After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Complete)

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AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 4 up 20140616)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 15, 2014 11:18 pm

This is the fourth part of Natsume's arc in my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic, 'After the Dream'.

A number of the matters referred to in this piece may be related to other matters mentioned in Miki Miura's arc and in Rika Katayama's arc.



Natsume 4: Computing (T -4)

The world changes, sometimes too quickly, sometimes too slowly. I never thought I’d live to be thirty-one. Ten years at the Shimbun, ten years of covering health-related issues ranging from a rise in syphilis cases to the aftermath of Fukushima. And of course, like a blemish on a computer image that stubbornly refused to be removed, and then turned out to be a wonky pixel, Yamaku.

Yes, it was a decade ago that I was sent to Sendai to cover health concerns in the wake of the Tohoku Earthquake. It was a critical year for me; it took me three decades to find out just how critical.

But I’m writing this piece from the perspective of 2020, and I have to go back to March 2009, and because of that, I have to go even further back. Perhaps you’ll see how it all ties in by the time I’m done. Perhaps not. If not, it won’t have been the last bad piece of writing I’ve turned in. Do, however, realize the constraints I’m working under. Thank you.

*****

MM told me the other day that if anyone were to write anything about Saki Enomoto, it ought to be me. It’s a thought that does require some serious reflection, mainly about what should be written, but it’s a fact that I might be the most qualified person to do that. I’ve not said much about Saki, mostly because it is, like many other things, something I prefer to keep in my head. But I realize that things you keep in your head can die in your head when you go; they sometimes do not deserve this, and so you should keep them alive.

I first met Saki when we were little girls in a small kindergarten in Osaka. We more or less grew up together; her parents and mine are still friends, but it is hard for them to see each other and not remember two small children, one neat and fair-haired, one messy and dark-haired, always holding hands and sharing toys. They don’t meet so often now.

Spinocerebellar ataxia. All I knew then was that Saki, aged 10, grew clumsy. I was fast, and it was my job to catch her if she made a mistake, because I was the tough one and she was the nice one. It characterized our very simple relationship until we reached adolescence. Then we discovered two things: sex and death, in that order. It was during that awkward transition between primary and middle schools.

“Haha, Nat, what do you think?”

“Errm, nope.”

“Well, I’m clumsy but you’re fast, so it would be fun to try…”

“You’re not clumsy!”

“I am! But I do things so that people think I’m not clumsy.”

Yes, like painting, or calligraphy, or poetry, or any one of the many things that Saki does which can be done slowly and in private. So here we are, trying things out in Saki’s house, slowly and in private. We don’t know what we’re doing, really, but it creates interesting and very different feelings.

But it’s while looking at the kind of books we think are ‘secret’ and have ‘dirty pictures’ that we find out what Saki’s got. Mine won’t kill me, probably. But Saki… it doesn’t look very good. It scares us a lot, because we’re still kids.

Saki remains my best friend when we get to middle school. She’s my friend even when she decides she likes a boy in our class. But there’s always that hidden darkness. And as she thinks about dying, she starts having black moods. Her lovely fair hair gets dyed dark, or spiked. She gets a tat. She gets an infected earlobe. Then she learns to cut herself, and pick locks, and drink. And I love her, and I can’t take it, and I tell my parents about the cutting and the alcohol.

My best friend ends up in therapy because of that. At age 13, that’s more pain than I can take. I’ve been tough on the outside and fragile inside for too long, and that’s too much. Even now, looking back, I know I had choices—but at that time, it didn’t seem so.

Now, of course, I’m pretty tough. Hardened by pain, maybe. Yet, I still remember what happened so long ago very clearly, in high-definition if you like. Saki angry, her face twisted, lashing out at me on our last day together, “I never liked you, Ooe, you ugly bitch!” And all I can think is, what else could I really have done? I keep the earrings that I bought for her with all my savings. I put them in my secret box, and try not to look at them.

The truth is a harsh mistress, we adults know. Childhood terrors, growing-up pains—those make it far worse. When I’m sent to Yamaku only to find that Saki is there too, in my class, I don’t know what to do. Our parents have conspired to make us friends again. Dad says, “You can help her, she’s recovering, she needs a friend.”

She needs her ‘ugly bitch’ of a friend. But the truth is that she has hurt me badly. I’m not sure if I have enough love left for her. And she is awkward with me because she knows all this, and will not ask it of me.

This lasts for intolerable months in Year 1 at Yamaku, until she falls down the stairs one day, unable to find any balance at all. Hanako lets out a cry of alarm right next to me, Naomi freezes in complete panic—but I’ve seen this before, I know what has happened. I realize that all I want is for Saki to be all right. She’s not focusing, she’s like a ragdoll. “Get Nurse,” I yell at poor Misaki. “Quick!”

While she’s recovering from her fractures in the hospital, I visit her. I don’t know what to say, but I bring the earrings with me. They are little polished carnelians, nothing expensive, but they’ve been hers for a long time. I realize that I too have been hers all along. She, on the other hand, has decided to be nobody’s because she is dying.

You know, the truth is indeed a very harsh mistress. But the other saying is also true: the truth will set you free. They’re both true at the same time, they’re both truth. Sometimes, that’s all we have. That’s all I have.

“Nat, they’re beautiful!” With eager fingers, slender and so familiar to my gaze, she begins to put them on. The right one goes on, but she fumbles the left one a bit, and I have to help her. Our fingers touch, and she gives a sheepish smile. Behind that smile is the old darkness, but the new Saki has chained it for now.

“I’m glad you like them. Bought them for you when you got your ears pierced, but somehow never got round to giving them to you.” I have to say it, accusing and seeking forgiveness enough for both of us. All that has to be purged, I think.

She flinches, but she too is brave. Somehow we’ve both learnt the same lesson, for different reasons. “I’ve missed you, Nat. I’m glad we’re friends.”

So am I, but I can’t trust my voice at this point, so I just hold her hands—her slender, unreliable hands. She has a beautiful smile.

All this goes through my head as we stand under the cherry blossoms, on 24th March 2009, to remember her. She was dying three days ago, and I was there with her, and then she stopped being alive. Now her parents have laid her to rest, and I can see they have let Saki keep the earrings. They are like two drops of blood against the pallor of her skin.

Naomi isn’t with me. She has her own reasons for not being here, a family trip to Hawaii or something. I know it’s not a betrayal, but it feels like one. Maybe the feeling has always been mutual. Maybe our different friendships with Saki, and then Hanako—these have come between us.

That, however, is a thought from the future. As the flowers fall on Saki’s grave, all I feel is that I’m alone—that despite my parents being there, and many old friends and former classmates sharing their grief, there’s nobody there for me. But Nat is made of sterner stuff than that, and people don’t have to remain lonely all the time.

*****

It’s a Monday, the day of the spring equinox in 2011. Ten days earlier, the second worst earthquake in Japan’s history had rocked our major cities and hurled a wall of water across our vulnerable east coast. I and two friends are picking our way through debris as we take the still-intact, once-familiar road up to Yamaku; it has been three years since we were last here together.

In those three years, I have come to the somewhat painful conclusion that even if I think I can’t live without Naomi, I can tolerate it for some time. And Naomi appears to be able to live without me. This time, she’s away in Australia while I slog through a mucky internship for the Shimbun. They’re going to be my employers some day, so I’m resigned to learning what I can—or as Saki said two years before, “We do what we can, with what we have.”

The ‘real’ Asahi Shimbun news team is set up down below, in what I think of as the ‘real’ city, not up here on the shoulder of Mount Aoba. Even up here, it’s clear that the raging elements have torn into Sendai with a vengeance. Parts of the old castle lie tumbled on the mountainside now. Areas have been cordoned off and closed to vehicular traffic because they’re unstable. And I’ve got a hastily gathered little crew to do some reporting that will make a few centimetres of space if I’m lucky.

Misaki’s cameras look heavier than ever before. I wonder why, in this age of digital excellence, she still needs huge lenses that look like futuristic weapons. I don’t know much about it; all I know is that she makes wonderful art. She has rather reluctantly passed some of her precious gear over to our other friend, who looks as buff as ever. MM is uncharacteristically silent as we survey the destruction, but she moves easily under the load, her ponytail swinging in the murk-bothered sunlight, happy to be of use.

I’ve heard the suspicions voiced in the newsroom about radioactivity at Fukushima, south of where we are. If there had been a radioactive cloud, we might have flown through it on the way here. But Misaki and MM volunteered when I told them I needed company back to Yamaku. Everyone’s on break, and this seemed like something worth doing, besides being an excuse to meet after two busy years.

We’ve called ahead, and as we approach the gates of the Academy, we see a little delegation already there. Principal Yamamoto’s barrel-like shape is flanked by Mutou’s duster-clad sartorial scruffiness and Miyagi’s neat slenderness. Yamamoto looks rather stressed; his square-jawed face is drawn, with deep shadows under his eyes. Mutou looks much more relaxed than his boss, but you can tell that his mind is working hard elsewhere. And quiet little Miyagi’s giving us that well-disguised analytical once-over which she uses to assess the state of a class. Of the three, only she seems to be really looking at us, asking questions even as her eyes crinkle in friendly welcome.

Yamamoto steps forward and does the principal thing. “Former students Ooe, Kawana, Miura! Welcome home to Yamaku. I am sure you recognize Vice-Principal Miyagi-san and your former class teacher, Mutou-san.”

Vice-Principal? I file that one away for future reference. We take our bows, nodding all round as we greet our former teachers and they greet us. Somewhat dispassionately, I remember how I’ve always thought that the defining characteristic of the Japanese mind must be the ability to compute in seconds a) the order of precedence in which one should bow and receive bows; b) the angle of bowing and the degree of compensation that one should make for slight excesses of humility and circumstances; and c) how much residual awareness one should maintain for unexpected events and tiebreaking as the complexity of the encounter increases. A simple 3x3 situation like this one is almost certainly unmanageable for the average foreigner.

Honorifics, combined with the complex art of tactical self-abasement-and-other-elevation, form another part of the puzzle. Part of me is doing all this automatically while another part of me is watching me do this with analytical amusement.

We move towards the school’s general office, making small talk and recalling past events. Our mission here is to find out how the school is handling the situation, and also how the Foundation has been helping the citizens of Sendai, but that will wait until after we take tea.

Mutou is interrogating Misaki. “Kawana, how did you manage to get here? The airport isn’t fully functional yet, except for relief flights.”

“I’ve got a driver’s license now, Mutou-san. We got together in Tokyo and then drove up. Then we had to park near the university and complete our journey on foot. We saw the C-130s on the way in; I think a special USAF unit is helping with the airport.”

“Didn’t that bring you through Fukushima? We have heard all kinds of rumours about what has happened to the power stations there.”

“Ah, yes. We too have heard such rumours. They’ve put some roads off-limits and we had to make a few detours.”

MM jumps in, less inclined to constrain herself to politeness than Misaki. “Yeah, well, Misaki drives like a maniac, so it was a fun ride. It’s probably why all her camera gear is packed so neatly, so that pieces don’t fly around the car.”

Mutou chuckles and he exchanges glances with his vice-principal, who smiles prettily at MM, looks her up and down, and says, “Miura, you haven’t changed much at all. Those eyebrows are still very expressive.”

There were frequent student rumours about Mutou and Miyagi having a relationship. If so, their present professional relationship would make it rather inappropriate. The world constrains human behaviour a lot, but it’s a world we have made, often for that very purpose.

In the end, we get our centimetres in a small corner of the Shimbun, and we go out to celebrate one last time in Tokyo before we are scattered again—MM back to Nagasaki, Misaki to nearby Yokohama, and me to dear old Osaka. It has been fun, but I’ve learnt something: you really can’t ‘go home’ again, whether it’s the school in which you spent your last years before adulthood, or a relationship with someone whose beautiful eyebrows you once admired from afar.

*****

Which brings me to this year, the year in which I close several circles and return to being in contact with several old friends, for several reasons. First exhibit: some tabphone conversations.

“Hey, Nat! How’s the girlfriend? Got her pregnant yet?” I can hear the wicked laughter in my head, going with the naughty grin. Even if it’s not delivered over the air, you can always trust MM to attempt cheeky sabotage at some point in a conversation.

“Naomi’s fine, doesn’t seem to want to get pregnant. How’s the boyfriend? Got him pregnant yet?” The least I can do is to return the favour.

“Ha! Well, what can I do for my favourite journalist?”

“As I’m the only friendly journalist you know, that’s not much of a compliment. Seriously, though, is there anything interesting happening over at F-Base?”

“Hmmm. Depends. Old Kyu is strangely silent these days.” And MM is being uncharacteristically cagey, her lips not opening as much as usual.

“Have you heard of something called the Ricardo project?”

Cautiously, “I’ve heard of something like that. New thing over at Tokyo.”

“What is it about?” I’ve heard the news that something new is happening in healthcare, and it’s nanotech, not genetech. I’ve called MM because there aren’t many who can resist telling her things.

“You know it’s a Hakamichi Consortium project, yeah? Not my area, although I’ve attended some meetings. But I can tell you who to call, though!”

“One name, Mysterious Madame Miura. Just one name.”

“They call her the ‘Ghost of Noda’ these days, but the description made me curious. Sounded familiar. And we Yamaku alumni look out for each other, so you should know who it is. Need a clue, Nat?” There’s a mischievous edge to that last bit, and I’m already wondering at the strange pseudonym I’ve been offered.

I stare at the screen and call up a search engine. [+“Ghost of Noda”] is what I type, and the name I’m looking for pops up immediately, as if the two are linked by an umbilical. There are, of course, other ridiculous items on the list returned. But nobody would confuse them with the one I seek.

“Thanks, MM. Much obliged, very grateful, totally owe you a favour for the next time I’m headed in your direction!”

“Sooner than you think, Nat. I’m inviting you to my wedding! Ciao!” The quirky eyebrows flash, the eyelids flutter, and before I can react, the screen blanks.

If my life is going to deliver such shocks with any frequency, I should invest in a shock-proof casing, I think sourly to myself. But first, an investigation into our mutual junior from Yamaku, a certain Dr Rika Katayama.

In the next few days, I thank Mother for her friendly but erratic personal newsfeed. It provides many clues, and an excuse to get in touch with Katayama. Despite their busy working hours and personal peculiarities, she and Dad have always made some time for me and my brother Matsuo. It’s Matsuo who is my next investigative link.

“Hey, Mat. Need a favour.”

“Hey, Nat! Respected elder sister and so on and so on, go ahead, ask!”

“Do your scientific researcher thing and find out about the last ten years of ruthenium research in a biological context.”

“Come on, big sister, surely you can do a Scholar search like the rest of us?” he says, grinning his hugely disarming innocent grin at me.

“That grin doesn’t work on me, younger brother. The main thing is that you can draw conclusions from a search space of tens of thousands of science papers faster than most people can, and I can’t. I’ll owe you one.”

“Date with Naomi?”

“What?!”

“You know, just to talk. I like her company,” he whispers. “She is fascinating and mildly warm, not scary and outright hot like your other friend. It’s not a sex thing.”

“Which other friend??” My only brother has always been a trial. He’s not really a pest, but he’s somewhat in the nature of a live examination made flesh.

“The one you called the other day,” he says patiently.

“Are you tracking my calls again?” I growl. It’s not the first time. Mat is inquisitive by nature. He doesn’t do it out of malice, but out of the thrill of beating a challenge. One day, I swear I’ll introduce him to Shizune Hakamichi for the hell of it. In fact, that too might be sooner than later.

“No! Never! Well, never again! She told me.”

“Miura-san told you I called her?” I pour disbelief into my words.

“Yes! We’re friends on PhaseBook. It’s how I know she’s scary and hot. She swears a lot. It’s quite a turn-on if you’re in a certain kind of mood!”

Oh, brother. We are more alike than I want to know. “Too much information, Mat. And not the kind I want. Give me your analysis by tomorrow? I’ll ask Naomi, no promises.”

“Okay, Nat. One thing about you, elder sister, you always do what you say you’ll do.” He waves and signs off, probably happy that he’s pinned me down by my value-system.

Now that I’m happy with the industrial angle and the science angle, it’s time for my least favourite angle, before I call the laboratories at Noda. Five years ago, I remember moderating a discussion between Her Majesty and MM. During that discussion, the topic of human augmentation arose—which is why the whole thing ended up as a notorious disquisition on transhumanism that was picked apart to death by Net communities interested in the Japanese perspective.

I know exactly one geek I can talk to who used to be a nerd. We would have called him ‘hikikomori’ in the past; fortunately (or not), he is not one now. He is also sharp, knowledgeable, and occasionally useful through obscure references and verbal puzzles. My call doesn’t even get to video before it gets shunted through strange beeps and whistles and [FULL ENCRYPT] appears, glowing green and baleful on my screen.

“Good afternoon, Colonel-san.”

“Good afternoon, Senior Healthcare Reporter Ooe-san.” My old acquaintance somehow keeps tabs on everybody. A mutual friend of ours once shuddered as she confided in me that she’d heard he had a wallchart with all our pictures on it, and updated it regularly. I am willing to believe he has since converted this to a database on a computer network that is not linked to any other node on the Net.

“Is Ricardo of interest to your community?”

“Ahhh! What is this Ricardo? There must be a conspiracy. You are not the first to come to me with this question today!”

“Setou, stop fooling around.”

“You can call me Kenji. I’m not the man you used to know.”

“How are the children, Colonel?”

“I’ll have you know I’m sulking. But they are fine. They miss their Aunty Nat.”

“They haven’t met me since I accidentally bumped into you in Yokohama three years ago, and they were little red things at that time.”

“Are you sure it was accidental? I was so sure you had planned it. But for now, let me just say that there are no ghosts in my machine. Back to work, back to work, talk to you some other time, girl-with-asymmetric-eyes!” The screen goes completely black and my tabphone reboots itself.

Damn that Kenji, but at least I tried my best. And he’s probably been as honest as he can allow himself to be. Some day, if I have the time, I’ll go find out how he became normal enough to get a government job. Or I could ask Mother, but that’d be no fun.

*****

I remember Rika Katayama as a rather proper young lady who indeed used to flit around the halls of Yamaku like a sedate and rather thin ghost. Her story, as Naomi reminded me, was one of continuous but not contentious avoidance of social activity, crowned by sudden elevation to the Student Council as Shizune’s quietly efficient, extremely courteous, and well-respected successor. It is with this knowledge in mind that I eventually make very polite contact with my junior alumna.

“Respected senior lady Ooe? To what does this unrenowned researcher owe the pleasure of such communication?”

“Esteemed Katayama-san, this humble and ignorant journalist seeks enlightenment on a small matter that the very competent expert is well-qualified to clarify. Please refer to this one by one’s family name, if that is deemed appropriate; also, perhaps we can be less formal?”

The elegant features on the screen shift slightly into a faint smile of acknowledgement. “Ooe-san, I am honoured to be of service. But I am only an investigator in a very tiny realm.”

I’m prepared for that. “It is a very tiny realm indeed, Katayama-san. But the world of nanotechnology has always been that of the tiny and subtle. In the last ten years, perhaps 70,000 papers have been written on various abstruse aspects of ruthenium chemistry in relation to biological matters. Your team seems to have produced perhaps 350 of them in the last six years.”

“Ah, the team in which I have the honour to be a minor element, it has many competent researchers.”

“You, in particular, have been highly recommended to me by a certain mutual acquaintance, concerning a project associated with the name ‘Ricardo’.”

I am stretching the truth a little here. MM’s hint was scarcely that. I watch carefully, and am rewarded by a faint blush, accentuated by the unusual pallor of her complexion. “I see. This person, who has been so complimentary, would perhaps be someone from the Academy at Yamaku?”

Now, that’s interesting. “Indeed,” I reply, making sure I am not giving away anything about my source.

“I am afraid I cannot reveal details of our ongoing projects, but your source at Yamaku may be able to provide certain enlightening guesses as to the direction of research and possible implications. This one apologises for being of less help than one might otherwise have been, Ooe-san.”

I hide my disappointment—I had not really expected her to give away secrets, but had been hoping for another technological clue to feed to my dear brother. Besides, she has now as good as told me that somebody currently at Yamaku can tell me more. Who? And why should she blush at the thought?

*****

All my research is confounded by one bold stroke. I have just had a quick lunch with Naomi at our usual place halfway between our offices, and am pleasantly full, and fuelled, as I return to work.

There’s a note on my desk. “Takeda?” I ask my closest assistant, “What’s this?”

“Ooe-san, I think a courier-delivered package arrived while you were at lunch. It’s been logged in and secured for your personal receipt.”

“Thank you, Takeda.” As he nods in acknowledgement, I am already moving, my joints creaking in protest.

Ten minutes later, I’ve opened a silver-lined protective package. In it is what looks like a disposable thumbdrive with no brand name, but with a prominent red design worked into its black surface. There’s a little printed note with it: [Do not copy to network-accessible storage. If possible, print directly from drive. Destroy physically after reading contents. Thank you.]

I have no idea whom it’s from, based on that message. The delivery information has been anonymised as well—all it tells me is that someone employed a courier to deliver it to the offices of the Asahi Shimbun, and in particular, the hands of a specific senior healthcare reporter.

I’ve learnt to respect such instructions. If sources don’t trust us, we get less information. So I make my way to a facility designed just for this kind of situation, and there, I spend a few hours digesting a large chunk of material.

Whoever assembled this at such short notice knows me fairly well, or at least, what would constrain me to a certain course of action. The drive itself, I realize, is clearly in Katayama colours; it is the only organization associated with red and black that would make sense in this context. However, the material itself is not from Rika. It’s from somebody else.

The summary simply says this: [Project Ricardo was originally conceived in terms of human augmentation. Its related applications may now cover a wider range. These include therapeutic usage for spinocerebellar ataxia and other neurological conditions. Material attached is embargoed until further notice. Exclusive rights will then be assigned to Asahi Shimbun’s Senior Healthcare Reporter Ooe. Embargo is expected to last for at least eight months from the present time. Tanaka K., for Nanotech Group.]

There are now two things on my mind. First: the Hakamichis and the Katayamas are in bed together. How did that happen, why did it happen, what is going on? Second: nobody mentions ‘spinocerebellar ataxia’ randomly; somewhere, somebody is reminding me of my love for Saki Enomoto.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:42 am, edited 1 time in total.
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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AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5a up 20140618)

Post by brythain » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:42 am

This is the first half of the fifth part of Natsume's arc in my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic, 'After the Dream'.

Note: Shizune's account of these events is sparse and uninformative. The subsequent deliberations of the 'committee' are described in Misha's account and also those of Rika Katayama and Hideaki Hakamichi. Of course, Hanako's own account is quite different.



Natsume 5a: Simulation (T +10)

The world changes, and always too quickly. I am now forty-five, and Natsume Ooe is known as the silent, brooding terror of the newsroom. Almost twenty-five years at the Shimbun, a quarter-century of in-your-face iconoclasm and progress. ‘Through Different Eyes’ is now a syndicated column; my bosses at the Shimbun joke that it is too radioactive to be hosted exclusively. Then again, my bosses also joke about how I am the fitting successor to my revered namesake, the author of ‘I Am A Cat’.

It is hard to admit it, but once I do, it is easy and right to appreciate that all this has not been by my own effort alone, but with the help of others. It is hard, because I am ashamed to say that when I was a young lady in high school, I did not think very highly of all those others. I am sure some felt the same way of me.

Now it’s been ten years since the ‘Master of Romance’ died. That throwaway tag was a joke aimed at a new student who didn’t matter much to me except as a source of easy news. Then as adults, I got to know Hisao Nakai a bit, and the people who were our mutual acquaintances.

What I write now, sadly or not, is about the end of Nakai’s story and perhaps the beginning of other stories. From Osaka, the view is often different from the perspectives of Tokyo or Sendai—these latter views have dominated the discourse because they are at the centre. Voices from Nagasaki (or worse, Tsushima), Osaka, Sapporo—these are seen as peripheral.

So be it. Here is my voice, speaking of things a decade gone.

*****

“Hold for Hakamichi,” intones the dry voice of the night clerk. At least, that is what I hear until I realize I am waking from disturbing dreams, and my tabphone is flashing and purring in the dark of a hotel room.

I turn and reach over, joints protesting as always. The quick reflexes have been honed by years of living on the move. The last two have been, in this case, a kind of deathwatch, and I realize as I look at the screen that our long vigil may have come to an end. Damn, it is a Hakamichi. I feel a chill run down my spine.

“Hakamichi-san?”

“Just Hideaki, senior lady. My sister’s in no condition to call you, but Tezuka has triggered the black signal. You’re on the list. He’s gone, now.”

The voice is controlled, but the big Hakamichi who has been Nakai’s lawyer sounds very depressed. It is a voice that brings me back just a few years, to a time just after I first tried to crack the Ricardo puzzle.

“Many thanks, Hideaki. You may as well call me Natsume at this time. See you soon.”

*****

Some years ago, I received an infodump from a person named Tanaka. My mother is the first stop when it comes to knowing about things beyond the public face of Japan, and so I visit her and ask about ‘Tanaka’, a mysteriously knowledgeable contact linked to Rika Katayama. The expression on her face is priceless.

“Where. Did. You. Get. This.” Mother can be terrifyingly intense when it comes to tracking down information and its sources. That is probably where I get ‘the look’ that my junior associates whisper about.

I tell her, as I always do, in my one ongoing breach of journalistic ethics. It is the least I can do to repay her for her tolerance, support, and above all… her extensive knowledge network. In exchange, she brings out a paper file and we settle down to work over coffee and carrot juice.

“Tanaka-san is the Mountain’s right-hand-man. He is notoriously silent, choosing to communicate only by data or material media. Some speculate that he is mute, others that he is hideously deformed. We know that he was badly injured attempting to rescue his sister from a fire during the 1995 Kobe earthquake. There were 4000 casualties, and 400 children lost at least one parent in that incident.”

An interesting story, to be sure. Most modern Japanese remember Kobe 1995 and Tohoku 2011.

“That he has made contact with you means that you’re being considered a privileged outsider. Somebody has put in a good word for you, maybe even placed your name on a Register.”

The Registers are the Family equivalent of koseki, those antiquated documents which serve to establish relationships and even citizenship for the Japanese. To be placed on a Register, one must be nominated by a ranking Family member and a second member is detailed to conduct an ‘inquisition’—a complete background check. The Head of the Family then accepts or rejects the nomination, and an acceptance means that the nominee gains a single vote and the right to support and protection within the bounds of the law.

“So, Natsume, who is your protector?”

I look at Mother, whose shrewd expression has been so much a part of our relationship for more than thirty years. “I have no proof, but I suspect it may be Rika Katayama. I hardly know the girl, though. I only spoke with her over tabphone once.”

Mother grimaces. “It can’t be helped, I suppose. You should have come to me first, if you knew already that you’d be talking to a Katayama.”

“What is so special about this Katayama, Mother? She seems only to be a junior researcher with a brilliant career in an esoteric area of nanotechnology, as applied to medical research.” That is the problem: ‘seems’. I should indeed have known better, except that I have the Japanese blind spot of not seeing anything to do with either the traditional orders or the modern Families.

“Your friend was once groomed to be Sword of the Mountain. That is no longer the case.”

I delve through my hazy knowledge of the Mountain, which is what the Katayamas call themselves, and also their mysterious head. Rika Katayama would have one day been… senior field agent? I wonder what happened, but she must still have some influence, if she has managed to get someone like Tanaka to pass information to me.

The embargo on my use of that information, however, is not lifted until the summer of 2021. That’s when I’m summoned in my capacity as domestic editor to attend an exclusive briefing in Sendai.

*****

“Nakai? Pleased to meet you. It’s certainly been a long time. Congratulations on your appointment, your firstborn child and anything else I might have missed.”

The ‘Master of Romance’ has turned out to be a younger Mutou, on first glance. He is now Head of Sciences at Yamaku. Older Mutou is also here, as is the principal of the school, my other old classmate, Shizune Hakamichi. The last member of our group is Dr Goro Kaneshiro, the man I once knew as ‘Nurse’.

We are meeting in a little café, but one that is high above the city, in one of the new blocks of Miyagi General Hospital. Two Hakamichi security-men are stationed outside, and we have the whole café to ourselves.

“Hey, Ooe. Long time no see. Thank you; it’s also nice to see a friendly face risen high in the mass media.” Nakai looks as if he means it, but he also looks rather tired.

[You could say hello to Ooe for me as well.] Shizune signs while smiling at me. Strangely, all three men look at her hands and begin to respond.

“No, thank you,” I say a little more sharply than I’d intended. [Hello, Shizune. Excuse my funny accent. Stiff fingers.]

Many of us at Yamaku learnt over our three years there to communicate in more than just the traditional ways. Some of us actually worked at it—I in particular because I found Misha’s tendency to embellish somewhat irritating. Unlike others, I have continued to learn and add to my vocabulary, because it’s a useful tool. What’s funny is that all four of my colleagues here are looking at my hands. Clearly, they’re used to talking to Shizune.

[Sorry, no electronics, Natsume. This is Hakamichi business.]

I nod to show that I’ve understood that much. [Hakamichi into healthcare industry?]

[Yes. Actually, an idea of ours is to deploy healthcare technology in products and solutions for which we can demonstrate direct application to young people such as those at Yamaku.]

What? For some of us, that’s who we are. Not me, I’d love to be pain-free and not have complications, but that’s only my dream. People like Lilly Satou and Rin Tezuka have done things their way since birth, and would possibly even be inconvenienced by such technology—if not outright offended at the idea.

[We have begun by finding solutions for life-threatening musculo-skeletal disorders, and are following with non-congenital disabilities.]

[I had heard something like this, but not about Yamaku] I sign cautiously, at about a fifth of the speed that Shizune’s managing.

[To clarify, these are experimental products, and only selected volunteers will be exposed to the technology.] This looks interesting, and if I’m going to have an exclusive to all this, I could get a nice series out of it.

“I’m likely to be the guinea pig for that technology you’ve been sniffing around, Ooe.” Nakai grins at me just as I make the connection—Ricardo is a neuromuscular project, and its current theoretical application is in smooth-muscle and cardiac-muscle interfaces.

I notice that he’s automatically signing while speaking, and that Mutou is doing it simultaneously too, interpreting for Shizune. That is really odd, and I make a mental note to try and find out why. But that’s all a sideshow; Ricardo is what I want to nail.

“Does Dr Katayama know?”

“No, she doesn’t yet know. You can’t tell anyone beyond those already present in this room, please. In exchange, you get to cover the whole Yamaku programme, and any direct tech applications. If anything happens to me, you’ll be reporting on the outcomes.”

Hmm. “Does Ibarazaki know?”

“No, she doesn’t yet know either. To be honest, Ooe, she doesn’t like talking about this kind of thing, and the day she knows is a day I don’t really want to happen.”

It is a day that happens all too soon.

*****

Shizune and I, we’ve had a fairly long working relationship, one that over the years has become a cautious friendship with no small amount of mutual respect. We’re both principled people, with little time for romance or romanticism. We do what we can, with what we have—and with that, we try to nudge the world into doing what we think is right.

It’s in May 2022, less than a year after our meeting, that I get the ‘red signal’. The balloon has gone up, as Dad used to say in his Cold War jargon. They’re deploying Ricardo in its first life-and-death trial, and as Nakai predicted, he will be the first such subject.

From Osaka to Sendai is only a few hours; the expressways would let me get there in eleven or twelve hours if I drove, but Naomi dropping me off at the airport makes it a lot faster. Sleepily, she waves goodbye as I trundle my ready-bag into Kansai for the night-hop to Sendai.

How thoughtful. There’s a Hakamichi car waiting for me as I step out at Sendai, the message coming in just after landing in the cold pre-dawn. A very large, very tired Hakamichi security type awaits me, spotting me and bowing deferentially.

“Good morning, err… Ooe-san? This one is your designated driver, first to the guest suite at Yamaku staff quarters where you may rest, and then later wherever you may require.”

He’s rather young, and handsome in an old-fashioned, slightly thuggish way. My lips curl in amusement. Shizune would know he isn’t my type, but he wouldn’t know that.

“Shizune Hakamichi sent you, driver-san?”

“Ah. Yes. Excuse me,” he says, covering a huge yawn. “We are a little short-handed in terms of those with sufficient security clearance for Ricardo.”

After all these years, that name still sends a thrill up my back. I can feel my nape bristle as he helps me into the blue-and-silver sedan. Perhaps a little flirtation is called for.

“And how did you qualify for that security clearance? Was it your good looks?”

“Hmm, unusual approach. She did say you might try to pump me for information, Ooe-san. I will answer the question, though, since you yourself are rather pretty even at 5 am when I am no longer seeing well. I am the Hakamichi lawyer tasked with handling Ricardo matters.”

I feel myself blushing a little. “Ah, one apologises for being so obvious. Does driver-san have a family name? It seems a little awkward to refer to an esteemed colleague by such a lowly designation.”

He laughs richly but scratchily. I also notice he is driving rather slowly, and hope he is not too fatigued to be safe.

“This unmannered lout apologises. We’ve met before, senior lady, but perhaps my undistinguished features eluded your attention. I am your friend Shizune’s younger brother. Whenever she needs delicate work done, or perhaps a slave, she relies on me.”

Now I am indeed feeling embarrassed. But if you’re going to steal plums, go for the big ones. I pump good humour into my increasingly cranky and creaky body for one last attempt. I would kill for a coffee right now, but it would probably kill me back.

“Then you can tell me more about the events of the night, Hakamichi-san!”

He looks at me curiously, swerving slightly to avoid an early-morning cyclist. “Are you sure you’re not related to Misha? Not many people are so enthusaiastic at this time of day.”

But he gives in, and as he helps me to my quarters and settles me in, I learn all about Hisao Nakai’s personal tragedy and the few options that remain to us. I also learn that whatever happens at the very private meeting later today, I will be the first to know which option is chosen.

*****

A few days later, a week has passed. It’s a slow Wednesday morning. I sit in the little café in the west tower of Miyagi General Hospital, an owl trying to see everything in the light. I am almost blind, because I realize I do not know these strangers who were once my classmates. I am blind in a good way, maybe, because I can see how much they have come to care for each other.

I am getting my scattered thoughts in order, because I realize that perhaps one day they may be of importance to somebody. But my thoughts are of my friends: Naomi, who is as much mine as I am hers; Miki, who is happily married; Saki, whose grave is buried again each year beneath a carpet of cherry blossoms on the anniversary of her death. And Hanako Ikezawa, who has just entered the room.

“H-hello, Nat. How have you been?” She doesn’t really stutter, I notice, it’s just the old reluctance to initiate conversations, but now almost gone. There’s a confidence about her that tugs at old memories of a different Hanako.

“Hello, Hanako.”

To be honest, I am uncomfortable. I remember that there were three of us in the year we turned fifteen. The girl I called ‘Hana’ had been my closest friend then; I used to hang out with her because she was nice to be with, and I was ugly enough that she didn’t feel I was either coddling her or making fun of her. Then Naomi came along, and she was pretty and charming—all the things I am not. And we were three—sometimes four because Saki was my friend too—until our final year, when we had a silly disagreement and I never called her ‘Hana’ again. But that was a long time ago, and it passes through my mind quickly.

“Do have a seat. Will you take tea with me?” Even to my own ears, that sounds stilted. But Hanako smiles faintly, her usual pretty smile, and accepts my offer.

“It’s been a l-long time, I think, since we’ve been able to sit down like this.”

“I know. Maybe fifteen years.” I look at her, and I know she is beautiful. Her scars had been fading for more than a decade when we graduated; they are more than a quarter-century faded now. I wish I could touch her face, and I wish Naomi were here, and I sip my juice while she sips her tea, and none of this is said.

“So, what has Shizune told you about Hisao?”

That tells me a lot. The three of them were at Todai together, an uncomfortable triangle if I ever saw one. And she needs me to tell her that? It dawns on me that Shizune hasn't told her exactly what’s been done to Nakai, and I can’t tell her either. I can almost smell my bridges burning now.

“I’m sorry, Hanako. I can’t tell you everything. He’s had surgery, a new procedure. It should keep him alive.” Yes, for about three years if we’re very lucky, during which Rika Katayama will try to find a better solution. And it will kill him through a terrible and irreversible process if we’re not so lucky.

“There’s something she’s not saying, something unpleasant. There’s also a reason that you’re here, Nat. Can’t you at least tell me that?” Her expression shows that she’s upset, but also that she is disappointed. Behind her controlled fear of what might yet happen to Nakai, her brain is working as well as ever.

I know that she’s a journalist too, although she seems to write mostly about food in Europe for locals who want to imagine the best of Western cuisine. She has similar instincts to mine, and I feel very unhappy that I’m keeping information from a colleague who really has a stronger claim to being told.

“I’m here because whether or not Nakai lives, it’s a great healthcare story about the synergy between the new Miyagi General Hospital and the Academy at Yamaku.” Among other things, of course.

“So Dr Kaneshiro is part of your exclusive?”

“You’ll have to ask Shizune about everything. She’s decided to control the information flow.”

I am certain now that once Hanako knows the whole story, she will never speak to me again. I take what may be my last close, personal look at her sad prettiness. My eyes search the shadowed part of her face, where she uses her long hair to conceal her scars. I commit each one of them to memory.

Her eyes meet mine, and for a moment I am reminded of the shy girl who would run off to hide in the library. “Yes, it’s still me. Nat, I know you can’t t-tell me everything. I’ll try to forgive you whatever there is to forgive when I find out.”

I am not going to cry. She was my dearest friend so long ago. It has been many, many years and so it shouldn’t mean so much. I thicken my skin and steel my soul. “Thank you, Hana.”

She smiles politely, rises from her seat and nods. “Goodbye, Natsume.”

Of course, Nakai makes a miraculous recovery from heart failure through new techniques and technologies deployed at Miyagi General Hospital. That’s the official line. Quietly and indirectly, the Hakamichi press release (‘Yamaku Academy Staff Receives Experimental Heart Device’) hints at the ghost of Ricardo, if not the Ghost of Noda, when congratulating Nakai on his recovery.

*****

Two years later, what we fear comes to pass. The Ricardo implant fails catastrophically and gives Nakai two, maybe three months to live in a life-support cocoon. His brain has been damaged by the neuromuscular interface. I cannot imagine how the ‘secret committee’ feels. There is nothing from Hanako.

I chronicle his death, and nobody I care about thanks me for it. Don’t get me wrong. My life and times in these years are not all bad.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Fri Feb 13, 2015 8:15 am, edited 3 times in total.
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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Re: After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Part 5a up 20140618)

Post by Hotkey » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:56 am

Hmm... I'm wondering if 'Tanaka' is who I think he is... assuming he's anyone at all.

We don't seem to have an emoticon of the yellow blob scratching his chin and looking ponderous, but pretend I'm doing that right now.

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Re: After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Part 5a up 20140618)

Post by brythain » Wed Jun 18, 2014 12:15 pm

Hotkey wrote:Hmm... I'm wondering if 'Tanaka' is who I think he is... assuming he's anyone at all.

We don't seem to have an emoticon of the yellow blob scratching his chin and looking ponderous, but pretend I'm doing that right now.
There are always mysterious characters in out-of-the-way places. :)
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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Interlude (20140619)

Post by brythain » Thu Jun 19, 2014 8:58 pm

She doesn't look happy, and it goes beyond her usual I-am-being-a-grouch look.

"Good evening, Nat."

"Why do you do that? It's all good with you, is it not? Never bad, despairing, the end of the world as you imagine it?"

"Errrm?"

"I told you my story wouldn't bear repeating. And here we are, about to repeat it. Is it any wonder I'm having second thoughts?"

This is not a Natsume I know. She sounds… more emotional than usual. And then she does something very unusual, for any of them.

She walks over to me and holds my hand. Her hands are dry, a little knobbly, firm, hard.

"Colleague, remember that I'm as real as you believe. I had, I have feelings. And hands, and a life. Be gentle, don't be Nat."

And with that, she's not there.
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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AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 22, 2014 1:20 am

This is the second half of the fifth part of Natsume's arc in my post-Lilly-neutral-end mosaic, 'After the Dream'.

Note: The events leading up to the wedding at the end of this part can be found mainly in Hideaki's story. Clearly, a review of Rika's and Miki's stories may also be of some benefit in piecing together the deliberately oddly-structured narrative found here. Hanako's narrative does not give away anything.



Natsume 5b: Description Theory (T +10)

In the ten years since the in-gathering that occurred at Hisao Nakai’s death, many conspiracy theories arose. For a time, it almost seemed as if the peripheries of the human Net would put two and two together and make a hash of it. And so it came to us—myself and some unlikely associates—to sacrifice pieces of our own lives while keeping the dream of Yamaku safe. All that, so grandiose, so futile. There was never a conspiracy, just bits of life, turned into a map for fools.

In the whole story as I’ve assembled it, so many things have happened as consequences of individual deaths. In the end, I would be forced to admit that nobody is a minor character; each one of us is a major character to somebody, if only to one’s own self. And the same is true about love, just as it is with life and death. Even if you don’t love yourself, somebody might love you.

But here is a story disassembled. Here are little tiles which I cannot bring myself to put together, not because they don’t tell a story that makes sense; rather, they are pieces of my life—during times it made sense, during times it fell apart. They happen within this one decade, and sometimes you’ll just have to decide in which order they should fall. They’re not Nakai’s story, they’re mine.

*****

Rika Katayama has plagued my dreams of love and life for a long time. But our shared history is one that bears the burden of remembrance well. In some ways, we have a bond that makes us closer than anyone knows. It did not begin the day that MM told me about the Ghost of Noda; it began either a very long time ago, or just a few years, depending on how you look at it.

To tell this piece of my story, I have to introduce you again to my family. My father’s first name is Kenshin, which means ‘a modest truth’; his siblings have similar names because he comes from a family of archivists and historians—or so I’ve heard. My mother’s family name is Ishikawa, and she moved from Shizuoka to live with Dad in Osaka. I’ve never known much about Mother’s family, but Dad sometimes disappears on academic trips and comes back with strawberries from her hometown, which are her favourite fruit; occasionally he will also mention news from her family, but never any names.

All this was what I accepted unconditionally, even when I became a journalist, because it was axiomatic to my life. I had never thought to question it, even after MM started telling me about Yamaku, and after I’d looked into the links between the Families and my old school.

Then April 2025 rolls around, Rika gets married in a private ceremony under heavy security, and my efforts to find out the circumstances only lead to what most members of the public eventually find out. She has married the man I used to call ‘Mutou-sensei’—my former science teacher at Yamaku. That’s a bit of a surprise; I had not thought Mutou to be a Family man. A far greater surprise ambushes me as I dig deeper. To cope with it, I take Mother out for lunch.

“Mother? Why was Dad at Rika Katayama’s wedding?” This is a stab in the half-dark. I do not actually have proof of this, only circumstantial evidence, but if he had been, then Mother would know. And if she doesn’t know, then that is either faintly reassuring or vastly disturbing.

“Ah? Was he? I think, Natsume, that Dad is an old friend of the family.” From where I sit, I can sense Mother’s attempts to keep the ‘f’ in ‘family’ small. She has a very tiny, almost-unnoticeable frown developing between her well-trimmed eyebrows. This is a tell that I’ve never told her about, because it has served me well in the past. It tells me that she is working out a game several steps in advance and it’s time for me to disrupt her plans.

“Dad’s Family? You never said. He must have been a really old and respected ‘friend’ to be invited. I think the guest list was smaller than this!” I say, pointing to the nori wrapped around my sushi.

“To tell the truth, Natsume,” she begins, which is another clue to me. She hardly ever uses my name repeatedly in the middle of her sentences unless she’s buying time to think through what she’s saying. “I know very little of your father’s past from the time before we were married.”

“How can that be?” It’s the frankness of her confession that astonishes me. Somehow, I’ve never thought to ask her about all that. It must be a cultural thing: the how-I-met-your-other-parent thing has never quite taken off here.

“I was young and in trouble, but that was very long ago.” What?? What is Mother saying here?

“Are you saying I’m illegitimate?”

“No, no!” Mother almost knocks over her tea in her agitation. If we weren’t in a private room, I’d be mortified. “You are very legally our daughter.”

She’s hiding something. Mother’s use of ‘very legally’ normally means someone has been playing very cleverly with the law.

“Am I your birth-daughter?” I don’t really want to know the answer, but I want it very much. I hate feeling so conflicted inside.

“Of course!” Now Mother just looks angry. She’s telling the truth. Besides, I look a lot like her, down to the unruly-difficult-to-control hair.

Oh, damn. There’s one obvious last question, and if Mother doesn’t tell me the answer, I don’t want to have to ask it. What is she hiding?

“You think I’m hiding something and you want to know what it is,” Mother says bluntly. “I am not sure you want to know it. I know you’re a lot like me, so if you really want to know, I’ll save us all the trouble and tell you.”

I take a deep breath. “Tell me everything.”

“Let’s finish lunch, and then I’ll drive us back to my office.”

And that is how I come to know too much. What keeps Yamaku alumni together, year after year? I have good working ties with my seniors and my juniors, a disproportionate number of whom I met in school. It’s not coincidence. It’s Family—specifically, something MM reminded me about: they protect the widows and the orphans, the fatherless and the homeless, the damaged and the fragile. The guarantee of that protection is that their own children go to the same schools. So, which am I? Mother tells me what she can, and that is who I’ll be for now.

*****

Sometimes, the people you love are Family, and sometimes, they are family. And that brings me two years later to Rika’s hospital bedside, on a grey day in Sendai. Old Mutou greets me quietly and then leaves us alone, shutting the door behind him.

“Cousin?” I begin, watching the Ghost of Noda very carefully.

Rika smiles gently, nodding. It’s yet another surprise to me—like a flower suddenly blossoming in winter. “That is to this one’s honour, of course, senior lady, although to a regrettably distant degree.”

Trust her to be so formal, even in her present state. “How are you doing, Rika?”

“One’s bed-bound self does well, apart from a little minor discomfort. From the senior lady’s salutation, might one conclude that Ooe-san’s august father has shared information of note?”

“No, my mother told me some of it.”

“Ah. Ooe-san’s distinguished father was always sparse with words.” She waves at a formal-looking printed card and a slender bouquet of flowers in a tall lacquered vase. “Behold his well-wishes. However, this humble one has not laid eyes upon the great man yet.”

I cannot help but grin. A long silence passes companionably, somehow. When I hold her hand, she clasps mine in return. Then she resumes, “He was always fierce with this one, like a strange stepfather. He stood between the Katayama and his unworthy daughter. Might Rika ask the senior lady a personal question?”

“Let’s be less formal, Rika; please call me Nat, or if you will not, at least Natsume.”

“Thank you.” She pauses, her delicate tongue absent-mindedly flicking out over parched lips, dry and blue. “Natsume, what is he like as a father?”

*****

I am forced to conclude that the death of his sister at a young age drove Kenji Setou sane, or at least sane enough to pass a normal civil service assessment. Thus it is that I sit here in a bland, characterless room in the Defence Ministry, looking across a bland, scarred table, at the thick reflective lenses of an old friend.

“Colonel-san.” It is what they all call him. I do not actually know if he has a rank, or if it is technically appropriate. Heck, even his wife calls him that, as far as I know.

“Editor-san. Come on, Natsume, we have been on the same side for so long! Keeping the truth is important, and that is what we do.” His nasal voice is familiar, and yet alien.

“Keeping the truth FOR the people, not FROM the people, Kenji.”

“The two are sometimes the same, my friend.”

“Are you keeping anything from me?”

“Natsume, I’m not the insane teenager you used to know. I’m a gardener protecting cherry blossoms. I’ve two of my own, and the lovely tree that bore them. Ha! If I could tell you anything that would make them safer, I’d tell you right now. If there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that not every suspicion means conspiracy.”

To my great surprise, he stands and walks over to me. Before I can do anything, he grasps my right hand. My ‘inappropriate behaviour’ sense sounds a loud alert in my brain. But all he does is smile ruefully and say, “My superiors do let me say what I want, to you, but within reason. And I’m sincere, even if I behave like a mad caricature at times, and eat western pizzas while drinking Carlsberg.”

Then he lets go of my hand, carefully patting it as if to make sure he has not damaged anything. “I know the world you want, and I won’t stand in your way.” Without saying another word, he walks out of the room, closing the door behind him. I do not see him again for many years.

*****

It is evil to damage what is beautiful. That is all I can think as I look down at the body of another friend. Poor MM, striking eyebrows, cheerful smile, lovely tan—she should not look so pale, so broken on the lonely white sheet beneath her. Tough old Natsume Ooe is crying, her tears staining the cloth. There is no one else here today, because MM has no family, no family at all now.

Everything is lost. Even her prosthetic arm has been impounded as evidence. So I stay in Nagasaki for a week. I flatter myself that I will make a difference. Defend the widows and the orphans, and so on. Defend the rights of those who have nothing left.

I sort everything out. Naomi tells me, perhaps with some jealousy, “You spend more time doing things like that than you do with me. Why can’t you just spend more time in Osaka?” She won’t even say MM’s name.

On the fifth day, MM opens her eyes. “Buddha’s balls, Nat, what the fuck are you doing here?!”

That profanity, it’s her. She’s back. I feel my toughness begin to fall apart again. “Hey, beautiful, it’s nice to have you back.”

“Oh shit. I didn’t mean to kill him, you know.”

“You didn’t. He’ll recover, in a few years’ time, maybe.”

“It’s over, isn't it? So I guess I’ll be what everyone predicted, a single mom.”

MM’s too tough to cry, just like I am. And yet here we are. I don’t know when my arm found itself around her. She feels smaller, less strong and powerful than I used to imagine. And I’m angry and sad, very angry and very sad, because I’ll have to be the one to tell her that she isn’t even going to be a mother.

“Miki…”

“Nat, you’ve not called me that for ages. Aww. Shit.” Her tears are hot, huge drops. They scald my heart. “Aww. She’s not with me anym… aww… come on Miki, come on. Ahhh, Nat. Ahhh…”

Her body bucks. It shudders with the effort of not trying to feel what she feels too much. And I can’t help myself, I feel myself responding. Two tough old birds, undone by brutality and tragedy and lost chances.

*****

On our balcony, her back to the railings. Her hands defensively raised, why? Does she think I will hit her? That shames me. The wind twirls through the forlorn blondeness of her fine, slowly-silvering hair.

“You were never around, Nat. You were always somewhere else, and sometimes with someone else. A girl gets tired of that kind of thing.”

“What were you doing with my brother?”

“Whatever a girl needs to feel loved. I’m pregnant, Nat. How do you feel about that?”

I never thought Naomi could have hurt me as much as she has, right now. Part of me longs for her, longs for lazy Sunday mornings and warm comfort; part of me is going quite mad, a madness of the how-could-you-have-done-this sort; but the stern and unforgiving part of me is saying, “Well, Nat, what did you expect?”

“I don’t know!” There isn’t much control when one’s mind is pulled three ways. I hurtle down the stairs and trip over the stupid wheelchair that we’ve both used before. There’s more hurtling, and then just hurting. We’ve made a world of hurt together.

When I open my eyes, my family is there. Why am I spending so many hours in hospitals? Maybe it’s because I’m a healthcare reporter. Have I called in sick yet? My brain is ringing, but nobody is answering. Round and round. Then more blackness, more hurt, and the numbing of all my senses.

We wanted a world where we could be together, always. With somebody, with so many bodies, we’ve tried so many things. But you know, readers, you know how it was, how it is. Shizune and Misha, MM and Rin. And Naomi has tried the one thing I’d never thought she’d try.

I’m with Matsuo, my brother, my betrayer. I can’t not listen to him, because my parents said I should. They’ve taken my tray away, but that’s pointless because I don’t have the upper-body strength left to kill him with the heavy aluminium.

“She said you’d left her, that you were always leaving her. And I was the only person she could talk to because her parents didn’t want anything to do with her. Nat, not blaming anyone, but she was really sad; I thought she’d kill herself. I spent so much time with her, you know I’ve always been fond of her, my big sister’s pretty, cheerful friend.”

“Mat, shut up. Shut up.” I see her as Mat saw her, I think. I see her cheerful, and realize she hasn’t been that way with me for a long time.

“She thought if you guys had a baby, maybe you’d spend more time with her. Things happened.”

“That’s stupid. Naomi’s not stupid. You took advantage of her when I wasn’t around.” In my mind, stern-Nat-who-doesn’t-give-a-chance wags a finger at me: “You’re the one being stupid, Nat. What you’ve just said, it doesn’t make sense.”

All of us are idiots. Nat is the biggest idiot of all. I turn my head into my pillow and wonder if I can choke myself to death. I feel for the morphine button. Mat takes it away from me, and besides, it has an automatic cut-off. I want to howl, but I’m not strong enough. I am too exhausted to resist as my brother holds my hand. “She loves you, Nat,” he says. Bastard.

I struggle back to consciousness and reason for a short while. I don’t know how much time has passed. Naomi’s sitting in a corner. She’s knitting. I feel like giggling, but that’s just stupid too. Mat is still sitting next to me, but I think he’s fallen asleep. Raspy from disuse, my voice, “What’s the legal situation?”

Mat opens his mouth. Naomi answers. “We got married. We’re all Ooes now, and so will he be.” She sounds very tired, but maybe slightly hopeful.

“Do I get to name him at least?” I still don’t know what else to say. There is too much to say, to not say, to leave unsaid, and to learn.

Mat, all weary now, none of his usual energy left. “Of course, sister. He’s yours as well.”

Kinnosuke Ooe is born on the last day of November in 2027. He has three parents, although the Ooe koseki lists only two. He has messy dark hair that needs frequent combing-out, and a very intense glare. Everyone loves him.

*****

We’re in Edinburgh, because she’s invited us. Or he has. The last few years have been hell on everybody, and I’ve heard of the upheavals in the Family ranks as well. Dad is looking very, very tired, but he’s come along as well, with Mother—the invitation, rather oddly, includes both my parents’ names. Maybe Hanako knows, after all.

What is worth a second look is the guest list. This is a Hakamichi family wedding, and the blue-and-white banners reflect that. Yet the only senior Hakamichi here is my friend Shizune. Her irascible father is gone, undone by the implacable hand of time; I had heard that he had several reasons for refusing his son’s choice, but that in the end he had given Hideaki his blessings. And there is the young lawyer of my acquaintance, nervous and still, looming large at the end of the aisle, awaiting his bride.

My family is seated on Hanako’s side. She would appear to have a lot of family for an orphan, a cynical eye might note. A soothsayer’s precognition would underline the irony of that observation. Perhaps nobody here could possibly keep track of all the secrets being kept, or just buried under layers of obfuscation. Two pews down, Rika waves a delicate finger at me and smiles, then whispers to her husband, who turns and favours us with his famous half-grin.

I glance down at my order of service and quickly recognize the Pachelbel canon which will accompany the recessional. But the breath catches in my throat as I see what’s listed for the processional: ‘From Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, by R. Vaughan Williams, arr. Takahashi K.’ Poor Kagami, I think, lost but not forgotten. Only the Hana I used to know would offer such a remembrance at her own wedding.

And that’s where my thoughts end up just before the wedding service commences—that the Hana I lost, the Hanako I knew, has always been a better person than I. As if to commiserate, Naomi squeezes my hand, reminding me of our son back home in Osaka. We all make our choices, and sometimes they are poor, I reflect. I squeeze back, because sometimes they are rich as well. Right on cue, the great doors of the Church of the Sacred Heart swing open.

*****

There are many moments that make up our history, the flashes of light that keep score in the darkness, that tell us where and who we are in the shadows. We cannot see them all, but it is by them that we see. There’s no such thing as a perfect description; the only perfect map of the world is the world itself.

Too soon then, my arbitrarily-selected post-Nakai decade draws to an end. Its second half is like an evening, a drawing-down of blinds, but lit with fireflies and strange lamps.

“Hello, pretty senior lady of the most unusual eyes!”

Guh. Spring in Edinburgh is still chilly, and answering my phone in a typically tiny hotel room means squirming away from Naomi’s comfortable warmth at least a bit. What on earth… the brand-new groom sounds terribly cheerful at 8 am the next day, when he should have had a wonderful night and still be in bed. Well, it’s pure audio, so I can only imagine it.

“Hideaki! Go back to bed, Hana needs you!”

“Supply has temporarily exceeded demand, it seems. Family meeting in our suite, noon! You both! Argh! Wife! Demanding!” Silence follows, and I turn the phone off.

It’s customary for the bride’s family to have at least one meeting with the groom before the wedding. I have no idea what the protocol is when the bride doesn’t have a family and then decides she does. So I gently backrub Naomi into consciousness, and we eventually find ourselves sharing a much-needed shower.

Then noon comes, and…

[This is a sealed record of Tanaka, Hand of the Mountain, also sometime bearer of the name OOE Kenshin. I have attended the wedding of my sister’s daughter IKEZAWA Hanako, and thus faithfully discharged my duty of silent guardianship as enjoined upon me by my oaths to the ancestors, and to my adoptive clan. It is my wish that family should be made whole. In that respect, I have requested of my niece that she bring into one place, for the purposes of reunion, the ‘sisters’ she should have had—KATAYAMA Rika, who was my charge for many years in the service of the Family; and OOE Natsume, the daughter of my wife—and those they love. It is time to give an accounting of my duties. Date: Tuesday 19 Mar 2029, Eve of the Spring Equinox in the Year of the Earth Rooster. Location: Edinburgh, Scotland. Witness: HAKAMICHI Hideaki.]

Dad and Mutou have taken Hideaki out for a ‘manly picnic’. I have never heard those words linked in such a sinister-sounding way before, but the husband of my mother gives a half-smile much like Mutou’s, and assures me that it is the kind that should end well. He is still Dad, although the map of my world has often changed. He must have rehearsed his speech for many years, perhaps for decades, wondering if he would ever have to use them, and if his adoptive ‘daughters’ would ever understand. Bloody politics. Strange Japanese. Us.

There is silence in the room after the men have left. It’s Naomi who breaks it. “Uhm. I shouldn’t be here, but I’m not one for ‘manly picnics’. I think I’m eldest here, so perhaps I could suggest that Hana take charge? You’re the honoured bride here, and I’m just an observer.”

“N-nothing has changed, but also everything,” Hana says, slowly. She pauses, thinking. Rika is sitting like a statue on her left, with no expression except a slight drawing-together of her brows. “Nat, Naomi, I once thought of you as sisters when we were in school. We are family still, it seems. I like that very much. And I now have an uncle… but I have always had one, without knowing it. Until Hideaki and his family arranged the wedding, I did not know I had any f-family left.”

She collects herself visibly. “Then your father made contact, Nat. He sent a message to my h-husband, through Shizune. I hate all this Family business, it’s not part of who I am, nor who Hideaki wants to be. But your father and Hideaki’s father, they were counterparts, colleagues for many years. And he said, he s-said that he much regretted not being able to tell me anything, but he has never regretted saving my life.”

That’s what Mother meant, all those years ago: Dad never forgot the widows and orphans—my mother, the widow he married; Hanako, the orphan he saved. My creaky joints—Naomi stirs as my left knee lets out an audible pop—take me far enough, as I cross the room. “Hana?”

“Nat?” My beautiful friend (cousin? sister?) rises, a little startled, into my embrace. I stroke her face, her hair, suddenly aware that I’ve missed her very much. Naomi pulls Rika in with us, one absurd detail sticking in my mind: our albino ‘sister’ has to stop toying with her long silver braid to hug properly.

In the end, here we are, perhaps brought together accidentally by the arbitrary schemes of the Families, but also because we choose to be. A year later, when Mutou’s closed-casket wake is held, we are there for Rika; when Hanako’s children are born, we are there too. And in the years thereafter, we work together for the dreams we now share, a little family that is stronger than Family.

=====
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Last edited by brythain on Sun Jun 22, 2014 2:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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.
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by bhtooefr » Sun Jun 22, 2014 5:26 am

brythain wrote:[This is a sealed record of Tanaka, Hand of the Mountain, also sometime bearer of the name OOE Kenshin. I have attended the wedding of my sister’s daughter IKEZAWA Hanako, and thus faithfully discharged my duty of silent guardianship as enjoined upon me by my oaths to the ancestors, and to my adoptive clan. It is my wish that family should be made whole. In that respect, I have requested of my niece that she bring into one place, for the purposes of reunion, the ‘sisters’ she should have had—KATAYAMA Rika, who was my charge for many years in the service of the Family; and OOE Natsume, the daughter of my wife—and those they love. It is time to give an accounting of my duties. Date: Tuesday 19 Mar 2029, Eve of the Spring Equinox in the Year of the Earth Rooster. Location: Edinburgh, Scotland. Witness: HAKAMICHI Hideaki.]
You... weren't kidding about getting experimental, there... my head is spinning.

And, dewelar's comment from your Mutou arc comes to mind:
dewelar wrote:Heh...good writing excuses a lot, but the...incestuousness of all this is starting to get a bit ridiculous :) . Next installment: Sae turns out to be Hanako's aunt who had been staying with her family, and when the fire happened she was away to attend her husband's funeral.
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 22, 2014 5:38 am

bhtooefr wrote:dewelar's comment from your Mutou arc comes to mind:
dewelar wrote:Heh...good writing excuses a lot, but the...incestuousness of all this is starting to get a bit ridiculous :) . Next installment: Sae turns out to be Hanako's aunt who had been staying with her family, and when the fire happened she was away to attend her husband's funeral.
*grin* it all becomes logically plausible if you consider why the Yamaku Foundation was set up and how they could afford to build a campus that looks like Brown University, on the flanks of Mount Aoba, where Japan's first disabled hero built his castle.

That's why when dewelar said that, I winced, knowing full well that this would be the case. :)
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.
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by dewelar » Sun Jun 22, 2014 11:00 am

brythain wrote:
bhtooefr wrote:dewelar's comment from your Mutou arc comes to mind:
dewelar wrote:Heh...good writing excuses a lot, but the...incestuousness of all this is starting to get a bit ridiculous :) . Next installment: Sae turns out to be Hanako's aunt who had been staying with her family, and when the fire happened she was away to attend her husband's funeral.
*grin* it all becomes logically plausible if you consider why the Yamaku Foundation was set up and how they could afford to build a campus that looks like Brown University, on the flanks of Mount Aoba, where Japan's first disabled hero built his castle.

That's why when dewelar said that, I winced, knowing full well that this would be the case. :)
Yeah. Um. So.

It's probably a good thing I didn't know that at the time, or I might have actually stopped reading. I can still appreciate the excellent writing quality of this whole mosaic, and the care that was taken in its crafting...but this bit took what was left of my suspension of disbelief, thrashed it soundly, dropped it in the trash bin, then sent it off to the incinerator. :|
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Re: After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by Oscar Wildecat » Sun Jun 22, 2014 11:20 am

Given the premise behind the existence of Yamaku in this continuity, this revelation comes a little shock to me. However, what I'm left wondering is -- if it's apparent function of Yamaku is to educate and protect the disabled children of these Families and their associates, what about Hisao? Is he just a [un]lucky SOB? Or, is there something more to his family history?
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 22, 2014 11:28 am

dewelar wrote:Yeah. Um. So.

It's probably a good thing I didn't know that at the time, or I might have actually stopped reading. I can still appreciate the excellent writing quality of this whole mosaic, and the care that was taken in its crafting...but this bit took what was left of my suspension of disbelief, thrashed it soundly, dropped it in the trash bin, then sent it off to the incinerator. :|
I do understand that sentiment. It's just that something most people don't point out is that Hisao's choices appear to revolve around Group A (blonde cousin and her best friend, brunette cousin and her best friend) or Group B (legless wonder, armless wonder). One would hope that the initial suspension of disbelief should hold, but from what we've seen in most fanfics, the majority think that things will get more 'realistic' after Yamaku. But that's a valid hope, I guess.
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.
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Re: After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 22, 2014 11:31 am

Oscar Wildecat wrote:Given the premise behind the existence of Yamaku in this continuity, this revelation comes a little shock to me. However, what I'm left wondering is -- if it's apparent function of Yamaku is to educate and protect the disabled children of these Families and their associates, what about Hisao? Is he just a [un]lucky SOB? Or, is there something more to his family history?
Or the victims of those Families, and other more traditional Japanese organisations… :)
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.
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by dewelar » Sun Jun 22, 2014 11:56 am

brythain wrote:
dewelar wrote:Yeah. Um. So.

It's probably a good thing I didn't know that at the time, or I might have actually stopped reading. I can still appreciate the excellent writing quality of this whole mosaic, and the care that was taken in its crafting...but this bit took what was left of my suspension of disbelief, thrashed it soundly, dropped it in the trash bin, then sent it off to the incinerator. :|
I do understand that sentiment. It's just that something most people don't point out is that Hisao's choices appear to revolve around Group A (blonde cousin and her best friend, brunette cousin and her best friend) or Group B (legless wonder, armless wonder). One would hope that the initial suspension of disbelief should hold, but from what we've seen in most fanfics, the majority think that things will get more 'realistic' after Yamaku. But that's a valid hope, I guess.
I don't see that the lack of choices in and of itself requires much suspension at all, and less than certain other things in the VN. It requires much less than thinking that the lives of this particular handful of people would continue to revolve around each other for the rest of their natural lives, to the near-exclusion of anyone they hadn't met before entering Yamaku, which I was willing to accept. To further accept that this was all a result (even if unintentional) of manipulation by the Families feels...well...stomach-turningly chilling.
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Re: AtD—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by brythain » Sun Jun 22, 2014 12:15 pm

dewelar wrote:I don't see that the lack of choices in and of itself requires much suspension at all, and less than certain other things in the VN. It requires much less than thinking that the lives of this particular handful of people would continue to revolve around each other for the rest of their natural lives, to the near-exclusion of anyone they hadn't met before entering Yamaku, which I was willing to accept. To further accept that this was all a result (even if unintentional) of manipulation by the Families feels...well...stomach-turningly chilling.
I don't think it's manipulation per se. If, for example, you had a school run by a particular social group (like the Quakers or Methodists or something), it would be quite likely that a lot of them would move in the same social circles and have relatives and relationships in common. This would be even more likely if the entry requirements for students were limited to those meeting certain criteria, some of which were genetically-linked.
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.
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Re: After the Dream—Natsume's Arc (Part 5b up 20140622)

Post by Rhodri » Sun Jun 22, 2014 12:16 pm

As much as I love the earlier parts of the mosaic, ever since 'the family' has started to become more prominent in Rika's arc, I've been finding it harder to read. I was kinda all right with it when it felt more of a "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse" family, but this just took the cake along with the tea and biscuits.
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