't let her use her array of brightly colored pens for important council work, Misha seems determined to pack as much expressiveness into the stokes of her boring dark-blue pen as possible.

Man, what the hell am I doing here? Kenji isn't a bad guy I guess, but surely I could be doing something with my night besides whatever this is. I urge my still somewhat alcohol-addled brain to remember what Misha and Shizune are doing. Ah, right. Misha has already gone back to her family for the holidays. And Shizune is getting ready for our trip to my parents' tomorrow. She..

She said she had a few last-minute things to do tonight in the student council room.

As if on cue, I hear footsteps advancing down the hallway. I nearly have a heart attack, but then I realize that the only thing worse than dying in front of my girlfriend is dying in front of my girlfriend and Kenji. I half-sprint over to the large desk that Kenji is still rifling through, with the papers drawn right up to his face as if he's trying to lick them. I hope he's not, but I know better than to discount the possibility.

"Shizune's coming," I whisper in a forceful, rushed tone. "Hide under the desk, now!"

For once, Kenji's desperate fear of women comes in handy. After hastily shoving some of the papers into his pants- I'll have to mark those for shredding later- he tucks himself into his hiding place.

Wait, why was I whispering? She's deaf, for god's sake! Okay, okay, keep it together. This isn't anything I can't handle.

Shizune steps into the room. At first, she seems taken aback, but I flash her what I hope is a warm and not-suspicious smile. A playful smirk emerges on her face, and she comes over to sit next to me in our usual work spots.

[Well, well. I didn't think you had it in you. Sneaking into the school late at night? I could have you ruined for this kind of transgression.]

[You're here too.] I reply flatly.

[I'm the president. If a rule needs to be bent, I'm allowed to make that kind of call.]

[Then you could exempt me too?] I ask.

[Nope!] Shizune replies cheerfully.

At this point, I realize what the only logical call is. I need to go over to that desk, pretend I'm just finding Kenji now, and let Shizune eviscerate him.

At that thought, however, an inexplicable pang of guilt comes over me. Was I not entrusted with an important mission? Surely I could do something nice for one of my few other friends before I abandon him for the next few weeks. I just need to keep Shizune occupied, maybe get her out of the room so Kenji can escape. For that, however, I'll have to come up with a convincing story.

[You're late,] I go on the offensive. [I've been waiting all night for you to show up.]

[Oh, hush. I'm a busy woman, as you very well know. Why are you even here, anyway?]

[I thought it'd be romantic. Us, meeting in the empty building on a cold, snowy night. Doesn't it just get your heart racing?]

[Don't you think it'd be more romantic if you weren't drunk? Or maybe if at least both of us were equally drunk? I know you're not very good at planning dates, but I'd hoped you had a bit more in you than this.]

Damn. Is it really that obvious? At least she doesn't seem too bothered by the underage drinking.

Shizune continues. [Did you really think I wouldn't notice the clumsy, droopy hand movements? Or the smell?]

[Okay, fine. A friend offered me a few drinks and I suddenly got the urge to see my beautiful, wonderful girlfriend.] Really, it's not too far from the truth. I'm just ommiting the neurotic nincompoop squatting under that desk in the corner, muttering quietly yet discernably. Good thing she's deaf.

Mercifully, Shizune gives me a genuine smile in response to my blatently transparent flattery. [I'm in a good mood, so I'll accept that sorry attempt at being sweet. Now if you'll excuse me, I want to get this paperwork done. It's late enough as it is.]

She gives me a quick kiss on the cheek, and, in another stroke of luck, she walks over to the opposite side of the room from Kenji and the door. I might just have a chance at making this work.

Then, silence fills the air as I try to figure out my next move. Well, it had just been filling the air already, but silence with sign language doesn't feel quite the same as silence without sign language. The quiet is broken only by the occasional shuffle of paper by Shizune, and once by Kenji bumping his head and swearing. A more incompetent commander there has never been. All the more reason to take matters into my own hands; a flash of unusually bold inspiration strikes. Facing away so Shizune won't see my lips move, I call out to Kenji.

"When you hear me bump into a desk, make a run for it."

"A-affirmative." He whispers the reply, as if there is literally any reason to do so.

Before I have the chance to lose my nerve, I stride confidently towards Shizune. She looks up at me from her chair, curiously.

[You know, I really don't tell you this enough. I'm so lucky to have found you. My first days and weeks here were among the worst of my life, and you just about singlehandedly dragged me out of that. Being with you is worth having that heart attack. I love you.] I can hear my heart pounding in the silence. I hope that came out coherently.

Blushing silently with her mouth ajar, Shizune appears to be at a loss for words. A landmark moment.

[I love you, too] She replies with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen in my life, and I choose to believe I perceive it as such not just because of the alcohol.

Almost forgetting that this was all part of a plan that had no right to go this well, I move in to kiss Shizune. I make sure to "accidentally" bump into a desk on the way, and I hear Kenji bolt out towards the door. My plan required that Shizune and I kiss passionately for at least several seconds, and it doesn't appear that either of us need much convincing.

...

[Aren't you feeling strangely confident tonight?] The moment has only just passed, and she has already deigned to start teasing me again. [I'll admit that I enjoyed that, but you had the element of surprise going for you this time. Next time you plan on pulling something like that, you'd better be sober, okay? Or at least more eloquent in your romantic ramblings.]

I smile and nod in agreement. I've seen my mission through to its completion, and I did it by making out with my cute girlfriend. Not bad for one night's work.

[You look like you're getting tired.] How does she pick up on these things before I do? [Alright, enough fooling around. You need to go get some sleep. And make sure you drink some water first! I'm meeting your parents for the first time tomorrow, and we're going to get this right. I won't settle for anything less than a perfect first impression.]

[All right, fair enough. I'll see you in the morning, okay?]

I give her a quick parting kiss and walk off into the night. I make sure to take her advice and drink some water before finally going to sleep. I don't hear a peek from Kenji's room, so I suppose he's had enough excitement for one night, too.

---

I awake the next morning with only a minor hangover. I have to remember to thank Shizune for telling me to drink some water before bed. She and I are boarding our bus this afternoon, so I check around my room to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. With a bit of time to spare, I figure I may as well check on Kenji.

*Knock Knock Knock*

"I DIDN'T TAKE THEM!" Kenji yells very unsuspiciouslly from within his room. "YOU CAN'T PROVE ANYTHING!"

"It's me. We need to, uh.. debrief."

The door swings open with alarming force.

"Oh, hey. Glad to hear you made it back alive. You really took one for the team last night. I'll never forget your sacrifice, and I'll be submitting your name for promotion next quarter for sure." He certainly doesn't look like he drank a near-lethal amount of alcohol last night. I'm only mildly disappointed by how well he seems to be right now.

"Great, I've always wanted to be awarded a post-humous medal." I reply dryly. "Listen, you still got those forms you took last night?"

"Of course! You think I'd lose such valuable intel? I was up all night transcribing it by hand. You can't trust the printers in this school, as I'm sure a hardened veteran such as yourself is already aware."

"About that. I forgot to mention that they're rigged to spontaneously combust if they leave the proximity of the student council room for 12 hours."

"Oh, fuck!" He runs into his room and returns with all the forms haphazardly bundled in his arms.

"Put them back where you found them, quick! And don't worry, I made sure to flatten out the ones I stuffed in my pants."

"Thanks." I try to put some enthusiasm into my voice, but it doesn't really work out. I'm still going to shred them. Maybe I should also burn them.

With that business concluded, Kenji shuts the door, presumably returning to whatever the hell he's planning to do with the intel we worked so hard for. Oh god, I'm calling it intel now. I need to be mindful of how much Kenji's rubbing off onto me.

Even so, I have to admit that last night was kind of fun. I even find myself wondering what sort of fun "operation" he might try to come up with next. As long as we're not hurting anyone, it's fine every now and then, right? Once again, I find myself wondering if my newfound proclivity for daring adventures has anything to do with how much time I've been spending with Shizune. Well, wherever this path of mine takes me, I'm excited to see it through. Suddenly, the trip back to my hometown- where my life once came crashing down around me- doesn't feel so ominous.

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NuclearStudent
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by NuclearStudent » Thu Dec 31, 2020 11:11 pm

First of all, I want to say that I'm utterly delighted by your execution of my prompt. It's better than what I dreamed of. I'm a fan of Hanako Fancopter's Operation Bedfellow tale about Kenji, and this has a similar kind of absurd wholesome energy. I naturally expected the prompt to involve the student council, but involving Kenji is a logical and enjoyable delight. While he's an oaf in the base game, he can be a fun mirror to Hisao's straightforward nature when used well like you have here.

Yes, I could have stated the prompt as "write a story about taking personal initiative." That would have meant almost exactly the same thing, and it would have made your job easier. Prof wanted to send you a briefing, but I specifically requested that she give you no help whatsoever unless you directly asked for it. Auftragstaktik, as a concept, is about trusting the initiative of those you have issued orders to. It means being minimal with specifics, and letting people read your intent and exercise their own creativity in how best to fulfill it.

I'm glad you brought Shizune into the story, as that was exactly what I was hoping for. Shizune's agony is that she wears the face and attitude of an autocrat, but wishes for others to take initiative. She's always pushing, and always lonely. She's trying her damned hardest to get people to care about the council and for her own boyfriend to make love to her, but she has to berate people or tie them down to get them to do a thing. But the face of the seemingly uninterpretable, it is possible to choose love and service, and to generate the correct meaning from vague signals. Beautiful.

Kenji is a good addition that I didn't expect. He's a soldier who displays excessive initiative, without sane orders or guidance. Here, too, Hisao takes initiative and control over an dynamic situation, interpreting the needs of his command wisely. Kenji, I imagine, is a deeply lonely soul. I appreciate how Hisao appreciated his humanity.

Today I am proud to be a Canadian. Thank you for your representation of our great nation and our spirit to endure against all inanity. It is a long cultivated gift, brought by our geopolitical position. The world is a mad place, but it can be beautiful. You are truly wonderful, and I couldn't ask any more. God bless.
Feurox: it is extremely difficult to tell whether you're echoing some very interesting sentiments or if you're just attempting to be trite or funny

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NuclearStudent
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by NuclearStudent » Thu Dec 31, 2020 11:15 pm

If you don't mind me asking, how was the process of interpreting and researching the prompt? What was the timeline of events like?
Feurox: it is extremely difficult to tell whether you're echoing some very interesting sentiments or if you're just attempting to be trite or funny

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brythain
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by brythain » Fri Jan 01, 2021 12:16 am

Auftragstaktik very good. Enjoyed. Especially Kenji.
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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Razoredge
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Razoredge » Fri Jan 01, 2021 12:44 am

Our pal Brister already knows what I think about his story, it's wonderful, I really liked it, it was funny and filled with emotions, he did a really good job. The judgment lines in the dialogues are gems, litteraly. You have a think for dialogues, buddy, I'm pretty jealous about that. But, seeing stuff like yours, or from some other writers from the forum, make me constantly wanting to improve. And for that, thank you.

Hack, this was unexpected. But in the good way. In a very good way I have to say. You brought Shizune in the story, and for me, it's a yes. As everyone knows, I don't like Shizune at all (at least her personality)... but here, you managed to made me think "Well, Shizune isn't that unlikeable, she can be a good person too", and for that, I have to say, thank you. That Kenji part is a good one too. Everything from this story is good, I really enjoyed it, the Shizune part almost made me to like the character, and the Kenji part was so humane for Kenji it was almost uncanny. Really good job.

Prof, it was charming, really charming. I didn't expected that too, but I really like what you did.
Lilly = Akira > Miki = Hanako > Emi > Rin > Shizune

Stuff I'm currently writing : Beyond the haze : A Lilly Satou pseudo-route, Lullaby of an open heart : A Saki pseudo-route & Sakura Blossom : A way with Hisao

Scramblers
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by Scramblers » Fri Jan 01, 2021 9:43 am

This is for MoashLannister/Detective Emo. I hope it provides you with some small measure of entertainment.

The prompt is: "10 years into the future of KS, where Hisao is doing some Christmas shopping with his lovely wife and kids. However, his wife is a Satou (writer's choice. Akira, Lilly or even Karla), and Hisao has taken up her maiden name instead of the other way around."



Still

“Glasgow is still full of churches built in the last century. Half of them have been turned into warehouses.” – Alasdair Gray


Christmas weather over Glasgow: A sky of grey gradients; everywhere a weak and diffuse light that erases shadows; air like clarified spirit. Rain makes threats but doesn't back them up. Even so, street lamps, already on, reflect on the slick, treacherous tarmac. In the unreachable distance, golden sunlight punctures the overcast at a diagonal. This celestial vision is lost a moment later behind a they dull, squared-off concrete of a six-storey car park.

The steering wheel faux-leather feels chill and grainy. Akira leans forwards, drumming the fingers of her right hand against it, and with her left, scratches her rear. The light goes green. “Finally,” she says under her breath; then to Hisao Satou, né Nakai: “What did I tell you? They do change sometimes.” She drives forward and noses the car up the ramp.

He catches her eye briefly, with a subtle hint of a smile. “Good thing we have your insider knowledge of Scotland, or we'd never survive here.”

“When did you get so sarcastic?” she asks, laughing.

“I think that's from living with you. I could go back to being mopey if you prefer.”

The car in front of them, uncertain, lumbering, pulls to a halt with a flare of brake lights. This stop gives Akira the opportunity to turn to Hisao, put her hand to her chest, and pout. “Would you? For me? It would really make my Christmas.”

The car ahead starts, stops, starts. Skye Satou kicks her chair again. Akira can't blame her. It's been a long drive. The exchange with Hisao has salved the stress enough that she can stifle the urge to snap. “Nearly there, kiddo,” she says instead.

She trails the car up three full levels, watches it take the only free space on the fourth, then finally parks on the fifth.

A tangle of personal and professional circumstances has landed the Satous in Glasgow for the week, and Akira, wanting to make this Christmas better than the previous, has found the opportunity to get something special for Lilly.

In the stairwell leaving the car park, the elevators are broken. Fluorescents flicker at the edge of awareness, like a mosquito hum rendered visual. Halfway down, Skye slows. “Can we go on the orange train?” she asks.

“Of course we will. But what about Auntie Lilly? If we don't get her present, she'll be sad, won't she?”

“Disappointed.”

Disappointed. That, Akira has to admit, is an insightful summary. Either that or Skye has picked up on her repeated use of the word. “You're right! And what about Auntie Shizune?”

In this way, they make a game of reducing familial obligations to emotional states. Shizune will be angry. Granny Nakai will be hurt. Grandad Satou probably won't care.

By the time they reach the ground, the stakes have been outlined and the promise of the subway has been momentarily forgotten. The air drains warmth from any exposed skin. People hurry back and forth across the road. Akira pulls her coat more tightly around herself. “I'll be glad to get back to Japan,” she murmurs

First round of presents are the local culture reduce to iconic trinkets: Saltires emblazoned on ceramic and sweaters; shortbread; and a Nessie-themed tea set. They wit in lines. They take turns distracting Skye. After nearly a decade, Akira has Hisao well-trained enough not to try and be chivalrous. They share the weight of baggage between them.

Going through a starkly-lit department store, Skye detaches tugs at Hisao's hand, and gets him to bend down so she can whisper in his ear. Akira gives them room.

“We're going to go and do something that I'm absolutely forbidden to tell you about,” Hisao informs her.

“Oh, goodness, whatever could that be?” She waves. “Have fun. I'll meet you at the exit, and then we can go and get something for Lilly.”

They walk off with Skye pointing the way. Akira heads in the opposite direction and wanders about a bit. The intercom jingle stops so someone can mumble something incomprehensible. When she's out of sight, she closes her eyes for a moment, and groans a little.

That out her system, she continues. And idle skim of toys and sweets turns up nothing of interest. On the way to the exit, she passes the alcohol aisle. She tries to avoid giving it too much attention – except at the end there's a garish displaying shelf, backed by cutouts, advertising a Hendrick's gin gift box. A classily-serifed recounts a mythology of two stills. The last time they talked, Hanako mentioned a growing fondness for gin.

Akira considers going to tell Hisao so they can come back here and buy it, and dismisses the idea. Ridiculous. No reason she can't do this herself. No disaster will befall her. She checks the price, calculates the duties, then grabs the gift box and goes to the checkout.

A memory surfaces:

A little over a year ago, around a polished black table in some anonymous Tokyo highrise, Akira and her fellow office drones-cum-predators (corporate hierarchies, you know how it is) laughed. She leant forward and poured the dregs from some colourful bottle into her empty glass. She was offering a joke about herself, something like, “And here I am, a year into my thirties and still having my meals cooked for me!”

“We're all preparing for the top floor, but Satou here is preparing for the care home!” someone said. They all cackled again. (Surely it was funnier than that? But the memory, already fuzzy, offers nothing.)

Hisao and Skye are waiting at the exit. She appears, brandishing the gift box. Best to make it known up front. “That's Hanako sorted!”

Hisao takes it. “Great. Thanks.” He adds it to his own burden, and she lets him.

“I can't tell you where we've been,” Skye announces.

“Ooh, do I have to guess?” asks Akira.

“No!” Then, after a brief consideration, “Yes.”

“Let's see now … the Great Barrier Reef?”

“No.”

“Hmm … Outer Space?”

Skye laughs. “No!”

“Inner Space?”

“No!”

Akira tries to look as if she's deep in thought. After a good ten seconds, she shakes her head. “I don't know then. You're too clever for me. Shall we go and get Auntie Lilly's present?”

“And then the orange train?”

“And then the orange train.”

Well, then,” says Hisao. “Lead the way.”

Akira takes out her phone and checks the map. “Down … here, I think.”

She leads them off the pedestrian road, down a side street of parked cars and rusted dumpsters overfull and spilling rubbish into the road, past a tiny muddy park, and past a row of cramped terraced-houses, a couple of which display dark Christmas lights like cankers.

After ten minutes or so, it has become evident that the city centre and the tag on the map are not in perfect agreement. Skye's enthusiasm has drained away. They head back down a street. Akira peers at her phone, zooms in, and mutter, “Where are you, you little b … linker?”

“Hey, hey, it's okay.” Hisao puts an arm around her. This isn't the comfort either of them would like it to be, but Akira slows.

Hisao placates Skye with a choice of lollipop. Red? Blue? Orange? Orange, of course.

“It's somewhere down here, but it's definitely not that. Thats a warehouse.”

“Then we've only got a couple of streets left to check. Do you have a picture of it?”

Akira calls up a photo on her phone and shows him.

They split up, Skye following Hisao, and peer down both streets. Hisao waves to her. “Here!”

The antique bookshops is fronted in green, the paint flaking or bubbled in places, with gold letters. A bay window looks onto densely-packed shelves. The doors clonks a bell on opening and closing. Inside, it smells of ageing paper.

Lilly's fifth language, and current obsession, is Italian, with all the cultural baggage that implies. In the past sixth months, Akira has already learned more than she ever expected to know about Florence and Pisa and Venice, Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

A serendipitous encounter with a local colleague brought this shop to Akira's attention. According to her source, it holds a perfect way to make up for the inadequate and ill-conceived gifts of the past few years: A braille version of the Decameron in the original Italian.

The labels on the shelves are of no help. Neither is the man behind the counter, who gives off an odour of stale tobacco and shrugs in response to her question.

“You try that end,” she tells Hisao. “I'll do this end, and we can meet in the middle.” She reminds him of the Roman letters to look out for, just in case.

They meet in the middle. They continue past each other. Akira checks and double checks. Skye, following Hisao, announces for the third time that she's bored.

If the braille Decameron was here, it isn't any more.

The Satous gather and go outside. Akira claps her hands together. “Well, that's …” She swallows back the lump in her throat. “ … that's a nuisance.”

“It's okay,” says Hisao. “We'll find something else.”

“I know,” says Akira. But I wanted to get her something special, not another idle checking-off-the-obligation-list gift.

That's life, she tries to remind herself. Things rarely turns out the way you want them. You know this. You can handle it. But this attempt at wisdom doesn't make her feel any better.

This is supposed the be the Christmas she gets everything right. The one where she's not a disappointment.

She remembers the last one: The early afternoon, rags of wrapping paper strewn across the floor. She slouched in her chair, empty glass by her feet and empty bottle beside that, not quite asleep and not quite awake. Skye tugged at her hand. “Look what I made!”

Akira tried to articulate in a child-friendly way that she wasn't really capable of standing up at that precise moment. The next moment, Hisao was there, leading Skye away. “Thank you,” Akira managed, or thought she managed.

Then, from down the hall, she heard Skye again – and this she certainly does remember – “I the it when Mommy's like this.”

In that overheard sentence was the summation of a couple years' worth of lectures from Lilly, of the momentary expressions she'd noticed on Hisao's face, of the aftertaste of vomit, of how hollow her loveably louche person had become after ten years.

Staring at the glass on the floor, reflecting the Christmas tree lights on its curved surface, she promised herself that the next time would be better.

So the Satous lug their bags bag to the crowded pedestrian streets, with a brief interlude to get stuck in a dead-end alley along the way. Akira sees Skye, glum and cold, and Hisao's set face.

Their arrival is announced by rain. They take refuge with the other shoppers under a glass canopy. Slick waterproof polymers squeak against each other; umbrellas take swipes. The rain grumbles against the canopy overhead and the pavement outside.

Akira tries to think of a replacement. There will be audiobooks, surely. In Italian, though, in Glasgow?

“Can we go on the orange train now?” asks Skye.

Akira inhales sharply. She stifles what she's about to say and lets out a ragged breath. By the look of it, Hisao was about to say something similar.

“Soon,” she tells Skye.

This invites a sulk. They look desultorily through a few shops, uncertain, hoping something will pop out at them. Skye drags her feet with enough vehemence to erode the soles of her shoes.

They stop near a cafe. Hisao's looking through a plate glass window behind which colourful cutouts hawk colourful tat, his shoulders slumped, when Akira sees him.

She comes up behind him and plonks her head down on his shoulder, then sticks out her tongue and blows a raspberry. He looks like he's ready to speak, but she keeps going until she's out of air.

“You know,” says Hisao, “I've always admired your ability to articulate your feelings.”

“Is that why you fell in love with me?”

“No, it was the sex that did that,” he whispers.

“I knew there was something I was forgetting,” she says. She smiles briefly and puts her hand on his chest. “How're you feeling?”

“I'm … fine.”

“Really, though. High stress situation.”

“Yeah, I know,” he says. Akira feels rather than sees his shrug.

“Do you want to find a cafe and sit down for a bit?” she asks. “I'll take Skye for a ride and figure out Lilly's present.”

“I couldn't do that …”

“Okay, let me put it another way. If you keel over out here, I'm not going to drag you to the hospital.”

Hisao thinks for a moment. “Okay,” he says. “Thank you.”

“Do you remember how to order?” she asks.

“My English isn't so bad that I'll end up with bleach instead of tea,” he says. “I hope.”

“You'd better not,” she warns.

They explain to Skye that he needs to sit down for a while, and he heads off to the cafe. Akira watches him go.

Now there, she thinks, is someone she never expected to come into her life. Not on their first encounter, when he was floating awkwardly around her sister. And certainly not on their return to Japan, when in a moment of mutual misery – she in the aftermath of an argument with her parents, and he in the aftermath of an ill-advised relationship with Hanako – they sought solace in sex.

He'd wanted to play the hero, and she'd wanted a distraction. That dynamic, obviously unsustainable, had ended in another argument. But from that, somehow, they had recovered. In in that recovery, she had seen a hint of nobility in him, a hidden reserve of strength, willing to claw his way out the pit they'd fallen into, and to haul her up too.

What he had seen in her, she still isn't sure.

For Akira, even getting married was a sort of rebellion. “Hey, dad, guess who I'm getting married to? One of Lilly's old schoolmates. Yeah, from Yamaku.” The reaction, sprayed around half the world through fibre optics and radio waves, had been every bit as gratifying as she'd hoped. She kept her maiden name, partly because she'd made that promise to herself when she was five and partly because it fit nicely with her wish to not be beholden to anything. Hisao was flexible enough to indulge her. With the contacts and knowledge she had, she fought and schmoozed her way back up the corporate ladder, for all the stress that brought. They were dragged into a life spread between Japan and Scotland. Hisao looked after her, and Skye too, when the moment came.

And then, suddenly finding herself burdened with gifts she never expected, Akira let things unravel.

Skye touches Akira's hand. “Can we go on the orange train now?”

That's her final bribe. Akira gives in. “Okay,” she says forcing a smile. “But only if you can tell me what it's called in English.”

The Subway.” Enthused, Skye gives her the full sentence, “May I ride the Subway?

Yes, you may. Let's go.” Akira looks up the nearest station on her phone and takes Skye's hand.

Going down the steps, damp and tired, Akira thinks about what she can get Lilly. An audiobook. She'd have to find it online. Would it be delivered in time?

On the Subway, people sit scattered with bags and boxes at their feet. The carriage shudders, the wheels whine. Skye kneels on the bench seat and squishes her nose against the window, watching the shadowed grey walls and pipes scroll past with a fascination she never showed for landscapes. Akira tries to think of something acceptable she can get in Glasgow city centre within a week of Christmas.

After a couple of stops, the Skye sits normally. The novelty has worn off. Akira lures her off at Cowcaddens with the promise of a ride back.

The search resumes. Everything starts to run together. Fluorescent tubes behind reflective gratings in the ceiling, slippery linoleum floors jingles intercut with adverts played over the intercom, crowds pushing every which way, cold and wet outside, stifling and sweaty inside, shelf after shelf. Skye gets bored again. Give me something, Akira thinks. Please.

After half an hour, she collapses onto a bench under an awning and puts her head in her hands. She thinks of how stupid it was to rely on the braille Decameron. She stares at the puddles. With every raindrop, the reflected clouds quiver like bad special effects for a dream sequence.

Fuck it.

She takes Skye's hand and stands up. They head back towards the shopping complex, faster now, more purposeful

“Mom?” asks Skye.

“Not now,” says Akira.

In the supermarket, she crosses between the aisles, weaving between browsing consumers. She stops at the alcohol aisle, its rows of bottle, caramel and clear and blood red. She takes a small, pocketable bottle of whiskey without looking at the label.

“Mom?”

She has no plan. Now or later? Secretly or openly? All that can be worked out later.

Akira leads Skye to the checkout, picking up a bag of chocolate buttons at the entrance to placate her. “You can have these on the way back.”

“Mom?”

Waiting in line, there's no way to avoid answering. “What is it?”

“Can we get Dad's present?” Skye points outside. “I saw it out there.”

Akira stares at her.

This reaction goes unnoticed. Skye smiles up at her, boredom forgotten. Ambient light glints in her eyes. “You're not allowed to tell him. You have to promise.”

All sense of urgency drains out of her. She smiles faintly.

“You have to promise!”

“I promise.” Akira holds up the buttons. “Do you want to get these, or shall we go now?”

“I want to go now.”

Akira and Skye leave the line, return both items to the appropriate shelves, and then Skye leads her mother out of the supermarket and into the gadget shop next door. Inside, it's all soft, bluish lighting, iPhone-white highlights, chunky metallic 3D lettering, and flashing LEDs against crawling fingers of plasma.

“This,” Skye says, pointing to a glass globe with a quartet of little black and white squares inside.

It's visible from the window, but barely. Akira's impressed she managed to pick up on it.

“What is it?” she asks.

“A radiometer!” says Skye, overflowing with pride at being able to identify the mystery object. “It spins when there's enough light.”

“That definitely sounds like something Dad would like,” Akira says, peering at the display model.

Skye beams. “Can we buy it?”

Akita picks up one of the boxes and checks the price. “Absolutely.”

This journey to the checkout, with the box under one arm and Skye beside her, letting out a little skip of joy every now and then, is rather more enjoyable. Akira buys the Radiometer and, at Skye's behest, makes sure the bag is hidden from view.

As she's leaving, Hisao calls her. Wind burbles against the microphone. “How's the shopping going?”

“I'm not allowed to tell you,” says Akira. She winks at Skye. Skye grins.

“How mysterious!” Hisao laughs. Then, more serious, “What about something for Lilly?”

“No luck.”

“Well, don't go mad, but I got bored and had a bit of a walk.”

“Truly despicable.”

“I know. Anyway, I remember you telling me about how much Lilly liked the idea of Florence cathedral but struggled with the descriptions.”

“Yeah, yeah. Visual descriptions, even in braille …”

“Right. Well I found this place that does little ceramic models of famous buildings. They're detailed, and they look quite tactile. And I found one of Florence Cathedral. Should I get it?””

Akira is silent for a moment. Then she laughs, loud enough to attract the attention of a few people around her. “You are my saviour. I love you, and I want to have your – ah, well, you ninja'd me on that one, didn't you?”

“That's a yes, then?”

“Yes. Thank you. When you're done, go to Buchanan Street. I'll meet you there.”

They meet with an embrace. It's more than a greeting. Akira holds on for rather longer than is necessary, feeling the pressure through layers of insulation, and after a moment, Skye joins in too.

“Thank you,” Akira says. Then, to Skye, “Do you want to go on the subway again?”

Skye switches to English to say, “Yes, please.”

On the train, rocked by the oscillations, with Hisao beside her and Skye peering out the window, Akira examines the little ceramic cathedral. She closes her eyes and traces the pad of her index finger over it, feeling the ridges that outline the dome, the cupola at the top, indents for arches and windows.

“It's perfect,” she says, putting in back into a tissue-lined box.

He takes her hand. “I'm capable of good ideas, every now and then.”

“Every now and then.” Akira sees the ghostly reflection of her and Hisao in the opposite window. She leans into him. “You know, I nearly … gave up.”

“It's okay,” he says. “We're here with you.”

“I know.” She looks over at him, smiling softly. “Thank you, Mr. Satou.”

When they drive out of the car park, the grey overcast has split. Sunlight coming it an angle picks out the underside of the clouds in gold. A small, watery-white half-moon peers out from behind everything, silent and still. Akira looks up at it, and when the lights change, drives on.

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brythain
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Re: Secret Santa 2020 - Story collection

Post by brythain » Fri Jan 01, 2021 10:58 am

That's a lovely story. So they went over the sea to Skye, eh?
Post-Yamaku, what happens? After The Dream is a mosaic that follows everyone to the (sometimes) bitter end.
Main Index (Complete)Shizune/Lilly/Emi/Hanako/Rin/Misha + Miki + Natsume
Secondary Arcs: Rika/Mutou/AkiraHideaki | Others (WIP): Straw—A Dream of SuzuSakura—The Kenji Saga.
"Much has been lost, and there is much left to lose." — Tim Powers, The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

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